Why U.S. and Turkey—Allies for Decades—Keep Feuding

October 18, 2019, 3:37 PM UTC

The U.S. and Turkey have been allies for more than six decades, but in recent years their relationship has been repeatedly strained by disputes. A Turkish military offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia allied with the U.S. has created the latest discord. Other roots of friction include a U.S. prosecution of one of Turkey’s largest banks and Ankara’s purchase of a missile-defense system from Russia. The U.S. and Turkey, which run the two largest armies in NATO, affirm the need to maintain their alliance, but the quarrels have eroded trust on both sides.

1. What are the divisions over Syria?

On Oct. 9, the Turkish military moved into Syria in a campaign aimed at the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a Kurdish militia that had been a major component of the U.S.-led effort to combat Islamic State in Syria. Turkey views the YPG, which had wound up controlling about a third of Syria, as a security threat due to its ties to separatist Kurds in Turkey and aimed to push the group back from its border. U.S. President Donald Trump first gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a green light for the operation, then reversed course and imposed sanctions on Turkey, albeit milder punishments than expected. U.S. lawmakers, including from Trump’s Republican Party, lambasted Turkey’s incursion and Trump’s complicity in it as a betrayal of a U.S. ally that would increase the likelihood of a resurgence by Islamic State.

2. What’s the deal with the Turkish bank?

As the tensions over Syria rose, the U.S. brought a criminal case against Turkish state-run lender Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS. Prosecutors accused Halkbank, as it’s known, of participating in a wide-ranging plot to violate prohibitions on Iran’s access to the U.S. financial system. The conspiracy involved high-ranking government officials in Iran and Turkey, the U.S. said. Two people, including a senior Halkbank executive, were previously convicted in the case. The late-2017 trial sparked vehement protests from Erdogan, who accused U.S. officials of trying to harm Turkey’s national and economic interests. He labeled the prosecution nothing short of an “international coup attempt.”

3. What’s the U.S. beef with Turkey’s Russian missiles?

Turkey’s army started taking delivery in July of the Russian-made S-400 missile-defense system, which has advanced radars and isn’t compatible with NATO technology. Its deployment in Turkey would mark a further advance in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to engineer a bigger role in the Middle East. Chief among U.S. concerns is that the Russian system could be used to collect intelligence on the stealth capabilities of the U.S. F-35 fighter jet that Turkey is buying and has helped to build. There’s history here. Turkey is home to the Incirlik Air Base, used for U.S. operations against Islamic State and, decades before that, the main operating location for the American U-2 spy plane — until American pilot Francis Gary Powers was famously shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.

4. What does Turkey say?

Erdogan says Turkey’s Western allies failed to provide his country the necessary defense against missile threats from neighboring Iran, Iraq and Syria. And while the U.S., after years of objections, agreed to sell Patriot air defense missiles to Turkey in an apparent effort to get Erdogan to scrap the S-400 deal, it’s not clear lawmakers would let the sale go through because of anti-Turkey sentiment in Congress. Turkey’s willingness to defy the threat of sanctions related to the S-400 reflects its desire for an increasingly independent role in regional policies and for economic ties with Russia. Officials say Turkey also has lost trust in the U.S. because of other disagreements.

5. How else has Turkey asserted military independence?

Turkey’s defense industry developed its own unmanned drones, ending a dependence on Israeli ones, and it aspires to build sophisticated ballistic missiles and fighter jets. Turkish military spending surged 65% between 2009 and 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which researches global arms expenditure. In 2018, its spending rose at the fastest pace among the world’s top 15 arms purchasers to $19 billion.

6. What else have the U.S. and Turkey sparred over?

Plenty. Their six-decade alliance has been strained by Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan accuses of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup. Ties were inflamed by Turkey’s detention of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, and employees of U.S. diplomatic missions in Turkey on suspected involvement in the attempted putsch or terrorism. Ankara is also miffed that Washington is backing Turkey’s rivals in a natural gas dispute with Cyprus and in other regional conflicts.

7. Is there a path to repairing ties?

Having served as a bulwark against Russia during the Cold War, Turkey believes it has valuable bargaining chips. It still hosts American nuclear warheads at Incirlik and military installations used by the U.S. to spy on Russia. It’s also the only barrier keeping many of more than 4 million refugees, most of them Syrians, from flooding into Europe. Trump has blamed problems between the countries on his predecessor Barack Obama’s failure to make a missile deal with Turkey. It’s unclear if the current leaders’ personal chemistry will be enough to protect Turkey from serious sanctions damage; some U.S. officials and members of Congress are eager for tougher action.

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