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Over the past decade, the Turkish government has slowly consolidated its power; media outlets have been shut down, opposition politicians have been jailed, and Turks have been arrested for social media posts deemed critical of government policies.[i] As the country has shifted away from an open society and democratic government, so too has it shifted away from its alliance with the country that long encouraged these values: The United States. In recent years, Turkey under current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has not only reoriented itself away from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its relations with the U.S., but has also actively engaged in anti-American messaging. The anti-American propaganda employed by Turkey’s government and pro-government allies has served to stoke anti-Americanism in Turkish society that has enabled the country’s movement away from strategic alignment with the West. This strategic shift has geopolitical implications for the United States’ strategic interests in NATO and in the Middle East.
Turkey first aligned with the United States in the early years of the Cold War. Joining NATO gave Turkey the promise of collective security in reaction to a threatening Soviet Union to the north, while the United States gained an ally strategically located on the Black Sea and the Turkish Straits. However, this initial alliance did not mean that Turkey always had strong pro-American feelings. At the height of the Cold War, strong anti-American factions emerged within the Turkish ruling elite. These factions were representative of a strong anti-American sentiment within the population that originated from Leftist circles.[ii] After the Cold War, anti-American feeling reemerged in Turkey over the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The Turkish parliament under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government—the first Islamist party to successfully take and hold power and the party of Erdoğan—rejected by three votes an agreement that would have allowed American troops and military logistics to pass from Turkey into Iraq.[iii] US favorability with Turks dropped from 52% in 2000 to only 15% in 2003. Turkish opinion of the U.S. has not changed since 2003, despite changes in US leadership. [iv]
Turkish leaders have capitalized on the strong anti-American sentiment in the population to make the U.S. a scapegoat in domestic messaging both directly—through statements and public comments—and indirectly—through surrogates in the Turkish media. Directly through government statements and comments, Erdoğan and his allies have blamed the United States for being behind domestic problems in Turkey. For example, in 2016, many government officials labeled the U.S. as a major player in planning a failed coup d’état in the country by a faction within the military.[v] Turkey interpreted the Obama Administration’s slowness to condemn the unsuccessful coup as tacit approval, souring relations between the two countries and encouraging the use of anti-American rhetoric by authorities.[vi] American support for Kurdish forces in Syria, too, has drawn intense condemnation from Turkish officials who accuse the U.S. of supporting terrorism and of seeking to “encircling [Turkey] from the south” by enabling a proxy force along Turkey’s Syrian border capable of launching cross-border incursions.[vii] Erdoğan has even hinted that the Turkish military might target American forces embedded in Kurdish-held areas if they do not withdraw.[viii] Indirectly, the government has used its influence over Turkish media to further spread anti-American messages. Recent years of crackdowns against opposition media and censorship of reporting have reinforced the ability to spread these messages across the Turkish media landscape.[ix] Pro-government newspapers, such as Yeni Şafak, spread unsubstantiated claims that the United States government actively broadcasts propaganda of the Gülen movement, the religious-political movement that the government blamed as behind the 2016 coup attempt.[x] Even outlets once deemed independent or even politicly opposed to the Erdoğan government, such as the liberal Hürriyet, publish uncorroborrated claims that the United States controls Kurdish terrorist groups opposed to the Turkish state.[xi] These media proxies enable the Turkish government to amplify and promulgate anti-American rhetoric.
The rise of anti-American rhetoric poses challenges to U.S.-Turkey strategic relations. Turkey has long been a strategic ally for the U.S., both with its location south of an antagonistic Soviet Union—now a Russian Federation seeking to restore its global clout—and with its position to influence and project power into the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. However, anti-American messaging from the Turkish government has coincided with the country’s broader shift away from its ties with the U.S. Since the 2016 coup, the government has purged large numbers of pro-NATO and pro-American military personnel from the Turkish Armed Forces. Their replacements have been those who support stronger ties with Russia, China, and “Eastern” countries. These “Eurasianists,” who increasingly hold sway in top circles of Turkish leadership, reject strong ties with the West, which they see as a threat to Turkey’s strength and independence.[xii] As this view becomes more prominent in Turkey, it has challenged the cohesion of the NATO alliance. Without this cohesion, the alliance will cease to serve the security interests of its constituent members and could be compromised from within. For example, The Turkish government recently leaked sensitive NATO intelligence, including the locations of U.S. Special Forces bases in northern Syria.[xiii]
The Turkish government’s anti-American messaging serves as a tool to influence the domestic Turkish audience and gives justification for a strategic reorientation away from the U.S. and the West. At the same time as it has pushed the country away from the U.S., Turkey has sought to improve relations with Russia, at a time when U.S.-Russian relations and NATO-Russia relations have reached a nadir.[xiv] President Erdoğan has also publicly floated the idea of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security arrangement of Eurasian states led by China and Russia.[xv] By railing against the United States in the domestic information environment, the Turkish government primes its population for geo-strategic shifts away from the alignment with the U.S. and the West with minimal domestic opposition. If anti-Americanism in Turkey continues, and the government’s antipathy towards the U.S. does not change, the United States’ strategic interests in NATO and in the Middle East will be seriously threatened.
[i] Laura Pitel and Erika Solomon, “Turkey arrests scores over social media ‘propaganda’ on Syria offensive,” Financial Times, January 23, 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/15748584-0055-11e8-9650-9c0ad2d7c5b5.
[ii]Behlül Özkan, “The Cold War-era Origins of Islamism in Turkey and its Rise to Power,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Vol. 22, Hudson Institute, November 5th, 2017, https://www.hudson.org/research/13807-the-cold-war-era-origins-of-islamism-in-turkey-and-its-rise-to-power.
[iii]“Turkey rejects U.S. troop proposal,” CNN, March 1, 2003, http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/03/01/sprj.irq.main/.
[iv]Soner Cagaptay and Yurter Ozcan, “Persistent Anti-Americanism in Turkey: External or Internal Causes?” Policywatch 1560, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 29, 2009, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/persistent-anti-americanism-in-turkey-external-or-internal-causes.
[v]Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu, “Turks Can Agree on One Thing: U.S. Was Behind Failed Coup,” The New York Times, August 2, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/03/world/europe/turkey-coup-erdogan-fethullah-gulen-united-states.html.
[vi]Ragip Soylu, “Turkish envoy says Obama administration acted disappointingly late during the coup attempt,” Daily Sabah, July 13, 2017, https://www.dailysabah.com/diplomacy/2017/07/14/turkish-envoy-says-obama-administration-acted-disappointingly-late-during-the-coup-attempt.
[vii] Angela Dewan and Gul Tuysuz, “Erdogan launches new tirade against US as relations with Turkey sour,” CNN, October 12, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/12/politics/turkey-us-relations-erdogan/index.html.
[viii]Ellen Francis and Ezgi Erkoyun, “Erdogan: we will ‘strangle’ U.S.-backed force in Syria “before it’s even born”,” Reuters, January 15, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria/erdogan-we-will-strangle-u-s-backed-force-in-syria-before-its-even-born-idUSKBN1F41HJ.
[ix] “Silencing Turkey’s Media The Government’s Deepening Assault on Critical Journalism,” Human Rights Watch, December 15, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/12/15/silencing-turkeys-media/governments-deepening-assault-critical-journalism.
[x] “US government-funded TV spreads FETÖ propaganda,” Yeni Şafak, February 10, 2018, https://www.yenisafak.com/en/news/us-government-funded-tv-spreads-feto-propaganda-3104370.
[xi] Cansu Çamlıbel, “‘ABD Öcalan’ı verip PKK’yı kontrol etti’,” Hürriyet, March 13, 2018, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/dunya/abd-ocalani-verip-pkkyi-kontrol-etti-40769974.
[xii]Mustafa Gurbuz, “Beyond the Trump-Erdoğan Meeting: The Rise of Eurasianists and Turkey’s Syria Policy,” Arab Center Washington DC, May 23, 2017, http://arabcenterdc.org/policy_analyses/beyond-the-trump-erdogan-meeting-the-rise-of-eurasianists-and-turkeys-syria-policy/.
[xiii] Roy Gutman, “Turkey Leaks Secret Locations of U.S. Troops in Syria,” The Daily Beast, July 19, 2017, www.thedailybeast.com/turkey-leaks-secret-locations-of-us-troops-in-syria.
[xiv]Simon Tisdall, “Turkey’s ever-closer ties with Russia leave US lacking key ally on Syria,” The Guardian, April 11, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/11/turkey-ever-closer-ties-with-russia-leave-us-lacking-key-ally-on-syria.
[xv] Lina Wang, “Will Turkey Join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Instead of the EU?” The Diplomat, November 24, 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/11/will-turkey-join-the-shanghai-cooperation-organization-instead-of-the-eu/.