The Sanctity of Borders in Turkish-American Relations

By: Özge Taylan, THO Non-Resident Fellow

One of the main agenda items for the NATO Defense Ministers meeting held in Brussels on 3rd October 2018 was the problem of instability and security difficulties at the southern borders of NATO, mainly due to the intractable challenges presented by the Syrian crisis. Securing cross-border movements and cyber security measures were emphasised in particular.

As a NATO ally, Turkey’s strategic geopolitical position has become a reference point for discussion. Many factors have affected the Turkey’s border security — but probably none has had as much influence as the Arab Spring. The civil war in Syria has affected both the international security infrastructure and Turkey’s national security; it has led to humanitarian and migration crises. Border security vulnerabilities aggravate normal trading practices, and trigger terrorist incursions and attacks. Turkey, as Syria’s neighbour is impacted more than anywhere else, and every country in the world is affected by Syria. The effective construction and control and of land borders requires proactive policies — and these are of vital importance, since they directly affect the national security of neighbouring countries and actors’ own ontological existence.

Border security includes safeguarding a state’s land, air, and water, deterring threats along these borders, and securing all points of entry.[1] This complex and critical area is both underrated and under-cited, involving counterterrorism, industrial defence cooperation, migration issues, territoriality, human and material mobility and interaction. Since security concerns always guide the international system, border security is inextricably linked to cooperation among states.

In the post-9/11 environment, many countries — including Turkey — have focused more on border security. The grave attacks that have occurred in recent years due to infiltration and strikes by terrorist organisations have led Turkey to regulate her institutions. Since 2003 the state has made an investment and built infrastructure in this area, due to the perceived urgency and importance of securing the borders, and the threat which Syria poses to Turkey. When it comes to Syrian border security, Iraq and Iran come first to mind; Turkey’s longest border with Syria is 911km, corresponding to one third of Turkey’s territory. Furthermore, due to its geographic location on the most southern edge of the EU and on NATO’s eastern flank, the effect of Syrian cases is particularly acute in Turkey.

The two biggest armies in NATO cannot meet at a common point since they diverge on defining strategic threat and priorities. How and why?

For some time, Turkey has been fighting against the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG. Turkey defines YPG as a terrorist organisation because of its links with the PKK — blacklisted by the US, NATO, and the EU. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that there is no difference between ISIL and YPG.[2]On the other hand, America’s main enemy is defined as the Daesh and the US do not recognise the YPG as a terrorist organisation, but rather an ally in the fight against Daesh. Furthermore, the remainders of Obama’s terms like the disappointed program of “train and equip” has led to the deterioration of relations between the two countries.

Turkey’s stated aim is to leave no terrorist along the borders, and, of course, to ensure that asylum seekers return peacefully to their countries. The main security risks along the Turkish border are PKK’s infiltration into Turkish territory, and creation of a corridor in Northern Syria by the PKK and YPG. Turkey’s goal is to go eastward to Manbij, Syria — where the US troops also are stationed. America sees Turkey’s aims as obstacles in the fight against Daesh, and in contravention of NATO’s commitment: “Defeating terrorism in all its forms remains a key objective for our countries and a key challenge for the stability in the region.”[3]

New Patterns of Cooperation

The Tehran Summit of 7thSeptember, attended by Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani of Iran, has been described as a crossroads for Turkey by many international relations experts. For Turkey, we can’t talk about a duality like ‘America versus Russia’. There is no doubt that Russia will advance in its own interests in Syria, although concrete steps have been taken as a result of the agreement between Turkey and Russia (opposition groups started to leave a disarmament zone inside Idlib on the first week of October 2018). Also, it is clear that common ground cannot be found between Russia, Iran and Turkey, because their policy choices regarding Syria have become so different in the long run.

Furthermore, although Russia invited both China and Turkey to the military exercise in Vostok, September 2018, instead of taking an active part, Turkey preferred to send observers, resisting the opportunity to make a show of military might on the world stage. We can interpret this as Turkey attempting to preserve her relations with the US and NATO.

Recently, the US has emphasized the alliance and cooperation with Turkey particularly on the defense and security-related issues. Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison indicated that Turkey is an important NATO ally that has not changed.[4] James Jeffrey, the United States Special Representative for Syria Engagement,stated that “Turkey and the U.S need to continue their cooperation.”[5]

These are good signs, but there is still work to do.

Both sides can easily ride on the wave of these — relatively — positive concrete steps. For now, cooperation on border security could be a matter which can provide easily a proper channel since security concerns are guiding the international system.It’s important to understand that Turkey’s approach is not the exclusion of the ‘other’ — this can be seen in the Turkish policies of open border and door — rather, the issue is to remove the national security threat to the country’s borders. Since security concerns are guiding the international system, both sides should fully understand the potential of such threats. If mutual agreement cannot be reached, this could harm the future for the long-standing institution of NATO, as well as relations between the US and Turkey.

Syrian case is just more immediate one. Other frozen confrontations within the border of Iran and Iraq; and ambitions of regional actors like Iran have challenged Middle Eastern and Turkish borders. Turkey definitely needs to develop tools of persistence in her border security regime. However, this politico-territorial problem requires a cooperation with the US and other regional actors. In international politics, we can clearly see that the cooperation in the field of security has a strong spill-over effect on other areas of cooperation in all periods of world history.

The case of Syria requires collective safety and security measures, as it continues to cause both a humanitarian crisis, and endanger the world. Since border security is a matter of governance, it requires building trust and cooperation through dialogue between the US and Turkey. States should cooperate on military matters, border security and information sharing — a framework could be constructed on critical national and transatlantic security issues common to both nations. We anticipate that this issue will contribute positively to Turkish American relations, as both need close intelligence sharing, and joint border control activity, in order to stanch the flow of foreign fighters infiltrating across the border. Cooperation on border security will both bring about saved lives, and the normalisation of relations between Turkey and the US.