Turkey–U.S. 2021: A no-win relationship

Turkey-U.S. relations have gradually progressed to low point after cycling through different stages within the last decade. Despite a “positive and productive” NATO gathering in Brussels on June 14, no dramatic change with the Biden administration is foreseen for the time being due to deepening fragility and lack of mutual trust caused by divergent political agendas. The most critical tests that Turkish-American relations have passed through range from Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program to its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, the U.S. backing of the PKK affiliated PYD/YPG in Syria and the Gulen file, the eastern Mediterranean to Idlib, and Libyan to the Nagorno-Karabakh crises, all of which have further escalated the confrontations into a major scuffle. When Biden arrived in office, bilateral relations had already deteriorated to the point of where the U.S. had decided to penalize Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for its purchase of S-400. It is no surprise that his detatched foreign policy approach towards Turkey, which ironically stands in stark contrast to Trump’s, has only started to take a turn, after a five-month wait, into a redefinition of the relationship in the direction of mending broken ties.


The downward spiral of relations between Turkey and the U.S. in fact began a decade ago during the •bama administration. The relationship began the 21st century on a positive footing with the talk of a “strategic partnership” during the Clinton and Bush years and even a “model partnership”. But the positive momentum was only temporary and has since shifted down a complex, often divergent and unpredictable path. Threatened by security crises in its southern periphery in the wake of the Arab uprisings, Turkey felt pressured to change its focus to a much more security-driven endeavor while aspired to pursue a more proactive foreign policy in the Middle East. It has readjusted its regional security agenda to mitigate all kinds of threats coming from the region, like Daesh and the mass flow of migrants and refugees. Meanwhile, the aftermath of the failed coup attempt as well as the transformation of the Syrian war into a proxy war, during which the U.S. has since given intense support to the Kurdish YPG militia which Turkey considers a terrorist group, have deepened the sense of distrust between the two allies. This has prompted Ankara to seriously reconsider its relationship with Washington.

Under the circumstances, Turkey has altered its passive approach to a more active engagement in the new regional context. It quickly established ties with Russia in the context of an emerging alliance. In a like manner, Russia, consistent with its growing engagement in the Middle East, has gladly granted Turkey a privileged position by which they have found common ground, irrespective of competing interests, to fill the power vacuum left after the gradual departure of the U.S. from the region.

On this front, Turkey’s establishing closer ties with Russia in a bid to pursue a more independent foreign policy from the West, named broadly as “strategic autonomy”, has clashed with U.S. interests. Particularly, Turkey’s disinclination to turn back from the Russian S-400 air defense system has generated political and economic backlash from Washington. Yet, the U.S. determination to empower the PYD/YPG in Syria, to complicate matters, has evermore shaken confidence between the two leading NAT• allies.


Caught in this quagmire over the last ten years, the two allies have been slow to reset bilateral relations. Although many of the current fault lines still remain and reveal the differences in the changing priorities and threat perceptions of both countries, today neither side can ignore the developments taking place both regionally and globally. In the throes of the post-pandemic recession, deteriorating relations have affected Turkey’s economy harshly as well as its vital security interests.

Now Ankara, irrespective of Biden’s bitter genocide remark last April, seeks to reduce the growing turbulence and rebuild shattered confidence with Washington. The U.S. is as well unwilling to allow for longterm damage to its diplomacy with Turkey. Although the Washington administration is wary of Turkey’s hard power foreign policy approach, it regards the NATO ally both as a critical security partner and an emerging key player in the Middle East. It is therefore careful to maintain a balance between its strategic interests and excessive punitive steps against Turkey.

This is much evident in its motivation to compromise with Turkey over the potential responsibility in securing Kabul’s airport, which is important for the operation of the foreign diplomatic presence in Afghanistan as a critical connection point to the outside world. It is now questionable whether the renewed impetus gained by Turkey’s pledged and yet risky initiative in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will genuinely bring a “new era” of diplomatic ties. Indeed, the future of the alliance appears increasingly more difficult to decipher for the time being.

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