Mounting scepticism in Washington about future of US-Turkish relations, reliability of Erdogan as a partner

“We should accept the reality that Erdogan’s Turkey will not be a partner.” - Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Sunday 09/09/2018
Shifting sands. F-16 Fighting Falcons sitting on the tarmac at the Incirlik Airbase in Turkey.(US Air Force)
Shifting sands. F-16 Fighting Falcons sitting on the tarmac at the Incirlik Airbase in Turkey.(US Air Force)

WASHINGTON - A growing number of US lawmakers and policy experts are saying the decades-long strategic relationship between the United States and Turkey has fallen apart and that Ankara is no longer an effective member of NATO or a reliable US ally.

The US-Turkish relationship, strained since the attempted coup in Ankara in 2016, crumbled in recent weeks as US President Donald Trump imposed financial sanctions on two senior Turkish officials to protest Turkey’s refusal to release American pastor Andrew Brunson, who is charged in Turkey with helping plan the coup attempt.

The United States and Turkey also have clashed over the war in Syria, Washington’s refusal to extradite a Turkish cleric alleged to have engineered the coup attempt, Turkey’s growing ties with Russia and Ankara’s crackdown on democratic institutions.

At a congressional hearing September 5, senators and former senior diplomats said that, although Turkey cannot be expelled from NATO, the United States should expect no help from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They warned that the US military might be blocked from the Incirlik Airbase in Turkey.

“We should accept the reality that Erdogan’s Turkey will not be a partner. Whether they’re formally a member of NATO, I would say put that on the back burner,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former policy director at the US State Department.

Haass said the US military should “look very closely at alternatives to dependence on Incirlik” because the base might not be available to the US Air Force during a crisis. The NATO base is home to about 550 US personnel, who have used it as a launching point for air strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq since 2015. The US military has scaled back operations out of Incirlik in recent months as US-Turkey tensions grew.

“We can’t rely on Turkey. In a crisis, we cannot know whether Erdogan would make Incirlik available to the United States military, so we have to have alternative plans,” Nicholas Burns, a former top State Department official, said at the hearing.

Burns and Haass, two highly respected former diplomats, were invited by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to share ideas on NATO and how to preserve the 29-nation alliance in the face of dismissive comments by Trump.

Turkey joined NATO in 1951, two years after the group was created, and has been a valuable member because of its strategic location as NATO’s easternmost member, large population and powerful military, which is the second-largest in the alliance. However, as Erdogan has assumed increasing control over formerly independent government institutions, US lawmakers have wondered about Turkey’s future in NATO.

“Should we be looking at the ultimate decision as to whether they still should be a partner within NATO?” Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, asked at the September 5 hearing.

Senator Bob Corker, the committee chairman from Tennessee, said, “There’s no way we would let them in NATO today — no way.”

Haass and Burns urged caution in trying to penalise or expel Turkey — NATO has no mechanism for removing a member — and said the United States should continue to maintain relations with Turkey’s military leaders, who hold considerable power. “If you begin to sanction [Turkey], then you cut off those ties and I think it probably hurts us,” Burns said.

Haass said the freeze in US-Turkey relations is not permanent and would likely end when Erdogan leaves office. “The goal of the United States and the European members of NATO ought to be to try to revive the relationship with Turkey at that point,” he said.

Responding to criticism in a letter in the Wall Street Journal, Turkish Ambassador to the United States Serdar Kilic noted his country’s role in helping defeat ISIS and as “guardian of NATO’s southern flank and home to the alliance’s second-largest armed forces.”