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Supporters of Nationalist Movement Party at a rally before the June election. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

A turbulent future may be in store for US-Turkish relations

Turkey’s June elections confirmed one important political reality in the country: The state always wins.

And that’s likely bad news for the future of Turkey’s long relationship with the United States.

I’m a scholar and practitioner of international conflict resolution who has studied Turkey and its relations with other countries for much of my career. In my opinion, the June elections heralded a disruptive and unsettled period for Turkish-American relations.

First, let’s provide a brief background. Ever since the founding of the modern Turkish republic in 1923, three ideas have defined politics in the country: the sanctity of the state, lack of transparency in state decision-making, and lack of accountability by state institutions and players. These concepts have long prevailed over individual liberties and a citizen’s right to access information.

The ultra-nationalist clique controlling the security structures of the country expects politicians elected into office – regardless of how liberal their original political platforms may be – to become an integral part of the state apparatus.

The Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, has traditionally claimed to represent the state’s point of view in Turkish politics. And it emerged this past June as the kingmaker in Turkish politics, receiving 11.5 percent of the votes. That victory will make it possible for Recep Tayyip Erdogan to push its policies in the already weakened parliament with minimal obstruction. And the election of a statist, nationalist party to dominance in Turkish politics will likely lead to internal political pressure to change how Turkey relates to the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

Long alliance

The close U.S.-Turkish relationship dates back to the early days of the Cold War. That’s when Turkey sent its troops to fight alongside U.S. soldiers in the Korean War.

In return, Turkey has become an important NATO member and a bulwark against Soviet expansionism in the eastern Mediterranean. As of 2018, Turkey’s armed forces are the fourth most powerful in the Alliance. And Incirlik air base in Southern Turkey serves as a critical hub for U.S. fighter jets in their Middle East missions, including missions over Iraq and Syria.

Despite the current cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey, the strategic alliance between the countries faltered with the end of the Cold War.

The trouble first began in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, when the U.S. created a protectorate for the Kurds in Northern Iraq in 1991. Turkey believes that move encouraged Kurdish separatism within Turkey.

Later, in 2003, the Turkish Parliament voted against providing a northern corridor for 60,000 U.S. ground troops to roll into Iraq in case of war with that country.

And the relationship has strained even further in recent years. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. pursued a muddled intervention in the Syrian civil war. That lack of a U.S. vision for Syria created tension with Turkish leaders who wanted direct U.S. intervention in Syria to remove Assad, if not support for Turkish boots on the ground.

In the absence of strong U.S. backing for its policies, Turkey gradually accepted Russia as the key player in the region. Furthermore, Moscow provided strong political backing to Erdogan during and in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup attempt of July 2016 while Washington and other NATO allies remained silent.

The growing relations between Turkey and Russia have been bearing fruit for a while. The benefits to Turkey are most visible in the energy sector, including the construction of the TurkStream natural gas pipeline across the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey and the construction of the US$20 billion Akkuyu nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean.

In December 2017, Turkey signed a $2.5 billion agreement to purchase a Russian S400 missile defense system, more than half of which will be financed by Russia.

As a NATO member, Turkey’s weaponry needs to be compatible with the alliance’s military systems. The Russian-made missile systems are incompatible with NATO. Many U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, voiced their concerns over the S400 deal.

The Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved a spending bill for U.S. foreign operations, but only after attaching an amendment to block the delivery of U.S.-made weapons to Turkey if Turkey insists on moving forward with the purchase of the Russian missile defense systems.

Domestic pressure

Anti-Americanism runs high in Turkey, according to a recent survey.

People in Turkey are increasingly nationalist, especially younger Turks. The U.S. is seen as the country that poses the highest security threat and as the real culprit behind a failed coup against Erdogan in July 2016.

Incirlik air base is used by the U.S. and Turkish air forces. REUTERS/Yves Herman

As a result, Erdogan’s nationalist coalition partners will expect him to pose a more robust challenge to the U.S. presence in the Middle East.

One such challenge could be the future status of the Incirlik air base currently in use by the U.S. Air Force. Nationalists are uneasy about U.S. fighter jets being stationed in the country that may provide fire support to Turkey’s enemies in Syria, primarily the Syrian Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State group.

Another important issue for Turkey is the return of cleric Fethullah Gulen who is currently living in Pennsylvania.

Turkey claims that Gulen and his followers are behind the failed coup attempt and demands his return from Washington. So far U.S. authorities have not been satisfied with the documents provided by Turkey as evidence and have not acted to return Gulen. Gulen denies any involvement.

Many claim that the U.S. pastor, Andrew Brunson, who served as a missionary priest in the coastal city of Izmir for 23 years and was arrested in 2016, has been kept as a hostage by Turkey to be exchanged for Gulen. Brunson was charged by Turkey with collaborating with the Gulenists in the failed coup attempt. The Trump administration has emphasized on several occasions to Turkish officials that they want to get Brunson back to the U.S., to no avail.

Paradoxically, the Turkish public’s support for continuing Turkey’s NATO membership is at a high of 70 percent. It looks like NATO, of which the U.S. has been a leading member and proponent, may actually be the only viable leverage the U.S. has with Turkey now. Turkey does not have a realistic alternative to NATO as a security umbrella and cannot afford getting kicked out of NATO.

Yet it’s not clear if and how the Trump administration will be willing to use the Alliance to press on Erdogan’s nationalist-Islamist alliance. I believe 2018 will be a turbulent year for the U.S.-Turkish relations.

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