The United States and Turkey, nominally close NATO allies, are looking more and more like an old, bickering married couple who can’t agree on much of anything, but are putting on a brave face for the sake of the children.
When President Trump hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House in May, it was all smiles as the two leaders traded compliments.
“The American and Turkish peoples have been friends and allies for many, many decades,” said Trump, while Erdogan referred to the “outstanding relations between” the two countries and called Trump “my dear friend.”
While it does seem Trump has developed a quick rapport with Erdogan, the public pleasantries and expressions of mutual admiration mask a deteriorating relationship that has been in a tailspin for years.
“Bilateral relations are increasing acrimonious and distrustful,” said Jim Phillips, a Middle East analyst with the Heritage Foundation. “And one of the primary reasons has been the toxic atmosphere that President Erdogan has brought with him.”
The decades-long U.S.-Turkey relationship, which was never smooth, is now being tested in new ways as an increasingly authoritarian Erdogan suppresses political opposition and a free press.
“You look at a country like Turkey and they are one of the top jailers of journalists in the world right now,” said Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They have hollowed out their judiciary. So we are seeing the intuitions that once made Turkey a democratic state hollowed out.”
“The policies at home have been deeply troubling for those of us in America that care about maintaining alliances with democracies,” he added.
The latest point of friction is last week’s trial of Turkish-Iranian gold dealer Reza Zarrab on money-laundering and fraud charges. Over the past year, Erdogan has been adamant in demanding his release, but U.S. prosecutors were able to cut a deal with Zarrab, who ended up pleading guilty and testifying he paid more than $60 million in bribes to Turkey’s then-economy minister as part of a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Erdogan has also demanded the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who now lives in Pennsylvania, and who Erdogan blames for fomenting the failed coup against him in July of 2016.
Because Turkish aircraft from Incirlik Air Base had participated in the plot, Erdogan ordered power and other utilities cut, including to the American side of the base, which alarmed U.S. military commanders and required delicate negotiations to iron out.
There are so many issues dividing Washington and Ankara these days, it’s hard to pinpoint where it all went south. But former Defense Secretary Ash Carter traces much of the decline to the summer of 2015, when the U.S. began backing Kurdish fighters in Syria to fight the Islamic State that Turkey considered terrorists.
“Working with groups so closely tied to Syrian Kurds sparked immediate tension with Turkey, a tension that never went away,” Carter wrote in an essay, published by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in October.
The U.S. and Turkey have been at cross purposes ever since. “While Iran and Russia failed to knock us off course,” Carter wrote, “It was a NATO ally that caused the most complications for the campaign.”
Turkey was less interested in fighting ISIS than in preventing Kurds from gaining a continuous stretch along the Syria-Turkey border, Carter says. Erdogan was incensed that the U.S. was planning to use a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters to liberate the Syrian city of Raqqa instead of proxy forces backed by the Turkish military.
“The Turks could never produce an actual plan to field such forces in repeated meetings with the U.S. military,” said Carter, who noted Turkish-backed forces in Syria struggled to take less heavily defended objectives much closer to its border.
Lately, Erdogan has been looking West toward Russia, and has recently signed a deal to buy S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Moscow, which are not compatible with NATO systems.
While the decision has upset NATO allies, when asked about it by reporters at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis simply said it’s “a sovereign decision for Turkey.”
Mattis has to walk a delicate line, and he insists that political tensions have not affected military cooperation or operations against ISIS flown out of Incirlik.
“It's a NATO ally that we will work hard to stay aligned with against our common enemy, and we are doing good work together military to military,” he said.
Turkey is a founding member of NATO but Erdogan’s cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, NATO’s arch nemesis, has many observers questioning where Turkey’s loyalties lie.
Relations between Russia and Turkey took a nosedive in 2015 when Turkish jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border.
But at a recent meeting on Syria in the Russian resort city of Sochi, Putin declared relations with Ankara “practically completely restored," and Erdogan called Putin “my dear friend,” the same appellation he bestowed on Trump six months earlier.
“It’s clear he’s not all in on the U.S.-Turkish relationship. He’s not all in in the NATO alliance,” Schanzer said. “Turkey’s allegiance to NATO, I think, has to be called into question at this moment in light of what we’ve seen in the recent past.”
Trump has made an attempt to assuage Turkey’s anger over U.S. support of the Kurds by promising to cut off arms to Kurdish fighters now that ISIS is on the ropes.
But once again, caught in the middle, the Pentagon was more circumspect, saying only that the level of support was being adjusted to fit the needs on the ground.
“As long as Turkey remains in NATO I think the U.S. should give Turkey the respect due to an ally,” said Heritage’s Phillips, but he added, “I do not trust Erdogan and for his own domestic, political, and ideological reasons does not act like a true ally.”
Erdogan has taken a page from Putin's playbook, moving from prime minister to president, and consolidating his grip on power by pushing constitutional reforms through the parliament.
“He really does increasingly look like a leader for life,” said Schanzer, who calls Turkey a “crisis in the making," and Erdogan the core of the problem.
“His decisions, his behaviors, his policies, his leadership style has steadily eroded that alliance. If he remains in power for another five or 10 years it’s going to be very difficult to salvage,” Schanzer said. “When allies act like this, they don’t remain allies for very long.”