Allies or adversaries? US-Turkey relations tip toward trouble

The United States and Turkey can expect a bumpy road ahead, and may soon become adversaries rather than allies, reported U.S. think tank Gatestone Institute.

Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump nominated career diplomat David Satterfield as his new ambassador to Ankara, a move that still requires Senate confirmation. Meanwhile in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are looking ahead to local elections on March 31.

“A surprise defeat at the ballot box could be the beginning of the end of Erdoğan's 17-year-old rule,” Burak Bekdil, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, wrote for Gatestone on Friday.

One of Erdoğan's priorities, as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from northern Syria, is to prevent the emergence of "a Kurdish belt" along Turkey’s southern border. Thus, the U.S. pullout could expose Syrian Kurds, U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS), to a Turkish military incursion.

“While the U.S. supports the idea of a buffer zone in northern Syria to keep Kurdish militants and Turkish troops at a safe distance from each other, Erdoğan insists on sole Turkish control over the planned 20-mile-deep strip,” Bekdil wrote. “The Turkish strongman also rejects a plan by the United States for a multinational force to police the area.”

Turkey and the United States disagree on Erdoğan’s plan to make Turkey the first NATO ally to deploy the Russian-made S-400 air and anti-missile defense system, according to Bekdil. Turkish authorities have repeatedly refused requests by Western allies to drop the Russian deal and go for a Western-made defense architecture.

Last week, Turkish officials said that the S-400 system would become operational in October. This came the day after Vice President Mike Pence urged Turkey not to proceed with the S-400 purchase. "We will not stand idly by while NATO allies purchase weapons from our adversaries,” he said at the Munich Security Conference.

Turkey is part of a U.S.-led consortium building the F-35 next-generation fighter jet, and has committed to buy at least 100 aircraft. Yet on Feb. 19, Trump signed a spending bill that blocks the transfer of F-35s to Turkey. If Turkey goes ahead with the purchase of Russia's S-400, the bill requires the U.S. government to impose sanctions.

Turkey's efforts to support regional Islamist groups are another cause of concern for Western countries, including the United States.

“As a result of Erdoğan's ideological kinship with groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey is already in a cold war with a long list of regional countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel,” wrote Bekdil. “New tensions were recently added to the list when Libya and Algeria slammed Turkish arms shipments to Islamist militants.”

Erdoğan's anti-Western ideology often makes strange bedfellows for Turkey, like Venezuela, where Ankara backs the embattled Nicolas Maduro.  

“With or without an American ambassador residing in Ankara, there is more than enough evidence to expect a badly bumpy road ahead for the former strategic allies that are now allies only in theory or, in a more realistic lexicon, ideological adversaries,” wrote Bekdil.