Explaining Turkey's Worsening Relationship With The U.S.

  • Christopher Sullivan
  • Oct 17, 2017 11:24AM

Over the past week, the relations between the United States and Turkey, a key regional and NATO ally, devolved into a tit-for-tat exchange over non-immigrant visas. Turkey went even further and derecognized the US Ambassador to Turkey, John Bass. Bass is slated to leave the country and take up the US mission in Afghanistan soon. The unprecedented move by Turkey has been the low point of US relations. There is a bit of hope, Erdogan has been careful to not place blame on the Trump administration and only attack Bass. This also goes back on a tradition of outgoing envoys making their valedictory visit with top officials. There are several reasons why relations have soured between the US and Turkey.

Strengthening the Kurds inside Syria has always been a sore spot between the US and Turkey. The Obama administration’s focus on combating ISIS while attempting to avoid actively aiding in the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, has led to the US leaning on the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is designated by both the US and Turkey as a terrorist organization. The arming and support of the Kurds in the region by the US has always made Turkey anxious, because of their own Kurdish population inside Turkey. Turkey and these Kurdish groups have clashed numerous times over the last 40 years.

The focus on ISIS has also had a tertiary effect, an influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey. The Syrian government, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are the largest drivers of the influx. Both the war and the refugee influx played roles in disrupting Turkey’s domestic front, the culmination being the failed military coup in 2016. Obama’s weak response to the coup led several countries to question the commitment of the US towards NATO allies and their democratically elected governments. In short, Turkey feels overwhelmingly isolated.

Turkey also felt Assad was the greater threat to regional security and the one most responsible for the rise of the Islamic State. Creating ‘no-fly’ zones in the north served as another priority for the Turkish government. They wanted to a place to funnel Syrian refugees to alleviate the economic strain of such a large influx of people into the country.

However, the initial forays into the fight against the Islamic State targeted the Kurds inside Syria and Iraq. The US has on more than few occasions had to issue warnings to the Turkish government to stop bombing US allies.

Beyond Syria, Iran has also provided a unique stressor. In 2013, the Obama administration closed a loophole between Turkey and Iran that allowed Turkey to pay for Iranian gas with gold. Closing the loophole helped put enough pressure on Iran to initiate the Iran talks. However, it placed a strain on Turkey’s economy and threatened Erdogan’s reputation in terms of continually growing the economy. The problem? It was going to affect Turkey’s trade deficit.

Last year, the US arrested Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman. Zarrab is also a member of Erdogan’s inner circle. The arrest came during Zarrab’s family trip to Disney World in Florida. He was implicated in a scheme that circumvented US sanctions against Iran. The scheme called for bartering gold for Iranian oil and gas. Erdogan is personally implicated through taped recordings, though it is not clear if Erdogan wanted to pursue illegal means. The case died inside Turkey in 2013, shortly after it began. All of the police officers and prosecutors were labeled Gulen sympathizers.

This lead to an incident in Washington, D.C. outside the Turkish embassy last year, where members of Erdogan’s security detail beat up several protestors. Both the Obama administration and the State Department condemned the actions, while the Turkish government claimed the US did not do enough to protect Erdogan.

The Gulen movement has been a point of contention between the US and Turkey for some time. Especially since the US harbors the self-exiled cleric that is the namesake of the movement, Fethullah Gulen. Turkey has repeatedly requested the extradition of Gulen, as Erdogan believes the cleric is responsible for the failed coup. The US declined Turkey’s requests citing a lack of evidence to warrant an extradition. It is believed the pushes for the extradition are personal. Gulen is viewed by Erdogan as his main opponent.

Since the failed coup, roughly 50,000 people have been arrested for their connection (or in most cases alleged connection) to the Gulen movement. Recently, Erdogan has begun to arrest American citizens and offer a trade for Gulen. One such arrest is US Pastor Andrew Brunson. More recently, the Turkish government arrested two US embassy employees two have alleged connections to the Gulen movement, while the one arrested in March had alleged links to outlawed Kurdish groups.

On October 8th, the US halted visa services in Turkey. The Embassy stated it wanted to reassess the Turkish government’s commitment towards the security of US diplomatic facilities and staff members. Within a few hours, Turkey countered by suspending American applications for non-immigrant visas.

On October 11th, the Turkish government sentenced a Wall Street Journal Reporter to two years in prison on terrorism charges. Luckily, the Finnish-Turkish dual citizen was in the US at the time of the ruling.