Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s U.S. trip took place as the Saudi-Iran polarization inched closer and closer to a hot conflict following missiles being fired from Yemen to Saudi Arabia, the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and an operation by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that radically shifted the balance of power in Riyadh.
This column was written before Prime Minister Yıldırım’s meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. The meeting, however, was probably going to focus on two things: the necessity of a fresh start in Turkey-U.S. relations, and the dangers of Saudi-Iranian polarization in the Middle East. More specifically, the Turkish government called on Washington to disempower groups that poison their relationship, to stop fighting battles through the proxy of the judiciary and to re-focus on the big picture in order to save the region from much bigger disasters.
Everyone seems to agree that Turkey-U.S. relations are going through a rough patch. Throughout history, there had been ups and downs in bilateral relations. However, the problems between Ankara and Washington at a time of global uncertainty and deepening regional conflicts are indicative of a different kind of structural crisis. Unless the two countries put a pin on existing problems to repair their relationship and, more importantly, come up with a new agenda to further their cooperation, the coming regional and global chaos could inflict irreparable damage on the countries’ relations.
Having been in Washington when the Arab Spring kicked off, I remember quite well that policymakers and experts had a positive view of Turkey. However, the relationship took a hit in 2013 when the Obama administration tried to make Turkey deal with the Syrian civil war alone. And things have been getting worse ever since.
Washington’s Syria policy came with a heavy price tag for Turkey. Let us ignore the more than three million refugees who have crossed the Turkish-Syrian border for a minute. The U.S. Government came to openly support the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants, who are the Syrian branch of the PKK – which Washington considers a terrorist organization. U.S. policymakers turned their back on Washington’s alliance with Turkey and their pledge to combat terrorism by taking such actions in Syria.
Finally, America’s careless attitude towards the July 15 coup attempt, coupled with its harboring of the Gülenist Terror Group’s (FETÖ) leader and several court cases against Turkish citizens, resulted in the current situation. As the Turkish public becomes increasingly and permanently anti-American, FETÖ militants roam the halls of congress in Washington every day.
And even the most “moderate” opponents of Turkey are calling for a distinction between the Republic of Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to concentrate their attacks on the latter.
At this time, Ankara would like to work with the United States to build a post-Daesh future for Syria. Turkish officials are unhappy with the fact that they could cooperate with Russia and Iran on “de-conflicting” but can’t do the same with Washington.
Of course, the most recent example of Washington’s disregard for Turkey was America’s decision to work with the YPG militants to remove Daesh terrorists from Raqqa, as opposed to the Turks. Turkey now urges the United States to stop cooperating with the YPG, to take back the weapons delivered to that group, to launch negotiations with players that represent the Syrian people and to bring peace to Syria by reviving the Geneva process. Washington, however, has yet to unveil its post-Daesh Syria policy.
With regard to the second item on Yıldırım’s agenda, the Trump administration already announced that it wants to contain Iran. Since President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh last May, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and several other Gulf countries have become more active in regional politics. The blockade of Qatar, the Lebanese prime minister’s resignation and Saudi crown prince’s drive to consolidate his power immediately come to mind.
Nowadays, Turkey is worried that the anti-Iran movements could result in a regional war. The Turks are warning that a hot conflict with Iran, whether in the form of Sunni-Shiite confrontation or a rivalry between Arab and Persian nationalism, will result in nothing but bloodshed.
Unless Turkey and the United States can cooperate in the face of the coming regional chaos, the two “allies” could end up being dragged further apart.