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GMF’s Lesser: US-Turkey bilateral ties remain troubled 15 septembre 2014

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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Today’s Zaman (Turkey) Monday, September 15, 2014, p. 9

Yonca Poyraz Doğan, Istanbul

While US Secretary of State John Kerry was on a trip through the Middle East and Europe recently to gather commitments of support against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — which now calls itself the Islamic State (IS) — from US allies, he also lobbied Turkish leaders, highlighting the country’s strategic importance to the US. However, some commentators argue that Turkish-US bilateral relations remain troubled since there are quite a few issues of friction.

“The strategic nature of the relationship is underscored by recent developments in Syria and Iraq — and with Russia. US and Turkish interests are essentially aligned, but our policy approaches remain quite different. Behind all of this, there remains considerable American unease with the Turkish discourse about the US and international partners generally,” said Ian Lesser, senior director for foreign and security policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

Turkey, a member of NATO, did not sign a communiqué pledging support during a meeting last week in Saudi Arabia in which regional leaders committed to help cut off the flow of foreign fighters and funds into ISIL and has remained wary of plans for military action in Syria.

The biggest obstacle in front of Turkey’s active role is that 46 Turkish nationals, including a consul general, consulate staff and family members were captured by ISIL in June.

“Certainly, US policymakers are sensitive to Turkey’s own exposure. Greater control of the border is clearly a priority for Washington, and for European partners,” Lesser said.

At the end of his visit to Turkey, Kerry told reporters that it was too soon to expect concrete commitments.

Meanwhile, US daily The Wall Street Journal claimed in its editorial on Saturday that the visit resulted in the “unavoidable conclusion” that the US needs to find a better regional ally to fight ISIL than Turkey, suggesting that the US air base – İncirlik — Turkey is currently hosting should be moved somewhere else.

Elaborating on the issues, Lesser answered our questions for Monday Talk.

President Barack Obama authorized US airstrikes inside Syria for the first time along with expanded strikes in Iraq as part of an effort to root out the self-proclaimed ISIL extremists and their advance in the region. How big is the threat that it is making President Obama, a defender of the US pullout from Iraq, open a new military front in the Middle East?

This is clearly a tough issue for the US administration. Obama has been very cautious on military commitments, and this sentiment is largely supported in the public and Congress. So, there is clearly a judgment that ISIS poses a “clear and present danger” and that a delay in responding would bring further risks.

Conservative critics blame President Obama for the current crisis. They say that Obama didn’t try very hard to negotiate terms with Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri alMaliki. But if he had, the US armed forces could have prevented this crisis from coming to a head. Do you agree with this view?

I do not support this view. Maliki had shown himself to be ill-suited to the task of national reconciliation and had not managed to organize an effective military after years of strong backing from the US and others. A different strategy was needed.

In his speech, President Obama didn’t name the coalition partners in the fight against ISIL but obviously seeks assistance from Turkey, which is reluctant to allow a US-led coalition to attack the ISIL militants in neighboring Iraq and Syria from its air bases and will not take part in combat operations against militants. What does the US expect from Turkey?

Clearly, the task of putting together an effective coalition for what is likely to be an extended battle with ISIS [an alternative name for ISIL] was never going to be easy. Each of the regional partners has specific national interests engaged. This is certainly true for Turkey. Ideally, I do think US planners would like to have access to İncirlik for strikes against ISIS-related targets. But there is a long history of Turkish reluctance to agree to such uses outside a NATO framework. Operation Northern Watch was an exception. But the 2003 experience may be closer to the norm. So this will not be easy. But I would not exclude it. At a minimum, the US and NATO allies will look to Turkey to help shut down the flow of foreign fighters and the smuggling activities that might help finance extremists across the border in Syria.

‘İncirlik issue will surely be the most difficult part’

Are there signs that Turkey is willing to do all that?

Yes, I think there are. But the İncirlik issue will surely be the most difficult part of this equation. You know Ankara is reluctant to take a stronger role in the coalition against ISIL militants in apparent fear of aggravating the hostage situation. Yes. That is perfectly understandable.

There is also another issue that makes Turkey reluctant, and it is that Turkey fears that being part of the US-led coalition against ISIL may adversely affect the Kurdish peace process. Do you think those fears of Turkey are well founded?

I understand that Ankara fears a possible new influx of weapons to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a strengthening of their position generally. In general, I think it will be hard to achieve a durable reconciliation on the Kurdish issue unless basic conditions of security are established, and this will require containment of the ISIS threat.

Another issue is that critics inside and outside Turkey question Ankara’s commitment to the confrontation with ISIL because they claim that Turkey supports ISIL in Syria — a claim Turkey denies. Does the US have concerns in this regard?

The US has been concerned that Turkey’s support for Islamist opposition forces inside Syria has had the effect of strengthening undesirable and extremist elements across the border. This is not the same as support for ISIS, and I think that is understood.

Turkey has been an active player in the Middle East in the last decade. Would you tell us about the positive and negative implications of Turkey’s active policy in the region in general and from the perspectives of the EU and the United States?

For a decade, Turkey’s commercially led activism and the “zero problems” [with neighbors] approach, generally, was well suited to the prevailing conditions in Turkey’s neighborhood. Over the last three years, the regional order has collapsed, and so has the climate for a strategy of engagement. Turkey is now very exposed to what could be many years of conflict and chaos.

‘Turkey returns to its traditional arms-length approach to region’

So, what are the challenges that Turkey has faced recently, especially in the regional and international arenas?

I think Turkey has now moved from a phase of engagement to a phase of containment. This is a return to Turkey’s traditional arms-length approach to the region. That said, this will be an uncomfortable fit with the preferences of Turkey’s leadership. The closing down of the Middle Eastern neighborhood should imply a revitalization of Turkish ties to the US and EU. This will require some new energy and commitment from all sides.

The opposition in Turkey sees authoritarian tendencies increasing in the government. Do you expect that this new energy will be easily created? How does the US see recent developments in Turkey in this regard?

Without question it will be difficult to build consensus for a new direction in foreign policy if the inclinations of the leadership do not encourage this. Similarly, a highly polarized domestic debate will also complicate the question. These are not new dilemmas for Turkey, but arguably both the internal and external scene are more challenging now than at any time in the recent past.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said as recently as July when he was the prime minister that relations with US President Obama had soured, saying the two no longer spoke as frequently as in the past. Do you see improvements in Turkey’s ties with Washington after the strains of the past year?

I think the bilateral relationship remains troubled. The strategic nature of the relationship is underscored by recent developments in Syria and Iraq — and with Russia. The US and Turkish interests are essentially aligned, but our policy approaches remain quite different. Behind all of this, there remains considerable American unease with the Turkish discourse about the US, and international partners generally.

Do you think the issue of using İncirlik for operations against ISIL will be a new strain on the relationship?

Possibly. We will have to see what the operational needs turn out to be and how Turkey will respond. Certainly, US policymakers are sensitive to Turkey’s own exposure. Greater control of the border is clearly a priority for Washington and for European partners.

Are there other more serious issues regarding Turkish-US relations

The long-term challenge is how to diversify the relationship. It remains extraordinarily geopolitical and security-heavy. The economic and people-to-people dimensions are relatively underdeveloped. The result has been, and remains, a bilateral relationship measured in terms of crisis response. That is a fragile basis for relations.

‘Turkey’s new Internet law another point of friction with Brussels and Washington’

German press outlets recently reported stories suggesting that German, US and UK intelligence agencies have been eavesdropping on Turkey for some time. The claim has not been denied by Does the US have any interest in “bringing down Turkey”? According to some popular conspiracy theorists in Turkey that is the case. any of those countries. Your comment?

I do not have any special knowledge in this area. I can only say that we have clearly entered a period in which intelligence questions have become central to trust and mistrust among transatlantic partners generally, and Turkey is part of this equation.

Turkey’s main opposition party claims that foreign intelligence agencies eavesdrop on Turkey because it is not a trustworthy country and because it could be listed among countries that support terrorism. What do you think?

Again, I have no specific information on this question other than what has been reported.

Foreign policy experts at a congressional hearing recently called on the US administration to pressure Turkey, Qatar and Iran to cease funding Hamas and urged the US Congress to sanction and suspend ongoing arms sales to Ankara. How do you think the US administration might respond to this call?

It is another source of pressure on the relationship, and it is unlikely to go away. Indeed, it could increase as the question of state and private sponsorship of violent movements comes under growing scrutiny in the US — and Europe, I might add.

The Turkish government’s recent amendments to the Internet law that violate privacy and aggravate censorship by further tightening state control over the Internet have received strong criticism from some EU and US officials. Should Turkey expect any sanctions from the Western world in this regard?

This has certainly been a point of friction with Brussels and Washington. The attention to this issue will remain. I would be surprised if it led to sanctions per se. But it will certainly inhibit Turkey’s accession negotiations with the EU and will further complicate the bilateral relationship with Washington.

‘Why would the US want to harm NATO ally Turkey?’

Does the US have any interests in “bringing down Turkey”? According to some popular conspiracy theorists in Turkey that is the case.

Absolutely not. Why would the US want to harm a NATO ally, a partner we are committed to protect?

This was what the Turkish government officials were saying when the corruption investigation started on Dec. 17 of last year and before then, when Turkey saw the Gezi protests…

It is actually quite harmful to the bilateral relationship and undercuts the ability of Turkey’s many friends in the US to make the case for our strategic partnership.

Turkish government’s claims about Gülen ‘inherently confused and unclear’

The Turkish government claims that Pennsylvania-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen poses a threat to Turkey’s national security by attempting to topple the Turkish government. President Erdoğan said he told President Obama about the need for the Turkish and US intelligence organizations to coordinate more closely on this issue. What do you think about the US administration’s approach regarding this issue?

With so many pressing issues on the US foreign policy agenda and even in relations with Ankara per se, I think it will be difficult to mobilize American policymakers around this inherently confused and unclear question. In my view, generally speaking, US policy should be very careful about doing things that may be seen as interference in the internal affairs of a NATO ally.

‘Iran’s nuclear issue core concern for US, European partners’

The US and Iran have been at odds for decades in the Middle East over issues like the Iranian nuclear program, the second Iraq war, Syria and Israel. Yet both the United States and Iran want the Iraqi government to beat back ISIL, and the two traditional enemies have met to talk about what they can do together. Should we expect positive results from this engagement?

Possibly. But only if this is accompanied by success on the nuclear track with Tehran. The potential for a strategic detente has always been there. It was also true after Sept. 11, 2001. But it has remained elusive, largely because the nuclear issue is the core concern for the US and for European partners.



Ian Lesser

He is a senior director for foreign and security policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). He also serves as executive director of the Transatlantic Center, the GMF’s Brussels Office, and leads the GMF’s work on the Mediterranean, Turkey and the southern Atlantic. Prior to joining the GMF, Lesser was vice president and director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy (the western partner of the Council on Foreign Relations). He came to the Pacific Council from the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank, where he spent over a decade as a senior analyst and research manager specializing in strategic studies. From 1994-95, he was a member of the secretary’s Policy Planning Staff at the US Department of State, responsible for Turkey, Southern Europe, North Africa and the multilateral track of the Middle East peace process. His books and reports include « Morocco’s New Geopolitics: A Wider Atlantic Perspective » (2012), « Beyond Suspicion: Rethinking US-Turkish Relations » (2007), « Security and Strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean » (2006) and « Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty » (2003).


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