The European community and the United States, frustrated with Turkey’s seemingly uncooperative posture with regard to the West’s battle to contain, degrade, and destroy the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), have apparently reached a boiling point on the subject. Calls for Turkey’s ouster from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a refugee crisis largely stemming from the Turkish government’s unwillingness to assist in containing the advance of the terrorist group, and the geopolitical hot-button of prospective Kurdish independence and state status continues to calcify arguments on both sides of the debate.
Turkey is an outlier among the NATO member states. While Turkey’s northern territory lies on the European continent, sharing a border with Greece and Bulgaria, the Anatolian Peninsula comprises the overwhelming majority of Turkish territorial claims. Ankara has spent most of its recent and more modern history straddling the worlds of Europe and the Middle East, striving to assume the role of regional hegemon in the Middle East while pursuing integration into the European community. In this respect, Turkey’s own geopolitical interests often run counter to one another.
While the Ankara government has pursued entry to the European Union, it has also sought to attain regional hegemonic status in the Levant and Middle East. As it has looked to balance rising competitors Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Turkish government has often played one against the other. In this respect, we find the current state of affairs in Syria: While Ankara has tacitly allied with Riyadh in the effort to weaken the regime of Bashar al-Assad, it is for the greater purpose of slowing the rise of Iran and preventing Tehran’s influence from extending semi-permanently to Lebanon. It is these alliances, entangled as they have gotten, that explain the conflict raging in Syria and Iraq. The rise of regional hegemonic competitors has caused rifts in relationships and catalyzed alliances between states where fissures had previously characterized inter-state relations.
So what of Turkey’s value to the United States, NATO, and the European community? Some observers have noted that Turkey’s inadequate response to the destabilizing nature of the ISIS threat and its foot-dragging in supporting the West’s efforts to stem the tide of instability in Syria and Iraq is a reflection of Turkey’s unwillingness to fully support Western interests. In the October 29th edition of The Washington Post, Liz Sly addresses what she calls “…durability of their 60-year alliance, to the point where some are starting to question whether the two countries still can be considered allies at all.” Sty asserts that the alliance itself is in freefall, dying a death borne of conflicting interests and a priority of threats that does not dovetail with those of the European community and the U.S.:
At stake is a six-decade-old relationship forged during the Cold War and now endowed with a different but equally vital strategic dimension. Turkey is positioned on the front line of the war against the Islamic State, controlling a 780-mile border with Iraq and Syria. Without Turkey’s cooperation, no U.S. policy to bring stability to the region can succeed, analysts and officials on both sides say.
“If Turkey is not an ally, then we and Turkey are in trouble,” said Francis Ricciardone, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey until the summer. “It is probably the most important ally.” (Sly, The Washington Post, October 29)
While Sty is correct in identifying troubled waters in the current environment of Turkish-Western relations vis-à-vis ISIS, she wrongly questions whether the U.S. and Turkey are “…even allies at all.” Sly goes on to quote the dean of Ipek University in Ankara. What the dean states is indicative of the present state of affairs in Turkish-American relations but in no way effectively describes the alliance itself:
It is hard, however, to avoid the impression that Turkey and the United States are moving on separate tracks — “parallel tracks that don’t converge,” said Gokhan Bacik, a dean at Ipek University in Ankara.
“From now on, this is only a relationship of necessity,” he said. “There is nothing ideologically that the United States and Turkey share. Turkey has changed.” (Sly, The Washington Post, October 29)
The danger in Bacik’s remarks lies in its fatalistic attitude, borne of a single-issue assessment. Turkey’s unwillingness to support U.S. policy with regard to the Kurds and the battle against ISIS in northern Iraq is a major impediment in relations between the two countries. However, as has been the case before—in circumstances such as Turkish failure to support U.S. policy in invading Iraq to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003—this is not an insurmountable diplomatic obstacle. Interests on any number of issues, to include energy provisioning to Europe, Iranian nuclear negotiations, and balancing the encroachment of Russian imperialist policy in the Black Sea are issues on which Turkey and the U.S. find strong commonality. So where does this leave the Turkish-American alliance in the overall function of diplomatic relations? Turkey remains an essential geopolitical ally of the United States for several reasons:
- In both geostrategic and geopolitical terms, Turkey is a valuable member of the Atlantic Alliance. Turkey has recently been involved in joint military maneuvers with key U.S. strategic support states in the Caucasus (Georgia and Azerbaijan), and is valued as a regional power that can offset Russian assertiveness in the Mediterranean and the Levant. In this respect, Ankara is well aware of how it can play a game of brinkmanship with the West in order to elicit cooperation on its efforts to outmaneuver regional competitors in both Tehran and Riyadh.
- Turkey’s aligning with other regional powers to mitigate the speed at which Iran is rising as a regional hegemonic competitor makes for difficult geopolitical decisions in Washington and in Brussels, especially as both the U.S. and Europe have recently intensified efforts to integrate Iran back into the world community via energy deals and nuclear negotiations. Turkey’s refusal to be more supportive of U.S. and European efforts to provide logistical support for Kurdish fighters battling the onslaught of ISIS has been a major obstruction to cooperation on regional security between Turkey and the West. This pivots soundly upon Turkey’s fear of an independent Kurdish state that would ostensibly whittle territory away from Turkey and establish a Kurdish state with significant energy resources and the capacity to influence regional power structures.
A conclusion on the current state of affairs between Turkey and the West comes back to economic interest. Turkey’s value as a geostrategic location for the basing of NATO forces to balance against Russian aggression in Crimea and the sustainment of its naval facilities in Syria render it an indispensable ally for the West. Consequently, Turkey’s continued pursuit of integration into the European community via the European Union compels Ankara to remain in Washington’s sphere of influence. In that respect, Washington’s ability to continue shaping Turkey’s interests, and consequently its foreign policy, remains strong. To paraphrase a common saying: Keep your friends close and your potential adversaries closer.