Transitions

Is the U.S. a Reliable Ally? Turks Are Wondering

The Syrian conflict has made life extremely tough for Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The recent U.S. decision to lead a coalition into battle against the Islamic State has caught Turkey off balance. Ankara’s reluctance to side with the international community has made its allies question Turkish loyalty. Some are suggesting that the country ...

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian conflict has made life extremely tough for Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The recent U.S. decision to lead a coalition into battle against the Islamic State has caught Turkey off balance. Ankara’s reluctance to side with the international community has made its allies question Turkish loyalty. Some are suggesting that the country is no longer a reliable partner. They argue that it’s stabbing its NATO allies in the back, and that Washington should send a strong message to Turkey by kicking it out of NATO. (Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952 and has the alliance’s second-largest army.)

What many Westerners don’t realize is that Turkey increasingly has its own doubts about the United States. For ordinary Turks, the United States lost its credibility long before the crisis in Syria — the reason being broader U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly regarding Israel and Iraq. One survey back in 2003, around the time of the invasion of Iraq, found that 71 percent of Turks believed that the United States might one day threaten their own country.

For the Turkish government, however, the big turning point was August 2013. After the Syrian government deployed nerve gas in an attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Turkish officials expected Obama to launch an airstrike to punish the Syrian government for crossing the "red line" that Obama himself had set in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons. As former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently said that the president pulled back, "which sent a mixed message, not only to Assad, not only to the Syrians, but [also] to the world."

Erdogan, who counted the Assads as family friends and had even vacationed with them before the war, nonetheless sided with the West from the very beginning of the Syrian turmoil. Erdogan may have lost a friend, but for a time he was able to compensate by basking in attention from his other best buddy, Barack Obama. It wasn’t that long ago that the American president was still including Erdogan among the five international leaders he considers to be his best friends.

But the honeymoon didn’t last long. Erdogan’s growing authoritarian tendencies prompted President Obama to distance himself from the then-prime minister, whom he declined to speak to for more than a year. Instead, he delegated Vice President Joe Biden to engage with the Turkish leader — a relationship that has now soured as well. Last week, Biden had to publicly apologize to the Turks after his impolitic revelation that Erdogan had acknowledged that Turkey has given free pass to Islamic State militants in its borders. As FP‘s Gopal Ratnam and John Hudson have rightfully pointed out, the Obama administration has recently shown a tendency to go public in certain dealings with its partners, and this definitely makes things more complicated with Turkey.

The Turkish satirical website Zaytung recently published a telling parody of President Erdogan’s problem with the Obama administration. The bogus article depicts an imaginary Erdogan complaining that the Americans only take and never give: "We say we’ve been allies for more than a decade. Whenever [Obama] asks something from us, we rush to meet his demands. But he’s not actually helping us at all. An errand boy at the Washington mayor’s office would be more useful to us than Obama in the White House."

As some pundits have suggested, Ankara does believe that the United States should own up to the mess it helped to create in Syria and Iraq: Obama’s determination to stay out of the Syrian conflict and America’s miscalculated withdrawal from Iraq have exacerbated the problems. Nor are Turks the only ones criticizing the administration’s Syria policy. There are also plenty of Americans who believe that Washington’s cautious policies are making the situation on the ground much worse.

President Erdogan finds new and creative ways to criticize the West every week. He made headlines a few days ago by warning a Turkish audience against "new Lawrences of Arabia" who are currently working to destroy the Middle East. The old Lawrence, who famously helped to stir up Arab tribes against Ottoman rule during World War I, "was an English spy disguised as an Arab." These "new voluntary Lawrences," by contrast, "are disguised as journalists, religious men, writers, and terrorists."

But he may be making it a bit too easy on himself. When things are good, it’s easy to be a reliable partner, but real leadership means taking responsibility. Given the current mess in Syria and Iraq, it’s easy to find scapegoats, and the Obama administration and the Turkish government continue to blame each other accordingly. Pundits on both sides are demanding punishment of their "unreliable allies." Yet even though it’s clear that the passion and the love have long since disappeared from the relationship, neither Turkey nor the United States is ready for a quick divorce. Maybe it’s time for both governments to abandon the blame game and start working on constructive solutions.

Berivan Orucoglu is the Turkey blogger for Transitions and a fellow at the McCain Institute’s Next Generation Leaders Program.

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