Whither Turkish-American relations

06 Nisan 2017

Turkey-U.S. relations have passed through many phases since the end of the Second World War, with many ups and downs. Every period has its own label and legal framework attached to it. 

One tag that caught the imaginations of decision-makers and pundits alike was the “strategic partnership” of the late 1990s, which somewhat reflected mutual expectations in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Yet the last document to really define Turkish-American relations was the 1980 Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement, signed at the height of the Cold War.

Although the Obama administration renamed the relationship a “model partnership,” years after after a “Strategic Vision Paper” was signed in April 2006, the two countries have so far failed to update the legal parameters of their alignment to the post-Cold War realities. Passing through a rocky period in their relationship in recent years, the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Turkey on March 30 was expected with an anticipation that he might provide clues regarding the future of bilateral relations, as well as U.S. policy on several regional issues on which the two countries do not see eye to eye.

The visit was a disappointment in this regard, not only because Tillerson kept his silence, (as by now has become his trademark in the job), but also because it seemed that the two countries have postponed important decisions until after the forthcoming referendum in Turkey. Yet both countries, by taking positions on mutually important issues without coordinating with the other side, are gradually developing their own separate and diverging policies.

There are currently two main issues straining the relationship. It seems that the decision on the gridlock over the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, who is accused by the Turkish government of masterminding the July 15 coup attempt and who lives in the U.S., is being left to simmer for now. The Turkish government will obviously continue to raise the issue in every contact it has with the U.S., but the level of pressure would be conditioned by the overall development of Turkish-American relations.

A more urgent issue - one that will also affect the Turkish government’s intensity on Gülen’s extradition - is the position that Washington will take on the future of Syria and more specifically the role of Kurds in it. Turkey sees the empowerment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) by the U.S. as an existential threat because of the former’s connection to the Kurdistan Workers's Party (PKK), which is classified as a terrorist organization not just by Turkey but also by the U.S. and the EU.

However, the Trump administration seems set to continue with Obama’s policy to back SDF forces for the upcoming Raqqa operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It has started to supply them with more sophisticated weapons, which Turkey suspects will find their way into Turkey to be used by the PKK against Turkish security forces.

This disagreement was not assuaged during Tillerson’s visit, as reflected by the statement of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu during the joint press conference that “it is not right to cooperate with a terrorist organization while fighting against another one.” It seems that Ankara’s alternative plan to use the Free Syrian Army to capture Raqqa - with the support of Turkish special forces and the coalition partners - is not attractive to the U.S., and Tillerson remained evasive on the issue.

It appears that Washington’s priority in Syria remains to be defeating ISIL by whatever means necessary, and for that they see their best bet as cooperating with Kurdish groups. The fact that this creates acrimony for U.S.-Turkey relations seems to be accepted as a fact of life, to be dealt with when it becomes uncontainable.