Turkey-US relations forged on necessity, no ‘golden era’ - German Marshall Fund

The relationship between the United States and Turkey was always one of necessity for Turkey and practicality for political leaders in Washington, said Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, the director of the Ankara based German Marshall Fund.

“There’s no such thing that Turkey and the United States once had a golden age in their relations and now it has been lost. The reality is that they never had one,” Ünlühisarcıklı told Edward Stafford in a podcast for Ahval’s Anatolian Dispatch on Tuesday.

“It was never a love affair, or a relationship based on historical friendship. This is and needs to be a relationship based on realistic expectations on both sides,” he said.

Ties between the United States and Turkey have deteriorated after Ankara acquired S-400 air defence missiles from Russia in 2019, which resulted in its exclusion from the F-35 stealth fighter jet programme and sanctions against its defence procurement agency.

The two countries’ policies also differ over Syria - where the United States backs Kurdish militants that Turkey considers terrorists - Libya and the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Joe Biden held their first face-to-face meeting in Brussels last week in an effort to repair ties.

The relationship was always troubled, but the two sides managed to remain allies because they knew that it was better to cooperate, he said. “It was a rational decision.”

There are three structural problems in Turkey-U.S. relations, according to Ünlühisarcıklı.

“First of all, the relations between the two countries were derived during the Cold War, based on the realities of the time. Now, as the Cold War is over and both are now different countries with different objectives, we need to devise a new framework,” he said.

The second structural problem is that, beyond distrust, mutual suspicions exist between the two countries, he said.

The Americans suspect that Turkish foreign policy is driven by an Islamist ideology that puts certain U.S. interests in the region at risk, Ünlühisarcıklı said. The United States has concerns that Turkey could flip to the “dark” side, meaning Russia or Iran, he said.

“As a matter of fact, until the first Gulf War, the assumption in Washington was that Ankara would be actually there for the U.S., when it finally needed Turkey. But when the U.S. needed Turkey in Iraq, it was not there. This raised a question on Turkey’s reliability from Washington’s perspective,” he said.

Turkey also has suspicions of U.S. policy, particularly towards the Kurds and domestic Turkish politics, according to Ünlühisarcıklı.

“The most acute one is that the U.S. has a long-term agenda of creating a Kurdish state along Turkey’s borders which would in time claim Turkish territory,” he said.

Turks in general are suspicious that the United States is meddling in Turkish politics, Ünlühisarcıklı said. Chief among them is Erdoğan.

“Erdoğan genuinely believes that the U.S. will move him from office by using any means necessary. He sees the U.S. behind every political misfortune that has happened to him.”

“Turks also have concerns about the reliability of the U.S. as a partner. Like now people in Ankara say “we needed the U.S. in our fight against terrorism but they were not there, so we need to handle it without the help of the U.S.”

The third structural problem between the two countries is that the strategic honouring of the relationship has broken down, he said.