August 22, 2016
On April 6, 2009 President Obama addressed the Turkish Parliament (1). His remarks were full of praise for Turkey. He said: “… This is my first trip overseas as President of the United States. I’ve been to the G20 summit in London, and the NATO summit in Strasbourg, and the European Union summit in Prague. Some people have asked me if I chose to continue my travels to Ankara and Istanbul to send a message to the world. And my answer is simple: Evet — yes. Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together — and work together — to overcome the challenges of our time…”
On May 16, 2013 PM Erdogan was in Washington. Following their talks at the White House, the President and the PM held a joint press conference. Again, the President heaped praise on Turkey and the Prime Minister (2). He said: “It is a great pleasure to welcome my friend, Prime Minister Erdogan, back to the White House… “This visit reflects the importance that the United States places on our relationship with our ally, Turkey, and I value so much the partnership that I’ve been able to develop with Prime Minister Erdogan…”
PM Erdogan addressed President Obama as “my dear friend” and called the US “a friend and ally”. He said: “Turkey and the United States have many issues that cover the Middle East to the Balkans to Central Asia to other areas, including issues such as energy, security supply, and many other issues. And in all these areas and on all these issues we display a very strong cooperation…”
Looking at the foregoing one could not but think that Turkish-US relations were solid. However, this appearance did not last. Ten days after PM Erdogan’s visit the Gezi Park protests started and Government’s reaction led to a lot of criticism by the West, including Washington, regarding disproportionate use of force by the security forces, freedom of assembly and expression. The Government linked the protests to outside meddling. In early July 2013 General el-Sisi staged a coup in Egypt. While the Obama administration remained reserved, the Justice and Development Party (JDP) Government became el-Sisi’s harshest critic. On August 21, Syrian opposition claimed that a large-scale chemical weapons attack occurred at the suburbs of the Ghouta region, where Syrian forces had been attempting to expel rebel forces. Ten days later, President Obama announced that he would seek authorization from Congress before using American military forces to intervene in the Syrian civil war. On September 14, Russia and the US announced their agreement on the “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons”. These were huge disappointments for the JDP Government which was hoping that President Obama would enforce his redline by taking military action against the Assad regime. Thus, although both Turkey and the US opposed Assad, their paths towards a “settlement” started to diverge. News of Turkey buying a Chinese missile system sparked another controversy.
On November 18, 2013 Foreign Minister Davutoglu visited Washington. The joint press conference he held with Secretary Kerry reflected a somewhat different mood than PM Erdogan’s. Mr. Kerry, while calling the relationship vital on so many different levels also underlined the importance of good governance, democratic accountability, due process, freedoms of press, expression, and assembly. He said that rising extremism in the Middle East was threatening not only Syria’s future but also its neighbors, and obviously Turkey. (As Saturday’s terrorist attack at a wedding party in Gaziantep has shown yet again, he was right. Gaziantep is very close to the Syrian border and less than 100 kilometers to Aleppo.) Mr. Davutoglu was on another wavelength. When a journalist asked him if he felt that the US Government was sending mixed signals to Ankara or left Turkey abandoned he said: “I think there is no need of sending any signals, even not-mixed or – mixed or not-mixed. There is – in our relations, we have always had channels of communication, not signals. We don’t need signals. And we still remember how President Obama welcomed our Prime Minister in May in an extraordinary way of hospitality, and both – Prime Minister Erdogan everywhere, he praises President Obama’s leadership, and President Obama always praise our Prime Minister and our President’s contributions to global peace. And between us, we met I don’t know how many times in less than a year, and how many telephone calls? Once I remember there – we spoke three times by phone, and my wife rebelled. She said, “Maybe I should call you as well to consult some family issues by phone. It is easier to reach you by phone other than seeing each other.”
The rosy picture he drew lasted only a month.
On December 17, 2013 a criminal investigation was launched against several key people in the Turkish Government on corruption charges. The Government vehemently denied these charges and launched a counter-offensive against the “parallel state”, in other words, the Gulenist movement. It attributed the episode to external powers and this led to further complications in relations with Washington. In brief, within seven months following PM Erdogan’s visit to Washington the relationship had undergone substantial change. And unfortunately, the trend continued.
Principal factors upsetting the relationship were Washington’s perception that Ankara had departed from the democratic path, Ankara’s perception that Washington was meddling in Turkey’s internal affairs and growing differences over Syria despite appearing to be on the same side. The participation of YPG, which Turkey considers an affiliate of PKK, in the effort to dislodge ISIL from northern Syria soured relations further.
During his remarks to the press with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on July 15, 2016 in Moscow, Secretary Kerry said: “… So if some critic is criticizing the United States or Russia for going after al-Nusrah, which is a terrorist organization, because they’re good fighters against Assad, they have their priorities completely screwed up… “… And when we first came to the table in Vienna and I proposed a ceasefire, put it on the table, it was not Russia or Iran that said no. Both of them said yes, we should have a ceasefire. But there were others at the table who opposed proceeding forward with a ceasefire, and some of them, unfortunately, I think, may regret that today. But the point is simply that we have consistently been working towards the full implementation of a ceasefire.”
This was the first time, Mr. Kerry openly expressed Washington’s frustration with its regional allies, among them Turkey and Saudi Arabia, without calling names. Who else would have opposed the ceasefire in Syria and criticize Moscow and Washington for going after al-Nusrah because they’re good fighters against Assad. (Finally last week, PM Yıldırım and Deputy PM Numan Kurtulmus made statements marking a shift in Turkey’s Syria policy.)
Thus, Turkey-US relationship continued its downturn. Turkey continued to take jabs at the US whereas Washington avoided rhetoric at political level; repeatedly stated that Turkey remains a valuable friend, a NATO ally, an important partner in the fight against Daesh, and from time to time urged Turkey to respect freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, due process and judicial independence. This increasingly uneasy relationship took a major blow with the horrific coup attempt of July 15, 2016.
Vice President Biden will visit Turkey on August 24, no doubt in an attempt to engage in damage control. It is obvious that Fethullah Gulen’s extradition will be the focal point of his talks. For this conversation to be a constructive one, the Turkish side needs to accept the fact that Gulen’s extradition will be subject to due process. Furthermore, despite statements made in the heat of the day, they would have to agree that retroactive reinstatement of the death penalty will constitute a violation of fundamental rules of law and that even the ongoing discussion on the subject does not serve Turkey’s interests. And, the US side needs to do its very best to dissipate Turkey’s suspicions regarding the background to the coup attempt and give every assurance that Gulen’s communication with his insidious network is totally disrupted.
As President Obama said in his address to the Turkish Parliament, “The United States and Turkey have not always agreed on every issue, and that’s to be expected — no two nations do.” However, confining and reducing differences helps foster a healthier relationship especially when two countries need each other’s cooperation. Turkey, despite being on the edge, still remains West’s best hope for promoting stability and democracy in the wider Middle East. Ankara needs US cooperation on a good number of challenges ranging from ending Middle East turmoil to possible implications for Turkey of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Turkish-US cooperation started off essentially as a defense relationship which, with ups and downs, diversified and matured over decades. It would be a folly to allow Gulen’s dark schemes to take it hostage. Turkey’s relations with Russia suffered a serious setback and now the Government is trying to gain lost ground. This will not happen at once and will require a sustained effort. Ankara should avoid a similar situation with the US. Turkey’s foreign policy rests on pillars all of which have been severely damaged through a string of glaring mistakes since 2009, Ankara’s misguided foray into the Syrian conflict leading the list. We should not lose sight of the fact that these pillars do not constitute alternatives but serve our foreign and security policies as a whole. And, our relationship with Washington has been one of those pillars since the end of the Second World War.
The future? Since respective perceptions are unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future, reviving the spirit which characterized President Obama’s visit in 2009 is not in the cards. Working on core interests appears to be the solution.