US needs to find common ground to cooperate with Turkey

US needs to find common ground to cooperate with Turkey

After Turkey declined the opportunity to play a central role in the coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) last week, pundits openly debated the merits of America’s relationship with the longtime Middle Eastern ally.

President Barack Obama assured the American people that a broad U.S.-led coalition would “roll back” ISIL, but Turkey’s hesitations cast doubts on the viability of this strategy. Perhaps it was natural that multiple media outlets sought storylines and editorials that castigated the Turkish government. This is hardly the first time ink was spilled in order to criticize Ankara’s decision makers: There was a similar reaction in 2003, when Turkey’s Parliament refused the U.S. permission to launch airstrikes from the İncirlik airbase during the Second Gulf War and again in 2010, when Turkey voted against U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 that imposed additional sanctions upon Iran for pursuing a nuclear program.
But this just underscores the disparity between the “Turkey America Wants” and the “Turkey That Is.”
The “Turkey America Wants” shares democratic values, and is a partner in American regional policies and strategies. It is a Turkey whose relationship with Islam is minimal, and whose ties with radical Islam are nonexistent. This Turkey has a positive working relationship with Israel and Egypt and is making strides toward European ascendancy.

However, an objective analysis would determine that Turkey’ path to democracy has been painful, one involving coups, protests and civil war. Some liberties have been traded for others. This analysis would also confirm that Turkey’s relationship with the West – and particularly the U.S. – has been replete with moments of discord.

A balanced assessment would conclude that Turkey’s Muslim sociopolitical identity is not going to disappear. It would surmise that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has not distanced itself enough from radical Islam. Turkey has traded aspects of its relationship with Israel, and sacrificed its goodwill in Egypt and Syria, for the sake of establishing ties with non-state actors such as Hamas. European aspirations seem all but a pipe dream.

That doesn’t mean that booting Turkey out of NATO is going to solve these problems – such measures will only exacerbate them. The key is learning to work with the “Turkey That Is.” The “Turkey That Is” seeks economic prosperity without having to draw sharp moral lines, in short: the perfect middleman.

This is how Ankara and Jerusalem have increased bilateral trade despite diplomatic ties being virtually nonexistent. This is also why Turkey, though fearful of a nuclear Iran, has been unwilling to join the international sanctions regime. It explains how Turkey has functioned as a conduit for Kurdish oil, and likely smuggled ISIL oil as well. One can argue this is a dangerous and flawed policy, yet opportunities for cooperation with the U.S. remain. As recounted by the New York Times and other sources, Turkey is a hotbed for ISIL recruitment and its porous border is perfect for smuggling oil. But Ankara’s attitude toward the terror group has shifted over time. Since ISIL forces kidnapped 49 Turks on June 11, Turkey’s Gendarmerie has upped its security presence along the border. The Turkish government also added more ISIL leaders onto its sanctions list, and has agreed to play a supporting role in the U.S.-led coalition. Ankara and Washington remain in dialogue about additional ways Turkey can aid this effort, including the establishment of a buffer zone inside Northern Syria. And Turkey is not the sole coalition member giving the U.S. ulcers. Egypt and Saudi Arabia rejected the request to send troops to combat ISIL. Former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas told Israel Army Radio on Sept. 16 that even the notion of a broad coalition is more or less fiction. Iraq and Australia are the only countries, at present, which have expressed willingness to commit armed forces. So the real issue may not be Turkey at all, rather the viability of the Obama administration’s strategy.

More can and should be asked of Turkey. However, such requests need to made with an understanding and appreciation of the “Turkey That Is,” rather than what it is not. Like all countries, Turkey has limitations. Like all governments, Turkey’s leadership will not sacrifice its domestic support for the sake of the U.S. Setting expectations for others that you wouldn’t set for yourself is counterproductive.

Instead, the U.S. needs to find the common ground, and the appropriate methodology, to cooperate together. If achieved, the result will be more satisfying and productive for both sides.