US-Turkey Relations: The Steep Price of Ambiguity #TurkeyUS
The news of the past few days in the United States has focused primarily on the charred remains of both the California wildfires and the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.
Neither is an ordinary disaster. Each, in its own way, portends a dramatically different path forward for Republicans and Californians, most centrally President Donald Trump. Indeed, the question of survival is at stake in every respect.
Beneath the surface of the American domestic news, however, was an equally troubling event also involving death, one that has already taken place, one that could have occurred in the near future. It is widely rumored that President Trump offered a deal, an “artful” one at that, to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The terms of the arrangement are quite straightforward. Suppose the United States suddenly took a different point-of-view toward the visa status of its famous Turkish guest, Fethullah Gulen. Suppose what the U.S. State Department had previously considered as inadequate proof of Turkish charges of responsibility for the 2016 coup attempt was not so bad a case after all. Would that be a sufficient gesture, perhaps, to convince Erdogan to ease the pressure on Trump’s Saudi friends concerning the Istanbul murder and dismemberment of Saudi citizen and U.S. Green Card holder Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, an assassination that the CIA has now identified as having been ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? Sure, a few laws would be broken on both sides, but it is a win-win for everybody, right?
To his credit, Erdogan responded through a spokesman that “(A)t no point did Turkey offer to hold back on the Khashoggi investigation in return for Fethullah Gulen’s extradition. We have no intention to intervene in the Khashoggi investigation in return for any political or legal favor.” Moreover, reports at the time of this writing suggests that Trump, known for his dexterity in contradicting himself when necessary, said that no such deal is actually being considered. Whether or not there ever was such a conversation between the U.S. and Turkey, the controversy needs to be understood in view of the recent history of U.S.-Turkey relations, not just since the abortive coup, but evolving since the beginning of the A.K.P. dominance of Turkish politics. The past fifteen years have been fraught with errors of judgment, misunderstanding, and uncertainty that have brought these erstwhile close allies to the brink of conflict. In a case of being at the wrong place (for me) at the right time, I witnessed the beginning of this long slide to ambiguity.
On the early Saturday evening of 1 March 2003 while I was living in Ankara, I had an errand to run that took me to the then-Turkish Daily News. I was to meet Yusuf Kanli for the first time. The purpose of my visit was quickly forgotten because all eyes in the newsroom were focused on the live video feed of actions of the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s debate over Turkey’s proposed participation in what would become the U.S.-led Iraq War. Everyone in the newsroom, indeed, everyone in the streets of Ankara, including the massive protest demonstration taking place at that moment, knew the outcome of the Parliament’s debate. It was a foregone conclusion. The debate was an illusion. Turkey had always supported America’s military interventions during the mid-to-late-Twentieth Century, subtly during World War 2, but very actively in Korea, Vietnam, and most recently, during the Gulf War. Turkey had become a staunch ally of Israel, to the deep resentment of its Arab state neighbors, in support of U.S. foreign policy goals. In return, Turkey gained a great deal from the relationship. Besides being one of the largest recipients of the U.S. military and economic support, Turkey had a strong ally and supporter in its difficulties in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. Even when the large majority of the international community reacted in opposition to the Turkish position in Cyprus, the US served to water down the anti-Turk language of UN Security Council resolutions from 1974 forward. Indeed, even when the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was declared in 1983, while the US did not officially recognize the move, it was not hostile toward it. The United States and Turkey were friends. They had supported one another across decades and a variety of combat operations inside and out of the Mediterranean-Middle East region. Obviously, Turkey would not abandon the U.S. in its post-9/11 trauma, no matter how many Turkish citizens demanded it do so. Besides, America stood willing to pay billions to use its ports and land for attacks on Saddam’s Iraq. Polls at the time showed that 94% of the Turkish people opposed the move and the joke around the newsroom was that no one had ever met anyone in the remaining 6%. Turkey was in. When it came to the U.S.-Turkey partnership, nothing could break the bond. Both the recently departed Ecevit administration and the new AKP government accepted it. It was done.
Then the vote was taken. 264 Parliamentary deputies supported the resolution. 250 opposed, 19 abstained. The resolution had been approved. Or had it? Upon review, according to the rules of the Parliament, an absolute majority of the 533-members present had to approve the measure. The resolution fell 3 votes shy of such a majority. Quickly, then-Prime Minister Abdullah Gül declared the resolution “rejected,” and would not be reconsidered in response to the U.S. request for “clarification,” stating ”Turkey is the only democratic country in the region. The decision is clear. We have to respect this decision, as this is what democracy requires.”
The American reaction was immediate and intense. Despite assurances from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara that ‘‘(W)e worked together as allies and we will continue to work together as allies”, the sense of resentment of toward Turkey’s perceived act of reneging on the deal began to impact Turkey in ways large and small. In the immediate aftermath, Fulbright grants for Turkish students to come to the U.S. were sliced in half. Turkish visitors to the U.S. suddenly had a more difficult time entering the nation’s ports of entry through beefed-up post-9/11 security arrangements. In the most egregious case of all, on 4 July 2003, U.S. Marines arrested Turkish Special Forces units stationed in Suleymanyia, Iraq, on the specious charge that they were there to assassinate the newly appointed Kurdish governor of Kirkuk. It was, in the words of Turkish General Chief of Staff, Hilmi Özkök, “the greatest crisis between Turkey and the United States.”
But later crises became even more consequential. In the depths of the Iraq War, even though Saddam’s regime was eliminated quickly, a new, more dangerous threat emerged, “Al-Qaeda in Iraq”, under the leadership of Musab al-Zarqawi, evolving after his death to become the dreaded “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL). As the Bush-inspired “Mission Accomplished” slogan of mid-2003 disintegrated into a deadly guerilla war that carried into Syria, Turkey was believed by some in both the Bush and Obama administrations to be sustaining ISIL through the passage of fighters and material through its borders. This was not something an “ally” did. On the other hand, the U.S., particularly in the Obama years, became increasingly anxious to leave the region and saw as its best option the engagement of Kurds in Iraq and Syria to do the fighting and dying on behalf of the Americans. The small problem in this pragmatic move was that Turkey, quite understandably, found the empowerment of the cross-border allies of its own domestic nemesis, the PKK, as a grave danger. Indeed, this was not something an “ally” did. These tensions exploded during and after the 2016 coup attempt, with the New York Times reporting that Turks across the political spectrum held the U.S. responsible for the failed military takeover. To the Turks, the U.S.’s denials rang hollow. Did they not allow Fethullah Gulen, the alleged mastermind of the coup, to live freely in America, despite the stated desire of the Erdogan administration to turn him over?
The years since 2016 have seen a simmering hostility between the two nations. Small slights, diplomatic insults, and trade conflicts have characterized relations. Still, hope emerged when Donald Trump succeeded Barack Obama as President of the United States. Whatever else might be said about President Trump, he certainly held no affection nor obligation to the policies of his predecessor. Indeed, initial exchanges between Trump and Erdogan were friendly, leading to the belief that perhaps the war of words and protocol might be changing. However, the U.S. shows no inclination to alter its support of the PYD in Syria and Turkey insinuates that its economic woes are caused by U.S. and other “foreign interests”. Now comes the Gulen-Khashoggi deal that was until it wasn’t.
Is their hope ahead for U.S.-Turkish relations? Were international policies a rational process conducted by impartial actors for the good of all concerned? Perhaps. However, as long as domestic agendas prevail over international exchange, both Trump and Erdogan may have too much to lose with their respective political bases to reach common ground. Indeed, there is political advantage to be had with easily-blamed frenemies. The price, of course, is only paid later. It appears that the people of both Turkey and the United States will be paying this price for generations to come.