While US-Turkish relations are usually quite unblemished, recent events have caused them to score a little. One of the incidents responsible for this was the criticism of Turkish judicial system by no other than the US ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone. His comments brought strong criticism from Turkish politicians and officials.
It’s too early to tell if it’s just a temporary dip, nonetheless, there are indications that Turkey is not about to limit itself to the confines of its European dream. Caught in the midst of economic recession, the European Union no longer projects the same appeal as it may have in the past. This perhaps is the reason why the new US Secretary of State John Kerry has decided to make Turkey the first foreign destination he is planning to visit.
How this plays out, in the long run, will have implications for not only the US- Turkey ties but also the direction of relations between the West and the Islamic world.
The Israeli Factor
The tensions between US and Turkey have a lot to do with Israeli role in the region. Ramifications of the Israeli attack on Gaza freedom flotilla in 2010 are playing out to this day. In retaliation for the attack, Turkey had suspended its defense ties with Israel. The stress between Turkey and Israel complicated Israeli dealings with NATO and that in turn also impacted the Turkish-US ties.
This year on Jan 30th, Israel conducted an air strike near Damascus, reportedly to prevent lethal weapons from getting into the hands of Hezbollah. Israeli intervention has started off another round of heated condemnation, especially from Turkey, Russia and Iran.
“We cannot regard a violation of air space as acceptable. What Israel does is completely against international law… it is beyond condemnation,” Erdogan commented.
On the other hand, Russia Foreign Ministry stated: “If this information is confirmed, then we are dealing with unprovoked strikes against targets located on the territory of a sovereign state, which brazenly infringes on the UN Charter and is unacceptable, no matter the motive used for its justification.”
Meanwhile, an official from the Iran’s foreign ministry warned of “grave consequences.” Only a few days earlier, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had stated, “an attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.”
An Israeli strike on Syria not only tested the Syrian response but also that of Iran and projects the message that it will act to protect its interests with or without the consent of regional or International powers. It’s puzzling to see Israel acting with impunity in the case of Syria when Turkey itself is the most vivid supporter of the revolution that has unfolded there.
The Turkish Posture
On the other hand, the Turkish behavior is no less perplexing. The country is aiding and abetting the opposition in Syria with assistance from Gulf and NATO states but when Israel acts to protect its interests, Turkey has reacted harshly. This is mostly because the country is increasingly caught in a balancing act, a predicament similar to many other Muslim states, like Pakistan. Turkey is supporting NATO in the war against terror and also receives foreign assistance in conducting operations against the Kurd (PKK) insurgency. This is one of the reasons the country is extremely cautious about its image in the Islamic world.
Turkey had previously agreed to place critical components for NATO’s missile defense system on its soil, to the displeasure of both Iran and Russia. This step greatly unnerved the Russians and forced it to take counter steps of its own, such as the placement of S-400 anti-aircraft missile system in its southern region. As the Syrian crisis has gradually worsened, Turkey asked for NATO’s assistance in protecting against potential missile strikes. NATO agreed by providing the Patriot system, which is now operational along its border with Syria. However, the Russians think the deployment of Patriot system is in preparation for an attack on Iran.
Ankara’s contradictory behavior reflects on the challenges faced by the country. On the one hand it’s a member of NATO and on the other hand, it aspires to champion the causes of Islam. Turkey recognizes the negative perceptions created by these dual pressures that if no managed well, can ultimately cause a similar loss of public credibility that the Arabs are facing.
The American Position
This context helps to put in perspective the comments made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Jan 25: “If we get into the SCO, we will say goodbye to the EU. The SCO is better — much more powerful. Pakistan wants in, India wants in as well. If the SCO wants us, we will become members of this organization.”
The comparison with Pakistan was indeed intriguing as it too is tiptoeing between NATO on the one hand and SCO on the other.
Asked about the Turkish statement in the daily press briefing, the US State Department spokesperson stated, “I didn’t see that comment by Erdoğan. Obviously, it would be interesting, given the fact that Turkey’s also a NATO member. We’ll have to see how that goes.”
The US interests are best served by Turkey’s continued orientation towards Europe and it has persistently strived to persuade other Europeans to drop their objections. The possible loss of Turkish motivation in this respect is something the West and the US can hardly afford at this juncture. Nonetheless, the foreign policy of Turkey appears to be going through a fundamental transformation.