The US-Turkey Alliance Isn't Going Anywhere

Image By Jonathan Friedman-Forbes - Turkey sent a ripple through the Western defense industry when it recently chose a Chinese company to co-produce a missile defense system—passing on US and European bids in the process. It certainly didn’t help that the Chinese company, China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp (CPMIEC), is on a US blacklist for selling arms to the likes of Iran, North Korea, and Syria. In the weeks that followed, news reports detailed Turkish support for radical fighters in Syria and revelations that Turkey’s spymaster dimed out Israeli intelligence sources in Iran. The spate of events caused some to question whether Turkey is still a Western ally.

It’s a question that has lingered in Western policy circles for the better part of the last decade. After all, Turkey is no longer a weak country dependent on foreign assistance. The Cold War Soviet threat is gone, and after the rise of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey is governed by civilians. These dynamics have made the country more independent in global affairs. This may upset those nostalgic for the days when the US could call up the generals in Ankara and dictate policies. But the current relationship is far healthier, rooted in convergent, long-term interests. In many ways, it is as strong as ever.

Critics trace the beginning of Turkey’s supposed turn to 2003, when Turkey’s parliament blocked the US military from using Turkish soil to invade Iraq. Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz berated Turkey’s generals for failing to secure access for US troops. But Ankara recognized its interests lay elsewhere. Turkey’s greatest concern was not the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, but the prospect of an independent Kurdish state that could follow his ouster – and increase restiveness among Turkey’s own 15 million-strong Kurdish population. Kurdish separatism remains Turkey’s main foreign policy concern, not Islamist terrorism. This difference continues to inform the country’s policy towards Syria, where Ankara has supported anti-Kurdish jihadists in the face of American objections.

Over the last decade, Turkey rattled US policymakers with overtures to Syria and Hamas. Confrontation with Israel became a theme of the AKP foreign policy, and relations with the Jewish state declined until collapsing in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident in 2010. The same year, Turkey made an unwelcome effort to broker a deal with Iran to legitimize that country’s nuclear program. More recently, it has enthusiastically backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while blasting the US for refusing to call the military intervention in that country a coup. In this narrative, the missile deal is only the latest snub in a friendship soured long ago.

It is the rise of Turkey’s new civilian-led political leadership that has fuelled US perceptions of a one-time ally gone adrift. Undeniably, Erdogan’s political calculus is different from that of his military-backed predecessor. He and his advisors are more willing to gamble on big wins – such as a nuclear deal with Iran – to burnish their legacies. Meanwhile, sparring with Israel and floating conspiracy theories play well with the Turkish public. Erdogan’s diatribes against international media and finance have accompanied worrisome policies at home. Yet his actions abroad have not strayed far from the raison d’état. And as long as Turkey remains a largely democratic country with a free market economy dependent on international trade, its interests will tend to coincide with America’s.

Indeed, upon closer inspection, Turkish-American interests in the Middle East are as aligned as ever. The difference is risk tolerance. In Syria, Turkey faces an urgent refugee crisis and increasing spillover violence. It believes stability is only possible with regime change. While it prefers outside intervention, it is otherwise willing to gamble on jihadists to speed President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster. It opposes Iranian nuclear proliferation. But it wisely favors diplomacy, fearing the repercussions of a potential strike. In Iraq, Turkey recognizes its only real friends are the pro-Western Kurds, an about-face from 2003 that is likely to be repeated in Syria. But it also values Iraqi territorial integrity – a restatement of America’s predicament. Even in Egypt, Erdogan risked his reputation by calling for a secular constitution when he visited in 2011. His warnings about that country’s anti-democratic coup now seem prescient.

In truth, both the US and Turkey are struggling to come to grips with a region in flux. The US, burned by misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, is increasingly disengaged. Turkey however, by dint of its geography, cannot follow suit. It has instead shifted from a ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy aimed at courting elites to a values-driven support for popular movements. This is the tack the US wants to take, but fears will open the door to radical Islamism. Yet this is precisely why Turkey is an irreplaceable partner. References to the Turkish ‘model’ might be rare these days. But as regional power swings from autocrats to popular movements, Turkey remains the only game in town when it comes to ‘Islamic’ democracy: the US has no suitable alternative partner in the Middle East for promoting democratic regimes. Indeed, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu acknowledged as much in a recent op-ed – emphasizing the two countries’ shared interest in supporting popular movements in their “struggle against authoritarianism.”

The pessimists who lament the demise of US-Turkish relations compare the current state of affairs to memories of a Cold War heyday that are mostly imaginary. Turkey in those days had frosty relations with all its neighbors and stayed aloof from the region. Then as now, when Ankara disagreed with Washington, it followed its own interests, even warring with fellow NATO member Greece over Cyprus. Disagreements with Israel aren’t new either: in 1975, Turkey voted at the UN to condemn Zionism as a form of racism. The difference is that during the Erdogan era, Turkey has looked at its near abroad and seen potential opportunities, not just threats. In most cases, it has found its interests coincided with America’s. Admittedly, Turkey’s soft power has lately taken a beating. The West is rightfully worried about Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies, especially after his harsh crackdown against anti-government protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim square earlier this year. But again, beware of rose-tinted glasses: under the former regime, Turkey was known as the land of military coups and the Midnight Express. It was a model only for dysfunction.

Turkey’s apparent willingness to purchase Chinese arms is a new development. But it’s mostly about technology and domestic politics. Erdogan wants to be able to claim that he has built a ‘Turkish’ missile defense system, as part of his push to create ‘Turkish’ defense industry led by companies loyal to him. This will eventually replace the mistrusted, anti-AKP military establishment that still runs the defense sector. Erdogan chose CPMIEC after being frustrated by Western companies’ reluctance to share the sensitive technology he needs for his plans. Like other decisions by Erdogan, it was rash and undiplomatic. It’s also likely to be reversed. NATO has been adamant that the CPMIEC system will not be interoperable with its systems. Behind the scenes, Western companies have warned that they have to cut ties with Turkish firms who enter partnerships with CPMIEC. At the same time, Turkish officials have made it clear that the door is not closed to ‘updated’ bids.

Turkey’s consideration of Chinese weapons systems is not an endorsement of Chinese defense policy. But it is impossible to ignore that China’s arms bid – reportedly much more generous than rival offers – comes at a time when America faces decreasing credibility in capitals across the Middle East. Washington’s U-turn over intervening in Syria infuriated Erdogan. Riyadh questions the depth of US support after the overthrow of its allies in Egypt and Tunisia. Cairo, tiring of American threats to withdraw aid, has turned to the Gulf States for assistance. China is using the opportunity to present itself as an alternative security partner.

Yet China will find making serious inroads to be difficult. As the Turks are very publicly learning, the legacy of US defense systems imposes high costs on changing suppliers. China’s coziness with Iran and support for the Syrian regime alienates the region’s Sunni majority, while its crackdowns against Muslims in its Xinjiang province are universally unpopular. And while polls may show support for American foreign policy plumbing new lows, the region’s elite are not flocking to learn Mandarin or attend Chinese universities. Washington’s soft power remains unmatched.

The US is not in danger of ‘losing’ Turkey. The alliance is built on six decades of strong cultural ties and continued shared interests. Even during rocky periods, enormous institutional barriers buffer it from breakdown. Fears of a rising China are also overblown. Beijing is finding it difficult enough to crack the West’s defense monopoly in Ankara. It cannot yet replace American dominance in the region. And while Turkey’s domestic leadership has changed, its interests abroad – promoting stability, democracy and free trade – are as pro-Western as ever. Indeed, a decade after denying the US support for invading Iraq, it is Ankara who is leading the calls for America to intervene in Syria. The Turkish-American alliance remains indispensable. Rumors of its demise are, once again, greatly exaggerated.

Jonathan Friedman is a Europe and Turkey analyst at Control Risks, an international political, integrity and security risk consultancy. For more analysis, sign up for a free trial of our Country Risk Forecast.
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07