Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım recently announced that the US-backed Raqqa Operation started on Friday night and the United States informed Turkey regarding the operation before it was initiated. Yıldırım also criticized American policy of providing weapons to Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD), a policy that might be a threat to Turkey in the near future due to this group’s close cooperation with PKK. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also frequently criticizes United States for delivering weapons to PYD, a terrorist organization according to the Turkish government which operates as the Syrian extension of Kurdish secessionist PKK. It should be remembered that the US President Donald Trump approved direct weapons shipments to Syrian Kurdish fighters (PYD) battling ISIS despite Turkish warnings few weeks ago. Considering these developments, in this paper, I will try to find reasonable answers to questions about the future of Turkish-American relations in the next few years by analyzing American and Turkish perspectives in relation to regional policies.
The U.S. Perspective
Starting from the last months of the Obama period, Turkish-American relations entered into a new era of regression especially after the collapse of the Arab Spring’s democratization wave with the bloody civil war emerged in Syria. US decision to arm Syrian Kurds at the expense of losing Turkey might be considered as a strange policy preference, but in fact the American administration have some motives for acting in that way.
The first and foremost problem is related to Turkey’s increasing Islamist authoritarian policies both at domestic and international levels. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not listened friendly critics until today in implementing Islamist policies. Turkey now has an authoritarian Presidential system, but unlike many other post-Soviet Turkic countries, Turkish state also rapidly distances itself from secularism. Pro-secular and moderate Islamists groups have been targeted in Turkey in recent years with unending trials, media censorship and repression on the opposition. Turkey has also established very close economic and cultural relations with Gulf countries in recent years, most notably with Qatar instead of its traditional Western-European allies. Turkey’s support for Sunni rebel groups in Syria also considered as an Islamist foreign policy preference although Turkey has never supported ISIS-affiliated groups during the civil war. Now that the US has a new President (Donald Trump) -very reasonably- completely against radical Islam and radical (terrorist) groups, Turkey’s Islamist foreign and domestic policy preferences as a secular country that has always been a Western ally are strongly criticized by Washington. So, the first reason of the disaccord is the Islamization of Turkey under Erdoğan’s leadership in Washington’s perspective.
Secondly, as former Turkish ambassador to Washington D.C. Şükrü Elekdağ points out, the US has always had a macro plan about establishing an independent Kurdish (Kurdistan) state in the region, a policy target that increases Turkey’s anger towards the US. Encircled by mostly hostile Arab countries, Israel has also supported the establishment of a new non-Arab and non-Persian state in the region. Independent Kurdistan would mean a new ally for the US in one of the most troubled regions of the world, a formidable ally which would probably more submissive to Washington compared to Turkey, a strong medium-size state that has been following policies according to its own national interests and sometimes challenging American interests in the region. However, how this Kurdish state will be designed is still an unanswerable question. There is already an autonomous government in the Northern Iraq (Kurdish Regional Government) under Masoud Barzani’s control with its own flag, Peshmerga army and police force. This de-facto state is very close to U.S. and Turkey both and awaits for the right timing in declaring independence with a referendum (possibly in this August or September). There are also large territories controlled by Kurdish rebels (PYD and YPG) now in Syria. These groups defend Marxist-Leninist ideology and traditionally allied themselves with anti-American groups and countries (such as Russia). However, in the new conjuncture, the US is willingly to work with Syrian Kurds since they have been very successful against ISIS until now and have a more modern stance compared to radical Islamists. It is obvious that the US wants to keep and deepen its close relations with Kurds. However, how the borders of Kurdistan will be drawn is still unclear. A smaller Kurdish state in Northern Iraq might not be a real headache for Ankara if Erbil will continue to have good relations with Turkey (For ultra-nationalist groups, even this might be a reason of war). However, a greater Kurdistan containing Kurdish populated areas both in Iraq and Syria will be a real problem for Turkey and will spoil Turkish-American relations as well. Turkey has some hesitations related to the status of Kurds in Iraq and Syria since it hosts more Kurdish population than any other country in the world. Ankara believes that high expectations and strong legal position for Kurds in Syria and Iraq would be a motivation for Turkey’s Kurds in demanding federalism or advanced ethnic rights. So, the second motive of the US is related to Kurdish Question and a possible Kurdish state.
Thirdly, we might talk about a loss confidence towards Ankara in recent years in Washington. This is caused by Turkey’s close economic relations (especially in the field of energy) with Russian Federation, a traditional American rival that has started to challenge and spoil Washington’s policies again especially in its “near abroad” geography during Vladimir Putin’s presidency. It is a fact that Turkey, as a country severely lacks energy to develop its industries, has to cooperate with its energy-rich neighbors including Russia, Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan. Thus, it is very plausible that Turkey’s main aim in its foreign policy is to become an energy hub in the region. This is also in conformity with European Union policies due to many European countries’ energy dependency on Russia. However, Turkey’s close cooperation with Russia in the field of energy (Russia is also establish a nuclear plant in Turkey – Mersin Akkuyu Nuclear Plant) disturbs some groups that are more concerned about Russia’s authoritarian ruling style which has become more and more popular in recent years in Caucasia and Central Asia. In fact, Turkish transformation from a European (Westminster) model of multi-party democracy into strong executive Presidentialism within a dominant-party system might be also interpreted as the direct consequence of increasing Russian presence and effect in this country. So, third motivation for US in angering Turkey might be close Russian-Turkish relations in the last two decades and Turkey’s independent foreign policy initiatives which might harm American interests in the region.
Turkey, on the other hand, had its own motives in establishing a new foreign policy that is beyond classical US-Turkish partnership of the Cold War period. First of all, due to terrible memories of the Cold War (three military coups etc.), Turkey’s preference following the fall of Berlin Wall was to establish a multi-dimensional foreign policy which would allow the country not to be completely dependent on US and NATO. Turkish political elite thought that the military coups and instabilities in the country during the Cold War were caused by the American effect and they need to be more independent in this new era. Problems with the US and NATO due to Cyprus Dispute was also not forgotten by Ankara and decreased Turkey’s confidence in the West. Especially close relations with Europe and Russia has been seen as inevitable by Ankara in this new period. Since Europe (EU) was considered as the ultimate station of modernization and Russia was perceived as the most important (potential) military threat to Turkey (also an energy rich country), these two countries (blocs) were given more important place in Turkish Foreign Policy although the US has always kept its very first place. Moreover, it should be added that until now Turkey has never really questioned leaving the Western bloc or NATO and to join a new organization (Eurasian Union etc.) at the expense of losing USA.
Secondly, Turkish state has always considered Kurdish Question as a vital problem for its own safety. Turkish state elite thought that once the Kurdish identity was given freedom in neighboring countries, it would automatically affect Turkey’s Kurds and the country’s unitary and national state structure would be harmed. However, Turkey, as a medium-size country that could not compete with superpowers, was unable to prevent developments around itself. At first, American President George Bush saved Kurds from Saddam Hussein dictatorship by initiating the Gulf War. His son, George W. Bush, established a federal Iraqi state and provided autonomy for Iraqi Kurds a decade later. Now, Donald Trump might be the American President that will help Iraqi Kurds to establish an independent state. An independent Kurdish state is not a taboo in Turkey anymore, but a greater Kurdistan in Iraq and Syria reaching the Mediterranean is still a geopolitical nightmare for Turkish state elite. It is a fact that Turkey could not compete with the US in many ways, but losing Turkey will also be very harmful to the US and Western bloc in general. So, two countries has to work together and arrange a joint plan for solving the Kurdish Question and design a roadmap for Kurdistan region.
Thirdly, Turkey is hurt by the American decision to arm Syrian Kurds. Turkey as a strong state and a traditional American ally, has never seriously thought that Washington might choose Kurdish rebels instead of itself. Turkish President Erdoğan said that the Raqqa Operation could be done by US and Turkish armies together and the US does not need to arm Kurdish rebels. However, Washington thought that arming Kurds would be more efficient in its fight against ISIS. This decision might be the turning point in Turkish-American relations. These weapons given by Washington to PYD rebels might be used in the near future in the terrorist attacks made by PKK towards Turkish Army and civilians. This would probably create a very strong anti-American atmosphere in Turkey. Turkey might even begin to consider its place in the Western bloc for the first time if these weapons given to Syrian Kurds would be used against its own soldiers and citizens in the future. It is a fact that PYD and PKK are twins and they are against Turkish state’s authority. Autonomy for Syrian Kurds or a greater Kurdistan would also mean a very problematic period for Turkish-American relations.
What Has To Be Done?
Turkey and the US should work together and prepare a roadmap immediately for preventing possible troubles ahead. Here are some policy proposals to both sides:
- The United States and Turkey should prepare a detailed plan for the future of Syria and Iraq as two allies.
- The US should provide guarantees to Turkey for the prevention of PYD’s attacks towards the Turkish state with its own supplied arms. Otherwise, the US will become a country that has been arming a terrorist organization against its own ally. What kind of weapons will be delivered to PYD is also critical here. For instance, manpads and anti-tank weapons will be really problematic for Turkey.
- Turkey should better show that the US has still a privileged position in Turkish foreign policy, but the country’s energy and security concerns force it to develop close relations with other countries as well including Russia and Iran.
- Turkey should reassure Washington that it is still committed democratic principles and secular state structure and Turkish Islam cannot be compared radical interpretations of Islam.
- Turkey and the US should cooperate in eliminating ISIS and other terrorist groups in the region by establishing various channels.
Assist. Prof. Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ