Difficult ally or Eurasian enemy? Turkey in the eyes of American think tanks

Difficult ally or Eurasian enemy? Turkey in the eyes of American think tanks

Turkish-American relations are currently not in the best condition. Although both countries are members of NATO, their policies and positions on many international issues are very different. The breaking points for the Turks were the Americans’ support for the Kurdish separatists in Syria and the participation of pro-American military in an attempted coup in 2016. There is also the  fact that the US refuses to extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara considers to be the main organizer of the coup attempt.

After the attempted coup, the Turkish authorities overhauled the structure of the army, trying to clean out those influenced by Gulen and the United States. Washington, in turn, has been furious about Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow and Tehran. The purchase of S-400 air defense systems from Russia angered Washington so much that it expelled Turkey from its F- 35 program.

The leading think tanks in the United States, for the most part, assess the prospects for the development of Turkish-American relations negatively. At the same time, in their opinion, there is still potential to alter this trend. However, Ankara is already well on its way toward developing its own independent policy.

The RAND Corporation: Turkey’s prospects for NATO withdrawal are real

In January 2020, the RAND Corporation published a report entitled “Turkey’s Nationalist Course. Implications for the US-Turkish Strategic Partnership and the US Army.” The document is described as “research and analysis conducted as part of a project entitled Turkey’s Volatile Dynamics-Implications for the US-Turkish Strategic Partnership and the US Army, sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-3/5 / 7, US Army.”

RAND Analysts see 4 Options for Turkey’s future, 3 of which are unfavorable for the United States:

1.Difficult ally: Turkey continues to be a difficult and sometimes hesitant US ally.

2.Resurgent democracy: an opposition leader or coalition defeats Erdogan and resumes a more Western-oriented foreign and security policy.

3.Strategic balance: Turkey seeks to more openly balance its ties with NATO as well as with allies and partners in Eurasia in Eurasia (in particular, Russia, Iran, and China.

4.Eurasian power: Turkey “formally leaves NATO and pursues closer cooperation and various alignments with partners in Eurasia and the Middle East.”

It is indicative that of the four possible options for the development of Turkey, only one is considered by American analysts as favorable, i.e. “resurgent democracy.” They see it as essential to get rid of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and bring to power someone who does not adhere to a “nationalistic course.” It is noteworthy that American experts consider the loss of control over Incirlik airbase very likely.

Photo: Incirlik air base

“Given the volatility of relations with Turkey, US defense planners need to be prepared to deal with the loss of access to İncirlik Air Base and other US and NATO facilities in Turkey. The implications of this loss to sustain Operation Inherent Resolve (to counter ISIS) and other operations in Southwest Asia would be enormous, and alternative facilities in the region have substantial limitations.”

The US military: prepping for regime change

The RAND Corporation’s recommendations for the US Armed Forces mainly came down to ​​restoring institutional ties between the Turkish and US military. Apparently, it is the military, in the opinion of these analysts, that should promote “Resurgent democracy.”

In particular, the report argues that further efforts are needed to deepen the dialogue between the US military and the leaders of the Turkish General Staff and to revitalize the High-Level Group on US and Turkish Defense, taking into account the increased importance of the Turkish Minister of Defense.

According to experts, the US military may try to help Turkey develop curricula at its new National Defense University, and Turkey may continue to send officers to schools in the United States. These steps can help improve civil-military relations in Turkey and influence the future course of the Turkish armed forces in such a way that in the long term strengthen bilateral cooperation and NATO cooperation with Turkey.

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At the same time, the danger to the United States of interaction between the Turkish and Russian military is emphasized over and over. The report highlights the undesirability of interactions between the Russian and Turkish fleet in the Black Sea. They suggest that Turkey needs to be more actively involved in NATO initiatives in this area.

A detailed analysis of Rand Corporation in its main conclusions coincides with the opinion previously expressed by the United States Army Europe’s commander Lieutenant General Ben Hodges. In June 2019, he came up with the idea of ​​creating the Turkey-USA 2.0 alliance.

It is significant that the retired American general is a harsh critic of President Erdogan. He has said explicitly that “there are elements within the Turkish Government That would welcome better relations with the United States.” Ben Hodges welcomes any all success among the Turkish opposition, including, for example, the victory of Ekrem Imamoglu in the mayoral election in Istanbul.

At the same time, the General hints that political changes within Turkey may occur not necessary in the context of democratic elections, claiming that “a lot can happen between now and the upcoming general elections in 2023.”

It is significant that, like RAND analysts, Hodges advocates maximum cooperation with the Turkish armed forces. Also both RAND, which is commissioned by the Pentagon and the former commander of the US forces in Europe, considers it necessary for Turkey to abandon its nationalist course and advocates for a change of power in the country.

Thus, we can conclude that the American military elites hope to change the geopolitical course of Turkey by changing the government, and admits that this path might not be taken democratically. Given their insistent desire to develop the maximum number of contacts with their Turkish colleagues, we can conclude that circles close to the Pentagon hope to repeat the failed coup attempt in 2016.

CFR and neoconservatives: negative solidarity

In addition to the military, civilian analytical centers often speak out about relations with Turkey. Here, on the whole, pessimistic moods dominate.

In November 2018, the Council on States Foreign Relations published a report entitled “Neither the Friend NOR Foe: The of Future of US-Turkey Relations” by Steven Cook.

The main thesis of the report is that the US should “recognize that the United States and Turkey have gone from ambivalent allies to antagonists.” The document noted that the United States should find an alternative to Incirlik Air Base, continue supporting the YPG despite Ankara’s objections and stop cooperation on the F-35 program.

In October 2019, Max Boot (a CFR expert and former neocon who is now affiliated with the US Democratic Party) called for a serious review of relations with Turkey. According to him, Ankara is no longer a reliable partner of Washington. He also listed Erdogan’s main “sins,” from his support for the Muslim Brotherhood to his rapprochement with Russia.

The author considers it necessary to significantly reduce military cooperation with Turkey. First of all, according to him, the United States should leave Incirlik:

“The US Air Force should relocate its aircraft to Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan and to other bases in Persian Gulf countries. The tactical nuclear weapons stored at Incirlik should either be brought back to the United States or relocated to more reliable NATO countries.”  

Significantly, CFR President Richard Haas holds a similar position.

It is worth recognizing, however, that there are different points of view represented in the CFR. In January of this year, the organizations journal, Foreign Affairs, published the article “The Dangerous Unraveling the of the US-Turkish Alliance,” where the authors argue that “US interests will suffer if the relationship between the two countries breaks down completely, or if Turkey becomes an actual adversary of the United States.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)’s Rachel Ellehuus sticks to a similar approach, calling “to apply the required sanctions and arms embargoes” against Turkey, but “in a discriminate way.”

At the same time, the CFR leadership’s position is often expressed by American neoconservatives. They believe that the most dangerous possibility is Ankara abandoning Western democratic values.

For example, the American Enterprise Institute in December 2019 wrote: “countries such as Erdogan’s Turkey continue to violate [democratic] values — and act against the US and Europe’s interests in practical ways, including through its behavior in Northern Syria and through its purchases of Russian military equipment.”

In the article “It’s Not Us — It’s Him,” Michael Michael Rubin declares that there’s no way to change Turkey except direct pressure. He says that the Turkish army was transformed after the failed coup attempt of 2016 from “a constitutional guardian of secularism” into “a driver for Islamism.”

Also, according to the famous neocon, the Turkish “strategic pivot toward Russia shifts the balance toward Moscow across the entire Black Sea region, allowing Russia to further solidify its strategic encroachment on Georgia and Ukraine.”


Therefore, he calls for a strategy exactly opposite to the one advocated by analysts associated with the Pentagon, namely, to isolate Turkey and its armed forces:

“It may be impossible to expel Turkey from NATO, but that is no reason not to quarantine it within the organization, excluding it from meetings whenever possible and adjusting document classification to prevent Turkish officers from accessing its paper flows,” he writes.

Like other neoconservatives, Rubin proposes maximum support for Kurdish separatists, the imposition of sanctions against Turkey and the support of the Greek government of Cyprus in their protracted dispute with Turkey.

Conclusions: it is indicative that within the American international relations expert community, distrust towards Turkey is dominant. Even those experts who consider it necessary not to break ties advocate various measures of pressure and negatively evaluate Turkey’s attempts to strengthen its sovereignty within NATO. At the same time, the two traditionally most influential groups within the US foreign policy establishment, the neocons and the CFR, advocate isolating Turkey. They think that the contradictions between Turkey and the US are far from accidental and can be resolved only if Ankara abandons its “nationalistic” sovereign foreign policy course. The Pentagon sees Erdogan’s “nationalism” as an unsurpassable threat, but still hope that the Turkish military can still be lured to its side.

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April 2024