President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Devlet Bahçeli visit the earthquake zone for the first time on February 20, 2023, in Hatay, Türkiye.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Devlet Bahçeli visit the earthquake zone for the first time on February 20, 2023, in Hatay, Türkiye. Ugur Yildirim / dia images via Getty Images

No US-Turkey Rapprochement Is Possible Under Erdogan

The Turkish president has morphed into an opponent of democratic governance.

Turkey’s Ambassador Murat Mercan recently argued in Defense One that “transitioning transatlantic security priorities to an era of great power competition inevitably will necessitate exploring venues of gradual rapprochement between Turkey and the United States.” This could not be further from the truth. 

After 21 years in power, while a rapprochement between the United States and Turkey may be possible, it cannot happen until President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leaves office. Put simply, Erdogan shares none of the values that define and undergird the transatlantic alliance that Turkey was an integral and trusted member of.  

For one thing, Turkey has never seen a leader and a government that is so anti-western and anti-American to their very core. Erdogan blames the United States for the 2016 aborted coup that almost deposed him, even though he knows this to be untrue. Members of his cabinet, like interior minister Suleyman Soylu are routinely and unacceptably disparage the United States before the Turkish public. Last month, Soylu accused the United States of masterminding November’s bombing attack in Istanbul and told Washington “to take your dirty hands off Turkey.” Following the devastating earthquakes that struck Turkey in early February, Soylu rejected some of the help offered to Ankara by the U.S. military. Turkey denied a U.S. aircraft carrier permission to dock in the port of Iskenderun, where it sought provide clean drinking water and other aid to Turkish citizens, citing a conspiracy theory that the aircraft carrier was part of an invasion force. 

While Erdogan and his ministers may personally be entitled to their anti-American and anti-Western worldview, they have relied on such persuasions to steer Turkey decisively away from its Western anchor. In early 2019, Turkey took delivery of a Russian-manufactured S-400 missile defense system, directly threatening NATO’s interoperability and cohesivity. Ankara was warned repeatedly to not acquire this system and to instead purchase its American or European equivalent. Erdogan’s refusal to heed warnings led the United States to prevent Turkey from acquiring fifth-generation F-35 fighters, and to levy sanctions on its ally. Erdogan has since had numerous opportunities to divest itself of the S400s, particularly since the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict, where Ankara could have “donated” the missiles to the Ukrainian forces that it purports to support. In every forum this issue has been raised, both Erdogan and Ambassador Mercan have referred to the S-400 issue as a “done deal”, not fully realizing the damage and insult this continues to cause Turkish-American ties. They still have the opportunity to divest themselves of this system. The fact that they do not speaks volumes about how they regard their relationship with the U.S. and NATO. 

At the geostrategic level, Erdogan spews vitriol about Washington’s partnership with the Syrian Kurds, who continue to fight the remnants of the Islamic State, or ISIS, in northern Syria. Unconvincingly branding them as “terrorists,” Erdogan threatens regional stability by repeatedly bombing Kurdish targets and endangering the lives of U.S. service personnel who provide assistance to a fighting force seeking to eliminate a major terrorist threat to the region. 

Finally, Erdogan has used Turkey’s position as a NATO member to undermine the alliance’s interests. Despite initially signaling that it was in favor of Finland and Sweden’s membership in 2022, Erdogan has thrown every roadblock under the sun to delay NATO enlargement, demanding unreasonable “security”-related concessions from two countries which are ideal candidates to further constrain aggressive Russian actions. On Friday, Ankara removed its opposition to Finland’s application but continues to block Sweden’s.

Yet the greatest barrier to rekindling substantive Turkish-American ties is Erdogan himself. Although President Obama once credited Erdogan for having built a “model country,” the Turkish leader has since the late 2010s slowly morphed into a transnational threat that is an insult to democratic governance worldwide. He is a forerunner among a small number of world leaders that despise substantive democratic governance. The type of rapprochement that Ambassador Mercan desires is a space for allies that share the same values of democratic governance that the United States seeks to uphold and which Erdogan tramples upon inside his own borders. Since the 2016 coup, Erdogan has eroded the fundamentals of rule of law, common decency, and democratic governance inside Turkey. 

The ties that bind the United States to UK, Australia, France, and countless other countries are not based on a limited number of transactional security interests, but on upholding democratic norms and values. Erdogan wants all the benefits of being a strategic partner of the United States while consolidating an autocratic regime. This is both unrealistic and unacceptable. 

If Turkish voters elect Kemal Kilicdaroglu to succeed Erdogan as president in May, Turkey will have a genuine opportunity to rebuild a substantive relationship, not only with the United States, but with all of its Western partners. On the other, should Erdogan be re-elected, he will seek to implement a reset of ties with the West. The United States should not settle for a bad ally.

Sinan Ciddi is a Non-resident Senior Fellow on Turkey at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an Associate Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. The opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Marine Corps or the U.S. government.