How to Reconcile Turkey with the US?

Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Barack Obama at the White House on May 16, 2013 (AP)

Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Barack Obama at the White House on May 16, 2013 (AP)

Turkey has been a strong ally of the US in the Middle East for a long time, although Turkey-US relations have always gone through highs and lows. The latest crisis dates back to 2003, when the Turks refused to follow the US in the second Iraq war. The Obama administration redoubled its efforts towards reconciliation, and President Obama himself promoted Turkey as a model of development and government for the Arab and Muslim world. However, since May 2010, they hold different points of view on the Iranian nuclear program issue, as well as on the ongoing Syrian civil war and on the Iraqi political crisis opposing the Kurdish autonomous region of Erbil and the central government of Baghdad. Besides, Turks and Americans do not share the same understanding of the recently renewed Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relations. Reducing the gap in all four above mentioned issues was on Erdoğan’s agenda for his May 16th visit to Washington D.C., the 15th since he came into power a decade ago. But is he up to the task?

The worsening of the situation in Syria and it’s spillover since last week’s explosion in the Turkish city of Reyhanli at the Turkish-Syrian border is a major concern to neighboring Turkey for both domestic and international reasons. During the first six months of the crisis, between March and August 2011, Turkish diplomatic efforts failed to bring Bashar al Assad and the opposition to reason. Both sides rejected all compromises and peace talk proposals. After that, for many geopolitical reasons and probably because Turkish policy makers were thinking that Syrian crisis was another Arab spring like in  Tunisia, Libya, or Egypt, decided to support the opposition and to militate for the Syrian’s president’s departure. Despite all international reprobation and criticism, Assad’s regime is still in power. Division weakens the opposition as much as the international community and in the meantime too many civilians die. The uprising turned into civil war with the implication of different countries with their proxy forces engaged in the conflict. The Syrian crisis affects Turkey’s economy and poses a threat to national integrity by reviving Kurdish separatism. The 300,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey are becoming a burden; the border regions who lived on cross-border trade have been badly hit; the issue disrupts domestic politics and brings more division than ever among the people. As the war in Syria is now undoubtedly a sectarian war, it also threatens to destabilize Turkey’s own religious scene, and exacerbate tensions between the Sunni majority and the Alevi minority, although they differ very much from the Syrian Alawis. The Syrian crisis revived the Kurdish guerillas in Turkey, forcing Ankara to engage talks with the PKK. Dialogue is fragile and the outcome will depend partly on the evolution of the situation in Syria. On the regional scene, Turkey had to make a firm stand, damaging its image of soft power. The Turks wish for stability, especially in terms of national territorial integrity but this is conflicting with the inevitable change of regime in Syria. Yet, the change might bring even more trouble to the region and is definitely no guarantee for peace and stability.

From the very beginning of the Syrian crisis, Turkey has been asking for US support, and Erdoğan will probably ask again president Obama for more American involvement in the crisis, like a stronger intervention or by providing of arms to the opposition. But the American stand on that particular question is sensitive. The Obama administration has wanted since the beginning to see Bashar al Assad leaving power, but is reluctant to intervene more than what it has done, which is to provide “non-lethal” aid to the opposition, as well as CIA coordination of the flow of arms to the rebels. In a context when US troops are withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, they won’t go to Syria without a UN resolution. But more importantly, the sectarian nature of the war as is a big concern to US officials. A jihadist group, like the Jobhat al Nusra, which has connections with Al Qaeda, is getting stronger every day in war-torn Syria, and surely nobody wants to arm these. Nevertheless, most of the arms supplied by outside forces in fact ended up in the hands of the jihadists. Obama’s red line for Assad would be to make use of chemical weapons. But no evidence has confirmed rumors so far. And yet, if this was to be confirmed, it will be insufficient to draw the US into another war abroad. Contrary to what Ankara asserts, Washington believes that it will take more than Assad leaving power to regain stability in Syria and in the Middle East. The change might bring more confusion, chaos, and violence, as sectarian and ethnic groups fight for power and as regional and international leaders pursue different or opposite interests. As Turkey and the US discuss their views and wait for a trustworthy opposition to emerge, groups on the ground continue to fight one another and the death toll is rising.

The Turkish American disagreement over Iraq is another major point of tension between the two countries, and there is no sign of appeasement in the near future, mainly because of the bad relations Ankara and the central Iraqi power have. Maliki and Erdoğan blame each other for Sunni/Shia tensions in Syria and these are now spreading all across the Middle East. But the real source of tension over Iraq stems from the exceptionally good relations Ankara has with the Kurdish autonomous region of Erbil. Erbil trades oil directly with Ankara, and talks are in process for the building of a new pipeline transiting in Turkey to export crude oil from the Kurdish region. Baghdad disapproves of the fact that the deal is closed directly with Erbil, irrespective of the Iraqi constitution that stipulates that all oil trade agreements must be approved by the central government. It also disapproves of Ankara addressing directly to Erbil, supporting and encouraging the region’s autonomy and jeopardizing Iraqi unity. US authorities are concerned that it might lead to the partition of Iraq, with Baghdad getting closer to Iran, as Maliki has expressed ideological affinities with Tehran.

Obama and Erdoğan have certainly raised the issue, and the American president has certainly ask Ankara for more balance and reason. But for the Turks, cooperation with Erbil is not only a matter of oil trade, but a matter of controlling PKK rebels who seek refuge in Erbil and developing contacts and dialogue with all Kurdish communities, including Syrian Kurds who emerge as a strong political force in their country, Assad should stay in power or not. These good relations can only weigh positively on the peace process Ankara is currently negotiating with the Kurdish guerilla. And this is a big moment in Turkish history. Peace talks to put an end to PKK terrorist attacks on Turkish ground and the negotiating of a political solution for the Kurds never got that far before. To keep all chances on their side, Ankara will not risk his good relations with Erbil.

Iran’s nuclear program is a third important point of tension between Ankara and Washington. It all started in May 2010 when Turkey, together with Brazil, proposed to serve as go-betweens in that particularly sensitive issue. On June 9, 2010, Turkey, then a non-permanent member of the Security Council, refused to vote for sanctions against Iran, infuriating Washington. Things got better when Ankara agreed to have NATO missiles deployed on its soil, although Turks obtained in Lisbon summit that it is not mentioned that Iran was targeted by these missiles.

Three years have passed, and Turkey has adopted a stronger stand about Iran, especially since the breakout of the Arab spring and the revival of the Turkish-Iranian rivalry as a model of development for the region. At the same time, bilateral economic relations have never been better. The number of Iranian companies operating in Turkey has increased dramatically. In 2002, there were only 319; by 2010, their number had risen to 1,470 and to 2,072 a year later. Moreover, Halk Bank, which is a 75% state owned company, is a major go-between for selling Iranian oil abroad dodging international sanctions.

The American administration knows perfectly that although they agreed to military cooperation against Iran by allowing the deployment of NATO missiles, the Turks still trade with Iran, and doing so reduces the effect of the sanctions. Here too, US officials have little leverage to enforce sanctions. On the other side Turkish-Iranian economic relations are so strong, that they guarantee the regional status quo and alleviate ideological tensions between the two countries since 1979.

Finally, there is a disagreement between Turkey and the US on Turkish-Israeli relations. Turkey and Israel are the two allies of the US in the Middle East. The Turkish-Israeli diplomatic split, which followed the so-called “one minute show” by Prime Minister Erdoğan at Davos in January 2009 and the later Mavi Marmara incident in which Israeli forces killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American, is compromising the US strategy and policy for the Middle East, as it may also be the peace process. In his second term, Obama will have to reconcile those two to tackle the new challenges facing the Middle East: ending the war in Syria and restarting peace talks between Israel and Palestine. It took Obama and Kerry to put pressure on Tel Aviv to obtain official apologies for the Mavi Marmara attack and financial compensations for the victims’ families, making huge progress on the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation path. However, numerous obstacles remain.

In his address in Vienna on March 1st, Prime Minister Erdoğan clearly associated Zionism with a crime against humanity, to be compared to fascism. Part of his anti-Israeli rhetoric is intended to the Turkish public opinion, because it restores national pride and appeals to all voters, across the whole political spectrum from socialists and liberals to nationalists and Islamists and increases his popularity at home. Similarly, his firmness against Israel can be read as a message to his Iranian rival for regional leadership. Erdoğan’s intention to go to Gaza, something he insisted on and repeated after his meeting with Obama, will continue to trigger American criticism and pressure to give up the idea.

Besides, Turkey had good relations with Israel, at a time when the army was the first political actor, designing and running the country’s foreign policy based on the sole principle of national security. Now that Erdoğan’s AKP has been in power for a decade, the military have lost ground in the matter and face with surprisingly passive resignation civil justice and jail terms.

All four issues reviewed above, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Israel, teach us that the Turks need their US ally more than ever, as much as the contrary is true. Here lies the little leverage they have on one another. To protect their interests and to promote peace in the region, both Obama and Erdoğan will in the future have to show flexibility, because they both have a lot to win in finding a solution to these situations. In the case of Erdoğan, his charisma as a regional leader is at stake, and he will need more to realize his big ambition to become the next president of Turkish republic.