The decades-old Turkey-U.S. strategic alliance is currently undergoing its gravest crisis since the congressional arms embargo of 1975. Washington and Ankara's ongoing dispute, which has escalated in light of sanctions and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's recent "farewell message" in the New York Times, is moving in a dangerous direction that has potential to ultimately end the alliance and move both NATO powers toward collision.
Among officials in Ankara and the Turkish public, there is a common belief that the U.S. and other NATO members are seeking to thwart Turkey from playing any role as an influential driver of geopolitics in its region and continuing to emerge as an economic power. At the same time, among U.S. elites there is a growing conviction that Washington's alliance with Ankara comes with costs that outweigh the benefits, with Turkey no longer representing the same strategic value to the U.S. that NATO's only Muslim-majority country did throughout the Cold War. In short, such voices in the U.S. believe that Turkey can be neglected from Washington's strategic calculations without major setbacks to U.S. interests.
The implications of the Turkey-U.S. alliance ending are extremely significant for a host of Middle Eastern countries and Russia. After the Turkish lira accelerated its faltering, amid escalating tension between Washington and Ankara, a host of photos and videos of Qatari and Kuwaiti citizens showing their support for the Turkish lira and announcing plans to spend the remainder of their summer vacationing in Turkey circulated on Twitter and other social media platforms. Such signs of solidarity signaled the importance of Turkey in the eyes of many in Qatar and Kuwait. Yet if Washington and Ankara's crisis escalates and Turkey was to leave NATO, or perhaps freeze its activities in the alliance, Ankara would have to look to more powers than just its friends in the Gulf.
A divorce between Turkey and the U.S. would certainly result in Ankara seeking to strengthen Turkish-Russian relations, which have progressed across the domains of energy, trade, tourism, defense, diplomacy, and intelligence sharing since the failed coup of July 15, 2016. Yet, Turkey's historical fear of Russia, and Ankara and Moscow's clashing interests in the European continent and the Arab world raise fundamental questions about the viability of Turkey leaving NATO for a long-term alliance with Russia. At the same time, even if Turkey moving closer to Iran would be a pragmatic move, Ankara and Tehran's competition throughout the Levant is far too great to imagine the two countries reaching a long-term understanding.
Yet even if Turkey turning to Russia and Iran for more institutionalized partnerships and alliances might leave Ankara in a weaker position regionally and globally, amid such geopolitical volatility, Washington must realize that Ankara is indeed most likely to do so if the Turkey-U.S. crisis does not de-escalate. Doubtless, such an outcome would come with major costs for the U.S. As the second-largest military in NATO, Turkey has been a vital strategic ally of the U.S. as a power situated on the periphery of conflicts in Syria and Iraq and bordering Iran. From applying pressure on Iran to waging military operations against Daesh, Turkey has an important role to play in the U.S.' pursuit of its interests in the tumultuous Middle East. Furthermore, as a Black Sea country, Washington needs to have a healthy relationship with Turkey to counter Russia and its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
What is required of Washington is both, pressure on Ankara as well as skillful and creative diplomacy that can address the multiple conflicts of interests plaguing the Turkey-U.S. alliance. Efforts to weaken Turkey financially without any grander strategy in place may succeed in bringing Turkey's economy to its knees, yet such policies are unlikely to deliver positive long-term benefits to Washington and the risks of pushing Ankara into the hands of the U.S.' adversaries are high.
Moreover, as Turkey is the geographic buffer between Europe and the violence in Iraq and Syria, it is in the interest of the West to prevent the country from weakening and destabilizing due to the lira crisis. Thus, not only does a strong Turkey benefit the U.S. and European countries, but it is also in Washington's interests to maintain an alliance with Ankara based on the many strategic interests shared by both capitals. As a military and economic heavyweight in the Middle East and Eurasia, Turkey is a vital ally of the U.S. that Washington cannot afford to walk away from despite the extent to which the country is a difficult ally for America.
* Director, Qatar-based Al-Sharq Studies Center