Turkey's relationship with the United States is not easy. The two nations' policies are at odds in many ways. Yet there are two core problem areas. First, the United States continues to collaborate with the People's Protection Units (YPG), the terrorist organization PKK's Syrian affiliate, in northern Syria, where they plot attacks against Turkish citizens. At the same time, Fetullah Gülen, the mastermind behind the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, and his associates remain in the United States despite overwhelming evidence linking them to the murders of 250 innocent people. The United States, too, is unhappy with some of Turkey's policy decisions. Turkey's troubled relationship with Israel, albeit merely of indirect interest to Washington, immediately comes to mind.
The second issue is the Turkish-Russian friendship, with which U.S. officials are uncomfortable – often vocalizing their criticism. Yet, Washington seems to forget that Russia and Turkey are neighbors.
In other words, Turkey's concerns relate to its vital interests. Turks cannot turn a blind eye to Washington's detrimental activities in those areas just to stay in America's good graces. If anything, Ankara must object to the U.S. policy, as American-backed armed groups continue to attack Turkey, a NATO ally, and its citizens. Turkey would be denying its very existence if it ignored that threat. In contrast, Washington's decisions are not about vital interests.
The United States could terminate its partnership with YPG militants in northern Syria immediately without suffering any losses whatsoever. Instead of working with a designated terrorist organization, it could turn to the Turkish military for assistance. For some mysterious reason, however, U.S. officials refuse to walk down that path. The same goes for Fetullah Gülen. The United States could extradite Gülen to get rid of a criminal that strains its relations with a powerful ally and facilitate closer cooperation with Turkey in other areas. But it refuses to take action on this key issue.
Instead, the United States raises questions about Turkey's cordial relations with Russia. The Turkish government has a mutually beneficial working relationship with Moscow in Syria that seeks to stop civilian casualties and prevent illegal immigration. The Astana process facilitated a successful – albeit fragile – cease-fire and the creation of de-escalation zones thanks to Turkish-Russian cooperation. At the same time, the two neighbors worked together on the economy and energy. To think about that relationship in other terms, frankly, would be a mistake. After years of cooperation, Turkey and Russia are now keen on working together on defense projects. Under the agreement, Ankara seeks to purchase the S-400 defense system from Moscow.
Why would Turkey buy a Russian missile defense system? The Turkish government's talks with various suppliers, including the United States, proved inconclusive after nearly a decade. Neither Washington nor European governments agreed to Turkish terms on pricing and technology transfer – except, obviously, the Russians.
Why should Turkey's negotiations with Russia be a problem if no other country was willing to sell? The United States has both refused to address Turkish national security needs and opposed the Turkish-Russian agreement. The U.S. Department of Defense recently sent a letter to the Turkish Ministry of National Defense, threatening to exclude Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program if it goes forward with the S-400 procurement. It added that the United States could impose economic sanctions on Turkey.
Will Turkey bow to this illegitimate pressure? The Turks care deeply about their relationship with the United States but more deeply about their own safety. As major changes take place in global politics and new coalitions begin to emerge in the international arena, U.S. policymakers must grasp the Turkish position.