Relations between the US and Turkey were for long viewed as a model for partnership where a majority Muslim nation could work with the US in aiding its policies. Erdoğan and his AK Party (AKP) received much praise from Washington for its version of Islam, especially as the War on Terror was in full swing. But over the past few years cynicism and criticism has seeped into the US-Turkey relationship. For the US, Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia and the expelling of US forces from two critical military bases has precipitated a deterioration of US-Turkish relations. For Turkey, the refusal of the US Congress to deliver the F-35 aircraft to Ankara, the imposition of tariffs on Turkey’s steel industry and the recognition of the Armenian genocide has caused much strain on their relationship. Nevertheless, on closer examination on strategic issues the US-Turkey relationship is as strong as ever.
Turkey became a central nation in the US containment strategy during the Cold War. For the US, preventing Moscow from seizing control of the Turkish straits was an essential political imperative. Economic and military aid flowed to Turkey in order to prevent the Soviet seizure of the Dardanelles straits and the Turkish provinces of Kars and Ardahan. This relationship didn’t change with the Cold War ending in 1991, but rather continued during the Iraq wars. During the Iraq war of 1991, Turkey restrained the Iraqi army on the Iraq-Turkish border and closed down the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, and by cutting its economic ties with Iraq. During the US global war on terror Ankara provided logistical support to the Americans even after publicly opposing the US invasion of Iraq. It was these strategic actions with the US that led many to consider the US-Turkey relationship at an alliance level.
Working Together Separately in Syria
When it comes to Syria, Turkey has aided the US policy of maintaining the Assad regime. The Assad regime is amenable to US interests and has been since Hafez Al-Assad’s time. This is why the US has stood by as the regime’s atrocities continued unabated. In August 2011, US President Barack Obama said: “its people must determine the future of Syria, but President Bashar Al-Assad is standing in their way… President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Instead, of intervening under the pretext humanitarian intervention and toppling the tyranical regime, the US President simply applied toothless sanctions on the regime, which failed to thwart Al-Assad’s torture of the Syrian people. A Russian proposal in 2012 for Al-Assad to step down as part of a peace deal was refused by the US, which would have halted the death of hundreds of thousands. The refusal of undertaking actions that would remove Al-Assad from power illustrates that the US refused to remove the regime until a viable political alternative could be found. Sanctions can only weaken an adversary; it doesn’t prevent the adversary from committing acts of slaughter.
Turkey intervened in Syria for the first time in August 2016, launching Operation Euphrates Shield, a full five years after the uprising broke out but today, Bashar al-Assad still remains in power despite the Turkish intervention. Turkish actions have been restricted to the northern areas of Syria where it never sought to extend into the Syrian heartland. All of Turkey’s incursions in Syria have been focussed on the Kurds, none of them have been focussed on the regime in Damascus. When Erdoğan announced a new Turkish incursion into Northern Syria in December 2018, which came as a blow to the pro-American Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria since they would be the primary targets of the Turkish military. Moreover, Erdoğan’s announcement came just days after meeting with the US envoy for Syria in Ankara.
Similarly in October 2019, another Turkish incursion took place – Operation Peace Spring, which led to the Kurdish fighters fleeing to the Al-Assad regime and demanding a safe haven. In this offensive Turkey incorporated some of the rebel groups from Aleppo, which now meant they were fighting the Kurds rather than the Al-Assad regime. Turkey arming the rebel groups in the north of Syria and then using them to fight the Kurds rather than the regime in Damascus clearly illustrates that Turkish interests were not based on saving the country from the atrocities of the Assad regime. In reality, Turkey provided a crippling blow to the Kurdish opposition movement in their struggle to overthrow the regime. Hence Ankara provided the US with assistance, which resulted in the US becoming successful in maintaining the regime in power. Despite the close US-Kurds relations the US abandoned them in the face of the Turkish onslaught. James Jeffery, a former American ambassador to Turkey and Iraq said: “the Kurds were a temporary tactical manoeuvre and no longer necessary for the US.” President Trump further justified his and the administration’s decision to abandon the Kurds, saying this was due to the Kurds not helping the US during WW2. The Turkish attacks on the Kurds forced them to flee to the Al-Assad regime, which brought another faction under the regime in Damascus and therefore strengthening its claim to the whole country.
The events in Syria demonstrate that both the US and Turkey failed to exhibit a high calibre effort in preventing the Syrian regime from committing inhumane atrocities upon its people. Turkey going to war with ISIS and the Kurds in Syria did not impact the US agenda of preserving the regime, in effect, Turkey and the US covertly colluded in Syria by undertaking actions that would preserve rather than weaken and remove the Al-Assad regime – a long time US policy.
in effect, Turkey and the US covertly colluded in Syria by undertaking actions that would preserve rather than weaken and remove the Al-Assad regime
Erdoğan’s Neo-Ottomanism in Perspective
Since Erdoğan’s early days in politics he has used Islam as this has been his support base in Turkey. His support base has grown considerably since the 1990’s and this outpouring of Islamic sentiments has seen apprehension grow from European leaders.
The AKP is not Islamic party per se, but it utilizes a pragmatic framework rather than an Islamic ideological framework in comparison to its Ottoman predecessors. The AKP has now fused some Islamic principles with Westerns concepts. On the establishment of the AKP Erdoğan in 1997 explicitly stated, that the AKP is not going to be an Islamic party; instead, it would simply be a Muslim democratic party. Furthermore, AKP member of the parliament Reha Çamuroğlu argued that the AKP’s positions could be defined in secular terms.
Erdoğan’s actions in Syria and the way he treats the Kurds, both within Turkey and abroad clearly contradicts his Islamic rhetoric. It is well documented in the historical archives and also portrayed in Alan Mikhail’s recent book “God’s Shadow” on how the Ottoman Caliphate treated its minorities however, Erdoğan has failed to achieve such standards.
The reverting of the Aya Sophia is another case in point. Erdogan for long responded to any calls to change the status of Aya Sophia. Erdoğan argued that his supporters need to fill up the Blue Mosque first before discussing the possibility of reverting Aya Sophia. But with the loss of key provinces in local elections Erdoğan used the Aya Sophia card to maintain popularity. Similarly Erdogan condemns Israeli atrocities regularly but then maintains an economic and military relationship with them. Over the years, Turkey has long supported the two state solution and worked to bring Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to the negotiating table, which results in aiding US interests.
The fear of many European nations and from some parts of the US Congress show that Erdogan’s use of Islamic sentiments is something that is utilized for domestic purposes to shore up Erdogan’s support base, it plays no role aside from rhetoric in Ankara’s foreign policy. So the fear is misplaced as Turkey’s relations and actions have contradicted his Islamic rhetoric.
The fear of many European nations and from some parts of the US Congress show that Erdogan’s use of Islamic sentiments is something that is utilized for domestic purposes to shore up Erdogan’s support base, it plays no role aside from rhetoric in Ankara’s foreign policy
America’s Grand Plan With Turkey
For the US, Turkey has been an essential actor in the Middle East and in Europe. If Erdogan needs to use Islam domestically to maintain his support base and aid US policies in the region then this is a means to an end for the US. Turkey’s growing power is a useful tool to pressure Europe on foreign policy and security matters. The US is also able to leverage Turkey in NATO by having it carry America’s burden. The US views Turkey as a regional power of considerable strength which could also be used in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Also, America is the main proponent of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which brings oil from the Caspian Sea to the rest of the world markets. Turkey believes that supporting America in regards to the pipeline will help Turkey maintain influence in energy transit and supplies, which would also help the US to reduce its dependence on the straits of Hormuz.
All of this shows that the US-Turkey relationship for several decades had no problems on the strategic issues between them. The deterioration of relations has been on less strategic matters. The sanctions levied on the Turkish defence industry or the recognition of the Armenian genocide are not what the relationship between the Americans and Turks is built upon, despite the vigorous comments from the US Congress towards Ankara. The US Congress, which has led the battle against Turkey, does not devise US foreign policy, its authority lies mainly in legislation, fiscal matters and in domestic issues. The authority on foreign policy resides within the US State Department and the White House, and for this reason there is always a clash between the Congress and the Administration and several other factions. As President Trump made it to the White House by defeating many heavyweight Republicans and has scorned other sitting Congressmen it is likely they have hit back at him by making it difficult for Trump to operate the government and this was seen by them blocking the sale of the F35 to Turkey.
the US-Turkey relationship for several decades had no problems on the strategic issues between them. The deterioration of relations has been on less strategic matters
The standard international relations hyperbole analysis suggests that the procurement of Russian weapons and Turkey’s invasion of North Syria, triggering Kurdish fighters (US allies) to flee to the Al-Assad regime, are all precursors of the US-Turkish relationship playing out. Upon closer scrutiny this is not the case as Turkey works very closely with the US on several strategic issues and in aiding US policies. In many ways, Turkey is a semi-vassal state of America since most of its actions result in aiding US foreign policy objectives.