Renewing US-Turkey Ties
The Middle East has been important to the United States’ strategy since the 1940s and throughout the Cold War. As a member of NATO, Turkey held a special place in the region as one of the United States’ closest allies. Turkish and American soldiers fought side by side in the Korean War, and Turkey has hosted U.S. missiles and air bases used to deter the Soviet Union. However, Turkey has recently become friendlier with Russia and Iran, two states that seek to challenge U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Even though Turkey is a NATO member, the United States should take caution when dealing with a government that plays too nice with Putin. At the same time, the United States should encourage Turkey to “return to the NATO fold,” despite the recent friction between the two countries.
The recent rift between Washington and Ankara can be traced first to Erdogan’s victory in the 2014 presidential election. Since then, Erdogan has shifted Turkey towards a more illiberal state, similar to Russia or Hungary, and has also sided more with Russia rather than the United States in the Syrian Civil War. However, despite the current differences between the United States and Turkey, Turkey is still the best positioned to help the United States achieve its goals in the Middle East, including acting as a strategic counterweight to Saudi Arabia and Iran, and in helping to bring stability to the region.
Erdogan has been described by some news sources as a new sultan, in the mold of the old Ottoman Empire. In the wake of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, Erdogan has gone so far as to say that he is the “only country that can lead the Muslim world.” Not only is this an extreme diversion from Turkey’s proudly secular past, established by founder Mustafa Kemal, but this also positions Turkey at odds with another ally of the United States in the region – Saudi Arabia.
However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Although a close ally of the United States, the murder of Khashoggi, which Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have masterminded, only serves as a reminder that the Kingdom’s values and policy goals no longer align with the United States’ as closely as those of Turkey. The Saudi-led war in Yemen has become an international catastrophe, and the state itself serves as the incubator for the fundamentalist interpretations of Sunni Islam that inspires groups such as al Qaeda and ISIL.
Despite his authoritarian turn, Erdogan’s Turkey is still a member of NATO and the more preferable Middle East ally of the United States. Erdogan’s posturing as a rival to Riyadh gives Washington an opportunity to shift its resources to a slightly more palatable regional power.
Russia continues to complicate the situation in Syria, and with Erdogan’s ascension to president, Turkey has been aligning itself more with Moscow than Washington. Within the scope of the Syrian Civil War, this makes some sense as Turkey’s interest is in a stabilized Syria, regardless of who is in power, and is not in favor of arming the Kurds. The United States is not only willing to help the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, but also supports the anti-Assad opposition in Syria. As the Syrian opposition continues to lose ground and the common enemy of ISIL is defeated, the United States must determine how to best reconcile its goals with those of Turkey. Creating common interest in Syria would be a good way to encourage Ankara to realign itself with NATO and Washington, and it would show that Ankara’s interests and Washington’s interests are compatible.
Critically, Washington should clarify its position regarding the Syrian Kurds. With the odds of an opposition victory over Assad diminishing by the day, the Kurds will need to think about how best to preserve their autonomy under an Assad-led Syria. Washington has an opportunity to work with Ankara to outline conditions that would be amenable to both governments, creating a new opportunity to work together for a common goal.
Russo-Turkish relations are also not all smiles and roses. In 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian jet that violated Turkish airspace. There have been recent disputes between the two over Assad’s Russia-backed forces pushing into Idlib. Furthermore, it was recently announced that Turkish and American troops would begin conducting joint patrols in northern Syria. While Erdogan may currently favor Putin, that does not mean that Turkey has left NATO yet.
The United States should continue to pursue confidence building measures, such as joint patrols, along with efforts to show that Ankara’s and Washington’s interests align. While there are important areas of difference – particularly regarding the Kurds – and despite Erdogan’s overtures to Russia, Turkey remains in the best position to be a reliable regional ally to the United States. Turkey’s democratic heritage and positioning as an alternative ally to Saudi Arabia and Iran makes it the de facto counterbalance in the region.