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The insidious erosion of the Turkish-US partnership

December 5, 2017 at 7:05 pm

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech in Ankara, Turkey on 13 October 2017 [Halil Sağırkaya/Anadolu Agency]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strong stance on US President Donald Trump’s anticipated recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is yet another indication of a growing Turkish-US split.

Turkey’s “red line” on Jerusalem, as demonstrated by a threat to server ties with Israel, underscores the volatility flowing from the anticipated US shift on the issue of Israel’s capital.

In terms of Turkish-American bilateral relations, the row over Jerusalem is just the latest example of a succession of disagreements, rows and disputes. Indeed, it comes on the heels of an intensifying row over the testimony of detained Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab.

By implicating Erdogan in Iran-related sanctions busting, Zarrab has effectively created a diplomatic crisis. Predictably, Turkey has hit back by issuing an arrest warrant for senior US intelligence official, Graham Fuller, allegedly for involvement in the failed July 2016 coup.

And on top of all this, Turkey is aligning closer to Russia, as demonstrated by the Sochi Summit two weeks ago, where Erdogan discussed grand strategy in Syria with his Russian and Iranian counterparts.

Read: Turkey’s Erdogan says US courts cannot put Turkey on trial

The inevitable question is whether these political and diplomatic disputes have the potential to produce a significant strategic misalignment in Turkish-US relations. Whilst relations may not be headed for a total breakdown, big future trends suggest a significant modification in the partnership.

Reluctant US ally?

Turkey has been central to Western defence and security arrangements since the end of the Second World War. Having joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) only three years after its foundation in 1949, Turkey continues to be the only Muslim-majority country in the Western military alliance.

Turkey’s unrivalled geographic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia enabled the country to play a crucial intelligence role in the Cold War. This role continued even in the latter stages of the Cold War, and probably beyond, as Turkey was central to US efforts at keeping tabs on post-Soviet Russia.

However, the end of the Cold War, and the inevitable reduction of the American presence in Turkey, came as a bitter disappointment to many influential Turks, leading some Turkish analysts to indulge in historical revisionism by reframing the relationship as one characterised by an “ambivalent” alliance.

At deeper levels, the ending of the Cold War brought Turkey’s unfulfilled regional potential into sharp relief. Suddenly it dawned on Turkish strategists and analysts that the country had been so consumed by the Cold War that it had failed to develop even the semblance of a regional strategy.

Read: ‘Turkey has evidence of US arming terror groups’

Even Turkey’s singular attempt at regional strategising, namely its membership in the ill-fated Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), was ultimately subsidiary to its broader role in the Western alliance in so far as CENTO was essentially a British-led effort aimed at containing the former Soviet Union.

It is against this historical backdrop that Turkey’s re-engagement with the Middle East since the 1990s has caused tension with its American ally. Beginning with Turkey’s veto of US plans to open up a “northern front” as part of the invasion and occupation of Iraq in March/April 2003, Turkey has not shied away from opposing destabilising US policies.

More recently, Turkey has opposed many aspects of the US’ half-hearted and convoluted plans in the Syrian conflict, notably America’s controversial partnership with Syrian Kurdish forces linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Pulling apart

Focussing on the future, the dynamics undermining the Turkish-US alliance are in part centred on the diminishing strength and appeal of large alliances which the US either leads (such as NATO) or which it relies on for broader strategic impact (such as the European Union).

For its part, Turkey is no longer pursuing EU membership in earnest, and as the emerging outcome of the Syrian conflict has demonstrated Turkey can just as easily find accommodation with Russia, which counts as Nato’s chief adversary, as it can with the Western military alliance.

But external pressure is only part of the story. Arguably the bigger part of the equation is internal developments in Turkey, particularly since last year’s failed coup and the subsequent consolidation of power by Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The mainstream Western media has identified Turkey’s purported drift toward “authoritarianism” as the main reason behind the country’s increasing estrangement from the EU in particular and the Western world in general.

Predictably, this myopic analysis fails to take sufficient stock of the deeper forces at play, notably Turkey’s struggle to come to terms with its modern heritage. By any standard, Turkey’s transition from a “Caliphate” to a modern European-style Republic in the early 1920s was a rapid and ill-thought out process.

Whilst any analysis centred on the partial restoration of the past is necessarily extreme and wide off the mark, the fact remains that an authentic modern Turkish polity will look and operate differently to Western political systems.

Indeed, it is this quest for an authentic Turkish polity that is at the heart of Turkey’s gradual drift away from Europe and America. In due course this drift will produce a shift in Turkey’s strategic profile from one of Western ally to a more or less independent player in the Middle East and wider international stage.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.