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U.S. Diplomacy Tries to Break Turkish Isolation

9 MINS READNov 21, 2014 | 10:01 GMT
Turkey's Legacy Shapes U.S. Negotiations
(MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A previous meeting between Turkish President (then prime minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) at a State Department lunch in Washington on May 16, 2013.
Summary

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will arrive in Turkey on Nov. 21 for another attempt at wedging Turkey back into a Cold War alliance structure. He will not come away from Ankara satisfied. Despite a number of underlying interests shared by Ankara and Washington, the United States will struggle to shape a common policy with an assertive Turkey steeped in Ottoman legacy.

Officials from the United States cannot help but look at Turkey with nostalgia. A vulnerable Turkey joined NATO 62 years ago, ready and willing to be recruited into a network of allies led and managed by the United States to form a barrier against Soviet expansion during the Cold War. American soldiers at the time were shown films produced by the U.S. military that portrayed Turkey as its new best friend, the source of the quality tobacco in the Marlboro cigarettes they were smoking, a country that had adopted western dress, alphabet, habits and values. As one film presumptuously advertised, "Turkey born out of the east, she now works with the West for the brighter future she seeks."

From the American point of view, Turkey was the perfect ingredient to a Cold War mix. It occupied strategic real estate between Asia and Europe as the gatekeeper between the Mediterranean and Black seas and was prepared to work with other U.S. allies in the Middle East, Israel, Jordan and Iran, to balance against Soviet client states Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The threat of Soviet expansion and Turkey's reorientation toward the West following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire created a neat alignment of interests.

Turkish Relations with Russia Hinge on Iran

Turkey's Neighborhood

With Russia bearing down on Europe and multiple fires in the Middle East in need of quenching, a similar geopolitical environment has emerged to push the United States and Turkey closer together again. But much has also changed over the past several decades. Turkey may not be comfortable with Russia's behavior, but it is heavily dependent on Russian energy for its economic survival. Turkey is also much stronger economically and militarily than it was in 1952, and has little interest in being a junior partner to the United States. Moreover, Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party is not looking to the west this time to manage its problems; it is looking to its own history and the legacy of the Ottomans in how to manage its Muslim periphery.

The result is an awkward alliance. Both Turkey and the United States see that they must cooperate one way or another, but are still struggling to reconcile their strategies.

Managing Syria and Iraq

This challenging dynamic can be seen most visibly in Syria and Iraq, a key topic of discussion for Biden's visit. Preceding his trip, Turkish officials broadcast that the United States is starting to finally see things their way and that Washington is opening up to the idea of establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria. This is likely more a case of wishful thinking than reality. The U.S. mission in Syria and Iraq is to disrupt — not decimate — the Islamic State. The United States would of course love to eliminate a brutal force like Islamic State, but it lacks the political will and the capability to do so. An air campaign alone will have limited effect, but the United States will invest resources into raising local ground forces to keep jihadists on the defensive.

Concentration of Activity by the Islamic State

Concentration of Activity by the Islamic State

A no-fly zone in Syria — designed primarily as the first of several steps to cripple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad — does not fit with this strategy. There is another regional power that the United States is currently courting: Iran. A nuclear negotiation with Iran will be long and difficult, but a working relationship between Washington and Tehran at minimum is critical to U.S. strategy in managing the Middle East and balancing against Russia. The United States will not risk upsetting what it has developing with Iran over a mission against Iran's ally in Syria, especially when that mission does little to ultimately resolve the issue of the Islamic State. Turkey and the more moderate Syrian rebels will argue that the only way to defeat the Islamic State is to first remove the threat of Assad so that the focus can be shifted to uprooting jihadists. But removing Assad will only enlarge the power vacuum in Syria, exacerbating the chaotic conditions that have allowed Islamic State to thrive.

Turkey will continue to push the idea of a no-fly zone in Syria, hoping that the United States will take the lead in the mission, thereby paving the way for Ankara to ready its own set of rebel allies to overtake Damascus. Turkey's end goal is to cut down and replace an Iranian pole of influence in the Levant, beginning with a new regime in Syria. But the United States knows that Turkey's military is perfectly capable of carrying out a no-fly zone mission itself, and Washington does not want to entrench itself any deeper in the region. Instead, Biden will focus the conversation on improving U.S. access to Turkey's Incirlik air base to facilitate its current operations. He can also be expected to follow up on conversations already underway between U.S. and Turkish military and intelligence spheres over a coordinated plan to train moderate rebel forces in Syria. Turkey will try to influence which factions the United States focuses on — a thorny topic in its own right because the United States' Gulf Arab allies are already involved in the air campaign against Islamic State forces, and will try to sideline most of the Islamist political factions that Turkey is sponsoring.

The Eastern Mediterranean Angle

Even as the United States tries to inch forward with Turkey on a Syria-Iraq strategy, Washington has broader ambitions in mind to draw Turkey back into an alliance with Israel to form an eastern Mediterranean flank. This is again where the Cold War dynamic no longer neatly applies. Erdogan's Turkey will seize on Pan-Islamic issues to rally support, and the plight of the Palestinians will continue to offer ample opportunities to this end. Israel's politics will pull its government further right, deepening stresses within the Palestinian territories — exacerbating a conflict that the Turkish government will use to champion itself as the legitimate Sunni defender of the Palestinians, when Arab governments from Cairo to Riyadh to Abu Dhabi are happy to see an Islamist political force like Hamas pinned down.

The one tool that the United States has to try and shift this dynamic is energy. Turkey's dispute with Israel came at the cost of sidelining Turkey from eastern Mediterranean energy resources, with both Cyprus and Israel moving ahead with export development options for their offshore natural gas reserves. Rather than building an expensive LNG facility in Cyprus, an underwater pipeline linking Israeli and Cypriot natural gas to Turkey would make economic sense — Ankara is already building out a natural gas network to Europe through the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline project. The politics are, of course, a different question.

Southern Corridor Natural Gas Pipelines

Turkey, which occupies the northern third of Cyprus, wants to shape the energy negotiation into a settlement that reunifies the island and gives northern Cyprus its share of energy revenue. Turkey's way of sending that message has been to deploy a naval warship to escort its own seismic exploration ship in Cypriot waters and by broadcasting the Turkish navy's amended rules of engagement in event of a potential confrontation with Israel, Greece or Cyprus. The intimidation tactics have not worked. Cyprus has continued drilling and foreign investors appear to have grown numb to Turkish military posturing.

Meanwhile, the trilateral energy alliance of Greece, Cyprus and Israel is now expanding to include Egypt. Egypt was one of the countries, like Syria, that Turkey had hoped to bring into its sphere of influence through the Muslim Brotherhood, yet failed. Turkey is essentially classified as persona non grata to the military-backed government in Cairo while Egypt is making new friends in the eastern Mediterranean.

Cash-strapped Egypt has welcomed recent proposals from Cyprus and Israel to import natural gas through its (now idle) liquefied natural gas terminal for re-export to Europe, enabling Egypt to divert more of its own supplies to growing domestic needs. Greece, Cyprus and Egypt have formed their own alliance, with Israel coordinating closely and keeping a safe enough political distance for Cairo's sake. A summit for all three energy ministers will be held Nov. 24. The day before the summit, the Egyptian energy minister will visit Cyprus. This uptick in diplomatic activity only underscores Turkey's isolation. Ankara had calculated that the economics of the energy export routes would eventually bring all parties back to Istanbul. But Egypt has now stolen the spotlight while Turkey has been branded as the aggressor.

Israel would prefer to shape its energy export policy toward repairing its relationship with Turkey. However, if a double rapprochement between Israel and Turkey and Cyprus and Turkey proves too ambitious — as appears to be the case now — then Israel will pursue an energy link with Egypt in hope that dependency will reinforce their peace agreement. A deal has already been tabled for Israel to supply 4.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas over 15 years to Egypt's LNG terminal, starting in 2017.

Biden, who traveled to Cyprus in May to insert the United States into this web of negotiations, will try again in his discussions in Ankara to bring Turkey out from the cold and into an eastern Mediterranean arrangement with Israel and Cyprus. The United States has already invested political capital into trying to repair the Israeli-Turkish relationship and is now trying to facilitate negotiations over Cyprus, aiming to resurrect the diplomatic architecture it requires to effectively manage the region. If the United States can demonstrate some progress in rehabilitating Turkey's position in its neighborhood, Washington's hope is that Turkish-U.S. cooperation could also be eased in other parts of the region, including Iraq and Syria. Whether Biden is able to induce a shift in Turkish strategy remains questionable.

The United States is trying to squeeze Turkey back into a familiar box, but Turkey is spilling over in multiple directions, creating a mess of confusion that no one quite knows yet how to clean up. But the United States will have to be patient. Even as Turkey's tactics have alienated it from most of its neighbors and old allies, Turkey's neighborhood will not allow it to live in isolation for long.

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