Here's How to Save the U.S.-Turkey Alliance

September 12, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: TurkeyRecep Tayyip ErdoganDonald TrumpF-35NATO

Here's How to Save the U.S.-Turkey Alliance

It is worth the effort.

Still, it is in Turkey’s interest to repair its relationship with the United States. Turkey’s economy is on the brink of collapse , and with Western nations accounting for nearly two-thirds of its trade, now would be a particularly inopportune time for Turkey to suffer a further loss of relations with its NATO partners. Erdoğan’s defiance in the face of Trump’s tariffs shows that the disputes over Syria and the Kurds are currently more important to him than protecting the Turkish economy. However, considering Erdoğan’s shortsighted policies are partially responsible for the economic crisis, he may be willing to walk his relations with the West back from the brink if given a mutually beneficial way to do so in the interest of eliminating a threat that could undermine his credibility with the Turkish public.

A simple first step towards nudging Erdoğan down that path is to appoint an Ambassador to Turkey, a position that has remained vacant since 2017. I previously argued that the absence of an American Ambassador to Turkey makes it harder to create a meaningful framework for settling existing disputes, and the fact that America has not filled this vacancy after almost a year tells Turkey that repairing their alliance is not one of America’s priorities. America’s concerns regarding the S-400 system, Erdoğan’s authoritarianism, and the jailing of American citizens are important issues worth pursuing, and America is more likely to reach favorable settlements on each of them if it appears fully committed to the diplomatic process than it will by imposing punitive and counterproductive tariffs.

The United States must also address the Kurdish and Syrian questions from which the root of their poor relations with Turkey stem. The destruction of the ISIS caliphate in Syria has created an opportunity for Turkey and America to re-negotiate their relationships with the YPG. While the United States must continue promoting dialogue and cooperation with Syrian Kurdish groups, it should also accelerate the process of reclaiming the American weapons it gave to the YPG. Moreover, America should condition future support for the YPG on the group cutting ties with the PKK. Also, Washington could offer to deepen its existing intelligence sharing cooperation with Turkey to help stop the flow of money and weapons to the PKK across Syria's porous borders. Because ISIS can no longer acquire or hold territory in Syria, the United States no longer needs to treat the YPG as a proxy force to liberate occupied areas. This means Washington should work to show Turkey that American support for the protection of Syrian Kurds does not extend to its support for an independent Kurdistan or a YPG/PKK alliance.

The United States can further show its commitment to Turkey by facilitating the reopening of peace talks between Ankara and the PKK, which collapsed in 2015 due to Turkey’s involvement in Syria. Erdoğan effectively used his offensive against the PKK to rally public support for his re-election bid this summer but may be more amenable in the post-election environment if he observes the United States pressuring the PKK into resuming the ceasefire that ended when the prior negotiations did. Peace talks with the PKK would be long, difficult, and provide no assurances of success, but showing that America is willing to stand beside Turkey through the duration of the process would certainly improve the likelihood of progress being made.

The United States committed to repairing its relationship with Turkey in 1978 and must be willing to make that same commitment in 2018. The process of preserving the U.S.-Turkey alliance will be complex and will require deft and careful diplomacy. The damage done may ultimately be unable to fully heal, especially if Erdoğan proves unwilling to compromise even when faced with America’s renewed diplomatic vigor. However, America’s alliance with Turkey is too beneficial for the United States to bury without first making every effort to resuscitate it.


Matt Reisener is a program associate at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters