Washington-Ankara Tensions Will Shape Obama’s Legacy in Turkey

By Gönül Tol | Director of Turkey Program - The Middle East Institute | Dec 5, 2014
Washington-Ankara Tensions Will Shape Obama’s Legacy in Turkey

This paper is part of an MEI scholar series, titled "Obama's Legacy in the Middle East: Passing the Baton in 2017." Click here to view the full project, or navigate using the table of contents to the right.

Turkey-U.S. relations were off to a good start when President Obama launched his campaign to reconcile the United States with the Muslim world in a 2009 speech to the Turkish National Assembly in which he described Turkey as a “model partner.”[1] Regional dynamics, Ankara’s foreign policy miscalculations, and diverging priorities, however, have driven a wedge between the two allies.

Current Turkey-U.S. Relations

Ankara and Washington are out of sync on several regional issues. Ankara has cultivated close energy relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil in recent years. The two signed several energy deals without the approval of Baghdad.[2] The United States reiterated its opposition to the deals, fearing that the closer energy ties could push Baghdad's Shi‘i government closer toward Tehran and threaten Iraqi unity. Turkey, on the other hand, has argued that the Maliki government’s sectarian policies were the biggest threat to a unified Iraq and has criticized the United States for turning a blind eye to Maliki’s discrimination against the Sunnis.

There is a new government in place in Baghdad, but Washington and Ankara still are not on the same page. While the United States is hopeful that Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, can reconcile ethnic and sectarian differences, Turkey argues that Sunnis are still underrepresented in important bureaucratic institutions such as security and criticizes the United States for continuing the status quo by beefing up the Iraqi Army against the Islamic State.

U.S. reluctance to call the toppling of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi by the military a “coup” has been another point of contention in U.S.-Turkey relations. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) capitalized on its ideological kinship with the Muslim Brotherhood and fostered close relations with the Morsi government. Since Morsi’s ouster, Ankara has been at the forefront of nations condemning the military takeover. But the biggest blow to the U.S.-Turkish relationship has been the conflict in Syria. Ankara and Washington have different priorities in the conflict, and neither side's actions are meeting the other's hopes or expectations.

Washington is primarily concerned about the rise of the Islamic State and views the conflict through the lens of counterterrorism. Hit hard by the ongoing civil war in Syria, Turkey sees the jihadi group as a symptom of the brutality of an illegitimate regime in its neighboring country that has posed far greater challenges for Ankara. Turkey believes that fighting the Assad regime is more important than the narrow counterterrorism mission that Obama has in mind. A military attack against ISIS is likely to strengthen not only Assad but also the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). To Erdogan, a strong advocate of regime change, anything short of Assad's ouster carries the risk of further weakening Turkey domestically and regionally and fueling extremism.

Facing a high-stakes crisis on its doorstep, Ankara thinks that the United States should pursue a more forceful action against the Assad regime and establish a no-fly zone within Syria. To Ankara, the Assad regime's ability to attack mainstream opposition forces from the air has strengthened the Islamic State, causing the Free Syrian Army to flee and allowing the Islamic militants to capture the vacant territory. Enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria, Turkey argues, would ground Assad's air force and boost rebels fighting to topple him. It could also address Turkey’s other concern, namely the strengthening of the PYD. A no-fly zone could establish a Turkish military presence and rid northern Syria of Kurdish fighters linked to the PKK.[3]

The United States, for its part, thinks Turkey isn't doing enough in the anti-Islamic State coalition, considering its NATO membership and geographical proximity. Washington has been pressuring Ankara to allow the United States to use the Incirlik air base in its attack against ISIS, but Ankara set the no-fly zone as a condition to allow the United States to use the base.

The tension between the two allies came to a head in October when the United States airdropped weapons to the PYD fighting against the Islamic State in the northern Syrian town of Kobani despite Turkey’s objections. For Turkey the most dangerous fallout of the Syrian civil war has been the resurgence of the PKK. In retaliation for Turkey's support for the Syrian opposition, Assad gave a free hand to the PYD by allowing it to operate unencumbered, recruit new fighters for its campaign against Turkey, and undertake a pseudo-governmental role in Kurdish regions of Syria.

The military and diplomatic boost that the PYD has received through its effective fight against ISIS has worsened the situation for Ankara. The united Kurdish front composed of the Iraqi Peshmerga forces and PKK-linked groups defended northern Iraq and Syria against Islamic State attacks and helped thousands of Yazidis escape from the western part of the region. The PKK and the PYD have effectively become the West's best hope for on-the-ground troops, winning positive reviews in Western media. Since the groups started their assault against the Islamic State in northern Iraq, there has been talk in Western capitals about removing the PKK from the terror list.

The U.S. move to arm the PYD occurs in this context. Turkey considers the PYD a terrorist organization and fears that the U.S. tactic will strengthen the group militarily at a time when Ankara is moving forward with a deal that would disarm the PKK.

Drivers and Dynamics in Turkey-U.S. Relations

Differing priorities in Syria is likely to remain the main point of contention in bilateral relations in the remaining two years of Obama’s term. The U.S. administration is unlikely to accept Turkey’s demand to establish a no-fly zone within Syria and directly target the Assad regime. Washington’s main focus in Syria will continue to be degrading and ultimately destroying the Islamic State. As long as the Obama administration lacks a comprehensive strategy to target the Assad regime, Turkey will be reluctant to allow the United States to use the Incirlik air base to attack ISIS.

Despite the tension, however, the two sides will keep cooperating against foreign fighters crossing into Syria from Turkish territory, as well as on intelligence sharing and border security. Washington and Ankara’s collaboration on training and equipping the Syrian opposition is also likely to intensify. Turkey has recently agreed to allow the training of at least 2,000 Syrian opposition fighters on Turkish soil by American and Turkish special forces.[4] Furthermore, despite initial problems, the two countries are now working closely to protect Kobani. After the United States delivered weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies to Kurdish forces on the ground, Turkey opened the border for the KRG’s Peshmerga forces to cross into Kobani to help the fight.[5]

Yet Turkey’s failure to advance the peace talks it launched with its Kurds in 2012 might prove to be a major stumbling block for closer Ankara-Washington cooperation on Syria, especially on Kobani. After more than a year of quiet, there has been a recent resurgence of domestic violence in Turkey. Pro-Kurdish groups protested what they saw as their government’s inaction in the face of ISIS attacks against their Kurdish kin in Kobani. The protests throughout Turkey killed about 40; suspected PKK militants also killed three off-duty Turkish soldiers, and Turkish fighter planes attacked PKK-held areas in Hakkari in retaliation for armed attacks on police stations. These incidents broke the peace established when the cease-fire with the PKK began in 2013.

If Turkey fails to find a peaceful solution to its Kurdish question, it will oppose even a tactical alliance between Washington, the Free Syrian Army, and the PYD, complicating U.S. efforts to build an effective ground force in Syria.

And while the oil agreement reached between Baghdad and Erbil[6] that resolved the issue of Kurdish oil exports to Turkey is likely to ease tension between Ankara and Washington over the former’s energy agreements with Erbil, another energy pact that Turkey completed recently might add further strain. Russia and Turkey recently signed a deal that will reduce the price of Russian gas by six percent starting next year, and Russia will supply Turkey with an additional three billion cubic meters of gas. Putin also announced[7] that Moscow is scrapping the South Stream natural gas pipeline project, which would avoid Ukrainian territory to deliver Russian gas to Europe, due to EU opposition. Instead, Russia might cooperate with Turkey on building a gas hub for southern Europe.[8] Increasing energy and trade relations between Moscow and Ankara could complicate U.S. efforts to impose further sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine and deal another blow to already strained ties.

But the real test for Turkey-U.S. relations will come in April 2015 on the centenary of the Armenian genocide. Turkey calls the great suffering and loss of Armenian lives during the forced displacement of Armenians in 1915 under the Ottoman Empire “deportation,” while Armenians call it “genocide.” As a senator, Barack Obama called for Congressional passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution and pledged that as president he would recognize the Armenian genocide.[9] Yet in commemoration speeches, Obama has used the expression “meds yeghern,” which means “great calamity” in Armenian, rather than the word “genocide.”[10] He is unlikely to change course in April 2015, but if he does, this could provoke a nationalist backlash from Ankara.

Obama’s Legacy from Turkey’s Perspective

From Ankara’s perspective Obama’s legacy will be his reluctance to intervene in Syria to topple the Assad regime and his foot-dragging over arming the Syrian opposition, which Ankara believes have prolonged the conflict and thus posed many domestic and regional challenges for Turkey.

Turkey hosts 1.6 million Syrian refugees who not only incur financial costs, but also present political and social dilemmas for Ankara in addressing the country’s ethnic and sectarian balance. These refugees will not be returning to Syria anytime soon, leaving Turkey with a long-term challenge if it fails to build a legal framework to integrate them socially, economically, and politically. Turkey is now also home to well-established Salafi networks that make Turkey vulnerable to attacks within its own territory.

In Turkey’s view, Obama’s inaction in Syria has contributed to Turkey’s predicament, and the U.S.-PYD partnership has added insult to injury and could derail the peace process with its Kurds.

But there is room for the two countries to iron out their differences by addressing each other’s concerns regarding the ongoing Syrian civil war. If Turkey's leaders manage to look beyond their long-running Kurdish phobia, they could turn the PYD-U.S. dialogue to their advantage. If the United States deepens its engagement with the PYD, the PKK, with its new international legitimacy and the alliance the United States forged with its Syrian offshoot, is unlikely to put these gains at risk by resuming violence against Turkey. The United States could also engage the PYD in confronting not just the Islamic State but also the Assad regime. With the right push from Washington and Ankara, the Syrian Kurds, with their secular bent and effective fighting force, could become part of the ground force that the West so desperately needs in Syria.[11]

But for all this to happen and for the PYD to no longer be seen as a threat by Turkey, Ankara has to advance the peace process.

If Turkey enhances the stalled peace process that was launched in 2012 to end the three-decade insurgency, Turkey would be more likely to lend its assistance to the U.S.-led coalition. But if Turkey fails to advance the peace talks and the PKK intensifies the fight against Turkey, Ankara might increase the pressure on Washington to stop working with PKK-linked groups and arming the Peshmerga against the Islamic State, fearing that those weapons might end up in the hands of the PKK. This could complicate U.S. efforts to counter the jihadi threat at a time when the United States needs reliable allies on the ground that are willing and able to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

>> Series Overview: Obama's Legacy in the Middle East

[1] Jim Zanotti, “Turkey-U.S .Defense Cooperation: Prospects and Challenges,” CRS Report for Congress, April 8, 2011, 6.

[2] Selcan Hacaoglu and Grant Smith, “Kurdish Oil Breakthrough Said to Enable Quadrupled Export,” Bloomberg, August 22, 2014, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-08-22/kurds-said-to-plan-quadrupled-oil-exports-on-pump-breakthrough.html.

[3] Gonul Tol, “Turkey’s Tough Choice: Take on ISIS or the PKK?,” CNN, October 9, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/07/opinion/turkey-isis-pkk/.

[4] Adam Entous, “Turkey Agrees to Train Syrian Opposition on Home Soil to Fight Islamic State,” Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/articles/islamic-state-draws-closer-to-capturing-syrian-city-of-kobani-1413029310.

[5] Gulsen Solaker and Tom Perry, “Turkey to Let Iraqi Kurds Reinforce Kobani as U.S. Drops Arms to Defenders,” Reuters, October 20, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/20/us-mideast-crisis-usa-airdrops-idUSKCN0I904X20141020.

[6] “Erbil, Baghdad Confirm Agreement on Oil and Budget Dispute,” Rudaw, February 12, 2014, http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/021220142.

[7] Stanley Reed and James Kanter, “Putin’s Surprise Call to Scrap South Stream Gas Pipeline Leaves Europe Reeling,” New York Times, December 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/03/business/south-stream-pipeline-cancellation-fallout.html?_r=0.

[8] “Russia and Turkey Sign Major Trade Deals,” Al Jazeera, December 1, 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2014/12/russia-turkey-trade-deals-201412117443052995.html.

[9] “Barack Obama Calls for Passage of Armenian Genocide Resolution,” Armenian National Committee of America press release, January 20, 2008, http://www.anca.org/press_releases/press_releases.php?prid=1365.

[10] “Obama Commemorates ‘Meds Yeghern’ with Statement,” The Armenian Weekly, April 24, 2013, http://armenianweekly.com/2013/04/24/obama-commemorates-meds-yeghern-with-statement/.

[11] Gonul Tol, “Why Kobani Could Be an Opportunity for Turkey, the Kurds and the U.S.,” CNN, October 29, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/29/opinion/kobani-opportunity-turkey-kurds-u-s-/.