The first order of business between the Biden administration and Ankara should be a mutual and honest assessment of critical events.
Joe Biden’s presidency starts a new era in almost a seven-decade-long NATO alliance between Turkey and the USA. Turkey’s geostrategic position in its southeastern flank helped deter Soviet expansion during the Cold War.
The bilateral alliance has been in decline over the last decade, due to several conflicting and thorny issues, counterbalancing the converging security goals common to both countries.
One major conflict is the US partnership with YPG/PYD, the Syrian branches of the PKK terror group, in the fight against Daesh, a key security threat for both countries. For Turkey, the fight against the Assad regime and the PKK were equally important.
The United States prioritised the elimination of Daesh in Syria, yet did not want boots on the ground, and instead trained the YPG as its proxy. Millions of refugees flooded into Turkey and the PKK threat was not a high-priority concern for the US.
The PKK is a Stalinist organisation that has been terrorising Turkey and its citizens since the 1980s, killing tens of thousands, including many dissenting Kurdish civilians. The US lists the PKK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on its State Department website.
On February 13, 2018, Daniel R. Coats, the then-Director of National Intelligence, speaking on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, disclosed the link between the YPG and PKK, ‘’The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit-the Syrian militia of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) probably will seek some form of autonomy…’’
In his address at the Aspen Institute on July 2017, The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) General Raymond Thomas said, they advised the YPG change its name to evade Turks equating them to PKK, “…with about a day’s notice they declared that they were the Syrian Democratic Forces…it was a stroke of brains to put democracy in there somewhere.”
The RAND Corporation describes the US relationship with the PYD as “tactical” in nature. Nonetheless, the arming of Turkey’s archenemy, even for the noble purpose of fighting against Daesh in Syria, angered the Turkish public, including the country’s pro-western segment which would otherwise oppose closing ranks with Russia. They now question the US alliance at-large. Pew Research measures US public trust in 33 countries. Turkish public opinion ranks lowest in viewing the US as a force for good, at 20 percent, compared to 50 percent in 2000.
Another outstanding conflict is Turkey’s procurement of the S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia. Turkey’s request to acquire US-made Patriot missiles, including manufacturing some of its parts, was rejected.
Years-long failed negotiations yielded mistrust between the two nations, benefiting Russia. After Turkey procured S-400s, the US placed Turkey on CAATSA sanctions and removed the country from the F-35 fighter jet program. The seventy-year-old alliance is at risk, and there is a wedge within NATO.
These two major conflicts stem from the diverging interests of the two countries, Turkey’s increasing role in the region and the Muslim world, and its desire for self-sufficiency in its defense industry. Perhaps, in dealing with both of these conflicts, the United States has not adequately assessed Turkey’s dynamic and enhanced gravitational pull influencing its region.
The Biden administration prioritises mending global alliances. NATO tops the list. The NATO Advisory Committee published a report on NATO-2030, highlighting Russia as the major threat, while China poses security challenges. One crucial geopolitical region is the greater Middle East, including Turkey, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Caucuses.
Pew research shows that US approval has subsided everywhere in the region with the exception of Israel. Something must not be right. If resentment for the US continues to build in the region, it will be difficult for the US to sustain its national security goals.
The situation requires a change in the American foreign policy mindset – it is imperative to listen to people’s wishes, not merely to work with their governments. In many countries where leaders are not elected, governments do not necessarily reflect people’s voices. People in the region are no different from Americans in Kansas or Wyoming. They want to live freely and securely, raise their families in their homeland devoid of wars and hostilities, and elect and depose their leaders via the ballot box.
Turkey shines in this respect. The ballot box has ruled Turkey since 1950, albeit with a few brief interruptions. President Erdogan has won numerous elections. He has been the people’s sole choice for almost two decades. His voice is respected by people in the region, and by Turkic citizens of Russia and China.
The Biden administration may view Turkey and its government as a challenge and choose to tighten tensions further. Conversely, the US can convert these divergent interests to fresh convergent strategies with a new look towards sustainable geopolitical interest.
Maybe the first order of business between the two governments should be a mutual and honest assessment of critical events. Both parties must learn from mistakes to develop constructive policies for handling the thorny issues at hand, thus devising a better future relationship. This could also help the United States on its path towards forming a stronger NATO alliance.
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