BACKGROUND: The issue of northern Syria, where Kurdish forces that form an offshoot of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the group that has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984, established self-rule in 2012, is a new reminder of how much Turkish and American strategic priorities have come to diverge since the end of the Cold War. The United States has armed and protected the Kurdish forces in its fight against the Islamic State (IS). Turkey, meanwhile, has seen the emergence of a Kurdish entity across its southern border as an intolerable threat to its national security and the American assistance to the Syrian Kurds as proof of American hostility to Turkey.
Turkish-American relations were never harmonious, not even during the Cold War. A turning point was 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson dispatched an infamous letter to the Turkish Prime Minister İsmet İnönü, requesting that Turkey desist from mounting a military intervention in Cyprus to protect the besieged Turkish minority. Johnson shockingly threatened Turkey – a NATO ally – that the United States would not defend Turkey in case its invasion of Cyprus (which enjoyed good relations with the Soviet Union) provoked a Soviet retaliation against Turkey. When Turkey did intervene in Cyprus in 1974 in response to a Greek attempt to annex the island, the U.S. Congress in 1975 imposed an unprecedented arms embargo on Turkey, supposed to be a crucial U.S. ally in the defense of the West against Soviet communism.
Washington considered the Turkish military to be the backbone of the relationship, yet the Turkish General Staff – notwithstanding its visceral anti-socialism that had led it to seek security in the Trans-Atlantic relationship – has in fact since the 1960s harbored the strongest resentment among the institutions of the Turkish state against the United States. As the self-appointed guardian of the republic and a stalwart nationalist institution, the military has always been inclined to cultivate a strong sense of xenophobia, and its allergy to perceived American overbearing attitudes has grown over time, especially in the wake of the 2003 Iraq invasion during which the U.S. had expected to use Turkish territory, but which the Turkish General Staff and parliament refused to countenance.
IMPLICATIONS: The American-Kurdish partnership in Syria has helped to bring about a convergence in Turkey of two diverse strains of authoritarian nationalism that were originally in opposition: the Islamic conservative nationalism and the more secular right-wing nationalism, represented respectively by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The latter nationalist current has traditionally been promoted by the Turkish “deep state,” and has its origins in the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) that ruled the Ottoman Empire during its last decade. The Unionists – better known as Young Turks in the West – ascended to power after deposing Sultan Abdülhamid II, a despot who had sought to save the Empire by promoting Islam as its binding glue, at the expense of his Christian subjects. Abdülhamid has historically been the idol of Turkish conservatives and Islamists, while his Unionist foes, who were the forerunners of the Kemalists, are venerated by modernist, secular nationalists. The alliance that neo-Hamidians and neo-Unionists have forged since 2014, although in a sense unorthodox, is nonetheless the expression of an historical continuity of violent nationalism.
The new power configuration also includes the pseudo-leftist nationalist group, known as ulusalcılar who venerate Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, as an anti-imperialist hero. These “leftist” nationalists espouse the doctrine of Eurasianism which envisages a rapprochement with Russia, Iran and China and are vehemently anti-American. Their most public figure is Doğu Perinçek, the leader of Fatherland Party (Vatan Partisi). Perinçek, who was convicted as part of the Ergenekon case, has since his release in 2014 come to be seen as an éminence grise of the Erdoğan regime. That may be an exaggeration, but his party – although electorally insignificant – includes several former, high ranking officers, which is an indication that Eurasian ideas have a strong appeal within the Turkish officers’ corps.
This coalition of diverse nationalists needs an existential threat, both domestically and internationally, to sustain its cohesion. The aspirations of the Kurds in Syria fit this bill. Yet what exacerbates the threat and makes it truly existential is the fact that the Syrian Kurds enjoy the cover of the United States, which the Turkish state does not trust, indeed perceives as hostile to Turkey. The embryonic Kurdish entity in Syria is treated like an existential threat not only because it commands an “army” of nearly 60,000, but more importantly, because this army is trained, equipped and covered by Washington.
President Erdoğan’s repeated threats that Turkey is going to undertake a military intervention operation into northeastern Syria, east of the river Euphrates, where 2,000 U.S. Special Forces are deployed and cooperate with the Kurdish-dominated SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) serves to cement the unity of the nationalist power constellation over which he presides. It is also leverage to woo the Americans away from the Kurds.
Playing on Turkey’s geopolitical value for the U.S., President Erdoğan has demanded that the Americans remove the Kurdish armed units from the border areas. The American solution is to create a safe zone that would be 32 kilometers deep and 490 kilometers wide and which would keep Turkish forces away from the U.S. backed Kurdish YPG militia. Turkish patrols would not be allowed in the Kurdish-majority towns of Qamishli, Kobani, Derik, and Amude, or anywhere on the Syrian side of the border. Washington envisages that Great Britain, France, and Australia would assume responsibility for maintaining such a buffer zone, but none of these countries have shown much enthusiasm for the idea.
Neither has the idea fully appeased Erdoğan. “We expect the promise of a safe zone come into place within a few months. Otherwise, we will create it. Our patience is not unlimited. We are not going to wait for the promises given to us to be fulfilled,” the Turkish president said.
Yet even though Ankara is keeping up the pressure, it is nonetheless highly unlikely that Turkey would intervene in northeastern Syria as long as American military personnel are still stationed there. And U.S. troops are not withdrawing, notwithstanding President Donald Trump’s unexpected announcement last December that the American mission in Syria was going to be terminated.
Ilham Ahmed, the Kurdish co-chair of Syrian Democratic Council, said in Washington at the end of January 2019 that “there has been no change on the ground. The situation is just like before Trump’s announcement (last December that the U.S. was going to withdraw)”. After meeting with President Trump, who said that he “loves the Kurds,” Ahmed pleaded that he “not let the Kurds be slaughtered” by Erdoğan. Trump told her “not to worry” and assured that the “Kurds are not going to be killed.”
Given that the United States has a history of abandoning the Kurds and leaving them to the mercy of genocidal rulers, as happened in Iraq in 1975 and in 1991, this commitment may not be fully reassuring. Yet it does seem that Washington is not going to abandon the Kurds to the mercy of Turkey.
In fact, Erdoğan’s hand is not as strong as it was presumed to be before his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on January 23, at which Erdoğan failed to secure Putin’s endorsement for a Turkish action in northeastern Syria like he did in the western Kurdish canton of Afrin a year ago. Instead, Putin wants Erdoğan to engage with and recognize the legitimacy of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Thus, the U.S. does not need to try to appease the Turks in order to prevent a military intervention that has become much more unlikely than what was feared only a few months ago. Yet American policymakers cannot afford to neglect how the U.S. engagement with the Kurds in Syria serves to solidify the nationalist coalition in Ankara, and they still need to address the question of how the strategic implications of the internal Turkish political configuration are going to be handled.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkey’s rift with the United States is real and it will not be easily healed. Turkish and American strategic priorities in the Middle East have been drifting ever since the end of the Cold War and unless the U.S. administration dramatically alters its course in Syria and deserts the Kurds – which does not seem likely – the future of the relationship between the two NATO allies appears utterly uncertain.
Turkey’s partnership with Russia and to a lesser extent with Iran is not a tactical maneuver. Not only is Russia for the moment the more accommodating power, and not only does the partnership with it in Syria appear more promising than the alliance with the United States; more fundamentally, Turkey’s Eurasian strategic reorientation is being fuelled by internal power dynamics. The nationalist coalition of President Erdoğan relies not only on the Kurdish “other,” but also on the perception of the United States as the enemy of Turkey for its cohesion, and ultimately for its survival.
Turkish-American relations were never harmonious, but never before had so much been at stake as today.
Cengiz Çandar is Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Turkish Studies, University of Stockholm and Senior Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs (UI).
Picture credit: Shealah Craighead (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons accessed on February 12, 2019