As the dust settles from President Donald Trump’s first visit to the Middle East, his policy in the region, such as it exists, is harkening back to the years before his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Obama only sought minor recalibrations in long-standing U.S. policy toward its allies in the region, and his criticisms of them amounted to the mildest rebukes. But Trump’s visit made it clear that Saudi Arabia and Israel are, once again, the unmistakable pillars of America’s Middle East posture. Egypt also seems more firmly in the U.S. orbit than ever, given Trump and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s mutual fondness, while Jordan’s King Abdullah made nice with Trump earlier in the year, too.
Trump has set about placating America’s Middle East allies, largely by identifying a common enemy: Iran. But one important American ally has been missing from this equation.
Turkey was once considered a bulwark in the West’s fight against communism, a vital ally in George W. Bush’s so-called war on terror and a model democracy for developing countries to follow. Eight years ago, the newly elected Obama chose Turkey as his first Middle Eastern port of call. Not this time. Today Turkey looks more like a strategic liability to the United States.
On May 16, fresh from winning a referendum that international observers considered unfree and unfair, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made an official visit to Washington. For all the optics of an Oval Office invitation, Trump gave Turkey’s strongman just 22 minutes of his time, excluding lunch and public statements. In contrast, when Egypt’s el-Sissi visited the White House on April 3, Trump invited him to an hour-long expanded bilateral meeting, as well as the usual working lunch and statements to the press.
Before his trip, Erdogan had a list of things he hoped to achieve with Trump. He promised Turks that he would convince Trump to cease supplying American arms to the main Kurdish militia in Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is battling the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He said he would persuade Trump that the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group that both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist organization, are one and the same. He sought to cajole Washington into using Turkish-backed Syrian forces instead of the YPG to capture the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. And for good measure, he wanted Washington to extradite Fetullah Gulen, the Turkish preacher and Erdogan critic living in Pennsylvania who Ankara claims masterminded last July’s attempted coup.
Yet Erdogan left Washington with nothing—except for a tarnished image after his security detail was videotaped beating up peaceful protesters while Erdogan apparently watched from his car.
Round after round of purges within the security establishment since last July’s coup attempt have likely done harm to Turkey’s intelligence-gathering capabilities.
Although Turkey is home to the Incirlik base, an important airfield from which the U.S.-led coalition has struck the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Ankara has overplayed its hand there. Last month, the Turkish government prevented German politicians from visiting German troops stationed at Incirlik, amid a series of diplomatic spats. Berlin is now preparing to move its forces to a new base in Jordan.
Washington no doubt sympathizes with Germany. Back in 2003, Turkey refused to give American forces access to the base ahead of the invasion of Iraq. The U.S. soon realized that Iraq’s Kurds offered a viable and reliable alternative, while demanding much less in return. Today, the use of the Incirlik base significantly shortens the distance of U.S. aircraft striking Islamic State targets, while also minimizing costs associated with fuel and maintenance. However, Turkey was initially reluctant to allow American forces access to Incirlik and some of its other bases, necessitating the importance for the U.S. to have alternative contingency staging points for future military deployments.
It remains the case that the U.S., Europe and the international community all need Turkey’s assistance and intelligence to monitor members of the Islamic State leaving Syria through Turkey. Yet round after round of purges within the security establishment since last July’s coup attempt have likely done harm to Turkey’s intelligence-gathering capabilities. Good intelligence requires interdepartmental cooperation on both a personal and institutional level. The post-coup purges have put this in jeopardy, while perhaps cutting off access to purged security officers’ sources and confidential informants.
The purges have also eroded the effectiveness of Turkey’s armed forces. The morale of the Turkish military was already low after high-profile trials in recent years related to the earlier, so-called Ergenekon coup plot. Many officers, including generals, were arrested, tried and convicted; all were later released and exonerated. In protest, hundreds of officers resigned en masse.
Just as the military was recovering from this ordeal, it was rocked by last summer’s failed coup. Since then, an additional 40 percent of admirals and generals have either been arrested or removed from their posts. It will take years, perhaps even decades, for the military to regain its strength, morale and capabilities.
The ineffectiveness of Turkey’s military was evident during its ill-fated intervention in Syria, known as Operation Euphrates Shield, which lasted from August 2016 to March 2017. It took Turkish troops, together with local forces, seven months to advance just 60 miles south from the Turkish-Syrian border and eventually capture the strategic town of al-Bab. Turkey suffered scores of fatalities, while hundreds of civilians were reportedly killed by Turkish strikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It is increasingly clear that Turkey offers little in the fight against the Islamic State. It appears more interested in targeting Kurdish forces of the YPG—Washington’s most reliable partner on the ground against the Islamic State—than taking on the jihadi group. The breakdown of Turkey’s cease-fire with the PKK in 2015 was fateful. Had the road to peace continued, Turkey might have been able to offer the U.S. and other NATO allies the ultimate strategic benefit of being able to partner with both Ankara and the Kurds. Instead, war returned to southeastern Turkey, with consequences for Western policy in Syria.
Meanwhile, Turkey does not fare well on a familiar criticism from Trump, and indeed Obama before him: the impression that some NATO members are not pulling their weight and letting their defense budget drop below the recommended 2 percent of GDP. Turkey has not met this criteria since 2009; last year, its spending was estimated to have been just 1.5 percent.
To make matters worse, Turkey is making increased overtures to Moscow, including expressing its interest in purchasing Russian weaponry, such as the S-400 air defense system. Erdogan’s flirtations with Turkey’s traditional rival, Russia, may be a misguided attempt to convince Washington that it could lose Ankara to Moscow if it doesn’t play ball with Turkey. Or perhaps Erdogan is reappraising Turkey’s international standing. Regardless, the takeaway message is that Turkey can’t be trusted.
Turkey was once called a model for other Middle Eastern states to emulate. It now looks more like an unattractive ally.
Simon A. Waldman is a visiting research fellow at King’s College London. He is the co-author of the recently published “The New Turkey and Its Discontents” (Oxford University Press). Follow him on Twitter @simonwaldman1.