Resetting Turkish – US Ties

By THO Nonresident Fellow, Altan Atamer

It is no secret that relations between Turkey and the US have been strained over the past years and even decades. But history shows that the relationship between NATO’s two largest militaries have not always been so troubled. Prior to the inception of NATO, the governments of Turkey and the US enjoyed warm relationships where both countries worked in a cooperative and mutually beneficial manner against Soviet threats following the end of World War II (Titov 2015). Turkey’s entrance in NATO, their participation in US led efforts like the Korean war, and the creation of joint sites of cooperation like Incirlik airbase seemed to indicate an intensification of the already existing goodwill between the two countries.

Yet, the war in Cyprus marked a turning point in the relationship between Turkey and the US. In 1975, the US departed from its previous tradition of bolstering economic, military and diplomatic ties with Turkey, and placed an embargo that would arbitrarily target only one of the participants in the war (Brumage 2015). This controversial bill did not just halt all military aid and arms sales to Turkey, it changed the future trajectory of Turkey – US relations. And even though the embargo was eventually lifted three years later, the damage was already done. Turkish – US relations had now shifted from one of cooperation prior to the war in Cyprus to one fraught with mistrust and a perceived incompatibility of interests after the conflict. 

Ever since then, Turkey and the US have had numerous high-profile conflicts like Turkey’s refusal to allow the US military a forward operating base in Turkish territory during the 2003 invasion of Iraq (Boudreaux and Zaman 2003), the infamous “hood incident” which saw US military members accidentally arrest Turkish soldiers (Howard and Goldenberg 2003), US reluctance to transfer Patriot missile technology (Townsend and Ellehuus 2019) or even sell armed drones to Turkey (Farooq 2019), and Turkey’s retaliatory purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia (Lister 2019). Unfortunately, these tit-for-tat incidents have culminated in recent US sanctions against high-ranking individuals in Turkey’s “Presidency of Defense Industries” (Pompeo 2020). This move has not just exacerbated the already strained relationship between the two countries but also bears a strikingly similar image to the original 1975 arms embargo following the war in Cyprus. It seems then that even though the US and Turkey have moved on from their qualms regarding their positions on the war in Cyprus, they have been unable to shirk the distrust which initially emerged between the two countries during this period.

However, it would be incorrect to assume that the current trajectory of Turkish – US relations is bound to continue. In fact, the recent conflict in Karabakh indicates that there is an opportunity to reset the strained relations between two of NATO’s largest militaries. 

The first war in Karabakh ended in 1994 with a decisive Armenian victory that allowed ethnic Armenians to occupy and expel indigenous Azerbaijanis from their internationally recognized territories (Kazimov 2020). Moreover, the OSCE Minsk group (France, Russia, and the US), which was tasked with settling the status of Karabakh amid the fallout of the first Karabakh conflict, was ultimately unable to make any meaningful progress or find any just resolution (Jabbarova 2020). Fortunately, Azerbaijan has finally been able to end the Armenian occupation of Karabakh following a brief military conflict. Crucial to Azerbaijan’s swift military victory was the use of Turkish and Israeli drones (Hambling 2020). But Turkey’s indirect participation in Karabakh does not just demonstrate its growing influence in the region and its technological and military prowess. Rather, it signals both the potential benefits of cooperation with Turkey and its similar interests with the incoming US administration, even if that cooperation or the realization of both countries’ interests are conducted in an inorganized manner. 

It is important to note that while both Israel and Turkey provided material and logistical aid to Azerbaijan there was no meaningful coordination between the two countries. Instead, both countries coordinated independently with Azerbaijan and were motivated by differing concerns and interests. Despite this lack of coordination, and Russia’s preferential treatment in favor of Armenia, Azerbaijan was able to accomplish in 44 days what neither France, Russia nor the US could do in thirty years – the return of Azerbaijani territory to Azerbaijan. Thus, this event highlights both the potential prospects of what coordinated engagement with Turkey could look like as well as the regional power Turkey has become and its effectiveness against other powerful states like the historical rival of the US.

The incoming Biden administration has made remarks that, while expressing disappointment in the use of military force in Karabakh, nevertheless insisted on the return of Azerbaijani territory to Azerbaijan (Biden Campaign 2020). From a military standpoint, retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges has expressed that Turkey’s growing influence in the South Caucasus is beneficial and necessary for securing US interests in the region (Mehdiyev 2020). A wider net of cooperation and the removal of the recently imposed sanctions on the military complex of Turkey would therefore be in the best interests of both the US and Turkey. On the other hand, Turkey has proved throughout the Trump presidency that it is able to act independent from the US and even compete with Russia in multiple theatres simultaneously. The current trajectory of alienating and antagonizing Turkey would thus pose problems not just for Turkish interests, it would undoubtedly negatively affect US interest in the regions of the Caucasus, the Middle East, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean only to benefit rivals like Russia.

The influence of Turkey in its surrounding regions has grown over the years as its military industries have been forced to manufacture indigenously produced equipment and technology in the face of US sanctions (Farooq 2019). It has now sold its products to multiple countries in both Europe and Asia (Tavsan 2020). It would be a mistake for the Biden administration to ignore the growing influence of Turkey and allow Russia to feed off of the current fractured relationship between the two countries. Recent conflicts like the Karabakh conflict highlight the positive and mutually beneficial role Turkey can play in regard to US interests as well as the interests of its allies. More than anything then, Turkey’s recent power projections have shown both the importance of resetting Turkish – US ties and the growing opportunities for enlarging the frameworks where Turkey and the US can cooperate. The opportunities for increased Turkish – US cooperation, along with its accompanying benefits, are clear, but whether the two countries will be willing to engage positively with another and reinvigorate the once prosperous relationship remains to be seen.  

Biden Campaign. 2020. “Joe Biden for President: Official Campaign Website Nagorno-Karabakh - Statement by Vice President Joe Biden |.” Joe Biden for President: Official Campaign Website. (December 21, 2020).

Boudreaux, Richard, and Amberin Zaman. 2003. “Turkey Rejects U.S. Troop Deployment.” Los Angeles Times. (December 21, 2020).

Brumage, Jody. 2015. “The Turkish Arms Embargo – Part I.” Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education. (December 21, 2020).

Farooq, Umar. 2019. “How Turkey Defied the U.S. and Became a Killer Drone Power.” The Intercept. (December 21, 2020).

Hambling, David. 2020. “The 'Magic Bullet' Drones Behind Azerbaijan's Victory Over Armenia.” Forbes. (December 20, 2020).

Howard, Michael, and Suzanne Goldenberg. 2003. “US Arrest of Soldiers Infuriates Turkey.” The Guardian. (December 21, 2020).

Jabbarova, Aisha. 2020. “President Aliyev: OSCE Minsk Group Did Not Help Resolve Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict [UPDATE].” (December 20, 2020).

Kazimov, Seymur. 2020. “Azerbaijanis Forced to Flee in the 1990s Hope to Return Home.” Azerbaijan News | Al Jazeera. (December 22, 2020).

Lister, Tim. 2019. “Turkey Bought Russian S-400 Missiles Designed to down NATO Planes. For the US, That's a Problem.” CNN. (December 21, 2020).

Mehdiyev, Mushvig. 2020. “Former US Commander Calls For Closer Ties With Azerbaijan and Turkey.” Caspian News. (December 20, 2020).

Pompeo, Michael. 2020. “The United States Sanctions Turkey Under CAATSA 231 - United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State. (December 20, 2020).

Tavsan, Sinan. 2020. “Turkey Begins to Rival China in Military Drones.” Nikkei Asia. (December 22, 2020).

Titov Lecturer in Modern European History, Alexander. 2015. “Russia and Turkey: a Long History of Turbulent Relations.” The Conversation. (December 20, 2020).

Townsend, Jim, and Rachel Ellehuus. 2019. “The Tale of Turkey and the Patriots.” War on the Rocks. (December 20, 2020).