Some hardline conservatives in America are already over Turkey.
“Turkey is effectively an ally no more,” argues Frank Gaffney, president and CEO of the right wing Center for Security Policy. “I think we have been divorced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who seeks to become the leader of a new Ottoman caliphate.”
It’s a harsh assessment for a country that has been a NATO member for 66 years, and which had been considered a model secular Islamic state whose democratic institutions would qualify it for membership in the European Union.
But Turkey under Erdogan continues to become more autocratic, less democratic, and more interested in being friends with Russia and Iran, than the United States.
“The key issue is the undermining of Turkey’s parliamentary democracy, its rule of law, and fundamental rights and freedoms in the country. Beyond that there is a worrying trend and that is the spike in anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic sentiment in Turkey,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament.
“Of course the shocking detail is that Turkey is a NATO ally. So here we have a NATO ally dedicating a significant potion of its official discourse to attacking, smearing, targeting its Western allies,” added Erdemir, who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
And for Erdogan, it’s working.
A majority of Turks now consider the United States to be the No. 1 threat to their national security, according to opinion polls in the Turkish media, which is increasingly beholden to, or cowed by, the Erdogan government.
Since the attempted military coup in July of 2016, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have “aggressively used the penal code, criminal defamation laws, and antiterrorism legislation to jail large numbers of journalists and punish critical reporting,” according to the international watchdog Freedom House.
Erdogan is riding a wave of nationalist sentiment in Turkey, in part fueled by his recent offensive against Syrian Kurds along Turkey’s southern border, including some of the same Kurdish fighters backed by the U.S., but which Turkey has long labeled terrorists.
The offensive, which stalled the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State, is highly popular in Turkey, which many observers say is one reason Erdogan has called snap elections for next month, a move that he expects to cement his grip on power.
Already Turkey has been operating under a state of emergency since the 2016 coup, and last year Erdogan pushed through a referendum on constitutional reforms that gave him sweeping new authority.
The U.S. and Turkey are at odds on a host of issues.
Since well before President Trump was elected, Erdogan has been pressing Washington to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania who Ankara alleges was secretly behind the 2016 coup attempt.
Erdogan has tried to use “hostage diplomacy,” offering to trade Andrew Brunson, a Presbyterian minister from North Carolina, who Trump says has been unjustly detained.
“They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is,” Trump said in a Twitter post last month calling for Brunson’s release.
It’s just another example of how Turkey treats the U.S. as more of an adversary than an ally.
“In some ways the Turkish government rhetoric, and the public sentiment are beginning to resemble Iran,” said Erdemir, the former Turkish parliamentarian.
And as Erdogan’s relations with the U.S. and European allies becomes more strained, his affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani continues to warm.
There’s no more stark reminder of Erdogan’s pivot away from the West than the group picture taken in Ankara last month after the three presidents met to carve Syria into areas of influence once Bashar Assad’s forces have crushed the last of the rebels.
For now the U.S. is trying to keep the lid on the simmering tension while pressuring Erdogan privately and avoiding public confrontations.
“Our aim is to enlist Turkey as a more active ally,” A. Wess Mitchell, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs told Congress last month.
“It is in the American national interest to see Turkey remain strategically and politically aligned with the West,” he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
But Mitchell also warned “the ease with which Turkey brokered arrangements with the Russian military,” to launch its offensive in northern Syria while keeping the U.S. in the dark about its plans was “gravely concerning.”
And Mitchell strongly suggested Turkey’s move to buy Russian S-400 missile defenses could result in sanctions, and restrictions on its participation in the F-35 program.
Turkey is one of nine nations partnering with the U.S. to build the advanced stealthy fighter jet, and has plans to buy 100 of the basic A model, which takes off and lands on runways.
In late April, a bipartisan group of senators backed a bill cosponsored by Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., Jeanne Shaheen D-N.H., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., that would prevent the transfer of F-35 technology to Turkey, and block plans for Ankara to serve as a maintenance depot for the Lockheed Martin-made jet.
“President Erdogan has continued down a path of reckless governance and disregard for the rule of law,” Langford said in an April 26 statement. “Turkey’s strategic decisions regrettably fall more and more out of line with, and at times in contrast to, U.S. interests. These factors make the transfer of sensitive F-35 technology and cutting-edge capabilities to Erdogan’s regime increasingly risky.”
If imposed, the sanctions could cost Turkish companies as much as $12 billion.
Privately, Pentagon officials insist that while there are political tensions between the two countries, the military-to-military relationship remains strong.
Whenever he is asked about U.S.-Turkish relations, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis always leads with the same talking point, “Turkey is the only NATO ally with an ongoing insurgency inside its own country.”
Pentagon officials also point out that Turkey has suffered more casualties from terrorism than any other ally, hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and supports the counter-ISIS coalition by providing use of Incirlik Air Base.
“Yes, at the level of top brass, behind closed doors, there is a cordial relationship between the U.S. and Turkish officers, but at the same time the Turkish government officials … continue to threaten to hit U.S. forces in Syria,” Erdemir said.
The military relationship, he said, is “doomed to erode,” especially if Turkey goes ahead with the acquisition of Russian air defenses, which he argues “would not only set a bad precedent for NATO, but would also expose some of NATO’s flight data and other secrets to the Russians.”
Gaffney, who has just published a sharply critical book on Turkey called Ally No More, says it’s time to rip the Band-Aid off the relationship.
“I think we’ve got to get out of Incirlik, and I think we have to take such steps as we can within NATO to restrict their access to classified information, and impress upon them they are not going to get the benefits of membership if they conduct themselves in a manner that’s so clearly hostile to U.S. interests and those of the alliance.”