For all our sakes, US and Turkiye must mend fences

For all our sakes, US and Turkiye must mend fences

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan. (REUTERS)
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan. (REUTERS)
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was supposed to fly to Washington this month to meet Joe Biden, but the meeting was postponed with no official explanation from either side and no new date. With the increasingly diverging views between the US and Türkiye over Israel and Gaza, and Erdogan’s recent electoral setbacks, it is likely that Ankara thought it would look bad at home to meet Biden.

It is no secret that US-Turkish are relations are strained. In 2021, Biden waited three months after entering the White House before calling Erdogan. When he finally did, it was only to give the Turkish leader the bad news that he was about to recognize the killing of Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans in 1915 as genocide.

However, recent US-Turkish problems predate Biden, and have their origins in Barack Obama's Syria policy. It is worth recalling what happened in 2014. By the time Daesh rose to prominence, Obama had been reluctant to act in the Syrian conflict. When his administration realized it had no choice but to take on the terror group, it decided to arm and support the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the YPG, in northern Syria.

This single issue is perhaps the source of the current troubles in the US-Turkish relationship. Türkiye considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the PKK, the Kurdish separatist group that has been declared a terrorist organization by Türkiye, the US, and most European countries. After Obama’s departure in 2017, instead of changing course, both Donald Trump and Biden continued with the policy.

Nevertheless, despite the political difficulties, the institutional relationship between the US and Türkiye continued below the surface. Their intelligence agencies cooperate, and Türkiye hosts major components of NATO’s security architecture.

In recent months, relations between Ankara and Washington were appearing to thaw. High-level meetings took place between American and Turkish officials in March, resulting in US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosting Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan in Washington. In January the US Congress approved a $20 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkiye. Soon after, Ankara ended its months-long veto on Sweden joining NATO. This is why it was surprising that this month’s Biden-Erdogan meeting was postponed.

The relationship is too important for both sides to dismiss it as a lost cause

Luke Coffey

The relationship is too important for both sides to dismiss it as a lost cause. One of the first things that can be done to repair it is to agree on a new date for Erdogan to visit the White House. Also, instead of trying to solve the big issues that plagued their relationship, both sides should take a step back and work on confidence-building measures. For example, there is a lot of agreement about the future of NATO. Both countries will want the alliance to have a successful summit this summer in Washington, when it marks its 75th anniversary.

Another area of cooperation is on Ukraine, and defense manufacturing in general. In recent years Erdogan has led efforts to ramp up Türkiye’s defense industry, which is now world class. With support for Ukraine testing the limits of the West’s military industrial capacity, Türkiye can play an important role in filling the gap. For example, a Turkish company said in March it would would establish a factory in Texas to manufacture much needed 155mm artillery shells. Such cooperation comes at a time when Western countries are scrambling to find enough artillery shells to give to Ukraine, and it could be expanded into other areas.

Since Turkey joined NATO in 1952, the US-Turkey relationship has helped keep the transatlantic community safe and secure. For the most part, it has been a productive, genuine, and respectful relationship. Yes, the past several years have been challenging, but let us hope that Washington and Ankara can find areas of cooperation and rebuild their relationship before the damage becomes irreversible.

Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. X: @LukeDCoffey


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