Is the strategic alliance between Turkey and the U.S. nearing its end?

Left to right: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Could the sun be setting on America’s historic strategic alliance with Turkey, asks Edward Rowe.

For the last few years, Ankara and Washington have been going through a rough patch to say the least. The two sides are currently locking horns across key policy areas from the sale of military equipment to the ongoing instability in the Middle East.

As Turkey tries to pursue a more independent foreign policy with less reliance on Western allies, the U.S. has taken a more binary approach seeing countries as “with us” or “against us”. Seems like a match made in hell methinks.

There is plenty to disagree over that’s for sure, and solutions appear few and far between.

Russian missiles

Let’s start with the big guns, quite literally. Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system is a major cause for contention between the two countries.

American officials fear that Moscow could access NATO technology in Turkey through the system if Ankara installs it. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has threatened to withhold the delivery of NATO F-35 fighter jets to Turkey unless it drops the deal, while U.S. senators have proposed a bipartisan bill to that effect.

“Turkey is an important NATO ally and willing partner in addressing a number of U.S. national security priorities,” said Republican bill co-sponsor, James Lankford, adding “It’s concerning that Turkey would seek close defence cooperation with Russia, whose authoritarian ruler seeks to undermine NATO and U.S. interests at every turn.”

The senator’s statement embodies the real problem on Washington’s side by tragically neglecting to recognise that Turkey is a country with its own security concerns, interests and priorities, and not a means to meeting American ends.

U.S. sanctions

American attitudes show no signs of changing, as sanctions also loom dangerously close to Turkey, which could face punishment from Congress for buying the Russian system under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

What’s more, Russia is set to start delivering the S-400s this July. This begs the question, if Ankara goes ahead with the Russia deal and is sanctioned, does that mean Turkey could from then on be considered an “adversary” in Washington?

The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, announced last week that Ankara is “taking into account” allies’ concerns on the issue after “positive” talks, but a Turkish military official also told Russia’s Sputnik News outlet last Saturday that Russian fighter jets would be the “first best choice” for Turkey if the U.S. behaved in an “un-allied way” over the F-35s.

Since then, an American Democrat Senator, Robert Menendez, has lashed out, saying on Monday that there is “no chance” that Turkey could have both the Russian and NATO equipment. Most recently, the Turkish foreign minister reiterated on Tuesday that the S-400 arrangement is a “done deal” while defence minister, Hulusi Akar, has announced that Turkey has “short-term, medium-term and long-term plans” in place if America withholds the F-35 delivery.

In short, no matter how “positive” or “productive” any meetings might seem, both sides are still trading threats publicly. Let’s not forget that President Trump said he could “devastate Turkey economically” over Syria just three months ago.

Syria

Syria is yet another bugbear, with both countries almost completely at odds, frenemies perhaps!

Turkish soldiers near the Syrian border at Hassa, in Hatay province.

Turkey is concerned about America’s Kurdish allies against ISIS in Syria, the People’s Protection Units or YPG.

The YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which Turkey, the U.S., Britain and the EU consider a terrorist organisation that has waged a decades-long secessionist insurgency against the Turkish state.

Turkey has also fought against ISIS, but it fears that the YPG could exacerbate secessionism among its own Kurdish citizens – around a fifth of Turkey’s population – cannot be underestimated.

This leaves the Turkey-U.S. relationship over Syria in unimaginable difficulty, a trade-off between two internationally valid causes, the protection of Turkish territorial integrity and the desire to completely wipe out ISIS using all available means; neither side can afford to back down.

In sum, serious tensions still plague the Turkish-American alliance with no easy answers presenting themselves. Yes, things are bad, really bad, certain problems may be inescapable for the foreseeable future, some solutions may come only when (or if) the situation in Syria is resolved. Some of the damage may be irreparable. Only time will tell.

Edward Rowe is a journalist with a specialist interest in Turkey, the Middle East and the wider Muslim-majority world. You can follow Edward on Twitter at @YahyaRowe.

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