Among the United States' allies in the Middle East, few are as important — or as fickle — as Turkey. Lately, the diplomatic discord between them has been worse than usual. In an effort to ease the tension, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim traveled to Washington on Nov. 7, kicking off a four-day trip designed to settle a wide array of issues. But despite his best efforts, there are few clear ways to resolve the enduring differences between the countries or to address the new and complicated troubles that lie ahead.
Bound by Ambition
Turkey's stability is crucial to the United States' own success in the Middle East. Not only is Turkey an economic and diplomatic powerhouse in the region, but it also brings considerable military might to bear against the Islamic State. Moreover, the country hosts millions of Syrian refugees and helps to stem the flow of illegal migrants headed to Europe. To top it off, Turkey is a NATO ally and a key source of imports for the European Union.
But Turkey is a troublesome partner in many ways as well. From Washington's perspective, the country is led by an authoritarian government bent on amassing more power. Turkey is also a fair-weather ally to Russia, the United States' greatest adversary, which at times has made Ankara more difficult to cooperate with under the NATO umbrella.
Still, Turkey's interests hinge on the United States too. According to the World Bank, Turkey has the 17th-largest economy in the world; the activities of the U.S. financial sector have the ability to ripple across the global economy, potentially influencing Turkey's growth and prosperity. The United States also maintains a deep military footprint throughout Turkey's backyard, in places of strategic interest to Ankara such as Iraq. Finally, U.S. backing has bolstered many of the Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, while U.S. hostility has undermined the economy and international image of Iran.
Turkey's stability is crucial to the United States' own success in the Middle East.
One thing the United States and Turkey can agree on is that they don't often have each other's best interests at heart. But today, the list of issues creating controversy between them is long indeed. The U.S. military's support for the Kurdish People's Protection Units fighting the Islamic State in Syria is a sore spot for Turkey; Ankara considers the militia to be akin to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which for decades has waged an insurgency inside Turkey's borders. Though the United States somewhat appeased Turkey on the Kurdish issue by opposing Iraqi Kurdistan's recent independence referendum, Ankara will continue to see Washington's support for the Kurdish forces as a betrayal of its own security imperatives.
Another point of contention that the two are unlikely to resolve is over the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. Turkey has accused the Islamist cleric, who now lives in Pennsylvania, of instigating a coup attempt against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016. Though White House officials have made it clear that they do not intend to interfere with Ankara's requests to extradite the religious leader, which are the purview of the U.S. Department of Justice, they were on Yildirim's list of topics to broach with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence when they met Nov. 9. Meanwhile, the United States has asked for a favor of its own: the release of several Americans detained in Turkey, something Ankara has deemed impossible because of its own judicial procedures.
Though the countries will make little progress on these matters, they may gain some traction in ending their lengthy visa battle. In early October, after Turkish authorities arrested a Turkish staff member at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul for his alleged links to Gulen, the United States suspended its nonimmigrant visa services for Turkish citizens. The incident revealed the Turkish government's belief that many of the threats to its sovereignty and security come from a single source: the exiled cleric and his followers. Washington, meanwhile, views Gulen's extradition as an incendiary issue that it cannot politically afford to address, and one that is separate from the consular spat.
Before his arrival in the United States, Yildirim expressed confidence that the diplomatic showdown would end quickly. And sure enough, the governments resumed some visa services just before the prime minister's departure for Washington, marking a victory for both countries as they continue to rely on the free flow of people, goods and business between them.
A Fraught Friendship
Yet even as the recent wave of tension ebbs, more complicated problems to come threaten to stir up trouble. Starting in late November, a criminal trial against Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab will make information that could embarrass the government in Ankara public. U.S. authorities have charged Zarrab with conspiring to flout U.S. sanctions by funneling Iranian money through the U.S. and Turkish financial systems. Though Washington has a clear interest in pursuing the case to hamper Iran's ability to circumvent the punitive economic measures against it, the investigation has already implicated several high-ranking and well-connected Turks. U.S. officials, for instance, have arrested Halk Bank chief Hakan Atilla and have issued a warrant for former Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, creating friction between Washington and Ankara.
Still, the United States will take care not to endanger its ties to Turkey too much. In times of tension, Erdogan has proved more than willing to turn to Russia for trade, arms deals and diplomatic support — a friendship that, however fleeting, Washington is eager to prevent.