Why Turkey Doesn’t Trust the United States

The decline and fall of an alliance.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens to an interpreter as U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, 2017.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens to an interpreter as U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, 2017. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

With an economy already under severe strain, Turkey is now facing U.S. sanctions over its purchase of Russian air defense missiles and European Union sanctions over continued energy exploration off the coast of Cyprus. For a country that once believed that its path to strength and prosperity ran through NATO and the EU, this represents a dramatic shift. The country’s leaders now appear to believe that directly confronting the United States and Europe is the best way to advance their interests.

The reason for this shift, not surprisingly, involves the confluence of long-term trends and more recent changes in the world, the Middle East, and Turkey. Today’s problems have been building for decades, but without a series of ill-fated developments to exacerbate them, they might not have culminated in so dramatic a falling out.

Looking back at how the U.S.-Turkish alliance broke down should serve as a reminder for both sides that confrontation was far from inevitable. Unfortunately, it also serves as an ominous warning of how easily it could get worse.

Throughout the Cold War, Turkey chafed at being Washington’s junior partner, but put up with it in return for protection against the Soviet Union. As a result, anti-American sentiment was widespread in Turkey when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which had their own distinctly Islamist brand of suspicion of the West, came to power at the end of 2002.

Yet the AKP initially tried to enhance Turkey’s status within a fundamentally stable, Western-led world by using Turkey’s soft power to lead the Middle East’s integration into it. To be sure, the AKP foreign-policy guru Ahmet Davutoglu had an exaggerated view of what Turkey’s diplomatic, cultural, and economic influence could achieve. Some of his signature efforts, such as an attempt to broker peace between Israel and Syria, proved unsuccessful. Others, like his 2010 proposal for an Iranian nuclear deal, were also distinctly unhelpful from Washington’s perspective. And yet they rested on a vision for a more cohesive and peaceful region that was not fundamentally at odds with Washington’s.

With the start of the Arab Spring in late 2010, Turkey’s ambitions grew. Suddenly, amid the chaos, Davutoglu and Erdogan saw an opportunity for something much closer to what could meaningfully be called an “Islamist” foreign policy—helping bring Muslim Brotherhood-aligned forces to power throughout the Middle East even if it meant directly clashing with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and with Iran. But here, too, Turkey’s ideological goals remained sufficiently compatible with Washington’s liberal expectations, in which moderate Islamists could come to power through elections. Although some analysts were overly optimistic about the “Turkish model,” it seems equally clear in retrospect that countries like Egypt, Libya, and Syria would have been lucky to turn like out like Turkey.

Instead, the failure of the Arab Spring ultimately amplified the strategic differences between Washington and Ankara while confirming, for Erdogan, some of his worst suspicions about the West. From this point on, moreover, Erdogan’s government faced intensifying domestic opposition, Western criticism, and regional resistance, which seem to have come together to create a deepening sense of siege.

In the summer of 2013, for example, street protests leading to a military coup against President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt coincided with the outbreak of protests in Gezi Park against Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism in Turkey. Although once-sympathetic Western media outlets had already started to question Erdogan’s democratic credentials, their enthusiastic support for the Gezi protests marked a distinct change in tone. Plenty of Western commentators were also quick to criticize the coup in Egypt, but from Ankara’s perspective the contrast between Western cheerleading for the Gezi protesters and Washington’s refusal to condemn Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who took over from Morsi, epitomized Western hypocrisy on the subject of democracy.

The situation in Syria over the next year played its own uniquely damaging role. As Washington gradually grew more alarmed about Turkish support for radical al Qaeda-linked groups, Turkey grew ever more alarmed about the strength of Syrian Kurds linked with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and saw radical Islamist groups as an appealing counterweight. Making matters worse, the Gezi protest was quickly followed by a dramatic public break between Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen, a religious leader who had supported the leader’s rise to power. As Erdogan’s ally, the Gulen movement had helped him burnish his reputation in Washington. But when the movement turned on him at the same time as Western opinion, many in Turkey were quick to see a conspiratorial link.

Events over the coming years quickly deepened all of these rifts and made their stakes appear ever higher to Erdogan. Where other Turkish governments might have moderated their positions to avoid falling afoul of their partners, Erdogan was more inclined to double down, even if it meant isolation.

Following Egypt’s coup, Ankara remained fiercely opposed to Sisi even as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel decided to support him. This alignment deepened into a regional fault line, and Turkey soon found itself arrayed against those countries on a host of issues, stretching from Libya to the Horn of Africa. When Saudi Arabia and the UAE, seemingly with Washington’s backing, imposed a blockade against Qatar in 2017, Erdogan rushed to the country’s support, convinced that he too could one day end up in their crosshairs. Now, in the Eastern Mediterranean, cooperation among Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel has brought Ankara’s sense of encirclement even closer to home.

Meanwhile, in Syria, Ankara’s willingness to sit back and watch in the hopes that the Islamic State would defeat its Syrian Kurdish rivals ultimately helped make a longstanding Turkish conspiracy theory a reality. Throughout the Cold War, the United States firmly supported Turkey against a Marxist PKK insurgency. With the first and then second Iraq Wars, however, Washington found itself supporting Iraqi Kurds in their bid for autonomy. This fueled a paranoid conviction among many Turks that Washington was also directly supporting Kurdish insurgents in Turkey as a way to break up the country. Thus, when Washington actually began arming the PKK’s partner organization in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), it seemed to confirm the worst fears of Turks across the country’s ideological spectrum—so much so, in fact, that it helped consolidate Erdogan’s alliance with an important faction of the country’s nationalists.

Of course, nothing did more to make foreign policy feel existential to Ankara than the 2016 coup attempt. Erdogan concluded that members of the Gulen moment were behind the failed coup and that this meant Washington was as well. Washington’s subsequent failure to extradite Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, only intensified Turkish suspicion.

After the coup attempt, U.S.-Turkish bilateral discussions took on a particularly emotional tone, with many American interlocutors struggling to explain the logic behind U.S. policy to hostile Turkish audiences. Lost, at times, was the possibility that one could fully support Washington’s decision to work with the YPG against the Islamic State and demand evidence for Gulen’s extradition while also understanding why, taken together, these policies would look so sinister from the other side.

A justifiable urge to immediately condemn Ankara’s foreign-policy decisions has made it harder for Washington to correctly understand and predict them.

By the same token, a justifiable urge to immediately condemn Ankara’s post-coup attempt foreign-policy decisions has made it harder for Washington to correctly understand and predict them—as evidenced by the widespread conviction that Erdogan would ultimately walk away from Russia’s offers to sell it an S-400 missile system. Americans have been inclined to interpret a number of Erdogan’s most provocative moves as attempts to seek concrete concessions. From this perspective, ordering S-400s from Russia was a bargaining chip for a better deal on U.S. air defense missiles, arresting U.S. citizens and consular employees was a bid to get Gulen, and publicizing details of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was an attempt to blackmail Riyadh, maybe even for cash.

And yet Ankara has consistently presented such moves in terms that are both more defensive and more ambitious. That is, its confrontational actions appear motivated by a belief that they alone can help Ankara reset the terms of its relations with the West and force Washington to reconsider its hostile policies. Convinced that Turkey is too important for the West to lose, Ankara has sought to raise the price of ignoring Turkish interests with the expectation that the United States will eventually back down.

In a more chaotic and threatening world, Ankara is also increasingly putting its faith in hard power. In early 2018, for example, when Washington moved to consolidate the YPG’s position in northeastern Syria over Turkish protests, Turkey launched an invasion of the YPG-held territory of Afrin. Turkish commentators declared that this show of force would prove Turkey could not be ignored, and they claimed vindication when U.S. President Donald Trump announced his pullout from Syria later that year. Now, Turkey is taking the same approach to its claim on the Eastern Mediterranean’s energy resources, sending warships to disrupt Cyprus’s search for natural gas while it launches a search of its own. As Erdogan said, “Just as we taught a lesson to the terrorists in Syria, we will not cede ground to the bandits in the sea.”

The problem for Western policymakers, including those in Washington deciding how forcefully to sanction Turkey over the S-400s, is that an overly aggressive response confirms Turkey’s belief that the United States is fundamentally hostile, while a weak one confirms its belief that aggressive pushback worked. Turkey, in turn, faces an even greater problem. Provocative moves might check some of the policies it finds most problematic in the short term, but, as is already happening, they will ultimately deepen the hostility and encirclement Ankara fears. In short, both sides have every reason to find an opportunity for rapprochement, and every reason to fear that, without one, relations will become even more confrontational.

Nicholas Danforth is Non-Resident Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, ELIAMEP.