Turkey's relationship with the U.S. over the last 12 years has experienced its ups and downs, and every time there is a problem in bilateral relations, attempts are made to connect the disagreement to an ideational element on the Turkish side instead of potential policy differences. The two allies have been undergoing significant changes and transformations in a region facing the most dramatic transformations since the emergence of the regional order. Somehow, the Turkish side is accused of changing its orientation towards the Western world when there are serious disagreements between the two countries.
In 2003, during the crisis that arose due to the Iraq War, the position of the Turkish government was interpreted as a "turning away from the West." In the later years of the crisis, there were articles in the U.S. press asking the question "who lost Turkey?" and calling Turkey the "sick man of Europe." In the aftermath of this crisis, when Turkey was trying to fix its relations with its neighbors, the foreign policy initiatives of the Turkish government were interpreted by some as an "axis shift" in Turkey's foreign policy.
The tumultuous political relations during the Bush administration ended with the Obama presidency, and President Obama's first visit was considered not only by the U.S. but also by the Turkish side as a major opportunity to fix relations between the two countries and to repair the lack of trust. However, although the name "model partnership," put forward by President Obama, was considered a significant motto to describe the future of relations between the two countries, the innovations in finding new names for the partnership did not transform into diplomatic and political entrepreneurship or operationalize these concepts and form new areas of cooperation and consolidate existing means of partnership. This was very clearly seen when a crisis erupted between the two countries after the Tehran Declaration and the U.N. Security Council vote on sanctions against Iran. The Turkish government's initiative was not regarded as an attempt to mediate the dispute in the region in order to prevent the escalation and emergence of another military conflict, and instead, in the aftermath of signing the agreement, the discourse on Turkey went back to talk of "axis shift." Once again, Turkey's mediation attempts were considered an ideological move by Turkey in the region.
The Arab Spring and major changes took place in the Middle East while relations at the leadership level were improving rapidly, a phase which many considered one of the best in Turkish-American relations. Overlapping views of the two countries on the events in Egypt were regarded as a sign of the emergence of a common vision for the future of the Middle East. In Syria, when the demonstrations started, both countries again reacted similarly. Turkey had been investing in Syria in a bid to open up the Middle East for the last few years. For the Obama administration, Syria also had similar significance. This opening was considered one of the most significant dimensions of the future of U.S. policy in the Middle East. However, as the level of tragedy escalated in Syria, a disagreement started to emerge between the two allies.
Although the Syrian conflict is usually considered an issue of civil war and regime brutality, the impact of the conflict on neighboring countries seem to have been mostly neglected. The beginning of the conflict resulted in a huge refugee flow into Turkey as well as the other countries in the region. In the aftermath, the initial phase of the conflict also began to generate a security problem for Turkey. The terrorist attacks in Reyhanlı and the bombs that fell on border towns in Turkey demonstrated the danger of the situation. The next big threat for Turkey in the conflict in Syria was the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and around its border. The weapons of mass destruction also concerned the U.S. administration. The "red line" statement issued by President Obama was made under these circumstances.
One of the critical turning points in relations between the U.S. and Turkey during this period was the May 2013 meeting at the White House, where the Turkish side expressed these concerns at the highest level. The use of chemical weapons by the regime forces in August 2013 and the subsequent indecisiveness on the part of the U.S. administration led to the emergence of a major confidence problem in bilateral relations. The U.S. administration with its decision generated on the one hand, a problem of trust with its allies, and on the other hand, allowed the killing of thousands of Syrian refugees with conventional weapons by the regime.
In the meantime, another development led to a divergence in the vision of these two countries on the future of the Middle East. The coup in Egypt for Turkey was not only the fall of a friendly government, but also a reminder for the current Turkish government the potential impact of the military over politics. Those who interpreted Turkey's reaction to the military coup with the ideological proximity of the Turkish government with the Muslim Brotherhood forgot about the experience of the predecessors of the AK Party with military tutelage in Turkey. In contrast, the U.S. administration did not call the military intervention a coup. It was a step back by the U.S. administration in regards to its agenda in the Middle East following the Arab Spring. This divergence of approaches toward the Middle East also eliminated a significant area of potential cooperation and partnership between the two countries.
Of course the next major issue in relations between the U.S. and Turkey took place with the rise of ISIS and the Kobani crisis. Following the advance of ISIS forces, Turkey and the U.S. entered into another set of disagreements. For Turkey, ISIS was a result of the situation generated by the Assad regime over the last three years in Syria and in order to eradicate it, the international community also needed to make plans to remove the conditions that prepared the ground for the emergence of ISIS at the very beginning. For the U.S. administration on the other hand, the use of direct air force with the support of trained and equipped pro-Western forces on the ground could suffice for the eradication of ISIS.
The Kobani crisis took place while there was a serious debate about this issue. The U.S. administration prioritized symbolic action in Kobani even though the secretary of state stated that the town had no strategic significance. Sending the message that they were working to rescue a town whose residents have fled to Turkey already, was considered more important than developing a comprehensive strategy with the allies by taking their priorities into account. During this time, sources close to the White House increasingly used the verb "frustrate" to explain the state of relations. According to some senior members of the administration, they were frustrated about the lack of action by Turkey in Kobani. Interestingly, this statement came after Turkish frustration that was felt for three years due to the inaction of the U.S. in Syria. On top of this, while the conflict was on-going, and although Turkey recognized the PYD as a terrorist organization, the U.S. administration provided an airlift for PYD fighters. The aid apparently did not change the balance on the ground, and it was mostly symbolic. However, the fact that the U.S. administration did not take into account the opposition of Turkey deepened the problem of trust between the two countries.
Since then, debates on Turkish-U.S. relations have continued between the two allies in regards to the Middle East. It is not clear whether there will be any revision of the current ISIS strategy of the Obama administration. However, the recently-signed equip and train program is intended to provide some form of tactical assistance for this strategy. Although the two countries could not come up with a strategic agreement on Syria, the U.S. and Turkey can develop tactical convergence in the fight against ISIS with this program.
At this point, as the region enters one of the most troubled periods, and as multiple countries in the region are about to turn into failed states, the stability of cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. gains new significance. Particularly in an era when there may be new challenges for the region for international security, both countries need each other as partners and allies. It is important for both Turkey and the U.S. to recognize their strategic priorities and interests and develop a working relationship, especially in regards to Syria.
About the author
Kılıç Buğra Kanat is Research Director at SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C. He is an assistant professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie.