Turkey-US: The Uneasy Alliance

August 29, 2016

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2013 President Obama said:
“… And our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point: The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests. Nevertheless, we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent, or supporting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…”

In fact, this has been US policy for decades. President Obama only stated it clearly. Key elements of his formulation were “highest international expectations”, “core interests” and “asserting principles”.

Vice President Biden’s visit to Ankara matched this definition.

Firstly, Turkey has not met the highest international expectations in recent years. Our democracy has been backsliding and with the coup attempt of July 15 we have crossed into unchartered waters. Despite endless declarations of commitment to democracy we do not inspire confidence. Yes, we are fighting terrorism but beyond that our democracy has a credibility problem.

Secondly, Ankara and Washington need each other’s cooperation on core interests. A case in point is Syria. Turkey wants to prevent the YPG, which she considers a terrorist organization and an extension of PKK, from gaining control over a corridor running from eastern Syria to the Mediterranean. (Before Ankara’s foray into the Syrian conflict Turkey did not have a YPG problem.) Ankara now wishes to push ISIL away from the Turkish border as well. Turkey’s incursion into Syria serves both purposes. However, the former apparently has priority for Turkey and the latter for the US. The responses to the incursion give the impression that it was coordinated directly or indirectly with all major parties to the Syrian conflict including Damascus, reflecting perhaps a greater convergence of views among those very players regarding ISIL and Syria’s future.

In Ankara, the Vice President clearly stated the US position on Turkey’s incursion. He said:
“No corridor, period. No separate entity on the Turkish border. A united Syria…
“In terms of the operation in Jarablus, we strongly support what the Turkish military has organized and done. We’ve been flying air cover for them. We have known for some time that Daesh — ISIL — is there. And we believe very strongly that the Turkish border must be controlled by Turkey, that there should be no occupation of that border by any group whatsoever, that Syria must be whole and united, not carved into little pieces. And we have been — we hope to continue to work with Turkey closely on continued operations that will root out Daesh. But we’re supportive of the operation…”

However, the word “But” did not exactly fit in with the flow of Mr. Biden’s remarks. It only showed that this support is not a blank check.

And thirdly, Mr. Biden also “asserted principles that are consistent with US ideals” to use President Obama’s words. Responding to a question regarding the extradition of Fethullah Gulen he said:
“… Our judicial system is… different, but it is our system we have abided by for over 225 years. Nothing will change that…”
“… That’s what we call separation of powers. That’s our system. We will abide by our system. We will continue to abide by the system… We have no reason to shelter someone who would attack an ally and try to overthrow a democracy. Can you imagine us being happy with another military state? We didn’t get on so well with your previous military states. So what motive could we possibly have? None. Except we’re bound by the law.”

Lack of respect for the separation of powers has for long been a focal point of Western criticism directed at Turkish democracy.

Because of differences over the question on Gulen’s extradition, Mr. Biden’s visit to Ankara was not a happy one but it was useful. At least it gave the two countries the opportunity to reiterate their commitment to work on core interests. However, the scope and the duration of the Jarablus incursion may bring on a multitude of new political and security challenges for Turkey. At present, the Turkey-US relationship looks less like a “strategic” or “model” partnership as it was once defined and more like an “uneasy alliance” which will continue to stand the test of time.

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