The Strategist

The US and Turkey: The Flawed Alliance

10/20/2015 - 16:17

Over the last week, US President Barack Obama spoke twice by telephone with President Tayyip Erdogan.

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
The first call was to express the condolences over the terrorist attack in Ankara. The second – offer sympathies in connection with its Syrian policy (although the Turkish government is still stubbornly refusing to fit the cap on).

According to knowledgeable sources close to the White House, last Obama’s call has once again confirmed the following fact: Turkish foreign policy in Syria "was multiplied by zero". The situation is serious. Al-Assad, as well as the Party Democratic Union» (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG), related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) threat Ankara’s interests. The «strategic partner» of Turkey (Russia) is lending military support to one of these threats from East, and West is being ensured by the United States. Moreover, the US and Russia are actually competing with each other for having to keep the Syrian Kurds under control in its ranks. And, of course, none of them cares much about Ankara.

Recently, being exhausted by two global powers, Ankara began to express its concern more clearly. Last week, Russia and the United States in Ankara were individually summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry and were confronted to the Turkish government's response. Recourse to such unfriendly alternatives in diplomacy as the demarche, points to serious problems in the relationship. The US administration, concerned by this Ankara’s gesture, announced their determination in the current policy on a higher level by Obama’s call.

History repeats itself with the call about Cobán.

In Washington, there are supporters for the view that the last Obama’s call to Erdogan resembles his call during the crisis in Cobán. It is noteworthy that the call about Cobán was made after the United States, despite the risks for Turkey, provided direct assistance to the Kurds fighting with Islamic State. Following the telephone conversation, Ankara has moved away from its previous line and opened the border corridor to the Peshmerga. Now USA, having hastily revised their plans after Russian immersion in Syria and decided to increase military support for Kurdish and Arab militants opposing Islamic State, once again place Turkey before an accomplished fact.

We can only guess, whether Erdogan chided Obama during these telephone conversations: "Is this what you call a strategic partnership?" Obviously, the US administration saw no need to consult Ankara before taking such an important step, aiming to revive the Kurds in Syria from military and political point of view. Otherwise, the US ambassador John Bass (John Bass) would not be summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

One may ask why Americans are so easy to give a headache to Turkey, which is of strategic importance to the US? Indeed, they usually don’t do it or do not consider it necessary. But the US is a global force that, if necessary, is able to impose its opinion and the policy to its allies. Especially if it comes to a diametrically opposite position. United States had tried to do something like this with the occupation of Iraq in 2003. Despite all the warnings of Ankara, the US occupied Iraq and demanded Turkey to open the northern front. The issue here goes far beyond the aspect of "who is right and wrong." Typically, the tone in international relations is determined by strongest.

Now, let’s rephrase the above question a little: can Turkey afford to confront the US? The imbalance of forces makes this probability zero. If the Americans would not have received permission to use Turkey's Incirlik Base and other military bases, they may have tried to please Ankara until they had their will. In addition, now the US see weak, in in terms of trade, Turkey: its economy is in crisis, social stability has been shaken, the threats are hanging over the region, and weak governance and internal disputes undermine its power. The country cannot stand on its feet.

Judging by the statements of official representatives of the Obama administration, all is right with Ankara. Yet, things are getting clear not with the speeches of officials, but with information from unnamed sources. Thus, in an interview with Tim Arango and Anne Barnard (October 14, New York Times), unnamed authorized persons reported: "... Despite the opening of Incirlik air base in Turkey and willingness to join the Allied aircraft to strike Islamic State’s goals, the United States will do what they want and when they want, not caring about Ankara".

As if mocking Ankara, the US insists that it military helping not PYD or Kurds, but Arab opposition. On Thursday, one of the Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said (or, perhaps, spilled the beans) that some of the US weapons fell onto Kurdish forces. The Pentagon immediately corrected itself and said that the weapons, delivered at the end of the week, got to Syrian Arabs. On the other hand, the PYD leader Salih Müslim confirmed that their forces took 50 tons of weapons from the United States. There are about 25 thousand Kurds, representing YPG, and five thousand Arab fighters in the group, which the United States supports in the northeast of Syria in order to take so-called capital of Raqqa away from Islamic State. Even if these weapons were originally transferred to the Arabs, it is difficult to imagine that they did not get to the YPG.

The US administration cannot but know that many Kurdish fighters wear PYD helmets in Turkey and YPG helmets - in Syria. Yet the US pretend they do not know about it as it does not meet their targets. They are in extreme need to have the forces that would fight in Syria on the ground.

Obviously, for the victory in the war against the Islamic State in Syria, the United States do not refrain from military assistance to armed groups that its NATO ally Turkey (rightly or wrongly) sees as a threat. Ankara, in turn, trying to win the war against the Assad regime by proxy, helped groups that the United States considers to be terrorists (think about the Turkish trucks detained at the transport of weapons). Thus, for the sake of their priorities and interests in Syria, each of these two states’ doings are not fully compatible with the concept of alliance.