The Strained U.S.-Turkey Relationship, Explained

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and Turkey have been allies for more than six decades, but in recent years their relationship has been repeatedly strained by disputes. U.S. support for a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey considers a foe is the source of one rift, provoking Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to shun visiting U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton in January. Other roots of friction include fallout from a 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan and Ankara’s plans to buy a missile-defense system from Russia. The U.S. and Turkey, which run the two largest armies in NATO, affirm the need to maintain their alliance, but the quarrels have eroded trust on both sides.

1. What are the divisions over Syria?

In its campaign there against Islamic State, the U.S.’s most reliable ally has been a Kurdish-led militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. It’s trained and armed the force, riling Turkey, which sees the YPG as an offshoot of Kurdish PKK militants who’ve battled for an autonomous Kurdish region inside Turkey on and off since 1984. Turkish forces who repeatedly have attacked the YPG have been massing for another offensive against Islamic State inside Syria ever since U.S. President Donald Trump announced in December that he would withdraw the 2,000 American troops there. Erdogan says preparations are almost complete under a deal with Trump, and has warned Kurdish fighters not to block the Turkish intervention. Bolton has said the U.S. will stay in Syria until Turkey agrees not to go after the Kurdish forces.

2. What’s the coup attempt have to do with the U.S.?

For Erdogan, the failed coup remains a festering sore. So does Washington’s reluctance to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan accuses of orchestrating the botched putsch. American officials have said Turkey’s evidence against Gulen, who moved to the U.S. two decades ago, is insufficient to extradite him. Claiming that Gulen’s followers had set up a “deep state” by infiltrating security services, schools and courts, Erdogan has purged about 130,000 from the civil service. Turkish officials also arrested American Andrew Brunson, an evangelical preacher, on charges of involvement in the overthrow effort. Insisting Brunson was unjustly detained, the U.S. pressured Turkey to release him by imposing sanctions against two Turkish government ministers in August. Turkey retaliated with measures against two U.S. cabinet secretaries. After a Turkish court freed Brunson in October, both countries dropped their sanctions.

3. So what if Turkey buys Russian missile defenses?

The Russian S-400 system Turkey plans to purchase isn’t compatible with North Atlantic Treaty Organization technology. That’s sparked strong opposition from NATO and demands in the U.S. to suspend planned deliveries of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, where portions of the Lockheed Martin Co. plane are being built. The U.S. fears the Russian system could be used to collect intelligence on the F-35’s stealth capabilities. The State Department notified Congress of a proposal to sell the Patriot air and missile defense system to Turkey in December, but Ankara is also pushing to obtain missile technology as part of any deal, something the U.S. has resisted.

4. Any other sore points?

Turkey’s detention of at least three additional people for alleged connections to the coup attempt and the PKK has fueled strains. They are former NASA scientist Serkan Golge and two Turkish employees of U.S. diplomatic missions. The U.S. says they’re innocent. For its part, Turkey is struggling to secure the release of its citizen Mehmet Hakan Atilla, former head of international banking at Halkbank, who in 2018 was convicted in a New York court of participating in a scheme to help Iran evade U.S. financial sanctions. Turkey says the case relied on fabricated evidence given by followers of Gulen.

5. Is Turkey looking elsewhere for allies?

Ties are warming between Turkey and Russia, even though they’ve supported opposing sides in the Syrian civil war and Turkey shot down a Russian warplane backing Syrian government forces in 2015, saying it entered its airspace. Under a deal with Russia and its ally Iran, Turkey deployed troops in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province with the goal of creating a demilitarized zone and staving off another flood of refugees, and it’s sought the support of France and Germany for a push to find a political solution to the conflict.

6. What could keep Turkey in the U.S.’s orbit?

Common interests have prevented past disputes from escalating into a permanent rupture, and those shared interests remain. Turkey depends on short-term foreign investments from Americans and others who take a lead from Washington. Meanwhile, the U.S. is short of dependable allies among Islamic countries in the Middle East, a region where Russia and Iran are ascendant. Trump is promising a much tougher line against Iran, and may not want to push Turkey too far into the opposing camp. Turkey has NATO’s second-biggest army and is home to the strategic Incirlik Air Base, which is used for operations against Islamic State.

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