Kuk James | Dartmouth College
Whether he intended to or not, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson bluntly presented the specific cause of the growing strain in the relationship between the United States and Turkey. When the matter of the Erdogan government’s actions in regards to the West’s war against the Islamic State came up at a joint press conference between Tillerson and his Turkish Counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, Tillerson opined that “we’re not going to act alone any longer. We’re not going to be the U.S doing one thing and Turkey doing another.”
While such a statement may seem innocuous at first, it reveals the difficulties that the United States has had in presenting a united front with its NATO ally as far as both ISIS and Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War are concerned. The statement released jointly by the State Department and Turkish Foreign Ministry following Tillerson’s meetings with Erdogan and key members of his government offered few clues as to how exactly Washington intends to repair its fraying bonds with Ankara, instead relying on a vague promise of a “result-oriented mechanism” intended to unify their strategy in the Middle East that would be released next month.
Such a promise might be reassuring for those in favor of strengthening U.S-Turkish ties, if not for the fact that the two countries fundamentally disagree on the matter of how and by whom the war in Syria should be fought. The United States has offered consistent support for Kurdish militants in the Syrian and Iraqi borderlands, providing them with weapons and training. While Kurdish forces have been among the most successful groups in fighting the Islamic State and the Syrian government, the Turks view them as terrorists and has treated them as such, engaging in open warfare with the Kurds in northern Syria. Given that the Kurdish militants’ demand for an independent ethno-state fundamentally threatens Turkish sovereignty (much of the proposed country lies within the borders of the country), it seems unlikely that Erdogan would acquiesce to any American demand that he ignore the Kurdish forces waging war so close to Turkey.
Even though the creation of a separate Kurdish ethno-state is by no means part of the United States’ official Mideast policy, many Turks fear that American support for the Kurds will undoubtedly produce some degree of Kurdish self-rule, with a significant number of those inside the government believing the United States has explicitly promised such a political outcome in Kurdistan. Any decision by the United States to pull support from the Kurds would threaten the stability of one of the most successful fronts of the war thus far, making it a disastrous move as far as American interests in Syria and Iraq are concerned.
The Kurdish question remains an issue of fundamental opposition between the two countries, and one that will inherently divide both countries as far as the Middle East is concerned. A last-minute proposal on the part of Turkey, reached at the end of last weekend’s negotiations, calling for greater collaboration and joint missions between Turkish and American forces, while perhaps offering short-term easement of tensions, does little to fix the broader issues facing the alliance.
Despite possessing the sort of authoritarian strongman traits that President Trump has publicly commended leaders like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte for having, Erdogan’s tendency as of late to embrace the more Islamist elements in the traditionally secular Turkey further complicates the country’s relationship with the U.S. Since quelling the 2016 coup attempt which nearly brought down his government, Erdogan has both tightened his grip on power and courted radical Muslim clerics in an attempt to bolster his support among religious fundamentalists.
While such an attempt has succeeded in strengthening his power, it presents a dilemma for American foreign policy figures favoring reliance on secular or democratic countries in the fight against the Islamic State: do they continue to offer Erdogan unconditional support or do they risk jeopardizing the current fragile alliance between both countries by attempting to push Erdogan back in the direction of democratic secularism? Either decision is unpleasant, but the latter option would be riskier and lead to more detrimental consequences, even if it would ostensibly promote western values in a country where east meets west, thus acting as a valuable extension of American influence in a vital region.
The fundamental question raised by the recent tensions between Turkey and the United States surrounds the future of the alliance between the countries. Can they continue working together despite their disagreements with one another? Or will the matter of the Kurds, Erdogan’s hardening of his power and positions, or another unforeseen development in the American or Turkish political realms push these countries past a point of no return?
The next few years of the Turkic-American alliance will be among the most challenging it has ever faced-and it remains to be seen whether it can be sustained long enough to achieve the United States’ desired objectives in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.