Despite Turkey’s PR pushback, it’s still the #WorstAllyEver
By Georgia Logothetis, Managing Director
Fresh off the heels of being temporarily, at least, denied its F-35 fighter jets in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, Turkish government officials are in full-blown crisis mode, desperately trying to convince the American public and lawmakers that Turkey is a reliable ally that is being wrongly treated. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It began in print on August 10th, with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan penning an op-ed in The New York Times. On Sunday, Serdar Kiliç, Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to the United States, wrote a lengthy letter in The Wall Street Journal claiming “Turkey has been a proud and indispensable ally for over 60 years,” and on Monday, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu took to the pages of USA Today to claim “Turkey is committed to being an ally.”
All three pieces hinge on the same main talking points: that Turkey is a valuable ally and that it aids the U.S. on its war on terror via Incirlik Air Base.
Like any spin-filled public relations effort, Turkey’s pushback only tells part of the story.
Let’s start with Incirlik Air Base, an air base just 60 miles northwest of the Syrian border that Cavusoglu says “has been a critical staging ground…and has made a substantial difference in the ability to successfully root out ISIS.” That’s true — Incirlik Air Base is at a strategically important location, not to mention that it currently houses 50 nuclear bombs. What is also true is Turkey has not always acted like a strong ally with respect to Incirlik.
In March 2018, The Wall Street Journal reported that “U.S. military officials said it has become challenging to operate at Incirlik, whose use Ankara has long used as leverage against the U.S.”, in part because Turkey has “request[ed] the U.S. suspend operations to allow high-ranking Turkish officials to use the runway. Officials said this sometimes halts U.S. air operations for more than a day.” Cavusoglu conveniently doesn’t mention these delays when he touts the fact that Incirlik “put[s] allied forces hours closer than other bases in the region.”
And of course, in trying to cast Turkey as a stalwart ally on the war on terror, none of the Turkish officials note that in 2003, Turkey refused to allow combat flights to take off from the base, or that it dragged its feet in the fight against ISIL by delaying use of the base for allied anti-ISIL operations. Turkey was also negligent in the early fight against ISIL “as the country became a conduit for fighters seeking to join the Islamic State.
Even after it tightened its borders and permitted the use of Incirlik, Turkey has continued to act contrary to American interests, especially in Syria, where the Defense Department has said that its attack against Kurdish forces — the same Kurdish forces America has been relying on to take down ISIL — has been “a distraction.” It even threatened to attack a Syrian town held by U.S. troops earlier this year, putting American lives at risk.
And then there’s the issue of a recently filed lawsuit, submitted by a pro-Erdogan lawyer’s group, that seeks to raid Incirlik, arrest officers there, and temporarily halt all flights from the base on the alleged and absurd basis that current and former American officials were part of the failed 2016 coup attempt.
For Erdogan, Cavusoglu and others, Incirlik is cited as evidence of its beneficial relationship to the United States. In reality, selectively citing Turkey’s history at Incirlik is a fig leaf strategy that reveals more than Turkey would like. After all, if this is the cornerstone of its branding as a pillar of reliability in the region, the foundation of the Turkey-U.S. relationship is on a lot shakier ground than Turkey cares to confess.
It’s not just with respect to Incirlik that Turkey has frustrated American policy. On issue after issue, Turkey has failed the ally test. Perhaps the most well-known instance of late is the fact that Turkish representatives offered Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and his son $15 million to deliver exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen to the Turkish government (the United States has refused to extradite Gulen, citing lack of evidence). Add to that the continued threats against Greece (an indispensable NATO ally), its actions against and continued illegal occupation of Cyprus (another incredibly valuable strategic partner in the region) and it’s detention and jailing of American citizens and others, and it becomes clear that a few slick op-eds can’t undo the damage of years of decidedly anti-American behavior.