Despite decades of alliance through the Cold War and the wars since 9/11, relations between Turkey and the United States (US) have hit a historic low, damaging both countries’ public image.
Relations between Ankara and Washington have never been completely free of tension. Even though both are NATO members, during the Cold War, anti-American and imperialist sentiment was not uncommon among Turks. During the 1960s, American sailors from navy ships that docked in Istanbul were attacked on the streets, a trend that some nationalist groups have repeated in recent years.
However, the official relationship has typically been supportive. Turkey’s global positions have rarely clashed with those of the US, such as fostering warm ties with Israel (until 2010), opposing Russian influence, sending troops to South Korea and joining the international coalition in Afghanistan. Turkey’s airbase at Incirlik has supported ongoing US campaigns in the Middle East and, aside from Ankara’s refusal to back the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the two countries have long been on friendly terms.
The relationship has eroded as Turkey’s human rights record has declined. In July 2016, the Obama administration challenged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly tight grip on democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech following a failed military coup that month and subsequent purge, in which American citizens have been caught up.
Figures vary but according to the New York Times, as many as 12 American citizens are in prison in Turkey. Among them is the Christian pastor Andrew Brunson, who was jailed for a year on terror charges, and NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, who is accused of having links to the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey accuses of masterminding the coup attempt from his home in Pennsylvania. The authorities have also targeted Turkish staff employed by the US embassy. A translator was arrested earlier this year and in October 2017, an employee working on drug enforcement was detained.
Brunson’s arrest has been a point of particular contention, especially when Erdogan suggested in September 2017 that Brunson could be exchanged for Gülen. The arrest warrant for a long-serving liaison officer from the US consulate in Istanbul was the final straw. The US shuttered its public-facing services and froze all of its non-immigrant visa services for Turks. Turkey responded in kind, issuing a letter that repeated almost verbatim the US announcement and blocking Americans from claiming visas on arrival in Turkey.
Erdogan blamed the US ambassador to Turkey John Bass for instigating the incident and said he no longer recognized him as a US representative. However, the Turkish government later backed down and invited the ambassador for official talks.
Moreover, the visa crisis has loopholes. Turks can still get US visas outside of Turkey, and US citizens appear to be able to enter Turkey as long as they are not flying directly from the United States. Behind the scenes, the crisis seems to be more bark than bite.
Nevertheless, Turkey’s perception of the US’ double standards regarding these cases is at the heart of the spat. Erdogan has repeatedly framed the prosecution of all those detained on terror charges as merely the rule of law in action. He has chafed at US requests to intervene in proceedings against these Americans while Washington refuses to meet Turkish demands to extradite Gülen. He has also publicly attacked US calls to reconsider the prosecution of dual citizens whom Washington believes have been unfairly charged, stating that Turkey does not have to ask permission to prosecute its own citizens. US officials say that a lack of evidence has tied their hands in the Gülen investigation, preventing a case being made against him and stymying a thaw in relations. While such disparity exists between the two countries regarding their definition of the rule of law, ties look to remain frosty.
Erdogan’s bodyguards, seemingly after conferring with the president, attacked a crowd of protestors during his state visit to Washington. Nine were injured and, following demands for a firm response from US lawmakers, US prosecutors issued arrest warrants for 12 of Erdogan’s security detail, provoking a furious response from Erdogan.
In the wake of the incident, the US blocked a $1.2 million deal to sell pistols to Turkey’s presidential security force. The Turkish government responded by saying the arms would be supplied by Turkey’s growing domestic arms industry. Violence also broke out, again at the hands of Erdogan’s bodyguards, at a speech he made in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. In America, this has been interpreted as the physical and unapologetic manifestation of Erdogan’s bullying and strong-arm politics.
The days of Turkey being seen as a reliable and trusted partner in the Middle East appear to be numbered. Furthermore, with the Turkish purchase of Russian S-400 anti-air missiles, a weapons system incompatible with NATO partners, Turkey has signalled that it no longer feels barred from building partnerships outside of its traditional ally base. Even Turkey’s state news agency tweeted a graphic following the deal that literally took aim at US aircraft, listing all the US planes that the rockets could shoot down.
The Americans too have indirectly used military muscle to pressure the Turks. Last month, Washington blocked Pakistan from sending instructors for the US-made F-16 jets to Turkey, where the purge following last year’s coup attempt has put the short-term capacity of Turkey’s air force in jeopardy.
It has not all been bad news, however. The deteriorating relationship between the two countries has been marked by occasional moments of diplomatic warmth. Following the August 2017 visit by US Defence Secretary James Mattis, both sides reported constructive dialogue free of the issues that have dogged bilateral ties in the past year.
The US has also avoided the damage the ties between Turkey and the European Union have suffered. After Turkey refused to allow visits by German MPs to Incirlik airbase, Germany pulled its aircraft and military personnel from the base, a key launching pad for the campaign against the Islamic State (IS). US planes remain.
The US has also been keen to allay Turkish fears, particularly regarding US ties with the Kurds, which might impact Washington’s military operations in the region. The US has promised transparency to Ankara over its provision of weapons and support to Kurdish militias in Syria, even agreeing to recall weapons from the Kurds once the campaign against IS is completed. However, the Pentagon has given no indication of how disarming a militant group in Syria might be possible.
Turkey, always fearful of moves towards Kurdish independence near or within its borders, has been outraged at the US and other European allies arming the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The YPG is allied with the PKK, a group considered terrorists by most Western states. This partnership was one of necessity, but the American refusal to accept a Turkish-backed plan to recapture the city of Raqqa from IS (which would have taken several more months) was a slap in the face for Ankara. Crucially, Turkey believes that high-grade US weapons provided to the Kurds in Syria will find their way into Turkey, endangering the lives of Turkish troops. Given how brazenly some Kurdish groups have displayed their ties to the PKK, this fear seems far from unfounded.
When Kurdish fighters liberated Raqqa in late October 2017, some raised a large banner bearing the face of the PKK’s ideological leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is currently in a Turkish jail, in Raqqa’s main square. Turkish leaders have made every effort to blame the threat posed by growing Kurdish military strength on the US. On 20 October 2017, Erdogan, responding to the Ocalan banner, said that the incident did the “greatest damage” to US ties.
With no end to the visa crisis in sight and no sign of either side willing to compromise on any of the surrounding issues, from criminal cases to military support for the Kurds, Turkey-US relations are entering the unknown.