Professor Malik Mufti
There is no way to sugarcoat it: 2016 was a calamitous year in Turkish-American relations. From President Obama's evident disdain for a Near East he couldn't wait to "pivot" away from, to his increasingly overt criticisms of President Erdoğan – as reflected for example in Jeffrey Goldberg's April 2016 piece in The Atlantic – to Washington's tepid reaction following the June coup attempt and its perceived solicitude for Fethullah Gülen's organization, the conviction steadily crystallized in Ankara that it faced a hostile actor in the Obama administration.
Nothing reinforced this conviction more, however, than the growing rift between the two governments over Syria and Iraq.
In Syria the problem originated in the Obama administration's shift away from supporting the anti-regime popular uprising, to relying on the Kurdish PYD's militia as its primary proxy against ISIL – this despite the fact that the PYD is an affiliate of the PKK, which Washington still considers a terrorist organization. As Mas'ud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan and no fan of either group put it this March: "Any support for the PYD means support for the PKK. ... They are exactly one and the same thing. ... They [the Americans] know very well." Nevertheless, in order to clear the way for the PYD, the United States first rebuffed Turkish calls for joint action against both the Syrian regime and ISIL, then criticized Turkey's unilateral interventions against the PYD – with U.S. military personnel going so far as to wear the insignia of the PYD's militia on their uniforms in May, and to raise American flags over the PYD-controlled town of Tal Abyad in order to deter Turkish action there in September. As PYD-led forces overran more and more territory in a bid to establish contiguous control along the length of the Turkish-Syrian border, an unnamed U.S. official acknowledged to The Washington Post: "We have bitten the bullet on the Kurds." Confronted by such a stance, Turkey's leadership concluded it had no choice but to launch its own major incursion in August, defer hopes for an overthrow of the Syrian regime in order to narrow its focus on the more urgent threats posed by the PYD and ISIL, and seek an understanding with Russia over their respective spheres of influence in Syria. The degree to which the Obama administration's Syria policy – reduced to Secretary of State Kerry's grotesque plea on December 10 that the regime and its allies "show a little grace" as they marauded through Aleppo – have alienated Turkey and isolated the United States became clear ten days later when the Turkish, Russian and Iranian foreign ministers met in Moscow to work out a joint roadmap for Syria's future.
In Iraq, a similar desire to have others do its heavy lifting led the Obama administration to favor the central government in Baghdad, despite the latter's close relations with Iran and despite its sectarian policies which have alienated Sunni Arabs and Kurds alike. As pro-Iranian Shi'a forces on one side and PKK and PYD forces on the other moved in to fill the vacuum created by ISIL's slow retreat, Turkey beefed up its alliance with the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil and stepped up its training of Sunni Arab fighters in the Bashiqa camp northeast of Mosul. Here as well, the Obama administration displayed little concern for Ankara's interests, backing Baghdad's demands in October for a complete withdrawal of Turkish military personnel. A significant buildup of Turkish forces along the Iraqi border the following month suggested that here as well, accordingly, Turkey may be preparing take the initiative into its own hands.
Even before this latest round of crises, opinion polls showed Turks holding extraordinarily unfavorable views of the United States. It would be a grave error, moreover, to think that such views are restricted to the pro-AK Party wing of the political spectrum – they are ubiquitous across the board. Unless the incoming Trump administration reverses its predecessor's approach and realigns its regional policies with Ankara's (and Erbil's), this divide between Turkey and the United States will only deepen.
US-TURKISH RELATIONS IN 2017
Professor Michael M. Gunter
Tennessee Technological University
It has been a difficult 2016 for US-Turkish relations. What are the overall status and expectations for the new (2017) year? Much, of course, will depend on the perspectives of Donald Trump, the new incoming American president. Mr. Trump appears to be more favorably disposed toward Turkey than was his predecessor Barack Obama. The new president will probably put a lot less pressure on Turkey for its perceived human-rights and general domestic problems, and instead emphasize making business deals which will aid both countries and thus may help rejuvenate the ailing Turkish economy. Rex Tillerson, the billionaire ExxonMobil CEO and Trump’s choice for the all-important post of Secretary of State (foreign secretary), may further this outlook toward touting business cooperation and success, instead of squabbling over problems with human rights.
Although some of the current differences on ISIS (Daesh) will remain, General Michael Flynn, Trump’s new National Security Advisor, also seems more favorably inclined toward Turkey on security and foreign policy issues. The problems of Rojava and the PYD/YPG already seem more manageable than just a few months ago. The US will continue to thank Turkey for such timely efforts as implementing a ceasefire in Aleppo and sending UN observers to monitor the situation, as well as its momentous efforts to help refugees and IDPs. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin seem ready to welcome soon-to be US president Donald Trump to their working relationship given the latter’s frequently stated affinity toward Putin and desire to make business deals, instead of establishing embargoes. Thus, greater cooperation among all three leaders in eradicating ISIS also can be expected. The earlier perceived crisis concerning continuing Turkish membership in NATO will also recede as Turkey will continue to facilitate US usage of the geopolitically strategic Incirlik airbase. Although Iran is playing a clever role regarding ISIS and Syria, the overall Iranian geostrategic challenge and support for perceived Shia radicalism may also draw Turkey and the United States as well as Russia closer.
Fethullah Gulen will remain an irritant in the US-Turkish relationship, but there is no reason why he should be a game changer unless Turkey choses to make him so, which seems doubtful. However, Turkish domestic security difficulties will continue and may even escalate as illustrated by the terrorist strikes that have occurred in Turkey in December 2016. The Kurdish conflict remains a cancer on the Turkish body politic and hopefully will find a new determination on the part of all better to manage the debilitating situation. In the background also remains lurking the Armenian problem, upon which the new incoming US president has yet to express himself.
Illustrative of continuing favorable US-Turkish relations for the New Year, the Congressional Caucus on US-Tukey Relations now has a record 159 members. They can be expected to promote a continuing positive and successful new year for the two long-time allies.