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The US and Turkey Relations: Return to Cold War 


With US President Joe Biden in the White House, Turkey and US relations deserve a new definition. Indeed, Recep T. Erdoğan made this new definition with a Turkish idiom: “The affairs look bleak.”  In Turkish, this idiom indicates that bad things are being prepared. Bleak affairs express a cold war in which bad things are happening in the background.

Finding the historical background and roots of Erdogan’s new policy that has grown against the United States, will help us understand what Erdogan has been planning to do.

One of the political legacies that Turkey inherited from the Ottoman Empire was the balance of power. The balance of power policy had started with the occupation of Egypt by France (1798) and had become permanent with the invasion of Crimea by Russia (1853). Once the Turkish military forces were not enough to protect their territorial integrity, Turks had tried to protect the ownership of their land by forming an alliance with one of the conflicting Western countries.

Turkey’s alliance with the US is also the result of seeking a balance of power against the Soviet threat. Turkey’s alignment to the United States, which started in 1945 with Stalin’s land request from Turkey as well as the establishment of some military bases in the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, turned into a strategic alliance with its membership of NATO in 1952.

Even though this strategic alliance with the US was paused for a short amount of time due to the Cyprus issue, it was always sustained. Turkey did not seek a balance of power against the USA. This alliance concept, established in 1945, did not change even in the first decade of Erdoğan’s rule. On the contrary, it gained depth. So much so that once Barack Obama was elected as president, his first overseas trip was to Turkey in 2009. With this, the strategic partnership between Turkey and the United States had reached its summit.

The break with the US and the pursuit for balance

Soon afterward, the US and Turkey alliance would begin to decline rapidly, as fast as the descent begins after the summit. This was because Erdogan started using the credibility of the alliance as a cover for the biggest corruption in Turkey’s history. 

In return for tens of millions of dollars in bribes, the Erdogan administration violated the US sanctions on Iran by state instruments such as state banks. It was a crime. Therefore, Erdogan began to consider the United States a threat to his personality and power. This perception was not due to any action by the US against Erdogan or Turkey. On the contrary, Erdogan had sought ways to obtain protection against the US before the US reaction would emerge due to the possible consequences of his crime. 

Nevertheless, Erdogan has believed that Gezi Park Protests in June 2013, then the 17/25 December 2013 Graft Operations were organized by the US-backed people in Turkey against him and his government. Therefore, Erdoğan had revived the balance of power policy that was forgotten in the dusty shelves of history and sought ways to use it against the imaginary threat of the US. He was willing to break off Turkey’s historical ally to save himself.

It is possible that Erdogan had tried to revitalize neo-Ottomanism because of the goal of achieving the balance of power. The revitalization of Neo-Ottomanism could give him opportunities to use the tools of Ottomanism policy, including the balance of power again. Thus, Turkey’s zero-problem policy with her neighbors would be replaced by the aggressiveness of the Neo-Ottomanist policies. But there was one fact that he overlooked. Just as the Ottomanism policy had failed, the Neo-Ottomanism policy had no chance of success. But Neo-Ottomanism was set to be the stepping milestone of a new paradigm.

Turkey’s attempt to buy a new air defense system from China was his first test to measure the US reaction. It was his pursuit of a balance of power. Although China won the tender in 2013, this project was shelved in 2015 due to the responses from the USA and NATO.

But the arrest of Reza Zarrab, who had bribed Erdogan’s government to violate the embargo on Iran in March 2016 in the US, was the start of sleepless nights for Erdogan. So much so that Erdogan, in order to the extradition of Zarrab, had broken new ground in Turkey’s history and had issued diplomatic NOTE to the US twice. Issuing diplomatic NOTE to the US was the harbinger of a new policy.

15 July 2016: The Second Bay of Pigs Invasion 

What exactly happened on the night of July 15, 2016, has not been clarified yet. On the one hand, Erdogan started imposing his new discourse for the US, NATO members, and others right after the so-called coup attempt, and on the other hand, there is the strange silence of the US and NATO to this. This weak reaction of the US and other NATO members to Turkey’s rapid drifting from NATO values as well as the gutting of one of the largest armies of NATO, is very curious, to say the least. 

Erdogan had undoubtedly thought that the  so-called July 15th coup attempt, which he successfully turned into a counter-coup, was planned by the US. According to him, the July 15 was the Second Bay of Pigs Invasion, which was repulsed by Erdogan. Erdogan government’s Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu, had expressed this opinion clearly. This situation increased Erdogan’s paranoia to new heights forcing him to put the Russia card on the table as a balance against the US.

The so-called coup attempt of 2015 carried the hostility against the US to an all time high. Erdogan, as a response to the graft operations of 2013, formed an unholy alliance with the Eurasianist/Ultra-nationalist Faction (called Ergenekon) of the Turkish Armed Forces in early 2014. They successfully turned the so-called coup attempt into a bloody counter-coup against the pro-NATO soldiers of the Turkish Armed Forces on July 15th. 

From the balance of power to cold war

The Presidency of Donald Trump, which began in 2017, had given Erdogan extraordinary opportunities to set his new game plan. Trump’s four years in the White House was a period that saw Erdogan succeeding in establishing and institutionalizing strategic relations with Russia as a counterbalance to the United States. Erdogan, who had bought the S-400 defense missiles from Russia in the first year of the Trump administration, had built a new balance of power by the alliance with Russia to the imaginary US threat, just like Fidel Castro did in the 60s.

Fidel Castro came to power  by overthrowing Fulgencio Batista, who was cooperating with the US. The United States support of the overthrowing of the left-wing government in Guatemala caused Castro to be very worried about the US, 

By the 1960s, these concerns had prompted Castro to seek further USSR support. After the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, Soviet nuclear missiles were placed in Cuba with Khrushchev’s proposal. Thus, one of the most dangerous crises of the Cold War had emerged.

Erdogan’s reaction to the overthrow of the Islamist Mohammed Morsi government with a coup in 2013 was similar to Castro’s reaction to overthrowing of the government in Guatemala. Erdogan had certainly compared the July 15th coup attempt to the Bay of Pigs landing. Castro’s response to the United States was the buying of nuclear missiles from Khrushchev. Erdogan’s answer was to buy the S-400 defense missiles from Putin. The atmosphere of a new cold war, which was constructed by Erdogan, on the one hand, had provided a shield for himself and his government; on the other hand, he had known that this move would weaken NATO. Thus, an important step was taken that would cause the brain death of NATO.

The US reinforced the atmosphere of the new Cold War by imposing the CAATSA sanctions on NATO Ally Turkey into effect on 6 April 2021. I believe that this pleased Erdogan since he actually preferred the reinforcement of the cold war atmosphere.

Another area of change where this new cold war can be observed is Erdogan’s Syria policy. Erdogan was initially supportive of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) composed primarily of Kurds and militarily led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish Military Force, as the US wanted in the fight against ISIS. In fact, the transition of YPG militants to Northern Syria had taken place with the help of the Erdogan government itself. YPG militants had crossed from Northern Iraq to Northern Syria via Turkey and under the control of the Turkish Armed Forces. 

The Democratic Union  Party (PYD) which was established as a Syrian branch of Kurdish Worker Party (PKK), former Co-Leader Salih Muslim had made several official visits to Ankara and was welcomed on the red carpets. However, after Erdogan’s exchanging his pro-western allies with Ergenekon, the YPG like the PYD and its leaders was defined as an enemy as bad as PKK. Now, Erdogan is also pressing the US as a NATO ally to consider the Syrian Kurds as terrorists and enemies as well. So much so that the weapons and arsenal given by the USA to the SDF, pro-government media had described as the US’ battle readiness for the invasion of Turkey.

The issue of Fethullah Gülen is a complete mystery. Erdogan was supported by Gülen during the first decade of his rule. Gülen had said that his support was not to Erdoğan but was to the reforms for Turkey’s becoming EU membership. Afterward, Erdogan had launched a huge defamation campaign against Gülen. Because four ministers of his cabinet, his son, and some of his relatives had been caught on the corruption and bribery by linked with Gülen movement prosecutors and officers. Therefore Erdogan had made a decision and allied himself with Ergenekon against Gulen and Pro-western people.  In early 2014, Erdoğan had released from jail imprisoned Ergenokon cadres.  

Turkey’s axis shift had also begun at this point. Pro-Western cadres were replaced with pro-Russian and pro-Chinese Ergenekon members, who became Erdogan’s new allies. Erdogan’s purge that started at the end of 2013, had turned into a witch hunt after July 15, 2016, with Ergenekon’s support. It is a complete irony that they had demanded Gülen from the USA, claiming that the 15 July was orchestrated by a US-led consortium, including Fethullah Gülen. Since Erdogan could not produce a legal document for the extradition process, the US has not extradited him to Turkey. Despite this, his rhetoric continues. 

One of the main points of Erdogan’s cold war with the United States was his attacks on the European Union through Greece. The purpose of NATO is to protect Europe from attacks. Now a NATO member, Turkey, emerges to open a new front against the EU through Greece. Sending migrants to the Greece border and building the so-called Blue Homeland doctrine in the Eastern Mediterranean were an attack on NATO members. Similarly, the head of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, who is now an Erdoğan ally, has gone so far as to claim some of the Greek lands as part of Turkey. During the Trump administration, the United States did not seem as eager to protect Europe as it used to do. 

This situation not only forced the EU to develop its own security tools but also caused weakness in NATO and the US leadership. I believe that these circumstances accelerated the establishment of a new EU permanent defense force called PESCO (The establishment of the Permanent Structured Cooperation) by 25 EU members in 2017. Therefore, the agreement of Germany, France, and Spain to develop a new generation fighter aircraft that will cost approximately 100 billion Euros makes the importance of PESCO even more understandable. 

Former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen had said that PESCO could be an alternative to NATO. It should not be forgotten that the ​​PESCO project was cooked up by Germany and France. Accordingly, Italian Defense Minister Roberto Pinott talked about fighting more effectively with PESCO against the threats brought by the 21st century, while another signatory, Cyprus Defense Minister Kristoporos Fokaides stated that his country would become more secure with PESCO. The question is, who is threatening Cyprus? 

These statements indicate the tendency to shift initiative from NATO to PESCO along with defense and security. These indicators certainly mean a big blow to the established hegemony of the US. No one doubts that Turkey, or rather Erdogan, is responsible for this new paradigm, which also means the weakening of European support for the US’s struggle with China.  Indeed Turkey is seen as the Trojan horse of Russia and/or China within NATO. Such suspicions about Turkey may cause the cold war with the USA to spread to the EU as well.

Erdogan’s alliance with Russia and his aggressive attitudes towards the EU had accelerated the establishment of an extraordinary alliance between the USA and Greece. Therefore, Erdogan did not hesitate to express his discomfort out loud about the US Military bases in Greece:  “I couldn’t count the US military bases in Greece even. Greece, as a whole, has turned into a U.S. military base.” Erdogan had asked the critical question to the US that indicates cold winds between the USA and Turkey: “Why is that all being done now?”   

Cold Winds of the Cold War

After Joe Biden took over the Presidency on January 6, 2021, he did not respond to Erdogan’s congratulatory messages for four months. Biden’s eventual response was a very cold one. While responding to Erdogan’s congratulations on April 23, he said that he would acknowledge the historic Armenian Genocide. Then, a bilateral of the US and Turkey at the NATO Summit on 14 June 2021 did not yield any results on the issue. Erdogan, who went to New York for a UN meeting at the end of September but could not meet Biden, had released the name of this new cold war with the US:  “As two NATO countries affairs look bleak.”

The Osman Kavala statement, which was published recently by Ambassadors via Twitter, had demonstrated that Erdogan is not willing to amend his bleak affairs with the United States. The document, which was signed by Germany, Denmark, Finland, France, Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, Norway, and New Zealand Embassies with the leadership of the US Embassy in Ankara, had demanded the release of Osman Kavala. This request increased the intensity of the cold winds. Ten countries’ request for justice only for Osman Kavala, not also for the 50,000 or so political prisoners in Turkey, only increased Erdogan’s paranoia. 

I believe that Erdogan’s Cold War with Biden will continue with great patience until the 2024 Presidential Elections, with the hope that Trump will return to the White House. Till Trump win, Erdogan will try to preoccupy with Biden and NATO members’ leaders.

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