WASHINGTON – Two years ago, I argued in a Washington Post opinion piece that Turkey was pivoting toward the United States [“A blossoming friendship; Obama, Erdogan are restoring their countries’ bond,” Nov. 13, 2011].
This policy has not ushered in what Ankara wanted: American firepower to oust the Assad regime in Syria. And feeling alone, Turkey has started to seek other allies, including Beijing.
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials toyed with the idea of being a stand-alone actor in the Middle East. By 2011, they had realized that the Arab Spring would create long-term instability in their neighborhood and would position Iran against Turkey in Syria. Turkey adeptly pivoted toward the U.S.
The two nations worked with other countries to oust Moammar Gadhafi in Libya that year and, early on, coordinated policies against the Assad regime.
Even more important for U.S.-Turkish relations, President Barack Obama and Erdogan hit it off. The two leaders spoke often and were eager to listen to each other about Middle East issues. The convergence was so apparent that in September 2011 Turkey abandoned its rhetorical hedging that Iran “has the right to pursue nuclear energy research for peaceful purposes” and joined NATO’s missile defense shield.
This is why Turkey’s recent announcement that it would buy air defense systems from China — a first for any NATO member — was a shock. If finalized, this deal would deal a serious blow to Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and with NATO, opening the alliance’s security umbrella to potential Chinese snooping.
Two issues are driving Ankara’s pivot away from Washington. First, Turkey aspires to build its defense industry and has been disappointed that U.S. companies would not transfer technology in return for weapons purchases. Turkish officials see turning to China as a way to enhance their bargaining power with U.S. companies.
Second, Turkey is signaling its disappointment with the Obama administration’s Syria policy — or lack thereof. Turkey has pursued regime change in Damascus since 2012, providing weapons and haven to the Syrian opposition. Ankara has tried to persuade Washington to join its efforts and significantly support the opposition. The U.S. has done neither.
Turkey’s sense of abandonment was heightened following the chemical weapons deal that U.S. and Russian officials brokered in September, which, in Turkish minds, provided a lifeline for the Assad regime.
Turkey foresees two grave eventualities in Syria: an Iran-backed hostile rump state at its border — whose leaders will not forget Ankara’s support for the Syrian rebels — and al-Qaida-controlled enclaves.
Whichever way Syria goes, Turkish officials expect that the outcome is likely to be unfavorable for them and that they will need allies to mitigate the fallout.
The Turkish government’s heavy-handed treatment of protesters this summer also affected the relationship. When the police cracked down on a small pro-environment gathering in Istanbul, millions of Turks took to the streets to demand respect for freedom of assembly and liberal democracy — and were met with a more violent government reaction.
Before these protests, Erdogan and Obama chatted often. Since then, Washington has been mostly deaf to Turkish appeals on Syria.
For the past decade, Turkey has been surrounded by mostly troubled neighbors. By comparison, it has looked like an island of stability. Istanbul’s financial markets have attracted international capital in excess of $40 billion annually, driving record-breaking growth.
The Syrian civil war changes this context. With a weak and divided state next door and al-Qaida at its border, Turkey’s image as the region’s stable nation is eroding, and its economic growth could be undermined.
This could complicate, or even derail, Erdogan’s plans to run for president next year. He is likely to be elected again only if Turkey continues growing.
So after failing to get a U.S. commitment on action in Syria, Turkey is flirting with the Chinese and, potentially, the Russians to lock in additional long-term security.
Eyeing the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Turkish officials could seek their own deal with Tehran over Syria. Turkey hosted the Iranian foreign minister in Ankara on Nov. 1, hinting at the end of a period of cold ties.
Ankara is trying to ameliorate its relations with Iraq, which soured over Baghdad’s objection to warm ties between Turks and the Iraqi Kurds. Turkey needs Iraq, one of Syria’s other neighbors, as an ally to contain a Syrian meltdown if it cannot bring an end to the Assad regime.
The honeymoon in U.S.-Turkish ties is over. Turkey is out to gather as many friends as it can line up in the Middle East. The U.S. might be just one of them.
Soner Cagaptay is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of “The Rise of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century’s First Muslim Power.” He is on Twitter: @sonercagaptay.