US-Turkey: Whose axis is shifting?


It is no secret that U.S.-Turkey relations have experienced highly turbulent times recently. Two major NATO allies known to host the largest militaries in the alliance are experiencing a sharp, strategic divergence on a range of critical issues in the Middle East and beyond. Ankara and Washington have considerably different views on just about everything related to the Syrian civil war, differing on ways to climb out of the Syrian quagmire, how to resolve the civil war, how to properly define the PKK’s Syrian offshoot the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as a terrorist organization and regarding the formation of the People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) corridor – being described by the West as an “underground railroad” – in northern Syria. U.S. ally Turkey is now being subjected to speculative reports by Western journalists who function more like court jesters, handing down their guilty verdict in the Western court of public opinion for Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, which garnered the tacit approval of Russia.

Ankara and Washington disagree on the future of the Barzani administration in Northern Iraq, on how to deliver rich mineral resources to global markets, on how to deal with Iran and the Tehran-supported al-Abadi Administration in Iraq, on how to deal with the Daish threat in Iraq and Syria, on the humanitarian crisis in Syria and, with no sigh of relief, on the struggle against the route of delivering rich mineral resources to global markets; on how to treat Iran and the FETÖ terror group whose leader still lives in self-imposed house arrest on a compound in rural Pennsylvania. This laundry list of conflicts of interest and visions can easily get longer but even the aforementioned is enough to indicate the enormity of the scale of strategic divergence that has begun eroding at Turkish-U.S. relations.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that Turkey is performing an “axial shift” from a Western alliance toward some form of Eurasianism, which mainstream opinion blames on problems that arise with Washington and Brussels. Yet, the current state of affairs requires a careful examination as we believe that the multidimensional problems in bilateral relations have mushroomed as the result of the U.S. “axial shift” in terms of its strategic preferences in critical geopolitical areas. The particular breaking points which led to deterioration of foreign relations were the start of intensive terror attacks and so-called urban warfare by the PKK after a ceasefire agreement collapsed in July of 2015, as well as the recent failed coup attempt on July 15 perpetrated by a military junta composed of members of the FETÖ terror organization. The dismal reaction shown by the Obama administration to Turkey’s existential challenges as well as Turkey’s sovereignty and integrity as a state has triggered deep-rooted disappointment and alienation towards the once “model partner.” Washington has failed to form effective collaborative efforts with Ankara in its fight against PKK terrorism and are deliberately dragging their feet in the extradition of former preacher and coup mastermind Fethullah Gülen, going so far as to even refrain from condemning the July 15 coup attempt, evident in a statement given by Vice President Joe Biden during his post-coup visit to Turkey when he bizarrely stated that the U.S. thought the military coup was a “computer game.”

As Washington and its NATO partners collaborated to alienate Ankara with their indifference, the radical track change in Turkish foreign policy planned and instigated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with the motto “normalization,” which became operational under the assumption of duty by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım who produced fascinating results in a relatively short span of time. The rupture in bilateral relations with Russia triggered by the Nov. 24 jet crisis and had a constraining impact on Ankara’s strategic options was swiftly repaired after the president paid a crucial visit to St. Petersburg in August. The pace of ongoing rapprochement with Moscow even exceeded prior expectations with Putin’s presence at the opening of the 23rd World Energy Congress in Istanbul this week and completion of the historic agreement for the construction of the Turkish Stream pipeline. Lifting off trade sanctions placed on Turkish agricultural and industrial goods following the Jet Crisis, as well as preliminary talks on collaboration for Turkey’s long-planned missile defense system signaled the possibility of even deeper strategic cooperation with Moscow. The last time Ankara decided to accept the Chinese bid for the air-defense system in the light of its multiple advantages in terms of price, quality, joint production and technology transfer, we saw a small-scale storm manufactured by NATO circles based on the precept that the system would be incompatible with NATO systems and jeopardize collective security. This time around, however, if the conditions are favorable, Turkey might follow the course of military cooperation with Russia until the end, regardless of whatever reactions it bears the brunt of from the NATO side. This is the natural outcome of the strategic conjuncture in which the country is trying to manage substantial risks in the middle of various war zones in the Middle East.

The “axis shift” in Washington is particularly characterized by a strategic preference to coordinate regional policies in the Middle East with Iran (which aims to integrate itself into the global system via the recently signed nuclear agreement) and the PYD (which parades and propagates itself as a representative of the Kurdish people) at the expense of established relations with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Every axis shift comes with its potential benefits and losses — and this era in foreign policy will prove no exception.

* Dr. SADIK ÜNAY has been a lecturer at Manchester, Birmingham and Huddersfield Universities in the United Kingdom and Balıkesir, Maltepe, Fatih, Yıldız Technical and İstanbul Şehir Universities in Turkey. His articles have been published in journals such as Emerging Markets Finance and Trade, Estudios Politicos, Insight Turkey, Perceptions and Review of International Law and Politics. He co-edited the Special Issue of Insight Turkey on the Political Economy of Turkish Foreign Policy. He also writes for Daily Sabah Turkish newspaper.

(Published in Daily Sabah on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016)