Washington officials routinely call Turkey a vital ally, yet Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government have threatened U.S. forces cooperating with Kurdish militias in northern Syria. After American military spokesmen warned that U.S. troops would defend themselves, Erdoğan promised the famed “Ottoman slap.” Alas, doing so probably would increase his popularity with Turkey’s highly anti-American public.
While no one quite believes the two governments will come to blows, U.S. policymakers are deluded or lying when they assert America’s and Turkey’s unity of purpose. After visiting Ankara, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared: “We’re going to act together from this point forward. We’re going to lock arms. We’re going to work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us and we’re going to resolve them.”
However, the threat of open conflict between the two governments is real, and demonstrates the extent to which they have diverged. The differences continue to grow with every new day and military operation. Rather than sacrificing American values and interests, Washington should drop its fantasy expectations and establish a more realistic relationship with Erdoğan.
Successive administrations have been denied Turkey’s evident estrangement. Ankara remains in NATO and the U.S. Air Force remains at Incirlik Air Base, but little else binds the two governments together. The relationship is but a ghost from the past.
The Cold War is over, and Russia isn’t going to attack Turkey—or any other NATO member for that matter. Indeed, after tumultuous relations with Moscow over the shootdown of a Russian aircraft, Erdoğan has steadily improved ties to Vladimir Putin. Ankara even is purchasing S-400 antiaircraft missiles from Moscow, undermining alliance efforts to improve interoperability among members. It would be foolish to assume that Turkey would live up to its alliance commitments if Russia ended up at war with America or Europe.
Moreover, Ankara has actively thwarted U.S. objectives in Syria. Focused on ousting the Assad regime, for years Erdoğan’s government allowed Islamic State personnel and materiel to cross the Turkish border. There even were credible accusations that Erdoğan’s son was involved in the illicit oil trade with ISIS. Only after the group staged terrorist attacks in Turkey did Ankara take a more actively adversarial role, and even then it prioritized countering growing Kurdish influence over opposing the “caliphate.”
In launching the ironically named Operation Olive Branch against Kurdish military forces that were allied with Washington against the Islamic State, Turkey wrecked Trump administration plans to create a Kurdish “border security force” to police Syria’s north. A cavalcade of Turkish officials lamented their lack of trust in Washington, and threatened to attack American personnel stationed alongside Kurdish forces. U.S. officials whined that Ankara’s policy was not “helpful,” as if that were the Erdoğan government’s objective.
Turkish foreign policy has also turned hostile elsewhere. Under Erdoğan, Turkey’s relations with Israel turned sharply negative. And the Turkish leader once promoted rapprochement with Greece, and some observers hoped for a similar approach to Cyprus, which Ankara invaded in 1974, occupying more than a third of the island to create an ethnic Turkish state. But the Erdoğan government has increased tensions with Athens over nearby Greek islands that it covets, and declined to make concessions to end the Cypriot standoff.
Erdoğan’s interest in joining the European Union, assuming it ever was real, has ebbed; with Syria’s collapse, he turned refugees into a weapon of extortion against Europe. He shifted from protecting the liberty of Islamic faithful in public to pushing Islamism on the public in a region where Islamist extremism is a threat. After seeking to end the Kurdish conflict at home, he helped reignite the fighting, which continues to ravage Kurdish areas in Turkey. He blockaded Iraqi Kurds after their independence referendum last fall and, most recently, launched military multiple operations against Syrian Kurds.
Finally, slowly at first but rapidly after the failed coup in July 2016, Erdoğan constructed an electoral dictatorship. He began his premiership as an ally of liberals seeking to eliminate Atatürk’s authoritarian trappings dating back to creation of the Turkish republic. Kemalism enshrined nationalism and secularism, and was ruthlessly backed by the military.
However, Erdoğan long ago tossed aside concern for anyone’s rights but his own. Freedom House judges Turkey to be unfree. Ankara leads the world in imprisonment of journalists, with more than seventy in jail. The State Department published a seventy-five-page report on the government’s human-rights abuses, including unlawful killings, torture, lack of due process, mass imprisonment, infringement of free expression, inadequate protection of civilians in military operations, prison overcrowding and more.