Obama’s legacy on Turkish-American relations

Obama’s legacy on Turkish-American relations

As the U.S. presidential elections near, many people, including President Barack Obama himself, have been engaging in a reassessment of the last eight years of American foreign policy.

For Turkey, the tumultuous course of Turkish-American relations during the Obama administration has exhibited parallels to the challenges Ankara has faced in the international arena.

When Obama made his first presidential visit to Turkey in 2009, it was a deliberate choice. Turkey, as a Muslim country, with a vibrant economy, young and dynamic population and location at the crossroads of continents, seemed like the ideal spot for President Obama to deliver a message to the Muslim world that the U.S. was seeking a new beginning based on mutual interest and respect. 

During his speech in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, Obama’s emphasis was on Turkey’s secular democratic character and its commitment to the goal of European Union membership, but above all, it was Turkey’s ability to engage in a peaceful dialogue with all the countries in the neighborhood. 

Looking back, Turkey used to be such a promising partner for the U.S. as part of a solution to various regional conflicts that in an interview in 2012, President Obama cited then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as one of the five foreign leaders with whom he had succeeded in building trust and friendship. 

But the same Obama would complain about his disillusionment with President Erdoğan just four years later.

So what went wrong?

Weathering the storm of the false Arab Spring, Turkey has experienced its own share of political transformation, which not only eroded constitutional checks and balances and activated social fault lines within society, but also cost Turkey its role as both a model country and a regional interlocutor. 

In this respect, the Gezi movement in 2013 was a breaking point that caused many in the Obama administration to question Turkey’s commitment to democratic values. 

Barely surviving Gezi, the U.S.-Turkish partnership went through other serious tests with the coup in Egypt and the chemical attack in Gouta, Syria, that summer.

But perhaps, above all, it was the new episode of the Kurdish issue that emerged in Syria which drove a wedge between the two allies, awakening bitter memories from the first Gulf War.

Since the August 2013 chemical attack in Gouta, Turkey and the U.S. have had divergent political priorities over Syria. For Turkey, toppling Bashar al-Assad might have been the primary goal since the beginning. Yet, in the aftermath of Syrian Kurds’ victory in Kobane over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and particularly as fighting resumed with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, containing Syrian Kurdish dominance in Syria has assumed the utmost importance for Ankara – such that even combating ISIL, which has been openly bombing Kilis almost every day recently, comes a distant second.
Despite Turkey’s protests, the U.S. continues to rely on the support of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – an offshoot of the PKK – as the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), which also includes Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmens in the fight against ISIL.

Having failed to convince Washington on the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria, Turkey’s hopes rest on the next administration.

On the bright side, NATO still serves as glue between the allies. 

Owing to the signs of a coming reset in Turkish foreign policy, Ankara might be able to break out of its regional isolation by repairing broken ties with countries such as Israel, Iran and perhaps Egypt, which would definitely elevate Turkey’s status as a valuable partner for the U.S. building on its geopolitical location.

However, as long as the Kurdish issue remains unresolved at the domestic level, it will continue to blur Ankara’s foreign policy lens and complicate the prospects of effective cooperation with Washington.