U.S. Alliance with Turkey is Worth Preserving
Michael Singh and James F. Jeffrey
Washington Institute for Near East Policy
the United States didn't already face enough troubles in Syria, Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently threatened American troops with an
slap" if they interfered with Turkey's military incursion into
northwestern Syria. The threat, coming two days before a visit to Turkey by
then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, underscored just how contentious
relations between Ankara and Washington have become, and how close this historic
alliance is to crumbling altogether—to the detriment of both states.
list of issues dividing the United States and Turkey is a long one. U.S. and
other Western officials look with alarm on Erdogan's Putinesque consolidation of
power and disregard for human rights, and have protested the arrest of U.S.
citizens and Turks employed by American diplomatic missions. Turkish officials,
for their part, accuse the United States of instigating a July 2016 coup attempt
against Erdogan and harboring the man most Turks believe was its mastermind: the
spiritual leader, erstwhile Erdogan ally, and Pennsylvania resident Fethullah
more sharply dividing Washington and Ankara are the divergent paths they have
trod in Syria for the better part of a decade. Erdogan was furious at the Obama
administration for what Turks perceived as U.S. indifference to the threat the
Syrian conflict posed to their country. When the United States finally did
intercede, only to make allies of the Turks' mortal enemies—the People's
Protection Units (YPG) militia, a Syrian offshoot of the terrorist Kurdistan
Workers' Party (PKK)—Ankara's anger mounted. For their part, U.S. officials
were troubled by Ankara co-opting jihadis as allies in the Syrian fight, and
more recently by its cooperation with Russia, which has extended to the purchase
of a Russian air defense system that complicates Turkey's NATO commitments.
temptation is strong in Washington to simply jettison the foundering alliance
with Turkey—as was recently done with Pakistan—and even to impose sanctions
on Ankara for its actions. And the feeling in Turkey, where 67 percent of the
population harbors an unfavorable
view of Americans, is surely mutual.
cutting Turkey loose would constitute a self-inflicted wound. Turkey is not just
President Erdogan but a regional geographic and economic giant that stands as a
buffer between Europe and the Middle East, and between the Middle East and
Russia. Losing Turkey as a Western ally would mean bringing the Mideast to
Europe's threshold, and the potential frontier of Russian influence into the
heart of the Middle East. Turkey is also the state best positioned to balance
against Iran, whose ambitions and influence are growing along with its
partnership with Russia. The dependency is mutual; without the United States,
Turkey would be left to Tehran and Moscow's tender mercies.
the Turkish-American alliance and the strategic value both sides derive from it
will require refocusing on shared strategic threats, such as the growing
Russia-Iran alliance, while compromising on the disagreements distracting from
that focus. While there is little the United States can do to assuage Erdogan's
more paranoid concerns, greater flexibility is possible when it comes to the
to reaching a compromise are commitments made during Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson's recent visit to Ankara. According to Turkish officials, the United
States has reportedly agreed to decrease the Kurdish militia presence west of
the Euphrates River around the strategic town of Manbij, which Turks fear is
aimed at creating a contiguous zone of Kurdish control along Turkey's southern
border with Syria. Turkey, in turn, could tolerate a continued American and YPG
presence in the Kurdish areas of northern Syria east of the Euphrates as the
only way to keep the U.S. in Syria.
in the United States see any accommodation of Turkish concerns regarding the
Syrian Kurds as a betrayal of a partner that proved doughty in the fight against
the Islamic State. Yet the proposed arrangement holds advantages for all parties
involved. For all its bluster, Turkey would be far worse off without the United
States as an ally; what's more, U.S. influence is the best chance of convincing
Syrian Kurds to break with the PKK and forge their own path, as Iraqi Kurds did.
for the Kurds, the United States would not abandon them in their homeland east
of the Euphrates, but simply turn Manbij over to local officials under U.S. and
Turkish security guarantees. Kurdish aspirations may be grander, but the United
States is not obligated to entertain its allies' every ambition here or
elsewhere, especially when those aims threaten another ally or the stability of
the United States, it would make little strategic sense to alienate Turkey over
the Kurdish issue. Turkey is the world's 17th largest economy and one of the
Middle East's primary military powers. In Syria itself, the approximately 2,000
U.S. troops now in the country's northeast cannot be reliably supplied without
air and land access through Turkey, given Iraq's susceptibility to Iranian
influence. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the United States accomplishing
much of anything in Syria militarily or diplomatically in the face of determined
Iranian and Russian resistance if we cannot even manage to find common ground
there with our putative ally.
broadly, a U.S. effort to counter Iran in the Middle East, and to prevail in
what the Trump administration has described as a global strategic competition
with Russia and China, will require allies. Whatever its tactical flirtations,
Turkey remains opposed to Iranian expansionism and wary of Russia for reasons of history and
geography. For China, Turkey is an attractive candidate for westward Belt and
Road Initiative expansion toward Europe, yet Ankara and Beijing have their own
thorny differences. If the United States and Turkey part ways, Tehran, Moscow,
and Beijing will not be the culprits but will certainly be the beneficiaries.
Turkey is a difficult ally. But if the United States were to walk away from all of our difficult allies in the Middle East, we would have none at all. Given Erdogan's mercurial nature and the years of accumulated tensions in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, finding common ground with Ankara on Syria and other issues won't be easy. But in a world of strategic competition with increasingly rapacious powers, it is imperative.