EDITOR’S NOTE: Helelniscope has been suggesting for a long time that we are witnessing the gradual turning of Turkey towards the East.  The authors of the article below have deep knowledge of Turkish foreign policy and agree with the rest of us: Turkey’s leadership follows the country’s interests, when it comes to making choices in foreign policy.  We have now reached a point where the US cannot dictate anything to Turkey because Turkey will not follow what does not advance her own interests.  It is time for the West to come to terms with this reality…

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COMING TO TERMS WITH THE LOSS OF TURKEY

Armed Forces Full Honor Cordon in honor of Bosnia’s Minister of Defense

Following decades of fretting over “who lost Turkey,” Washington finally seems to have overcome its grief. Having passed through the stages of shock, denial, and anger, the mood is now approaching one of acceptance. Instead of berating Ankara or desperately seeking to win its favor, U.S. policymakers have belatedly abandoned their expectations of securing automatic Turkish cooperation.

The spirit of lowered emotions, tempered expectations, and reduced recrimination can be seen in some of the dramatic non-events from the past month or so. On April 24, President Joe Biden issued a statement commemorating the Armenian genocide, which barely made news in the United States or Turkey. Then, at the beginning of May, Ankara announced that it was cutting off all trade with Israel. But the backlash was muted, and Turkey’s follow-through seems circumspect: Ankara has kept shipping Azeri oil on to Israeli ports. Finally, at the beginning of May, there was the Turkish president’s non-visit to Washington. This trip was planned, never confirmed, and ultimately canceled without anyone outside the Turkey-watcher community ever realizing there was anything not happening.

Ultimately, this greater emotional and geopolitical distance might be healthier for all involved. The U.S. government values its relationship with Turkey and continues to work to improve bilateral ties. However, the goalpost has shifted from previous decades: U.S. policy is to now engage with Turkey on specific issues of concern, rather than simply build policy around Turkey as a crucial and trusted partner. Freed from the expectation of being allies, and the sense of betrayal that expectation regularly created, both Washington and Ankara can focus on managing a purely transactional relationship: overcoming divergent interests where necessary, and building on shared ones where possible.

Strategic Backdrop

The U.S.-Turkish relationship was built on shared security interests during the Cold War. Those interests have diverged considerably in the three decades since the Soviet empire collapsed. Turkey now views economic relations with Russia as essential, while the United States and much of the Western world are committed to Moscow’s military defeat in Ukraine.

Since the end of the Cold War, analysts in the United States have fretted over losing Turkey — a euphemism for doing things that made Turkish leaders so mad that they chose to pursue interests divergent from those of the United States. For many in Turkey, this framing of the relationship was insulting. A sovereign state cannot be lost. If Ankara chose to pursue policies divergent from those in Washington, that choice was simply a reflection of Turkish leaders weighing their interests. Indeed, the U.S.-Turkish relationship was always asymmetric: Washington manages a web of global alliances, so its foreign policy depends in part on foreign countries choosing to ally with the United States, even when there are obvious points of policy divergence, because the added value of U.S. military protection outweighs times of political friction.

The relationship has been brittle for decades. The breaking point for Turkey, in retrospect, was the U.S. strategy in Syria to combat the Islamic State, followed by the Turkish decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 missile system. This led to the removal of Turkey from the F-35 consortium in 2019 and the imposition of congressionally mandated sanctions in 2020. Washington continues to engage with Ankara about the S-400 issue, but it remains at an impasse. With the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, the United States has offered to help Turkey transfer the system to Ukraine. Washington later dangled a return to the F-35 program should Ankara make a good-faith effort to work with the United States on transferring the missile system to a third party, or taking other steps to ensure its non-use. Yet to date, none of these efforts have yielded fruit.

Turkey’s intransigence on NATO expansion after the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, and the amount of effort needed to win Turkish approval for Sweden’s membership, further underscored just how transactional the relationship has come. The deal that ultimately led to the sale of F-16s to Turkey in return for Swedish NATO membership shows that Washington can use its leverage with Ankara when specific interests are at stake. Policymakers will always be on the lookout for ways to build a new cooperative normal. But very few are trying to rebuild the old relationship anymore. Hope may spring eternal, but with every false promise of a reset, optimism and interest about the future of U.S.-Turkish relations have steadily dwindled.

The Turkish government has proven committed to its independent foreign policy, and Washington has adjusted accordingly. Turkish leaders no longer view the United States as an irritating, but ultimately necessary, partner for its foreign policy. In fact, many in Turkey view the United States as a threat to the country or a hindrance to its interests. For years, many in Washington viewed Turkey as necessary to woo because it bordered many places U.S. politicians care about, and that geography trumped irritation with Turkish policy.

These dynamics are now over. Turkey still borders many places the United States cares about. But the geographic realities of the Cold War have changed, as Turkey is no longer America’s sole Black Sea partner. Moreover, Ankara cannot be counted on to support U.S. interests during times of crises, which has the perverse effect of making its territory less valuable. This policy, while understandable from a Turkish perspective, differs from other regional powers, many of which view the Russian threat as so acute that they are actively seeking more U.S. involvement in the region. The U.S. approach to the Middle East, the Black Sea, and Russia is now partially at odds with Ankara’s interests, making Washington’s presence in the region a perceived threat to Turkey.

The Ukraine War

Following Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many analysts thought that Turkey would eventually be forced to take sides between Russia and its NATO allies. Turkey, however, thought otherwise. Over two years into the conflict, Ankara continues to keep the Bosphorus closed to Russian and NATO ships alike, to trade with both sides, and to promote its potential role as a mediator for resolving the conflict.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supporters have sometimes touted Turkey’s neutrality as a strategic asset for America, suggesting that Washington will benefit from Ankara’s ability to play the role of trusted intermediary with Moscow. But of course there are plenty of countries offering their services as mediators. What Washington wants from an ally is not a country to host negotiations, but a country whose political and military solidarity will enable those negotiations to be held on the most favorable terms possible. Erdogan’s early success in negotiating a grain corridor initially helped validate his role as a neutral mediator. But when the corridor agreement broke down and Ukraine’s allies were forced to find a different export route, the limits of Turkish influence were again made clear.

In the meantime, Washington has focused its leverage on trying to get Turkish companies to curtail their relations with Russia. Where Ankara will not cooperate in an official capacity, the threat of secondary sanctions, reinforced by multiple visits from U.S. treasury officials, has put pressure on private actors.

Meanwhile, Turkey has continued to take advantage of Russia’s weakness to advance its own interests in other areas. In the Caucasus, most notably, it supported Azerbaijan in establishing full control over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Russian peacekeepers did nothing as Azeri forces ultimately displaced the region’s Armenian residents. This setback for Russia has not done anything to advance American and NATO interests in the region — and Turkey’s preferred approach for the resolution of this conflict is to exclude Western countries from participating.

The Gaza War

Even more so than the conflict in Ukraine, the war in Gaza has revealed the limited relevance of the U.S.-Turkish relationship in the face of a new regional crisis. In the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, Secretary of State Tony Blinken took a trip to meet with U.S. allies and partners in the region that notably skipped Ankara. Rather than a deliberate snub of Erdogan, the decision seems to reflect the fact that Turkey’s policies and positions had left it in a place where it was unlikely to be able to play a constructive role in resolving the conflict.

Erdogan’s vocal defense of Hamas has not only alienated Israel but also generated unease among Washington’s Arab allies. But despite this, Turkey was still not able to play the role of Egypt or Qatar in actually serving as an intermediary with the group. Similarly, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan initially suggested Turkey could play a guarantor role in post-conflict Gaza — a policy that has a passing resemblance to the arrangement in Cyprus. But it remains difficult to imagine a role for Turkish forces in the territory that would be simultaneously acceptable to Ankara, Jerusalem, and whatever other Arab capitals were participating in the effort.

Subsequently, Turkey has leaned in an even more explicitly pro-Hamas direction. In local elections in March, Erdogan’s party lost votes to a further right Islamist party that had criticized him for not taking a firmer stand against Israel. In April, Erdogan hosted Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Ankara. More recently, at a meeting with his Greek counterpart, Erdogan announced that more than 1,000 Hamas members had been treated at Turkish hospitals, a claim he (sort of but maybe didn’t) later walked back.

Before Oct. 7, Ankara had pursued rapprochement with Greece, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, part of an effort to prevent these countries from further consolidating their relations in a manner that would be hostile toward Turkey. While the war in Gaza has undermined Turkish-Israeli rapprochement, it has also given the Turkish government breathing room in this regard by straining relations between Israel and its regional partners.

With Iran, too, Turkey’s relations remain complex, as reflected in a particularly diverse and convoluted set of assessments in the usually consistent pro-government press. The two countries remain at odds in the Caucasus, Syria, and Iraq. Most recently, allegations surfaced that Iran was providing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party with weapons to shoot down Turkish drones. At the same time, though, if U.S.-Iranian tensions worsened, there is no reason to expect Turkey would side with Washington against Tehran. More likely, Turkey will continue to do what it has done since the 1979 revolution: support Iran where it serves Turkish interests while exploiting Iran’s predicament to advance its own, rather than Washington’s, interests.

This, indeed, is the explicit promise of Ankara’s foreign policy: independence, balance, and prioritizing immediate interests over long-time alliances. Now, rather than rail against this or lament it, Washington is taking it in stride. No one is looking to Ankara for help in solving the current crises. Nor does anyone seem particularly worried that, despite Erdogan’s rhetoric, Turkey will emerge as a major sponsor of Hamas or a direct military threat to Israel. The result is that Turkey now sits squarely, if awkwardly, in the space between rival and partner.

Future Challenges

This does not necessarily mean that the future will be smooth sailing. There are a number of challenges that could always erupt.

First, Turkey’s current rapprochement with Greece has been welcome in both Athens and Washington. But many of the dynamics that drove the crises of the last several years are still present. One consequence of eroding U.S.-Turkish ties is that Washington has increasingly anchored its military position in the Eastern Mediterranean in Greece, expanding air and naval facilities there as concerns about access to those in Turkey grow. To the extent alarm over this shift drove aggressive rhetoric toward Greece, this could always re-emerge quickly. Likewise, while Erdogan has pivoted away from provocative energy exploration activities linked to Turkey’s exclusive economic zone claims, he remains committed to the claims themselves, which were recently given increased attention in Turkish textbooks. Similarly, on Cyprus, Erdogan has not backed away from his calls for a two-state solution, which is at odds with European and U.S. policy, along with multiple U.N. resolutions.

In NATO, Turkey’s veto will remain another perpetual source of tension. As demonstrated with Sweden, Turkey, like all members, has the power to disrupt alliance business in pursuit of its interests. As has been repeatedly noted, there is no mechanism to remove Turkey from NATO or to conduct alliance business around its veto. As a result, future impasses will once again call for a mix of pressure and incentives to secure progress.

Regional issues could also rise to the fore to worsen bilateral relations. Further tensions with Greece could put the F-16 sales agreement in jeopardy. Alternatively, if the U.S. Congress sought to punish Turkey for its anti-Israel stance, possibly by imposing sanctions or reversing F-16 sales, this could well create a damaging backlash. Similarly, were Turkey to back Azerbaijan in direct aggression against Armenian territory, this could also trigger a more forceful American reaction.

Finally, the presence of U.S. forces alongside the People’s Defense Units in northeastern Syria remains the most direct and potentially explosive source of tension. Ankara has made clear its desire to end the U.S. presence there, alternating between periods of strategic patience and efforts to push the envelope through threatened or actual military operations that have previously put the lives of U.S. servicemembers at risk. With earlier talk of a U.S. withdrawal ending following renewed tensions with Iran, and Turkey heavily criticizing plans for an election in Kurdish-administered Syria this summer, Ankara could decide to put renewed pressure on the U.S. presence. For the foreseeable future, the possibility of a new Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria carries the ominous potential to bring U.S.-Turkish relations to a new low.

The New Normal

More broadly, the challenge remains that Erdogan’s ideology and domestic legitimacy rest on anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism. As shown when he won re-election in 2023, this rhetoric serves Erdogan well in his eternal struggle to hold on to political power. And to the extent Erdogan is looking beyond this to securing his legacy, this will also lead him to prioritize his oft-stated goal of securing Turkish influence vis-á-vis the West.

The basic bargain that underpinned historic U.S.-Turkish relations is no more. In Ankara, Washington is not viewed as a benign protector of Ankara’s security against a foreign aggressor. Ankara’s view on this are unique within NATO. In Europe, the main outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian War has been a reinvigoration of the alliance and, importantly, a tightening of security ties between Washington and the rest of its historic allies. The same is true of the Middle East, where despite constant fretting in Washington over encroachment by China, the main Arab power in the region — Saudi Arabia — has sought to deepen its security ties with Washington, even amid severe disgruntlement over Washington’s handling of various issues ranging from Iran to terrorism. The U.S.-Arab position has withstood significant turbulence and, despite Israel’s war in Gaza, appears on the precipice of deepening further.

Turkey, on the other hand, remains wedded to its regional policy. This approach is tethered tightly to its concerns about Kurdish separatism, which underpin its relations with many of its Arab neighbors, and now a Muslim nationalist commitment to the plight of the Palestinians. The reality is that in both Europe and the Middle East, where Turkey’s geography is often pointed to as required for American power projection, Ankara’s importance to the United States is increasingly tangential.

Conclusion

For now, Washington and Ankara would do well to embrace the status quo. Both countries have plenty of issues on their plate. They are not prepared to cooperate to help resolve them, and that’s fine. Given that policymakers in both countries suspect each other of trying to sabotage their key interests, the relationship is still doing much better than might be expected. And for those who believe Washington should prioritize democracy promotion in its relationship with Turkey, abandoning the reflexive impulse to court Ankara’s favor will create more room to do so.

Today, transactionalism is working. Washington appears to have recognized that with shared interests dwindling, it need not prioritize cooperation with Turkey as a goal in itself. In doing so, policymakers have tacitly agreed to the perspective often voiced by Turkish interlocutors: Turkey cannot be lost because its policy is driven by its own interests. Where U.S.-Turkish interests overlap, whether in Africa, the Middle East or Eurasia, Turkey will work toward these interests without the need for American incentives. Where U.S.-Turkish interests diverge, Turkey will do what it wants regardless of what America tells it. As a result, U.S. policymakers can stop worrying about who lost Turkey. Ankara will find its own way, and Washington will find what it needs in the Middle East elsewhere.

Nick Danforth is an editor at War on the Rocks and the author of The Remaking of Republican Turkey: Memory and Modernity since the Fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Aaron Stein is the president and chief executive officer of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Image: Eboni Everson-Myart

2 COMMENTS

  1. Nick, with Turkey moving east, what do you think this means for Bartholomew/EP?

    Since Bartholomew is essentially a political prisoner in Turkey and is also an asset of the State Department, what does this ultimately mean for him and the office of the EP itself?

    • “In judgement i come into this world , so the Blind can see, and those who can see will go blind” Jesus
      Petros .. “Don’t ask how or why.. God does what he doe! What it means ..is that Bartholomew, EPI, Mistotakis, Macron, Sholtz, Biden, Blinken , Netanyahue , Zelensky, and the most of the U.S Congress are going blind if you haven’t noticed! All this without firing a shot ! Petros .. the only issue left is whether he wishes to blind the entire world , for continuing to worship and remain silent to the Satanic rule of America and Israel! Waitng on deck .. and with the approval of the Boys of Mt. Athos and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church… God’s “Clean up hitter” Putin is primed and ready .. to completely blind the entire world for their insubordinate worship of the Great Deceivers in DC and Israel !
      What do you not understand .. the whole world is essentially a political prisoner of America and Israel and are assets of the State deparment …and you ask what does this ultimately mean for us and the ruling political parties of America and Nato !

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