Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in October brought to a head the dramatic deterioration in diplomatic relations between Turkey and the United States that had been brewing for some time. Attributing the mutual acrimony to that situation in Syria, however, or to Turkey’s recent purchase of Russian advanced missile defense systems yields no answer as to why the two ‘NATO allies’ are feuding.
In fact, it is the accumulation of a long list of events that have taken place over the past 70 years of the Transatlantic alliance that has brought them to this point. Simply put, America’s great power politics have touched Turkey’s geopolitical nerve endings, triggering Ankara’s obstinacy and its rapprochement with Moscow, in turn prompting Washington’s punitive measures. And the pattern is recurrent.
More importantly, perhaps, neither side has forgotten what the other has done over the decades, and subsequent resentments have progressively led to the recent almost complete rupture.
I. The Cold War Woes
The vicious cycle began with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 during the Cold War.
- The Jupiter Missile Crisis
Turkey became a NATO member in 1952 in the aftermath of Stalin’s threats to invade the Turkish Straits and part of Eastern Turkey. As a NATO member, Turkey then became a bulwark against the Communist threat. However, the first of many resentments came at the height of the Cold War. Per the backdoor trade with Nikita Khrushchev, the US President J.F. Kennedy removed the PGM-19 Jupiter nuclear umbrella from Turkey, creating the belief by the Turks that they were expendable. However, the first serious blow to mutual relations came over the Island of Cyprus.
- The Cyprus Crisis
The ultra-nationalist Greek paramilitary Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston (EOKA) in Cyprus began to kill the Cypriot Turks in the early 1960s with the eventual aim of unification with Greece. This in turn sparked Turkey’s threats of military intervention. However, then-US President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a rather stern and derogatory letter on June 5, 1964, in which he warned Turkey against military intervention.
American efforts to rein in Turkey failed ten years later in July 1974, as Turkey began its military operation, annexing one third of the island, due to the growing EOKA violence against the Turks. Subsequently, the influential Greek and other anti-Turkish lobbies in Washington prompted an American arms embargo on Turkey that lasted until 1978. The arms embargo was lifted when Turkey threatened to abolish the US’s right to use the strategic Incirlik Base.
Nevertheless, in the meantime, Ankara’s disappointment with Washington had led to a Turco-Soviet rapprochement, which Moscow gladly exploited. With the Technical and Financial Cooperation Agreement of 1967, the Soviets financed major industrial manufacturing plants and infrastructure projects across Turkey.
Just as in the 1960s when Turkey’s relations with the US soured, the same thing is happening today, the Turks have again turned to Moscow.
Just as in the 1960s when Turkey’s relations with the US soured, the same thing is happening today, the Turks have again turned to Moscow.
II. The Post-Cold War Era: Turco-American Clashes in the Middle East
- The First Gulf War
With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, Turkey once again had to come to grips with the American great power designs. The US invasion of one of Turkey’s neighbors, Iraq, in 1991, and the subsequent destabilization of that country ushered in an era in which Turkey would constantly have to deal with security and economic woes emanating from across its southern border.
Not only did the invasion cost Turkey billions of dollars in trade, particularly oil, but the creation of the no-fly-zone in northern Iraq by the US allowed Turkey’s top security concern, the secessionist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to exponentially grow and establish numerous training camps from which it began to stage large scale attacks from north Iraq into Turkey’s southeast, causing hundreds of casualties.
Most Turks saw the creation of the no-fly-zone as the first American step towards carving an independent Kurdish state out of Iraq. To Turks, this would pose a grave threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity since an adjacent Kurdish state would, presumably, lead to the secession of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.
- The Accident!
The Turkish military’s attempts in the 1990s to stage cross-border incursions to hunt down PKK militants in northern Iraq were always met with reluctance by Washington on the grounds that such actions would destabilize the relatively peaceful part of Iraq. Despite Washington’s warnings, one of Turkey’s largest incursions into northern Iraq, Operation North Iraq, was slated to take place in October 1992. However, what happened on the eve of the operation became permanently etched in the minds of Turks, adding to the tally of ‘resentments.’
On October 1, 1992, the Turkish Navy destroyer TCG Muavenet was hit by two Sea Sparrow missiles fired from the American aircraft carrier USS Saratoga on a NATO exercise in the north Aegean Sea. The incident killed seven Turkish sailors, including the captain of the ship, leaving 22 injured. While the US Navy stated that it was an accident, the Turks did not accept that explanation because two guided missiles, which required precise target command, had been fired outside the hours of the naval exercise, perfectly striking the ship’s bridge. The firing of missiles also required a six-step confirmation and the final approval of the ship’s captain. Ironically, the TCG Muavenet was one of the few Navy vessels Turkey had used in the Cyprus operation in 1974. The strike was perceived therefore by Turkey as a warning. Notwithstanding the ”accident,” however, Operation North Iraq still went forward in mid-October of 1992.
- The Invasion of Iraq 2003
The September 11 terror attacks on the US and its second invasion of Iraq in 2003 have had a lasting impact in the Turkish-American relations. Turkey fully supported the NATO mission in Afghanistan. However, having learned lessons from the First Gulf War, on March 1, 2003, the Turkish Parliament voted against allowing American troops to open a northern front on Turkish soil for the invasion of Iraq. This infuriated the Bush Administration, who was sure of the permission and had already amassed 50,000 troops.
Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld later blamed Turkey for the increasing American casualties. He said, “Given the level of the insurgency today, two years later, clearly, if we had been able to get the Fourth Infantry Division in from the north through Turkey, more of the Iraqi Saddam Hussein Baathist regime would have been captured or killed.”
In the post-Iraqi invasion period, the Pentagon, particularly the Central Command (CENTCOM) became a leading agent that shaped the Turkish-American relations. If Turkey’s refusal in March 2003 was the turning point in bilateral relations for Washington, particularly the Pentagon, then for the Turks what came next would become the point after which Turkish-American relations would never be the same again.
On July 4, 2003, in apparent retaliation for Turkey’s March 1 refusal, 150 US soldiers surrounded and detained 18 Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq putting hoods over their heads. For the Turks, the ‘Hood Event’ was extremely insulting and left a serious scar, permanently shaping America’s image in Turkey. Later, in a widely publicized parody of the incident, a group of Turkish youth assaulted a group of American sailors from the USS Ross while they were on liberty in Istanbul and placed hoods over their heads, shouting “Yankee, go home!”
The US’s strategy of destroying ISIS in Syria by relying on a group Turkey deemed a top national security threat would further strain Turkish-American relations.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the ensuing de-Baathification would eventually create a robust Sunni insurgency, which later would lead to the creation of ISIS. Unfortunately, the US’s strategy of destroying ISIS in Syria by relying on a group Turkey deemed a top national security threat would further strain Turkish-American relations.
- Fast Forward to the Present Syria Debacle
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ensuing indiscriminate de-Baathification inadvertently gave rise to a Sunni insurgency which culminated in the birth of ISIS. The weakening of the Syrian central government along with the Arab Spring allowed ISIS to spread into Syria beginning in 2014. Although the ISIS threat grew more serious, the Obama Administration failed to adopt a coherent plan for its defeat and the toppling of Syrian president Assad.
Washington was so confused with respect to Syria that various US agencies began to support different opposition groups each having different agendas.
Washington was so confused with respect to Syria that various US agencies began to support different opposition groups each having different agendas. The CIA began to train and equip the Sunni opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose main goal was to topple Assad. The Pentagon, in contrast, propped up the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of PKK, whose aim was primarily to fight ISIS and ultimately to gain autonomy, even independence, within Syria.
By 2015, Washington’s Syrian plan was in such disarray that the FSA and YPG turned against each other, while at the same time separately fighting the Assad regime and ISIS. However, the same year, Washington decided to abandon the Sunni FSA in favor of the YPG, and to relinquish the idea of toppling Assad, a decision that coincided with Obama’s ambition for an Iranian rapprochement.
The Mullahs evidently wanted the pro-Iran Assad to stay in power and naturally did not want a Sunni proxy, anti-Assad/Iran FSA, to take over Syria. Moreover, the PKK was known to have in the past cooperated with the regime in Tehran. So, the PKK’s Syrian branch, the YPG, was a better choice for Iran in the fight against an anti-Shia, anti-Iran ISIS. Therefore, the Pentagon began to supply thousands of truckloads of weaponry to the YPG consolidating its ‘Rojova’ autonomous rule east of the Euphrates River.
The last thing Ankara wanted, however, was a hostile PKK state across its borders that stretches from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Mediterranean Sea, effectively cutting off Turkey’s access to the rest of the Middle East. What further panicked Ankara was the collapse of ‘the Peace Process,’ or ‘the Kurdish Opening’ (December 2012-July 2015) in which the PKK, having been emboldened by the US supply of training and weapons in Syria, began to declare autonomy within Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern cities. It was at this point that Ankara began to appeal to Washington to cease its ties with the PKK/YPG, but it was to no avail.
Alarmed and having failed to convince Washington, Turkey turned to Russia for help in Syria. Putin, knew the great benefit of pulling the second largest NATO member into his orbit.
Alarmed and having failed to convince Washington, Turkey turned to Russia for help in Syria. Putin, knowing the great benefit of pulling the second largest NATO member into his orbit, quickly forgave Turkey’s downing of one of his Su-24s in November 2015 over the Turkey-Syria border. It was after Russia’s nod (when Moscow opened up Syrian air space to Turkey) in the summer of 2016 that Turkey began the first of its series of cross-border incursions into Syria to ward off the YPG from its borders. These military incursions drew stern criticism from NATO allies, most of whom placed an arms embargo on Turkey. Germany and the Netherlands withdrew the PATRIOT missile defense systems from Turkey’s Syria border citing the ‘high cost of deployment,’ although it was an overt reaction to Turkey’s military operation against the Syrian YPG.
Despite the arms embargos from its NATO allies, Turkey, mostly due to its increasingly self-reliant defense industry, went ahead and conducted Operation Euphrates Shield (August 2016-March 2017) and Operation Olive Branch (January 2018-March 2018), dislodging the YPG in Syrian cities west of the Euphrates River, including Afrin, Al-Bab, and Jarablus. Although they condemned Turkey’s first two operations, Washington did not make much fuss about them, as the Pentagon’s spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said, “We are not operating in Afrin (west of the Euphrates River).”
However, while the Pentagon was ‘lenient’ towards Turkey west of the Euphrates River, it held east of the river as its ‘red-line’ and repeatedly “warned Turkey not to launch unilateral attacks against US-backed forces in Syria.” Yet, Turkish President Erdogan had been dialing up his pressure for the impending Turkish incursion despite Washington’s warnings.
On October 8, 2019, per President Trump’s order, the Pentagon began pulling American troops from north Syria saying, “we have moved the US forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety.”
Turkey’s subsequent incursion into Syria, Operation Peace Spring in October, fundamentally jolted Washington. Although, Trump appears now to be trying to salvage Turkish-American relations, the Pentagon is extremely upset that years of training, money, and weapons supplies—all in the name of creating a non-Arab, non-Turkish, secular entity, malleable to the Pentagon’s needs on the ground—went up in smoke in just six days.
For the US Congress, Turkey destroyed the only safety net for Israel in the region—thus the threat of flurries of punitive Congressional bills.
For Congress, Turkey destroyed the only safety net for Israel in the region—thus the threat of flurries of punitive Congressional bills. For Trump, he came a bit closer to keeping his campaign promise of bringing troops back home and put an “end to the endless wars.”
As for Turkey, a serious threat to its national security was averted, for now.
III. Where Do We Go from Here?
Recent events show that the vicious cycle is once again being repeated. The US is trying to set up a great power game in the Middle East, once again touching the Turkish nerve. Turkey reacts to it, triggering Washington’s punitive measures, and Ankara veers off into Moscow’s orbit.
But this time things don’t look good for Washington. The US has never looked weaker and more incapable of producing meaningful policies in the Middle East. Europeans are busy trying to salvage their European Union. The Russian Bear is now dominating the Middle East scene leaving little room for the US to maneuver.
Militarily and politically, Turkey has never been stronger, but the dangers of staying too close to the Russian Bear still remain.
For Washington and Ankara, it is perhaps time to bring an end to the ‘vicious cycle’ and mend fences. It would be a win-win for both sides.