Turkey-US: What’s the problem?

The coming months will reveal whether the US and Turkey’s political divergences will trump their strategic interests.

Handout photo of Turkish President Erdogan addressing his supporters outside of his residence in Istanbul
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters outside his residence in Istanbul, early on July 19 [Reuters]

Turkey-United States relations are once again at a crossroads and could quickly deteriorate if presidents Barack Obama and Recep Tayyip Erdogan don’t move swiftly to restore trust.

Tensions are rising rapidly as Turkish officials insinuate or openly accuse Washington of backing last week’s failed military coup and demand that the Obama administration extradite Turkish expat Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of standing behind the coup.

And the the US response is not improving matters. The Secretary of State John Kerry has rejected any such accusations as “utterly false and harmful”, and he warned that Turkey’s NATO membership could be in jeopardy if it continues to purge thousands of officials and civil servants.

Will the failed coup and Erdogan’s purge of the military and bureaucracy affect their relationship?

US stutters

President Obama voiced his support for the democratically elected government during the coup attempt, but the overall response from the US establishment was mute at best.

Washington’s ambivalence was best expressed by the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, who told The New York Times that the coup attempt “presents a dilemma to the United States and European governments: Do you support a nondemocratic coup,” or an “increasingly nondemocratic leader?”

Is this really a dilemma? Even if everything Erdogan’s critics say about him is true, does this justify the reluctance to take sides with the democratically elected government of a NATO ally over mutinous military officers?

READ MORE: Turkey – Coup ‘silence’ and pointing fingers at the West

Needless to say, Washington has long supported undemocratic leaders across the globe when it suited its interests. Arming General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after he mounted a military coup against Egypt’s democratically elected government is one recent example.

Be that as it may, why is Obama proving less friendly to a “moderate Turkey” than George W Bush, even though he promised to improve relations between the US and the Muslim world?

Dizzying ups and downs

Since the Justice and Development Party (AK party) won elections 14 years ago, Turkish-American relations have gone through dizzying ups and downs, equally divided between Bush and Obama.

The Bush administration viewed the conservative AK party as a powerful and “moderate” Islamist voice in the Muslim world after the 9/11 attacks, but the relationship got complicated after the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Complicated didn’t necessarily translate into worse.

Ankara and Washington might disagree on a whole number of issues concerning human rights, democracy and the rule of law that are political in nature, yet they continue to share important strategic interests.


In fact, despite the Turkish parliament’s rejection of the US request to use its territory for a ground deployment to invade Iraq, Bush maintained strong relations with Turkey under the AK party leadership.

In 2005, he told Erdogan at the White House: “Turkey’s democracy is an important example for the people in the broader Middle East, and I want to thank you for your leadership.”

Bush also supported Erdogan’s efforts to contain Kurdish rebels who used northern Iraq as a base to stage attacks on Turkish targets. Bush called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) “an enemy of Turkey, a free Iraq and the United States”.

Syria was a major point of friction between Bush and Erdogan. Washington wanted President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria isolated, while Erdogan was bringing it out of its isolation.

Turkey reversed its favourable policy towards Syria after Assad’s crackdown on unarmed Syrians in 2011 with the beginning of the Arab Spring. But Syria continued to be a point of contention between Ankara and Washington.

And so did Israel and Palestine.

Standing up to Israel

In January 2009, Erdogan rebuked Israeli President Shimon Peres at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. During a session on Gaza, Erdogan said “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” in reference to the Israeli invasion of the strip the year before.

The following year, Turkey severed its relations with Israel after Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara ship – which was leading the Gaza-bound flotilla to break the siege – and killed 10 Turkish activists. Since then, tensions have deepened with each and every Israeli offensive against the Palestinians.

As Turkey’s Israel relations worsened, so did Turkey’s image in the Israel-friendly mainstream US media. One could indeed easily link the demonisation of Erdogan in the West to his initial public hostility towards Israel and the rise of Islamophobia.

Obama, to no avail

After their initial hesitation in responding to the Arab Spring in 2011, Turkish leaders supported an American-led NATO role in the Middle East along the lines of its 1990s support for democracy in Eastern Europe (PDF).

But that wasn’t on the agenda of the Obama administration, which hoped to extricate itself militarily from the Middle East.

OPINION: People defeated the coup in Turkey

Turkey’s frustration with Washington grew from one year to the next. While both sides agreed that Assad must go, they disagreed on how it would happen, with the Obama administration rejecting Ankara’s suggestions for a bolder, more decisive role in Syria and beyond.

In 2012, Obama turned down any appeal for a military intervention in Syria and even after Assad crossed “Obama’s redline” and used chemical weapons against his people, the US president backed away from his threat to use military force in favour of a Russian-brokered diplomatic solution.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and the US President Barack Obama [Reuters]
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and the US President Barack Obama [Reuters]

When the flux of Syrian refugees to neighbouring countries proliferated, Obama rejected Turkey’s suggestion for a humanitarian intervention in Syria and the imposition of a no-fly zone in northern Syria to accommodate fleeing Syrian refugees from the war.

To Turkey’s ire, Obama rejected the proposal for a “terror-free zone” on the Syrian side of the Turkish border and instead supported a Kurdish drive against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). “How can we trust you?” Erdogan asked one Obama envoy. “Who is your partner – is it me or those terrorists in Kobane?”

By autumn 2015, after three years of destruction and more than 300,000 Syrian deaths, Russia took advantage of the US hesitation to intervene militarily, ending Turkey’s dim hopes, and creating a whole new nightmare on its southern borders.

Resolving differences

It’s clear that Obama and Erdogan have had differences on Syria, Egypt, Israel and the rest of the region.

From the outset, while Obama hoped to downsize US military commitments in the region, Erdogan was hoping to expand Turkey’s influence and prestige.

And even when the region descended into chaos, Obama avoided grand military commitments in the Middle East and instead focused narrowly on the “terror threats”.

But Erdogan believes Turkey has a national and historic responsibility to act when regional turmoil is harming its own security and the Middle East’s long-term stability.

OPINION: The strategic consequences of Turkey’s failed coup

And yet, despite their differences and in spite of Erdogan’s apprehension, Turkey has – mostly – refrained from acting unilaterally in Syria or elsewhere.

And in order to stay in tune with Washington’s strategy of conflict containment and resolution through diplomatic means, Erdogan tried to repair Turkey’s damaged relationship with Russia and Israel.

Ankara and Washington might disagree on a whole number of issues concerning human rights, democracy and the rule of law that are political in nature, yet they continue to share important strategic interests.


Surrounded by unfriendly, even hostile regimes in Russia, Iran, Israel, Egypt and Syria, Turkey is in need of NATO’s backing, and it has long chosen to coordinate its regional strategy with the US-led alliance.

Likewise, the US needs Turkey as a strategic buffer between Russia and the Middle East, just as Europe needs it as a shield against the spillover of instability from the east.

The coming months will reveal whether their political divergences will trump Turkish-American strategic interests. I doubt it.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. Follow him on Facebook.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.