W. ROBERT PEARSON, Former Ambassador to Turkey; Non-resident Scholar, Middle East Institute
There is never a dull day in Turkey, and events daily prove that. The announcement of the recent date for new elections is just one more example of how vibrant, diverse and changeable Turkish politics and life can be. So with a lot of American attention always being paid to what the American options are and what the United States can and cannot do, it's very refreshing to have a symposium based on what Turkey is about in the region.
Let me say one or two things about the domestic position today of Turkey. I think it's quite clear that President Erdogan intends to replace Kemal Ataturk as the principal figure in post-empire Turkish history. If this were a movie, we might call it "The Empire Strikes Back." But what's most interesting to me about this is, why do we care? Egypt is an ally of the United States. It's not operating on democratic terms. The Saudis have just begun an enormous and very ambitious reform of their political system. We don't raise a hue and cry about them very often in the American press, but we do spend a lot of time talking about Turkey's loss of democracy. I think it's because it was democratic; it did act as an example — not a model, but an example. We did have hopes that a very large, modern Muslim country, a member of NATO, would lead the way towards a more pluralistic governance system for all of the Middle East and the Muslim world. And I think that's worth caring about.
Let me turn now to Turkey's foreign-policy ambitions. I'm going to focus on the things that I think matter most to an American audience, and if I overlook something, it's not because I didn't know about it. I think it's more important to know, as we all do, that this Turkey is not our grandfather's Turkey. Turkey is not just another NATO country going through a rough patch. Mr. Erdogan is clearly questioning the status and role of Turkey in global history. In 2016, he spoke about the Treaty of Lausanne, which ended Turkey's participation in World War I and settled the boundaries — with one exception — creating a new Turkish Republic to take its place in the world community. He described it as being a treaty that was pictured as a victory, but it was actually blackmail by allies, to force the surrender of the Ottoman Empire. In December 2017, he told the Greeks — which certainly made them feel slightly nervous — that the Treaty of Lausanne was a not a sacred text and that the details were unclear.
In February of this year, he told a Turkish audience that the Ottoman Empire had lost five million square kilometers of territory — by the way, that's half the size of the United States — in the last two centuries, and that those two centuries had been wasted, whatever that means. In October 2016, he told the prime minister of Iraq that he should know his place when Iraq asked Turkey to remove its troops from the northern territory of Iraq. He is spinning up tensions with Greece, perhaps for election purposes, but also to needle Athens unnecessarily, just to create tension because he can. And of course, recently he sailed Turkish warships in the economic zone east of Cyprus to make sure that there would be no further exploration unless Turkey was somehow included in the negotiations about its proper share. So, so much for soft-power diplomacy.
Turkey is creating a defense posture that is quite robust. It gives one the impression that Turkey would like to dominate militarily — I don't necessarily mean occupy — the geography to its south and west. In this way, you might think that chaos in Syria might actually open opportunities for Turkey. Perhaps Turkey in some way doesn't really worry too much about this war coming to a peaceful conclusion and Syria reestablishing its territorial integrity and its own borders, because it gives Turkey the opportunity in the meantime to establish hegemony over the areas that it wants to control.
Turkey has a base in Qatar, a clear contrary position to the Saudis, a position identified with Iran. It has a base in Somalia, a foothold in Africa. And it just acquired rights to an island off Sudan, in the Red Sea opposite Saudi Arabia and just south of Egypt. It has troops, of course, in Iraq, and it has troops in Syria. It aims to be a major defense supplier and to achieve a significant measure of defense independence. We see plans for motor vehicles, main battle-tanks, ships, drones, plans for a future Turkish aircraft, parts so that it doesn't have to buy them from foreign suppliers. It makes its own parts for its own equipment. It's on the American list to receive, over time, 100 F-35s, our most advanced fighter. It has signed a deal to install Russian S-400s, an anti-aircraft air-defense missile system, that just happens to be exactly the same system installed in Kaliningrad against the Baltics.
Its political posture seems to be aimed at putting Turkey in the first tier of Muslim countries in the region and a leading Muslim state globally. Mr. Erdogan has repeated a number of times, that "five is not enough" — meaning that the UN Security Council has no say over Turkish choices. And if it were to expand, I'm sure he would be interested in having a Muslim state become a permanent member of the Security Council. He called a conference immediately after the U.S. administration's decision on Jerusalem, trying to solidify Arab and Muslim antipathy to the decision. The conference didn't attract that many people but what was important was the fact that he called it and tried to establish himself as a leader of this sentiment very quickly, so that he would have to be consulted if it went forward.
Mr. Erdogan's government hosts Hamas, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood government. Therefore, its relations with Egypt are always difficult. Just recently, there was a spat with the Saudis. The crown prince referred to Turkey as a triangle of evil, along with Iran and Islamic extremists — no warm relations there. Mr. Erdogan has been compelling smaller states to return Gulenist sympathizers as a condition for good relations with Turkey. He is establishing a university that will be a center for Islamic Studies to rival, according to government statements, the ancient centers of Islamic law, culture and civilization in the Arab countries.
Turkey works hard to separate the political and economic aspects of its relationships. So, while Turkey is using extremist language against Israel, it welcomes Israeli tourists. While it's using extremist language against the European Union, it's claiming the EU is not investing sufficiently in Turkey. While it accuses the United States of having been complicit in the failed coup attempt in 2016, it complains that Americans are not providing Turkey with enough investment opportunities here, and not investing enough there.
As a diplomat, I think I should say a few words about Turkey's methodology of diplomacy. (And I would like to mention that I have with me in the audience Ambassador Marisa Lino, who helped negotiate with the Turks in 2002 and '03 our presumed entry into Iraq to help defeat Saddam Hussein.) On diplomacy, Turkey uses what I would call a kind of blame, shame and claim approach. First of all, Turkey never presents itself as being partially responsible for the problem. It's never responsible for the problem. The problem is always someone else's, often ours, often the EU's, but always someone else's, and they have the burden of coming up with a solution. If the first try isn't satisfactory, well, then go write another draft. Turkey doesn't take any responsibility for fashioning the solution, except through demands.
It follows this approach with abusive language directed against the negotiating partner: the Germans are Nazis; the Americans were complicit in the coup attempt in 2016; the Israelis are a terrorist state. This somehow, in the Turkish logic, is like heavy artillery, designed to soften up the opponent. It doesn't, but in any case, it's the tactic. Finally, when that has been exhausted, Turkey will claim that it's ready for negotiations. It's ready to talk; it has a reasonable attitude. If only the other side would see reason and come forward now, they're ready to talk. In this way, they essentially manage public opinion and make diplomacy much more difficult.
Turkey's position in Syria is so contradictory that it's very difficult to unravel. But all of the contradictions basically have the same effect, if not the same intention: to strengthen the Assad regime. In the case of the chemical-weapons attack just recently, Turkey praises the United States and criticizes the attack, while being in Syria at the sufferance of the Russians, Damascus' main ally, and in the past having helped remove people in eastern Aleppo from areas where the Russians had attacked hospitals and the regime had used chemical weapons against innocent civilians.
Iran now has closer ties with Turkey, in part to deal with the Kurdish issue. The Turks would like to have Iran help them with the Kurds in eastern Syria, but Iran opposes a Turkish presence in Afrin province. And the Russians, to let you know exactly how this trio stacks up, told the Turks it would be nice if they left Afrin. The Russians were putting Iran ahead of Turkey in their hierarchy of important players in the region. The United States is the only country in the area capable of helping Turkey combat the Russians and the Iranians. You would think that the Turks had acquired a sort of Stockholm syndrome, in which they have adopted the very purposes of the people holding them hostage, rather than recognizing that many of those actions are against their own best interest.
I'm going to close on this note: It would be a major strategic mistake for the United States to leave Syria: the impact on our friends in Iraq, who would feel deserted; on our adversaries in Tehran, who would feel encouraged; on the Russians, who would like nothing better than that we leave; and on those in Damascus, who would know that no matter how long it took they would never have to compromise. All of these things would follow as night follows day. So, if we think that getting out now is saving us from something, my last thought is that in actuality it would leave us with a debt. We will owe a heavy debt that we will have to pay later. So we should be right in our choices now.
GONUL TOL, Founding Director, Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies; Adjunct Professor, George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies
Ambassador Pearson asked a question: Why should the United States care about what Turkey does or what's happening in Turkey? There are several reasons. I will talk about Turkey's fear of Kurdish separatism and Turkey's support for the Muslim Brotherhood as the factors that are driving Turkey's regional policy. They're not just problematic for Turkey's own standing in the region, they're also hurting U.S. interests in there.
I think the fear of Kurdish separatism is the main driver of what Turkey has been doing, especially in its immediate neighborhood. It was that fear that was behind Turkey's military incursion into the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Initially the United States announced that Turkey was outside of its area of operations. But, in fact, Turkey's military operation into Afrin ended up hurting the U.S. fight against the Islamic State. The Kurdish forces allied with the United States on the ground — the YPG [Kurdish People's Protection Units] — decided to withdraw from the fight against the Islamic State in order to support Kurdish forces against the Turkish attack.
Erdogan, after that, talked about attacking Manbij, another northern Syrian town. where around 2,000 U.S. special forces are deployed. So if he follows through, that increases the possibility of a clash between the two NATO countries. U.S. officials have been working very hard to prevent that from happening. Rex Tillerson was in Turkey, holding meetings with his Turkish counterpart, and afterward they had a press conference where the Turkish foreign minister said they had agreed with the Americans. Washington promised Turkey that the Kurdish forces would withdraw from the town. Tillerson was vague about that; we don't know, and maybe never will, whether there was a deal reached between the two, since Tillerson was the only American official in the room. Discussions have stalled, and obviously, there's a new secretary of state. There are no more discussions between the two countries about Manbij, but Manbij remains very, very important.
After the meetings, the United States repeatedly announced that it was not planning to withdraw from Manbij. Of course, on their part, that could be a wise decision. If the United States really intends to stay longer in Syria, they have to keep working with the Syrian Kurdish forces. Withdrawing from Manbij might deal a blow to their stabilization operations, especially in Raqqa. There are already problems with the way this umbrella group called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — and pro-YPG elements are very strong within the SDF — are governing the town. The YPG is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, so the Turkish government has been demanding that the YPG be removed from Manbij and take no part in governing the town. They also proposed that the United States and Turkey could form a joint military force to patrol the region. I don't think this is realistic either, despite all the problems that the SDF is encountering in Manbij.
Turkey has also threatened to attack forces east of the Euphrates River. That area is very important for the United States (Manbij is still west of the river). Erdogan was saying that after Afrin, our next target is Manbij. But there are other Turkish officials who are saying, we won't stop there; we will continue to attack Kurdish forces east of the river. That's quite problematic because, through the Kurdish forces, the United States actually controls energy resources there. So if the United States intends to stay in Syria — if it had a long-term Syria strategy — that's the only way it could have leverage over the Assad regime or a place at the negotiating table in a post-conflict Syria.
Of course, this is all assuming that the United States will not withdraw tomorrow. Going back to Turkey's fear of Kurdish separatism, that fear caused Turkey to start working very closely with Russia and with Iran and Syria. Only after a green light from Russia, as the ambassador just mentioned, could Turkey launch the military operation into Afrin, because Russia controls the skies there. I think what prompted the Russian decision was the U.S. announcement that it was planning to establish a 30,000-strong border force. So, after Turkey had been talking about that military operation for over a year, the Russians finally decided to give the green light. There is very close cooperation and coordination among Turkey, Russia and Iran on the ground.
Turkey really needs the Russians in its efforts to contain the Kurds in Syria and to have a military presence there. I think that's why Turkey tried to walk a fine line after the U.S.-led strikes against the Assad regime's chemical-weapons facilities. Erdogan, on the one hand, said Turkey supported the attack. On the other hand, in order not to alienate the Russians, he said the Incirlik Air Base was not used in the strikes. This is a very difficult balance for Turkey to maintain.
Turkey has been deepening its cooperation with the Russians. The S-400 deal has been mentioned. The Russians are also building Turkey's first nuclear power plant. They're also building the TurkStream pipeline that will carry Russian gas to Europe. Turkey is also part of the Astana trio, along with Iran and Russia, through the de-escalation zones, for instance, that were agreed in the Astana meetings.
The Assad regime consolidated its territorial gains, and Iran also expanded its influence in Syria. Erdogan's rhetoric might be fiercely anti-Assad, yet, as Bob Pearson just said, through its actions Turkey is actually empowering the Assad regime, as well as the Iranian presence in Syria.
The second factor, support for the Muslim Brotherhood, has also been problematic. It drove a wedge between Turkey and U.S. allies in the region such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Turkey was close to Mohamed Morsi, and after the toppling of his regime, Turkey became very critical of Sisi; the two countries decided to withdraw their ambassadors. Right before Turkey's failed coup in 2016, I think there were reconciliation efforts, but on the day of the coup, the Egyptian media were too happy. I think that opening is closed now. And while the Egyptian regime wants Turkey to deport the Muslim Brotherhood members, there's a large network of them in exile in Turkey. In Istanbul, they have their news channels and media networks. Closing them down is, for the Egyptians, a condition for the normalization of relations. Publicly pushing for normalization is very difficult for President Erdogan, especially with what happened after the failed coup.
The United Arab Emirates is similarly concerned about Turkey's links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan is not very fond of the UAE either. After the failed coup, he argued that the UAE was behind it. The Saudis, I would say, were less worried about Turkey's Muslim Brotherhood ties. For a while, they tried to mediate between Turkey and Egypt — but not anymore, not after Turkey sided with Qatar in the Gulf countries' blockade decision.
Amb. Pearson said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is very passionate: He recently called Turkey part of an axis of evil. And Turkey thinks the Saudis are in bed with the Syrian Kurds. Just recently the PYD officials reached out to the Saudis publicly, saying they were ready to work with them. There is that perception in Ankara as well. And Erdogan is pitching himself as the leader of the Muslim world. He was very critical of Trump's Jerusalem decision, and that alienated the Israelis further.
If you look at Turkey and its standing in the region at the moment, from the U.S. perspective, it's still a NATO country. It's still an important partner in the fight against the Islamic State. But it has also become very isolated in the region. All those things that made Turkey a useful partner on the ground are not there anymore. And at times, Turkey is working at cross purposes, as in Syria. If the U.S. aim there is trying to contain Iranian influence, Turkey is certainly working at cross-purposes and also weakening the U.S. partners on the ground, the YPG.
The Turkey-Russia partnership is something that has raised eyebrows here. As for Turkey's S-400 deal — recently the United States slapped sanctions on Russia, including one of the companies producing the S-400. There are other issues too, such as the jailed pastor, Andrew Brunson. This is a huge problem, especially for the people on the Hill. American lawmakers are talking about sanctions.
So Turkey has become, to say the least, a problematic partner. President Trump, right after he announced the attack against Assad's [alleged] chemical-weapons facilities, didn't cite Turkey as a close partner of the United States in the region. He cited the Saudis, Qatar and other countries, but not Turkey. It was just before Andrew Brunson was in court the other day. And after that, President Trump sent out a very critical tweet.
Despite all that, I think the United States is still confused about what to do with Turkey — even the Pentagon. There are different voices: you have the Central Command. They are in charge of Middle East and have been working closely with the YPG. They want to keep working with them. But, on the other hand, you have the European Command, who see Turkey as a valuable NATO partner. They think the best approach is to engage Turkey and stop working with the YPG.
We've also been hearing that there are people around President Trump who are tired of Erdogan and think Turkey has already been lost. But there are others saying, no, we don't want to be the ones who lost Turkey; we have to keep engaging Turkey. There's a lot of confusion, but I think one thing is clear. Turkey is not a constructive partner, and the United States is trying to stop Turkey from spoiling things on the ground.
AARON STEIN, Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council
I'm going to try to switch gears a little bit and talk about Turkey's agenda in the region. If I had to summarize it in two sentences, I would say: Security-focused in the near-abroad, Syria and Iraq, and transformative in the broader region. I think it's important to start with the second one, how they view themselves as transformative, starting with how the government makes assumptions about itself.
As Americans, we like to talk about how Ankara is disruptive to U.S. interests. And I agree with my fellow panelists, that when we look at political trends in Turkey, they're all entirely negative. But when you ask a Turkish official, particularly from the ruling party and its upper echelon, not from the rank and file, I think they would tell you that they went through a tremendous catastrophe in July 2016 with the failed coup attempt.
They're facing extraordinary security pressures from the conflict in Syria, but also from the internal dynamics of their own polity within the Turkish bureaucracy itself. This is the self-identified threat posed by the Fethullah Gulen movement, and they would push back aggressively on this idea that Turkey is not democratic. I don't agree with any of that, but that is what they would say. When you ask them why they are transformative in the region, I think what they would say is that the way things have been going — particularly since the end of the Cold War, but more in lightspeed since 9/11, and then really since the U.S. invasion of Iraq — is that the dynamics are working entirely against Turkish security interests: the collapse of internal governance, first in Iraq and then, beginning in 2011, inside Syria. Then after 2011, the outgrowth of the political instability caused by the democratic, or at least liberal, popular uprisings across the region that we now call the Arab Spring.
In terms of an understanding of what Turkey's transformative role is in the region, the dynamics that led to populist political upheavals in Egypt, in Syria, obviously, but also in Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in smaller numbers, are still bubbling beneath the surface. So, while the Egyptian government in particular may have clamped down on it through, first, the overthrow of the Morsi government and then the introduction of more authoritarian rule, that is a short-term fix.
So Turkey, with this new political identity they are trying to solidify, which they think is more democratic, is making a long-term bet and is ultimately set up for success, while the old status quo — perhaps best represented by the United States and its regional security posture — is destined to fail. I don't agree with that, but I think that is what they would say. It ultimately explains, albeit in contradictory terms, the underpinning of the relationship with Qatar, a state that has financial power and was, from Turkey's political point of view, instrumental in helping to advance this transformative agenda. I think it also explains what Turkey is doing in North Africa, in Sudan in particular, and to a lesser extent in Somalia.
In the near abroad, it's very clear that what's driving Turkish decision making is security, security, security. And that security is, as Gonul said, completely centered around Turkey's PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) problem. The PKK was established in 1978, but became violent about 1984. I would say at year 40, it is now the strongest it's ever been. So when the Turks say, why is it the strongest it's ever been, they'll look just down the road and it's an outgrowth of the collapse of regional order — the collapse of internal governance in Syria, but also in Iraq.
A lot of the dynamics we see now driving tensions between the United States and Turkey were prevalent in 2007 between the United States and Turkey and Iraq. Demands by the Turkish government to secure the border against attacks cannot mean from the PKK. U.S. government officials are sort of lackadaisical in their messaging, saying not really our mandate. Then, ultimately, you get a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq in 2007. Albeit on a much lesser scale, you can transpose it onto the dynamics of 2017. Why is that?
There is an assumption that domestic political dynamics are driving Turkish decision making on the security question. I think that's false. Turkey has made the assumption that Syria will be in a state of collapse for the near term — as will Iraq. I don't think their assumptions are wrong, so what are their near-term security objectives? If you have to defeat an insurgency — now 40 years old — you cannot allow it to have an external safe haven. This is a lesson the United States has learned quite well many times — and we relearn it every single time.
If you can visualize the map, you need a Turkish military presence along the northern strip of the Syrian border, extending across into Iraq. If you look at Turkish military operations since August 24, 2016, you have a rectangle, from the Euphrates River expanding all the way over into Afrin. You have a U.S. presence, which we can talk about in a second. And then off into Quandil, where the three states meet, and down into Sinjar, the cross-border point where the PKK runs supplies between Syria and Iraq.
Look at Erdogan's threats to the region: Northern Aleppo, Afrin, Sinjar. Bracket this place, and you can try and cut off the insurgency. You then try and force the United States into a showdown over Manbij. The deal, as best I understood it, has three parts. The external-internal council that the United States supports, the Manbij Military Council, would be diluted, first by joint patrols and second by the sharing of joint vetted lists — who was the MMC, who can Turkey bring in from its cadres — and then together they can jointly govern.
I don't think this was implementable, but from a Turkish perspective, it meets its security requirements, because if you can replicate that east of the river, you force the United States to do what you want. One of these things was a quasi-buffer zone along that topline border to prevent movement of people. The Turks have actually been quite effective, largely because, in their yelling, screaming and forcing a showdown, they have whipped bureaucrats in our government into a frenzy, trying to figure out how to appease an ally.
Whether this is a durable solution is unclear. But we've seen outcomes thus far, one of which is the closer relationship with Russia, entirely driven by the necessity to put troops across the border. There is a political component to that, the purchase of an S-400 missile system, which will invite a U.S. response across two baskets. There's the big "C" consequences, CAATSA: Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. And then there's small "c" consequences, denial of licenses on end-user products for the Turkish defense industry. Both of these will have serious consequences for Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish relationship. But whether the people in Ankara really have thought this one through, I am not sure.
The dynamics for the U.S.-Turkish relationship are entirely negative. But if you're an AKP (Justice and Development Party) politician campaigning for election now on June 24, 2018, where you have widespread voter anger across political parties at the United States for empowering Kurdish movements across the border, fomented by a media entirely beholden to the ruling party, you have an anti-Western populism in Turkey that wraps around these security concerns. It's a toxic mix that will cause problems for the U.S.-Turkish relationship, but in the broader context, also cause some concerns, both in the Middle East and across Europe, about what Turkey's ultimate intentions are.
LISEL HINTZ, Assistant Professor, International Relations, Johns Hopkins University (SAIS)
I have the dubious honor of going last but I'm going to try not to repeat anything just said. My colleagues have done a really excellent job of outlining the security concerns underlying Turkish decision making. I think we also need to take very seriously the economic concerns — obviously related to security — driving a lot of Turkish foreign-policy decision making as well. When we think about the decision to move up the elections to June 24, there are a lot of different factors behind it. But I think one of the most powerful driving forces is the fact that the Turkish economy, despite having seemingly demonstrated impressive growth rates, is now being manipulated in the way that GDP findings are reported — these impressive growth rates. It's becoming increasingly clear that short-term capital investment, the so-called hot money being pushed into the economy, the expansion of credit, is just not sustainable. There's a looming economic crisis that the AKP is trying to get out ahead of before the elections.
What I want to contribute is an identity-politics perspective on Turkish foreign-policy decision making. It's largely Turkey's shift towards finding a much greater role for itself in the Middle East, and moving away from U.S. and European entrenchment. I was very happy that my forthcoming book, Identity Politics Inside Out, was flagged in the introduction. What I focus on is the intersection of domestic politics and foreign policy, specifically how identity contestation over what it means to be Turkish spills over into the foreign-policy arena.
One of the things I explain in the book is the rise of what I call Ottoman Islamism as an understanding of what it means to be Turkish, something fundamentally different from the previous understanding of Turkish national identity, which I call republican nationalism, a pro-Western, secular sort of modernizing. Gender equality was very important in that understanding of national identity. There was always a bit of suspicion of the West, and I think this comes from the Turkish Republic's founder's experience of the Treaty of Sevres and the idea that a lot of territory was going to be ripped apart. So there's a suspicion of the West, but Turkey fundamentally belonged in the West and that's where it should be headed.
This understanding of what it means to be Turkish had clear foreign-policy consequences, essentially centered around a transatlantic alliance. What we see in Ottoman Islamism is an understanding of Turkishness: to be a good Turk you are a pious Sunni Muslim, you respect a patriarchal understanding of relations and that Turkey's foreign policy and its role in the region is grounded in the legitimacy of this role as the Muslim leader in the region — specifically, a Sunni Muslim leader. This comes from Turkey as the former home of the caliphate and the sultanate. So there's this understanding of a different role for Turkey to play in the region.
This gets to the point Ambassador Pearson mentioned: that Erdogan said Turkey had wasted 200 years. This understanding was solidified in former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's strategic-depth doctrine — taking advantage of Turkey's cultural, historical and religious ties in the region that Erdogan and his supporters considered wasted by trying to break away from the Ottoman past and move explicitly towards the West — this rise of Ottoman Islamism that I see in domestic politics and Turkish pop culture, from television shows to advertisements for chewing gum and cellphones. You have politicians dressing up in sort of fake Ottoman garb as they're running for election. This gives some of the AKP followers a sense that Turkey had importance in the region, playing a role and being a leader.
This rise of Ottoman Islamism under the AKP has happened in a really short time. I want to recall one personal anecdote. On the first anniversary of the coup attempt, I was in Ankara. It was around midnight; we were waiting for Erdogan to come, after giving a speech in Istanbul. I was standing on the steps of the parliament, at the intersection of Ismet Inonu Street and Ataturk Boulevard — the two founding fathers, military commanders and first presidents of Turkey, founders of what I call republican nationalism. What I saw around me was a crowd of people shouting "allahu akbar," and the majority of the women were wearing hijab, something those two founders would have been very unhappy about. There's a real animosity between people who share these competing understandings of identity that can help to explain some of the societal polarization that you see in Turkey.
The way I explain this rise of Ottoman Islamism is this: that the AKP is able to use the foreign-policy arena and EU-accession criteria to remove some of the former republican nationalist obstacles to its rise. Civil-military criteria are used to reduce the role of the military and reconfigure the judiciary as part of the democratization process. Removing those factors kicked out of power previous parties in that same Ottoman Islamism tradition. The AKP came to power in 2002 proclaiming itself a big-tent party. But it comes from one of the most anti-Western traditions of political Islam in Turkey.
This is an attempt to understand, from an identity-politics perspective, why we see Turkey wanting to be recognized as a legitimate Sunni Muslim brother in the region. We've heard the details of a number of the cases, but one thing we didn't talk about is Turkey's support for Palestine and its extremely open declaration that Turkey should be a brother or father figure, the entity that can defend the Palestinian cause. We heard a little about this with the organizing by Erdogan of protests against the U.S. decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Another really important moment was the Mavi Marmara incident, in which a flotilla was sent by a Turkish NGO with very close ties to the Turkish government, to break the Gaza blockade. You also see this in the ramp-up of very anti-Israeli rhetoric. There were a number of incidents — for example, at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2009, where Erdogan interrupts the discussion and tells Shimon Peres, "You know well how to kill," defending the Palestinian cause and attacking Israel. This was, probably, a staged public attack in response to the fact that Turkey had been brokering Syria-Israel negotiations. Just a few days after a delegation visited Ankara, Israel began bombing Gaza. Erdogan saw that as a personal affront: how dare you go behind my back and attack those I'm trying to protect?
There's definitely been a championing of the Palestinian cause, an effort to warm relations with Syria, actually. We think now of how incredibly anti-Assad Erdogan is; he didn't even want the Turkish military to participate in anti-ISIS strikes unless the United States made that conditional upon Assad's ouster as well. But we have to remember that, before the Arab Spring, there was a very good relationship between Assad and Erdogan, sort of a bromance. They vacationed together in Bodrum; there was a clear warming of relations, interesting from a foreign-policy perspective. As recently as 1998, Turkey and Syria were ready to go to war with each other over Syria's harboring of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK.
So you have a Turkey trying to reach out to Syria, Erdogan, in fact, telling the international community when the Arab Spring happens, "I'm going to negotiate with Assad. Don't worry about it. I'm going to take care of this. I'm going to make sure that he stops cracking down on his people." Then, when he's not able to achieve that and has expended an immense amount of political capital trying to get Assad to back down, there's a complete shift the other way. There's a resentment of Assad and a clear need to show that he is enemy number one. You see this with a lot of Erdogan's political opponents. They're very close, but then he can turn on them viciously. We see it, obviously, with Fethullah Gulen, who used to be very close with the AKP.
You see this also with Qatar, a country that has made an immense amount of portfolio and direct investment in Turkey. It's risen quite a bit. Turkey and Qatar have also established a strategic-cooperation council. Turkey provided military cooperation as well as food assistance to Qatar during the blockade. Turkey actually tried to broker that crisis as well, but was unable to do it. I think it's important to recognize that although Turkey would like to see itself as a Sunni Muslim brother in the region, able to broker crises and negotiate deals, it's been quite ineffective.
It's also worth noting the Ottoman rhetoric — that if the United States is supporting the YPG in Syria, it should get an Ottoman slap. This is probably more for domestic Turkish audiences than for the United States, but it's a way of kind of slapping back, literally. Not all of this is historically accurate; it's an idealized version of what it means to be Ottoman. But it is something that shapes a lot of the rhetoric. It plays well to a lot of Erdogan's domestic audiences.
When it comes to Erdogan's rhetoric — whether it's anti-U.S. rhetoric, calling Germans Nazis or calling the Dutch fascists — you have to look at the timing and whether there's an election coming up. There have been a lot of elections in Turkey recently. As a result, you hear a lot of this anti-Western rhetoric; it plays very well to his domestic political base. This also makes any efforts to resolve crises incredibly difficult, because anti-Western sentiment is so popular at the polls.
Whether there's going to be a change in the playing field after the elections, when there's no need to continue campaigning — if Erdogan, as I think most people expect, is elected president in this consolidated executive presidency — is something to consider. There will be more room for negotiation because he doesn't have to whip up anti-Western sentiment. Although it's also important to consider that following the referendum last April, when we thought there might be an easing of this anti-Western rhetoric, it didn't happen. But then again, that's because more elections are always coming.
This domestic/foreign-policy interplay is really important in understanding Turkey's role in the Middle East, and understanding why it has had such tension with the United States and with the EU. Gonul mentioned the "hostage" Andrew Brunson. Turkey's been engaging in what some scholars — Aykan Erdemir, for example — have called hostage diplomacy: detaining Greek soldiers, German journalists and trying to negotiate for their return. Again, we see a Turkey that is a very troubled ally, one that has, at least under this particular party, continued to be a presence in the Middle East, committed to demonstrating that it is a Sunni Muslim brother in the region, no matter how this is received by those countries. This is what the AKP views as its intended role from an identity-politics perspective — shaped by security and economic concerns.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
Let me ask Ambassador Pearson and Dr. Tol, if I wanted to be the devil's advocate: Turkey advised us not to invade Iraq. As Lisel said, they tried to mediate an Israeli-Syrian agreement. They tried with Brazil to negotiate some kind of agreement over Iran's nuclear program. They were recently engaged for at least two years in peace talks with the PKK. They've taken in a lot of Syrian refugees. And they acquiesced, if I understand it correctly, in the initial cooperation between the United States and the YPG based on some understandings with the United States about how we would take weapons away from them and move them east of the Euphrates River. The point is, and you hear this in the Gulf a lot, that American policy since the invasion of Iraq has undermined the security of those states. They don't think they can rely on our judgment the way they thought they could before those events. And they feel they need to take more responsibility for their own foreign policy, rather than wait for us to be their ally and partner. Is there any merit in the argument that we've put them in a position where they've had to do some of these things that now seem not to be in our interests and even counterproductive or at least producing unintended consequences? Ambassador Pearson, you were there during these years. You can probably give us some firsthand knowledge of discussions with Washington at that time, and how they felt about what we were doing and what it would mean for them.
AMB. PEARSON: Let me give an all-too-short answer to an excellent question about a complicated issue. The Turks, with respect to Afghanistan, were incredibly helpful to us. I publicly and privately thanked them a number of times because of their connection with Afghanistan and their understanding of what was happening there and what needed to be done.
The Turks were actually pretty happy with Saddam Hussein having his thumb on the Kurds. They resented the American free-fly zone and chafed at our insistance that their intelligence officers be in the room with Americans as things took place and so on. So they had a fundamentally different approach to those two countries; they were really kind of okay with the way Saddam Hussein was running Iraq.
I completely agree that the Israelis pulled the rug out from under the Turks in the attempts that Erdogan was making to negotiate between Syria and Israel. It was obvious that they humiliated him within days of a serious meeting about how to achieve progress. Even, to this day — except for the military-secrecy aspect of it — I do not understand why the Israelis tossed him overboard with such a cavalier approach.
On Brazil and Iran, the Turks, in the American view, got ahead of their brief. It's like if Rex Tillerson announced that he had reached agreement on the Korean nuclear issue without actually sending the telegram back to tell Donald Trump it had been done. So the failure of the Turks to communicate with the Americans about where they were, and the famous photograph of smiles, handshakes and whatever passes for champagne, was an incredible shock, since the Americans had not been informed.
I don't know that the Turks agreed with the original YPG-U.S. relationship. The part that's always missing in the narrative is that, when ISIS surged into Syria, the Americans and the Turks tried to come to agreement about working on it. The Turks, in response to the American invitation, said no. The Yazidis are Kurds, and their women were being sold into sex slavery and their children were being recruited into ISIS armies. So no one was there to help them, and the United States agreed to do that. And we all remember Kobane, a city of about 50,000 people, under siege by ISIS for four or five months. If ISIS had won that battle, it would have been an enormous plus for their campaign to control the caliphate they were trying to establish. Unfortunately, we all remember the photographs of the Turkish tanks on the hillside across the border, doing nothing. So it's unfair for Turkey to have claimed that the United States embraced a terrorist organization, as if that was our role in the world. We were trying to help people who actually had a right to self-defense.
In diplomacy, two things are important. One is, get your facts right, however unpleasant. That's often a conversation you have with your capital. The second thing is, choose your policy. In doing so, you have to take into account the other person's interests — not whether you think they're right or wrong, but how can you balance what you would like to have done with what they would like to have done. I personally think that there is room for considerable collaboration between the United States and Turkey, even today. And I think the United States has made its own share of mistakes, the low-level announcement of a 30,000-person border defense force being one of the most obvious and most recent. I like the idea that Aaron raised, even though it is perilous, that there might be room for some sort of joint action in Manbij and along that southern border. We've done similar things before and we know how to do that with the Turks, if they are willing to make that move.
DR. TOL: Well, I completely agree with Ambassador Pearson. From a U.S. perspective, it was Turkey's reluctance to do its part in the fight against ISIS that drove them towards this close partnership with the YPG. I disagree with what Aaron said, that domestic politics didn't play a real role. I think it's all about domestic politics. We always have argued that Erdogan was a very pragmatic leader, especially when it came to the Kurdish peace process. He had launched two Kurdish peace processes before. Yet, because of domestic calculations, the minute he realized this was going to be electorally costly for him, he changed his mind in a matter of 24 hours. So if you just look at two different Kurdish openings that he launched, you realize that domestic politics and electoral considerations played a huge part.
I think Turkey's fear of Kurdish separatism is the main driver of Turkey's regional policy, and that's become the major headache for Washington. The Syrian conflict really complicated what Erdogan could have done with the Kurds; yet, it was all about domestic politics in 2015. He launched the second Kurdish opening in 2012, largely as a response to what was happening in Syria. He felt quite vulnerable after the Assad regime gave a free hand to the Kurds in the north and he thought that, if Turkey failed to fix its own Kurdish problem, it would always remain vulnerable to what Assad was doing. That was the rationale, and it worked. There was an agreement between the government and the PKK, and there was a ceasefire in place. When was that broken? Only after the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in 2015. Obviously U.S. cooperation with the YPG hurt the prospects for the Kurdish peace process, but that was not the main factor. It was his domestic calculations.
DR. STEIN: I didn't mean to say that there weren't domestic calculations driving Turkish decision making, but the operation in Afrin, I think, was more out of security planning that was then wrapped into a domestic narrative stemming from a remilitarization of the Kurdish issue inside of Turkey. You had peace talks between the AKP, basically one long arc between 2006 and into 2015, broken up between 2009 and 2012. And in the first iteration there were two external mediators, I think from Norway and the UK. That broke down, but then it reignited in 2012, largely because of the Syrian crisis. It broke down in 2015, first, because of Erdogan's rhetoric building up to the June 2015 election. Internally, with the benefit of hindsight, he was seeing his party's opinion-poll numbers go down, and the opinion polls rising for the HDP, a Kurdish party — not very high, just into the 13 percent range. But with the way votes are counted in Turkey, crossing a certain threshold — 10 percent, but even slightly over — and the way votes are reallocated meant that there would be an extraordinary impact on the AKP's standing in parliament. We saw that in June 2015.
I also think that, internally, the security bureaucracy in general was chomping at the bit to smash what was in January 2015 — and then slightly before that with Kobane — PKK youth cadres. These were becoming more overt in their control over southeastern Kurdish-majority cities inside Turkey. So you have these push-pull factors that ultimately led to the collapse of the peace process. That collapse was helped along by the Islamic State, which decided to set off a bomb in Suruc that killed 33 people linked to the HDP. And because the PKK blames the AKP for sponsoring ISIS, the PKK or an affiliate, perhaps, acting on the direct orders of the leadership, killed two police officers. So you've set in motion a cycle that becomes politically advantageous to Erdogan. His pathway to consolidating authoritarian power looked remote when they lost a parliamentary majority and the HDP itself said they wouldn't support the drafting of a new constitution. So he had to recalibrate his approach.
DR. HINTZ: I really like this devil's advocate question, because Ambassador Pearson is saying it's never our fault; it's always someone else's. But, in a sense, the United States, the EU and other players haven't been completely fair in their treatment of Turkey either. So I mentioned that Turkey, even under the republican nationalists, had a suspicion of the West, stemming from the Treaty of Sèvres but also from the Cuban Missile Crisis and the lack of support in 1974 for the Cyprus invasion, and Operation Provide Comfort, following the 1990-91 Gulf War, which set up a no-fly zone and safe haven for Kurds. All of these are seen by Turkey as evidence that the United States is not necessarily a reliable ally.
In terms of the EU-Turkey negotiations, Turkey sees the EU as very hypocritical, allowing countries to enter quite rapidly. They look at Croatia and say: "We signed an agreement with you in 1966. How is this happening? How are these countries entering so quickly?" They look at rhetoric from Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel — Turkey will never be a full member, that the EU is a Christian club and so forth. There's a lot of frustration and suspicion within Turkey, and rightly so.
When we look at the failed EU-Turkey accession process, I think there's fault on both sides. And to touch on the refugee question, the EU-Turkey refugee agreement is very transactional. It's very much aimed at making sure that Turkey continues to bear the immense brunt of hosting as many Syrian refugees as they do, at this point about 3.5 million. The EU balked at a million refugees within an entity of 500 million people. That's about the same number of refugees that are in tiny Lebanon, a country of almost more refugees than not at this point.
Turkey has, for the most part, borne this burden very well and provided a lot of aid to the refugees. Of course, this comes in conjunction with the EU-Turkey refugee deal, which was supposed to provide €6 billion in aid. Only about 3 billion of that has been allocated so far. That's a sticking point in Turkish-EU relations right now. The Turks are saying: "Why aren't you giving us more of that money?" It's not being put into Turkish coffers, but rather being distributed among aid agencies within Turkey, which would like more control over that money.
That being said, there are some health and employment benefits and so forth that Syrian refugees are getting. There are two aspects to consider, if we abandon the devil's advocate standpoint and kind of go back to being a bit critical of Turkey. One is this role of Sunni Muslim brother in the region. There was an effort in Turkey to try to appear to the international community as the country that was being welcoming, that was not rejecting these refugees. This was the role that Turkey should play; the great majority of those who were coming through were Sunni Muslims. So, Turkey was kind of touting its moral superiority on the international scene. But we have to consider that Turkey is at least slightly complicit in causing the refugee problem in the first place, turning a blind eye to ISIS, allowing ISIS fighters to flow through the Turkish border and not necessarily rooting out ISIS cells. The Syrian civil war is extremely complex, as the United States is increasingly realizing.
But a lot of Turkey's policies towards Syria, particularly being proactive in fighting against ISIS, until ISIS became a real threat within Turkish territory: That's when Turkey switches its policy and closes the border at the end of 2015. Turkey has manipulated a lot of domestic politics in Syria; that is one of the reasons that we see such an immense Syrian refugee crisis.
DR. MATTAIR: What I was trying to drive at was their security concerns and motivations since 2002, but that's when the AKP came to power also. How do you compare these security concerns with this Ottoman Islamist identity, with an identity justification for undoing the Treaty of Sèvres and the Treaty of Lausanne? And their support for the Muslim Brotherhood? How much does that explain their foreign policy since 2002, compared to their security concerns?
DR. HINTZ: Since you specifically mentioned Ottoman Islamism, I think an understanding of identity shapes what you see as a security concern, who you see as a threat, who you believe can be a trustworthy ally. So, with an Ottoman Islamist understanding of identity, there is not necessarily a need to see the Middle East as a place where we don't want to get entangled or drawn in; we see our interests in the West. This opens up the possibility for much deeper security cooperation, military cooperation, economic cooperation, as well as soft-power influence within the Middle East that we didn't see under previous governments.
The timing of this is actually quite important, because the AKP comes into power in 2002, but it's not able to pursue an active Middle East policy right away. That's because it had to defang or reduce the role of some of those republican nationalist institutions. By doing so, they are able, in the mid-2000s, to implement a much more active sort of Middle East policy, along with the strategic-depth doctrine. In order to take advantage of these cultural, historical and religious ties in the region, they tried this zero-problems-with-neighbors policy to resolve the conflicts on Turkey's borders.
If you think about it, Georgia, Bulgaria, Greece, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iran and Iraq are a lot of neighbors to try to resolve problems with. When you push on one — trying to normalize ties with Armenia — Azerbaijan pushes back. There are a lot of different kinds of moving parts. So, as to security concerns, from an identity politics perspective, the AKP's Turkey or the AKP in power just has a very different understanding of who can be trusted, who it wants to partner with.
Going back to the Iran-Brazil deal, yes, there is Sunni Muslim understanding of identity, but this can also be relatively flexible. It can be upgraded to a Muslim understanding overall. We heard some of the rhetoric in Turkey's negotiations with Iran. When we start to see it hardening into a Sunni narrative, we will see a lot of sectarian fights back and forth, particularly with Maliki in Iraq.
DR. TOL: Until the Arab uprisings, I think neo-Ottoman ideology played an important role in Turkey's regional policy. At the time, Turkey really expanded its soft power in the region. If you look at the people of the region, Turkey was seen as a country that was a NATO member, seeking EU membership, but on the one hand, a Muslim country. The AKP was, in a way, seen as a model. So the region itself was receptive to Turkey's expanding soft power. But, of course, the Syrian conflict dealt a blow to that image.
I don't know if Turkey still has, at heart, that neo-Ottoman ideology. If they have, it's not realistic. Obviously, Turkey is very isolated; many countries in the region are very uncomfortable with the idea of neo-Ottomanism. We see that in Syria and Iraq, even among the Sunnis of Iraq — even the Turkmen, who are ethnically linked to Turks. Turkey often pitches itself as their supporters, as the country that protects the Turkmen minority. Even they are saying, we are Iraqis first. They are very uncomfortable with that neo-Ottoman agenda. I think that ended with the Syrian conflict.
AMB. PEARSON: A lot of what we've been saying I completely agree with. A lot of it is the fact-finding part of diplomacy: to know the state of the facts, and to listen very carefully to what the other side's articulation of their interest is. You have to take that into account. So I don't have any objection to fully comprehending and understanding and appreciating the point of view of Turkey on any issue. That's part of the solution, not part of the problem.
The Ottoman Empire was being manipulated by European powers for centuries before World War I, and it developed an ingrown attitude about that. And the United States and Turkey, in a way, were accidental allies after World War II. We ended up holding the European portfolio, and they ended up being under threat from the Soviet Union. So we were slotted into a mold that had been created centuries before we ever arrived. What I'm hearing is that there is a lot of room where Turkey and the United States could accommodate their interests, which is what negotiations are about, and we should look for ways to do that. Again, it's not about who's right or wrong. It's about how can you balance your interests, and it seems to me that there is plenty of room for us to be able to do that.
DR. STEIN: So much of the neo-Ottomanism is wrapped up in Ahmet Davutoglu's book, which is entirely incoherent.
DR. HINTZ: And factually inaccurate.
DR. STEIN: His PhD thesis is in English. When I lived in Turkey I sought it out. I actually had it on CD, just ready to hand out to people. That version is also incoherent. I don't know how it passed dissertation review, but it did. At the crux of his argument is that boundaries in the Middle East were artificial because they were drawn by European powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and were based upon this idea of false ethnic nationalism. And this nationalism, mostly Baathism, but sort of monarchism in the Middle East, is incongruent to the region's ideology. Therefore, it's far more receptive to going back to the idea that people have more in common than they have differences, because these nationalist ideologies are a European import and are pushed on people.
The United States, as the post-1945 guarantor of security in the region, to use Davutoglu's words — first through the vehicle of anti-communism, then the vehicle of anti-Islamism — has set up a security architecture with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. He talks about that through Cairo and through the Israeli prism of justifying Israel's security via the peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt. Therefore, the United States has a vested interest in ensuring that autocracy lives. This is why he talks about Egypt so much, and why they're so adamant against the coup, and why they think the United States was supportive of the coup in Egypt.
Therefore, to get the region to a place where Turkey can have zero problems with neighbors, all of this vested nationalism has to go away. The only way to do that is through travel. Istanbul, Turkish Airlines, is the center of a regional hub. Free-trade agreements, you know? Going back to diplomacy and getting your facts right is entirely ridiculous. Davutoglu's understanding of regional history is fictionalized; it's just made up; it is the best case. Davutoglu also based a lot of it on German philosophers, I think because he can speak German. He went to a German boy's school in Turkey growing up. So the philosophies that underpin his dissertation are Islamist, German and American. If he spoke French, maybe he'd be slightly different.
He was cast off as prime minister in a very unceremonious way, but he's still an MP, poor guy. But Erdogan still uses "zero problem." It's still driving much of what they talk about. But it's failed. They're hemmed in around the region; they've pushed the regional states to take up anti-Turkish positions in ways that they were not in 2007. Looking around — they have trouble with everybody. Olive Branch was a very small military operation, a tiny little thing. It has consequences for the United States but not many other people. But everybody condemned it. Why?
DR. TOL: Including the Arab League.
DR. STEIN: Everybody condemned it — every European parliament, the United States, the Arab League. Nobody supported them, and it's because they've gotten too far out over their skis.
DR. MATTAIR: Somebody from the audience is asking about the possibility of expelling Turkey from NATO. Is the breach between us so grave that that is something we would want to do now, or if Erdogan takes another step too far? Is there anything that could spark that? Does Turkey need the United States more, or does the United States need Turkey more, in the region?
AMB. PEARSON: There is no kick-out clause in the NATO treaty. You cannot expel a member, so let's put that to rest. Then there's the policy issue. It would be terrible to mount a campaign to try to exclude Turkey from Europe and the United States in a relationship that means a great deal to the Turks. I believe that Aaron did a study recently with some graphs showing that 47 percent of the Turkish population today views the relationship with NATO as important. That's a huge asset for Turkey, and it's an asset for us; it gives us a forum to talk within. I'm not going to disparage the emotion behind the question, but I think the relationship within NATO serves our purposes very well, and I hope that it is strengthened.
On the second question, I've often said to people: Please don't ask that question; it just encourages someone to pull out their account book and start writing in things on the left side of the ledger and on the right. If Turkey and the United States cooperate, stability in the northern tier of the Middle East is almost assured. If they don't cooperate, it is almost always at peril. I've heard commentators go both ways on this, but it's not a negotiating point. It provides no leverage on a solution. So I would just say, keep in mind that we actually need each other, and let's see where that leads us.
DR. HINTZ: Another question that could have been asked and is circulated in Turkish pro-government media is this: Should Turkey pull out of NATO? Not, can it be expelled, but does it want to remain a member anymore? This, again, is something that's directed at fueling anti-Western rhetoric for potential voters. Erdogan may come across as erratic, but he's not irrational. He's a very pragmatic calculator. Turkey may bluster and use a lot of this rhetoric, and it may be purchasing a missile-defense system from Russia. It was making gestures about buying one from China as well. But we should underestimate the fact that Turkey does not see Russia as a trustworthy ally. They may partner, they may cooperate, but there's no entrenched alliance between Russia and Turkey that Turkey envisions as possible. I think they know they're acting with Russia's cooperation; there's almost like a parental kind of dynamic to the relationship. But it's not the case that Turkey believes Russia is trustworthy. There's also a historical view of Russia as a threat. So I think Turkey actually values its NATO membership quite a bit. It does push back against it and behaves in naughty ways and is not necessarily following the rules. But I don't think government leaders would see Turkey out of NATO as better than the status quo.
DR. MATTAIR: And what do other people think about Turkey's views on Russia, and also Iran? Do they think Iran is a partner that can be trusted?
DR. TOL: I agree with Lisel. I think there is a lack of trust between Russia and Turkey, and that Turkish officials cannot possibly think Russia is a better partner than the United States. Remember 2015, the year the Russians decided to intervene militarily in Syria. That was a very difficult year; Turkey constantly appealed to its NATO partners not to withdraw Patriot missiles from Turkey, because it felt so threatened by the Russian military presence in Syria. Yet, the Patriot missiles were withdrawn. That was in a way why Turkey pursued the S-400 out of desperation. Others say that Erdogan is seeking S-400s as a response to another potential coup. So there are different arguments.
But I believe there is lack of trust between Turkey and Russia. Yet you might ask, why is Erdogan deepening cooperation if he's that vulnerable. Yes, he's very vulnerable; we saw that vulnerability in 2008 during the Georgia war, when Russia used trade as a weapon against Turkey, and even more in 2015, after Turkey downed the Russian jet. Putin slapped on sanctions that hurt the Turkish economy a lot. Erdogan concluded that he was the weaker partner in the relationship, and that deepening it was a way of keeping the enemy closer. On the other hand, it's not wise for him to be putting all his eggs in the Russian basket.
When it comes to Iran, there are similar problems as well. They have a joint fear of Kurdish separatism, and that's why they coordinated their actions in the region after the KRG independence referendum, and in Syria against the YPG. But at the end of the day, I don't think Turkey trusts Iran either. There was a summit in Ankara with Russia and Iran. Right after it, Rouhani said they really wanted Turkey to withdraw from Afrin and hand over whatever they captured to the regime. A week after that, after the chemical-weapons attack, on that Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said the same thing.
So Turkey's quite vulnerable. It knows that if it wants to keep a military presence there, it needs Russian and Iranian consent — less so, maybe, but the Iranians can make life very, very difficult. On the other hand, Turkey is dependent on these two countries for its energy needs. So it's a very complicated relationship, and it always has been. There has always been competition, especially with Iran. They managed to compartmentalize that relationship — but not with Russia. That compartmentalization ended when Russia decided to use the trade partnership to extract political concessions from Turkey in 2008 and 2015.
Going back to the first question — which country needs the other more — I would argue that Turkey really values its NATO membership and needs the United States more. If you look at what United States' interests are, Turkey is a critical country in the fight against the Islamic State, and American officials really value having access to Incirlik. But that's not irreplaceable; there's already a debate going on. In that regard, U.S. interests are narrower. What the United States wants from Turkey is, basically, not to spoil things on the ground.
DR. MATTAIR: So, if they withdrew from these areas inside Syria that they hold, would that spoil things on the ground, in the sense that they would revert to Assad and the Iranians? What do we want from Turkey in Syria?
DR. TOL: If you don't have a Syria strategy, if you're not planning to stay in Syria, it's obvious that you don't actually care what's happening in Syria.
DR. MATTAIR: But say we want to contain Iran and the Arab world?
DR. TOL: How are you going to do that if you withdraw? If you think that Turkey will contain Iranian influence, I'm not quite sure about that. Who is going to contain the Iranian influence in the region? I don't understand that logic. But Turkey welcomed the U.S. decision when Trump announced he would like to pull out. But I think it would undermine Turkish interests there, too. The reason the Russians gave a green light to the Turkish military incursion has been the U.S. presence there. Obviously, the Russians are trying to drive a wedge between the United States and Turkey. And I believe the Russians are encouraging the Turks to attack Manbij. That would really complicate things for the Americans and make bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States worse. If the United States is out of the picture, that means the Russians and Iranians will be less sympathetic to Turkish concerns about the YPG. I was talking to an American official who said that in meetings with Turkish officials they said: The Kurdish forces will be under someone's control, and, trust us, you wouldn't want the Russians to have full control over the YPG. It's better that we control the YPG. I kind of agree with that. If there is closer cooperation between the YPG and Russians, that makes Turkey even more vulnerable.
DR. MATTAIR: Should Turkey welcome U.S. withdrawal?
AMB. PEARSON: Can I approach it from a slightly different perspective, going east to west? One of the things we haven't discussed very much is Iraq, which is already under considerable influence. And let's applaud the Saudis for trying to get a wedge in there to begin to improve the relationship with Iraq. Turkey should be very concerned if Iraq really falls under severe Iranian control, because that's Turkey's back door. The Iranians have already started signing oil deals with Kurdish companies. The Kurds will take the best bidder. For that reason alone, Turkey and the United States have an important interest in bolstering Iraq. And from there I think — although I haven't said so before — is Turkey really going to conquer all of eastern Syria? If not, are they going to ask the Iranians to conquer all of eastern Syria and subjugate the Kurds, really? If not, the Russians or Damascus? The first of them would put an enormous burden on Turkey, if it could be accomplished, and the other three are threats to Turkey. Gonul's good point was, somebody should watch over these people. And why not let somebody you can talk to do that? Plus, the Iranians are building a southern corridor to Lebanon. We know that Hezbollah's armed equipment array is much greater than it was before. The Israelis are now in this war; the French and British have now joined it. China has said that it backs Russia. So it really is time for an American presence to be felt. And the first step in that presence is to make peace with the Turks.
DR. MATTAIR: What we've been most interested in is the battle against ISIS. What they've been most interested in is the threat of Kurdish separatism. I think Turkey acquiesced in our moving the YPG from the east of the Euphrates to the west, and then we promised to take the arms away from the YPG after the battles in the north. There is a difference inside the American government between the military, which wants to continue working with the YPG and, some others who don't. Is there a way for us to stay but not be so close to the YPG, as a way of ameliorating Turkish concerns about us and what they see as their biggest threat? Practically speaking, can we do that and still keep ISIS at bay and the YPG out of Russian hands?
DR. TOL: If you put boots on the ground, yes, you can. But not without that.
DR. HINTZ: That is the main concern. The reason that the United States chose to arm the YPG, once Turkey didn't seem enthusiastic about cooperating, was because it was trying to avoid putting boots on the ground. The Kurdish militias, whether the Peshmerga or the YPG, are incredibly effective fighting forces. And the United States has at repeated points throughout history used the Kurds to try to achieve its own military objectives. I don't know that the United States is willing to commit to that, so that's exactly why they chose the YPG.
Another aspect to throw in here that's even more complicated is that Turkey has also partnered with other Salafi jihadist groups in Syria. It has collaborated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in getting through Syria, and has in the past armed what was at the time Al-Nusra in trying to oust Bashar al-Assad. So Turkey's willingness to partner with some of these groups in the region is another area of concern for U.S. policy makers.
AMB. PEARSON: There's just one halfway step that might avoid a tremendous discussion in the U.S. Congress about putting large numbers of American troops into a war that has been very difficult. If we can work with the Turks to resolve joint efforts along the border to the satisfaction of both countries — to seal the border to prevent arms transfers — I think there is the possibility for something along those lines to be done. Then we withdraw from Manbij. That would start us on the way to a genuine process of negotiation that would not sacrifice any core strategic interest of ours.
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