Turkey’s geographical location is unique and important. It serves as a bridge between Europe and Asia along the shores of the Black and Mediterranean Seas. It is also neighbouring the Central Asia and Caucasus regions. Indeed, this creates a complicated geostrategic position. Although Turkey is roughly half the size of Iran, as a long-standing Western ally which followed the Western path of development, Turkey has become an economic and political force in world politics. Additionally, Turkey’s geopolitical location has meant that not only has it been a battleground periodically since ancient times, but also the home of political exchanges, diverse cultural heritages, and a number of important civilisations. In particular, almost all states in the region have extensive fossil fuel reserves. They are the major exporters of oil, on which the modern economy relies. However, being a neighbour of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Russia, Turkey is unable to isolate itself from regional hostilities. Particularly, the ISIS challenge, the regionalisation and internationalisation of Kurdish problems, and the influx of near 3 million Iraqi and Syrian refugees, all reflect Turkey’s complicated geopolitical situation.
Despite the newly-adopted foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbours” proposed by former Prime Minister Davutoğlu, it has ironically turned into a “zero friends and many problems” policy with Turkey’s neighbours. Added to that, the regional turmoil has also inevitably impacted Turkey’s domestic stability. Under these circumstances, it is hard to deny Erdoğan government’s inescapable responsibilities in Turkey’s foreign policy practices. However, from Turkey’s complicated geopolitical point of view, issues such as the rise of ISIS extremism, the dynamic situations in both Iraq and Syria, and the presence of the US in the region, are beyond Turkey’s ability to control as a middle power. In other words, it is hard for Turkey to act independently to work out strategies for dealing with these threats.
On 15 July 2016, the failed coup attempt against the state institutions left more than 200 dead and thousands more injured in Turkey. After the coup attempt, a number of pro-government demonstrators held rallies in cities across the country. The Gülen movement has been accused of being behind the coup attempt, and was officially designated as the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO) by the Turkish government. More than 70,000 soldiers, civil servants, judges, police, teachers, and intellectuals linked to FETO have been arrested or dismissed from their positions. Particularly, a larger number of private schools belonging to FETO were also shut down. Notably, following the failed coup attempt, Turkey has turned towards Russia at an accelerated pace. As a result, a number of observers interpreted Turkey’s deteriorating relations with the US as a suggestion that Turkey was “turning to the East”. In short, after the failed coup attempt, in addition to varying interpretations of what Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy has led to, this paper offers some thoughts on Turkey-US relations from Chinese viewpoints.
First, the most important issue at present is the US’s support for Syrian Kurdish groups. Prior to Turkey’s coup attempt on 15 July 2016, the US-led coalition has made significant progress in fighting against ISIS in the Middle East. However, Turkey has criticised the US over the US’s active support and assistance to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is officially considered by the Turkish government as a terrorist organisation connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)–the organisation violating Turkey’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The YPG’s gradual growth through engaging in fierce fighting with the ISIS, particularly, the acceptance of YPG autonomy inside northern Syria by the Assad regime, have certainly worried Turkey. Additionally, the US’s support would enable the YPG to bolster its strength and further stimulate Kurdish separatism in Turkey. Apart from that, arms smuggling across Syria-Turkey borders threw the Turkish government into doubt on whether the PKK would still be willing to continue the 2012 “İmralı Kurdish-Turkish peace process”. Under these circumstances, the Turkish army has relaunched operations on the PKK’s strongholds, while accusing the US’s support of terrorist forces in the meantime (the PKK).
Second, further complicating the Turkey-US relations is the issue of the US-based preacher, a former imam, Fethullah Gülen. Erdoğan’s government criticised the US for providing a safe haven for Gülen after his alleged attempt to overthrow the government, appealing to the US for extradition of Gülen. Turkey’s pro-government media have also accused the US of prior knowledge of the involvement in the failed coup attempt. Erdoğan has always criticised the Gülen movement and the forces behind it in his speeches on different occasions. In turn, the US appears to be engaging in a “Taiji” . On the one hand, the US has denied playing any role in the plot to overthrow Erdoğan government, yet on the other hand, it has asked for substantial evidences to extradite Gülen. Amidst this rhetoric, a number of scholars in the US have argued for the severance of Turkish-US ties, claiming that Turkey can no longer be perceived as a reliable partner for the US.
Third, from a historical perspective, Turkey has been a unique ally of the US. Turkey is the only non-Western NATO member that is both located in the Middle East region and has a majority Muslim population. The Turkish armed forces are collectively ranked as the second-largest standing military force in NATO after the US. However, it does not mean that there are no divergent views within the Turkey-US alliance. Even during the Cold War, when Turkey was acting as a Western ally and a geographic buffer against Soviet influence, Turkey has repeatedly gotten into conflict with the US because of their clashing interests. Hence, it is unsurprising that Turkey and US would have disagreements and different perspectives on particular issues.
Fourth, despite the constant divergences on some issues throughout their history, the relationship between the US and Turkey has always been eventually reconciled. On three occasions, Turkey-US relations have been strained— the first crisis was the serious disagreements between Turkey and the US on how to deal with Turkey’s economic crisis, which occurred in the mid-1950s, the second was over how to solve the opium poppy cultivation issues in Western Turkey in the late-1960s, and the third crisis was the US’s support of Greece in the conflict over Cyprus during the 1960-70s. It was argued on each of these three occasions that they demonstrated the marked deterioration of Turkey-US relations. Particularly, in the third instance, the infamous Johnson Letter of 1964 disappointed former Prime Minister İnönü both in “wording and content” and caused a wave of anti-Americanism after it was disclosed. This was comparatively similar to the anti-American sentiment which Erdoğan has been formulating through Turkish ultra-nationalism after the coup attempt. Eventually in 1973, Turkey-US relations have hit the skids after Turkey’s occupation of Cyprus. The titles of works from Harris and Sever have succinctly summarised the complicated relations between Turkey and the US. Nevertheless, as mentioned in the earlier section, given the clash of views between Turkey and the US, their reconciliation has always eventuated. Although the anti-American sentiment seemed to be running high in Turkey during the 1960s and 70s, following the 1980 Turkish coup, the economic reforms shifted Turkey’s economy toward a high rate of growth under US guidance and new IMF arrangements. These resulted in Turkey’s willingness to firmly stand by the US during the Gulf War, and consequently, Turkey-US relations were revived.
Fifth, Turkey cannot afford the continuous deterioration of relations with the US. This is because of the fact that Turkey is a middle power state. No middle power state has such confidence to risk a breakup with the US for a long period of time. The sanctions against Iran were an illustrative example. Following the US-led Western economic sanctions, curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Iran experienced not only a severe economic recession and a high level of inflation, but also lost the future of an entire generation. Similarly, if Erdoğan continues to challenge the US, the US would make Turkey very “uncomfortable” through further supporting the YPG in the northern Syria. From Turkey’s perspective, the worsening of the Kurdish issue is indeed intolerable. Added to that, a few years ago, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkey proposed a new “political vision of AKP for 2023” which outlined targets and major improvements to be achieved by the centennial anniversary of the republic in 2023. However, the point is that the remaining time to 2023 is shortening, and this urges Turkey to maintain the alliance with the US in order to reserve a sustainable environment for Turkey’s growth.
Sixth, Turkish anti-Americanism has been enforced by the combination of Erdoğan’s nationalism and populism. Since the 1980s, Turkey’s economic rise facilitated Turkey’s newly emerging middle class, who were supporting the growth of nationalism and Islamism. The neo-Ottoman discourse, in this context, has begun to take place since the Özal era. Similarly, Davutoğlu outlined neo-Ottoman rhetorical vision on a more comprehensive basis, aiming to counterbalance Turkey’s over dependence on the West by developing close ties with its neighbours and Islamic states. Despite Turkey’s lack of capacity to achieve the Neo-Ottoman agenda, the AKP insists on maintaining its banner of neo-Ottoman doctrine, perceiving Erdoğan as a leader of the new national revival. Hence, following the failed coup, Turkey’s high-profile request of extraditing Fethullah Gülen explicitly disclosed Turkey’s intention to seize the nationalism card, and play up anti-Americanism. However, the effect of these tactics may not sustain for a long time since nationalism is only a temporary way to stimulate the people’s enthusiasm for the nation, and it is clearly not a strategy for building a nation’s long-term stability and economic prosperity. The historical experience shows that the limitations of playing the nationalism card would ultimately lead to self-destruction. Hence, it is expected that İbrahim Kalın, who is a Georgetown University PhD graduate and a senior advisor to Turkish president Erdoğan, is able to understand both the matters of extradition of Gülen and the “double-edged sword” of nationalism.
In sum, Turkey-US relations may undergo a temporary periods of strain, but they will be unlikely to break up. Perhaps in the near future, Turkey and the US will fall into further disputes. The idea is that disputes between the US and Turkey implies that Turkey’s demands remain unsatisfied. The Erdoğan government appears to be offering the US a choice between Turkey and Gülen, but it seems what Turkey is really concerned about is the US’s pro-Kurdish position. Above all, we argue that the Turkey-US alliance is unlikely to break up regardless of the heated debates among the public opinions on both sides. Instead, the public opinions neither play a role in real diplomacy, nor do they substantially affect Turkey-US relations overall. Hence, despite the recent hasty generalisations or faulty analyses suggesting a significant reversal of Turkey-US relations, from a long term perspective, Turkey will continue to be an ally of the US.
Associate Professor at Peking University, Director and Research Fellow of Turkish Research Centre at Pangoal Institution, a Beijing-based Public Policy Think Tank
Postgraduate Student at the Department of History, Peking University
Translated from Chinese by Xiaoli Guo: Research scholar at the Centre of Arab and Islamic Studies, The Australian National University
 Translator’s note: Taiji is a Chinese traditional martial art. The style of Taiji seems slow and soft. If two persons participate in playing Taiji, the movements will be adapted to push each other backwards continuously. However, here it should be understood as a political metaphor that Turkey and the US are playing a strategic game between them.
 Harris, George Sellers. Troubled Alliance: Turkish-American problems in historical perspective, 1945-1971. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1972. See also Sever, Ayşegül. “The compliant ally? Turkey and the west in the middle east 1954–58.” Middle Eastern Studies 34, no. 2 (1998): 73-90.