Pandemonium has long been an overriding feature of Middle Eastern affairs with the United States continuously struggling to deal with multiple issues. However, during the past few weeks, Washington has found itself in a rare complication: It is at odds with Iran and Turkey simultaneously. Washington needs good relations with Ankara in order to effectively curtail Tehran’s radical regional ambitions. The Trump administration will have to find a new modus vivendi with the Erdogan government — one based on the fact that Turkey has long ceased to be simply a NATO ally.
It is not in the interest of allies to – much less deliberately – engage in actions that upset their bilateral relations. However, more often than not, a government’s subjective preferences do not matter. Objective ground realities – combinations of constraints and imperatives – lead to unintended situations, where relations between allies sour. As prominent 19th century, British statesman Lord Henry John Temple Palmerston once said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
Palmerston’s words aptly describe current U.S.-Turkish relations. Plenty of analyses have explained the deterioration as a function of President Donald J. Trump’s idiosyncratic handling of foreign policy matters and/or the maverick behavior of his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Such assessments tend to focus on individual personalities while ignoring the impersonal and inevitable shifts in national interests. And Turkey’s national interests certainly are evolving.
After an interregnum of some 80 years, Ankara, over the course of the past decade or so, has been on a path towards re-emerging as a major international player. Under the post-Kemalist Erdogan-led political order, Turkey has shown itself to be much more than just a member of NATO. In fact, Ankara wants to have its cake and eat it too. The Turks want to remain in the Western alliance while pursuing a much more assertive, unilateral foreign policy.
The American-Turkish Disconnect
Indeed, states do not abruptly stop being multilateral actors and become unilateral ones. They go through a transition where uncertainty reigns as they navigate uncharted waters. At times, they appear in sync with their traditional allies. But often they end up at odds with those same partners.
In Turkey, this is particularly obvious in the context of Syria, where Ankara’s interests have diverged from Washington’s. The main U.S. concern is making sure that Daesh is neutralized. For that, it had no local partners other than the Syrian Kurdish movement, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that serve as ground forces against the transnational jihadists. For Turkey, however, the PYD/YPG is a terrorist entity – the Syrian wing of Turkey’s own Kurdish rebel movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been waging war against the Turkish state since the 1980s.
The core of the U.S.-Turkish dispute is that Turkey considers Kurdish separatism a far bigger threat to its national security than jihadism. Then, in July 2016, Turkey experienced a failed coup that the Turks accused the Gulen movement of engineering. Turkey is demanding that the United States extradite the movement’s founder, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. Washington has denied the request, citing insufficient evidence against Gulen.
The Way Forward
Despite this significant divide, neither the Turks nor the Americans want bad relations. However, many times what one wants is not what one can have. Domestic compulsions can create a situation where one country’s move elicits a response from the other, and the cycle continues beyond either party’s control. This is precisely what has happened to U.S.-Turkish ties. Turkey has detained U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson and acquired Russia’s S-400 missile system. In addition to blocking the sale of the F-35 fighter jets, Washington has enacted political and economic sanctions against Turkey at a time of economic difficulty for Ankara. The tension between the traditional allies has taken on a life of its own. However, Turkey and the United States have a shared desire to try to reverse course.
Turkey has an obvious financial imperative to try to mend ties with the United States. More important, Ankara is still in the early stages of attempting to act unilaterally and cannot just break out of Washington’s orbit. Turkey cannot afford to oppose both the United States and Russia at the same time. Likewise, the United States needs Turkey as an ally — not to deal just with the Middle East but also the Black Sea region, especially with Russia asserting itself in both areas. Despite their seemingly close relations, Turkey is naturally at odds with Russia on both its northern and southern flanks – something that the United States can capitalize on.
Furthermore, the United States cannot curb Iran’s enthusiastic efforts to alter the security architecture of the Middle East without Turkey’s help. Indeed, with the Arab world in turmoil, Ankara is the only regional power that can help Washington restore a semblance of a balance of power in the Middle East. Turkey is definitely willing to play this role. But in ways that are in keeping with its own interests and not as a proxy of the United States.
Put differently, even without U.S. encouragement, for its own strategic interests Turkey will be projecting power and influence in the region. It is in the interest of the United States and that of regional stability that Washington ensure that Ankara does not act alone. Syria is a case in point. Turkey’s efforts to revive the Syrian rebels in the northeastern province of Idlib– the last opposition stronghold and a hotbed of Islamist insurgents, including al-Qaeda and Daesh – can further exacerbate regional security. As it is, the United States is having a very tough time dealing with Iran on one hand and jihadism on the other.
Therefore, Washington needs to find a way to work with Ankara knowing that the latter will be gradually but increasingly undertaking unilateral foreign policy decisions in pursuit of its national interest. The Trump administration needs to ensure that Turkish actions do not lead to additional problems for the United States. For this to happen Washington must avoid getting caught up in transient tactical differences with Ankara and focus on the longer-term shared strategic interests. In other words, the United States must devise a strategy to manage Turkey’s efforts at geopolitical resurgence – in a way that is in keeping with American interests.
Dr. Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Strategy & Programs at the Center for Global Policy (CGP) and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ottawa’s Security and Policy Institute for Professional Development. He tweets at @KamranBokhari. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.