Two weeks ago a small procession of U.S. officials arrived in Ankara for talks with Turkish politicians. Despite the fervent attention given to the meetings, the only concrete result seems to have been a direct dialogue mechanism, to be initiated in the coming month, aimed at ameliorating communication difficulties between the two sides.
Other than that one development, other affairs seem to be proceeding as they have for the past four years. On a daily basis Turkish officials criticize U.S. cooperation with the PYD/PKK, and on the same daily basis U.S. officials fudge, evade, and obfuscate the American relationship with that same organization, which is designated “terrorist” by the U.S.’s own institutions.
Other U.S. officials, and even the CIA, have acknowledged the simple reality that the PYD is a branch of the PKK. But U.S. spokespersons, or yet other U.S. officials, feign shock, even anger, when Turkish officials criticize the U.S. alliance with the PYD/PKK, and they make exasperated sounds as Turkish public anger towards the U.S. mounts, and as Turkish distrust of U.S. intentions deepens. They blame the Turkish press or other straw men for results that clearly and unmistakably stem from their own misguided policies.
The PYD/PKK are a threat to Turkish territorial integrity
The U.S. decision to cooperate, then form a working, military relationship with the PYD/PKK dates back to late 2014. That was during the infamous Daesh (ISIS) assault on Rojava, a north Syrian region that borders Turkey, when the Turkish government went so far as to allow the northern Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s armed militiamen to cross Turkish territory and enter Rojava.
What Obama administration officials did not understand -- and realistically how could they, when a 30-something aspiring novelist (Ben Rhodes) was President Obama’s primary foreign policy advisor? -- was that forming a relationship with the PYD/PKK would undermine one of the Turkish-American alliance’s cornerstones.
That fundamental base is Turkey’s traditional need for what some political scientists would call an “offshore balancer.” From the late 19th century on, a key concern for first Ottoman, then Turkish Republic officials was the search for a Great Power ally that could both provide a bulwark against existing direct threats to Ottoman or Turkish sovereignty and not, at the same time, constitute an additional threat.
Turkey finally found that ally in the U.S. during WWII. U.S. officials, for their part, were not convinced until 1946, when they decided that the USSR could not be trusted and that a long-term political struggle with the Soviets was at hand. Turkey, which bordered the USSR, provided a frontline ally; meanwhile the U.S. would shore up and modernize Turkey’s dilapidated military. Even though the U.S. had large numbers of soldiers and officials in Turkey for the duration of the Cold War, the USSR’s much greater threat and the obvious mutual benefits assuaged any Turkish concerns.
That situation did not change after the Cold War’s conclusion. Even though Russia was momentarily weakened, the previous 300 years had well illustrated that Russia would remain a long-term threat to Turkish sovereignty. And as the U.S. became more deeply embroiled in regional conflicts, its facilities in Turkey continued to be vital.
The 2014 turning point
Since late 2014, however, this situation has changed. There is no question that the Russian threat remains, especially with the presence Moscow has now established in war-torn Syria (enabled by the Obama administration’s inaction). But the Obama administration’s choice to ally itself with the PYD/PKK meant allying with a force that bases its raison d’être on threatening Turkish territorial integrity. In other words, the Obama administration chose to support a threat to Turkish sovereignty.
From the Turkish standpoint, the U.S. partnership with the PYD/PKK instantly weakens the rationale for maintaining a strategic relationship with Washington because the U.S. has opted, in fact, to become a strategic threat. Divining exactly how the U.S. fell into such a blunder will be a question for historians, but for now we can guess that a combination of uninformed, misinformed, and short-sighted (even myopic) policy formulation, plus a determined unwillingness to trust the U.S.’s own regional allies (namely Turkey) were main elements which swerved the U.S. off track.
Gulen also a threat to Turkish sovereignty
Unfortunately, the U.S.’s ill-chosen alliance with the PKK is not the only issue. After December 2013, anyone who cared to approach Turkish domestic politics with a rational and objective eye understood that Fetullah Gulen’s cult had become a threat to Turkish democracy. The defeated coup attempt of July 2016 added violence and murder to the already evident threat as Gulen’s acolytes used branches of the Turkish military to carry out the attempted coup. In other words, Gulen’s organization has to be understood as a direct, violent threat to Turkish society and its democratically-elected political leadership.
As everyone is aware, Gulen has resided in the U.S. since 1999. This means that, in addition to cooperating with the PKK/PYD, one threat to Turkish sovereignty, the U.S. harbors another threat to Turkish sovereignty; Gulen. And the U.S. has made no concrete steps to extradite Gulen to Turkey despite that reality.
There is yet a further logical dimension to this issue. If the U.S. cooperates with one threat to Turkish sovereignty, and harbors another, then doesn’t the U.S. military presence in Turkey begin to loom as a potential threat? I, personally, would like to argue that it does not, but I am not a Turkish politician responsible for the lives and well-being of my constituents and voters. For Turkish officials, civilian and military, events in the past five years have greatly complicated the manner in which they view the U.S. military presence in the country.
The logic of recent events and possible future contingencies, if one can adopt the perspective of Turkish officials for a moment, leads to the conclusion that U.S. forces stationed in Turkey pose a threat to Turkish sovereignty. That means the situation that had existed for the previous 70 years, that U.S. forces were understood as guarantors of Turkish sovereignty, has fundamentally changed. When one reaches this conclusion, and truly understands the events and logic that lead to such a conclusion, then one should more readily understand why Turkish politicians (and citizens) have begun to distrust the U.S. in a more profound manner, and to express animated, even angry responses to recent U.S. actions.
Changing strategic perspective
If the U.S poses a direct threat to Turkish sovereignty through both the PYD/PKK and through Fetullah Gulen’s cult, then the U.S. is no longer the “offshore balancer” that Turkey found seventy-five years ago. Instead, the U.S. appears to have crossed into the same “direct threat” category that Britain and France held in the 19th century, and that Russia has been for 300 years. Those actors were busily engaged in breaking off pieces of the Ottoman Empire.
If the U.S. supports an armed militant group which also wants to break off pieces of the Turkish Republic, and harbors a religious organization that has already attempted to violently assert power over Turkish state institutions, U.S. officials should understand that, in Turkish eyes, they are no different than the 19th-century British and French, or the Russians. Thus Turkish policy-makers, who are responsible to their citizens as democratically elected representatives, will begin looking for another “offshore balancer,” or they will take matters into their own hands.
An example is an effort pressed for the past decade by the Turkish state, to become more self-sufficient in modern weapons development. Just last week the Turkish Armed Forces announced the imminent use of armed, driverless land vehicles in the effort to drive the PYD/PKK from Afrin.
Since the 19th century, the Ottoman and Turkish states had been largely dependent on foreign allies for not just weapons, but even tactical training of the military officers. The recent campaigns, both Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch, have featured advanced weapons, such as armed drones, that are almost entirely the product of Turkish research and development.
But even more importantly, the campaigns themselves have been carefully planned and executed offensives that have not only been highly effective, but have also featured few civilian casualties. That is, Turkish military planners and officers have developed capacities in contra-guerilla warfare, even urban warfare, that the U.S. has yet to exhibit. And after the fighting is over, Turkish aid workers quickly move in to help the local inhabitants begin rebuilding their lives and communities. Overall, Turkish dependence on foreign military weapons, technology, and tactics is quickly waning.
What I want to emphasize here is that the U.S. administrations, both current and former, have chosen this path, and made decisions that pushed Turkish civilian and military officials to move in this direction. If U.S. officials want to convince Turkish citizens and politicians that the U.S. can still be trusted, and that the U.S. does not pose a direct threat to Turkish sovereignty, then they must embrace different decisions and different actions.
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