Foreign relations literature is not very familiar with the term because, in international politics, a state either has an ally or an enemy. However, as the world becomes more complex, and the Middle East in particular, relationships between states take on new forms and get new descriptions. The term frenemies is especially helpful when explaining America’s relations with its allies in the region, specifically Turkey, with whom it shares significant differences. Ankara and Washington are not enemies, but they are not simply friends either. They have become frenemies.
Turkey and the US were allies throughout the Cold War era and their relationship is often described as a “strategic alliance” or a “model partnership.” However, since the Arab uprisings that started in late 2010, whichever term that used to describe their relationship is no longer applicable. The two countries have different — if not competing — motivations and priorities in the region in general, and in Syria in particular. These differences have become the ultimate test of their relationship.
The real problem in current Turkish-US relations is the lack of trust based on American moves in Syria. Ankara and Washington consider the presence of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian affiliate of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), from totally different perspectives; just like black and white. While Washington regards the PYD and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as a strong ally in the fight against Daesh, Turkey considers its presence a threat to its national security. While Ankara tries its utmost to eliminate the presence of the organization in the region, Washington provides it with all kinds of weapons, ammunition and military training.
Ankara’s expectation of its NATO ally is very simple: To immediately stop supplying arms and take back the weapons it has provided to a terrorist organization that attacks Turkey. However, despite previous pledges made by the US and several warnings from the Turkish side, it is business as usual between the US and the YPG/PYD. This has raised tensions in Ankara so far that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly implied that Turkey would not care if American troops were also hit in a potential military attack against the YPG in Syria’s Manbij.
For its part, the US is very much determined not to move from Manbij, with Lt. Gen. Paul Funk saying: “You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s rhetoric has been calmer, urging both sides to engage in diplomatic efforts to fix ties before they get any worse. Cavusoglu stated that Turkey is ready to continue the alliance “based on mutual trust,” once the US takes concrete steps regarding Turkey’s concerns.
Washington is not only running the risk of losing a permanent ally in Ankara but also of its power fading at the expense of increasing Russian influence in the region.
Needless to say, it would be in the best interests of both Turkey and the US not to risk the relations that they have developed up to today. However, the reality is that, while Turkey and the US are not enemies in the Middle East, they are fast moving to opposite edges. The US aims to preserve its position in the region with goals that seem to be considered as paradoxes by Turkey. The first paradox is that the US supports an organization that is a wing of the PKK, which is considered a terrorist entity not only by Turkey, but by the US itself. Moreover, America says it is against the Syrian regime, but at the same time supports the YPG/PYD, which receives support from the regime.
The more frustrated Ankara gets with these contradictory US policies, the more America is pushing Turkey closer to Russia. This US policy also strengthens Russian allies’ hands, particularly the Assad regime and Iran.
Lastly, but by no means least, the lack of coherence between the White House and the US military, and the unfulfilled pledges made to Turkey, have led to a severe decline in the image of the US as an ally in the eyes of Turkish politicians and the public. With these contradictory policies, the US is actually shooting itself in the foot; not only running the risk of losing a permanent ally in the region but also of its power fading at the expense of increasing Russian influence.
Needless to say, Turkish-US relations are seriously suffering in this current situation and the two sides must find a new way to solve their disagreements. There is a famous Turkish proverb that says, “An old friend cannot become an enemy,” and it is of no interest to either side to turn their alliance into enmity while the region poses several challenges. Ankara and Washington can only overcome these crises through the prevailing of diplomacy based on trust and commitments made by both sides.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.