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Jun 20, 2018 | 18:17 GMT

5 mins read

Why Turkey and the United States Can't Get Along

In this photograph, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia speak during a tripartite summit on Syria in April 2018.
(ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ties between Ankara and Washington have suffered as Turkey has pursued an independent direction that is not necessarily aligned with U.S. interests. This deteriorating relationship will drive Turkey to improve its relationship with other partners to ensure it is not wholly reliant on the United States.

The relationship between the United States and Turkey just keeps getting worse. The two countries have clashed repeatedly in recent years over the conflict in Syria, over Turkey's friendship with Russia and over Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, who the Turkish government claims was involved in the country's attempted coup in 2016. And if Turkey continues refusing to compromise on key U.S. demands, the already poor relationship could suffer further if the United States acts on its sanctions threat.

Cold War Companions

In a twist of fate, Turkey and the United States are now being driven apart by what once brought them together: Russia. After the Soviet Union demanded greater control over the Turkish Straits, the United States became a welcome ally to Turkey. In return, Washington was able to use Turkey as a bulwark against Soviet expansion into the Middle East and Europe. The 1947 Truman Doctrine solidified U.S. support for Turkey, which was instrumental in helping the country stand up to Soviet demands. And in 1952, Turkey became a NATO member.

When the Cold War ended, Turkey and the United States lost their common enemy. Without the constant threat of Soviet invasion, Turkey turned its attention to domestic issues rather than external ones. The Russian military — particularly its actions in Ukraine — remains a worry for Ankara, but it now views the Kurdish separatist movement led by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) as its primary security concern. In Turkey's eyes, the threat posed by Russian support for the PKK, which ended in 1991, has been replaced by U.S. support for the People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria.

New strategic alignments, as well as accusations concerning the attempted coup in 2016, have led to a low point in relations between the once stalwart allies. Despite Turkey's best efforts to dissuade the United States, Washington has refused to end its partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the YPG. Thus, Turkey has refocused its diplomatic attention on a friendship with Moscow, which has enabled Ankara to better support its rebel allies in Syria and even secure tacit Russian approval for an assault against YPG forces in Afrin, Syria.

Walking a Fine Line

Turkey's tense relationship with the United States has also become useful political fodder for Ankara's government, which is led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Over the past 15 years, the AKP has often blamed Turkey's political and economic problems on outside forces. The poor relationship with the United States has provided Erdogan with a tool he can use to his advantage politically. The AKP government is intent on maintaining its hold on power after presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June 24, and sharp anti-Western and anti-U.S. rhetoric has become commonplace. Turkey's government has shown it will go to great lengths to remain in power, which will no doubt place even greater strain on Ankara's already fraught relationships with the United States and the European Union.

Still, Turkey's fear of Russia and the value it gets from a U.S. partnership are too great for Ankara to sever ties with Washington. In addition to having recently struck a deal with the United States over the Syrian region of Manbij, Turkey sees immense strategic value in its membership in NATO. Because of this, it will attempt to strike a balance in its friendships with the United States and Russia.

However, walking the fine line Turkey has chosen won't be easy. The United States has plenty of bones to pick with Russia, and it's not happy about Turkey cozying up to the Eurasian giant. U.S. legislators have made this displeasure clear through the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act and language attached to the pending National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The sanctions act threatens to penalize Turkey over its cooperation with Russia, particularly its purchase of S-400 missile defense systems, while the NDAA could prevent it from receiving the F-35 fighter jets it has attempted to purchase.

A chart shows the decline of the Turkish lira.

Turkey has vowed to not take such punitive measures lying down, but it has few options to respond. Its struggling economy and unstable currency make it vulnerable to a U.S. response, giving it an incentive to lessen its reliance. And because the United States is Turkey's largest arms supplier, Ankara will work to develop its domestic defense industry and cultivate relationships with other suppliers. Russia and China could step in to fill the gap, but Turkey is hardly looking to cultivate a dependence on Russia, and a partnership with China would risk further bad blood with the United States. Ukraine, Qatar and the United Kingdom have all recently increased their security ties with Turkey, on the other hand, and Erdogan's recent visit to London led to the approval of several joint defense projects.

Turkey has options to mitigate its dependence on U.S. security ties, but the thorny issue of Kurdish separatism remains. Ankara views the YPG as an existential threat, and it will continue to work against it however it can. For now, the presence of U.S. forces among the SDF and YPG makes it too risky for Turkey to act with outright aggression against the Kurds. However, Ankara won't stop viewing the Kurdish militias as a danger, and it is willing to wait until it can act to eliminate that danger.

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