U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said what many analysts have long been thinking: The relationship between Turkey and the United States has reached a "crisis point." The two countries' strategic partnership has been increasingly rocky as Washington and Ankara take diverging approaches to the Syrian civil war. But more than protracted policy disagreements, the decline in U.S.-Turkish relations owes to a fundamental loss of trust. Visits by key U.S. government personnel — including Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster just this month — have only papered over the widening rift. Although officials on both sides reaffirm the alliance's value at every public opportunity, the challenges facing the two countries may now be too great to overcome.
An Alliance of Convenience
The strategic bond that grew between the United States and Turkey formed largely as a byproduct of the Cold War. In the final chapter of World War II, the government in Ankara watched anxiously as the Soviet Union made territorial demands of Turkey, and it reached out to the emerging liberal international order and trans-Atlantic alliance primarily to avoid "liberation" by Josef Stalin's armies. U.S. Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, in turn, brought Turkey into NATO's fold mainly to prevent the spread of Soviet influence into the Mediterranean and to secure military and intelligence assets right on the Soviet Union's doorstep.
From its origins in security cooperation, the partnership flourished over the next seven decades, underpinned by predictability and a high level of trust between military personnel, diplomats and heads of state. The alliance weathered its fair share of upsets in that time, though. After Turkey's incursion into Cyprus in 1974, for example, the United States imposed an arms embargo on the country. (The move compounded the sense of betrayal Ankara felt since Washington arranged to pull its nuclear missiles from Turkey during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.) More recently, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — during which Turkey refused to allow the deployment of U.S. military personnel in its territory — soured leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Ankara bristled at President George W. Bush's "with us or against us" policy, while the Pentagon questioned Turkey's dependability as an ally. Even so, the two sides managed to work through their differences behind closed doors and find a mutually agreeable solution.
That process no longer works today. The Syrian civil war has put an end to it.
Conflict of Interest
The United States' inability to articulate a clear policy on the conflict, and on the Middle East generally, has emboldened regional powers such as Turkey, Russia and Iran to pursue their own national interests instead. The rise of the Islamic State, meanwhile, has aggravated tensions between Washington and Ankara. Focused on eliminating the jihadist group, the United States has relied on Kurdish militias such as the People's Protection Units (also known by the Kurdish abbreviation YPG) for help in the fight. But Washington's support for the group became a source of frustration and contention for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in no small part because Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization. Furthermore, Ankara felt that by prioritizing the fight against the Islamic State and backing an initiative to create a Kurdish state along Turkey's southern border, the United States was willfully ignoring Turkish security concerns. In response, Turkey has focused increasingly on its own objectives against those of the United States. Ankara has concentrated its efforts in Syria on toppling President Bashar al Assad's government while also throwing its weight behind radical extremist groups in the country to take on the YPG.
Since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the Turkish and U.S. stances on Syria have diverged even further. Washington's decision to provide heavy weaponry and logistical support to YPG forces has spurred Erdogan to cozy up to Russia — much to the United States' dismay. Turkey drew the ire of U.S. and NATO officials by declaring its firm intention to purchase the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, which is incompatible with the trans-Atlantic bloc's technology. In addition, Ankara had to secure permission from Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish offensive in Syria's Afrin region to eliminate the YPG. These developments have done little to smooth things over between Turkey and the United States.
Nor has Erdogan's assertive foreign policy. The Turkish president bases his stance on Syria in large part on how voters back home will receive it. Now that Erdogan is running for re-election to become his country's first "executive president," securing the approval of the Turkish electorate is all the more important. Operation Olive Branch, launched in January, has been a runaway success in this respect, drawing overwhelming support from the Turkish public for boldly standing up to the United States. As the election approaches, the incumbent Erdogan will continue to use foreign policy to try to woo the 51 percent of voters whose support he will need to win.
Erdogan has taken aim at the West — and especially at the United States — more and more since the failed military coup to unseat him in July 2016. The Turkish government routinely accuses the United States of harboring the coup's alleged mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan has labeled Turkey's Osama bin Ladin. As the recent trial and conviction of a Turkish banker in the United States revealed, moreover, Erdogan and his administration have worked to undermine Washington by flouting its sanctions on Iran through the sale of Iranian oil. Turkish media, taking a cue from Erdogan, have lambasted the United States for conducting show trials against Turkish nationals to try to hamper their country's development. And in return, Turkey has begun detaining American citizens as well as Turks employed by U.S. businesses and missions in the state in what officials in Washington have condemned as politically motivated arrests. There is every reason to believe that hostilities between the two countries will keep escalating as the year wears on.
Diplomacy doesn't seem to be a viable option anymore for Ankara and Washington. For the past several years, Turkey's president has taken every opportunity to centralize power under his office. His administration has dismissed more than 150,000 civil servants in an effort to wipe out dissent, but in the process, he has drastically reduced the number of parties and perspectives involved in setting Turkey's foreign policy. The United States, meanwhile, doesn't even have an ambassador in Ankara at the moment.
The trans-Atlantic partnership between the United States and Turkey took decades to build on a foundation of mutual trust and cooperation. Today, a series of conscious choices on the parts of both countries' leaders have left the relationship in a state of decay that may take a generation to reverse, if indeed it may be reversed at all.