The Unsteady Alliance: US-Turkey Relations

Written by: Yusuf Ergul

Throughout history, the relationship between the United States and Turkey has never been perfect, being more akin to a relationship requiring a great amount of effort and reason to maintain. Originally, a formal partnership started with Turkey’s entry into NATO in 1951, in which the U.S. and Turkey agreed to work together as a result of their mutual fear of Soviet influence in the Middle East and the Black Sea. While the two countries never truly saw eye to eye at the time, the presence of a bigger threat encouraged them to maintain what they had for mutual benefit. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and thus the Cold War, the lack of a larger threat led both countries to begin focusing on their own interests—something that has continuously strained the partnership they formed to this day.

On February 5th, four United States officials disclosed to Reuters that the United States halted a secretive military intelligence cooperation program with Turkey that helped Turkey target Kurdish PKK militants. The program involved the provision of intelligence and support to the Turkish military, via US recon drones, in order to combat PKK militants around the Turkish-Iraqi border. The decision to indefinitely halt the program was a reaction to Turkey’s incursion into North Syria last October, which stemmed from a US-YPG alliance that conflicts with Turkish interests. This news is very grim, as this program had been going on since 2007 with the mission to combat the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)—which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Turkey and the EU. The program could be one of the last remnants of American-Turkish solidarity against terrorism. This, along with the removal of Turkey from the joint F-35 program after the Turkish purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, reflects the deteriorating relationship between the two countries over the past two years.

These two events highlight the differences in U.S. and Turkish policy, which could lead to a schism that would make U.S. Middle Eastern policy more difficult given that the U.S. would no longer have the support of its NATO ally. 

For example, the Turkish incursion of North Syria stems from the diverging U.S. and Turkish policies towards the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The U.S. sees the YPG as a reliable ally against ISIS, while Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the PKK and deems it another terrorist organization. Further, it seems the Erdogan Administration seeks a closer relationship with Russia than the U.S. is comfortable with. The political situation in Turkey is also making the U.S. uneasy, as the violation of human rights from Erdogan’s authoritarian regime makes it hard for the U.S. to maintain close ties with Turkey. The aggressive and hostile foreign policies of both the Trump and Erdogan Administrations only add more fuel to the fire, with sanctions and tariffs from the former and imprisonment of innocent U.S. citizens and words of hostility from the latter.

Nonetheless, the U.S. should try to maintain or re-establish good ties with Turkey. While the Cold War has ended, and the Soviet Union is disbanded, Russia is still a major influence and threat to the Middle East, and is in conflict with U.S. interests in the region. Although Turkey bought S-400s from Russia, its recent confrontation with Syria puts the country in opposition to Russia, and one the side of the U.S. For this reason, both countries could benefit in the current geopolitical situation and be more motivated towards working together. On top of that, the U.S. has a lot to gain from maintaining its military bases in Turkey, which house nuclear warheads. Many U.S. air operations in the Middle East are run from the Incirlik Air Base in South Turkey, and Turkey has the right to shut it down when it wants to. Keeping it up and running will help the U.S. maintain influence in the region and also deter Russia from having complete influence in the Middle East. For these reasons, while not everything about an American-Turkish partnership would be in the U.S.’s favor, it is important to compromise to make the best out of the situation in order to reach the broader goal of stronger U.S. foreign policy in the region.