Former U.S. ambassador Ereli and a Turkish Academic Dr. Akkoyunlu shared their analyses on current Turkey-U.S. relations

Former U.S. ambassador Ereli and a Turkish Academic Dr. Akkoyunlu discussed the effects of the July 15th coup attempt on U.S.-Turkey relations and recent high-level visits 

The aftermath of the coup attempt, particularly the extradition request of Gulen, has added more strain to the relationship that was already tense due to conflicting objectives in Syria. Recent high level visits by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dunford and Vice President Biden re-affirmed U.S commitment to its NATO ally.  

To discuss the importance of these high-level visits and the status of the Turkey – U.S. relations,  on Friday, September 2nd, Turkish Heritage Organization (THO) organized a teleconference called “Post-Coup Attempt Turkey-U.S. Relations”. Ambassador Adam Ereli, former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs, and Dr. Karabekir Akkoyunlu of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz shared their analyses on current Turkey-U.S. relations post-coup attempt. 

U.S.-Turkey Relations at a Watershed Moment

Ambassador Ereli opened up the discussion, stating that the two countries need each other as they have never before, though their views have never been more divergent. The U.S. is sincere in its wish to see their differences through, with Turkey being a strategic ally and friend both economically and regionally. It is important that the U.S. be allied with Turkey to solve any issues in the region.

In advance of President Obama’s meeting with President Erdogan at the G20 Summit in China, Ambassador Ereli laid out three ways for President Obama to address the current crises in the U.S.’s relationship with Turkey:

  1. He should make it absolutely clear that the U.S. is a friend to Turkey and the Turkish people.
  2. He should show that the U.S. recognizes that Turkey faced a mortal threat on July 15th and congratulate and support the Turkish people for standing up for Turkey’s state institutions and constitution. 
  3. Lastly, President Obama should make it clear to President Erdogan that the U.S. had nothing to do with the coup attempt and that the attempt was as much against U.S. values as it was against Turkey’s values. 

Potentially Historic Crisis

Dr. Akkoyunlu explained that the coup attempt has led to a fundamental shift in the political alignment in Turkey. According to Dr. Akkoyunlu, the outcome of the crisis in U.S.-Turkey relations is dependent upon how Turkey resolves its Kurdish question and what role the U.S. plays in this resolution, if any. Dr. Akkoyunlu agreed with Ambassador Ereli that the U.S.-Turkish relationship is strategic and indispensable. In reference to newly mending Turkish-Russian relations, Dr. Akkoyonlu stated that a cutting of ties between Russia and Turkey is not in the interest of either party. There is a limited alliance of preferences that can bring the American, Turkish, and Russian interests together in Syria.

Dr. Akkoyunlu stated that the attempted coup has heightened the existing institutional and societal insecurities that are driving Turkey’s outlook on the world. As a result, the state has suffered cracks at its core even though the coup was unsuccessful. In regard to the Kurdish question, Dr. Akkoyunlu suggested that there needs to be a grand bargain that takes into account the realities, fears and demands of Turkey and the Kurds themselves if the conflict is to be resolved in Syria and inside Turkey. Dr. Akkoyunlu stressed that the great hope is not in making sure the U.S. and Turkey find strategic harmony but that such a harmony does not come to harm society and democracy in Turkey. It should instead be beneficial to improving Turkish state institutions and confidence-building in the region. 

Doomsday Scenario and Involvement in Syria

On the subject of Turkey’s “Operation Euphrates Shield” in Syria, Ambassador Ereli illustrated a doomsday scenario: Turkish military casualties leading to direct confrontations between Turkey and the YPG, or even more detrimental, an American casualty due to the U.S.’s alliance with the YPG. The U.S.’s policy for dealing with ISIS is to take the fight to ISIS. For Ambassador Ereli, such a fight requires considering how the U.S. and its partners will control the territories taken back from ISIS and how they will prevent the emergence of new ISIS-like organizations. Ambassador Ereli also asked, “What does the U.S. stand to lose in [the] relationship for continuing support with [the] YPG in Syria? What does it stand to lose if it withdraws support of [the] YPG?” 

Dr. Akkoyunlu expanded by discussing the possible underlying motives of Euphrates Shield: A. to create a buffer zone in northern Syria, and B. to draw a line limiting the expansion of the YPG. Dr. Akkoyunlu also stated that for the U.S., ISIS takes precedence over everything else; thus, the U.S. reasons that that the YPG is effective at fighting ISIS but does not support the PKK’s fight in Turkey. However, Dr. Akkoyunlu advised that the U.S. dial back support for the YPG and instead prioritize Turkey’s concerns about the YPG’s links to the PKK over its interest in working with the YPG to fight ISIS. 

Democracy Post-Coup Attempt and the AKP

Ambassador Ereli concluded his remarks by touching on the subject of the depiction of the AKP as an Islamist party. He offered that the “best antidote” to the discussion regarding the supposed conflict between Islamist politics and democracy is to allow for as free and open a debate as possible. According to Ambassador Ereli, the more that the opportunities for debate and dissent are abridged, the more that accusations of some kind of non-democratic agenda will be fueled. Ambassador Ereli reminded listeners that whatever you think of the AKP, it won the majority vote in the previous election. After the coup, people came out onto the streets – and they continue to do so – in support of the institutions that represent the government and the AKP and what they stand for. 

Dr. Akkoyunlu wrapped up his remarks by discussing how perceptions and coverage of Turkey in the U.S. do not always correspond with actual events in Turkey. Long before the Arab Spring, there was already debate on Turkey’s move away from the West to an Islamic East as well as on the deterioration of democracy in the country. But when the Arab Spring began, Turkey was seen as the champion of the Arab Spring and Islamic democracy, illustrating how perceptions can shift.