The stakes are high in safeguarding the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. This week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is in Washington for talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Turkey, for decades, has been strategically important to the United States, and their geographic location has been a critical factor for basing American troops and military aircraft for many past and current military operations. They are also an important member of NATO.
In recent years, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has taken a harder stance against the U.S. and the West as he has slowly drifted Turkey away from the western oriented, secular and democratic society that Mustafa Ataturk initiated in 1923. Ataturk was the founder and first president of the republic of Turkey and brought secularism to Turkey after centuries of Muslim Ottoman rule. Erdogan’s recent actions seem intent on reversing modern Turkish history and returning the country to an Islamist ruled society.
The relationship has been complicated by the U.S. support of Kurdish militias in Syria that Turkey has openly protested. The U.S., in turn, has expressed concern for Turkey’s alliance with historic foe, Russia and their pending purchase of the S-400 surface to air missile batteries from the Russians. NATO countries are concerned because the S-400 will not integrate into existing NATO weapon systems. The eroding of relations with the U.S. poses the greatest risk to our historic military strategic alliance as Turkey has been a dependable military partner in the War on Terror and many other military operations.
A recent article in The Cipher Brief by James Jeffery, former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, points out the seriousness of this week’s discussions. Jeffery says, “The stakes are immense. It is hard to see the U.S. containing Iran without Turkey. Turkey also hosts the NATO radar system essential for NATO’s missile defense against Iran. Over a huge region, in NATO’s Afghanistan and Balkan operations, in Ukraine, in the Caucasus, and along the Syrian border, where millions of refugees that would otherwise flood Europe are hosted, Turkey’s roles are significant. Nestled between hostile Russia, Syria and Iran, it enables U.S. land, air, and sea power projection into the northern Middle East, Black Sea, and Caucasus. While Turkey often demands a role in decisions involving U.S. operations, the reality is that from the fight against ISIS, to the Kosovo war, to the 2008 Georgian conflict and Afghanistan operations, it has decisively supported U.S. actions.”
Jeffrey also rightly points out the importance that Turkey has played in Eurasia and the Middle East as it represents the most stable example of democracy in a largely unstable region of the world. He states, that “despite current financial difficulties, Turkey is one of the top 20 global economies, has the second largest military in NATO, and is by regional standards, stable and democratic. It is not a partner one can easily ignore.”
We need Turkey on our side- militarily and politically- and Turkey needs the west, most importantly for the stability of the Middle East. It would be in the best interests of both countries and NATO to focus on our historic relationship and current regional and international challenges that Turkey, the United States and NATO share. We must, together, define the dangers of living against each other if we choose the path of severing our longstanding ties. This should demonstrate that there is no option but cooperation.