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Relations between Turkey and the United States have been the subject of many analyses. The transatlantic perspective has been presented in great detail. To restore balance, this article looks at the Turkish perspective to understand the reasons for Turkey’s action as an important NATO member.

International relations can be symbolised by a Rubik’s Cube game played simultaneously by several players each trying to win alone. The ideal situation would be that all involved work together and help each other to accomplish the task of the game: the unified arrangement of the Rubik’s Cube. In order to help each other and thus help themselves, states must understand each other’s perspective and see the cube as a whole. This is difficult and perhaps even a little idealistic, but in the end perhaps our only chance to survive. For the time being, however, we will concentrate on the Turkish side of the Rubik’s Cube.

Development of Turkey–US Relations

Located on the southern flank of NATO, Turkey has been a reliable partner of the West since the 1950s; it has contributed with military bases, facilities and a large, well-trained army. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey’s strategic importance changed, and has become a regional base from which the US can intervene in local crises in the region, as it did in Iraq and Syria. Marc Grossman, former US ambassador to Turkey, said: “Turkey lives in a neighbourhood that is a 360-degree challenge”. Turkey’s proximity to several global hotspots has made its territory important for stationing and transporting weapons, cargo and personnel for the US and NATO. From a Turkish perspective, NATO was to alleviate Turkish fears of aggression on the part of its neighbours. Turkey initially turned to the West in response to the Soviet Union’s aggressive stance after the Second World War. In addition to the Incirlik airfield near the southern Turkish city of Adana, other important US/NATO sites such as missile defence radar in eastern Turkey and a NATO ground command in Izmir are important. Turkey has also controlled access to the Black Sea across its straits since the 1936 Montreux Agreement – another Rubik’s Cube game that, if renegotiated, would alter the regional balance of power.

President Trump and President Erdoğan during a joint statement in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on 16 May 2017 in Washington, DC, following talks aimed at settling the crisis. (Photos: White House)

As recently analysed by the US Congressional Research Service, Turkish–American relations developed in six phases. The first phase took place between 1945 and 1962 and was characterised by the early partnership in the Cold War. In the face of Soviet pressure to allow free passage through the Turkish Strait and Soviet territorial claims in eastern Anatolia, the Turkish Government turned to the US; mutual resistance to Soviet expansion motivated relations in the decades to come. Important events took place during this phase: Turkey became a founding member of the UN in 1946 and a NATO member in 1952 after joining the UN forces in the Korean War. In 1954, the USA and Turkey agreed to share the Incirlik airfield, followed by an agreement on the status of the armed forces in 1955.

The second phase was between 1963 and 1978 and was marked by the Cyprus crisis. It also saw the rise of anti-Americanism among the Turkish population, which has steadily increased since then. The third stage between 1980 and 1991 was defined by a renewed military cooperation motivated by the common Soviet threat. The fourth phase between 1991 and 2002 reflects a reassessment of Turkey’s relations and importance for US policy makers. Immediately after the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US continued to focus on regional developments in Turkey, but they declined. In 1991 and 1992, the US announced the closure of 8 of its 12 military bases in Turkey. US military aid to Turkey was stopped after the Cold War.

After 2003, in the fifth phase, which lasted until 2013, relations were marked by Turkey’s growing economic and political weight in the Middle East, influenced by the rule of the Justice and Development Party and by cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
The last and ongoing phase of Turkish-American relations began in 2013 and is marked by a number of challenges. The two countries have once again joined forces in a coalition led by the USA, which has carried out anti-Daesh operations from the Turkish airbases. Despite the cooperation, the priorities of Turkey and the USA today differ more than ever.

History of Crisis in Turkey–US Relations

Although many observers are nostalgic for the past cooperation between Turkey and the USA, relations have not always been rosy. In fact, crises have occurred at all times, most of which have been resolved but have left scars and resentment, especially among the Turkish population. Given the fact that Turkey will continue to remember the glorious past of the Ottoman Empire and wants at least as great a position today, while the US is a world power, a clash of interests or perspectives is easy to understand. Turkey’s actions and strategies are also inspired by the frustration of being seen as the “sick man of Europe” and not being treated as equal, and by the determination to prove itself once and for all.

A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier takes the lead during US-supported urban combat manoeuvres training held near Irbil, Iraq, on 29 October 2015. US backing of Kurdish armed forces has led to considerable discontent in Turkey. (Photo: US Army)

Since the beginning of relations between Turkey and the USA, there have been many crises at every stage: the Cuba crisis (1962), the Turkish intervention in Cyprus (1963-1964), the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus (1974), followed by an arms embargo against Turkey (1975), the Iraq crisis (2003), the Turkey–Israel crisis (2010), the Syrian war (from 2011 until today), the failed coup attempt and the demands of the Turkish Government for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen from the USA (2016), the support of the USA for Kurdish armed forces in Syria, the visa crisis between the USA and Turkey (2017), the “Pastor Brunson crisis” (2018) and the purchase of S-400 from Russia (ongoing). Some of these issues have not been fully resolved and continue to hamper bilateral relations.

The Kurds of Syria

Since 2014, the differences between Turkey and the USA over Syria have deepened because the US supports the Syrian Kurds and Turkey cooperates with Russia and Iran. At the same time, the international community blamed Turkey for the transit of foreign terrorist fighters and demanded strict border control measures to prevent the influx of Daesh terrorists. Following the terrorist attacks related to Daesh in Turkey, Turkey has agreed to allow coalition attacks from Incirlik. The coup attempt in July 2016 is another turning point in relations between Turkey and the US; the Turkish applications for extradition of the influential Turkish figure Fethullah Gülen to the US did not produce any results. At the same time, Turkey began military operations against Daesh and Kurdish-led forces in Syria. Turkey began to fight three different terrorist organisations simultaneously – FETO, PKK and their Syrian subsidiaries and Daesh – while the Turkish economy weakened. Continued US support for the Kurdish armed forces motivated Turkey to enter the diplomatic process with Russia and Iran over Syria. And other events have aggravated the crisis: Turkey arrested several US citizens and Turkish employees of American diplomatic institutions; both sides refused visas, but the diplomatic missions resumed their activities after a short time, just in time for another event: the Branson case. Shortly after the end of the Branson crisis, Trump announced that he would withdraw American troops from Syria and published several tweets in which he warned Turkey against taking action against the Kurds.

The Trouble with the S-400s

The latest tensions result from the Turkish purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system from Russia. The Trump administration and Congress repeatedly warned that the purchase could stop the transfer of F-35 aircraft to Turkey. As a result, the government is trying to sell the MIM-104 PATRIOT to Turkey as an alternative to the S-400, but there has not yet been an agreement, and the Turkish Government wants to stick to its deal with Russia. In addition, Turkey is intervening against Syrian Kurdish forces in Afrin province and threatening additional measures in Syria since the US announces plans to withdraw its troops from Syria. However, the Trump administration’s talks with Turkey, European allies and US-backed Kurdish fighters have not yet resulted in an agreement to create a security zone in the north-east of the country where Kurds will fight Dash terrorists.

The current situation seems more complicated than ever; it is determined by several factors that have already been highlighted: the Turkish acquisition of the S-400, the Syrian war and its impact on Turkey after the US pull-out, Turkish efforts to help Iran avoid sanctions, the Fethullah Gülen crisis and Turkish domestic and economic developments.

Complaints have been expressed on both sides of the Rubik’s Cube: the US is concerned about Turkey’s stubbornness in buying the S-400 air defence system from Russia, Ankara’s aversion to Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies, Turkey’s efforts to help Iran avoid sanctions, and Turkey’s increasingly repressive policies. Turkey argues that similar weapon systems to the S-400 were already in place in other NATO countries, and accuses the US of aiding Syrian Kurdish forces in establishing an independent Kurdish state, which the Turkish Government considers a threat. In addition, Turkey accuses its long-standing ally of not cooperating in the Gülen case and of the duties imposed by the US on Turkish steel and aluminium.

The S-400 crisis will not end so quickly, and Turkey is now more confident about its decision than it was in the past when it cancelled a similar agreement with China under pressure from the US. The current situation is different. Turkey has stuck to the agreement with Russia since 2017 and the first delivery was announced for July 2019 – earlier than expected. While the US sees the S-400 as a threat to transatlantic security, Turkey sees the following advantages: According to the manufacturer and Turkish officials, the S-400 system is superior to the MIM-104 PATRIOT in almost every respect, from aircraft and missile detection to radar capacity; it is more economical and the S-400 agreement also provides for production cooperation and technology transfer (ToT) to Turkey. Turkey also believes that the agreement with Russia will bring political benefits: The S-400 will end Turkey’s dependence on US arms supplies and add diversity to Turkey’s arms stock, and the S-400 ToT would allow the Turks to build a domestic missile defence capability. Moreover, according to Turkish officials, the S-400 would not disrupt links with the US, as the Trump administration claims. On the contrary, it would create an equal and balanced relationship between Turkey and the US. As one of the founding partners of the F35, the US threatens Turkey with military, economic and political sanctions if Ankara continues with the S-400 agreement. But for the Turkish Government there is also another side to the Rubik’s Cube: with the F-35, the national logistics system would be under US control, increasing dependence on the US and also undermining the national aircraft project.

“Turkey First”

The S-400 missile is important for Turkey because, according to official statements, it would make Turkey a partner in S-400 production. President Erdoğan stressed in several interviews the importance of technology transfer in this project. Turkey has invested a lot of money, technology and brains in the development of domestic military equipment, and further technology transfer is desired. Therefore, Russia made an attractive offer and Turkey has embraced it without hesitation. At the political level, the S-400 can also be seen as a symbol of Turkey’s sovereignty and independence. Turkey has often been under foreign pressure. Therefore, the decision to buy the S-400 is proof to the Turkish Government that the security of its territory and its people is paramount to it. In a way, it is “Turkey first” rather than “America first”. To Turkey, this project goes far beyond mere military necessity.

This entire current crisis is only the tip of an iceberg consisting of a number of lesser known but relevant factors, all pointing to Turkey’s struggle to redefine its role on the international stage. For example, Turkey is building a military presence in the Red Sea intensifying tensions between Egypt and Turkey and between Egypt and Sudan. Ankara has also contributed to confrontations between Palestinians and the Israeli police in Jerusalem. Turkey routinely violates Greek airspace, thereby jeopardising the stability of the Aegean Sea. In addition, Turkey decided to play a more confident role in the regional energy game, particularly through the newly discovered oil and gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean; the recent “Blue Homeland” three seas exercise is related to Turkey’s plans to play a stronger role in both the energy and military sectors.

Turkey has learnt many important lessons from its difficult past and two of them are of great value today. Firstly, Turkey has understood that its ally – the US – cannot always be there during times of need and in many cases is disappointing. That is why Turkey must have a fall-back option or a backup plan. Secondly, Turkey has recognised that it will achieve better results if it sticks to its position more strongly. Turkey has understood that today we are arguing about the S-400 and tomorrow we will certainly be arguing about something else, and that there will always be pressure to give in and play by the rules of others. Nowadays Turkey wants to play by its own rules and at its own risk.
The Turkish leadership is striving for the status of a regional power, which allows Ankara to shape the immediate geopolitical environment and maximise Turkey’s economic, political, diplomatic and military influence. To this end, over time it has resisted an international order that has facilitated the exercise of American power. Although it is Turkey’s right to do so, it will continue to be at odds with the United States on a number of important issues.


Political scientist Graham Fuller comments on the crisis in relations between Turkey and the US: “The old, predictable and loyal ally of the US, Turkey, is now a thing of the past.” Thus he summarises the conflict between Turkey’s national interests, such as the defence of territorial sovereignty, and the global and regional interests of the US, such as the control of global energy resources. When the interests of the two allied actors become incompatible, their relations deteriorate for lack of mutual trust.

Andreea Stoian Karadeli is a Foreign Lecturer in the Faculty of Political Sciences at Sakarya University in Turkey and a PhD Candidate at Mihai Viteazul National Intelligence Academy in Romania. Her interdisciplinary research varies from cultural and intercultural studies to conflict resolution and focuses on national security and terrorism, with expertise in the Middle East. Latest publications of the author describe the Daesh phenomenon in Turkey and Europe.