The Way Ahead in U.S.-Turkey Relations

Purges of thousands of public sector workers. A deal to purchase a Russian missile defense system. Assault on peaceful protesters by presidential bodyguards. Imprisonment of an American pastor on spurious terrorism charges. Such troubling events are causing the United States and European Union to question whether Turkey is a reliable partner and to reassess their bilateral relations. For example, some American senators have called for restrictions on arms sales, while German presidential candidates have threatened to suspend EU accession negotiations.

Although Turkey can be a complicated and challenging NATO ally, it remains strategically important. The only beneficiaries of significantly curtailed ties are those who don’t want the country facing West. Therefore, its government and especially its people require continued engagement.

President Trump and President Erdoğan of Turkey give a joint statement at the White House on 16 May 2017 in Washington, DC.

In seeking to understand recent developments in Turkey, it is important to recognize how traumatized Turkish society was by the July 2016 coup attempt and remains in its aftermath. Despite a history of coups, this one was neither expected nor desired. There was frustration with the perceived delay in Western condemnation of the putsch. Many Turks fail to understand why the alleged coup-plotter, Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen, lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. After all, the Turkish government has accused him of seeking to establish a parallel state structure and designated his religious movement a terrorist organization. Given distrust in Turkish society about Gulen’s influence, there was initial support for the government’s efforts to bring coup plotters to justice and prevent similar events in the future.

The problem has been the excessive breadth and depth of the government’s response, which has become an apparent witch-hunt against all political opponents. The government’s elastic definition of what constitutes “terrorism” has altered the bounds of what is politically permissible, limited press freedom, and damaged confidence in state institutions. Indefinite extension of the state of emergency — which, among other things, allows individuals to be held in pre-trial detention for 30 days without charge — has had a chilling effect on public dissent.

Domestic politics are unlikely to improve in the near future, as preparations are already underway for parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019. Turkey is a deeply divided country, as starkly demonstrated by the April referendum on constitutional reforms to provide sweeping new powers to the president. Official figures showed 48 percent of voters opposed the measures. This number could be even higher, as the OSCE cited a “restrictive” campaign framework and there were widespread accusations of fraud. Yet civil society has shown resilience, with hundreds of thousands of Turks rallying for justice in Istanbul last July — the largest public protest since Gezi Park in 2013.

In addition to domestic challenges, Turkey sits in a turbulent region with significant security threats. It has been particularly affected by the civil war and battle against the Islamic State in Syria. These conflicts flooded Turkey with over three million refugees, created complex dynamics with Russia and Iran, contributed to several large terrorist attacks, and further complicated engagement with the PKK (the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that has fought the Turkish state for decades).

Different priorities in Syria have contributed to tensions in U.S.-Turkey relations, as Ankara prioritized the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad while Washington focused on defeating the Islamic State. The most contentious debates have concerned local forces with whom to partner against ISIS. Turkey has vehemently objected to U.S. cooperation with Syrian Kurdish fighters known as the YPG, given the group’s links to the PKK and desire to create an autonomous region in northern Syria. The YPG will remain a bilateral sticking point as decisions are made about security and governance arrangements in post-ISIS Syria.

While there are genuine concerns about the health of Turkish democracy and frequent headaches in reaching common approaches to shared challenges, it would be a mistake to curb relations significantly. Turkey is an important bridge between Europe and the Middle East. A failed relationship would impede the fight against ISIS, hinder efforts to stem refugee flows into Europe, and weaken one of the region’s most successful economies. If Ankara feels abandoned by the West, it will seek partners elsewhere — as demonstrated by its recent interactions with Russia and Iran. It is also worth keeping Turkey anchored in a Euro-Atlantic community based on shared values, even if Ankara doesn’t always live up to them. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras made this point in response to German threats to end EU accession talks, which he noted would be a “strategic and tactical mistake” that would only benefit Erdogan given EU requirements to address “the needed democratization of the country.”

How then should the Trump Administration manage relations with Turkey? First, the United States needs to recognize Turkey’s security concerns. On Gulen, the Turkish government has repeatedly called for his extradition but failed to provide sufficient evidence to persuade an American judge of probable cause. U.S. officials should continue demonstrating the sincerity with which they are reviewing information and seek ways to help bring those responsible to justice. Similarly, the United States and Turkey should continue their high-level dialogue on Syria. In particular, they should work together with regional allies to develop a post-ISIS governance and security strategy. Washington should also help Ankara address security threats from the PKK, while pressing for the resumption of peace talks in order to find a sustainable solution.

Second, rule of law must remain on the bilateral agenda — with the administration conveying its concerns both publicly and privately. It was disappointing to hear President Trump did not raise democracy with President Erdogan during their May meeting in Washington, which gives the unfortunate impression the United States no longer cares about good governance. In addition to standing up for American values, those in Turkish society who value democracy are seeking moral support.

Third, efforts should be made to expand the breadth of U.S.-Turkey relations. It is unhelpful to personalize bilateral ties in interactions between leaders, while there are limits to a relationship rooted primarily in military cooperation. In particular, the United States should reinvigorate efforts to expand trade. This would benefit U.S. companies eager to invest in the Turkish market and motivate reforms to help stabilize the Turkish economy.

In sum, continued engagement — including honest discussion with the government about our differences plus expanded outreach to business and civil society — remains the only way forward in this challenging yet important relationship.

Amanda Sloat is a fellow in the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean Affairs in the U.S. Department of State from 2013–2016, which included responsibility for Turkey. She is a Fellow with Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are her own.

This post draws from her testimony during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Turkey on 06 September, with the text and footage available on the SFRC website.

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