Turkey and America: 1957 All Over Again?

Erdogan and Obama's differences over Syria feel like a replay of Eisenhower and Menderes.

After years of close cooperation, a Turkish prime minister feels betrayed by an American president’s detached attitude toward Syria. The Turks believe that the regime in Damascus threatens both U.S. and Turkish national interests; they are at a loss why the Americans would not flex their muscle against Syria.

Washington, however, fresh out of a prolonged and debilitating war in distant lands, does not want to start new hostilities at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy. At any rate, the U.S. administration feels offended by the increasingly authoritarian posture of a Turkish government they had flaunted as a “model democracy” around the world for almost a decade. Moscow, with a fair amount of irony, sees the Turkish attempt to get America to fight in Syria as being “more royalist than the king.”

If you think we are describing the ongoing tensions in U.S.-Turkish relations over Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to get the United States involved in the Syrian civil war, not to mention his increasingly autocratic rule, you will not be mistaken. But we actually had the Turkish-Syrian crisis of 1957 in mind. The many parallels between the events of 1957, their aftermath, and the current state of U.S.-Turkish relations suggest that Washington and Ankara have a rocky road ahead.

The original crisis took place in the summer and early fall of 1957, when Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and Foreign Minister Fatin Rüştü Zorlu tried to use the close relations between Moscow and Damascus to escalate tensions between NATO and Syria. Between 1954 and 1957, Syria had purchased weapons to the value of £100 million from Eastern bloc states and, following Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s lead, concluded a massive trade agreement with Moscow in 1955. Policy makers in Ankara watched the increasing cooperation between Cairo, Damascus and Moscow with great apprehension. Alarm bells began sounding in the early summer of 1957 when a new coalition government took power in Syria, eager to increase ties to the Soviet Union and follow Cairo’s lead to make the Arab Union a reality. To the Turks, Moscow’s growing involvement in Syrian affairs was a deviation from the “positive neutralism” program of the previous Syrian government. Was a Communist revolution in the offing?

Amidst the Cold War, the dynamic duo of Menderes and Zorlu tried to convince President Dwight D. Eisenhower that the Eisenhower Doctrine, a U.S. “red line” against Communist takeovers in the Middle East had been crossed. Ike, however, had a different scheme to strengthen Syria’s relations with Western powers, and was unimpressed with Ankara’s warmongering. Ultimately, he denied Menderes the opportunity to use U.S. forces to expand Turkish power in the Middle East.

The Syrian crisis of 1957 was a huge blow to Menderes, who began to keep Washington at arms’ length after 1957 and, rather belatedly, decided to normalize his own relations with Moscow. To this day, there is a prevalent belief amongst Turkish intellectuals that the coup of May 1960, which removed the Menderes government from power, was the outcome of Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow following the 1957 crisis with Syria. Although recent historical scholarship points out to more convincing factors behind Menderes’s fall from power, as far as the impact of the Syrian madness of 1957 is concerned, Turkey did devise a new Cold War strategy, which enabled them to capitalize on detente, and cash in on both superpowers throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Now, fifty-seven years after the 1957 crisis, Turkey and the United States find themselves bogged down in a different turmoil in Syria, which brings to mind the aforementioned cul-de-sac. The case against Erdogan’s involvement in aiding and abetting jihadist factions is building up: Tacan Ildem, the Turkish ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) recently admitted that al-Qaeda, not the Assad regime, had carried out the bombings at the Turkish town of Reyhanli on the Syrian border in April 2013. Turkish authorities have repeatedly seized weapons caches headed toward Syria, much to Erdogan’s embarrassment. In one telling incident in November 2013, Turkish military units seized components that would be used to build a chemical weapon. Although the interruption of such operations by Turkish authorities may suggest that the Erdogan government is finally cracking down on radical insurgent groups in Syria, it is worth noting that whenever such smugglers are caught in Turkey, they almost always walk away scot-free.