In recent decades, Turkey’s relationship with the United States has been tested on several occasions. In 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson wrote a letter to Turkish Prime Minister İsmet İnönü urging him to stay away from Cyprus. In the wake of Turkey’s intervention on Cyprus, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on the Turks. Another major crisis took place in March 2003 when Parliament refused to let 60,000 U.S. troops operate from Turkish bases and ports, which led to the arrest of Turkish special forces stationed in northern Iraq the same year.
Although the Turkey-U.S. partnership encountered serious challenges over the years, the two countries always managed to continue cooperating. Their ability to move forward was largely due to the fact that the problems were related to isolated incidents as opposed to strategic differences. Throughout the Cold War, for instance, it was the Soviet threat that pushed Turkey and the U.S. closer. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was Zbigniew Brzezinski who came up with a plan to handle tensions with the Turks: Let us concentrate on areas of cooperation as opposed to conflict.
To be clear, Brzezinski’s plan worked quite well for a while, as U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009 described his country’s relationship with Turkey as “a model partnership.” Then the Arab Spring and, more importantly, the Egyptian coup happened. What started out as Turkish concerns over Washington’s failure to condemn the coup evolved into problems across the board, as the Obama administration overhauled its Middle East policy. Today, Turkey and the U.S. do not run into the occasional problem. Quite the contrary, Turks are coming to terms with the fact that complete agreement with Washington, which was once the rule, has become an exception. Where Turkey’s vital interests are at risk, the Americans are acting less and less like allies.
Turkey and the U.S., for instance, have no shared vision for the future of Syria. Having identified a military victory against Daish as their only priority, it remains unclear where the Americans stand on post-Daish Syria. While Ankara warns that chaos will continue until Syria’s Bashar Assad is removed from power, Washington wants to kill mosquitos instead of drying the swamp – a lack of vision for which the Turks, dealing with 3 million refugees and security threats, have no appetite.
Having driven up Turkey’s bill by mismanaging the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has refused to cooperate with the Turks, their supposed allies, to address problems with no direct effects on American interests. Under the pretext of fighting Daish, Washington partnered with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian franchise of the PKK, a terrorist organization that Turkey has been fighting since the 1980s. Mahide Ataş, a terrorist trained by the YPG to which the U.S. provides weapons and ammunition, blew herself up in an empty lot in Ankara on Friday after being identified by the police. Had law enforcement been unable to foil the impending attack, she would have killed tens of civilians. Last week, another cell was caught in Izmir before they could perpetrate an attack against civilian targets. Again on Sunday, the same group killed at least 10 soldiers and eight civilians in Hakkari where a suicide bomber detonated 5 tons of explosives loaded on a truck. Keeping in mind that the U.S. supports a terrorist group in Syria, while the same group kills Turkish troops and civilians, it should not be too surprising that Turkey’s relations with Washington are increasingly strained.
Another source of disagreement with the U.S. relates to Turkey’s military presence in northern Iraq. With a ground offensive against Daish-held Mosul to kick off soon, the central government in Baghdad tried to force the Turks out of camp Bashiqa, a military facility outside Mosul where more than 3,000 peshmerga and local fighters have been trained for combat. Although Turkey obtained Baghdad’s permission to set up the base, Iraq has been trying to get the U.N. Security Council involved. Ironically, the Obama administration shares the Iranian view on the issue rather than show solidarity with Turkey, a U.S. ally. Tensions are likely to grow with the Mosul offensive looming, but it remains to be seen how seriously the problems will affect bilateral relations.
Finally, the U.S. refuses to cooperate with Turkey on the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish citizen who orchestrated the July 15 coup attempt from his mansion in rural Pennsylvania. Having failed to support the Turkish people’s peaceful resistance against the coup, the Obama administration has been stalling the extradition process by talking about the judicial process and requesting a formal application despite mounting evidence. Although Turkish authorities delivered 83 batches of evidence, the Americans continue to keep silent. To make matters worse, the U.S. failed to detain Gülen in line with the bilateral extradition treaty until a federal court reaches its verdict. It does not take a genius to figure out that failure to send the man in Pennsylvania, who killed 241 innocent people, will cause serious problems.
Here’s the bottom line: Until now, Turkey and the United States experienced some problems but always managed to overcome challenges and move forward. It remains to be seen whether Washington and Ankara will be able to leave behind this particularly difficult period in bilateral relations. If the next president backtracks on Obama’s foreign policy overhaul, the recovery might be quicker than expected. But many Turks are not sure whether the Obama administration made course correction impossible by turning their backs on their allies.
Author: Yahya Bostan