Can Obama and Erdogan cozy up again?
When US President Barak Obama arrives in Turkey to attend the Group of 20 summit, he will meet with his friend, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Obama listed Erdogan among five leaders with whom he was “able to forge bonds of trust”.
But that was in 2012 and much has happened in the Turkish- American relationship since.
Obama and Erdogan have seen their relationship strained and analysts in Washington do not believe Obama and Erdogan can recapture the old sentiment. Many will be closely watching presidential body language at the G20.
Three issues in particular have changed the tone of US-Turkish relations: Syria, the Kurds and human rights (especially press freedom) in Turkey.
On Syria, the United States and Turkey have seen their strategic goals become increasingly divergent. While the American priority has been to fight the Islamic State (ISIS), Erdogan wants the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad to be the priority.
The Turkish change of position in allowing the United States to use the Turkish base in Incilik to attack ISIS has made Turkey instrumental to US strategy in the region.
The Kurdish issue is the one that could make or break the relationship, depending on how the United States deals with it and how strongly Turkey responds. Turkey is unhappy with US support for and arming of the Kurdish forces in Syria, mainly the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing. For Erdogan, this is a red line.
On press freedoms, the United States has been critical, more vocally so after demonstrations at Taksim Gezi Park in 2013. It is common in Washington to hear Erdogan referred to as “authoritarian” and “dictatorial”.
Because of the negative feelings that characterise the US-Turkish relationship, any move by either side is subject to criticism. When the United States withdrew Patriot missiles from Turkey a month before elections, it was seen as a message to the Turkish government. Although the joint US-Turkish statement said they were “redeployed to the US for critical modernisation”, Turkish officials noted that with Russian planes violating Turkish air space, this was not the time to withdraw them.
The Turkish media reported on delays in US arms deliveries to Turkey. Nothing seemed going right between the June elections and the November ones.
The just-concluded elections, which saw Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) regain control, will test the relationship. One question asked in Washington is: Will Erdogan feel confident enough to loosen his grip on freedoms or will he use the AKP’s victory to clamp down even harder on the opposition?
The official US reaction to the AKP victory was lukewarm. The US State Department did not congratulate the AKP but rather congratulated “the Turkish people on their participation in yesterday’s parliamentary elections” and reiterated concerns over freedoms.
Trudeau said “media outlets and individual journalists critical of the government were subject to pressure and intimidation during the campaign, seemingly in a manner calculated to weaken political opposition”.
It seems this “difficult two-track policy”, as Alan Makovsky, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, described it, will be the future of the relationship.
“This is a classic case where our strategic interests and democratic principles are not aligned together well,” Makovsky said. “Our priority has to be the airbases and on the strategic level our interests are being largely met.”
Makovsky called Turkey an “illiberal democracy” and added: “We used to hold Turkey as a model for democracy in the Middle East. We cannot say that anymore.”
Makovsky called the election results “a vote for stability over democracy”.
But Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, saw a positive result in the outcome of the elections for the relationship. He predicts that Turkey will go back “to where the relations were two to three years ago, a confident interlocutor with reliability of decision making”.
Those critical of Erdogan’s policy say Turkey is heading for an “environment of instability”, as Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations said.
Washington will continue its two-track policy of relying on Turkey for its strategic interests while criticising Turkey over freedoms.
However, the prime issue will be Washington’s policy towards the Kurds, especially the PYD and its armed wing.
If the United States continues arming the Kurds, it and Turkey will face a serious crisis because, for Erdogan, the Kurdish issue is not only a national security concern, it is an existential issue for the Turkish state.