Turkish-American Relations Under Strain

January 29, 2018

On May 16, 2017 Presidents Erdogan and Trump had talks in Washington. A few days before the visit I had said:

“…neither Ankara nor Washington can afford a too rocky relationship with too many ups and downs. They need one another and a reasonably steady relationship. So, the uneasy, unhappy alliance will continue.” (*)

I may have been over-optimistic. At present, the two capitals can’t agree even on the gist of a phone call between the presidents.

Following statements by US military officials that the US-led coalition is working with its Syrian militia allies to set up a new border force of 30,000 Secretary Tillerson told reporters, “that entire situation has been mis-portrayed, mis-described, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all.” Turkey, dissatisfied with Washington’s assurances launched “Operation Olive Branch” and the relationship between the two allies rapidly turned into a confrontational one to say the least.

At present, Washington is asking Turkey to de-escalate, limit its military actions, avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees.  It is also expressing concern about the rhetoric coming from Turkey.

Turkey’s European allies while referring to Turkey’s security interests are also moving in the same direction. On January 25, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel issued a statement “on the situation in Turkey and on arms exports” in which he said that Germany is working with France to prevent further escalation, to ensure that humanitarian access is made possible and to protect the civilian population. “It is clear to the German Government that we cannot send arms to areas where tensions are high”, he added.

Firstly, indeed innocent civilians should not suffer. However, the sad truth is that these same allies have done very little to stop Myanmar military’s atrocities against the Rohingya. The Associated Press reported in December last year that the price Mosul’s residents paid in blood to see their city freed was 9,000 to 11,000 dead, a civilian casualty rate nearly 10 times higher than what has been previously reported. Earlier in July, The Independent had reported that “more than 40,000 civilians were killed in the devastating battle to retake Mosul from Isis, according to intelligence reports revealed exclusively to The Independent – a death toll far higher than previous estimates.” The number of civilians who have lost their lives as a result of airstrikes in Afghanistan is also disturbing. Relief officials of the United Nations and other humanitarian groups have said at least seven million people are at risk of famine in Yemen, Arab world’s poorest country. In late December, airstrikes on a market and a farm in Yemen killed at least 68 civilians in a single day, including eight children. Regardless, Washington remains supportive of the Saudi-led coalition. None of this is to say that Turkey is thus entitled to be indiscriminate in its military operations. Of course, Turkish military must exercise utmost caution, all the more so because this is happening not in some faraway land but in our immediate vicinity, where we are to stay. And, Turkish authorities have underlined from day one that utmost care will be taken to avoid civilian loss of life and collateral damage.

Secondly, White House readout of the contested Trump-Erdogan phone call said, “… The two leaders pledged to improve the strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey, particularly in fostering regional stability and combating terrorism in all its forms, including ISIS, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), al-Qa’ida, and Iranian-sponsored terrorism.” While the readout did not mention it among terrorist organizations, no one contests YPG’s affiliation with the PKK.

Thirdly, the US needs to deliver on its promise to withdraw from Manbij with its militia allies. Washington hasn’t denied so far that such a promise was indeed made. This can be the key to a broader understanding.

Fourthly, Ankara should heed Washington’s call to tone down its rhetoric. Actually, since the government constantly keeps the country on edge on a wide range of issues, Turkey is a rhetoric-weary country. A case in point is the unwarranted and polarizing controversy over the Lausanne Treaty which represents, more than anything, the recognition by the victors of the First World War the rise of Ataturk’s Republic of Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. This is not only wrong but also incompatible with the imperative to promote national unity at this particular time.

And lastly, should Syria face endless obstacles in restoring its territorial integrity, peoples of the region will see this as the second phase, after Iraq, of a Western project to reshape the Middle East. And, this may change their perception of Iran and its “malign activities”, to use Secretary Tillerson’s words, despite the Sunni-Shia divide. Engaging in a major regional peace-making, stabilization and economic development effort is a better option for both the US and Israel than open-ended military engagement.

To sum up, the region is at a critical juncture; moreover, Turkey’s relations with Washington as well as its European NATO allies reaching boiling point.

The Trump administration and the Turkish government need to engage sooner than later in comprehensive, substantial and authoritative talks at sufficiently high level, preferably in Ankara to be of consequence, because the two countries’ alliance which has stood the test of time, despite ups and downs, is now under considerable strain and “telephone diplomacy” which doesn’t allow for in-depth exchange of views raises more questions than it resolves.


(*) Turkey-US Relations: The Uneasy Alliance to Continue, May 12, 2017.

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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