John Kerry

Ankara on Line Three, Mr Secretary Reply

Mending America’s strained relationship with Turkey will be a top priority for John Kerry.

By Egemen Bezci and Geoffrey Levin

Ed. note: A version of this article originally appeared in the Asia Times. 

With chaos in Syria, protests in Egypt, and stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, incoming Secretary of State John Kerry has a long list of issues on his Middle East agenda. This week, he can add one more item to the list: fixing America’s increasingly strained relationship with Turkey. 

Only days after a deadly suicide bombing hit the American embassy in Ankara, US ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone made speech highlighting several deficiencies in the Turkish legal system, particularly regarding use of the “terrorist” designation.

“You have members of parliament who have been behind bars for a long time, sometimes on unclear charges. You have your military leaders…behind bars as if they were terrorists … professors … [even] the former head of YOK [High Education Board],” stated the ambassador. 

“You have non-violent student protestors protesting tuition hikes behind bars. When a legal system produces such results and confuses people like that for terrorists, it makes it hard for American and European courts to match up.” 

Those statements created a huge splash in Turkey, among the media and government officials sensitive about Turkey’s image. Turkish government spokesperson Huseyin Celik responded very harshly to Ambassador Ricciardone’s statement at a press meeting, and Ricciardone was subsequently called to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to present an explanation. 

In a development that surprised Turkish officials, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland backed Ambassador Ricciardone against Turkish criticism. Along with the recent suicide attack, these developments indicate that President Obama and Secretary Kerry now face a relationship with Ankara more complicated than ever before. When working with Turkey, there are two crucial issues – one geopolitical and one domestically political – that Kerry must remember. 

First, Kerry must understand that regional instability means that Turkey desires to be reassured with support for its Middle East policy. This type of reassurance can only come from a major world power, and if Washington won’t offer its support, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may look elsewhere – namely, China. 

Every day, Turkish policymakers are growing more concerned about the unrest in its southern neighbor, Syria. Since the civil unrest started in Syria in 2011, Turkey has an active supporter of opposition led by the Free Syria Army (FSA), giving asylum to 250,000 Syrian refugees. Turkey has also faced violence, with stray mortar shells and car bombing that claiming the lives of more than ten Turkish citizens – both unintended consequences of the Syria crisis. 

This is a growing diplomatic burden for Ankara, since the government’s reaction to the Syria crisis is souring its relations with other regional powers, Iran and Russia. 

It should also be noted that Turkey’s ongoing and unresolved Kurdish question is making Ankara feel vulnerable to the rapid changes in the Middle Eastern security environment. These developments create increased uncertainty, and Ankara would like to receive more support from major powers such as the United States.

In hopes of reassuring Western allies, Ankara accepted a proposal to set up a NATO missile shield base in Malatya, a southeastern province of Turkey. However, an ongoing dispute between Israel and Turkey, Ankara’s rising isolation in the region, and unsatisfactory support from Washington to the Ankara’s Middle East policy has led Ankara to seek new partners for its foreign policy quest. 

Erdogan has voiced the possibility of directing foreign policy eastward – towards a possible membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. All these frustrations can cause Turkey to seek a new direction, or at least reconsider its alignment with the country’s traditional alliances. 

Kerry’s second concern in dealing with Turkey comes instead from within Turkey. Recent developments have caused rising anti-American sentiment. 

It is no secret that the Turkish public tends to view the world affairs through the lens of conspiracy theories. It is a vestige of the Cold War, an unfortunate habit, but a real one – many Turks often blame the US for problems in the region even in cases unrelated to American influence. 

Thus, many in the Turkish public see the unrest in Syria as a consequence of US policies in the region. Erdogan’s AKP party and the prime minister himself have had to adjust to rising anti-American sentiment with a series of local, presidential and parliamentary election starting from 2014. Pro-Western moves from Ankara are unlikely, at least on the rhetorical level. 

During President Obama’s first term, it was said that Turkish-American relations were entering a golden age. With all the instability in the region, Ricciardone’s chastisement was the last thing Turks wanted to hear from a country that considers itself an ally. Domestic and international politics now threaten to undermine a partnership certain to the security of both nations. Considering Turkey’s domestic political environment, it will not be easy. But rather than turn away, Kerry and President Obama himself have to work even harder to keep this traditional and important alliance intact.

Egemen B Bezci and Geoffrey Levin are senior editors at The Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.

Photo credit: CAP/Flickr Creative Commons.

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