Navigating the U.S.-Turkey Relationship Beyond the Quagmire
Key Takeaway: The U.S. needs Turkey as an active partner despite its slide into authoritarianism under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The U.S. should adopt an interest-based approach towards Turkey that shapes its behavior in line with shared strategic objectives such as reversing the gains of Iran and Russia in the Middle East.
The U.S. needs Turkey to contribute actively as an ally in NATO. The U.S. and NATO face an increasingly aggressive Russia in the Middle East and Europe. Turkey plays an integral role in countering this threat. It dominates the Turkish Straits connecting the Black Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean. It provides a strategically-positioned platform on the southern flank of NATO from which to exert influence in the Middle East and Black Sea. It also maintains the second-largest available combat force in NATO. The U.S. and NATO already operate a number of critical military installations across Turkey including Incirlik Airbase.
Turkey is nonetheless the largest vulnerability to NATO’s cohesion. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cemented his own authoritarian rule in the 2018 Turkish General Elections. His new regime is pursuing self-serving policies that undermine the U.S. and NATO. Erdogan is willing to align with Russia and Iran against the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. He has repeatedly fueled diplomatic rifts with the U.S. and EU. He has conducted military operations targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - the principal ground partner of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. His interventions (and de facto territorial annexations) in Iraq and Syria undermine the ability of the U.S. and NATO to credibly condemn similar acts of aggression by Russia.
The U.S. should commit to a smarter interest-based approach that compels greater cooperation from Turkey. The U.S. and Turkey are mired in tactical negotiations that fail to address their wider strategic divergences or repair the damage from years of opposing policy choices in Iraq and Syria. The Trump Administration has engaged to resolve discrete challenges with Turkey such as the status of the contested town of Manbij in Northern Syria and the arbitrary detention of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson. These talks are insufficient to mend the relationship absent a more fundamental realignment between the U.S. and Turkey. The U.S. must refocus on areas of shared interest with Turkey following the reelection of an emboldened Erdogan.
- Counter-Terrorism: The U.S. and Turkey can find common ground against designated terrorist groups such as ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). All three groups threaten the long-term stability of Turkey. The U.S. could offer military and intelligence support against the PKK in Turkey and Iraq. The U.S. should also actively limit the influence of the PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish YPG within the SDF. These reforms are independently valuable as a means to address grievances among local Sunni Arabs that could fuel a renewed insurgency against the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. Turkey must in turn cease its cooperation with al Qaeda in Syria and instead engage actively in counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda and other Salafi-Jihadist Groups. Turkey must also halt cross-border operations against the SDF that disrupt the Anti-ISIS Campaign in Syria.
- Regional Stability: The U.S. and Turkey both aim to contain and ultimately resolve the crises in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. and Turkey could cooperate to build mutually-acceptable local governance and security structures in both countries that exclude Iran as well as Salafi-Jihadist Groups. The U.S. should revisit its regional strategy to incorporate Turkey as a productive contributor - rather than a reluctant late addition - to the U.S. Anti-ISIS Campaign. Turkey must in turn limit its unilateral interventions against the PKK in Iraq and Syria and curb its covert support for local actors linked to Salafi-Jihadist Groups.
- Iran: The U.S. and Turkey both agree on the need to curtail Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Both states desire to reverse Iran’s military and political gains in both Syria and Iraq. The U.S. and Turkey could cooperate to support the formation of a new Government of Iraq not beholden to Iran. Turkey should be encouraged to limit its cross-border trade with Iran as well as its diplomatic cooperation with Iran and Russia in the Astana Process on Syria. The U.S. can encourage this outcome through the threat of trade-related sanctions as well as support for alternative energy pathways such as the Southern Gas Corridor.
- Russia: The U.S. and Turkey share an interest in containing a revisionist Russia. Turkey particularly is threatened by the expansion of Russia into Syria and the Black Sea. The U.S. and NATO must reassure Turkey by increasing military deployments to deter aggression by Russia in the Black Sea and Middle East. Turkey must freeze its purchase of the Russian S-400 Surface-to-Air Missile System. The U.S. in turn should sustain its bilateral security partnership with Turkey including joint military exercises and the sale of key capabilities such as advanced air defense systems and the F-35. Turkey should also be encouraged to limit its diplomatic cooperation with Russia and Iran in the Astana Process on Syria.
- Responsible Governance in Turkey: The U.S. still holds a stake in the long-term economic and political durability of Turkey despite the reelection of Erdogan. The U.S. should promote reforms or trade agreements that create a positive investment market in Turkey without rewarding economic mismanagement under Erdogan. The U.S. also must not shy away from enforcing minimal standards of behavior on Turkey. Turkey must be pressed to halt its use of ‘hostage diplomacy’ and release detained political prisoners such as U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson. The U.S. must continue to promote a return to rule of law in Turkey that includes an independent judiciary and other checks on the power of Erdogan.
The U.S. can manage its relationship with Turkey without capitulating to Erdogan. The U.S. and Turkey both need one another to confront their mutual adversaries in the Middle East and Europe. This fact remains true despite the unacceptable growth of authoritarianism under Erdogan. There is no quick policy fix to resolve the tensions between the U.S. and Turkey. The U.S. could nonetheless use an incremental and interest-based approach focused on clear areas of strategic convergence in order to protect its long-term alliance with a post-Erdogan Turkey.
By Elizabeth Teoman