Turkish-U.S. Relations Under Strain

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


U.S. relations with Turkey continue to deteriorate. It appears this most recent disagreement stems from Turkey’s decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile-defense system. The United States warned that this purchase might risk Turkey’s continued participation in the F-35 joint-strike-fighter program and, more importantly, brings into question Turkey’s NATO membership. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shown no signs of backing down, leading many to question whether the alliance’s second-largest military may be kicked out altogether.


In fact, the Turkish government seems to take delight in thumbing their noses at the U.S. administration, as demonstrated by this Tehran News report on Turkey’s continued trade with Iran despite US sanctions: “the head of Iran-Turkey Joint Chamber of Commerce said Turkey’s trade center in Tehran is completely active and the trade is going smoothly between the two countries…. Mentioning the impact of sanctions on trade between the two countries, Kami said: ‘The Turkish authorities have repeatedly stated that they are not going to comply with the U.S. sanctions, but obviously the sanctions have created some problems regarding banking relations, and it should be also borne in mind that the entire region’s economy is in recession.’ Earlier this month, Iran’s Turkish Ambassador Mohammad Farazmand announced that Iran and Turkey are working on a financial mechanism channel to bypass the U.S. unilateral sanctions.”

These provocative actions have some asking whether Turkey might be ‘going rogue.’ Linda Heard in her Gulf News op-ed said: “As a new bipolar world order emerges pitting the United States and its Western allies against Russia and China’s growing influence, the geopolitical deck chairs are being rearranged. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would prefer to straddle the fence. He insists he seeks good relations with every nation, but in reality, he is veering from Washington towards Moscow…. With a fast-looming July 31 American-imposed deadline for the Turkish government to comply with its demands, the question is will President Erdoğan surrender to U.S. diktats which will not be appreciated by his largely anti-western following?… Erdoğan is known for his fiery rhetoric and for backing down when the mercury rises so anything is possible. Time will tell!”

The answer to that question, the real reason for the ongoing schism between the two allies turns out to be far more complicated. Writing for Arab News, Yasar Yakis identifies that in addition to the purchase of the Russian air-defense system, there are two other potential “controversial issues between these two NATO allies. Some of them are stagnant conflicts…. One of them is the protracted conflict of interests between the U.S. and Turkey in Syria. The two countries’ national interests in Syria are concurrent in some areas and divergent in others…. The second issue is in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

For the Turkish commentator Burhanettin Duran it is clear that the United States is responsible for the current impasse. In an op-ed for the Daily Sabah, Duran argues that contrary to the prevailing view, “Ankara has been keeping a lid on tensions with Washington by compartmentalizing the relationship. Washington, however, has not kept any of its promises to the Turks since 2013 and has ignored Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. Washington took no steps to address Turkish grievances regarding the Halkbank case, the Manbij agreement, Fetullah Gülen’s extradition or military support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) terrorists. A proposed safe zone in northern Syria also remains on the table. Just this week, we have seen media reports about Washington delivering armored vehicles to YPG militants. It would seem that Erdoğan’s upcoming meeting with Trump represents the last way out of this mess.”

Another Turkish observer, Yahya Bostan, doubles down on Duran’s argument, while focusing attention on the U.S. president’s difficult relations with other U.S. allies: “Washington…seeks to punish the Turks for protecting their interests and forces Ankara to choose between its vital interests and the Western alliance…. Turkey’s top priority is always Turkey…. Instead of acting as a friend, Washington has consistently behaved like an adversary seeking to incapacitate Turkey. Under those circumstances, it makes no sense to question why Turkish-U.S. relations are going badly. Having undermined the United Nations, the U.S. now raises questions about NATO’s future…. The Western alliance, too, suffers from Trump’s reckless policies. The United States could lose Turkey altogether by mounting pressure on Ankara now. It is important to ask who will dismantle the Western alliance.”

Judging by Serkan Demirtas’s analysis in Hurriyet Daily News, Erdoğan has attempted to instrumentalize the ongoing standoff with the United States to garner support at the electoral box. With the victory of the opposition candidate in Istanbul now confirmed, it remains to be seen what impact, if any, it will have on Turkish policy going forward: “Turkey has decided to take the risk of sanctions by the U.S. at the expense of paying its harsh consequences. It’s known that preparations have already been launched by the relevant presidential policy councils for effective damage control and a road map to overcome complications…. Erdoğan’s plan is obviously to turn a potential crisis with the U.S. into a national matter devoted to Turkey’s independence and freedom.”

For the time being, however, The National’s Simon Waldman asserts that Turkey’s membership and involvement in NATO remains tenuous, risking the alliance’s stability and effectiveness: “Some commentators have argued that Turkey should be expelled from NATO. However, doing so would be very difficult. There is nothing written in the North Atlantic Treaty that pertains to expulsion, nor is there a precedent for removing a member state. A country may leave NATO of its own volition…. Turkey cannot and will not be formally expelled from NATO. However, upon its receipt of the S-400s, it will no doubt find itself increasingly isolated inside NATO’s civilian and military bodies. To some extent, this has already happened. Last month it was reported that Turkish military and civilian personnel were not invited to important meetings about air defense and intelligence. In future, such exclusions will become more regular.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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