The United States Needs to Play Hardball With Turkey /Eric S. Edelman, Sinan Ciddi / FOREIGN POLICY

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Turkey and the United States have been treaty allies since Ankara joined the trans-Atlantic alliance in 1952 by formally becoming a member of NATO. Over the ensuing 70 years, Turkey’s bilateral relationship with the United States has been through its fair share of ups and downs. In the mid-1960s, the relationship was rocked by the secret U.S. deal with the Soviet Union to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey during the Cuban missile crisis and former U.S. President  Lyndon B. Johnson’s letter threatening not to defend Turkey over Cyprus.

Later differences over Vietnam created an anti-American backlash in Turkish public opinion. In the mid-1970s, the Turkish invasion and occupation of Northern Cyprus led to a congressionally imposed arms embargo and subsequent limits on U.S. arms exports to Turkey.

Despite these periodic difficulties, a common threat perception about the dangers that Moscow posed to European and global security helped maintain a strong government-to-government relationship during the Cold War.

Following the Soviet Union’s demise in the early 1990s, the relationship between Washington and Ankara blossomed for a time and arguably reached a peak at the turn of the millennium, when President Bill Clinton declared that U.S.-Turkish ties constituted a “strategic partnership,” and U.S. diplomatic activism helped secure an invitation to Ankara from the European Union to open accession talks (an objective of Turkish foreign policy since the early 1960s).

Under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this relationship has essentially been driven off a cliff during his two decades of domination of Turkish politics. Since 2003, the bilateral relationship has slowly been purposefully undermined to the point that Washington no longer has a reliable ally to work with. These days, the relationship is characterized by Turkey’s mercurial, hypocritical, and callous stance on a range of security issues.

Since the first Gulf War, Washington has gone to great lengths to accommodate Ankara’s regional security concerns. The Clinton administration was visionary in promulgating Operation Provide Comfort, which not only prevented Saddam Hussein from killing more of Iraq’s Kurdish population, but also ensured that the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of Turkey was designated as a terrorist organization. During this period, Washington closely shared actionable intelligence to limit border incursions from northern Iraq into Turkey.

Similarly, in 1999, U.S. intelligence played a pivotal role in helping to capture and deliver Turkey’s equivalent of Osama bin Laden into the hands of Turkish forces: Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK would not be in Turkish prison today had it not been for the United States. More recently, following several terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic State forces in Turkey, Washington quickly championed the deployment of Patriot missile batteries inside Turkey, sourced from NATO members.

How has Turkey reciprocated? Ankara has cozied up to the United States’ emerging great-power rivals, China and Russia. These diplomatic dalliances ultimately led to the Turkish decision to purchase, first, a Chinese air and missile defense system, and when that fell through, the decision to purchase the Russian S-400 advanced air defense missile.

Turkey has allowed itself to become a vital enabler of violent Islamist extremist forces in Syria with funds and arms flowing through Turkey into its strife-plagued neighbor. Despite repeated efforts by the United States to work out differences over rival opposition forces battling against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Turkey has repeatedly demanded that the U.S reposition its forces, launched airstrikes on U.S. partners, and has even come dangerously close to bombing the small U.S. special forces group in a wildly irresponsible effort to rouse nationalistic fervor at home in support of Erdogan’s narrow domestic political agenda.

The Erdogan regime has held American citizens (and local employees of the U.S. government) as virtual hostages in an effort to leverage U.S. domestic politics to shut down investigations of money laundering and sanctions evasion activity by actors with ties to the Turkish state. It also refused to join the West in imposing sanctions on Putin’s Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Instead, Turkey has become a key destination for illicit financial flows from Russian oligarchs seeking to shield their assets and a transit point for dual use goods supporting Russia’s wartime defense industry.

Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, Turkey has held Sweden’s prospective NATO membership (and earlier, Finland’s) hostage to Erdogan’s desire to extract benefits for acquiescing in steps that he had earlier told Finnish and Swedish leaders that he supported unconditionally, thus putting in jeopardy one of the most important strategic costs that President Vladimir Putin’s aggression has brought upon his own Russian Federation.

To add injury to insult, since the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks that were carried out by Hamas in southern Israel, Erdogan has turned his back on the West and its allies, deciding instead to shore up his support for Hamas. Referring to the militant group’s members as mujahadeen (freedom fighters), Ankara has positioned itself as an adversary of a key U.S. ally. More troublingly, Ankara has provided Hamas with office space inside Turkey while granting Turkish passports to its senior leadership. Hamas, which has operated inside Turkey since 2011, uses its base there to procure funds. The U.S. Treasury Department has accused Hamas of smuggling more than $20 million through a currency exchange in Istanbul.

TURKEY’S STANCE ON THE ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT is emblematic of its duplicitous and hypocritical foreign-policy stance with its Western allies. While Ankara publicly vilifies Israel for its counterterrorism mission in Gaza, Turkish companies continue to trade with Israel. Many of the business owners who have sent more than 400 container ships to Israel since Oct. 7 publicly rebuke Israel while privately continuing to trade with their alleged foe. Similarly, Ankara routinely scolds Washington for its partnership with the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) based on the premise that the SDF is an offshoot of the PKK in Turkey.

While the SDF and U.S. officials have given widespread assurances that the SDF’s only mission is to eliminate Islamic State forces, Erdogan has unapologetically solidified his partnership with Hamas, a militant entity that unambiguously proved its barbaric bona fides on Oct. 7.

Despite this sorry record and the almost total erosion of support for Turkey in the U.S. Congress, policy officials across multiple administrations of both parties have refrained from imposing any serious costs on Turkey. This has largely been caused by a set of assumptions that consistently failed to result in long-term improvements in the bilateral relationship. 

They include the notion that Turkey, given its crucial geographical location is “too big to fail,” that if Washington consistently treats Turkey as a trusted ally it will behave like one, and the more recent hope that Turkey might play an important mediating role in the Russia-Ukraine war or as an intermediary in negotiations to release the Hamas hostages in Gaza.

In reality, continuing to operate this way will only lead to more rather than fewer crises in the bilateral relationship while Erdogan seeks to wring every possible advantage from events as they unfold, as his spoiler stance on NATO expansion revealed.

The Biden administration badly needs to develop a long-term strategy for managing a Turkey that, certainly if Erdogan remains in charge and perhaps even after that, is animated by a profoundly anti-Western populist nationalist ideology. At the same time, Washington policymakers need to bear in mind that Turkey remains a deeply divided society, and that Erdogan’s anti-Westernism represents the views of barely 50 percent of the population.

There are some experiences worth recalling in constructing a long-term strategy that imposes costs on the Erdogan regime while not unnecessarily disadvantaging the pro-Western half of Turkey’s population. First, when the U.S. government asked Turkey for assistance in lifting the Islamic State’s siege of Kobani, Syria, in 2014 and Turkey refused, Washington simply orchestrated the dropping of relief supplies that confronted the Erdogan regime with a fait accompli with no apparent damage to the bilateral relationship. Subsequently, Kurdish forces were allowed to transit through Turkish territory to reinforce their comrades around Kobani—a result that was only possible because Washington played hardball.

When the Turks shot down a Russian aircraft after it allegedly traversed Turkish airspace from Syria in 2015, the Russians declared a boycott on Turkish agricultural produce that led to a Turkish apology and no apparent damage to the bilateral relationship. When the Turks held U.S. citizen and pastor Andrew Brunson on questionable charges of aiding terrorism, the Trump administration raised tariffs on Turkish goods and imposed sanctions on two Turkish officials. Brunson was back in U.S. hands in short order. All of this suggests that steps to penalize Turkey and impose costs can be effective if pursued on a clear and consistent basis.

The recent decision to begin moving the process of Swedish accession to NATO through the Turkish Grand National Assembly suggests that Erdogan may have realized that his effort to extort the U.S. Congress into approving the sale of F-16s to Turkey may have been impeding the effort to secure F-16s more than it was helping.

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