Understanding the Feuds Plaguing the U.S.-Turkey Alliance

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. The most serious conflicts dividing them involve Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile-defense system and U.S. support for a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey views as a mortal threat. A U.S. prosecution of one of Turkey’s biggest banks is among the other topics of friction. The U.S. and Turkey possess the two largest armies in NATO and affirm the need to maintain their alliance, but the quarrels have eroded trust on both sides.

1. What’s the status of Turkey’s deal with Russia?

Turkey took delivery of the S-400 system made by Russia, NATO’s top foe, in 2019, two years after Ankara signed an agreement to buy it. In response, the U.S. sanctioned Turkey’s defense industry while sparing the wider economy. President Joe Biden’s administration, which took power Jan. 20, urged Turkey not to retain the Russian system. The U.S. worries that the S-400 could be used to collect intelligence on the stealth capabilities of the U.S. F-35 fighter jet that Turkey has helped to build and wants to purchase. Beyond that, the U.S. is keen to prevent its allies from engaging with Russia’s defense sector.

2. What do the U.S. sanctions mean?

The penalties effectively cut off Turkey’s top defense procurement agency, known as the SSB, from U.S. military hardware and technology. The sanctions target individuals including Ismail Demir, head of the SSB. The agency is barred from receiving loans from U.S. financial institutions and assistance from the U.S. Export-Import Bank. The U.S. also opposes any credit extension to the SSB from international financial institutions. Typically, U.S. defense contracts valued at around $2 billion go through the SSB each year. A significant portion of that trade will continue as the sanctions don’t apply retroactively. But new licenses or extensions of existing ones won’t be allowed. Legislation passed by Congress makes it extremely difficult for Turkey to receive waivers unless it physically gets rid of the Russian missiles.

3. Why did Turkey insist on the S-400?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues that Turkey’s Western allies failed to provide his country with the necessary defense against missile threats from neighboring Iran, Iraq and Syria. The purchase of the S-400 also reflected Turkey’s desire for an increasingly independent role in regional policies and for economic ties with Russia.

4. How has Turkey responded to U.S. sanctions?

Before sanctions were imposed, Erdogan threatened to respond to them by closing two critical NATO installations in Turkey. They are Incirlik Air Base, close to Syria, and an early-warning radar in the town of Kurecik that is part of NATO’s ballistic-missile defense capabilities. He didn’t follow through. Now he must now weigh his options with Biden -- who in the past has criticized Erdogan for being authoritarian -- at a time when the Turkish government finds itself increasingly at odds with world powers, including Russia. Turkey and Russia were on opposite sides in Libya’s war before a truce was agreed in October 2020, and they have clashing aims in Syria’s conflict. Turkey muscled into Russia’s Caucasus backyard with its support for Azerbaijan in a 44-day war with Armenian forces over Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey remains adamant about keeping the S-400 and has said it may purchase a second missile battery and even begin co-producing the system with Russia. But it also has suggested it could limit the use of the S-400 to avert further U.S. punishment. Erdogan holds out the possibility of Turkey adding U.S. Patriot missile-defense batteries to its armory, though it’s not clear that U.S. lawmakers would let such a sale go through.

5. How are the U.S. and Turkey divided over Syria?

In October 2019, the Turkish military moved into Syria in a campaign aimed at the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a Kurdish militia that had been a major component of the U.S.-led effort to combat Islamic State in Syria. Turkey views the YPG, which had wound up controlling about a third of Syria, as a security threat due to its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. That group, known as the PKK, seeks an autonomous region for Kurds inside Turkey and has fought Turkish forces on and off since 1984. Then-U.S. President Donald Trump first gave Erdogan a green light for the operation, then reversed course and imposed sanctions on Turkey before lifting them after Turkey complied with a cease-fire agreement. Turkey hit the brakes on its Syria foray after it reached separate agreements with the U.S. and Russia to keep Kurdish fighters in Syria away from its border. In February 2021, Erdogan accused Washington of siding with the PKK and its affiliate in Syria after the U.S. said that it would condemn the reported killing of Turkish hostages by the PKK in northern Iraq if the accounts were confirmed. Turkey summoned the U.S. ambassador in protest, prompting Secretary of State Antony Blinken to affirm that “PKK terrorists bear responsibility.”

6. What’s the deal with the Turkish bank?

As tensions over Syria rose, the U.S. brought a criminal case against Turkish state-run lender Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS. Prosecutors accused Halkbank, as it’s known, of participating in a wide-ranging plot to violate prohibitions on Iran’s access to the U.S. financial system. The conspiracy involved high-ranking government officials in Iran and Turkey, the U.S. said. Two people, including a senior Halkbank executive, were previously convicted in the case. The late 2017 trial sparked vehement protests from Erdogan, who accused U.S. officials of trying to harm Turkey’s national and economic interests. He labeled the prosecution nothing short of an “international coup attempt.”

7. What else have the U.S. and Turkey sparred over?

Plenty. Their six-decade alliance has been strained by the U.S. refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan accuses of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup. Ties were inflamed by Turkey’s detention of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, and employees of U.S. diplomatic missions in Turkey on suspected involvement in the attempted putsch or terrorism. Ankara is also irritated that Washington backs Turkey’s rivals in a natural gas dispute with Cyprus and in other regional conflicts.

8. Is there a path to repairing ties?

Having served as a bulwark against Russia during the Cold War, Turkey believes it has valuable bargaining chips. It still hosts American nuclear warheads at Incirlik and military installations used by the U.S. to spy on Russia. It’s also the only barrier keeping many of about 5 million refugees, most of them Syrians, from flooding into European countries with which the U.S. has close ties. Turkish officials believe Biden’s faith in multinational institutions and transatlantic ties will help them repair damage with NATO partners and improve the likelihood of long-sought weapons deals.

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