Turkey increasingly questions U.S. commitments

Turkish officials see the United States squabbling and making grand threats to turn away from Ankara and are losing faith in its ability to follow through on policy commitments, which is likely to push Turkey toward new friends like Russia.  

“The inconsistency and deep divisions between the U.S. political establishment and the U.S. administration itself - this is causing confusion and frustration in Turkey,” Ankara-based political analyst Dr. Ali Bakeer told Ahval in a podcast.  

In northeast Syria, observers are finding it difficult to know whether the United States is still partnered with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and if its mission is to protect the oil, continue the fight against Islamic State (ISIS), or something else entirely.

“We’re in a period of rather great ambiguity about the U.S. mission in Syria,” Blaise Misztal, a fellow at U.S. think tank the Hudson Institute, told Ahval in another podcast. “The situation is very fluid in terms of where the United States is and what it’s doing, so I think this question of what its mission is is not entirely clear.”

U.S. forces have pulled back from the Turkish border, as Trump promised, yet they have yet to clear SDF forces from the area Turkey seeks to control. On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Turkey would launch another offensive if the United States, along with Russia, failed to do what they had vowed. 

This would be Turkey’s fourth offensive in Syria in the last few years, following military operations to take Jarablus, Afrin, and the ongoing incursion in northeast Syria. Syria analyst Kyle Orton believes Turkey could slightly expand the area under its control in northeast Syria, but otherwise doubted the Turkish foreign minister. 

“Çavuşoğlu's threat about a fourth incursion seems pretty empty,” he told Ahval. “There just isn't anywhere else to strike.” 

Yet Syria ambiguity is just the tip of the iceberg for Ankara. In July, the United States suspended Turkey from its programme to build F-35 fighter jets in response to Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defences, which Western officials see as a threat to NATO security. 

The F-35 suspension, after the United States had agreed to sell Ankara up to 100 F-35 jets and deeply integrated Turkey into the F-35 production process, has made Turkish officials question whether the United States would follow through on other agreements, such as a possible deal for U.S. Patriot surface-to-air missiles. 

“Ankara already paid more than $1.5 billion, but still the United States decided to suspend Turkey’s involvement in production and refused to send the jets to Turkey,” said Bakeer. “This is an example of how the U.S. can be not credible in its commitments.”

During the Cold War, the United States placed nuclear weapons at Turkey’s Incirlik airbase to extend its reach and boost its ally’s defences, as part of a nuclear sharing arrangement among NATO allies. Last month, U.S. officials met to discuss plans to pull the nuclear weapons out of Turkey - a move the New York Times said would mark the de facto end of the Turkish-American alliance. 

Washington also hopes to sanction Turkey for its S-400 purchase and its Syria offensive, which some analysts have described as ethnic cleansing, while former top U.S. officials, like Columbia University’s David Phillips, have called for removing Turkey from NATO.

“They are taking radical positions - asking to kick Turkey out of NATO, to pull the nuclear warheads, to put sanctions on Turkey - and they don’t look at the serious implications that would result,” said Bakeer, who sees Turkey moving closer to Russia as a negative development for Turkey, the United States and the region. 

Yet for Turkish officials that may be the most reasonable response at the movement, as the U.S. reduces its footprint in the region and seems a less trustworthy partner, and Moscow emerges as the new power broker in the Middle East.

Bakeer urged U.S. officials to calm down, think seriously about what they’re doing and take Turkey’s national security interests into consideration, before the relationship goes fully off the rails. 

“They have to show credibility and consistency,” said Bakeer, “and the United States is anything but these two things right now.”