Turkish authorities arrested a Turkish employee at the US Consulate in Istanbul on charges of espionage, conspiring to overthrow the Turkish government, and engaging with the group of Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of plotting the failed coup on 15 July 2016. The arrest further strained relations between the two countries, causing the US Embassy on 8 October to suspend issuing non-immigrant visas, and the Turkish Embassy in Washington responded with the same the next day.
Friction continues between the two sides despite statements by US President Donald Trump while meeting his Turkish counterpart in the White House in mid-July that tensions that festered during his predecessor’s term have subsided. “Relations between our two countries are stronger than ever before,” declared Trump, and he congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for amending the constitution, even though the US and European allies are critical of the amendments.
At a meeting between the two men on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, Trump said: “Erdogan has become my friend and I believe we are closer now than at any other time.” However, this did not prevent tensions resurfacing between the NATO allies and threatening the decades-old strategic partnership between the two countries.
There are key reasons behind US-Turkish terse relations that began during the tenure of former US president Barack Obama and continued into Trump’s term despite a desire to improve ties after years of decline. The visa suspensions reveal deep-rooted disagreements caused by several factors. First, US support of Kurds in Syria. When Trump became president, Ankara expected his administration would overturn the policies of his predecessor of arming and supporting the militias of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (PYD), which Ankara claims are allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), categorised as a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the US. Turkey also rejected the participation of Syrian Democratic Forces in liberating Raqqa from Islamic State (IS) group control. These forces succeeded in expelling IS from Raqqa on 17 October and took control of the city after four months battling IS.
Continued support of Syrian Kurds by Trump’s administration angers Ankara because it feels Washington is ignoring Turkish concerns that support for Kurdish forces threatens its national security and could lead to the creation of autonomous Kurdish rule in northern Syria on the border with Turkey. Turkey asserts the weapons the US supplies to the PYD are being used by the PKK against Turkey.
Second, the arrest of 10 US citizens and several Turks working in US consulates in Turkey on charges of affiliation with Gulen. Washington accuses Ankara of blocking US legal counsel to detained US citizens, while Erdogan could use the detainees as leverage to force the US to hand over Gulen. Washington refuses to surrender Gulen on the basis that Ankara did not furnish any evidence he was behind the coup attempt.
Third, Erdogan has reneged on the principles of democracy and human rights. The US once viewed the regime of the Justice and Development Party as a model for Islamist rule, in view of former president George W Bush’s initiative for democratisation in the Islamic and Arab world, which promoted a blend of secular and Islamist values compatible with Western values and interests. After Erdogan came to power in 2003, and the recent constitutional amendments, the Turkish regime pivoted towards authoritarianism and tyranny, according to many US analysts. There are also many human rights and media violations since the failed coup.
Fourth, Turkish hostility towards the US is rooted in Erdogan’s accusation that Washington was involved in the coup, despite repeated denials by the US. Hostility by Turkish citizens towards US citizens is on the rise as shown in a survey by PEW in August, which revealed that 72 per cent of Turks view Washington as a greater security threat to their country than Russia or China.
Fifth, the rough handling of Erdogan’s bodyguards of peaceful demonstrators outside the Turkish Embassy in Washington during his visit in mid-May. Two US Senators, Patrick Leahy and Chris Van Hollen, moved to suspend the sale of US weapons worth $1.2 million to Erdogan’s bodyguards. Erdogan was further antagonised when US authorities charged three of his bodyguards with assaulting peaceful Kurdish demonstrators, describing their actions as “scandalous”. He had previously accused US police forces of allowing PKK members to demonstrate 50 metres away from him after he met with Trump.
Sixth, Turkey’s policies challenge the views of NATO members. Although the Turkish army is considered the second largest in terms of ground troops in NATO, after the US, Ankara recently broke away from European-US hegemony by boosting ties with Russia and Iran. It also supports Russian military intervention in Syria, which is opposed by Western powers, and bought the Russian S-400 defence system that conflicts with the defence infrastructure of NATO. Erdogan also adopts policies contrary to NATO’s values of democracy, freedoms, human rights and joint defence, which raises doubts about Turkey’s commitment to the alliance.
Finally, Turkey violated US-led international sanctions against Iran by exporting a large volume of gold in return for oil and natural gas. US prosecutors accuse former officials close to Erdogan of conspiring with Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold dealer who was arrested on 22 May 2016 for violating sanctions against Iran.
US-Turkish relations are at an all-time low matched only by the 1974 Cyprus crisis. In light of growing security concerns due to events in Turkey, The New York Times published an editorial titled “Some urgent questions about Turkey” on 13 October. It urged that the US remove its nuclear weapons stationed at Turkey’s Incirlik airbase, including 50 tactical nuclear weapons. The editorial suggested this should happen soon before the collapse of US-Turkish relations altogether.
Further bilateral tensions are expected in the coming months due to two reasons. First, current conflicting security interests and differing, and often contradictory, priorities in the Middle East. Second, after the failed coup, Erdogan purged the Turkish army of all US and NATO sympathisers in a bid to take control of all state institutions, and appointed new top brass loyal to him and his institutions.
Nonetheless, tensions may not last long since Turkey and the US need each other. Washington does not want to sacrifice Ankara as an influential ally in the region, as seen in frequent visits by incumbent US officials to Turkey — most notably the vice president and secretary of defence — as well as the two presidents meeting twice within nine months. At the same time, Ankara prefers to remain close to the West and Washington because its alliance with Russia and Iran is temporary caused by fast moving developments in the Middle East. This alliance is not expected to last long since Ankara views its role in the region differently from Tehran’s vision, and Turkey does not want to sacrifice its shot at EU membership and its NATO membership in exchange for transient relations with Russia.