An Even More Troubled Alliance: Turkish-American Problems in Contemporary Perspective

Guest contributor Nick Danforth, of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington D.C., analyzes the future of US-Turkey relations after the April 2017 constitutional referendum in Turkey.

US Secretary of State Tillerson in Ankara.  Public domain.
U.S Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Ankara, Turkey, March 30, 2017.  Public domain.

For a candidate whose opponents regularly accuse him of Islamophobia,[1] Donald Trump gained a remarkable following among members of Turkey’s Islamist government.[2] With Trump’s victory in November, some enthusiasts in Ankara even imagined he would usher in a new era of Turkish-American friendship. Following US missile strikes in Syria, Trump’s immediate call to congratulate Erdoğan on his disputed referendum victory has undoubtedly reinvigorated this optimism.[3] Nonetheless, there is still reason to fear that relations between the US and Turkey will remain strained.

In part, the Turkish government’s optimism about Trump reflected a shared worldview. President Erdoğan, like Trump, cast himself as the champion of the common man against the global liberal elite. On a more pragmatic level, this optimism reflected Turkey’s hope that the Trump administration would do more to accommodate a number of the Turkish government’s key interests. Specifically, Ankara considered Trump more likely than Obama or Clinton to curtail US support for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan – PKK)-linked Kurdish forces in Syria (the YPG) and to extradite the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen.[4]

Since Trump took office, it has become clear that while these expectations were not unfounded, they are unlikely to be fulfilled. On both the YPG and Gülen, Trump’s team appears more open to meeting Turkish demands than Obama's team had been. However, practical and political obstacles continue to prevent Washington from actually delivering what Ankara wants most. Given the many challenges that the Turkish government currently faces, both domestically and in Syria, they may be forced to grudgingly accept whatever Trump is willing to give.[5] Crushed expectations and continued divergence on matters of Turkish national interest – not to mention the potential impact of new US policies targeting Muslim immigrants, airlines, or political movements – will only intensify the already deep stress on Turkish-American relations.

At the same time, changes in Turkey’s domestic and regional political spheres will make it increasingly difficult for Ankara to preserve Washington's current level of support. As Turkey becomes more autocratic and its strategic priorities continue to diverge from Washington's, it will become problematic for Turkey’s diplomats and friends to point to shared values or interests as a foundation for the US-Turkish alliance. Moreover, Erdoğan’s ideals, political interests, and temperament prevent him from being the kind of pro-Western dictator Washington likes. To the contrary, as Turkey becomes increasingly implicated in improperly lobbying the Trump administration, the country’s reputation may suffer in Washington.

Barring a significant strategic shift – such as escalating confrontation between the US and Iran, or significantly worsening instability in Turkey – bilateral relations between Washington and Ankara are unlikely to fulfill either side's hopes.

Trump’s response to Erdoğan’s highly-contested referendum victory – first calling to congratulate him amidst accusations of fraud, then inviting him to the White House – certainly vindicated Erdoğan’s hope that the new administration would be less concerned with democracy and human rights than the previous one. Although this eliminates one obstacle to improved relations, many obstacles remain.

In northern Syria, it appears that following a somewhat extended 30-day review of Obama’s counter-ISIS policy, the new administration will inevitably announce that it is moving ahead with pre-existing plans to march on Raqqa with the PKK-linked YPG.[6] Having already sent US soldiers to the contested region of Manbij in order to forestall any possibility of a Turkish attack against the YPG there, Washington made it clear that it will not tolerate any Turkish efforts to forcibly disrupt US cooperation with its new Syrian Kurdish partners.[7] In contrast to Obama's policy, elements of Trump’s approach may sweeten this bitter pill for Ankara: a greater on-the-ground role for US troops could lessen the need to transfer heavy weapons to the YPG, and the post-combat occupation of Raqqa could include an expanded role for Turkey. Barring any further evidence that the new administration will seriously oppose Assad, Erdoğan might grudgingly accept these concessions on the Syrian Kurds as his best realistic option. But the fundamental tension between the US and Turkey in regard to the Syrian Kurds will remain.

Similarly, Trump will likely prove unable to deliver Erdoğan's desired legal verdicts in the cases of Fethullah Gülen and Iran sanctions-buster Reza Zarrab.[8] The Turkish government has consistently exhibited intense interest in both cases. Erdoğan has personally pressed for the extradition of Gülen[9] and the release of Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman with corrupt ties to the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP), currently jailed in New York for a gas-for-gold scheme which helped Iran evade US sanctions.[10] Indeed, in both cases Turkish interests have sought to collude with the Trump administration in order to secure a favorable outcome. While in the pay of a Turkish businessman with ties to the AKP, Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn held secret discussions on extra-legal means to extradite Gülen. More recently, it emerged that Trump's former adviser Rudy Guiliani had met with both Erdoğan and Trump officials after being hired to secure a “diplomatic solution” in the Zarrab case.

The results of these efforts remain to be seen. Flynn, of course, subsequently resigned in connection with an unrelated scandal, and the revelation of his lobbying activities are unlikely to advance the legal case against Gülen. However, Giuliani’s efforts on behalf of Zarrab may yet succeed – although here too, their exposure has created a potentially counter-productive backlash; the judge in the trial is now demanding more information on Giuliani’s role, and political opposition to any sort of backroom arrangement may grow. Moreover, having already presented the US legal system as no more independent than Turkey’s, Trump's team will have difficulty with Ankara if they ultimately fail to deliver the promised results. Faced with this outcome, Turkey will suspect political betrayal, and the administration will struggle to explain that their hands were tied by the legal system whose integrity they sought to compromise. In the long term, Turkey’s reputation in Washington might also suffer due to its involvement in these scandals. Buying influence and cutting deals could produce some short-term results, but being associated with the least popular aspects of an unpopular administration will ultimately pose challenges for Turkey.

Beyond these strategic and structural sources of tension, there are also ideological, political, and personal factors that will make these differences more explosive and intractable. Erdoğan and Trump share a political style that relies on pugnacious populism, creating an ever-present possibility for rhetorical escalation in any disagreement. Moreover, Erdoğan’s eagerness to present himself as a champion of Islam in the face of a putatively hostile West could quickly run afoul of the abiding anti-Islamist – not to say anti-Islamic – ideological orientation of many in the Trump administration.

Moreover, among America’s many authoritarian allies in the world, Erdoğan is unique in the intensity with which he champions his democratic credentials.[11] Ironically, this could present complications not faced by more candidly undemocratic partners: With the AKP eager to defend its democratic credentials instead of shifting bilateral conversations to stability, security, or other pragmatic topics, Turkey will receive more criticism from the US press and Congress. At the same time, with Western countries consistently criticizing the caliber of Turkish democracy, Erdoğan will be forced to respond with a steady stream of anti-Western rhetoric. The more Erdoğan calls European leaders Nazis and accuses Americans of trying to kill him, the more likely it is that the level of diplomatic awkwardness will achieve strategic dimensions.

However, there are still factors that could reshape US-Turkish relations and render much of this analysis moot. First, the Turkish government has made an effort to present itself to the new administration as a potential partner in countering Iranian expansion in the Middle East. If, as is quite possible, the Trump administration moves toward a broader confrontation with Iran, and if Turkey is truly willing to cut its ties with Tehran and play the role of partner, many current bilateral complications could be subsumed in a new strategic alignment.[12] Second, if instead of authoritarian stability, Erdoğan’s rule pushes Turkey toward violent chaos, Washington could feel paradoxically forced to back Erdoğan’s government, however grudgingly, to keep the country from splintering. It is grimly telling that at this point, a crisis in Turkey could actually help improve the current state of US-Turkish relations.

Nick Danforth is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington D.C. focusing on national security, Turkey, and the Middle East.

[1] Uri Friedman, “The Coming War On 'Radical Islam,'” The Atlantic, November 29, 2016. 

[2] Selim Koru, “Turks for Trump,” Foreign Policy, November 8, 2016.

[3] Carol Morello, “Trump calls Erdogan to congratulate him on contested referendum, Turkey says,” Washington Post, April 17, 2017.

[4] Ragip Soylu, “Will Trump review Gülen case and the partnership with YPG?” Daily Sabah, November 10, 2016.

[5] Sam Heller, “Turkey’s 'Turkey First’ Syria Policy,” The Century Foundation, April 12, 2017.

[6] Aaron Stein, “Donald Trump and the War for Raqqa,” The American Interest, February 2, 2017. 

[7] Carla Babb, “US Troops in Manbij to ‘Deter’ Skirmishes Between Turks, Kurds,” VOA News, March 7, 2017.

[8] The same will likely prove true for the case of the Turkish banker who was subsequently arrested as part of the same investigation. Isobel Finkel and Christian Berthelsen, “U.S. Arrests Top Turkish Banker in Iran Sanctions Probe,” Bloomberg, March 28, 2017,

[9] Denis Slattery, “Michael Flynn, Turkish officials secretly discussed removing exiled Muslim cleric from U.S,” New York Daily News, March 24, 2017.

[10] Benjamin Weiser and Patrick Kingsley, “Why Giuliani Held a Secret Meeting With Turkey’s Leader,” New York Times, April 20, 2017. 

[11] Nick Danforth, “It’s Time for Erdogan to Admit He’s Not a Democrat,” Foreign Policy, April 20, 2017.

[12] Editorial Board, “Iran derails Aleppo cease-fire,” Daily Sabah, December 14, 2016.