A day before Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Turkish Heritage Organization brought together a panel of experts on Capitol Hill to discuss what’s at stake in the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
Princeton professor and Foreign Policy Research Institute Senior Fellow Dr. Michael Reynolds discussed the tensions at the core of the U.S.-Turkey relationship, emphasizing the emotional tenor on both sides. Nicholas Heras, a Middle East Security Fellow at Center for a New American Security, laid out the flashpoints in U.S.-Turkey relations with regard to the conflict in Syria.
During the event on November 8, Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX) – co-chair of the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations and Turkish Americans – stopped by to discuss the importance of the U.S.-Turkey relationship and his efforts to achieve bipartisan support for the alliance.
The discussion was moderated by Prof. Nora Fisher Onar of Coastal Carolina University and the German Marshall Fund. The event was followed by a reception, during which Congressman Steve Chabot (R-OH), also a co-chair of the U.S.-Turkey Caucus, addressed the attendees in brief remarks about the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
A bilateral relationship dominated by emotion
According to Dr. Reynolds, the U.S.-Turkey relationship has reached its lowest point, and one of its most extraordinary features is the central role of emotion.
“What strikes me on both sides is how important emotion is,” he said. “There is tremendous frustration in Washington with Turkey, and anger, a sense of betrayal – and there’s precisely the same thing coming from Turkey when they look at America.”
He noted that much of this emotion also stems from the disappointments that both countries have suffered in recent years regarding their Middle East policies. For the U.S., Dr. Reynolds said that the goal with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was to create stable, democratic societies in both countries.
However, the Middle East landscape today – from Afghanistan and Iraq to Yemen, Libya, Syria, and even Egypt – is not any safer or more democratic. In fact, according to Dr. Reynolds, in some cases it seems that what has happened – instability, military coups, and continued terrorism – is the exact opposite of what the U.S. had intended.
For Turkey, Dr. Reynolds noted how its “zero problems with neighbors” policy failed. Instead, Turkey is experiencing either tension or conflict with most of its neighbors and its broader region.
As a result of these disappointments, both countries become even more frustrated when they see each other seemingly at odds with their desired policies in the region.
Turkey’s role in Syria
Both Ankara’s and Washington’s goals for the Middle East converge and diverge in Syria. Nicholas Heras emphasized that Syria’s future will require a strong Turkish role, a fact that the U.S. cannot ignore.
“Turkey is key toward the realization of U.S. policy goals inside Syria,” Heras said, noting that it is especially important with regard to post-ISIS stabilization. In addition, Heras noted that Turkey is playing a central role in Idlib, which is heavily dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a successor to the al-Nusra Front, which was affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Heras underlined that Turkey’s role in Idlib is not limited to counterterrorism. Already the province is home to three to four million people, many of whom are IDPs who require humanitarian services as well as protection from terrorist groups. According to Heras, Turkey will play a key role in not only countering HTS in Idlib but also stabilizing the province and providing services to its communities.
For Heras, the most immediate area of potential U.S.-Turkey cooperation in Syria is in Idlib, where the U.S. will likely have to rely on Turkey to push back HTS and address the needs of the local population.
The most complicating factor in Syria for Washington and Ankara remains Washington’s support for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Dr. Reynolds emphasized are tied to the PKK.
Healing the U.S.-Turkey relationship
Both speakers touched on ways that Ankara and Washington could go about healing their relationship.
Heras stated that if the U.S. and Turkey are to resolve tension in the relationship sparked by U.S. support for the PYD, it will require pragmatic steps on both sides. Heras emphasized that the U.S. needs to establish clear limits with the PYD, such as making it clear that it is unrealistic and unlikely that the democratic federal system currently dominated by the actor will be able to expand territorially to include all of northern Syria.
Instead, Heras noted that the U.S. should encourage the PYD to retreat to the East of the Euphrates River. Additionally, the U.S. should exert pressure in various ways – such as through military support, humanitarian support, and civil society support – to move the PYD away from the PKK.
Importantly, “[i]f there are any indications that weapons that have been given to Kurdish units in Syria have been used and fired in anger against Turkish security forces in Turkey, the military aid should be halted,” Heras said.
Heras highlighted that Ankara and the PYD had previously been in contact and noted that, according to his understanding, some channels of communication were still open, though episodic. He emphasized that the U.S. may be able to play a role in reviving those channels of communication in the future.
When asked what advice he could give to Prime Minister Yildirim and Vice President Pence during their meeting, Dr. Reynolds said he would encourage both sides to avoid emotional responses and to reestablish a sense of “calm” in the relationship.
Dr. Reynolds also underlined the importance of exchanges for strengthening the relationship, particularly academic exchanges.
“Turkey has long sent many students to the United States; I hope that continues,” he said. “We need it more than ever; that is, Turks who can better understand the United States.”
He also commended the Fulbright program for the work it does in bringing Americans to Turkey to study. Additionally, he highlighted the importance of continuing and strengthening military exchanges between both countries.
In his remarks to the audience, which included Congressional staff and representatives from local embassies and NGOs, Congressman Sessions emphasized the continued importance of Turkey as an ally of the U.S. He noted that while certain developments in Turkey and its region have caused both Ankara and Washington to reconsider some of the principles upon which the relationship was founded, it remains of paramount importance that the relationship continue.
“I think it’s important that we understand that there are others who wish to intercede in [the U.S.-Turkey] relationship,” he told the audience. “Turkey would be, quite honestly, a great and valuable ally for any other nation in the world. The bottom line is [that] the United States should value it more than anybody.”