Turkish-American relations are in a severe crisis in recent months after the implementation of CAATSA sanctions by April 2021 and the 46th United States (U.S.) President Joe Biden’s decision not to call Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his first 90 days in the office. The problems in bilateral relations are numerous; but the real problem is that there is no communication between two states anymore unlike the Donald Trump Presidency (2017-2021), during which President Erdoğan was one of the most popular interlocutors in terms of White House callings. Although President Biden, as a more traditional and veteran Democratic politician, prefers to conduct bilateral relations via institutions (e.g. the relationship between the U.S. Department of State and the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs), it is highly questionable whether the institutions are communicating with each other as well in recent months. Thus, it will not be wrong to claim that Turkish-American relations are in a severe crisis. In this piece, I am going to analyze main problems in terms of Turkish-American relations.
Biden Administration is losing Turkish people
President Biden, starting from the early days of his presidential campaign made it clear that he will not support President Erdoğan’s authoritarian policies and Turkey’s downward trend in terms of democracy and human rights. In a meeting with the editors of the New York Times in December 2019, he openly stated that he will support the opposition leaders in Turkey and he will try to change Erdoğan by using democratic means instead of military coups. Considering Turkey’s democratic regression and economic problems in recent years, I think President Biden’s stance is understandable for all democrats and oppositional voices in Turkey. However, since state to state relations cannot be reduced to -even- Presidents’ personal choices, I think President Biden and his team made a mistake by not calling Erdoğan for too long. Although White House spokesperson Jen Psaki explained the situation with Biden’s busy agenda and spoke hopeful about a call in the near future, this does not change the fact that Turkish people are offended by Biden’s negligence and anti-Americanism in Turkey began to rise once again.
Anti-Americanism in Turkey
Anti-Americanism has a long history in Turkey similar to many other American allies (e.g. France, Germany, Japan etc.). The first wave of anti-Americanization in Turkey took place in the 1960s and the 1970s. The Turkish left and particularly the Turkish extreme left in the 1960s and the 1970s was very influential in disseminating anti-American ideas by using American aggression in Vietnam and the U.S. control over Turkish politics as valid arguments to challenge Turkey’s alliance with Washington. During these years, the U.S. was seen as the main responsible for the domestic political developments in Turkey including the military coups etc. Between 1975 and 1978, bilateral relations had the worst crisis when -as a reaction to American arms embargo on Ankara after Turkey’s Cyprus Peace Operation in 1974- then-Turkish Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel closed all American military bases in Turkey and expelled American soldiers and diplomats. Although the U.S. lifted the embargo in 1978, American military bases in Turkey stayed closed until the 1980 military coup.
The second wave of anti-Americanization came in the 2000s and in 2003, another peak was reached. After Turkish Parliament’s inability to pass a resolution to deploy American troops in the southeastern Turkey to initiate the Iraqi War on March 1, 2003, Turkish soldiers working in Sulaimaniya, Iraq were captured by American soldiers on July 4, 2003 and taken away with hoods placed on their heads as they were terrorists. The event known as the “Hood Incident” or “Hood Event” rapidly boomed anti-Americanism in Turkey and between 2003 and 2007; Turkish-American relations had another troubled period during George W. Bush presidency. Only after Barack Obama’s special efforts during his first term, a normalization process began in Turkish-American relations due to this disastrous event.
The third wave of anti-Americanization started in fact immediately after the failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. The coup plot is widely believed to be organized by the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen and his supporters. Since Gülen has been residing in the U.S. starting from the late 1990s, the U.S. has also been pointed out in Turkey as the main responsible of the coup attempt. Turkish Minister of Interior Affairs Süleyman Soylu for instance claims that the U.S. is behind this coup attempt. The coup attempt not only disrupted the normal flow of democratic political life in Turkey, it also made President Erdoğan depressed due to some soldiers’ attempts towards his life. President Erdoğan, as a typical strong right-wing leader, has been trying to get revenge since the coup attempt in 2016 and that is why, he has been suppressing all the opposition. With Turkey’s decision to buy S-400 air missile defence system from Russia and American decision to remove Turkey out of the F-35 fighter jets program, the third wave of anti-Americanism in Turkey began to accelerate once again recently. That is why; President Biden not calling Erdoğan also is not a clever decision for those who want to repair Transatlantic relations in Turkey.
There are numerous problems in Turkish-American relations. But some of these problems are more vital and their effects could be much more dangerous for the future of Turkish-American alliance.
For me, the most important problem is the S-400 disagreement between two countries. S-400 problem is crucial; because it does create serious additional problems in terms of Turkish-American cooperation in the defence industry. For instance, Turkey was recently removed from the F-35 program due to its S-400 choice. Moreover, the U.S. has recently begun to implement CAATSA sanctions that are targeting Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB). If the crisis cannot be solved quickly, I am afraid Turkey might decide to buy the second S-400 system from Russia soon and maybe even new warrior jets from Moscow (SU-57s) in the coming years. Thus, this crisis has the potential to create a deep fracture in NATO and to empower Russia at the expense of NATO. While Turkish statesmen defend this purchase with the American reluctance to sell Patriot system, Turkish authorities also point out that Turkey made the purchase from Russia few months before CAATSA law was ratified in 2017. That is why; Turkish position seems solid and rightful in case this disagreement goes to international arbitration. American statesmen and authorities on the other hand underline that S-400 system is dangerous for the F-35s because the system might steal important information that could create security risks for NATO allies. In order to solve the problem, Turkish Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar recently offered the “Crete model”. This constructive offer is inspired by the Greek purchase of Russian made S-300 system in the recent past and it allows American military personnel to monitor and check the activities of the S-400 system in Turkey. However, this offer was rejected by the American side. Since the strongest aspect of Turkish-American alliance is NATO partnership and cooperation in the defence industry, in case this crisis cannot be solved quickly, Turkish-American relations could plumb new depths soon.
The second most important problem is related to two countries’ different policies towards Syria and Kurds. While the U.S. has been supplying arms to PYD/YPG, Syrian branch of PKK, Turkey has been supporting the moderate Sunni opposition against the Assad regime in Syria. Although then-U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis pledged support to Turkey and explained the U.S. aid to PYD/YPG as a tactical move against ISIS, the U.S. support to SDF continues eventhough ISIS is completely destroyed in Syria (with the successful military operations made by the Turkish Armed Forces). Thus, Ankara perceives American position in Syria as an effort to contain itself with empowering PKK branches. This problem has also a great potential to disrupt bilateral relations because there is a general consensus in Turkish politics about the barbaric deeds of PKK. It is also strange to observe that the American side does not even make any efforts anymore to moderate Turkey and its Kurdish allies to reduce Turkish anger.
The third most important problem seems to be Turkey’s ineffectiveness in the U.S. domestic politics in recent years. Once hailed as one of the best American allies, nowadays it is hard to find a pro-Turkey person in Washington D.C. according to Turkish journalists and academics residing in the U.S. Of course, this did not happen in one day; Turkey began to lose its support in the U.S. Congress by alienating Israel and the Jewish lobby or the Israeli lobby since 2010 and also the Gülen movement’s support since 2013. Gülen movement -after the failed coup attempt in 2016- is now treated as the FETÖ terrorist organization in Turkey while in the U.S. they are organizing “Stop Erdoğan” campaigns. So, without having support in the Congress, it might be very difficult for Turkey to change American decision on CAATSA sanctions. Jewish/Israel lobby and Gülenists might even encourage President Biden to call the 1915 Armenian deportation in the Ottoman State during the First World War as genocide for the first time tomorrow. If this happens, I think this will be another major problem in bilateral relations. That is why; I hope President Biden and his team will act more cautiously for not losing Turkey completely.
The fourth most important problem is Russia. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been cleverly using Turkish-American disagreements in order to destabilize the NATO and the Western world in general. Although Turkey has been making a courageous and legitimate challenge to Russia in Syria, Libya, Karabakh, and Ukraine on the basis of international law, Turkey’s Western allies (e.g. France, Germany etc.) and especially the U.S. do not support and give enough credit to Turkish efforts. NATO and the U.S. stayed also very quiet during the Turkish-Russian jet crisis in 2015 and this made Ankara believe that it cannot completely trust NATO and its Western allies anymore. So, if President Biden and his team continue to treat Turkey like this, I think Russia might take the lead even in the Turkish domestic politics in the near future. Turkey’s natural gas dependency on Russia and Russian aspiration to establish strategic relations with Turkey are also positive factors that encourage Turkish statesmen to accept Moscow as a reliable partner rather than a hostile state.
To conclude, I think we might still have chance to restore Turkish-American alliance in case some good steps are taken by Washington. First of all, President Biden should not call 1915 Events as genocide tomorrow in order not to offend Turkish people as well as Azerbaijani people. What happened in 1915 was a great tragedy, but American people and politicians do not have right to judge events in the history as they are judges at Nuremberg Trials. Moreover, a disastrous deportation in a collapsing Empire does not mean that the aim of Ottoman-Turkish rulers was to destroy all Armenians. It should not be forgotten that, the Ottoman Army lost almost 100,000 Turkish-Muslim soldiers in Sarıkamış in 1915, due to freezing weather and incautious planning. This should give us an idea about the conditions in which Armenian deportation took place. Secondly, President Biden should call President Erdoğan and should reestablish the confidence between Washington and Ankara. Great leaders are the ones who are able to control and direct other leaders eventhough they might not like them. So, since Biden’s choice of not calling Erdoğan is only empowering American enemies in Turkey, this is not a wise decision. Thirdly, two countries should restart working on a roadmap in Syria. The U.S. should adopt a more constructive position in Syria by engaging with Russia, Iran, and Turkey as well to solve the almost 10 years old civil war. This could be the beginning of a new era in Turkish-American relations in 2021 or in 2022. Otherwise, I think Turkey’s pro-Russian tendency will further accelerate in the coming years.
Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ
 See; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAUm7-ouUdE&t=39s.
 See; https://bianet.org/english/world/240424-white-house-spokesperson-explains-why-biden-hasn-t-had-a-phone-call-with-erdogan-yet.
 İncirlik Airbase in Adana stayed open during 1975 and 1980 but only for the NATO operations. See; https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/yazarlar/yalcin-bayer/demirel-usleri-neden-kapatti-40922829.
 See; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/jul/08/turkey.michaelhoward.
 See; https://www.reuters.com/article/turkey-security-usa-int-idUSKBN2A41NF.
 See; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRmKGZ19ktU.
 Even the previous U.S. President Donald Trump found Turkey in a more righteous position in this crisis. See; https://www.diken.com.tr/turkiye-obama-doneminde-patrioti-neden-alamadi-ve-s-400e-yoneldi/.
 Other than strategic S-400 sale, Russia is also about to conclude Turkey’s first nuclear plant in Akkuyu, Mersin.