The Need for Realpolitik in US-Turkey Relations

By: Mark Bhaskar, Columnist

Photo Credit: Voice of America

From October 8th-9th, the United States and Turkey suspended each other’s visa services after the latter arrested a second US Consulate employee of this year. On October 16th, the United States sent a diplomatic team to begin negotiations to end the crisis, yet a solution has not been reached.[i] This comes in the wake of an assault perpetrated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bodyguards on American citizens in September, an ongoing row over the extradition of US-based imam Fethullah Gülen—allegedly the mastermind of the failed July 2016 Coup in Turkey—and the support of conflicting proxy forces in Syria. The two nations are now in the midst of their worst diplomatic crisis since 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus. For the foreseeable future, frustration and mistrust will dominate US-Turkish relations unless the dynamic is altered on a fundamental level. The previously shared values and common security concerns over Russian influence are no longer enough to keep these two countries together. Indeed, the former are fast disappearing and more Turks consider the US a threat than Russia.[ii] Only by both refocusing on issues where their interests coincide and punishing/rewarding Ankara for its behavior, can the Trump Administration successfully manage its relationship with Erdoğan’s Turkey and achieve any of its strategic objectives in the Middle East.

Although Ankara and Washington disagree on a strategy for Syria, the two still have several other common goals that the United States should place at the forefront of the relationship. For example, both the United States and Turkey have a vested interest in maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity. From Turkey’s perspective, the recent KRG referendum presents an existential crisis, as it could further galvanize efforts among the Turkish Kurds to gain independence. Given the current state of Turkey’s perennial Kurdish issue, such independence efforts would only be violent. Though the United States is more concerned with Iraq’s unity vis-à-vis containing Iran, including Turkey as a partner in talks between Washington and Baghdad could go a long way to restoring Turkey’s faith in US support on this issue.[iii] In addition, Turkey’s drive to become an energy hub for natural gas from Azerbaijan, Iran, and Central Asia is in the US national interest and the United States should support those efforts. Europe imports about 34% of its natural gas from Russia, and an alternate route through Turkey would reduce the European Union’s reliance upon Moscow.[iv] Breaking the hold of Russia’s semi-state owned Gazprom over Europe’s energy markets could give the United States and the EU greater tactical flexibility in addressing President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive behavior.

President Erdoğan is a political Islamist and given his increasingly ideologically-driven foreign policy ventures—which either come into conflict with US objectives, as in Syria, or escalate international disputes, as in Qatar—future cooperation with Turkey must be transactional. Unfortunately, that means the United States should punish Turkey for actions that jeopardize its interests and reward Turkey for its cooperation. Regarding the current crisis, President Erdoğan is taking hostages in an effort to force the United States to extradite both Fethullah Gülen—with the goal of executing him for his alleged role in the 2016 coup that killed 290 people[v]—and Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman accused of violating international sanctions on Iran. In addition, while the consulate employees arrested this year are Turkish citizens, Erdoğan also holds several US citizens prisoner, including Pastor Andrew Brunson and NASA scientist Serkan Gölge.[vi]

This cannot stand. While the case against Gülen is compelling[vii], the United States must not allow Erdoğan’s hostage policy to succeed, for it undermines America’s rule of law. In this case, President Trump would do well to learn from his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt’s conduct in the 1904 Perdicaris Affair. When a Moroccan bandit named Ahmed ibn-Muhammed Raisuli kidnapped Ion Perdicaris and his stepson, President Roosevelt ordered seven warships with a detachment of Marines to Tangier to obtain their release. Roosevelt did this despite the revelation that neither Perdicaris nor his stepson were US citizens, reasoning that Raisuli thought they were US citizens at the time of their capture. After tough negotiations and an explicit authorization to use force, American representatives secured their release.[viii] Suspending visa services does not have the same effect. Although the deployment of forces is certainly extreme, Erdoğan has proven himself vulnerable to coercive actions in recent years. After Turkey shot down a Russian bomber in 2015, Vladimir Putin imposed harsh economic sanctions, unleashed a vicious propaganda campaign targeting Erdoğan, and reduced tourism between the two countries. Taken together, these punishments cost Turkey $10 billion and forced Erdoğan to issue a public apology. Since then, the two have agreed to cooperate in Syria and increase their bilateral trade.[ix] This incident proves that getting tough can compel Erdoğan to alter his policies.

At the same time, Washington needs to recognize Turkey for actions it takes that align with US objectives. For example, Turkish ports refuse to admit ships coming from the Crimea—the region recently annexed by Russia in a move condemned by the international community, including Turkey.[x] In addition, despite a slow start, Turkish authorities have joined the fight against the Islamic State with vigor, arresting 780 people with alleged ties to the terrorist organization and killing dozens of IS soldiers in Syria.[xi] This is not to mention Turkey’s laudable efforts to provide for its Syrian refugee population. As of the beginning of October, Turkey hosts over 3.2 million Syrians and has spent $25 billion on their care.[xii] Turkey now hosts more refugees than any other country in the world—a distinction that fits well with President Trump’s desire to keep Syrian refugees as close to their country of origin as possible.[xiii]

The United States has plenty of “carrots” to offer Turkey as a reward for such policies. For example, the United States can work with its proxy in Syria—the Kurdish-dominated Democratic Union Party (PYD)—to remove leaders of its military arm that have been trained by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has hampered US operations and remains the biggest sticking point between US and Turkish policy in Syria,[xiv] given the group’s perpetration of terrorist attacks that have killed nearly 1,500 Turkish security forces and civilians in the last two years alone.[xv] Other carrots include US support for Turkey’s aforementioned desire to become an energy hub and additional consideration of Turkey’s extradition case against Fethullah Gülen.[xvi]

In light of the above, relations with Turkey will likely be a continuous source of frustration for the United States. Turkey has changed, and its leadership approaches politics with a deep-seated resentment of Western values and the states that sponsor them.[xvii] The only option now is to focus on shared objectives and incentivizing good behavior in an effort to manage—instead of restore—the US-Turkey relationship. It is truly saddening that two nations who once fought side by side in the Korean War have such poor relations today. If values and a common enemy will not restore these ties, then the United States must apply realpolitik to adjust to this new, grim era.

[i] Gall, Carlotta. “U.S.-Turkey Visa Standoff Disrupts Business and Tourism.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Oct. 2017.

[ii] Manevich, Dorothy, and Hanyu Chwe. “Globally, More People See U.S. Power and Influence as a Major Threat.” Pew Research Center, 1 Aug. 2017.

[iii] Chmaytelli, Maher. “Kurds Offer to Suspend Independence Drive, Seek Talks with Baghdad.”Reuters, 25 Oct. 2017.

[iv] Mazneva, Elena, and Anna Shiryaevskaya. “Putin’s Russia Seen Dominating European Gas for Two Decades.”, Bloomberg, 28 Feb. 2017.

[v] Shaheen, Kareem. “Erdoğan to Continue Crackdown as Turkey Marks Failed Coup.” The Guardian, 16 July 2017.

[vi] Weise, Zia. “‘Hostages’ in Erdoğan’s New Turkey.” POLITICO, POLITICO, 10 Oct. 2017.

[vii] Cavusoglu, Mevlut. “The United States Should Extradite Fetullah Gülen.” Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, 15 May 2017.

[viii] “The Perdicaris Affair.” Naval History Blog, U.S. Naval Institute, 13 Oct. 2010.

[ix] Baev, Pavel K, and Kemal Kirişci. “An Ambiguous Partnership: The Serpentine Trajectory of Turkish-Russian Relations in the Era of Erdoğan and Putin.” Brookings Institute, Center on the United States and Europe, Sept. 2017.

[x] “Russia Reacted to Ban on Turkey to Accept Ships from Annexed Crimea.” FrontNews International, 15 Oct. 2017.

[xi] Reuters. “Turkish Authorities Seized Nearly 400 Alleged ISIS Members in Six Provinces in Biggest Roundup of Militants.” Newsweek, 10 Feb. 2017.

[xii] “Turkey’s Response.” Syria Regional Refugee Response, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 19 Oct. 2017.

[xiii] Held, Amy. “Trump Says Keeping Syrian Refugees In Region Is ‘Best Way To Help Most People’.” NPR, NPR, 25 July 2017.

[xiv]Cagaptay, Soner. How to Untie the Syrian Kurdish Knot with Turkey. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 7 Sept. 2017.

[xv]Mandıracı, Berkay. Turkey’s PKK Conflict Kills Almost 3,000 in Two Years. International Crisis Group, 20 July 2017.

[xvi] Jeffrey, James. “Serious Consequences of Halt in Visas Between Ankara and DC.” The Cipher Brief, 9 Oct. 2017.

[xvii] Cagaptay, Soner. The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey. I.B. Tauris & Co., 2017.

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