Obama & the U.S.–Turkey Foreign Policy Standoff

Obama & the U.S.–Turkey Foreign Policy Standoff

 U.S.-Turkey relations have reached their nadir. At the December White House meeting called to repair the breach in U.S.-Turkish relations Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to support sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program and rebuffed Obama’s request for Turkey’s 1,730 troops to undertake combat missions in Afghanistan. Erdogan’s split with Obama over Iranian sanctions, his support of HAMAS and Ankara’s growing ties with Syria and Iraq has fueled concerns in Washington that Turkey is drifting into Tehran and Moscow’s orbit. Whether Turkey is leaving the West to become an outpost of Iranian and Russian influence is debatable. What is clear is that Turkey is coming into its own. Prime Minister Erdogan is leading the predominantly Muslim Turkey down the path of a secular democracy and advancing its “Strategic Depth” foreign policy to secure Ankara’s national interests in a dangerous corner of the world. The new calculus informing Turkey’s foreign policy has unsettled U.S. policymakers accustomed to dictating the parameters of Ankara’s diplomatic horizons. Washington is also concerned that Erdogan’s “Islamic” leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) is losing contact with the West and returning to its Middle Eastern Muslim roots. But unwarranted public criticism and reflexive short-term thinking by Washington could permanently damage U.S.-Turkish relations while strengthening Turkey’s military and ultra-nationalist forces seeking to derail Erdogan’s government. The Obama administration should hit the pause button and rethink its Turkey policy. Patience and thoughtful engagement could prevent a disastrous break between Washington and Ankara—one that could risk further destabilization of a region where American power is already on the decline. 


Under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s leadership, Turkey’s three dimensional “Strategic Depth” foreign policy doctrine has emerged as the blueprint to reposition Turkey as a regional power. Sharing borders with Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia and Iran the locus of the “Strategic Depth” policy has been realigning Ankara’s relationships with its neighbors to strengthen Turkey’s economy while enhancing its national security posture. “Strategic Depth” anticipated two global trends that are guiding Turkey’s grand strategy; America’s diminished capacity to shape regional events and Iran and Russia’s ambition to exploit the growing power vacuum. It has also provided a framework for Turkish rapprochement with Cypress and Armenia, and reconciliation to end the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) domestic insurgency; all critical components of Ankara’s drive to gain ascension to the European Union. The central dilemma confronting the Obama Administration is whether Turkey’s growing relations with Iran and Russia is “realpolitik” in action or if Turkey is inexorably moving towards a new strategic alliance with Moscow and Tehran. 

Turkey has the 17th largest economy in the world. To continue its economic and democratic revolution Prime Minister Erdogan must insure Turkey’s national security, end the Kurdish PKK insurgency that is dividing the nation and dramatically expand trade. Therein lays the heart of the dispute with Washington. As one of the most energy dependent countries in the region, Turkey imports an astounding 90 percent of its energy needs. Ankara’s relationship with Iran and Russia is critical to secure its strategic long-term energy imperatives and leverage Turkey’s position as a regional energy transit hub. Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner and has opportunistically supported Turkey’s drive for E.U. membership and Turkey’s position in defense of Northern Cypress. In addition to Turkey’s extensive oil and gas ties to Iran, trade between the two countries now exceeds $10 billion a year and is growing.


While the Obama administration has been highly critical of Turkey’s relationship with Iran and Russia, the United States is in no position to guarantee Ankara’s critical energy needs or replace its critical trade relationships with Tehran and Moscow. In 2007 Erdogan rejected a U.S. proposal to supply Ankara with oil from Iraq’s Anbar Province, pointing out that the pipelines would ultimately have to transit oil through Syria or Iraqi Kurdistan, both heavily influenced by Iran. Instead, Erdogan’s direct dealings with Iran yielded lucrative long-term energy agreements and assurances from Tehran and Russia that the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline running from the Caspian Sea to Turkey’s southeastern port of Ceyhan will not be disrupted. Turkey signed a 25-year 10-billion-cubic meter natural gas deal with Iran and a parallel agreement with Turkmenistan that transits gas through Iran. In addition, Ankara inked a $3.5 billion deal to invest in Iran’s South Pars mega field. A realist, Erdogan recognizes the stubborn facts of life in the Middle East, the Caucuses and Central Asia; that Iran and Russia’s converging interest in controlling the region’s energy corridors is formidable. As the mecurial Prime Minister stated “U.S. and Israeli opposition to importing gas from Iran is not important because they cannot meet Turkey’s need for energy, and Turkey must fulfill its needs from Russia and Iran.”


Against this backdrop, the calculations underlying Erdogan’s refusal to support sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program can be more clearly understood. Erdogan’s statement that sanctions have failed the past 30 years because Western states have shamelessly exploited legal loopholes, raised a valid question; why should Turkey jeopardize its strategic economic relationship with Tehran to support a failed and largely symbolic United Nations sanctions resolution? More importantly, the pragmatic Erdogan, like many other Middle Eastern leaders is convinced that Iran is “going nuclear,” despite U.S.–Israeli efforts to halt Tehran’s uranium enrichment program. Prime Minister Erdogan and Turkey’s “Anatolian Elite” are well aware that a nuclear Iran will dramatically alter power relationships in the Middle East. Thus Turkey is recalibrating its policies across the region. Ankara’s use of “soft power” engagement in Armenia, Syria, Iraq and the Levant has lead to substantive changes in its foreign policy portfolio.


In October 2009, Turkey signed an agreement to establish diplomatic ties and re-open its border with its longtime foe Armenia, a country that still charges Turkey with committing genocide against 1.5 million Armenians after World War 1. Erdogan signed the agreement after President Obama withdrew his commitment to recognize the events of 1915 as a genocidal act. By signing the accord Erdogan avoided a confrontation with the United States which wants to secure oil pipeline routes running from the Caspian Sea basin through Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Turkey without having to transit oil through Iran. The Armenian agreement was a bitter pill for Erdogan to digest. He had promised not to reopen the border until Armenia withdraws its forces from the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. The accord also angered Turkey’s nationalist forces who took to the streets to denounce the agreement, calling Erdogan a traitor.       


In April Turkey ruffled more feathers in Washington by carrying out joint military exercises with Syria along the two countries’ border. The military exercises were the first ever between a NATO country and an Arab army. Turkey’s motivations in pursuing the highly symbolic maneuvers were fairly obvious. Ankara wants to expand bi-lateral trade with Damascus, put Tel Aviv on notice that it is building alliances with Israel’s adversaries and boost its credibility as a Middle East power broker. More importantly, Turkey needs to measure President Bashir Assad’s reliability in denying Kurdish PKK separatists a safe haven in neighboring Syria which has its own restive Kurdish minority.


One of Turkey’s biggest short-term challenges has been recasting its relations with Iraq. Over the past year Turkey has opened consulates in Basra and Erbil the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan whose autonomous region functions as a virtual national sovereign. Erdogan has backtracked on its threats to militarily intervene in Iraqi Kurdistan if the oil rich Kirkuk province passes to Kurdistan Regional Government control–a likely development as the KRG is poised to win a majority in Kirkuk’s (Tamim) province in Iraq’s upcoming parliamentary elections. Turkey is the largest investor in Kurdistan today and has reached an agreement to participate in a free trade zone in Kurdistan. By establishing closer ties with the KRG, Turkey’s business mavens have become the beneficiary of millions in commercial contracts and are actively seeking negotiations on potential oil agreements. Ankara’s opening of a consulate in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and the crown jewel of its oil exporting platform is highly significant. It signals Turkey’s acceptance of Iraq’s Shiia’s leaders as the dominant force in the country and the realization that if Turkey wants to participate in the development of Iraq’s energy resources they will need to repair their once strained relations with Iraq’s Shiaa leaders.      


Turkey’s strong condemnation of Israel’s 2008 Gaza invasion and support for HAMAS angered Washington but played well on the Arab street. Israel’s Gaza invasion in the middle of Turkey’s mediation efforts between the Palestinian Authority and Israel was an embarrassment that left Erdogan little choice but to withdraw from the talks. As for Erdogan’s support for bringing HAMAS into the peace negotiations, his position is shared by many countries across the Middle East and privately in European capitals. Having mediated Israeli-Palestinian talks Erdogan knows peace cannot be secured with by Obama’s short-sighted “One and One-Half State Solution” that seeks to isolates HAMAS and the Gaza Strip. The collapse of the Obama administration’s efforts to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority may well have killed any prospect of an agreement being reached in President Obama’s first term in office.


In pursuing its “Strategic Depth” doctrine Turkey is clearly emerging as a rising political and economic force in the Middle East. Through “soft power” diplomacy, expanded trade and Turkey’s unique role mediating conflicts in the Balkans, the Caucuses and the Middle East, Ankara has emerged as an invaluable intermediary that could help the U.S. solve some of its trickier diplomatic missions. But it is Turkey’s ties with Tehran and Damascus that foreshadow the trace lines of a Syria-Turkey-Iran-Russia energy and military axis that represents a formidable threat to American supremacy in the Middle East. 


If Washington wants to balance Turkey’s “Eastern angle” President Obama should use his considerable powers of persuasion to convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s Nicholas Sarkozy to support Turkey’s application to the European Union. Europe’s dismissive attitude towards Turkey while approving Cypress’s membership to the E.U. has done more to turn Turkey to the East than the AKP’s “Islamic” inclinations; it has created a feeling in Ankara that Europe has a double standard. The Obama administration can also signal its strong support to Ankara and Kurdistan for Erdogan’s efforts to end the PKK’s insurgency including offers of economic incentives for development projects in Southeastern Turkey. Most of all Washington needs to understand that Turkey is passing through its most profound domestic and foreign policy transformation since the “Young Turk” revolution 100 years ago. In building a vibrant Muslim secular democracy that moves Turkey’s Kurdish minority from the margins to the mainstream Prime Minister Erdogan risk the possible loss of his office and AKP control of the machinery of governance.  Likewise, Erdogan’s decision to embark on a new forward-leaning foreign policy informed by the doctrine of “Strategic Depth” is challenging the assumptions of Turkey’s tradtional relationships with the East and the West. Ankara has a rendevous with destiny. With or without Washington’s support there will be no turning back in Ankara.*****    


Webster Brooks is a Senior at the Center for New Politics and Policy (CNPP) and Editor of Brooks Foreign Policy Review, the international affairs arm of CNPP. His articles on foreign policy have appeared in numerous newspapers and websites in the Middle East, Eurasia and in the United States. He may be contacted at [email protected]  The Center for New Politics and Policy is based in Washington, D.C.