Turkey-U.S. relations: It’s complicated

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

During the end of the 19th century, the Turkish Ottoman Empire was often called “the sick man of Europe.” 

Today, modern Turkey, led by the mercurial autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, can be aptly described as the “ambivalent state of Eurasia.” Turkey is a full member of NATO — in formal alliance with the United States and its Western partners. But Turkey thus far has not been admitted to the European Union, in part because of its human rights record.

In recent years, Turkey, which was at one time a solid and dependable ally of the United States, and a historically friendly Muslim-majority, though non-Arab nation to the State of Israel, has shifted to a sometimes contradictory foreign policy. During the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars, Turkey refused to allow its military bases to be used by the U.S.-led coalition that ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Erdogan, who envisions himself as a “moderate Islamist,” sponsored the attempt by the Turkish flagship Mavi Marmara, which attempted to run Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. An Israel Defense Forces interception on the ship resulted in the deaths of nine Turks, including one with joint U.S.-Turkish citizenship. That incident soured what was left of the once cordial relationship between Israel and Turkey.

The fast-moving events in the volatile region of the Middle East have created yet another new normal for Turkey and Erdogan. Earlier this week, Turkey made a deal with the United States to allow U.S. planes to strike Islamic State militants, which could lead to the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Syrian. Erdogan has expressed frustration that the United States has not been more aggressive in its pushback against the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad. Assad himself last weekend admitted that the Syrian military is unable to hold on to some parts of the country because his forces have been depleted by desertions and defections.  Sensing Assad’s vulnerability, even Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted that Russia might be willing to consider a move to remove him from power.

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The new agreement between the United States and Turkey could be an authentic game-changer in the protracted civil war in Syria, which has already claimed the lives of over 300,000 people and driven as many as 4 million people from their homes. Reportedly, Erdogan is considering a military strike inside Syria against both Islamic State targets and the Assad regime itself.

Turkey had drawn considerable criticism from the United States and its NATO partners of aiding Islamic State by allowing the militants freedom of movement across the border with Syria. Among the hundreds of pro-ISIS recruits who have taken advantage of Turkey’s wide open border with Syrian and Iraqi areas under ISIS control have been scores of young people from the United States and Great Britain who have been recruited by ISIS over its sophisticated social media platforms.

The above moves towards great Turkish-U.S.-Western cooperation can been seen as very positive developments in healing the testy relationships of recent years. At the same time, Turkey has reignited its hot war against one of the major Kurdish parties, the PKK, or Kurdish Workers Party.  Erdogan had reached a historic truce with the PKK in 2013, accompanied by a pledge to grant Turkey’s large Kurdish minority greater rights and autonomy. Turkey had long battled the PKK over a three-decade period, which claimed 40,000 lives.

It is highly regrettable that Erdogan would bundle his positive cooperation with the United States and its allies with a renewed crackdown on the militant PKK. The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from northern Iraq have been a consistently effective fighting force against ISIS positions in Iraq.  The northern Iraqi Kurds are members of a more moderate Kurdish faction known as the YPG.  The YPG and PKK are rivals, but are united in their desire for an independent Kurdish state.  It is hoped that the Turkey-Kurdish truce can be resumed to keep the anti-ISIS factions united against the Islamic State menace, which is now described by the FBI director as a much worse threat to U.S. security at home and abroad than al-Qaida.

  Most recently, Turkey won the full backing of all of its NATO partners at a special meeting in Brussels, which should solidify Turkey’s new aggressive stance against Islamic State.  A U.S. State Department official said that the United States still considers the Kurdish YPD among its anti-ISIS allies, and Turkey’s issues with the PKK will not undermine U.S. support for the YPD fighters against ISIS.  All of this jockeying for position is a result of the crazy-quilt of shifting alliances and interests in the volatile Middle East.

If all of this were not confusing enough, Dore Gold, recently named Israel’s Director General of the Foreign Ministry, reportedly traveled to Ankara to meet with Turkish military and diplomatic offices about restoring cordial Tukish-Israeli relations.

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma.” That Churchillian description now seems most suited to the perplexing and ever-changing government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.