How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ankara?
The question is not: “Can we live with a rogue Turkey?” but: “Do we have a choice?” said one U.S. official.
Turkey has long felt underappreciated and disrespected in NATO.
Although the country almost always contributes manpower to NATO missions — in Afghanistan and elsewhere — its most important resource, as far as the West is concerned, is not economic or military might but its strategic location.
“We look at Turkey as the cork in the bottle of the Black Sea. They don’t think of themselves like that at all,” said Ben Hodges, a former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe. “I can remember years ago the Turks saying, ‘You guys don’t appreciate us. You don’t respect us. You only come to us when you need something.’”
As President Donald Trump heads to London this week for a NATO summit, the relationship between Turkey and its Western allies is in a particularly rocky moment. Washington and Ankara remain in a standoff over the latter’s purchase of a Russian air-defense system that could compromise the stealthy F-35 flown by several NATO partners. In October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent forces into Syria to attack Kurds whom the United States considers partners in the fight against ISIS. That has incensed Congress and touched off a spat with France.
Related: The US Might Have Warded Off Turkey’s Syria Invasion, Says DOD’s Outgoing Mideast Policy Chief
How the West should navigate the moment is dividing policymakers in Washington, and raising the question: Could a rocky moment become a permanent break?
“Turkey does what’s good for Turkey, period. Full stop,” said a U.S. official with subject matter expertise. For the United States, that official said, the question might become not only “Can we live with a rogue Turkey?” but “Do we have a choice?”
The debate in Washington
On the Hill, frustration is rising. Lawmakers recently voted to recognize the Armenian genocide, a long-discussed move long opposed by Turkey. They are pushing to sanction Ankara over its Syrian incursion. A handful of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have even suggested that Turkey could be suspended or kicked out of NATO.
“I think that we shouldn’t underestimate in this town, in Washington, how people’s long-term perceptions of a country affects their policymaking,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former senior defense official in the Obama administration. “The Armenian genocide resolution has been a topic of conversation on Capitol Hill for thirty years. And it passed this year.”
But inside the executive branch, officials are keenly aware of the cost of a deeper split with Turkey, according to a half-dozen U.S. officials who spoke anonymously to Defense One about sensitive U.S.-Turkey relations that they were not authorized to discuss publicly. The stakes include access to several key U.S. and NATO sites. Incirlik Air Base hosts American B-61 nuclear gravity bombs, and is a friendly jumping-off point into the Middle East. Turkey also controls the Bosporus, which under a 1936 agreement means it controls naval access to and from the Black Sea.
For many Turkey hands in the U.S. government, what’s new is not the friction in the U.S.-Turkish relationship but Turkey’s increasingly autocratic president. Erdogan has effectively ruled Turkey since becoming prime minister in 2003, assuming the presidency in 2014 and centralizing his power through a series of reforms. A “master politician and a master strategist,” said the U.S. official, “This is a man who should never, ever be underestimated.”
Under Erdogan, Turkey has exploited the power it derives from its critical geography better than it has under any other leader in recent memory, the official with subject matter expertise said. Erdogan’s recent Oval Office visit — which came after his incursion into Syria — and his ability to withstand pressure on the Russian anti-aircraft S-400 system is “next-level stuff,” that official said.
Turkey also enjoys new leverage because Donald Trump has taken a personal liking to Erdogan, inviting him to the White House over the howls of U.S. lawmakers. (Trump also faced fierce bipartisan fire for pulling American forces out of the way of the Turkish incursion, which critics say “green-lighted” attacks on a U.S. partner.)
“There is great frustration at Erdogan personally” within government, said another senior government official in an email. “President likes him, but rest of government sees him as a wild card, acting in highly risky ways.”
“Everyone I know beneath POTUS believes Turkey’s actions in Syria has fundamentally changed the relationship,” said a second senior administration official.
What is Turkey’s plan?
Some analysts and lawmakers have argued that Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 shows it is moving away from the U.S. and the rest of NATO, and towards Russia — or, relatedly, that Russia is using existing fissures in the relationship to try to cleave Turkey away from NATO.
“Biggest problem right now in the relationship is F-35/S-400,” the first senior government official said. “Neither side willing to back down despite high level efforts for compromise.”
But some Turkey specialists within government see that assessment as reductive. The U.S. official with Turkey expertise argued that Ankara has “always” made tactical and strategic decisions based on what it considered its best interests. In this case, several officials said, Erdogan’s belief that the U.S. had a role in an unsuccessful 2016 coup attempt may have made him more leery of an American-made anti-aircraft system.
As for the Syria incursion, several outside analysts as well as the U.S. Turkey specialist suggested that policymakers underestimated the degree to which Erdogan considered the U.S.-backed Kurds on his southern border an existential threat. “It’s an area where Turkey is willing to accept the most risk,” the official said. Russia tacitly supported the move and helped to broker a broader ceasefire deal that solidified Turkish gains into northeastern Syria.
Some analysts pin Turkey’s tactical friendliness with Russia on uncertainty in Washington. Trump has at times publicly questioned core principles of NATO and demanded that other countries pay more towards their own defense.
“I think that Turkey is doing what a lot of countries are doing right now, which is hedging their bets: diversifying their relationships, their policy, because they’re not sure about the future relationship with the U.S.,” said Slotkin, who just returned from a trip to Turkey intended both to press Ankara on the S-400 and to “reassure” it of U.S. support.
Broadly, analysts say, Erdogan is seeking to broaden Turkey’s international clout as an independent power, and he is willing to pique NATO to do so.
Russia is likely equally frustrated with Turkey for different reasons, the U.S. official argued — but it is only in the United States that partners and allies are expected to show unconditional loyalty to the United States.
“They don’t see it as a zero-sum game and, as the United States, we should be seeing that way,” Slotkin said of the S-400. (Turkey has said that it still would like to purchase the American-made F-35 fighter jets, of which the U.S. official said: “I wouldn’t write that off yet.”)
For now, as officials head to London this week, the Trump administration is working to bring Turkey back “in sync” with NATO.
“[T]he Alliance is stronger with Turkey — fully in sync with Turkey, than out of sync with Turkey,” a senior administration official previewing the trip told reporters over the weekend. “That underpins the President's diplomacy with the Turks, and it underpins all of our desire at the very top level.”
The U.S. delegation will also have to contend with an increasingly heated feud between France and Turkey. French President Emmanuel Macron has criticized the Turkish attack on the Syrian Kurds, and recently lamented the “brain death” of NATO. Erdogan fired back that Macron “should get checked whether you’re brain dead.”
“Kicking Turkey out of NATO or not, how is that up to you? Do you have the authority to make such a decision?” Erdogan said.
Trump is scheduled to meet one-on-one with Macron, but the senior administration official declined to discuss Paris’s spat with Turkey. Right now, he is not expected to meet with Erdogan.
So far, U.S. military assets in Turkey appear to be stable. The Trump administration reportedly reduced its military presence at Incirlik last year, as it weighed broader reductions in Turkey, and amid the Syrian incursion, State and Energy Department officials quietly reviewed plans for removing American nukes from the base, the New York Times reported.
But Slotkin said diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey were “reassuring” to the congressional delegation about the tactical weapons housed in Incirlik.
But what about Congress?
The U.S.-Turkey relationship has fractured before. Then, as now, the executive branch sought to preserve the relationship while the Congress was willing to risk it in order to penalize Ankara.
The year was 1974 and Turkey had invaded Cyprus. The White House and Congress were locked in a duel over whether to impose an arms embargo on Turkey for an invasion of a fragile but strategically important country.
The embargo, the White House argued, would “imperil our relationships with our Turkish ally” and would damage U.S. efforts to resolve the underlying dispute. But on Capitol Hill, an outraged Congress under pressure at home insisted that Turkey’s actions must not go unpunished.
Congress eventually won the battle — thanks to intense lobbying from Greek Americans — and arms restrictions were placed on Turkey from 1975 to 1978. Turkey, in retaliation, closed most U.S. defense and intelligence facilities within Turkey during the embargo. When Congress finally voted to lift the restrictions in a controversial, nail-bitingly close vote, President Jimmy Carter called it “the most important foreign policy issue facing Congress.”
In 2019, despite the ongoing scratchiness between the two nations, the senior government official said, “As [a] 'too big to lose,' major international player, any strategy for Eurasia needs Turkey.”
But as in 1974, the question, according to several officials, will be how much pressure Congress will bring to bear on the relationship.
Slotkin said she has heard no “credible” conversations on Capitol Hill about kicking Turkey out of NATO, something she called a “horrible idea” and one for which there is no established mechanism. But as the overwhelming House vote to recognize the Armenian genocide shows, there is serious appetite on Capitol Hill to treat Turkey less like a traditional NATO ally and more like a challenger.
“That, to me, is what we’re talking about,” she said. “A greater willingness to do additional difficult conversations and consequences in a way that we really didn’t think was possible.”