For more than six decades, Turkey has seen itself and been seen as a member of the West—in terms of political institutions, values, and geopolitical alignment. Over time, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have undermined this orientation. Even though Turkey could have significant strategic value as a U.S. partner in the fight against the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS), the country’s increasingly autocratic tendencies, spiraling political violence, and history of supporting extremists in Syria raise significant questions about its commitment to the alliance with the United States. The January 12 bombing in the historic heart of Istanbul marks the third ISIS attack in Turkey in just over six months and highlights the growing danger to the country from not taking a stronger stance against the terrorist group’s presence and activities within and along its border. Yet, it is the AKP government’s refusal to see this string of attacks as a serious problem for Turkey, combined with its preferred focus on its conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and mounting tensions with Russia, that underscore the challenges facing Turkish and U.S. policymakers.
This backgrounder reviews recent developments in Turkey and U.S.-Turkish relations, their implications for the United States, and policy options going forward.
The founders of modern Republic of Turkey, when searching for a strong and stable political system, looked west to the European secular, republican nation-state. President Harry Truman identified the cornerstone of twentieth-century U.S.-Turkish relations—and Cold War policy—in the moral and strategic importance of self-determination: “[t]he future of Turkey as an independent and economically sound state is clearly…important to the freedom-loving peoples of the world….” Turkey’s Western orientation, however imperfect, was reinforced when it held its first multi-party elections in 1950, joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952, and applied for membership in the Europe Economic Community in 1987.
Turkey’s Role in U.S. Policy
As members of NATO, the United States and Turkey are treaty-bound to defend each other. The significance of this alliance for U.S. interests stems from the juxtaposition of Turkey’s Western orientation and geostrategic location. During the Cold War, Turkey was NATO’s eastern-most outpost, a critical bulwark against Communist expansion. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Turkey, by allowing U.S. troops to use its airbases during the Gulf War, proved the continued relevance of NATO amid a new strategic landscape. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush saw Turkey and its Muslim-majority democracy as an example of the open society and free political institutions that he hoped other countries in the region would emulate. To President Barak Obama, Turkey represented a trusted partner and regional power that could look after Western interests as the United States pivoted away from the Middle East.
The Justice and Development Party
Created in 2001, a year later the AKP scored a huge electoral win, garnering two-thirds of parliamentary seats. Hailed in Turkey and the West as a force of democratic hope, the AKP initially lived up to that expectation. Its major economic and political reforms resulted in an extended period of high growth, broadened minority rights, and the start of EU membership talks. Consequently, the AKP earned electoral victories in 2007 and 2011.
But rather than a new political force, the party has proven over time to be little more than a rebranded version of a previously banned Islamist party; one led by a new generation and with a less toxic platform, but animated by the same Muslim Brotherhood-influenced ideology.
In 2013 a very different AKP from the party of the early 2000s emerged. That June, police cracked down viciously on demonstrators in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. In December, prosecutors revealed an investigation into massive corruption that reached into the highest levels of government, perhaps as high as Erdoğan and his family. Erdoğan began using the bully pulpit, not to spread a message of modernization but rather to propagate traditionally fundamentalist Islamic messages, from anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to instructions for Turkish women on how to lead more pious lives.
Erdoğan was elected to the presidency in August 2014 and immediately began to speak of granting himself vast executive powers. He looked to the parliamentary election in June 2015 to give the AKP the super-majority needed to amend the constitution and restructure the political system. But it was not to be. For the first time in twelve years, voters denied the AKP a parliamentary majority.
Almost everything that has happened in Turkey over the last year is a result of Erdoğan’s attempts to manipulate either the domestic or regional political scene.
Negotiations to form a coalition government after no party won an outright majority in June led nowhere. Erdoğan refused to share power and every other party stipulated they would only enter government if Erdoğan’s role was sharply curtailed, a condition he could not accept. As a result, new elections have been scheduled for November 1.
Conflict in Syria
On paper, Turkey and the United States share the same goals in the conflicts raging in Syria and Iraq: to defeat ISIS and remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. The similarities end there. Ankara considers Assad’s ouster much more imperative than does Washington. Moreover, whereas U.S. policy has been to support “moderate” Syrian opposition who might establish a democratic and pluralistic post-Assad Syria, Turkey has had a different vision. Seeking a kindred Sunni Islamist-dominated Syria, Turkey has consistently promoted the Muslim Brotherhood, or even more extreme factions, of the opposition. This has not only put Turkey at odds with Shia powers in the region, but also alienated it from most Sunni Arab states as well, who are deeply suspicious of the Brotherhood. After famously pursuing a foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” the AKP is left with nothing but problems.
The Syrian Kurds
If Turkey’s primary adversary in Syria is Assad, the Kurds are a close second. Independence for Syrian Kurds, Turkey fears, would embolden and empower the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has waged a decades-long insurgency to win autonomy from Ankara.
Assad has largely avoided clashing with the Kurds; extremist groups, however, have actively targeted them. As the Kurds repelled these attacks, even protecting other minorities, they emerged as the only effective and moderate force fighting the extremists. In late 2014, the United States began providing air support to Kurdish forces in Syria. Their victories multiplied, culminating in a rout of ISIS from a crucial logistics hub at Tal Abyad in June 2015. Perturbed by these developments, Erdoğan proclaimed in late June that “whatever price must be paid, we will never allow the establishment of a new state on our southern frontier in the north of Syria,” and, in early July, mobilized the Turkish military along the border with Syria.
Turkey’s Anti-ISIS Efforts
Since the rise of ISIS in 2014, the United States has repeatedly sought Turkey’s assistance in the mission to “degrade and destroy” this extremist group. By better patrolling its border and cracking down on ISIS operations within its territory, Turkey could choke the group’s access to recruits and supplies. By granting access to its airbases, Turkey could allow U.S. air assets to fly more frequent and less expensive missions against ISIS. But, for a year, Turkey would only allow a limited training program for Syrian rebels, refusing more robust cooperation. Erdoğan only relented recently, agreeing on July 22 to give U.S. forces basing rights and to take up arms against ISIS.
It is no coincidence that this agreement came shortly after the Kurds victory at Tal Abyad or that Washington, in return, had to agree to keep the Kurds out of the only stretch of northern Syria they did not yet control, effectively blocking the uniting of two disconnected Kurdish-held territories. Erdoğan needed the United States to rein in the Syrian Kurds and was willing to trade Turkish airbases in return. But Washington got less than it expected. Turkey is not living up to its commitments, conducting most of its operations against the PKK, not ISIS, which threatens to undermine the burgeoning U.S. partnership with Syrian Kurds.
ISIS in Turkey
ISIS and other extremist groups fighting in Syria have long operated in Turkey, using the country as a recruitment, training, transit, and supply hub. In 2014, Vice President Joe Biden publicly claimed that Erdoğan had admitted to him that Turkey had been allowing extremist groups to use Turkish territory. And, in September 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department issued sanctions against 15 individuals associated with ISIS, of those at least three, according to Treasury, are based in Turkey.
Increasingly, however, ISIS has gone from operating in Turkey to launching attacks in Turkey. On July 20, 2015, a suicide bomber linked to ISIS attacked a cultural center in Suruç, a Turkish town on Syrian border, killing 33. More recently, an October 10 terrorist attack that killed nearly 100 at a political rally in Ankara has been ascribed to ISIS, although no group has claimed responsibility as of this writing. One interpretation of these events posits that ISIS, emboldened by Turkey’s failure to confront the group, is attempting to expand its reach into Turkey, not expecting to meet much resistance. Another asserts that ISIS is lashing out at Turkey to punish it for taking up arms against the group. However, the fact that one attack happened before Turkey joined the anti-ISIS coalition and one after suggests neither of these interpretations is accurate.
Instead, the actual targets of these terrorist attacks have been the Kurds and, indirectly, their U.S. partners. In Suruç, ISIS bombed a group of Turkish Kurdish volunteers preparing to head into Syria on a humanitarian mission. The Ankara attack targeted a rally of predominantly Kurdish and leftist groups calling for an end to Turkish-PKK conflict. Syrian Kurdish militias, bolstered by Turkish Kurdish volunteers, have been ISIS’ greatest adversary. These attacks behind Kurdish frontlines can be seen as an attempt to intimidate them into curtailing their offensive and a warning to the United States that ISIS was capable and willing to retaliate against U.S. allies and interests. The fact that one of the alleged Ankara bombers was the brother of the Suruç bomber, had ties to ISIS, and had been on a police watch list, suggests, at the very least, a significant intelligence failure by Turkish authorities. And government statements suggesting, despite this evidence, PKK involvement in the bombing demonstrate AKP’s view of the Kurds as a greater threat than ISIS extremists.
Turkey’s Kurds and the Peace Process
One of Erdoğan’s most important accomplishments was reaching a 2013 ceasefire with the PKK and opening a peace process meant to end the thirty-year civil war. Yet, on July 24, two days after agreeing to join the anti-ISIS coalition, Erdoğan renounced the ceasefire, launching new operations against the PKK. Since then, Turkey has bombed PKK bases in northern Iraq, announced a state of emergency and imposed curfews in the Kurdish provinces, and rounded up more than 600 suspected PKK members in Turkey. The PKK has struck back, attacking Turkish military bases and police stations.
Erdoğan clearly used the agreement with Washington for cover to pursue this war in the name of counter-terrorism. “The PKK poses a primary threat,” he explained, “whereas ISIL is a secondary threat.” His real motivation, however, was political: he is courting ultra-nationalist voters who had left the AKP due to its support for peace with the PKK, counting that they might now support his restarting the conflict.
Turkey has complicated relations with Russia, made more difficult by Moscow’s recent intervention in the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Assad regime. On one hand, Turkey is dependent upon Russia to meet its energy needs—it imports nearly 60 percent of its natural gas from Russia. Partly as a result of this dependence, Ankara took a much more measured response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine than its NATO allies, eschewing economic sanctions. Instead, at a time when Europe was seeking to diversify its energy supply, Erdoğan welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkey to announce a new Russian gas pipeline to Turkey and, from there, into Europe. Turkey has also signed contracts with Russia for a nuclear power plant.
Despite this, Russia has grown increasingly antagonistic toward Turkey. In September, Russia announced that it would shelve plans for the gas pipeline for the time being, while Rosatom declared that it would delay delivery of Turkey’s nuclear reactor. More worryingly, on September 30, Russia commenced airstrikes in Syria, putatively against ISIS but really targeting U.S.-trained and backed rebel groups. Within a week, Russian warplanes entered Turkish airspace on two separate occasions. Such incursions are a violation of Turkish sovereignty and could allow it to invoke the collective defense commitments of its NATO allies. Already, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has declared that, “an attack on Turkey means an attack on NATO.” He hedged somewhat, however, by noting that “they have a capable air force, so the Turkish armed forces are the first responders.”
Governance & Democracy
Erdoğan has been increasingly eroding the separation of powers, rule of law, and basic political and civic liberties. In reaction to the 2013 corruption probe, he reassigned or fired hundreds of prosecutors and thousands of police officers. Moreover, the AKP has vastly increased the state’s power and insulated it from accountability: it placed the courts under the control of the executive branch; expanded the intelligence service’s powers and legal immunity; and granted itself sweeping authority to censor and monitor the Internet with minimal oversight.
As opposition to the AKP has grown more vocal, the government has sharply curtailed freedom of the press and the public’s access to information. In 2014 and again this year, both Twitter and YouTube were entirely blocked by government order. Even though the ban has been lifted, individual accounts remain blocked. Worse still, the government pressures media companies to fire or just arrest journalists who publish critical stories, including two British reporters for VICE News and the Editor-in-Chief of a major opposition newspaper. Until recently, Turkey had more journalists in jail than any other country, earning it a ranking of 149th (out of 180) on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Ahead of the elections, the government has expanded its crackdown on dissenting voices.
Instability and Political Violence
Erdoğan’s antagonizing rhetoric, persecution of the opposition, and campaign against the PKK have led to a dangerous sense of lawlessness. In recent weeks, mobs attacked and burned more than 100 offices of the pro-Kurdish political party that Erdoğan has repeatedly vilified, as well as those of an opposition newspaper.
Since the Syrian conflict began, Turkey has taken in some 2 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country, at a cost of over $5 billion. Now, many of those refugees are trying to move into EU countries. Turkey is now replacing Northern Africa as a preferred transit route for other refugees and migrants. Ankara has just recently begun enforcing stricter restrictions on travel within Turkey for refugees to stem their flow into Europe.
Turkey is critical to attempts to diversify Europe’s energy supplies and decrease its dependence on Russia. Several important oil pipelines already run through Turkey, connecting Central Asian and Iraqi oilfields to Turkish transit export terminals and European consumers. More importantly, vital natural gas pipelines that would bring supplies primarily from Azerbaijan to European markets are being constructed now. Ensuring that projects like the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline go forward, and are not supplanted by new Russian pipelines, would link Turkey even more closely with Europe and bring strategic and economic benefits to both.
Implications for U. S. Policy
Once a strong alliance, the relationship between the United States and Turkey is now primarily instrumental and transactional in nature. Ankara has two points of leverage: its proximity to the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields is an important asset in the fight against ISIS; and the large host of refugees it houses at the gates of the EU. Washington now has three things that Erdoğan wants: U.S. approval of his leadership, or at least lack of disapproval; evolution of U.S. policy toward Syria to more closely conform with Turkish interests, meaning limiting cooperation with Syrian Kurds, at a minimum; and enforcement of the NATO security guarantee against potential Russian aggression. Essentially, Erdoğan is offering to help keep the region from slipping into further chaos—by helping contain both ISIS and the refugees—in return for tacit U.S. assistance in his quest to stay in power.
This bargain might make it easier for the United States to pursue short-term goals in the region—degrading ISIS—but even that is far from clear. Erdoğan has repeatedly undermined U.S. interests in the Syrian conflict, notably by supporting al Nusra and other extremist groups. He is already doing the same to the anti-ISIS strategy by seeking to damage Washington’s partnership with the Syrian Kurds. While access to Turkish air bases makes the campaign against ISIS easier logistically, that campaign cannot be won without allies on the ground.
Meanwhile, continued domination of Turkey by Erdoğan would have deleterious long-term consequences for the country’s governance and stability. The level of polarization and anger in Turkey has led to escalating political and ethnic violence. Rather than a model for the Middle East, as it was once touted, Turkey is becoming a model of the Middle East, wracked by the same woes of authoritarianism and sectarianism that beset the rest of the region. Continued development on this path would be a tragedy for the people of Turkey. It would complicate efforts to prevent the spread of violence and extremism in the region, deprive the West of what should have been its most valuable local ally at a moment of regional disintegration, potentially bring another civil war to Europe’s doorstep, and spark a fresh wave of refugees inundating European countries.
Addressing this situation will require the United States to prioritize its interests vis-à-vis Turkey. Are the short-term, tactical benefits of Turkish cooperation against ISIS more important than the long-term strategic benefits of maintaining Turkey’s Western, democratic orientation? How to balance these tradeoffs might hinge on just how helpful Turkey is in the fight against ISIS. If U.S. use of Turkish air bases is alienating potential partners in Syria and strengthening Erdoğan domestically, it may not be worth the cost.
Recommendations for U.S. Policy
U.S. interests would best be served by: securing even greater Turkish cooperation against ISIS; maintaining Turkey as a NATO ally; and encouraging Ankara to cease its destabilizing and autocratic practices. Achieving all of these goals might be difficult, at best, but that should not mean abandoning them.
First, it is critical that the United States speak more clearly and forcefully about its concerns with Erdoğan than the Obama administration has so far been willing to do. Having already granted U.S. forces basing rights, it would be politically difficult for him to revoke them now. This should free the United States to extoll the importance of democratic governance to both Turkey’s future and the U.S.-Turkish relationship and highlight how Erdoğan is sacrificing both, without fearing a backlash.
Second, Turkey is a vital strategic ally and its commitment to Western security and political institutions should be strengthened, lest Ankara fall into the orbit of competing powers such as Russia or China. To accomplish this, the United States should reiterate the importance of NATO collective defense measures and its commitment to defend Turkey, if necessary. One measure that could both insulate Turkey from the Syrian conflict and meet one of Ankara’s long-standing demands would be the imposition of a no-fly safe zone in northern Syria. But any such action should be preceded by a frank discussion about prioritization of enemies and be dependent upon a Turkish commitment to reprioritize striking ISIS targets over PKK ones. Washington should also push its European partners to be more open to Turkish EU accession, assuming Ankara meets the criteria.
Third, the United States should make clear its commitment to enhanced economic U.S.-Turkish ties. To this end, Turkey should share the benefits of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently being negotiated through a parallel Free Trade Agreement with the United States.
Fourth, U.S. leaders should work with their European counterparts, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to help return peace to Turkey. This should include robust election monitoring in November, particularly in Turkey’s Kurdish regions.
Fifth, the United States and European Union should greatly increase humanitarian and financial aid to help Turkey bear the cost of the refugees it is housing.