The current U.S. relationship with our essential NATO Ally, Turkey—“Turkey-USA Version 1.0”—may die this summer as a result of Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 anti-missile systems, impending sanctions required by CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) triggered by that deal, and Washington’s threat to ban sales of its F-35 fighter aircraft to Ankara. Should relations continue to deteriorate, Turkey could buy additional Russian systems or even close U.S. access to İncirlik Air Base. But that does not mean that this essential strategic relationship is permanently ruptured. Rather, it is time to get busy on “Turkey-USA 2.0” – immediately.
A viable renewed relationship requires that we hold each other accountable while respecting each nation’s sovereignty and prerogatives. To do otherwise—to allow our relationship to suffer irreparable damage—by either side, would be a gift to the Kremlin.
I believe there is potential for the emergence of a new Turkey—the beginning of which we are already starting to see—which we should seriously consider as we work through the current difficulties. The recent election of an independent mayor in Istanbul, the strong criticism within the Turkish business community of the sacking of the independent Central Bank governor, and the defection of former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan from the AK Parti all point towards more political pluralism. It is, of course, possible to overstate the possibilities for change, and a lot can happen between now and the upcoming general elections in 2023. But regardless of political trends, we must preserve Turkey as an essential ally and bulwark against Russian aggression and Islamic extremism in the greater Black Sea region. This also will help stem further refugee flows from the region.
I was recently in Ankara, the Turkish capital, and met with senior retired Turkish diplomats, academics, and think-tank members as well as naval attachés and senior diplomats from multiple countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Ukraine, Georgia, and Switzerland. My specific purpose for being in Turkey was to gain perspective on how Turkey sees the greater Black Sea region, how Turkey sees its role there, and to understand the specifics of the Montreux Convention which governs naval presence in the Black Sea for littoral and non-littoral nations. I learned a lot about Montreux and Turkey’s perceptions – and the perceptions of other nations about Turkey. I also attended the U.S. National Day reception on July 4 with more than 500 other guests. Most notable for their disappointing absence—and reflective of the strains in the relationship—were any senior members of the Turkish General Staff or the Turkish Military.
But most importantly, I found three core problems that must be addressed if “Turkey-USA 2.0” is to become a reliable relationship between two long-time allies, and bolster ties between NATO and one of its most essential members.
First, the current strategic framework is obsolete. Turkey’s membership in NATO started in 1952. There has been a NATO headquarters in İzmir since then, longer than any other Alliance headquarters except for Naples. But this strategic framework was based on the containment of the Soviet Union. While Turkey still plays a key role in deterring Russian aggression in the greater Black Sea region, this is only part of its challenge today. As the former Chief of Plans and Policy of the Turkish General Staff once told me, “Ben, I wake up in the morning and I have Russia to the North, the Caucuses to the East, the Balkans to the West and Iran, Iraq, and Syria to the South. It is a hell of a neighborhood.” The U.S. strategic framework must recognize Turkey’s unique perspective and its role in the broader region, including to its south.
Second, Washington must figure out “ownership” of the relationship inside the U.S. government. For the most part, it has been based on military-to-military ties. This has worked well for many years but the U.S. focus on providing weapons to Kurds and defeating ISIS has perhaps prevented Washington from understanding Ankara’s security concerns.
Moreover, the boundary between U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which runs along the Turkish-Syrian border, necessitates complicated efforts between the two Commands to coordinate efforts against ISIS in Syria. The boundary does not facilitate the most effective military operations, coalition-building, or diplomatic and economic pressure. And because CENTCOM has become primus inter pares among the Combatant Commands over the last 15 years—due to the priority of deployments and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan—it has also contributed, in my opinion, to a tendency to underestimate the significance of Turkish sensitivities about our arming of any faction of the Kurds in order to achieve greater effect against ISIS. Add to that the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey created by the Syrian Civil War and one can begin to understand Turkish discontent about what is happening south of their border with Syria.
Third, the United States and Turkey must find a way to remove mutual suspicions that frustrate serious discussions and hinder efforts to resolve conflicts. On the U.S side, there are several: “Turkey may leave NATO;” “Turkey has a hidden Islamic foreign policy;” “Turkey is in Putin’s pocket;” “The United States has a long-term plan to establish a Kurdish state on Turkey’s border;” “the United States was behind the Gulenist-led attempted coup and still has a plan to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan;” and “The United States can remotely inactivate Patriot Missiles in order to prevent them from shooting down Turkish Air Force F16s in a future coup attempt.” A strong, consistent diplomatic effort as well as other candid conversations by both sides will be required to remove these suspicions if we are to build a viable “Turkey-USA 2.0” for the future.
This is not a defense of Turkey, a NATO member, purchasing Russia’s S-400 missile system or its other actions which frustrate the Congress, the Department of Defense, and other NATO Allies. Turkey can be a difficult Ally. And the current situation with the S-400 defies logic. Nothing good for Turkey will come of it.
It is also interesting to note that, as we consider sanctions required under CAATSA, as one Turkish academic told me, the “purchase of the S-400 was an Erdoğan purchase, not an institutional purchase.” In other words, the Ministry of Defense did not carry out this purchase; it was done by another agency which reports directly to the President. This suggests that there are elements within the Turkish government that would welcome better relations with the United States.
NATO is much stronger with Turkey as a member than without it because of its geographic location, its strong and professional military forces, and its influence in the greater Black Sea region. They have also been a staunch Ally for the last 67 years, despite our inattention and the perceived lack of welcome and respect in Europe.
Turkey is an essential NATO Ally in this era of Great Power Competition. To keep our Alliance strong and cohesive, and to effectively deter Russian aggression in the greater Black Sea region, we must think long-term about our relationship with Turkey and ensure that we protect it. We need a “Turkey-USA 2.0” that holds Ankara accountable for the decisions it makes but also demonstrates understanding and respect for Turkey’s positions without compromising our own values and interests.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.