Can Turkey and the US see each other as allies again?
With U.S. President Donald Trump set to send two of his close colleagues to Turkey in a bid to avert a further worsening of relations between Ankara and Washington over the Syrian war, the question is whether the two countries will ever again be able to see each other as allies, let alone just being partners.
The answer is: Why not? Turkey and the U.S. have officially been allies since U.S. President Harry Truman backed Turkey (as well as Greece) against the demands of Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1947. Ankara’s decision to take part in the Korean War in 1950 paved the way for Turkey’s membership of NATO in 1952, which put Turkey on the front line during the Cold War: Only Turkey and Norway had land borders with the Soviet Union, on the northern and southern flanks of the NATO bloc.
Despite their alliance, Turkey and the U.S. have experienced a number of bilateral crises over the years. The 1964 “Johnson letter” to Turkey from then President Lyndon Johnson, warning about the situation in Cyprus was the first one. Then came the U.S.’s 1975 arms embargo on Turkey - right after the Cyprus intervention - over opium farming, which resulted in Turkey closing its strategic İncirlik air base to American (though not NATO) flights.
A major crisis also erupted in 2003, when U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) troops arrested Turkish ceasefire-monitoring soldiers in Iraq after the Ankara parliament’s rejection of the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) demand to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish soil in the invasion of Iraq.
That 2003 crisis continues to resonate in Turkey today, but none of the crises listed above caused particularly deep scars in Ankara-Washington relations. Indeed, it is probably not even possible to call the current situation a “crisis,” though the danger is there for the problem to turn into a chronic, permanent crisis.
The situation is not limited to U.S. support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria, despite Turkey’s objections as the YPG is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). There is also the question of the lack of legal steps against Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher living in Pennsylvania accused of masterminding Turkey’s July 2016 coup attempt through an illegal network in the state apparatus. There is also the ongoing New York legal case involving Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab. There is also the issue of Turkey’s impending purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense systems, which President Tayyip Erdoğan says is necessary due to the impossibility of procuring U.S. Patriot defense systems. There is also the continued arrest in Turkey of American pastor Andrew Brunson and two Turkish employees of U.S. diplomatic missions over alleged ties to Gülenists.
Combined together, these issues create a dark cloud, exacerbating the reciprocal lack of trust between Ankara and Washington. That lack of trust seems to be shaking both countries’ threat perceptions of each other, leading to increased cooperation between Turkey and Russia every day.
Erdoğan’s words on Feb. 6, accusing former U.S. President Barack Obama of “lying” to Turkey over cooperation with the YPG, while saying that he fears Trump is “on the same path,” show the dimension of mistrust in Ankara.
Can the planned visits of U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMuster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Turkey in the coming days help moderate relations? There is no reason why they cannot help, so long as friends and allies keep in mind respect for each other’s sensitivities.