Is Turkey still a reliable ally? After repeated endorsements by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of policies inimical to U.S. interests, the answer seems to be not really.
Erdogan recently announced he will seek United Nations support to annul President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
In addition, the Turkish Ministry of Justice has issued warrants for the arrest of two American Turkey specialists, in effect placing a bounty of $800,000 on their heads.
Additionally, there is the somewhat comical furor in Turkey over the adoption by Turkish entrepreneurs of the American "Black Friday" sales concept. Several Turkish businesses, which had attempted to increase sales by borrowing the U.S. "Black Friday" market lure, were attacked by devout Muslims who accused store owners of disrespecting Islam's day of prayer. The perceived insult to Islam's Friday Prayer obligation is just another example of a widening antipathy towards the U.S.
While the misunderstanding by Turks over "Black Friday," will likely fade quickly, the diplomatic damage brought on by the early October arrest by Turkey's police of a Turkish employee at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul allegedly for espionage is likely to be more long-lasting.
The arrest of the U.S Consulate's employee precipitated the U.S. Ambassador's suspension on October 8, of all non-immigrant U.S. visas for Turkish citizens. The incident underscores how bilateral relations have plummeted since Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan first came to power.
Shortly after Erdogan was elected in 2002, Turkey appeared to start turning away from its U.S. alliance when it refused to grant permission for U.S. troops to cross Turkish territory into northern Iraq. Turkey's parliament, the Grand National Assembly, voted down the request. Erdogan seems now to be focusing on regional affairs rather than on Turkey's traditional ties to the United States and Europe. Since Erdogan came to power, Turkey has increased its economic and diplomatic ties to Arab states.
Turkey's Erdogan regime also is fashioning a more Islamic Turkey, a trend especially noticeable in the field of education. As early as 2012, Erdogan hinted at plans to Islamize Turkey's public schools when he declared to an audience of young members of his Justice and Development Party, "We want to raise pious generations." Since then Turkey's schools now include a curriculum which reflects Sunni Islam doctrine.
After the failed July 15, 2016 coup against Erdogan, he exploited anti-Western sentiment among the Turks by permitting Turkish media to publish articles that accused U.S. General John Campbell, former Commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, of complicity in the abortive attempted coup. Suleyman Soylu, the AKP's Deputy Chairman, also accused the CIA of being involved. Erdogan further demanded that the U.S. extradite from Pennsylvania Fethullah Gülen, leader of a Turkish opposition movement, and the person Erdogan claimed had instigated the attempted coup.
Post-Cold War regional changes have likely altered Turkey's view of its U.S. alliance. Perhaps it now no longer seems indispensable to Turkish national security officers. Turkey's Syria policy, for instance, was initially aligned with other regional Sunni Islamic states against President Bashar al-Assad's regime. When Assad's Iranian allies helped to sustain the Assad government however, Turkey appeared to turn a blind eye to Sunni terrorists crossing Turkish territory into Syria. Perhaps the Turks hoped that these extremists would strengthen the anti-Assad military forces.
Turkey's efforts to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria only took a radical turn when Turkish territory became a virtual pipeline for the flow of foreign fighters. Thousands of them infiltrated Turkey's borders; there, they were met by smugglers and Sunni extremist facilitators. The facilitators then moved the fighters to safe houses and gave the jihadists logistical support until the combatants reached their jihadi destination in the Raqqa region. The combatants included members of the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra Front and the Sunni Salafist Ahrar al-Sham.
This influx of foreign jihadists seemed to place old allies Turkey and America in a state of confrontation, as some of these terrorists remained inside Turkey. The counterproductive cost of Turkey's intentional or careless lax border policy struck home with an attack which left 39 dead on Istanbul's Reina Night Club.
In March 2017, Turkey began curbing the terrorist networks it had allowed into its territory. Only then did Turkey decide to cooperate with U.S. efforts to suppress ISIS. The Turks, however, recoiled at the Kurdish ethnicity of the U.S.-assisted anti-ISIS Syrian Democratic Force (SDF).
Turkey is wary of any armed force of Kurds; it evidently fears that if Syria's Kurds are able to carve out an autonomous zone for themselves, it will inflame nationalism among Turkey's millions of Kurds. The Turks view ethnic-Kurd fighters in Syria as an extension of the Kurdish Worker Party (PKK) which has been fighting the Turkish government for decades. That fear could explain why Turkish troops stood by while Syrian Kurds fought a harsh battle against Islamic State troops in Kobane, a Kurdish town in Syria, in late 2014.
The number of instances where Turkey and U.S. interests now clash, and the accumulated ill will that these disagreements are begetting, suggests that Turkey is no longer a dependable ally of the United States.
But what of NATO? Is Turkey a reliable NATO partner? Here the picture is more mixed. Turkey of late, with the purchase of two batteries of the Russian S-400 air defense system, appears to have taken a big step away from the NATO alliance. The Erdogan regime's nationwide post-coup purge of civil and military personnel, and its threatening acts against freedom of speech, such as the mass arrest of journalists, are eviscerating the country's independent civil society institutions. In addition, Turkey's crackdown on the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Turkey is another sign that Turkey is turning away from democratic values shared by NATO Alliance members.
Nevertheless, Turkey's continued membership in NATO has its advantages for both parties. Turkey has the second largest standing army in NATO, after the United States. U.S. aircraft are permitted to use bases in Turkey to mount bombing runs on Mideast-based terrorists. Turkey's military complex at Incirlik houses an estimated 90 B61 nuclear gravity bombs. Should Turkey's incipient romance with Russia turn sour, as their historic hostility toward each other might suggest, then Turkey's large ground force, forward deployed nuclear devices, and sophisticated signals intelligence facilities would prove invaluable to NATO as well as to Turkey. Furthermore, should Iran continue its regional march to hegemony, Turkey would prove a worthy rival.
Although Turkey under Erdogan may not be a fully committed member of NATO, Turkey in NATO -- at the moment anyhow -- is probably still better than a Turkey out of NATO.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.