Incentives for improving US-Turkey ties
Over the past few months of near-stalemated U.S.-Turkey relations, analysts from both Washington and Ankara have been arguing that the “strategic” impetus that has underlined the bilateral relationship is gone and is unlikely to be recovered.
However, while the U.S. and Turkey have certainly taken up near diametric positions on how (or rather with who) to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), on cooperation with Russia, and on countering Iran, their latest military positions - with U.S. forces in Manbij and Turkish forces in Afrin - have reinvigorated the need for strategic cooperation in Syria in the short and medium term. Certainly, both the U.S. and Turkey have found a strategic interest in avoiding armed confrontation between each other, as such conflict would be the ultimate kiss of death for the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
It would be both literally and metaphorically jumping the gun to imagine the scenario in which the U.S. and Turkey combat each other directly. But one could definitely say that this would both distract from the U.S.’s short-term goal of defeating ISIL and its long-term goal of containing Iran, as well as weaken Turkey’s operation against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Such prospects would certainly unsettle the regional balance of power and give room to Russia and Iran to operate in the region.
Luckily, this bleak picture and recent bilateral movements have suggested that the U.S. and Turkey would like to deter any no-holds-barred conflict.
The final front of defense came last week when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Turkish officials – namely President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoğlu - met over the course of two days in Ankara. The meeting brought a sigh of relief for those following the looming U.S.-Turkey conflict in Syria - a détente of sorts amid the buzz of an intra-NATO conflict. Both sides reassured that what has been in the past a series of lip service pledges will come to fruition through a results-oriented three-pronged working group.
As suggested last week in these pages by Semih İdiz, Turkey’s reluctance to close the İncirlik air base signals Ankara’s medium- to long-term strategy to keep its alliance with the U.S. in the picture. Such intensive meetings as Tillerson’s 3.5-hour meeting with Erdogan signal similar sentiments: Why would either official waste their time if they did not think they could achieve useful results toward mending their relationship in the long term? Ultimately, the U.S. has an incentive to keep Turkey on its strategic side as it is still the second largest army in NATO, despite post-July 15 tactical and personal losses.
We are living in extreme times, and it is important to keep in mind that the Syria conflict and brewing tensions between the U.S. and Turkey are not the only imagined field of fire. In a situation similar to that of the 1950s before the Korean War - the event that pulled Turkey into the NATO alliance and ultimately cemented the U.S.-Turkey strategic partnership - a conflict between North and South Korea or between North Korea and the U.S. is growing more imminent every day. In the event of a conflict on the Korean peninsula, one would hope that Turkey would take the same side as America and fight again side-by-side.
Let’s hope that the world does not reach this point before Turkey and the U.S. are able to definitively improve ties.
* Megan Gisclon is managing editor and researcher at the Istanbul Policy Center.