The U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to enforce the long-forgotten “red lines” of the Obama administration, following the recent chemical attack on civilians in the opposition-held Idlib province, may change the calculus of the Syrian conflict. The U.S. strikes came when Turkish voters were gearing up for a referendum on Sunday, April 16, to determine whether or not to lend an aura of constitutional legality to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s one-man rule.
These two developments are likely to significantly impact U.S.-Turkish relations.
In “The United States and Turkey: Friends, Enemies, or Only Interests,” Aslı Aydıntaşbaş and Kemal Kirişci discuss the myriad of factors that have strained Washington’s relations with this long-standing NATO ally and offer various strategies to reboot ties in a period of uncertainty and chaos across the Middle East. Bilateral problems in this long alliance—such as Washington’s support for Syrian Kurds in Syria, the thorny issue of extraditing Fethullah Gülen, seen as the mastermind of the coup attempt in July 2016, or the long-term implications of Turkey’s blossoming relations with Moscow—are discussed within the context of the larger regional equation, underlining the need for new parameters and a realistic new agenda between Ankara and Washington.
The report also addresses the discrepancy between the Trump administration’s stated desire to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East and the limits of Turkish power to play an active role in such a project. While the new U.S. administration is adopting an increasingly hardline stance against Iran, Turkey is constrained by pragmatic economic considerations as well as a centuries-old policy of avoiding direct confrontation with its neighbor to the East. This has traditionally drawn a wedge between Turkish and U.S. interests regarding Iran and that may well continue to be the case, despite Ankara’s secret yearning for a leadership position in the Sunni world.
How Washington can—and should—address the challenges that arise from its reliance on Syrian Kurds against the objections from its NATO ally is a major part of this report. The authors argue that it will be important for the new U.S. administration to take a broader perspective on fighting ISIS and invest in a reconciliation between Turkey and Syrian Kurds. While the task might seem daunting at first, it is easier than the unsuccessful efforts to juggle the U.S. military support for Syrian Kurds with commitments to a NATO ally. A reconciliation could be achieved through a series of coordinated steps inside Syria and Turkey, starting with a PKK ceasefire inside Turkey and top-level engagement from the Trump administration, ultimately encouraging Turkey to resuscitate the peace process with the Kurds.
On the issue of Gülen’s extradition, the U.S. will need to demonstrate that it is taking Turkey’s concerns seriously by helping with the investigations into Gülen’s role in the coup attempt and probing his relationship with the putchists, while admitting that the extradition itself is conditional to judicial review.
In terms of Turkey’s place within the Western camp, the authors are very clear. Trump’s broader foreign policy continues to be shrouded in uncertainty; however, in the longer run, embracing long-standing U.S. policy of emphasizing shared values with Turkey and ensuring its place in—and commitment to—the international liberal order is of paramount importance. This is the most effective strategy in terms of ensuring Turkey’s stability and enhancing its contributions to the stability, prosperity and security of its neighborhood.
Regardless of the outcome of the Turkish referendum on April 16, authors believe that a Turkey that remains anchored in the transatlantic community is likely to best serve the prospects of finding a lasting solution to Syria and to the chaos of the Middle East.