A Year in Review: 2015 US-Turkish Relations

December 2015

A look back on 2015 and the development of US-Turkish relations regarding foreign policy, economy, and military cooperation. Over the last twelve months, the US and Turkey have worked together to fight ISIS, provide assistance to the 2.2 million Syrian refugees living within the country, and strengthen economic cooperation during the G20 summit. Most recently the US along with other NATO-ally countries stood behind Turkey in the downing of the Russian fighter jet that violated Turkish airspace in November, 2015. And finally, Turks witnessed an extraordinary political period in their history by having two national elections in one year. 

THO thinks the following are the top five most significant events that has strengthened the US-Turkish relations in 2015. 

US-led coalition against ISIS

The growing conflict in Syria reached a new level in 2015 with Ankara opening up Incirlik airbase to the United States in efforts to increase the anti-ISIS coalition.  This strategic airbase is located within 100 miles of the Syrian border allowing for better access for operations against ISIS. This critical region is the primary corridor through which ISIL has been utilizing as a lifeline for weapons and finances in which the US and Turkey militaries are increasing “cooperation to stop the militants from shuttling goods and people across this border.” The US has led the air attacks in the region along with providing special operation forces on the ground to both fight ISIL as well as train local military troops in their own efforts against ISIL.

On December 14, President Obama addressed the nation after a meeting at the Pentagon with his National Security Council in an effort to outline the American strategy in “moving forward with a great sense of urgency” of destroying ISIS. President Obama affirmed that the US military and allied forces, including Turkey, are attacking ISIS harder than ever and will continue to do so in efforts to eliminate the group. In his speech, President Obama noted accomplishments such as “pushing ISIL back from almost across the entire border region with Turkey” as the US continues its collaboration with the Turks. One of the biggest victories thus far in 2015 was the recent retaking of Ramadi by Iraqi forces pushing ISIS back from a very critical city in their conquered territory. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s visit to Turkey 24 hours post-Obama’s speech reinforced the importance of the US-led coalition airstrikes against ISIL on the Turkish-Syrian border. The end of 2015 showed an increase in military operations from US-Turkish allies which have resulted in victories and will most likely continue well into 2016

Russia invades Turkey’s Airspace

NATO and the US supported Turkey on the downing of a Russian fighter jet for invading Turkish airspace in November. President Obama quickly tried easing the tensions between Russia and Turkey suggesting both countries to avoid escalating the situation. Russia was quick to counter Turkey’s downing of its jet with economic sanctions and a declaration from President Putin that Turkey stabbed Russia “in the back” which has led to continuing tensions between the two nations. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has publicly encouraged Turkey to increase its role in air operations in the Syrian border that has been the area of tension for Turkey and Russia since the downing of the fighter jet. Senior Turkish official noted that “Turkey takes part in identifying targets and providing logistics and bases. We are in close cooperation with the US” and has a prominent role inside the US led coalition. Russia has publicly announced that it will continue its sanctions against Turkey with new bans going into effect starting January 1, 2016 heightening tensions between the two nations. 

Alleviating the burden of Syrian refugees from Turkey

At the conclusion of the G20 Summit, President Obama and President Erdogan presented a united front on combating terrorism along with a promise to alleviate the burden on Turkey’s refugee crisis. As the US is the world’s leader in providing humanitarian assistance and President Obama has vowed to continue its support for Turkey by providing both humanitarian aid as well as military assistance. Turkey is host to over 2.2 million refugees and has already spent over 8 billion USD in assisting the displaced persons escaping from a war-torn Syria. The US has only taken in about 2,300 Syrian refugees with a proposed additional 10,000 being accepted in 2016. As there are millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey as well as other surrounding countries the US can increase its humanitarian efforts financially in order to help support countries like Turkey in providing basic human needs to the millions of displaced persons living in the host country. In the fall of 2015, the US pledged to donate $419 million in additional humanitarian assistance making its total donations according to USAID more than $4.5billion to the Syrian refugee crisis. Although the US continues to work with Turkey on providing financial assistance to the refugees living in the country there can be more done by the US in alleviating the burden that Turkey has taken on over the last five years.

G20 Summit in Antalya 

Turkey hosted its first G20 Summit in November where the world’s top 20 industrial powers met to discuss issues such as the Syrian conflict, climate change, economy, and the refugee crisis.  The summit concluded with a Communique that pointed out five key points from the weekend: terrorism, refugee crisis, global economy, youth unemployment, and corporate tax. As Turkey was the host of the summit, President Erdogan pledged along with the other 20 leaders including the US to “use all of their policy tools to tackle uneven economic growth that falls short of expectations.” Turkey has continued to grow as a strong economic power in the global market and will continue to do so as American businesses continue developing with the over 1,000 American companies already established in the country. Over the last several decades, US companies have enjoyed favorable geographical positioning for business as Turkey is regionally prosperous being located in both the eastern and the western parts of world. The economic relationship between US and Turkey is mutually beneficial for both countries and was reassured with agreements established during this year’s G20 Summit hosted in Antalya.

General Elections

2015 was an extraordinary year for Turkish politics; Turks went to the polls twice in one year to elect a national government, a unique occurrence in the history of the 65-year-old multi-party parliamentary system. Critical domestic developments in 2013 and 2014 signaled that the political future of the country was going to be determined by this election in 2015. Neither the June 7 elections nor the negotiations to form a coalition produced any clear winner. As a result, Turks returned to the polls on November 1. Results of the free, fair, and peaceful second election surprised the west. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) received almost 50 percent of the popular vote, up from about 41 percent in the June 7 elections, enabling it to form a one-party government, showcasing the strength of the democratic process.

The elections came at an important time in U.S. – Turkey relations. Despite having their differences, U.S. was in need for a strong and secure Turkish government that was first and foremost ready to cooperate in the campaign against Daesh and play an impactful role in Syria. In other words, elections were seen as an opportunity for Turkey to recalibrate its Syria policy. Secondly, U.S. needed its NATO ally and strategic partner to decisively address its ongoing economic, ethnic, social and foreign policy challenges. From this perspective, the results of the November elections were advantageous for U.S. – Turkey relations. 

U.S. has always re-emphasized the close coordination and commitment to advance shared political, security and prosperity agendas with Turkey. It also provided constructive criticism when it was due. Following the election results, the administration continued to raise concerns about the challenges of going through a period of domestic changes and developments. Despite advantageous election results, Washington continues to urge their partners and friends in Ankara to strive for being the model of democracy and beacon of stability and economic growth in a challenging region.

Turkish Heritage Organization