Responsibility for a potential US-Turkish military clash

Responsibility for a potential US-Turkish military clash

“I don’t want to buy American cotton anymore. I resent what they are doing,” says the owner of a textile company, referring to U.S. cooperation with the Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“I’m applying but I do not approve of U.S. policies,” says a Turkish student in his presentation to apply for an American Fulbright Scholarship.

Western skepticism is certainly not a new phenomenon in Turkey. In fact, numerous opinion polls show that most countries in the world - not only the Americans and Europeans - are deprived of Turkish “affection.” 

When the Ankara mayor, recently appointed by the government, moves to change the name of the street in front of the U.S. Embassy to “Olive Branch Street,” which is the name of the Turkish military campaign in Afrin, pundits might opt to dismiss it, thinking an unelected mayor seeking nomination in the next municipal elections wants to woo the government.

But if local governors’ offices start having to ask the Foreign Ministry whether they should invite U.S. representatives for official occasions such as Turkey’s Oct. 29 Republic Day, this should be alarming. It is not a novelty in diplomacy to limit contacts between foreign representatives and officials of the host country at times of crisis. But that decision should be taken in the capital by the central government and conveyed to local administrations. It should not happen vice versa, especially when the country in question has been an ally for more than five decades.

Similarly, if a commander of the U.S. army, once the staunchest supporter of Turkey among U.S. institutions, goes to Syria and threatens to strike back at the Turkish army, instead of leaving the job of making statements to spokespeople in Washington, then it would be an understatement to describe the situation as “alarming.”

Governments can certainly get carried away by domestic agendas and societies can get carried away by emotions. But state institutions and, to a degree, non-governmental organizations should do damage control, slowing the downward spiral and preventing things from reaching the point of no return.

Looking at the current U.S.-Turkey crisis unfolding in Syria, one can find various factors to explain how we ended up in this mess: From historical grievances to cultural attributes, from domestic political agendas to regional developments. But nothing is more important than the changes that have taken place in the governance of the two countries. You cannot change past grievances, election schedules or the role of actors in Syria; but state actors are ultimately the ones who can stop a perfect storm from turning into a catastrophe.

At the final stage it is always up to governments to decide and take responsibility for their actions. Yet in a crisis with potential military results the views of key institutions like the army, the national intelligence agency, and the Foreign Ministry weigh in.

After the coup attempt of July 2016, and still struggling with the ramifications of the anti-Gülenist purge in its ranks, the military’s top brass (including its top commander, who maintained his position even after the failed coup attempt) is hardly in a position to say anything. Amid questions about why he did not act fast enough to stop the coup attempt despite being tipped off in advance, it is also hard to imagine the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) having the self-confidence to weigh in even if he disagreed with a certain aspect of government policy. Any damage control effort by the Foreign Ministry also falls on deaf ears, as it is still not considered “one of us” by today’s ruling elites. NGOs? Forget it, they are practically non-existent, as all foreign policy pundits speak as government spokespeople.

In the West, Turkey is no longer considered a democracy. On the contrary, it is seen as a country sliding into authoritarian rule. Looked at from that perspective, perhaps Turkey can be excused for its “irresponsibility” in the spiraling of the crisis.

What is the excuse of the U.S., the global beacon of democracy? Is the American public confident that a sound, justified, carefully fine-tuned policy is being shaped on Turkey’s action in Syria by President Donald Trump, who it is doubtful can even identify Syria on the map? What about the Pentagon, which has harbored a grunge against Ankara dating back to the outset of the invasion of Iraq? What about the State Department, which is equally despised by the Trump team? What about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was nowhere to be seen around Foggy Bottom in his first days and who was recently rumored to have been replaced?

U.S. opinion-makers should not take the easy road of only blaming Turkey’s leader, who is highly unpopular in Washington, for the current impasse. Burden-sharing will be crucial if the two countries are to slow their apparent collision course.

Barçın Yinanç, US, Turkey, NATO, Syria, Afrin, Tillerson, Rex Tillerson