Will U.S.-Turkey Relations Survive the Wars in Gaza and Ukraine?

Will U.S.-Turkey Relations Survive the Wars in Gaza and Ukraine?

It is easy to conclude that over the past years, as Turkey-U.S. relations deteriorated, Turkey's relations with Russia improved and strengthened. However, the reality is more complex.

Turkey and the United States are facing substantial challenges in their bilateral relations amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars. On the one hand, the alliance has been strained by these conflicts. On the other, it also opened new windows of opportunity and cooperation. As both countries deal with these challenges, the upcoming presidential elections in the United States loom large, potentially reshaping the path of their relationship. Within this framework dominated by uncertainty, the major question that still needs to be answered is how Turkey and the United States will handle these difficult times and sustain their relationship. 

When discussing bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States, a popular topic is the extent to which Ankara is drawing closer to Russia and distancing itself from the United States. But is this the case? The beginning of 2024 has marked a remarkably positive phase for Turkey-U.S. relations after several challenging years. The long-awaited approval of Sweden’s NATO membership was quickly followed by the announcement that the United States would sell F-16s to Turkey in a $23 billion deal. Canada also promptly lifted a series of arms embargoes against Turkey. 

During a visit to Ankara, Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland went even further by stating, “Should Turkey be able to resolve our concerns about the S-400, then there could be a restoration of movement into the F-35 program.” These moves illustrate that for Ankara, concerns regarding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)’s presence in Sweden were not as pressing as lifting the embargoes on arms exports. 

Nuland’s statement, made at a particularly complex time for European and NATO security, indicates how the Biden administration has taken several steps to de-escalate and improve relations with Turkey. This occurred even though Biden was the only president not to officially extend an invitation to the White House over Erdogan’s two decades in power. Despite the ongoing issue of the S-400 missiles purchased from Russia remaining a significant thorn in bilateral relations, the recent bipartisan visit by two U.S. Senators signals the intention of the United States to mend ties with Ankara. In an article, U.S. Ambassador Jeff Flake wrote that the United States was establishing 155 mm ammunition production lines in Texas thanks to cooperation in the defense sector. This again demonstrates how both countries see each other as key security partners, not only within NATO but also concerning the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is entering its third year, and Europe’s broader security architecture. 

It's crucial not to conflate the current directions of Turkish foreign policy, which have increasingly become more transactional, with the security policy directions guiding Ankara. Turkey has started to broaden its perspective and adopted a nuanced approach to foreign policy that primarily serves its interests, as evidenced by its continued relations with Russia. However, it's equally true that pragmatism keeps Turkey anchored in the Atlantic alliance and the U.S.-led security architecture simply because there is no alternative capable of offering Ankara the same level of strategic security that NATO, Europe, and the United States provide.

Over the past years, Turkey-U.S. relations have navigated turbulent waters. Particularly after the 2016 coup attempt, relations between Turkey, the United States, and Western partners (NATO and EU) have significantly deteriorated. One of the factors that has had a lasting impact on the Turkish public's perception is the slow response from the Obama administration in the aftermath of the attempted coup. Putin was one of the first heads of state to call then-Prime Minister Erdogan and express his support. This gesture remains deeply ingrained in Turkey's collective memory and has significantly shaped how the Turkish population perceives the United States and the West. While security cooperation forms the core of the bilateral relationship, the people-to-people ties have never been sufficiently developed, as showed by a high level of anti-American sentiments. 

The significance of Turkey-U.S. relations, with direct implications for Turkey-EU relations, is further highlighted by recent stark declarations from Donald Trump, who stated that if NATO member states do not meet the two percent GDP defense spending target, the United States will not defend them from Russian aggression. This has underscored the urgent need for Europe and Turkey to start thinking about defense autonomy. In the wake of the intensified Russian aggression in Ukraine, the strategic interests of the United States and Turkey in opposing Russian expansionist objectives, particularly along the Black Sea coast, have aligned to some extent. Turkey has thus bolstered Ukraine's defense capabilities, working with other NATO nations. 

U.S.-Turkey relations swing between collaboration and high-level tension on various key issues. Given the ongoing conflict in Gaza, the high levels of tension between the two countries are not surprising. However, there was a “calm before the storm” in the Middle East before the outbreak of war. “The Middle East is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” said Jake Sullivan a week before the October 7 attack. In fact, what the national security adviser said reflected the Biden administration's broader goals for the region. 

During the early stages of the Biden administration, its primary focus shifted from the Middle East toward the Indo-Pacific. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was intended to conclude American military engagements in the Middle East to a significant degree. Nevertheless, the United States adopted a marginally more proactive approach in the region after realizing the adverse reputation associated with the passive strategy, the disorderly withdrawal, and the measures undertaken by China to occupy the emerging power vacuum. Furthermore, the crisis that unfolded between Israelis and Palestinians in 2021 exhibited the necessity for a transformed posture. Following this, the United States took on a proactive role in boosting cooperation and easing tensions between Middle Eastern countries, focusing specifically on improving relations between Arab nations and Israel.

The clearest illustration was the improvement in diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, facilitated by the United States. The overall reduction of regional tensions was further aided by China’s diplomatic initiatives to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. During this time, U.S. partners Saudi Arabia and the UAE ceased their boycott of Qatar, a major ally of Turkey. It maintained a hands-off involvement in the gradual rapprochement between Ankara and Cairo. Meanwhile, Turkey re-established diplomatic ties with Israel, a development regarded positively by policy circles in Washington. 

Yet, the overall relationship between the United States and Turkey was anything but ideal. Several points of contention remained, including Turkey’s view of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF remained an ally of the United States in Syria, whereas Turkey regarded it as a serious security threat. Multiple military operations, statements from both sides, and the United States’ elimination of the Turkish drone in Syria all continued to exacerbate the deteriorating relationship between the two in the region. Still, the overall drop in tensions and the warming up between Israel and Turkey were thought to help Turkey and the United States to work out their differences.

However, the October 7 attack served as a reminder to both Turkey and the United States of their main points of disagreement in the Middle East. It also highlighted the fragility of Turkey's relations with Israel. Even when the rapprochement occurred in 2022, the question of how Turkey would respond to a potential Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained unanswered. Naturally, Turkey was expected to support the Palestinians, but the extent of its support was unclear. Turkey lacked a well-defined strategy at the time, notwithstanding the improvement in relations. Following the October 7 attacks, the ambiguity of the strategy became more pronounced. Erdogan took this chance to increase Turkey’s diplomatic standing by convening a conference with the Israeli President and a group of regional leaders, excluding the United States, and trying to position itself in the middle by acting as a mediator. 

Following a brief period of strategic calm, Israel was harshly criticized for its aerial attacks on Gaza. Turkey was also concerned that the United States planned to militarize the situation by sending carriers to the region. Furthermore, the fact that Hamas leaders, who were designated as terrorists by the United States, were living in Turkey, and Erdogan referred to them as “freedom fighters” demonstrated that Turkey and the United States saw the issue from a very different perspective. Turkey and the Biden administration appear to have little interest in each other becoming involved in this matter, but nevertheless, they consider it necessary to keep a communication channel open. The cold reception that Secretary Blinken received in Turkey was an expression of this.

Despite some areas of agreement, especially in the security realm, relations between Ankara and Washington in the Middle East do not appear too bright for the foreseeable future. It is clear that, despite major and minor disagreements between Turkey and the United States and Erdogan's publicly declared anti-Western sentiments, Erdogan sees the value in maintaining friendship with the West. Particularly during a period of economic turmoil in Turkey, Erdogan is not enthusiastic about further deteriorating the relationship between the two historical allies. Moreover, although the Gaza conflict has exacerbated tensions between Israel and other Middle Eastern powers, Turkey's relations with the region as a whole continue to improve. Following twelve years of hostility, Erdogan's recent meeting with Egypt’s Sisi showcased Turkey’s willingness to mend ties with Middle Eastern partners.