At present, the Turkish leadership does not conceal hopes for improvement of “some aspects” of their relations with the United States under the new administration of President Donald Trump. After the coup attempt of July 2016, the number of foreign and domestic challenges in Turkey has increased dramatically. Some Turkish media and officials directly accused the United States of plotting the coup or at least knowing about it. According to a poll conducted in Turkey in November 2016, 76% of the polled saw U.S. behind the coup attempt. In this light, Turkey’s actions in Syria are still complicated due to its relations with U.S., Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, official government of Syria and local non-governmental organizations, partially having direct ties with Turks. Despite existing tensions, strategic cooperation of U.S. and NATO with Turkey continues.
U.S. is concerned over two issues concerning Turkey’s NATO membership:
- Can United States further rely on use of Turkish territories or airspace to ensure its interests?
- Can Turkey rely on support of U.S. and NATO to ensure its security and implement Turkey’s requests in the region?
So far, cooperation with Turkey is needed to promote United States’ interests in the Middle East and South Caucasus. Turkey’s location near several flashpoints in the Near and Middle East makes its territories important for storing and transporting weapons and other military cargoes. From viewpoint of U.S. and NATO, it is important that Turkey controls access to and from the Black Sea. Turkey controls one of the external strategic communication lines of Russia – NATO’s major rival on the so-called “eastern flank.”
Cooperation with Turkey in fighting ISIS (Islamic State, IS, Daesh) terrorist group in the neighboring Syria and Iraq is of high importance to U.S. n0w. U.S.-led coalition against ISIS still uses NATO bases in Turkey to conduct military operations in Syria and Iraq. Besides, NATO’s Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) aircrafts deployed on those bases make flights not only to the Middle East battlefields, but also to the South Caucasus and Black Sea. NATO airbases in Turkey are properly protected by anti-missile defense systems.
Turkey as before cares for cooperation with U.S. and acquires American weapons. The biggest deal Turkey plans is acquisition of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II advanced fighter aircrafts. Turkey is among 12 partner-countries, including U.S., to participate in the multi-nation consortium responsible for production of F-35. Reportedly, Turkey plans to obtain its first two F-35 fighters in 2019 and then another 24 ones in 2021-2022. Initially, it planned to buy 100 0r 120 aircrafts of the given type.
Besides, with the help of European NATO allies Turkey plans to launch its own production of tanks.
United States render approximately 3-5 million dollars security-related aid to Turkey annually.
At present, U.S. and NATO military presence in territory of Turkey is concentrated in 15 facilities.
- Allied Land Command in Izmir;
- Rapid Deployable Corps in Istanbul;
- Partnership for Peace Training Center in Ankara;
- Defense Against Terrorism NATO Centre of Excellence (DAT COE) in Ankara;
- Office of Defense Cooperation in Ankara;
- NATO AWACS in Konya;
- Mersin International Port on the Aegean Sea, used for transport logistics by U.S. military;
- Incirlik major multifunctional airbase;
- Patriot missile batteries (Spain) in Ceyhan;
- Italian Aster 30 SAMP/T air defense battery in Kahramanmaras;
- AN/TPY-2 radar—on-line at Kürecik;
- Malatya airbase, used by U.S.-led coalition for attacks against ISIS;
- Radar station with command center in Diyarbakir
- Airbase in Diyarbakir used by U.S.-led coalition for attacks against ISIS;
- Batman airbase, used by U.S.-led coalition for attacks against ISIS.
Incirlik base is the logistic center of U.S. military presence in Turkey. During the last 15 years, that base was extremely important for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. At present, the U.S.-led coalition aircrafts fly from Incirlik base to attack ISIS targets. Allied missile batteries protect the base. About 1500 U.S. troops are deployed at the base. In March 2016, members of the U.S. military and civilian staff in Turkey were ordered to leave Incirlik and other U.S. facilities in Turkey. During the coup attempt in Turkey and for some time after it, the military flights from the base were suspended by the order of Turkey’s government. Turkish chief of the base was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the coup attempt.
All NATO bases in Turkey’s territory are regulated under Turkish laws. That is why U.S. is concerned over current tensions in the relations with Turkey. There were many cases throughout the history of American-Turkish alliance when U.S. military assets were withdrawn from Turkey or faced restrictions of Turkish government because of various events. In its relations with Turkey, U.S. has to reckon with the so-called “Sevres Syndrome” – post-Ottoman Turkey’s efforts not to let external forces dominate over it. This explains Turkey’s constant efforts to become more self-sufficient and independent to influence neighboring regions.
At present, U.S. does not rule out that activity of Incirlik base may be suspended because of the ongoing discrepancies with the Turkish government. In such case, U.S. will have to move it amid possible expansion of its military operations in the Middle East. Temporary or final replacement of the airbase depends on a range of agents, which U.S. has to recount a priori, including functionality and location.
Despite certain troubles with the United States and other NATO countries, Turkey remains the key power in the region to have special ties with the West that makes it different from other Muslim countries in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, recent developments in both foreign and domestic policy have changed Turkey’s role in regional trends favorable to U.S... Turkey is neither a model for the Islamic states nor the direct promoter of U.S. interests any longer.
Turkey cooperates with a wide range of non-NATO countries to develop its ties in the military field and defense industry and increase its political and economic influence in neighbor countries and regions. Own economic successes of the last decades have encouraged Turkey to get more independence in foreign policy. As growing economy boosts energy consumption, Turkey becomes more dependent on Russia and Iran. This limits certain aspects of security-related cooperation of Turkey with U.S. and NATO. Despite this, U.S. sees no alternative to Turkey’s NATO membership and economic interdependence with Europe so far. Turkey simply lacks commeasurable alternatives of security and economic ties with the West with which it shares more than a 60-year-old heritage of institutionalized cooperation.
Turkey’s discrepancies of the last two years with its NATO allies are over Syria. Washington believes these discrepancies are of private nature and can be overcome maintaining the strategic cooperation. The key point of Turkey-U.S. discrepancies are Kurds. Yet in 2012, amid civil war that had just started, Syrian Kurds created a temporary governing body of Syrian Kurdistan – Kurdish Supreme Committee (DBK) that manages Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” (YPG). Turkey deems YPG as major threat to its security considering ties of Kurdish, Syrian and Turkish Kurds and their aspirations to get independence and establish a Kurdish state. Meantime, United States advocate for partnership of DBK and YPG as the most efficient land forces to fight ISIS. Therefore, U.S. cooperates with Syrian Kurds despite the fact that they have direct ties with Kurdish military group in Turkey –Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). U.S., EU, NATO and Turkey recognize PKK as a terrorist organization. This is what Turkey highlights when it demands isolation of Kurds.
For Turkey U.S. has to conceal its military ties with Syrian Kurds and does it rather awkwardly. In particular, it supplies weapons allegedly for Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Kurdish YPG took the lead in.
Kurdish issue turned into a problem in the American-Turkish relations after Turks directly invaded Northern Syria in August 2016 launching its codenamed Operation Euphrates Shield. The operation changed the geopolitical and conflict dynamics in the region of Syria and Iraq, influenced the cooperation of Turkey and U.S. against ISIS. Euphrates Shield was launched about two weeks after U.S.-backed units of SDF liberated Manbij in the east of Aleppo province. Afterwards, Turkey’s operation aimed not to let Kurds unite Afrin and Kobani – the regions in the west and east under their control. Turkey noticed that during the fights against ISIS in area of Manbij, Kurds tried to take control over as many territories as possible to bargain with Bashar al-Assad’s government for establishment of a Kurdish autonomy in Syria.
Turkish armor heavy units with the support of special units, Turkish air force and artillery carried out Operation Euphrates Shield. Besides, Turkish regular army was backed by units of Arabs, Turkmens nominally connected with anti-Assad “opposition” from Free Syrian Army. At the very moment when Turkey’s operation in Syria started, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden warned Kurds against creating a separate enclave on the Turkish-Syrian border.
To reduce possible tensions with Turks, in August 2016, U.S. urged Kurds to leave Manbij and retreat to the east of Euphrates. However, those demands were actually not fulfilled and in early March 2017, perhaps to comfort Turks, U.S. announced that Manbij is transferred under control of U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. Kurds were “left aside,” though Recep Tayyip Erdogan once declared plans to take full control over Manbij and brush off SDF forces. In Manbij, U.S. played against Turkey.
Besides, U.S. rendered very limited aviation support to Turkey during Operation Euphrates Shield due to its ties with Kurds and to stay aside of the Islamic Free Syrian Army. Turkey openly blamed U.S. for that.
At present, U.S. has to think of possible expansion of Russian-backed pro-governmental forces into that region. Yet, U.S. has an impression that Turks prefer to see Manbij under control of Assad rather than YPG. In February 2017, Turkey-supported forces took control over Al-Bab – the key transport port in the north of Syria that had been under control of ISIS since 2014. In that area, Turkish positions came closer to those of al-Assad’s government troops. U.S. reacted at once highlighting the risk of accidental military escalation that may spoil the relations in Turkey-Russia-Iran triangle.
Launching Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey manifested its own position on results of the war in Syria. Before that, Turkey participated in the war directly supplying weapons to Syrian opposition and creating military camps in its territory, which affected its security and increased the influence of Shiite Iran in Syria. Eventually, Turkey took a combined approach directly engaging in Syria and interacting with Iran and Russia. In December 2016, representatives of Turkey, Iran, and Russia arranged ceasefire in Syria. Foreign analysts interpreted those arrangements as division of Syria’s north into areas of influence. As possible result of that deal, Turkey could demand more freedom of actions in the near border regions controlled by Kurds in exchange for abandoning the opposition in the other parts of Syria.
However, it is still unclear for U.S. how deep into the territory of Syria Turkey is going to move. Another topical question is how Turkey is going to manage the occupied territories in Syria. U.S. sees that Turkey has difficulties in correlating its political goals and the general results in Syria and Iraq with big actors.
As for March 2017, Washington’s plans to move towards ISIS capital city – Raqqa – may require direct arming of Kurdish units of YPG. U.S. will no longer manage to cover these arms supplies with alleged support to Syrian Democratic Forces. This may spark new protests of Turks against U.S. Turkish officials do oppose YPG’s engagement in storming Raqqa. They think it will spoil the relationships of U.S. and Turkey. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing, John McCain expressed concern over possible conflict between Turkey and YPG that will affect U.S. interests in Syria. In particular, Senator McCain said, “I’m not sure we appreciate the role that Turkey plays in our effort to retake Raqqa, particularly in the use of Incirlik [Air Base] and other activities that require Turkish cooperation.” U.S. Army General Joseph Votel agreed with McCain’s concerns and assured those present that U.S. is “trying to take actions to prevent [conflict] from occurring.”
As regards Turkey’s domestic policy, there are certain discrepancies here too. U.S. cares for domestic stability in Turkey, human rights, Kurdish problems, Turkey’s readiness and ability to control inflow of refugees and migrants together with other international actors, identify and detain potential foreign militants and terrorists in those flows. After all, U.S. cares for the fate of 3 million refugees in the territory of Turkey. It is an explosive potential for Europe.
After the coup attempt, Turkey is still in a state of emergency that was announced in August 2016 for three months. Afterwards, it was prolonged on October 3, 2016 and then again on January 4 2017. This enables the government to rule by decrees. Turkey partially suspended European Convention on Human Rights. Erdogan’s true and supposed rivals are facing repressions. On February 15 2017, 78 U.S. congressional representatives addressed letters to Erdogan urging him to set free and return U.S. citizen Andrew Branson who had served as Christian pastor in Izmir for long years and was detained in October 2016 over membership in “a terrorist organization.” Branson’s detention drove another wedge in the relations of U.S. and Turkey. Meantime, Turkey’s earlier demand to U.S. over extradition of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen had driven much bigger wedge in the relations of the two countries.
What U.S. and its allies care most is the April 16 Constitutional referendum in Turkey that is a “disputable initiative.” The planned amendments to the constitution will grant the Turkish president the right to appoint the Cabinet without parliament’s approval. Besides, the president will have the right to appoint two-third of the Supreme Court judges (not just half of them). U.S. admits that Erdogan has already informally consolidated a significant part of Turkey’s executive power and the official approval of these amendments will undermine the domestic and foreign criticism of Erdogan’s policy, including by U.S. Therefore, U.S. will have to reckon with Erdogan as a political reality perhaps until 2029, since the constitutional amendments will enable Erdogan to run for two more 5-year terms. The U.S. policy towards Turkey will be built on these assumptions on condition that NATO’s positions in that country will remain inviolable.