An unbridgeable divide?

While everyone agrees that for Turkey and the U.S. to improve relations, the two must sit down and hash out their differences, some fundamental, and seemingly intransigent issues stand in the way of even beginning a process of reconciliation. What are the key issues that divide the two and how can they be overcome?

Adnan R. Khan: Let’s start with the key issues and why they are such intransigent problems?

Ilter Turan: The U.S. has set a precondition that Turkey do away with the S-400 air defense system before negotiations can begin. It creates impressions but offers no guaranteed reciprocal measure if Turkey complies. So, as far as negotiations go, this is a non-starter. From the Turkish side, there is the question of the YPG. The Turkish position here is that if the Americans don’t stop supporting what Turkey sees as a terrorist group with extensions into Turkey proper, it will be very difficult to improve the relationship. This represents a barrier to negotiations because the starting point is for the other party to concede to a major issue before negotiations can begin.

The strategy to break the deadlock should be to come together and look at all questions within the framework of a single negotiation process. One can use the Cyprus template to illustrate how this could work. As may be recalled, during the Cyprus negotiations, the general rule was that they would talk about everything, but nothing would be final until everything was final. In other words, if one side agrees to make a concession, it will remain valid on the assumption that the other side will also make a concession such that the sum total of mutual concessions will lead to an outcome that is considered equitable and acceptable by both parties. If no final agreement is reached, then all concessions are invalidated.

But there is a more fundamental problem at play here. Although President Biden has emphasized that he will consult allies and work with them, he seems to be under the influence of the old American habit of imposing its own view rather than consulting with allies with a view to finding mutually agreed upon solutions. The Turkey example is illustrative: Turkey is being presented with an ultimatum rather than a negotiating point. This has to change. Turkey has very understandable complaints about American support to the YPG. Conversely, some of the U.S. concerns over the S-400s may also be highly legitimate. The proper procedure is to start talking about both problems and to see how the concerns of each side might be accommodated.

Adnan R. Khan: Turkey has offered a possible solution to the S-400 issue, suggesting that it might be open to the Greece model, referring to how the issue of Greece’s purchase of S-300s was handled. What do you make of that?

Ilter Turan: What Turkey is basically saying is that there are ways that have been devised in the past to address problems that constitute a security concern for NATO. In fact, the observations of the Turkish government have not been limited to just the S-300s. The minister of defense has also referred to the fact that after the end of the Cold War, some former members of the Warsaw Pact whose militaries were, to a significant extent, still equipped with Soviet-built weapons, joined NATO. I think what the Turkish government is saying is that we must jointly search for ways to address security question rather than one side, i.e. the U.S., simply dictating a solution according to its own definition of the problem.

Adnan R. Khan: There is a trust issue here. Each side accuses the other of not entering into negotiations in good faith. How do you overcome that trust deficit?

Ilter Turan: You have to sit down together first with the intention of exploring the viewpoints, the concerns and the psychology of the other side, the political constraints under which it operates, etc. This is what I meant earlier with the idea that preconditions should be eliminated by both sides. Without making clear commitments, the two sides can explore what is possible. Then, during the negotiations you work toward developing mechanisms that help build trust. Setting up joint monitoring mechanisms for any agreements that are reached may be case in point here.

Adnan Khan: In addition to the lack of trust at the government level, there is also mistrust between people. The U.S. is not well-liked in Turkey and Turkey is seen by many Americans as a Banana Republic bristling with extremists. How do you fix these misconceptions?

Ilter Turan: Both governments must make a commitment to not publicly bash the other. Obviously, there is a lot of America-bashing in Turkish public opinion. People at the highest levels of government cannot restrain themselves. Similarly, Turkey-bashing has become rather popular in the U.S. Both parties have to retrain themselves. Here, we must keep in mind that the U.S. Congress is a more active organization in American foreign policy making than the Turkish parliament and that there are some lobbies that keep an eye on Turkey and agitate for anti-Turkish policies. Turkey’s approach to fixing its image problem in the U.S. should be cognizant of these factors.

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