The relationship between the United States and Turkey has hit the skids. The controversy over Kobani has revealed deep fissures and deep mistrust between Washington and Ankara. It is true that U.S.-Turkish ties were never easy. Beyond the gauzy rhetoric of fighting and dying together in Korea and standing shoulder-to-shoulder to counter the Soviet threat, there was a war of words between President Lyndon Johnson and Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu over Cyprus, and then after the Turks invaded the island in 1974, Washington imposed an arms embargo on Ankara. In between and even in the years after the United States lifted the sanctions on Turkey, mistrust was a constant feature of the relationship. No doubt some Turkey watchers will claim that if bilateral ties survived the difficult period of the 1960s and 1970s, there is no reason to believe that relations will be permanently impaired now, but that is a lazy argument. The factors that drove the strategic relationship—the Soviet Union, Middle East peacemaking, Turkey’s EU project, and soft landings in the Arab world—no longer exist. At the same time, the accumulated evidence from recent experience in Syria, Israel-Palestine, Egypt, and Iraq indicate that Washington and Ankara simply have different goals.
Kobani, where the Turks have good reason to be reluctant to commit themselves to the fight, is a big strategic issue, as are the other conflicts roiling the Middle East that have similarly divided Washington and Ankara. These differences are frustrating for American policymakers, but they are the unfortunate reality of complex conflicts in a profoundly unsettled regional political environment. Policymakers and members of Congress could probably live with these circumstances if it did not seem that Ankara was going out of its way to poison the relationship in a variety of small ways that are irritating in isolation, but together have begun to take a toll on U.S.-Turkey relations.
Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, not a single Turkish official has defended the bilateral relationship in Turkey publicly. It might have been hard for the Turks to champion their ties with the United States after the invasion of Iraq, but since 2007, and certainly after President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Washington has sought to repair the relationship in a variety of important ways. These include real-time intelligence that helped the Turkish military target the terrorists of the PKK effectively, the investment in personal ties between the president and Turkish leaders, resistance to recognizing the massacres of Armenians in 1915 as genocide, intelligence sharing despite concerns about the way the Turks handle sensitive information, and a general unwillingness to censure Turkey for behavior that undermines American interests in the region from the Balkans to the Middle East. In return for the equanimity, pro-government journalists and AKP-affiliated intellectuals have taken every opportunity to unleash a torrent of criticism at the United States, mostly over Israel, but also concerning Syria and Egypt.
Washington is not blameless in the maelstrom of the Middle East, but the Turks act as if they have offered wise counsel to Washington and are thus blameless when, in fact, Ankara’s policies have often contributed to the deepening of regional conflicts, especially Syria. While Ankara claims that U.S. bumbling is principally to blame for Syria’s descent into darkness, Turkish leaders privately beg Washington to save them from their own Syrian blunders. And what is it that the Turks would like the United States to do in Syria? Regime change. For the Turks, Bashar al-Assad is the wellspring of ISIS and ridding the world of Assad will bring an end to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his vision for a reconstructed caliphate. Never mind the circumstantial evidence of Ankara’s dalliances with ISIS or that the group existed for a decade before the Syrian uprising became a civil war, the Turkish policy prescription reveals just how little the Turks understand post-Iraq American politics as well as Syria.
Back to the little things. On November 12, a group of Turks accosted five American sailors on shore leave in the Eminonu area of Istanbul. The sailors, who were not in uniform, were splattered with red paint as their assailants attempted to place hoods over their heads. The American servicemen acquitted themselves quite well during the assault, refraining from retaliation. In response, Turkish authorities merely brushed off the incident as the work of a small marginal group of activists and released them without serious charge. The incident demonstrates perfectly the double-game that the Turks play. They derive political benefit and international prestige from their NATO membership and strategic ties with the United States, but they don’t take their responsibilities as an ally seriously, such as providing access to the Incirlik airbase or protecting American servicemen enjoying the sights, sounds, and tastes of Istanbul. Of course, the Turks have always played this game, but in the context of their recent truculence and thinly veiled hostility toward Washington, it is hard to overlook.
Many analysts of Turkey can make sophisticated arguments about how the combination of politics and history produce a reservoir of anti-Americanism that Turkish politicians ignore at their own peril. No doubt these claims are to a large extent accurate, but lately they have come to feel like excuses for Ankara. Turkey has no real interest in a partnership with the United States, which many of the ruling party’s intellectuals believe is waning. Moreover, Turkey’s grand pretensions to be a leading Muslim power are driving Ankara away from Washington. In the context of this big shift, the bilateral relationship is dying by a thousand slights. The Turks do not seem to care, but given their shoddy track record of understanding the changes in the Middle East, they may wake up one day to find that they are not a leading Muslim power, not a member of the EU, and not a model partner of the United States.