Vicken Cheterian

Ankara and Washington Still Allies?

Ankara has threatened to close Incirlik air base for US use. This was presented by the Turkish media as retaliation to US support to Kurdish guerrillas in Syria. It is legitimate to ask: is Turkey and the US still allies? And, what are the consequences of the collapse of NATO alliance on developments in the Middle East?

The policies of Washington and Ankara started diverging with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time, Ankara opposed US intervention, and did not permit the usage of its territories to launch military operations against Iraq. The consequences were serious for the Americans, as they were forced to limit their invasion from only the southern front using Kuwaiti territory. Turkish opposition was mainly because of the fear that the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein would lead to power vacuum in Baghdad, and the emergence of a Kurdish state in the north. 

Nevertheless, the US invasions went on, Saddam was overthrown, and the Kurds established the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The US plans in Iraq failed, and America did not have time to be angry with Ankara, as Iraq became uncontrollable. Meanwhile, relations between Turkey and KRG were normalized, and Turkey became the major partner of the Kurdish de facto state. Yet, in Iraq, Washington and Ankara largely support opposing forces: Washington supports the rulers of Baghdad, themselves in close alliance with Iran, while Ankara is supporting various Sunni opposition groups, including hard-line Islamists.

In Syria, as the conflict erupted in 2011, Washington and Ankara seemed to be on the same side. Both leaderships demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad leaves office. When the conflict turned into civil war, both sides supported the emergence of the “Free Syrian Army” which was initially composed of Syrian army deserters. At the time a coordination cell was created on Turkish territory led by the US and composed by Turkey and Gulf countries providing weapons and logistic support to the Syrian rebels. But soon the two allies developed conflicting policies in Syria too. For the US, the main concern from early on was to control the type of armaments sent to Syrian rebels, and especially block any sophisticated guided missiles (note that TOW guided anti-tank missiles reached Syrian rebels only in 2014). The US was equally wary to see the emergence of hard-line jihadi groups from within the Syrian rebellion. 

Ankara progressively supported jihadi formations, like the Ahrar al-Sham. Moreover, there is anecdotal information pointing that Ankara has shown some sort of collaboration with al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and possibly with the “Islamic State” (ISIS) as well. With heavy censorship imposed on Turkish media, there are no clear explanations on why Ankara chose such a policy? Wasn’t it clear that the emergence of al-Qaeda would lead to contradictions with the Americans?

With the protracted armed conflict inside Syria, with catastrophic consequences for the civilian population, Ankara insisted on the idea of imposing a “no-fly-zone”. Such a policy could have not only protected civilians from devastating attacks by Syrian air force, but also increase direct Turkish influence over northern Syria. But the Obama administration opposed such plans. To understand American policy in Syria, one has to go back to the Iraq war of 2003 and its consequences. 

Obama administration inherited an Iraqi problem, and its promise was to withdraw from Iraq, stop unilateral interventions, and return to multilateral diplomacy. The American military also concluded that the no-fly-zone imposed on Iraq after the 1991 war was largely a failure, and it eventually led to the 2003 invasion. Moreover, for Washington the main problem in both Iraq and Syria was the strengthening of jihadi organizations such as ISIS and al-Nusra. Fifteen years after September 11, after invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, jihadi groups are today much stronger, have thousands of armed militants, and control vast territories in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

And Turkey? With the January 2013 cease-fire declared between Turkey and PKK it was obvious that Ankara was weighing its options. It could have continued in this line, strengthening the alliance between the Kurdish guerrillas and the FSA. Instead, Ankara hesitated, playing on both sides, a contradiction that became evident during the ISIS attack on Kobani. Here, too, we can see that Ankara and Washington support opposing sides: while Turkey is fighting the Kurdish guerrillas, the US is providing them with weapons and air support 

Ankara, by its choices of confronting the Kurdish guerrillas and supporting the radical jihadi elements within the Syrian rebellion, made a strategic blunder, and largely marginalized the Syrian opposition and its voice in international politics. Today, Washington has neither a major interest for direct intervention in Syria, nor allies on which it could count on. It is exactly this weakness of Washington that has opened a breach and made the massive Russian intervention in Syria possible.