Even Erdoğan needs the West
Once again there is tension in relations between Ankara and Washington.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hollers: “Decide America! Are you with us or with the terrorist Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party [PYD] and its armed wing, the People's Protection Units [YPG]?...” The two capitals' accounts of the recent phone call between Erdoğan and US President Barack Obama differ substantially.
Ankara says Obama underlined Turkey's right to self-defense, hinting at his approval of a possible Turkish ground operation in Syria, whereas there is no mention of self-defense in Washington's account. It is reported in the press that Obama neither censured the PYD-YPG nor promised the end of US support for it, and did not give a green light to a Turkish ground operation in Syria. The government, unofficially led by Erdoğan, declared that the recent suicide bombing in Ankara was perpetrated by the PYD-YPG, which the Obama administration declined to confirm.
This is obviously not the first time tensions have built up between Ankara and Washington. This also happened when John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 secretly agreed to withdraw the Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey without informing Ankara; when Lyndon B. Johnson sent a letter to Ankara in 1964 saying that the US would not agree to the use of US-supplied military equipment for a Turkish intervention in Cyprus; and when the Turkish Parliament refused in 2003 to agree to the deployment of American troops in Turkey for the invasion of Iraq.
Tensions between allies occur because national interests may diverge due to changing international circumstances: Leaders with different policies attain power, or the same leaders alter existing policies. If 9/11 had not occurred George W. Bush would probably not have decided to invade Iraq. Ankara's refusal to cooperate adversely affected relations, but relations normalized when Bush approached Ankara in his second term. Until the “Arab Spring,” Erdoğan, who was then prime minister, was pursuing “zero problems with neighbors,” including his Syria policy, while Obama spoke of having a “model partnership” with Turkey. When the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime decided to forcefully suppress the popular uprising that broke out in Syria in 2011, Erdoğan began to seek regime change, while Obama, who began by saying “Assad should step aside,” eventually let Russia and Iran take the initiative in Syria.
According to United Nations sources at least 250,000 people have so far died, 4.5 million have fled the country, and 6.5 million have been internally displaced. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are flooding into Europe and destabilizing the European Union. The 2.5 million or more refugees being hosted by Turkey are placing additional stress on the country's stability. Some observers blame the tragedy in Syria on the incoherent and indecisive policies pursued by the Obama administration. Others believe that the Obama administration, from the outset, opted for the resolution of the Syrian crisis in agreement with Russia and Iran, and turned a blind eye to the destruction of Syria in Israel's favor.
Neither can the Turkish government's responsibility in the Syrian tragedy be underestimated. It expected the US to intervene, and when that did not happen, it began to lend support to the various armed opponents of the Assad regime in a number of ways. It eventually abandoned talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and declared the PYD an enemy, pushing it towards an alliance with Russia. And since the downing of the Russian fighter jet last November, Ankara has lost nearly all leverage over Syria.
Where is this crisis of confidence between Ankara and Washington likely to lead? There are voices in the US that are calling for the expulsion of Turkey from the NATO alliance. Washington, however, is not at all likely to sacrifice its alliance with Ankara, although there are signs that it might look for ways to lessen its dependence on Turkey's cooperation, particularly on İncirlik Air Base. Ankara's dependence, on the other hand, on the Western alliance has significantly grown after the souring of relations with Russia. Even Erdoğan cannot afford to worsen Turkey's relations with the US or the EU.
Turkey is faced with the urgent need to reset domestic and foreign policies to secure its internal stability and territorial integrity. Nobody knows, however, how this urgent need is to be addressed.