A portrait of a failing relationship: US and Turkey

A portrait of a failing relationship: US and Turkey

U.S.-Turkey relations are similar to the stories of celebrities’ failing marriages. Everyone knows that the couple does not get on anymore and even cheats on each other, but both parties publicly say the marriage is going well. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey was like the celebrity couple that goes out for dinner to discuss problems and smiles to journalists at the end of the dinner to assure that everything is going well - even if behind the doors the two cannot sort out major disagreements, though they decide to keep trying.

I am not saying the U.S.-Turkey alliance is over, I am saying that the major crises cannot be overcome by denying the seriousness of the problem. It is true that diplomacy is a euphemism for political hypocrisy, especially in times of crises, but if things go to extremes they become unsustainable. The major disagreement between the U.S. and Turkey concerning Middle East policy is claimed to be one of priorities: The priority of the U.S. is to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while the priority of Turkey is the removal of the al-Assad regime. Turkey claims that its priority is the al-Assad regime, as the regime is the cause of ISIL, and unless al-Assad is toppled radicalism will prevail in Syria under different brands even if ISIL is defeated. The Turkish government insists that if the Syrian opposition had not been abandoned, ISIL would never have taken control and, in the case of Iraq, it was the sectarian rule of the Nouri al-Maliki government that provoked a Sunni reaction, of which ISIL is a part.

Nevertheless, it was only after the U.S. started to be concerned about the rise of radical Islamism in Syria replacing the al-Assad regime that U.S. policy shifted its priority to fighting radical Islamism in the region. As a matter of fact, the U.S. policy shift had already occurred by the end of 2012 after the assassination of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, long before the rise of ISIL. That event marked the U.S.’s disenchantment with the Arab Spring, along with the failure of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Muslim Brotherhood rule disappointed the U.S. not only because of its failure of governance and slide into authoritarian politics, but also because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s failure to distance itself from radical Islamist political discourse.

Turkey and the U.S. not only disagree on priorities in Syria; they also disagree because they have totally different views concerning what is happening in the Middle East in general. Turkey’s government not only opposed the military coup in Egypt and defended the jeopardized legitimacy of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government; it also supported the Brotherhood’s politics. As for Syria, the Turkish government seemed to be happy with the idea of the rise of moderate jihadis in Syria replacing the al-Assad regime, while the U.S. became very skeptical of the so-called “moderate opposition.” In addition, the Turkish government is still very skeptical of the prospects of Kurdish political gains in the region, despite its so-called “peace process” with the Kurds, while the U.S. and its Western allies have come closer to recognizing some sort of political status for Syrian Kurds, and are increasingly keen on the Kurds’ positive role and prospects as an ally against radical Islamism in the region. Finally, Turkey is still hoping to play a greater role in the Middle East, while not only the U.S. but also regional powers have grown more skeptical about the claims of Turkey’s leadership.

In short, despite all efforts by the government circles to present Biden’s visit as a success story, the major disagreements seem to persist. While Turkish government circles were hoping to talk more about Syria and convince the U.S. to give positive signals concerning their priorities such as fighting against al-Assad, Biden emphasized the importance of cooperation among regional powers - Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon - and focused on common benefits on the Cyprus issue. That also sounded like differences between the two partners, as if one was hoping to make holiday plans while the other was talking about mortgage payments.