For the better part of a decade, Turkey and the United States have been locked in what might be considered an unhappy marriage, marked by bitter misunderstandings and growing distrust. Some optimists had hoped that something of a reset might be possible. They had reasons to hope, but their analysis was likely too rosy from the start, and recent events, both in Turkey’s ongoing conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and because of the ripple effects from Israel’s war with Hamas, likely mean that U.S.-Turkish relations, far from improving, will get colder yet in the months to come.
To give the optimists their due, there were factors that seemed to support the idea of a reset. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won re-election in May, cementing his rule for at least the next five years. Given the continued weakness of the Turkish economy, he clearly would like to demonstrate to foreign investors and the markets that Turkey is stable, and better relations with Europe and the United States would go a long way toward doing that. Such a reset with the United States would also be in synch with Turkey’s general rapprochement with regional powers, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Moreover, Erdoğan agreed, at the Vilnius NATO Summit in July of this year, to accept Sweden’s accession to the Alliance. President Joe Biden, in what many saw as a clean quid pro quo, had given his support for Turkey’s purchase of $20 billion worth of new F-16s, along with upgrade kits for some of its current fleet. The main voice against such a deal on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez, removed himself from the committee in the wake of corruption charges, a development that was loudly celebrated by Turkish state leaders.
No deal so far on F-16s, or Sweden
So far, at least, the expected quid pro quo on the F-16s and Swedish accession has not come to pass. Initially, Erdoğan had said that he approved of the deal, but then demurred, indicating that the final decision was up to the Turkish parliament, and would need to wait until they returned from summer recess on Oct. 1. This is, of course, half true. Yes, the parliament needs to ratify Swedish accession, but, had he wished, Erdoğan could have called them back for an extraordinary session and, given his government’s firm majority, along with the fact that most opposition parties also approve of Swedish accession, the issue could have been resolved quickly.
It was only this week, on Oct. 23, that Erdoğan submitted the protocol for Swedish accession to parliament and it is not clear, at this writing, when or how parliament will respond. Under normal circumstances, Erdoğan’s control of a parliamentary majority would not leave any doubt, but the process going forward is still unclear. Parliament may simply move ahead normally, but this would require that Erdoğan have faith that Congress will approve the F-16s in return. On the other hand, he might prefer to allow the protocol to languish in parliament until Congress makes clear its intentions. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for their part, have still expressed some reservations about the deal, and some members may prefer to wait for Turkey’s ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession before they decide. If the chances of a deal seem more likely this week than they did last, it is still not clear what the final outcome will be. What is clear though is that unless the impasse is broached, resentment in both Ankara and Washington is likely to get markedly worse.
Tensions between the United States and Turkey on the Kurds
A second major cause of tension between the United States and Turkey has been over the continued alliance between the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a key component of which, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is affiliated with the PKK. There is no way to easy way to square this disagreement. The United States, with good reason, sees the SDF as central to its anti-ISIS campaign in northern Syria. Turkey, with equally good reason, sees the SDF as merely an extension of the PKK, with which it has been at war for nearly 40 years, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, and which Turkey and the United States both deem a terror group.
Nonetheless, Turkey has reason to be optimistic on the Kurdish front. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) underperformed in the May 2023 general election and, militarily, Turkey has leveraged its commitment to drone warfare into a very effective anti-insurgency campaign. The PKK’s operations have been limited and Turkey has suffered relatively few casualties in recent years.
Though PKK operational decision-making is opaque, its decision to carry out a suicide bomb attack in Ankara on Oct. 1 came as a surprise. The PKK has, of course, engaged in urban warfare and terror attacks in the past, but attacks in major metropolitan areas have been rare in recent years. While Turkey has claimed that the PKK was behind the November 2022 bombing in Istanbul, few outside of Turkey take these claims at face value. Very little about that attack or its perpetrators suggest PKK involvement and the group itself denied responsibility. The attack on Oct. 1, however, was very clearly the work of the PKK: Its methods and target were typical of PKK attacks and, in contrast to the November 2022 attack, the PKK was quick to claim responsibility. Turkey responded by redoubling its already aggressive campaign against the PKK and its affiliates in Syria and Iraq, which includes thousands of ground forces, the maintenance of military bases in both Iraq and Syria, and use of air power to pummel PKK units. On Oct. 5, a Turkish drone approached U.S. troop positions in Syria; after repeated warnings from U.S. forces, it was shot down. Regardless of whether this is a one-off incident or a return to the very fraught tensions of 2017, it is clear that Turkey’s focus on destroying the PKK and the U.S. commitment to conducting joint operations with the SDF in fighting ISIS will remain a key point of tension. If the PKK’s Oct. 1 attack in Ankara presages a broader campaign, the U.S. position will become increasingly difficult to maintain.
Perhaps the greatest immediate threat to U.S.-Turkish relations right now, however, is their very different response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli siege and punishing bombing campaign against Gaza.
Initially, Ankara likely calculated that renewed conflict between Israel and Hamas would hold more opportunity than risk. Echoing its attempts to triangulate ties with Ukraine and Russia following the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ankara once again presented itself as a key regional player and a potential mediator between Hamas and Israel. Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, for example, recently suggested that Turkey might play a role as a guarantor of a negotiated settlement. In practice, however, Qatar and Egypt are both more likely mediators in any potential negotiations between the warring parties. More importantly, the Turkish response to the conflict has been so fulsomely pro-Hamas that it has likely precluded Ankara from playing any effective role in de-escalation.
Turkey is one of the few regional actors to have warm relations with Hamas. Erdoğan has publicly rejected the characterization of Hamas as a terrorist organization and tends to see the organization as indistinguishable from the Palestinians or the Palestinian cause. Key figures within the group, including senior political leader Ismail Haniyeh, have been given Turkish passports, though some, according to press reports, including Haniyeh, have been asked to leave the country during the current crisis. Turkey’s public support for Hamas remains vocal and bellicose.
Indeed, the contrast between the Turkish government’s response to the crisis and that of its NATO partners could not be sharper, with barely an acknowledgement of Hamas’ atrocities on Oct. 7. As Israel’s military response has continued, and civilian casualties have mounted, the gap has become ever more profound. In contrast to the aggressive policing of protests critical of the Turkish government, protests against Israel and the United States have been largely left to proceed unimpeded. Erdoğan condemned the U.S. decision to send naval forces to the eastern Mediterranean and Turkish media regularly portrays the crisis as a new chapter in corrupt American machinations in the region. The crisis and the government’s messaging have resulted in mass protests against the United States. Turkish police only intervened at a protest at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul after protesters attempted to enter the compound. Similar protests were seen at U.S. military bases in Turkey and the U.S. consulate in Adana has temporarily closed as a security precaution. Israel, for its part, has removed all of its diplomatic staff from the country and called on its citizens to leave Turkey.
The key point here is not the popular outcry that the Gaza conflict has elicited in Turkey, it is the way that the Turkish government has chosen to leverage and, indeed, amplify the outrage. As analyst Selim Koru has underlined, “the Palestinian issue has been co-opted by the state” in Turkey. I think there is more ideology than strategy at work in Ankara’s response. Yes, the outrage over Gaza probably helps the government domestically, and certainly draws attention away from the country’s still rocky economy. But there is little doubt that Erdoğan believes everything he says about Israel and Gaza; these issues, after all, are central to his worldview.
So far, at least, Turkey has kept its outrage public, while continuing to cooperate with Israel quietly. If his public support for Hamas has been full-throated, Erdoğan has also recognized that too close an embrace of Hamas’ leadership would have serious blowback for Ankara; that is the logic behind the request that key figures leave Turkey in the direct aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack. Aside from Israel’s decision to evacuate its diplomatic staff, there has not, as of yet, been any break in Turkish-Israeli ties economically or diplomatically. That said, the war will continue for some time; daily images of civilian deaths are likely to intensify Erdoğan’s preference for demonstrating both his personal outrage and the importance of Turkey as a leading voice for Muslim rights. The State Department and Biden administration may well treat such bluster as the cost of doing business with Ankara; it is not clear that Congress will feel the same.
The gap between the United States and Turkey on this is immense. Despite the clear interest in both Washington and Ankara for improvement, the current situation is bleak. It is likely that the crisis will only deepen the mistrust between the two on strictly bilateral issues. The unhappy marriage between the United States and Turkey may not be heading for divorce quite yet, but no improvement is likely in the short or medium term either.
Howard Eissenstat is a non-resident scholar with MEI's Turkey Program and an associate professor of history at St. Lawrence University, where he teaches courses on Middle East history and politics.
Photo by TUR Presidency/ Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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