President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his party members, in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his party members, in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool

How Washington Should Handle Turkey's Summer of Flex

Turkey looks less like a treaty ally and more like a competitor.

In these polarized times, it is rare when senior U.S. lawmakers across the ideological spectrum unanimously agree on something. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to do the seemingly impossible.

The chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House Foreign Affairs Committees have used their congressional prerogative to successfully impede U.S. arms sales to Turkey. The nearly two-year blockage is a bipartisan reaction to a list of policy disagreements between Washington and Ankara that have roiled the bilateral relationship, according to Defense News. At the top of the list is Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense missile system, a decision that forced the Trump administration to kick Turkey, a NATO ally, out of the consortium of countries that fly the F-35.

It would be expedient to lay all of the blame on Erdogan or President Donald Trump for the deterioration of the U.S.-Turkey relationship. But focusing on a particular leader's style is only a part of the story. Turkey’s increasingly bold behavior is a reminder of an inconvenient principle U.S. officials frequently sweep under the rug: just because a state is a formal treaty ally doesn’t mean it will elevate alliance tranquility above its own national interest. 

From Washington’s standpoint, Turkey under Erdogan looks less like a treaty ally and more like a competitor seeking to enhance its own power. The Turkish military’s 2019 campaign against Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria angered Washington lawmakers and security leaders, and led French President Emmanuel Macron to hypothesize about the "brain death" of the transatlantic alliance. Turkey’s intervention in Libya on behalf of the U.N.-recognized government, which included the transport of thousands of Syrian militants to the Libyan battlefield, has changed the course of the 9-year civil war and further paralyzed an already farcical diplomatic process. In June, Turkey stared down a French brigade in the Mediterranean hoping to disrupt its course to Libya.

This month, on the other side of the Mediterranean, Ankara launched naval exercises off two Greek islands in a not-so-subtle assertion of its claim to the energy-rich waters. That prompted France and Greece in return to sen warships between Cyprus and Crete to assure freedom of navigation. And this week, the U.S. Navy parked its newest floating sea base, the USS Hershel “Woody” William, off Crete.

The Turks are doing all of this at the same time they continue to milk the benefits of NATO membership. If there is a lesson here, it is that participation in a formal security alliance is unlikely to restrain a state from pursuing policies it deems vital to the pursuit of its own power. 

What can Washington possibly do to change Turkey’s behavior? 

As one might expect, most of the policy options being bandied about rely on punitive measures such as tighter pressure on the Turkish economy. Lawmakers have introduced bills that would sanction the Turkish government for a variety of transgressions, from its violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions pertaining to Libya to Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 system. The European Union is going down the same route; on August 14, EU foreign ministers reminded Erdogan that failing to deescalate tensions with Greece could force the organization to reassess its entire relationship with Turkey.

If the West anticipates Erdogan to change, it better prepare itself for disappointment. As frustrating as this will be, the United States needs to play the long game with Turkey. Washington leaders must recognize that there are just some issues within the broader U.S.-Turkey relationship that are irreconcilable over the short to medium term. Ankara’s policy toward Syrian Kurdish forces is one. Turkish military engagement in the Libyan civil war is another; Erdogan is too invested in the outcome to arbitrarily sever its lifeline to Tripoli and become the peacemaker.

The United States, however, isn’t a helpless bystander.

First, the U.S. national security bureaucracy should send a stern signal to Erdogan that Turkey needs the U.S. a whole lot more than the U.S. needs Turkey. Last year, during an especially rough period in U.S.-Turkey relations, lawmakers pressed the administration to conduct a study of alternative basing arrangements in the event of a complete rupture in the relationship. The Pentagon should proceed with this review immediately and dust-off contingency plans on securing and removing U.S. nuclear weapons from Turkish soil — a deployment some nuclear scholars have categorized as increasingly risky and duplicative to NATO’s already strong nuclear deterrent.

For conventional needs, Incirlik Air Base is hardly the only game in town. The al-Muwaffaq air base in Jordan, situated close to Syria and Iraq, is just as useful. The Jordanian government has been a worthy partner in the campaign against ISIS and could very well jump at the opportunity to enhance its own security ties with the U.S. to the detriment of the Turks.

Washington also possesses the unique capacity to leverage U.S. military assets off-shore in the event a direct national security threat to the U.S., whether it includes an (unlikely) Iranian attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz or a large-scale attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility. 

The Middle East is far less geopolitically important to the U.S. than it was during the Cold War. With limited national security objectives in the region (defending the U.S. from anti-U.S. terrorists and preventing disruptions to the global oil supply), the U.S. can afford to downsize its presence and limit its investment.

Second, Congress should extend its hold on the sale of offensive military equipment to Erdogan. And lawmakers should frame the hold as part of a larger, overdue effort at reforming Washington’s counterproductive arms sales policy in the Middle East. Those weapons inevitably connect the United States into tertiary conflicts and give governments who buy them a brazen sense of arrogance that Washington will continue offering support no matter how destabilizing its actions turn out to be.

What could Erdogan really do, in response? Turkey could retaliate by redoubling its purchase of Russian defense articles or perhaps seeking closer relations with Beijing. But even these moves would be temporary. As a proud nationalist, Erdogan exhibits no desire to turn his country into a security dependent of the Russians or Chinese. Nor is it likely the Turkish population would stomach such a gamble. Erdogan could threaten to expel the United States military, but that’s an unpopular move among Turkey’s military leadership, and previous threats to do so have come up short.

Whether U.S.-Turkey relations improve will depend less on who is in charge of each country than on whether the national interests of both coalesce more than they diverge. Regardless of how the relationship develops, the U.S. should be clear-eyed about its interests and confident of its power – and so should NATO.  

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner. 

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