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Are U.S.-Turkey Relations Fraying?

Between Turkey's decision to buy a Chinese missile defense system, and divergence on policy towards Syria, ties between Ankara and Washington are quickly chilling. By Bernard Gwertzman

The U.S. refusal to strike militarily against Syrian government forces has exacerbated already strained relations between the United States and Turkey, says CFR's Steven Cook. He cites Prime Minister Erdoğan's reluctance to patch up ties with Israel and his crackdown on protestors earlier this year in Istanbul and Ankara as contributing factors to the cooling ties between the two countries in recent months. And despite President Barack Obama's efforts to improve U.S. standing with Turkey since taking office in 2009, Cook says "there have been significant tests of the relationship," which he does not see abating in coming months.

Recently, many have started to question the alliance between Turkey and the United States. Is Turkey lost as an ally of the United States?

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Turkey is lost as an ally of the United States but there have been some rather troubling developments recently that have led people to question whether Turkey is still an ally of the United States. Among the recent events has been the Turkish decision to buy a Chinese missile system that's not compatible with NATO, and the recent revelations by David Ignatius of the Washington Post that Turkey blew a ring of Israeli spies in Iran, of course, has everything to do with Turkey-Israel relations, if it's proven true. But it's also a setback for the American and Western effort to prevent Iran from developing nuclear technology. If Ignatius' revelation proves to be accurate, it would seem the Turks were putting their pique at the Israelis above a broader Western effort aimed at the Iranians. This is, I think, extremely, extremely troubling.

How would you assess the state of U.S.-Turkey relations in recent years?

President Obama came to office determined to build and develop the relationship with Turkey, which had been badly frayed during the Bush years over the U.S invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Obama administration put a lot of energy into developing those relations, but there were some significant difficulties, even early on. In the spring of 2010 you had Turkey negotiating a nuclear deal with the Iranians and Brazilians that the United States claimed not to have authorized. It was a "No" vote in the UN Security Council on additional sanctions on Iran; there were the difficulties between Turkey and Israel, which complicated relations between the United States and Israel and the United States and Turkey. All kinds of things along those lines. But then the situation seemed to have gotten better from 2010 to 2012. In fact, that was what some Turkish officials regard as a golden age in U.S.-Turkey relations.

My sense is that things have cooled a bit as a result of the protests that happened over this past summer over Gezi Park in Istanbul and the way in which the Turks handled it. There was also the divergence between the United States and Turkey on Syria. The Turks very much have wanted the United States to intervene, albeit not from their own territory, to help bring down the Assad regime. And the United States has been obviously reluctant to do that. So there have been a significant number of differences between the two countries. Despite very good diplomatic relations and good relations between the prime minister and the president, there have been significant tests of the relationship.

Now does Erdoğan want to run for president in next August's elections?

Well this has been one of the big issues in Turkish politics. What will Erdoğan do now that, by dint of his party's bylaws, he can no longer be the prime minister? And he has wanted and continues to want to be the president of Turkey. The presidential powers as they're currently written are not exactly ceremonial. There are some very important functions of the Turkish president, but the Turkish presidency is an apolitical position, one that's above politics. It would not allow Erdoğan to play the role that he's been playing over the course of the a little more than a decade. The idea has been that a new constitution would be written, empowering the presidency. That is what Erdoğan has wanted.

But as a result of the Gezi Park protests and the harsh crackdown, many analysts believe that the idea of an executive presidency is no longer an option. As a result, they believe that he will either accept some sort of compromise where he will become the president and continue to lead the Justice and Development Party, or some people expect he will try to change the bylaws of the Justice and Development Party, allowing him to serve yet another term as prime minister. Or, that he's continuing to try changing the constitution in such a way that will change the nature of the powers of the presidency that will allow him to play a day-to-day role, very much like he's been doing right now. All of these options remain open; people speculate what the chances are. My sense is I would never count Tayyip Erdoğan out. He's an absolutely phenomenal politician, who really does understand the mood of Turks and knows how to motivate his constituency. I think any of those options remain open to him.

What do you foresee for President Gül?

There has been a boomlet of speculation about Gül's future since the Gezi Park protests. Some people claim that Gül has a different approach than Erdoğan on a variety of very important issues, whether it's the European Union, press freedom, or his approach to the United States or other Turkish allies. Some people are tired of Erdoğan and would prefer Gül's style. But it's very unclear how wide and deep that sentiment is.

When I was in Turkey in June at the height of these protests, Prime Minister Erdoğan was able to turn out two hundred and fifty thousand people in Ankara in two consecutive days to express their support for him and then, two days later, bring out about three hundred thousand people in Istanbul. Those are very, very significant numbers and certainly dwarf the numbers who are out in Gezi Park and Taksim Square in Istanbul and other places.

In other words, while Gül is seen as popular, he doesn't inspire the same level of support as Erdoğan.

Well, Gül is popular, the question is how popular, and whether he wants to engage in a political battle with Erdoğan, who was his ally in helping to set up the Justice and Development Party. They were two young reformists within the Turkish Islamist movement who broke away from the old ranks to establish the Justice and Development Party. There is, I think, a concern that if Gül were to take Erdoğan on directly it would split the party.

There was a story in the New York Times last week about how Erdoğan was unhappy with the number of jihadists who are entering Syria from Turkey. Just how serious are these border issues?

Well, in a way, the Turks have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar on this one. What they have done, while denying it from the very beginning, is they have turned a blind eye to jihadists using Turkish territory to enter the fight in Syria, and coming back across the border either for medical attention or [a respite from the fighting]. This has been something that has been going on for quite some time. People started referring to the Turkish airline flights from Istanbul to Gaziantep, a city close to the Syrian border, as the "jihadi flight." And the Turkish government, as I said, denied that this was happening. But there was a sense that they were clearly turning a blind eye to these people who were using Turkish territory to get to Syria.

The problem is that there was a growing sense that this [permissiveness] was going to come back to haunt them. There was a horrific bombing in the Turkish town of Reyhanli last spring that killed more than fifty people. Nobody's quite sure whether it was the work of some sort of extremist group, or whether it was the work of Syrian intelligence, but the idea that these jihadists were using Turkish territory had the potential to invite retaliation on the part of the Syrians. Yesterday, it seems that the Turkish military took some action against one of these extremist groups. So now they've gone from essentially turning a blind eye to recognizing that this is a significant problem for them that warrants military action.

So the United States, after threatening military action in Syria, has gone along with the Russians to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up his chemical weapons and is trying to get a Geneva conference to get a political accord. Whether that'll happen or not, nobody knows. Do the Turks support this political agreement in Geneva?

This is not their preferred route. Their policy on Syria evolved from encouraging Assad to undertake reforms to now advocating an end to the Syrian regime. They are in a very difficult position. They are concerned that the diplomatic process that apparently began the end of Assad's arsenal of chemical weapons has essentially allowed Assad to continue to prosecute the civil war without concern for international [or] American intervention. And the Turks will continue to confront this problem of a very unstable country with refugee flows and massacres right across their border, which is having an effect on their own security, their own economy.

What would the Turks like?

The Turks would like to see something beyond this kind of narrow agreement on chemical weapons. They don't believe there's going to be much in the way of a diplomatic or political solution and that's why they've been so strong in advocating the end of the Assad regime. Now the United States publicly takes that position as well, but the two countries very much differ. The United States has set a limit on its involvement in Syria, whereas the Turks would like the United States to become more involved in helping to bring down the Assad regime.

In other words, the Turks are like the Saudis: they both would like to get rid of Assad and would like the United States to help.

Yes. And the Turks' default position will likely be supporting factions within the opposition that are friendly to them, providing refugee relief—which they deserve a lot of credit for, they've done a very good job of that—and continuing to advocate for an international intervention to bring the conflict to an end. But, you know, as we saw from the debate here in late August/early September, there's not a lot of enthusiasm about the United States getting directly involved in Syria. So there is no agreement at all with Turkey on this major issue.

 Bernard Gwertzman is a consulting editor at the Council on Foreign Relations

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