Are US-Turkish relations headed toward crisis?

A number of issues have arisen to create unprecedented strains in US-Turkish relations. At the same time, Ankara is developing ever-closer ties with Moscow.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – A number of issues have arisen to create unprecedented strains in US-Turkish relations. At the same time, Ankara is developing ever-closer ties with Moscow. US officials speak as if they cannot imagine a world in which Turkey is not a member of NATO, allied with the US, but some analysts are suggesting that the alliance is at risk.

There are five major issues involved in the rising tensions between Washington and Ankara: 1) Turkey’s determination to purchase the S-400, Russia’s most advanced air defense missile system; 2) Turkey’s growing cooperation with Russia more generally; 3) the safe zone that the US plans in northeastern Syria and its alliance with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who constitute the military leadership of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); 4) Turkey’s support for the regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela; and 5) Ankara’s ever increasing authoritarianism.

In addition, Turkish government statistics released on Monday show that the country has officially entered a recession. The decline in economic activity occurred along with a 28 percent fall in the value of Turkey’s currency in 2018.

“Turkey now faces stagflation, recession, and surging inflation,” Voice of America reported, as those figures were released. “The timing could not be worse for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with critical local elections scheduled for the end of the month.”

Anti-Americanism is one way to win votes in Turkey, and Erdogan may well be playing that populist card as the elections approach. But there is more to the problems between the US and Turkey than a short-term electoral gambit.

The most crucial issue souring Turkey’s ties with the US is its determination to purchase the S-400, Russia’s most advanced air-defense missile system. Or, more precisely, that should be understood as the determination of Erdogan, himself, to buy the weapon system, as an informed Washington source told Kurdistan 24.

At the working level, this source explained, Turkish officials understand the risks in proceeding with the Russian weapons purchase, but the momentum to acquire it comes from the highest political levels.

Turkey is also slated to acquire the F-35, America’s newest fighter jet. However, the US and other NATO countries fear that Moscow, through the S-400, could acquire crucial information about the plane’s performance capabilities.

Writing last week in The Washington Post, Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a Cumhuriyet columnist, called the S-400 purchase “possibly the mother of all crises in the decades-long alliance” between Washington and Ankara.

“The outcome of the S-400 imbroglio will define Turkey’s place in the West, or usher its formal exit from the transatlantic community,” Aydintasbas warned.

The S-400 dispute is part of a much bigger geopolitical shift, Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, suggested Tuesday in War on the Rocks.

“Ankara and Washington no longer have overlapping interests or a common understanding of how to solve regional problems,” Stein wrote.

Syria represents one such problem, where the US remains committed to its alliance with the SDF—its main partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria—despite Ankara’s insistence that its military leadership, the YPG, is a terrorist organization.

With the military defeat of the Islamic State, the US is planning an observer force, along with France and the UK, for a safe zone in northeastern Syria. Most likely, it will be protected by coalition aircraft. The safe zone will help ensure the continued functioning of the local self-administration, thereby blocking the return of the Islamic State, while it will also protect the SDF against Turkish attack.

Erdogan, however, strongly objects to the US plan and insists that Turkey must control the zone.

In addition, Turkey’s relationship with Russia is changing. Turkey’s accidental downing of a Russian fighter over Syria in 2015, followed by the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey the following year, meant that Ankara felt obliged to take steps to conciliate Moscow.

And Russia has further leverage over Turkey. “Putin is the ultimate mafia boss,” is how Aydintasbas put it.

Whenever Putin choses—including if Turkey cancels the S-400 deal—the Russian leader, she suggested, “could start an offensive against the last regime holdout in Syria, Idlib, driving some 3 million people toward the Turkish border.”

Joint Turkish and Russian military patrols began last week in Idlib, and Washington’s Institute for the Study of War suggested that “growing Turkish-Russian military cooperation in Syria is a dangerous signal of a wider shift to closer strategic relationship between Turkey and Russia.”

Other issues also complicate relations between the US and Turkey. In Venezuela, the US has thrown its weight behind the efforts of National Assembly President Juan Guaido to overthrow the Maduro regime. However, Turkey is one of a handful of countries, including Russia, Iran, and Cuba that support Maduro.

Finally, there is the question of Turkey’s steadily growing authoritarianism. Last month, the liberal Brookings Institution published a lengthy report detailing how, after two decades of rule under Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, “the initial promise of reform has given way to authoritarian and dysfunctional politics.” 

It is very difficult to predict what the outcome of these developments will be, but the problems dividing the US and Turkey do not look to be resolved any time soon, and, it would seem, are likely to grow worse.

Editing by Nadia Riva