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US-Turkey: A troubled alliance

Disagreements over the defence of the Syrian border town of Kobane have put Turkish-American working relations under severe strain

Since the US and Turkey became allies in the late 1940s, and Turkey joined Nato in 1952, there has been a seemingly endless succession of difficult moments in the Turkish-American relationship. Many of these were reflections of anti-Turkish ethnic lobbies in the US, but when conflict erupted in the Middle East, there were always questions about how far Turkey was willing to go as an ally. No conflict has been as testing as the present efforts to form a common front against Islamic State (IS), a threat which Turkey faces on its southern borders.

Marie Harf, a state department spokesperson, said this week that Turkey is a “close Nato ally and partner”, with which the US has a “very close relationship”. But as weeks roll by, it is still not clear whether Turkey and the US are agreed that IS is an immediate threat; how much of a common vision they share; and how much cooperation Turkey is prepared to extend in the fight against IS or at what price. As a result, Turkey has appeared rigid and immobile in the face of rapidly changing and highly dangerous military clashes in Iraq.

Mixed messages

Consider the sequence of events at the start of this week. On Sunday morning, the Turkish public read in newspapers that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan strongly denounced any NATO moves to support the PYD [Democratic Union Party], the Kurdish defenders of the beleaguered border town of Kobane.

“In recent days there is an idea floating around of giving arms to the PYD in order to fight against ISIL [IS]. The PYD for us is the same as the PKK and that is a terrorist organisation. It would be wrong to expect a ‘yes’ as an answer from us,” President Erdogan told reporters, apparently unaware that the previous day the US had confirmed that there is direct contact and intelligence sharing between the US and the defenders of Kobane.

The following day newspaper readers learned first that President Barack Obama and US secretary of state John Kerry had both spoken to the president, evidently urging a conciliatory line to prevent Kobane falling to IS and discussing steps that might be taken. Then a few hours later came news that the US Air Force (which has flown more than 130 flights to strike at IS’s lines around Kobane) had dropped ammunition and heavy weapons to the YPG [the PYD’s militia] in the town.  

At midday Turkey’s foreign minister, Mr Mevlut Cavusoglu, revealed, quite unexpectedly, that Turkey was permitting Peshmerga defenders to travel through a corridor across the border to fight in Kobane. This was despite President Erdogan’s apparent stipulation the previous day that dealing with the “regime problem in Syria” was a precondition for cooperation against IS.

Despite the Turkish foreign minister’s wording, there was no sign throughout the day that any Peshmergas had entered, or still less exited, Turkey for Kobane - an event which would be extremely controversial with Turkish public opinion, but would presumably be completely visible at the crossing point at Mursitpınar. Officials in Erbil confirmed that no fıghters had yet been sent.

Ankara is well-disposed towards the Iraqi Peshmergas, who have never engaged in terrorism in Turkey, and has good working terms with the Kurdish regional government, which is based in Erbil in northern Iraq.

However, relations between Erbil and the PYD (which is a branch of the outlawed PKK in Turkey) are cool. Perhaps because of this YPG commanders in Kobane - who are now cautiously hopeful that they may even be able to defeat IS eventually - added a further twist to the confusion by indicating that what they do not want Peshmerga reinforcements but more American supplies.

Meanwhile the US, which lists the PKK as a terrorist organisation and continues to assist Turkey against it by supplying intelligence and other help, declared that it did not regard its offshoot, the PYD in Kobane, as terrorist. This is because under US law the PYD is distinct from the PKK. Its spokesperson, Marie Harf added “We made clear to the Turks that we believe it’s incredibly important to support groups like the PYD.”

Mr Faruk Logoglu, a foreign policy specialist in the opposition Republican Peoples Party who supports the idea of assisting the Kobane defenders, commented: “ the end of the day, Washington simply ignores what the Turkish government thinks about the issue.” Given that there is a war on with the urgent possibility of defeat unless action is taken, it is hard to see what else the Americans can do. But their working relations with President Erdoğan must now be under severe strain.

Diplomatic disarray

In the midst of this diplomatic disarray, the United States’s new ambassador in Ankara, John Bass, arrived on Saturday evening pledging to create new bonds of friendship and cooperation between Turkey and the US. Mr Bass presented his credentials to President Erdogan on Monday, just as the confusion over support to Kobane was at its peak.

Mr Bass’s task will be an uphill one. A number of his predecessors in recent years in Ankara, among them even those whose record was of supporting pro-Islamists in Turkey against their secularist predecessors, has faced bitter press attacks. In Washington, there is some exasperation. Even before the emergence of IS, the feeling was widespread that Mr Erdogan had been given exceptional favour with easy access to Mr Obama. Jokes circulated privately about “desk officer Obama” in US-Turkish relations. But the US had got little in return. But when direct contacts with President Obama were scaled down, Mr Erdogan complained publicly. The need to cooperate over IS raised Turkey’s position on the agenda - but in September, Mr Erdogan met vice-president Biden and not Mr Obama during the UN general assembly.

Turkey’s strategic position on the edge of Europe between Russia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East probably means that both sides need each other and no breakdown in US-Turkish relations lasts for very long. When the US snubbed Turkey in 2003 for not participating in the invasion of Iraq, the coldness ended after four years when Mr Erdogan visited Washington. But in the present Middle East crisis the clock is ticking rapidly and it is clear that convergence of views is emerging painfully slowly, if at all.

- David Barchard has worked in Turkey as a journalist, consultant, and university teacher. He writes regularly on Turkish society, politics, and history, and is currently finishing a book on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Members of a Syrian Kurdish family try to spot from the Turkish Syrian border village of Mursitpinar, their relative who is fighting IS militants in the Syrian border town of Kobane (AFP)