A Shaky Relationship

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks as Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens during a luncheon at the State Department May 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks as Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens during a luncheon at the State Department May 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Turkey’s relationship with the US has gone through some serious ups and downs in the last decade. But the escalation of the Syrian crisis and the reluctance of Washington to intervene seem to have created the biggest rift in bilateral ties since the second Gulf War.

Yet, 2013 had almost started like a honeymoon. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a high profile visit to Washington in May where he was first hosted along with his large AK Party delegation, then again at a small private dinner with President Obama. More than one hundred Turkish businessmen accompanied him to lobby a new provision for the Transatlantic Trade Agreement that would have put Turkey on the same footing with the E.U.

Then things started to change a bit. The biggest thorn in Turkish-US relations was the Mavi Marmara Flotilla conflict between Turkey and Israel. Israel had offered an apology, but the Turkish government and the families of nine people who died during the Israeli army raid did not budge, so the negotiations broke down. An Israeli source told The Majalla that “Erdoğan would do nothing about normalization before the local elections in 2014”. And he has a point.

The uprising and the later removal of Mursi from the presidency in Egypt soured the US-Turkish relations in an irreversible way. Erdoğan was the biggest supporter of the ousted Mursi Government, and he did not shy away from criticizing the West for a “double standard in democracy.” But a speech he gave in Ankara to the party local chairmen tipped the scale like never before. “We know Israel is behind this [military] coup” he said, “We have evidence of the Justice Minister [Tzipi Livni] and a philosopher [Bernard Henry-Levy] speaking in a panel in Paris in 2011, saying democracy is not just the ballot box, and that even if the Muslim Brotherhood wins, they will not be the winners of the elections”. He was referring to a conference which was attended by both Livni and Henry-Levy and in which they had both discussed the future of political Islam.

Erdoğan’s accusations were nothing new to Jerusalem, but for Washington it was a different story. The White House condemned his words as “baseless and untrue”. Murat Yetkin, the editor-in-chief of Hürriyet Daily News described this reaction as a turning point in Turkish-US relations.

But when the allegations emerged that the Assad regime had attacked Syrian civilians in Ghouta with chemical weapons, Obama was the only ally that Erdoğan could turn to. After the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, spokesman Ben Rhodes said, “As you've seen, Turkey has been a very strong supporter for the notion that the Assad regime must be held accountable for its [alleged] use of chemical weapons. Similarly, we've coordinated very closely with Turkey in our support for the opposition within Syria, and we'll continue to do so going forward. So they had a good discussion on Syria, and we feel quite aligned with Turkey in our approach to the issue”.

Now both sides seem to be tied together in their fate. Obama is pondering military action in Syria, which would satisfy Erdoğan and US allies in the Gulf. Erdoğan, on the other hand, seems to be asking the big guy in the room to beat the other rogue one, even though he accused the former of initiating a coup and crushing democracy only about a month ago.

Public support for military action in Syria in both countries has decreased, while diplomacy has turned into a high stakes gamble for both Erdoğan and Obama. Experts recall the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs operations in which the US had to go head-to-head with the Soviet Union and Turkey, as a NATO ally was stuck in the middle. Now it is Turkey that is pushing the US to do something as the Middle East watches the reluctant warrior’s next steps.

Subscribe to the discussion