Edward G. Stafford
Feb 24 2018

How the relations will evolve after Tillerson's visit to Ankara?

Prior to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey last week, many speculated about what could be done to restore positive relations between the two NATO allies, or at least arrest the downward spiral in relations.

Many commentators concluded the United States and Turkey would continue to pursue their interests while working to prevent a rupture in relations.  

Underlying this thinking is the view that the United States and Turkey had especially warm and close relations at most times since Turkey’s entry into NATO in 1952. This rosy fictional narrative has always been more believed by political leaders in the United States than in Turkey.

Turkish political leaders always have in mind President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 letter to Turkish Prime Minister İsmet İnönü warning him against any military move on Cyprus, the arms embargo of the 1970s and the arrest of Turkish special forces personnel in northern Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Most American political leaders consider such history of little import today.  

In part this is due to a misapprehension, on both sides, of the nature of the NATO alliance. Both sides seem to consider it something more than a defensive alliance to stymie Soviet expansionism and, more lately, a cooperation structure to counter terrorism and deter Russian destabilisation efforts.

Though much has been made of the shared values of NATO members, its fundamental purpose is to provide greater security for its member states by making clear to potential attackers that an attack on one by a foreign aggressor will be considered an attack on all. 

This misunderstanding of NATO leads to an idealistic view of the alliance’s ability to foster positive relations among its members. In reality, each member state of NATO pursues its foreign policy to realise its own particular goals, though hopefully not at odds with the vital national interests of the other allies.

Today, as in the past, the United States and Turkey do not have completely consistent foreign policy goals.  

Turkey seeks to blunt the expansion of areas under Kurdish control in northern Syria. The prevention of a contiguous, autonomous or self-governing Kurdish administered region along its border is of paramount importance, even more than defeating Islamic State (ISIS) or other similar violent Islamist jihadist groups.

U.S. policy places the defeat of ISIS and similar violent Islamist groups as the paramount issue in Syria. To attain that goal, it has demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with Kurdish YPG fighters that Turkey sees as an element of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighting inside Turkey, a view apparently shared by the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Any improvement in relations between the United States and Turkey awaits the end of the U.S. need for locally based fighters in Syria so that it does not have to deploy large numbers of U.S. troops, something politically unpalatable and fraught with potential for enlarging a conflict currently limited, for the most part, to Syria.

Likewise, Turkey will not relent in its efforts to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria running the length of its border.  

In sum, until the U.S. eradication of ISIS is final and complete and the Turkish goal of blocking Kurdish hopes for autonomy is realised, the conflict in Syria will remain an irritant in relations between these two allies.

But, an irritant does not have to cause a break in relations.

Most likely, the two sides will take the necessary steps to remain on speaking terms and find areas of mutually satisfying engagement, if their leaders wish to do so.

It is not certain that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan values NATO membership as highly as his predecessors, and very possibly he may see it as a constraint on Turkey’s freedom of action, more than as an insurance policy of incalculable value against home invasion by unruly neighbours.

If he becomes dismissive of the utility of NATO and the United States, he might take action to precipitate a rupture with the alliance, for example by exacerbating conflict over oil exploration in the waters around Cyprus or unnecessarily provoking incidents with Greece in the Aegean Sea. Likewise, U.S. military or political leaders could make intemperate public remarks, thereby increasing the perception that the United States does not take the concerns of Turkey seriously.

What is to be done?

Both sides must speak honestly and respectfully with each other away from the cameras and without public posturing to impress their domestic political supporters. The confirmed report that Tillerson held a tête-à-tête meeting with Erdoğan, with only Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu present as confidential interpreter, is a positive sign. Though somewhat rare, this private meeting allowed for a frank conversation with almost no chance of it being leaked to the public. We will be able to gauge its effectiveness in the coming weeks and months.

If the aggressive public rhetoric of each side continues or intensifies, then a rupture in the Turkish-U.S. relationship becomes a real possibility, regardless of how detrimental it would be to both sides. If instead we see a toning down of the rhetoric and further sincere discussions between the representatives of the two countries, we can hope for an improvement in relations for the mutual benefit of realising fundamental foreign policy goals.