December 28, 2017
These days, you do not have to follow relations between the United States and Turkey very closely to know that these critical NATO allies are going through a challenging period in their bilateral relations. Although the relations have been deteriorating for some time, particularly after the coup attempt in 2016, this year has been a particularly difficult year. Following the Trump administration’s Jerusalem decision, it is even more difficult to have an optimistic U.S.-Turkey relation forecast for 2018. However, it is important to keep in mind that the history of U.S.-Turkey relations clearly indicates that despite having difficulties, the overarching strategic relationship has always remained indispensable.
Deterioration of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relations could be attributed to two core issues: disagreements over U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen’s extradition and the U.S. decision to arm People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia that is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organization deemed as terrorist by Turkey, the U.S. and others.
Although complex geopolitical circumstances in Turkey’s neighborhood do contribute to this deterioration, I think that these two core issues are and will be the key to contain and improve the rapid deterioration. However, at this point the biggest concern is that even attempting to genuinely tackle these issues would require a lot more than what leaders on both sides are willing to commit.
Fortunately, more than 60 years of U.S.-Turkey relations history show that, regardless of major setbacks, both nations have always managed to overcome their challenges. I believe two of these setbacks are particularly important in terms of understanding the resiliency of the relationship that originates from their strategic interests.
Turkey’s Cyprus intervention in July 1974 is one such setback. The Cyprus intervention began when Turkey’s Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit acted to protect Cyprus’ ethnic Turkish minority from persecution. Although President Gerald Ford’s administration did not want to put its NATO ally in a difficult position, the U.S. Congress went against the president and condemned the intervention by imposing an arms embargo on February 1975. At the time, around 90 percent of the Turkish Armed Forces’ equipment was American-made, which caused the embargo to be that much more damaging. Prime Minister Ecevit, who considered the move unacceptable, retaliated by forbidding non-NATO operations and closing down a number of American installations. He also proscribed operations at Incirlik and Izmir bases. Cyprus severely divided the NATO allies. In fact, a New York Times reporter from Ankara summarized the scale of this division with great pessimism “many Turks and Americans here agree that relations between Ankara and Washington ‘will never be the same again.'” Fortunately, The New York Times forecast did not prove accurate. Congress lifted the embargo in September 1978 and relations slowly returned to pre-embargo days.
In March 2003, bilateral relations hit another setback, this time over Iraq. Under the pretext of disarming Saddam Hussein’s purported cache of weapons of mass destruction, a coalition of countries led by the U.S. sought to invade Iraq. Friction started when the United States wanted to launch a second front from Turkey and asked its NATO ally for permission. The impending war was deeply unpopular in Turkey (polls showed 80 percent disapproval) partly because the unintended consequences of the U.S. led Operation Desert Storm of 1991 were still visible. The recently elected Justice and Development Party (generally abbreviated AK) brought the issue to the Parliament. Despite a $15 billion aid package offer, the Turkish Parliament shocked the U.S. by voting against granting military permission. Many in Washington took a hostile view of Turkey for not supporting the U.S. In fact, in an exclusive insight interview with Turkish Heritage Organization, former Congressman Ed Whitfield (R, KY), whose public office career spanned three presidents (Clinton, Bush and Obama), as the co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations and Turkish Americans and of the Congressional Study Group on Turkey (CGST) of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (USAFMC), recalls this setback as the “lowest point” in bilateral relations. Although Turkey ultimately allowed Incirlik to be used for logistical support, with time, it became clear that the U.S. had excluded Turkey from a decision-making role in post-war Iraq.
Cyprus and Iraq examples indicate that complex geopolitical circumstances in Turkey’s neighborhood have always, either initiated or contributed to existing U.S.-Turkey foreign policy challenges. For various reasons, Syria has been the longest-lasting challenge. Unfortunately, by following a confused policy, the United States made things a lot more complicated not only for itself but also for its NATO ally. Following a potentially major military escalation between Turkey and Russia, Turkey is now actively working towards a diplomatic solution in Syria with Russia and Iran. However, this does not mean that Syria challenge would remain unresolved between the NATO allies. Russia will continue to have a long-term role in Syria, which means this geopolitical development alone could be the opportunity to strategically unite Turkey and the U.S.
The bottom line is that regardless how complex issues are, the overarching strategic relationship between the U.S. and Turkey has always remained indispensable. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Jonathan Cohen’s recent remarks at a conference on Turkey “our alliance with Turkey is strategic and enduring” to me is a clear and loud indication that the U.S. is just as eager to overcome their longest-lasting challenge as its NATO ally. Now it’s time to resolve these differences so that they can work together to bring stability back to the region and defeat terrorism in all its forms. History is on their side.
Yenal Kucuker is the Turkish Heritage Organization executive director and a former reporter for Voice of America (VOA) Turkish Service.