Turkey-US Relations: The Downturn Continues

December 15, 2019

On October 29, Turkish National Day, the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to formally recognize the “Armenian genocide”. The Senate voted unanimously on Thursday for the same resolution. Lawmakers in the Senate and the House are busy working on more measures targeting Turkey.

Starting with the final months of Mr. Obama’s second term in office, Turkey’s leadership invested a lot in its relationship with President Trump. However, as I tried to underline in a recent post, the US is not Turkey. The principle of separation of powers remains supreme. The media is free and carries weight. Public opinion is important. In brief, Washington’s policy decisions are not taken exclusively by the president. And, since Mr. Trump is a leader in trouble Ankara’s putting all its eggs in his basket may not be the wisest investment in the future of Turkish-American relations.

Ankara’s reaction to the afore-mentioned resolution came as no surprise. As usual they said, “the resolution is null and void.” But, confining Turkey’s reaction to the contents of the resolution conveniently looks over the broader message on the dismal state of Turkish-American relationship. Turkey has few, if any, friends left in Washington. To put it bluntly, Ankara has managed to unite a polarized Washington against itself.

President Erdogan’s first visit to the Trump White House took place on May 16, 2017. Following their talks, the two leaders made a joint statement[i].

President Trump said, “Turkey was a pillar in the Cold War against communism. It was a bastion against Soviet expansion… Turkish soldiers fought bravely alongside of American soldiers in the Korean War, and we haven’t forgotten what they did… Today we face a new enemy in the fight against terrorism, and again we seek to face this threat together…  We support Turkey in the first fight against terror and terror groups like ISIS and the PKK, and ensure they have no safe quarter…  We also appreciate Turkey’s leadership in seeking an end to the horrific killing in Syria… Military equipment was ordered by Turkey and the President, and we’ve made sure that it gets there quickly…”

Mr. Erdogan responded by saying that the outstanding relations between Turkey and the US date back a long time in history and have reached the level of strategic partnership; that these relations have been erected upon common democratic values and common interests; that the two countries stand by each other under the roof of the United Nations, NATO, and the G20; that his visit to the United States will mark a historical turn of tide; that the two countries seem to agree on expanding relations in the field of economy, trade, reciprocal investments, energy, and defense industry; that it would be very important for them to forge close cooperation in fighting terrorism, primarily with Daesh and all the other terrorist organizations in the region.

It has been less than three years since the visit. Forget about shared democratic values. The relationship is hardly one between friends, let alone allies. We can hardly talk about common interests. President Erdogan’s UN motto is “the world is bigger than five” (i.e. permanent members of the UN Security Council including the US). Many in Brussels and in the Congress question our commitment to the Alliance. In the field of defense cooperation, Washington has removed Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter program. And, the two countries cannot agree who is a terrorist and who is not. In brief, yes, the tide has indeed turned but only for the worse.

It is obvious that the Turkish-US relationship will continue to sail in rough seas for the foreseeable future. It is important, therefore, to avoid further confrontation and thus leave open the possibility of repair. The question is whether or not the disarray in Washington and Turkish government’s domestic policy would allow that. All one can say is that, despite ups and downs, this has been a fairly stable and mutually beneficial relationship, if not strategic partnership which does not deserve being rashly thrown into the dustbin of history.

Congressional leaders were wrong to push for the “Armenian genocide” resolution because this will be perceived as more than a jab at Turkey’s current leadership and will only contribute to rising anti-American sentiment in the country. Whatever is the truth, during the last “Black Friday” sales, thousands and thousands of Turks exchanged WhatsApp and Facebook messages claiming that back in the 1800s Southern plantation owners could buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. The two capitals clearly have a huge problem of chemistry but this should not trigger a hostile response at every opportunity. Relations with Turkey should not be made a subtitle of the impeachment process.

To restore Turkey’s global status and relations with the West, Turkey’s political leadership must offer some hope of returning to the democratic path,  revive friendships, avoid unnecessary confrontation, put an end to hostile rhetoric, prioritize national interest, read the lessons of our involvement in Syria carefully and forget about sending Turkish troops/mercenaries to join Libya’s proxy war. Until then, Turkey’s value will only be measured by its location at the meeting point of three continents and two seas. Yes, we Turks own a prime piece of land and we are here to stay but what we build on it is even more important.


[i] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-president-erdogan-turkey-joint-statement/



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