Turkish antagonism to America, Israel, and the EU, and the Islamization of this once proudly secular nation must be seen in historical context. Relations between the US and Turkey today are, as they have been over the last 70 years, primarily based on shared national security interests, which often shift and have been unpredictable.
Modern American Turkish relations began at the dawn of the Cold War with the Truman Doctrine in 1947 guaranteeing the security of Turkey and Greece. Turkey remained a linchpin of American military strategy in the Middle East through the Cold War, a bulwark against Soviet expansionism. But times have changed in the 21st century with the ascendancy of the neo-Ottoman authoritarian strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In light of the most recent Turkish election, Congress, American security experts, Turkey’s neighbors, and Israel must now ask if the newly empowered authoritarian Erdogan has irreversibly transformed Turkey into an anti-western, anti-Semitic, malevolent state that is to be no less radical than the Iranian Islamic republic, where we have learned that no amount of accommodation can temper their nationalistic expansionist Islamist vision.
Unlike Iran, where it is reputed that the Iranian population, especially it’s urban middle class, leans toward the West, and would welcome the chance to be freed of the repressive Mullahs, a recent PEW survey of Turkish citizens revealed that an astounding 79% of the populace harbor a negative view of America, no doubt fostered by years of anti-American propaganda.
Many pro-Western Turks have left or worse, have been fired from their jobs, imprisoned, or tortured in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup. Erdogan’s monopoly on power has been consolidated since that time, tightening his control over the military, judiciary, academia, business, and media. Turkey has the infamous distinction of imprisoning more journalists than any nation in the world.
America, for strategic reasons, gets into bed with many unsavory nations, but few states may threaten our safety net more than Turkey, since it is intertwined in our security through NATO. Turkey has the second largest military in NATO, houses a vital US air base in Incirlik, and is located in an absolutely critical position in the Middle East next to Syria, Iraq, Russia, and the Black Sea.
In the coming decades, is Turkey to be friend or foe? Turkey believes the US cannot live without its Incirlik airbase, and that we need Turkey as the eastern flank of NATO. So Erdogan calculates that he can take liberties against American interests in the region, while advancing his own distasteful agenda – undermining the Kurds in Iraq and Syria who have been loyal American allies, supporting Hamas, which is designated a terrorist enemy by the US State Department, and its parent the Muslim Brotherhood, and working with American nemesis Iran, which is making every effort to destabilize the region.
So, are there any red lines Turkey cannot cross for it to continue to receive American support, or has Turkey already crossed a line with Congress and this administration? Turkey, Russia and Iran are three peas in a pod. Turkey occupied and ethnically cleansed Cyprus, Russia invaded and occupied Crimea, northern Georgia and eastern Ukraine, and the Iranian controlled Popular Mobilization Units ethically cleansed Iraq and Syria of its Sunni residents. Three bad actors, and Turkey is the only one of them that is a member of NATO.
Last year, National Security advisor H.R. McMaster said that Turkey had joined Qatar as a prime source “funding groups that help create the conditions that allow terrorism to flourish.”
Analysts expect Erdogan will be unchallenged and in power for years to come, and there is no expectation of moderation based on his record over the last 14 years.
America fears that Turkey might ally with Russia, Iran or China, if America imposes any meaningful consequences for Turkish behavior. This calculation is a serious foreign policy mistake, as Turkey realizes that those alliances carry with them significant risks to Turkish security in the long term, and even Erdogan must know he will need America as an ally again.
Being held hostage and extorted by Erdogan is a sure prescription for undermining American national security interests around the world. If Erdogan cannot be quietly persuaded through diplomacy to moderate his policies, then at the very least the United States should halt arms sales beginning with suspension of deliveries of F-35 fighters, and limit security cooperation that might already have been compromised by his relationship with Russia and Iran.
Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell told the Senate recently that the “acquisition of the S-400 [Russian anti-missile system] will inevitably affect prospects for Turkish military-industrial cooperation with the US, including F-35.”
Significant American consequences for Turkey would not be unprecedented, as we have employed this strategy with Turkey way back in 1974 after their invasion and ethnic cleansing of northern Cyprus.
As for undermining our vital allies Israel and Egypt, this too goes against a core US strategic interest, and Erdogan needs to pay a price for it. Erdogan, Hamas and the MB are all ideologically Sunni Islamists, and dissuading Erdogan will require strength, admonishments with teeth, as we learned that President Obama’s 2009 accommodations and oratory met with failure.
Critics rightly claim that America is already aligned with other human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, so why punish Turkey. The difference is that those nations are not pursuing strategies that directly undermine our security interests. However, they too will have to moderate their human rights record, if our alliances have any possibility for longevity.
Turkey is vital to our interests but not indispensable. The risks have begun to outweigh the benefits of trusting Turkey to remain the eastern flank of NATO and not share our security secrets with our enemies. It is probably not possible to have a grand quid pro-quo offering Turkey conditional EU membership, American investment, and continued US military support in exchange for ending their military relationship with Russia, Iran and Hamas, but incremental steps can be accomplished as long as we are not afraid to use a diplomatic big stick with economic pain.
Turkey and Israel have had mediocre relations for years.
Most recently Erdogan intends to bring Israel to the International Criminal Court for its actions on the Gaza border during the Hamas March of Return.
According to the Times of Israel, Erdogan said “Israel is a terror state” that has committed “a genocide”, and ‘There is no difference between the atrocity faced by the Jewish people in Europe 75 years ago and the brutality that our Gaza brothers are subjected to.”
At least he acknowledges the Holocaust as a historical fact, something his Iranian friends cannot do.
Further infuriating Turkey is the new Israeli-Cyprus-Greek alignment over natural gas reserves. Dr. Spyridon Litsas of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies referred to it as a “tectonic shift” in the Eastern Mediterranean altering “the geopolitical configuration” that “holds the interest of the great powers, (the United States, Russia and China).”
Now is the time for American resolve and if need be significant consequences imposed on Turkey to advance our interests. Ignoring what Turkey has become and where it is most likely to go over the next decade is not a sound foreign policy strategy.
The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™.