The US-Turkey Relationship Is Facing a Major Test

U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship has been going through some difficult periods. There are disagreements over several critical issues which continue to strain and undermine the relations. The abruptly announced travel restrictions by the U.S. and Turkish authorities, which is seen as the worst crisis in decades, should never let us overlook the fact that regardless of current events or the times ahead, the U.S.-Turkey relationship is strong enough to overcome these difficult periods.

As an American with Turkish roots, who has been diligently working on improving this historical relationship for over a decade, I would like to reemphasize how important the U.S.-Turkey relationship is and why we continue to need each other as important allies. The friendship between the people of the U.S. and the people of Turkey is deep and rich, extending back to the Ottoman Empire. Yes, the relations have seen some significant disputes but they remain and will remain strong. I say that because regardless of their political differences in bilateral relations, ordinary people who have been contributing and reinforcing the enduring links between the people of both countries through economic, academic, social, and cultural relations remain robust.

As both governments engage in discussions and diplomatic dialogue to swiftly resolve the travel restrictions, let’s not overlook the fact that despite numerous major domestic and regional crises, Turkey remains resilient and continues to work closely with the U.S. Security partnership, which is a priority for both countries, remains strong. Whether it is in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, together as NATO allies, U.S. and Turkey continue to work together in fighting against major threats like Al-Qaida and ISIS.

Following the diplomatic dispute, U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis gave a reassuring statement indicating that “military relations had been unaffected” and the U.S. would “continue to work closely with Turkish counterparts”. The violent conflicts in Syria and Iraq, recently spilling past Turkey’s borders, are significant issues of international security. Therefore, there is no question about how critical the U.S.-Turkey relations are to regional security and the management of regional crises.

Turkey has been experiencing significant challenges that tested and continues to test its strong legacy of bilateral and NATO defense cooperation with its strategic ally, the United States. Geopolitical developments in the region changed Turkey’s security landscape dramatically, and the country experienced enormous domestic and regional risks. Turkey experienced its biggest domestic trauma last year in July when a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces carried out a coup attempt. Coup attempt failed but it took a considerable toll on the Turkish nation. According to the Turkish government, U.S.-based Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen and a group of his followers that are identified as Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization (FETO), was the mastermind of the coup. When Turkish government formally requested Gulen’s extradition to Turkey and presented the U.S. government with evidence showing Gulen’s involvement in multiple crimes in Turkey. However, prolonged judicial review coupled with signs of unwillingness to take any legal steps, made the extradition a major area of concern for Turkey.

The civil war in Syria, which has become Turkey’s biggest regional security risk, has exposed Turkey’s domestic and regional vulnerabilities and undermined its security. Lack of a coordinated, pragmatic U.S. policy that is aimed at maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity and continued support of the YPG (which Turkey views as a terrorist organization due to its links to PKK) as partner in the fight against ISIS, has aggravated and severely antagonized Turkey’s threat perceptions during a critical period. Following the coup attempt, U.S.-Turkey relations, which were already strained, entered a complicated period.

Despite these developments, it is important to emphasize how Turkey continued to share strategic, common interests with the U.S. For example, since 2011, Turkey and the U.S. have co-chaired the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) to help combat the rise of extremism. Turkey has also worked in conjunction with the U.S. to establish the first-ever public-private global fund to support local efforts in countering violent extremism, and has taken a leading role at the Center of Excellence Defense Against Terrorism (COE-DAT) in Ankara to teach fellow NATO allies and select non-member states on how to address various terrorism-related issues. In other words, tensions and challenges in the U.S.-Turkey relations cannot and will not change the fact that they continue to share strategic, common interests.

Why should Americans be concerned about its relations with Turkey? Simple, continuation of complications between the two allies will not only severely damage bilateral defense cooperation between the two largest militaries in NATO but will also contribute to the destabilization of both Turkey and its region. While it is natural to have differences among allies, as Russia and Iran’s influence continue to grow in the region, it is essential that both countries should make efforts to heal and strengthen their relationship. History shows that Turkey and the United States are stronger together than they are when they are apart. 
 
Ali Cinar, 
President, Turkish Heritage Organization