US Needs to Get Real on Troubled Turkey

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Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman are former U.S. Ambassadors to Turkey and co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Turkey Initiative. Blaise Misztal is acting director of foreign policy at the BPC.

Since its genesis in the Cold War, Turkey’s relationship with the United States has evolved, even as Turkey itself has evolved too. Once in constant need of foreign aid for development and to fend off Soviet encroachment, Turkey rose to become the world’s 17th-largest economy, a developing democracy, and a strong military ally and NATO member. Over the past decade, the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Edroğan, has contributed to Turkey’s economic growth, impressively expanded the country’s trade, and—in marked a departure the three coup d’états that marred Turkey’s post-World War II experience—overseen a period of stability. As a result, Turkey has sought a stronger position in the Middle East, a role that U.S. and European policymakers have not been adverse to.

More recently, however, Turkey’s development has taken a step backward. Abroad, Ankara and Washington have been unable to find common ground, even on issues in which both sides profess to share similar interests and goals. For example, the three-year-old region-wide political upheaval has raised concerns in both Ankara and Washington about spreading political violence and humanitarian crises. But each government has pursued its own course (or in Turkey’s case, multiple courses) and suffered setbacks without a concerted attempt to coordinate efforts. Worse, the government’s response to political crises—mass protests last summer and recent corruption charges—has revealed an authoritarian bent that is destabilizing the country, polarizing Turkish society, and weakening the economy. The United States will have to modulate its approach to Turkey accordingly.

This is not the first time that Washington and Ankara have faced turbulence in their relationship. Certainly the Iraq War was an occasion for considerable mutual disappointment, for example. But ties can be reforged as they have been in the past. Indeed, they should be. Not only do the United States and Turkey face similar challenges in the restive Middle East, but also no other country in the region can potentially play as a constructive a role as Turkey.

Doing so, however, will require a new approach that places a higher value on unvarnished honesty. The U.S.-Turkish relationship has come to be defined by a rhetoric of mutual admiration that obscures the divergence between the two countries and the realities that drive it. One of these realities is that the AKP government’s increasingly sectarian and authoritarian domestic policies are reducing the affinity between the two sides. Already, those same policies are beginning to diminish Turkey’s affluence, political stability, and even its democracy, with negative outcomes for its wider regional influence.

To rebuild a more constructive partnership with Ankara, Washington should, at the very least, control its knee jerk instinct to praise Turkey at every opportunity. Better yet, U.S. policymakers should be honest about their concerns regarding the direction of Turkey’s democracy and begin spending more time, effort, and political capital on Turkey’s domestic scene, which has been long neglected as secondary to foreign policy and security issues. With three elections looming in the next year and a half, this is a critical moment for determining Turkey’s future trajectory. Foreign policy issues, however, cannot be ignored during this time; Turkey will only stop supporting authoritarian and sectarian movements abroad, and U.S.-Turkish cooperation in the Middle East will only be restored, once those same traits stop defining its own politics.

Foreign Policy

For the first eighty years of its existence, the Turkish Republic’s Western focus and desire to avoid entanglements in the former Ottoman provinces of the Middle East mostly defined its foreign policy. While the AKP continued the  bureaucratic elites’ courting of the European Union, it shifted Turkey’s foreign policy focus back toward the Middle East and the Muslim world more broadly, seeking to establish itself as a major player in both domains.

The focus on the Middle East has been one of the few constants in the AKP’s foreign policy, and from 2007 until recently that focus had a name: “zero problems with neighbors.” This policy, advanced by Ahmet Davutoğlu, who served first as a foreign policy adviser to the Prime Minister and now as the Foreign Minister, sought greater engagement and improved relations with its southern and eastern neighbors.

Syria, a country with which Turkey almost went to war in 1998, came to be what one expert called “the model success story for [Turkey’s] improved foreign policy.” Turkey also courted other rogue actors—Hamas and Sudan, for example—while assuring its Western interlocutors that it would gain the benign influence they lacked with these regimes.Similarly, the AKP leadership initially saw the Islamic Republic of Iran as another potential partner. In 2009, Erdoğan was among the first to congratulate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his fraudulent reelection. Ankara subsequently refused to take a stand on Iran’s suppression of the Green Movement, repeatedly affirming Turkey’s desire not to intervene in Iran’s domestic affairs. The next year, Turkey, together with Brazil, sought and failed to broker a deal with Iran on its nuclear program.

Motivated both by its new foreign policy outlook, the perceived threat of Iraqi Kurdish autonomy, and fears of Shi’i Iran controlling Iraq, Turkey cultivated closer bilateral ties with Baghdad, establishing in 2009 the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. At the same time, Turkey reached out to the Kurds of northern Iraq. After a long history of hostility toward Iraqi Kurds, Ankara saw great economic opportunities there and worked to establish the same economic interdependence with Erbil as it was pursuing with Baghdad. Although this policy contributes to the weakness of the Iraqi central government, it has allowed Turkey to reap the economic and energy benefits of a close partnership with this dynamic region.

Amid this new policy of positive outreach to its neighbors, the one relationship that suffered was that with Israel. Beginning in 2008 with Turkish anger about not being warned about the imminent Israeli Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and continuing with a public disagreement between Erdoğan and Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2009, relations worsened until they were officially cut off by Ankara following the attempt by private Turkish ships to run Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, in which Israeli soldiers killed nine Turks.

Despite some initial success, however, the AKP’s foreign policy overtures soon foundered in the face of the popular unrest that seized the region beginning in 2011. The shortcomings of Turkey’s “zero problems” approach became abundantly obvious by the sudden chasm that opened between the regimes Turkey had courted and the people of the countries they ruled. Turkey faced a choice between maintaining the friendships Erdoğan had developed—often through intense personal diplomacy—and risk losing its regional stature, or adapt its foreign policy to the changing political landscape. The AKP pivoted to supporting new political movements emerging from the political upheavals that surrounded it, and the allies it chose were its ideological brethren: the Sunni Muslim Brotherhoods in the region.

Egypt was easy. Relations with Cairo had not been a priority for the AKP, and the fall of Mubarak would most likely bring to power well-organized fellow Islamists. When it came to Libya, however, Ankara’s decision proved harder. Largely because of significant private investments, and perhaps his being awarded the 2010 Al-Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, Erdoğan initially opposed U.N. sanctions on the Qaddafi regime and rejected calls for NATO involvement in the developing civil war. Eventually, he relented, approved the NATO operation and called for Qaddafi’s resignation.

The fatal blow to the “zero problems” policy came in Syria. By convincing Bashir al-Assad to address protestors’ concerns, Erdoğan calculated that Turkey would keep a friend in power, help the Syrian people and demonstrate regional leadership. Erdoğan clearly overestimated his personal clout in Damascus. Despite Davutoğlu’s frequent visits and Erdoğan’s exhortations Assad ignored Turkish advice. Worse, Iran’s unconditional support for the Syrian regime increasingly ran afoul of Turkish efforts.

With its claims to regional influence deflated and the region’s problems multiplying, Erdoğan shifted to stand with the people opposing autocratic rule. But he kept an eye still on the mantle of regional leadership. Expecting international consensus to coalesce around intervention in Syria, just as it had done in Libya, Turkey resolved not to be late to the table again. Encouraged by U.S. and Western high-level statements demanding Assad’s ouster, Turkey was an early advocate of the use of force in pursuit of that end. It did not rule out its own participation and, considering Turkey’s power and location, Ankara clearly suggested a willingness to put real skin in the game.

Though the military campaign Ankara anticipated never materialized on account of Washington’s opposition to it, its commitment to ousting Assad and supporting certain elements of the Syrian opposition has since come to define its foreign policy toward the rest of the region. In Syria, Ankara advanced the cause of the Sunni groups, ultimately including al-Qaeda-linked extremists, at the expense of minority groups. This, in part, followed from the failure of the United States to lead the use force to depose Assad. But it was also a decision driven by one of Turkey’s overriding geopolitical priorities: limiting the emergence of autonomous Kurdish political entities. By supporting Sunni, pan-Syrian opposition groups, Turkey sought out forces that would limit the political authority accorded to Syria’s Kurds in any post-Assad settlement.

The sectarian bent of its Syrian policy was no aberration. Turkish foreign policy in the aftermath of the Arab upheavals effectively became one of support for Sunni groups and various iterations of the Muslim Brotherhood—in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Gaza—casting it as an increasingly Sunni-aligned sectarian force. This sectarian swerve damaged Turkey’s ties with Iran and Iraq’s central governments, key regional actors the AKP had previously cultivated. Nevertheless, the AKP fully committed to its new sectarian policy, positioning itself as a “source of inspiration” for the Sunni religious organizations seeking to claim power in their countries. And when, Turkey hoped, the same political wave that carried the Muslim Brotherhood to victory in Egypt brought its other Sunni allies to power, Ankara would have a network of client states in the region.

But just as “zero problems” did not give Turkey the influence it sought, its sectarian turn likewise yielded few benefits. Turkey’s ability to influence the course of the Syrian revolution and the formation of any post-Assad political configuration has diminished. Similarly, Erdoğan’s dedicated support for the ousted Brotherhood government in Egypt squandered whatever limited political capital Turkey may have had there. Meanwhile, due to competition from the Saudis and other Gulf states, Turkey has little sway in countries where the Brotherhood lacks a strong presence. And its relations with the largest non-Arab state in the region, Iran, remain strained. Ankara managed to go from “zero problems” in the region to “zero friends” in the space of less than three years. That record puts into some perspective Ankara’s very limited rapprochement with Israel in recent months.

Despite the foul fallout from its sectarian swerve, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu reject responsibility for any difficulties Turkey has encountered and admit no mistakes. Davutoğlu has asserted that Turkey “never abandoned the zero problems policy” and that the policy is both “dynamic” and “an expression of will.” Likewise, Erdoğan’s foreign policy adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, has tried to have it both ways, simultaneously extolling Turkey’s “precious loneliness” while asserting that “Turkey is not alone in its region or in global politics.”

But increasingly Turkey does stand alone. Even if Turkish leaders will not publicly acknowledge as much, recent actions suggest that they recognize and have become alarmed by their regional isolation. Ankara is now trying to mend fences with the central government of Iraq, Iran and Egypt, is embarking on new openings to Cyprus and Armenia, and is toning down its opposition to Assad.

Turkish leaders recently welcomed Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Ankara, (he is a Kurd), followed by a trip by Foreign Minister Davutoğlu to Baghdad. During his visit, Davutoğlu called for a “fresh start” in relations, as well as greater collaboration over the Syrian conflict. But it remains an open question how far normalization can go given still deepening Turkish ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Turkey’s stated objective of importing Kurdish oil in defiance of Baghdad and, for what it may be worth, the United States. The Turkish government denies that these developments indicate any shift in policy toward Iraq. Davutoğlu said, “There is no need to discuss why relations were on the backburner. It is important to understand the rhythm of relations. It can be said that we are opening a blank page.”

The rhythm of Turkey’s relations with Iran and Egypt has also changed. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Turkey and met with Davutoğlu, who announced after their meeting that Turkey and Iran were ready to diffuse ethnic and sectarian tensions in the region and would not let their disagreements over Syria spoil the relationship. These are fine words, probably signifying nothing practical. Even finer words were spoken by Erdoğan on a recent trip to Iran, which he described as his “second home.”

In Egypt, Turkey has toned down its harsh rhetoric against the July 3 coup and reopened its envoy office in Cairo. Davutoğlu asserted that, contrary to Turkey’s previous statements about the unacceptability of the coup, “individuals are not important for Turkey. The Egyptian people have to decide, on their own, whether Morsi was right or wrong, not the army, Turkey or any other country.” But Egypt’s recent decision to expel Turkey’s Ambassador and Erdoğan’s salvos against the new Egyptian government show that relations are not likely get back on track anytime soon.

Despite the AKP’s desire for regional leadership, its foreign policy has remained one step behind quickly evolving events in the Middle East. Whether in backing NATO intervention in Libya or coming to terms with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster in Egypt, Ankara’s policies have been slow to catch up to regional dynamics. On the few occasions when Turkey sought to shape events, it quickly faced limitations to its influence. It could convince neither Assad to meet protestors’ demands nor the Muslim Brotherhood to moderate its governing style, ultimately causing a loss of standing in both Syria and Egypt. As long as Turkish foreign policy remains reactive, it seems doomed to stay on the roller-coaster trajectory it has followed over the past decade. Its latest policy shift back to “zero problems” will not escape this trend.

Turkey’s Domestic Situation

Turkey’s lackluster foreign policy record is beginning to affect its domestic situation, too, just as the AKP’s domestic policies are undermining Turkey’s source of regional influence. The AKP came to power more than a decade ago promising to complete Turkey’s unfinished modernization. During its first term, it largely lived up to this rhetoric, leading an extended period of high growth, broadening minority rights, and ending the military’s outsized political influence. Recently, however, Turkey’s reforms, European integration efforts and economic growth have slowed considerably. At the same time, the AKP’s expanding Islamist domestic political agenda and Erdoğan’s personalist and authoritarian ruling style are deeply polarizing the country and endangering its democracy.

Successive AKP electoral victories led Erdoğan’s to believe he has a mandate to remake Turkey, regardless of strong opposition to his views. From his decisions about urban design to his pronouncements about how Turks should conduct their lives, the Islamic orientation of his political vision has also become more apparent. The Prime Minister’s personal involvement at all levels of policymaking, and his proud but mercurial personality, have encouraged the government to increasingly muzzle any disagreement with its policies. It has sharply reined in press freedom by bringing criminal and civil cases against journalists, harassing media outlets with raids on their offices, charging fines, and placing friendly hands over or temporarily closing newspapers. Turkey now ranks 154th out of 179 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, six spots behind Russia. It has more imprisoned more journalists than any other nation.

Politically motivated harassment, arrests, and convictions have not been limited to the media. The AKP has conducted several large-scale criminal trials for coup plotting—known as “Sledgehammer” and “Ergenekon”—targeting primarily the military, in an effort to diminish its political power in Turkish society and its propensity to intervene in politics. They have led to the arrest, detention, prosecution, and imprisonment of hundreds of high-ranking military officials and AKP critics. While undoubtedly not all involved were innocent, the trials have raised concerns about due process, civil rights, and judicial neutrality.

These increasingly authoritarian tactics have sowed the seeds of dissent. This past May, those seeds blossomed in Gezi Park. Protests initially sparked by the government’s planned razing of this rare green space in Istanbul soon spilled into the adjacent Taksim Square and before long spread to many parts of the country. But rather than calm tensions, Erdoğan chose to rally his sizeable group of core supporters to vilify critics. His combative rhetoric cast the unrest in sectarian terms and himself as the bulwark protecting observant Sunnis from their enemies. Officials have blamed seemingly every ethnic and religious minority within Turkey for having a hand in the protests, not to speak of vaguely defined foreign intrigues. Such narratives have further polarized Turkish society, not simply between secular and religious, but between the conservative Sunnis whose interests the AKP government protects and all other segments of Turkish society who feel their rights are being trampled.

Nothing has demonstrated Erdoğan’s scorched-earth tactics and the resulting polarization better than the struggle between the Prime Minister and his erstwhile allies in the Islamic Gülen movement, which burst into public view last year. Although they had made common cause in eliminating the military from Turkish politics, at the end of last year Erdoğan publicly mulled banning preparatory schools, which constitute an important source of revenue and recruits for the movement. The recent massive corruption probe into the government is being widely interpreted in Turkey as retaliation by the Gülenists, who are well represented within the police and judiciary.

These arrests do more than just expose what one U.S. official reportedly called a “family fight.” The bribes alleged by prosecutors are large, the suspects are close to the Prime Minister, and the alleged graft involved circumventing international sanctions on oil trade with Iran, as well as doing business with known members of al-Qaeda. But the most troubling aspect of the current scandal has nothing to do with either the graft itself or the apparent AKP-Gülenist infighting. Instead, it has been the government’s response.

Rather than clean house and act contrite, Prime Minister Erdoğan has used the current crisis as an opportunity to further strengthen his grip on power. He has reassigned or fired as many as 5,000 police officers and several prosecutors who were involved in the investigation, blocked media from reporting on the cases, sought to push through laws that would place the judiciary under executive control, and blamed foreign forces—singling out the U.S. Ambassador—for concocting the charges.  In a desperate effort to find new allies, Erdoğan has even suggested that he would seek to free jailed military leaders, hypocritically blaming the Gülen movement for having “framed” them.

This strong-handed response and the resulting domestic uncertainty have also served to roil the economy. After nearly a decade of explosive growth, Turkey’s economy has slowed dramatically, though it still performs well compared with most of Europe. It now faces several challenges. The prospect of climbing interest rates in the United States, investors’ worries about the stability of Turkey’s political climate, and Erdoğan’s own tirades against bankers and arbitrary probes into businesses that do not toe the government line are threatening the short-term capital flows that Turkey’s economy depends on and driving up exchange rates. These negative trends are intensifying structural problems—such as the growing current account deficit and foreign indebtedness—that the government has ignored for too long. If Turkey’s economy worsens, it will weaken the government ahead of elections.

The major bright spot in Turkey, the ongoing peace process with the Kurds, also remains politically volatile. The AKP’s laudable effort to end the decades-long conflict with Kurdish militants has created an important opportunity not just for peace, but also for expanded civil and political rights for all of Turkey’s minorities. The package of political reforms introduced by the government in September, although carefully orchestrated to keep this process from failing, has been dismissed by Kurdish representatives as not going far enough and by others as more beneficial to the AKP faithful than to Turkey’s minorities—including Turkey’s increasingly agitated Alevis.  These limited reforms and the inclusion of concessions for its Islamic supporters—such as lifting the ban on headscarves in public institutions—reflect the difficult political choice facing the AKP: Continuing toward peace will anger Turkey’s nationalists, but failing to live up to its agreements could lead to a new wave of Kurdish violence. Erdoğan’s approach appears to be to postpone the Kurdish issue, and this politically difficult choice with it, until after the March municipal elections.

Going into these elections (as well as a presidential contest later in 2014 and parliamentary elections in 2015), the AKP will still probably do well, but after the Taksim protests and the current corruption scandal it certainly looks less invincible. Those who took to the streets last summer appear unable to organize politically to the point of challenging AKP control. But opposition parties, particularly the People’s Republican Party (CHP) founded by Atatürk himself, hope to capture these newly politically active youths.

Any real threat to the AKP’s hold on power, however, is likely to come from within its coalition. Already, a handful of AKP parliamentarians (at least eight) have resigned from the party. If the Prime Minister’s actions continue to alienate members of his own party, and if the Gülenist voting bloc, which is sizeable but difficult to estimate, were to abandon its former ally, Erdoğan’s days might be numbered.

In such an eventuality, the biggest winner could be President Abdullah Gül. Seen as having cozy relations with the Gülen movement, and a rare example of moderation amid the fiery rhetoric that accompanied the Taksim protests, he could be well-positioned to lead the breakaway faction in any internal AKP split. But that soft-spokenness also suggests that Gül might not have the strength or wherewithal to stand up to Erdoğan, with whom he founded the AKP. Thus Turkey’s biggest political fireworks are likely to come later this year, when Erdoğan must decide whether to run for President, potentially setting up a struggle between the two.

More than political intrigue is at stake. Turkey is approaching an inflection point. On one side lies the chance to finally address some of the republic’s remaining democratic deficits that have been made even starker by recent political protests. The alternative is for Turkey to fall victim to some of its unresolved social tensions, potentially destabilizing the country and setting back its political and economic progress as well as its aspirations for regional influence. The next 18 months will decide not just Erdoğan’s political fate but Turkey’s future trajectory.

Although an unpredictable Turkish foreign policy has for some years been an obstacle to greater U.S.-Turkish cooperation, Turkey’s current position constitutes an obstacle of a different kind: Ankara has little political capital left to expend on influencing events in the Middle East. After a period during which the AKP pursued the vision of “zero problems with neighbors”, it now has nothing but problems. It has called for the ouster of Syria’s Assad, refused to engage with Egypt’s new military government, cut off diplomatic ties with Israel, angered Iran with its acceptance of a NATO radar installation and its support for Syrian rebels, quarreled with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, angered key Gulf states over its support for Muslim Brotherhood movements throughout the region, shocked its NATO allies with its choice of a Chinese missile defense system, and alienated Europe with unfounded accusations and conspiracy theories.

Turkey’s ability to rebuild its regional standing will turn largely on domestic considerations. It is precisely Turkey’s blend—adroitly managed by the AKP at the beginning of their tenure—of democratic government, a diverse society, Islamic heritage, and strong economy that produced its enhanced standing in the region. That ensemble of successes enabled Turkey to serve as a source of inspiration for aspiring Muslim democrats. But its recent political crises—last summer’s protests and the recent corruption scandal—and the government’s heavy handed response to them have cast doubt on Turkey’s social, political and economic stability at a crucial period in its political development: three elections in the span of 18 months amid rising political tension, an historic attempt at peace with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and a slowing economy. Unless Turkey is able to hold on to both the political and economic dynamism of the past decade, it is unlikely to regain its regional standing. In other words, just as America’s need for a reliable partner in the Middle East has peaked, Turkey’s ability to exert political influence in the area is ebbing.

For its part, Washington has done little recently to assist Ankara or address its concerns. The U.S. government has refused to intervene in the Syrian civil war, the single-most critical issue for Turkey, despite private and subsequent public pleas from Erdoğan. Nor has it done enough to help Turkey bear the burden of Syrian refugees. And it has so far done little to include Turkey in negotiations of a U.S.-EU free trade agreement, despite Turkish concerns about the negative impact such a deal could have on its economy. Yet, other than Israel, Turkey remains the only relatively stable country and democratic U.S. ally in the region.

Instead of using the U.S.-Turkey relationship as an opening for robust and frank discussions about these disagreements, Washington has restrained its criticism, instead invariably extolling the relationship itself. Even after Ankara’s worrying response to the Taksim protests, for example, American officials went on and on about “Turkey’s democracy and the strength of it are important not only for the country itself, not only as a NATO ally, but also because as a majority Islamic population, Turkey’s democracy is looked at by other countries around the world and in the region who are inspired to be able to be Islamic and democratic at the same time.”

More recently, as Erdoğan was trying to dismantle Turkey’s judicial independence, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at a press conference with Foreign Minister Davutoğlu. “[T]he United States of America has absolutely no interest in being caught up in or engaged in or involved in the internal politics,” Kerry reassured his Turkish counterpart. “And so what is important,” he continued, “is that we continue to value publicly and to make sure the people of both of our countries understand our commitment to the strength of the relationship between Turkey and the United States, two important allies, two friends who’ve worked very hard to solve problems, not create them.” The Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, went even further, calling Turkey a “strong democracy.”

The persistence of this sort of fantasy rhetoric may testify to the importance both sides attach to the relationship, but it obscures the reality of a partnership that has ceased to yield tangible benefit to either party. Such talk from American officials also creates a kind of political moral hazard by convincing the AKP government that it is “too big to fail” and therefore does not need to pay attention to U.S. criticisms over human rights, rule of law, and other sensitive domestic issues.

Reforging U.S.-Turkey ties requires a different approach. American policymakers should squarely face the challenges confronting Turkey, as well as their implications for greater U.S.-Turkish cooperation. Rather than ignoring these concerns, U.S. policy should move toward a realistic assessment of the U.S. relationship with Turkey.

First, candid discussion must replace rhetoric.  Sometimes, when the bloom is off the rose, it is better to stop gilding the lily. This is one of those moments. Failing to enumerate and discuss serious differences with Turkey at appropriate times creates the risk that they could come back to haunt either party at a later time. Moreover, too often a lack of U.S. criticism is interpreted in Turkey as implicit endorsement of the government in Ankara and its policies, leading the regime to believe that it will enjoy unwavering U.S. support regardless of its actions. The high regard that Turkey, and Erdoğan personally, places on U.S. praise, on the other hand, means that a frank discussion of disagreements, although it might not be immediately welcomed by Ankara, can motivate greater cooperation—especially on Turkey’s stalled democratization agenda with regard to minority participation.

Second, to build a more cooperative partnership in the Middle East, U.S. policy toward Turkey should focus primarily on Turkey’s domestic stability and democratic process. Practically, this means that Washington should: support Turkey’s ongoing democratization, particularly the Kurdish peace process; stand up for civil and economic freedoms and tie Turkish respect for these rights to its inclusion in Transatlantic free trade negotiations; engage a wider cross-section of Turkish civil society, including the youths who took to the streets this past summer; continue to encourage Turkey’s greater integration into the European Union; and help generate greater humanitarian efforts to help Turkey with its Syrian refugees.

Simultaneously, the United States should moderate its expectations for Turkish assistance in the broader Middle East, focusing instead on areas where Turkey is realistically able to assist. These include: pressuring Ankara to halt and be accountable for its support of extremist elements within the Syrian opposition; engaging in a sustained strategic dialogue on the future of Iraq with the aim of developing a common approach that bolsters a strong, stable, Western-oriented, autonomous Kurdish region within the context of a unified Iraq where the influence of both Iran and al-Qaeda are severely constrained; encouraging Turkey to conclude ongoing reconciliation talks and reestablish diplomatic ties with Israel; and creating a new high-level envoy to work with Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, and the United Nations to restart talks and seek resolution to the Cyprus issue.

After a decade of focusing largely on Turkey’s role in the region, American policymakers should take a step back and recognize that the state of Turkey’s domestic politics is of vital importance to its future, its ability to wield influence in the region, and therefore its ties to the United States. By moving U.S.-Turkish policy away from rhetoric and toward realism, American policymakers can focus on how Turkey can contribute to U.S. interests and on how the United States can better support its ally.


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