Amid a growing divergence with the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years on numerous issues, the United States seems to have been intent on maintaining some distance from Turkey, a policy that has resulted in sidelining Ankara from significant global and regional events.
The most recent display of Washington’s displeasure with the Erdogan government’s policies was evident during diplomatic efforts by the US to broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel and establish a humanitarian corridor for the safe passage of civilians and the provision of aid and supplies to Gaza. US Secretary Antony Blinken chose not to visit Ankara while touring capitals in the Middle East.
Frustrated by the US sidelining of Turkey in shuttle diplomacy, President Erdogan directly expressed his criticism of the US. He lambasted Washington for deploying an aircraft carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean, accusing the US of preparing for a potential massacre of Palestinians in Gaza through such a deployment. Additionally, he took direct aim at Blinken, criticizing the top American diplomat for comments about his Jewish ancestry made during a visit to Israel.
Although Turkey is a major supporter of Hamas in the region, and the Erdogan government has forged a close alliance with Hamas leadership, sidelining Ankara carries a significant message to the region. It suggests that Washington is not really interested in extending much credit to Turkey in this latest diplomatic campaign. Additionally, it indicates that Turkey may not have much to bring to the table.
Another significant instance of the US distancing itself from Erdogan’s government was when Turkey was notably absent from the list of invitees to an online summit focusing on advancing democracy and human rights, hosted by US President Joe Biden in March of this year. This marked the second occasion on which Turkey was not extended an invitation, following its exclusion from the attendee list for the first online summit on the same topic hosted by Biden in December 2021.
Sidelining Turkey from these summits has occurred in parallel with the US’s increasing criticism over the past decade of Turkey’s deteriorating human rights record.
The US State Department’s annual reports, known as “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” have consistently cited Turkey for widespread human rights violations. These violations encompass arbitrary killings, suspicious deaths of individuals in custody, forced disappearances, instances of torture, arbitrary arrests and the prolonged detention of tens of thousands of individuals. This includes opposition politicians, former members of parliament, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists and even an employee of the US mission.
Relations between the US and Turkey, two NATO allies, deteriorated significantly following Turkey’s acquisition of a Russian S-400 missile defense system in 2016, which the US believed could be employed for espionage on Western defenses. In response, Washington imposed sanctions on Turkey’s defense procurement agency and its officials in 2020.
Arguably, the most notable instance of the US government distancing itself from President Erdogan’s Turkey occurred in Indonesia in November 2022. President Erdogan was not extended an invitation to an emergency meeting of some NATO and G7 leaders held on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali that convened in response to a missile incident which resulted in two casualties near the Ukraine-Poland border.
Despite Turkey’s NATO and G20 membership and having the second-largest army in terms of manpower within the alliance, sidelining President Erdogan from such an important meeting underscored a significant level of mistrust and a lack of confidence in Turkey among NATO allies.
It was obvious that Ankara’s growing rapport with Russia, Turkey’s distinct position as the only NATO member refraining from joining Western sanctions on Russia and its involvement in facilitating Russian business dealings to bypass these sanctions contributed significantly to the tensions between Turkey and its NATO allies.
The US government has also increased punitive measures against Turkey by imposing sanctions on a growing number of Turkish companies. These sanctions were imposed due to concerns related to Russia, Iran, Hamas and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Additionally, Turkey was expelled from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program because of its purchase of Russian S-400 long-range missiles, a deal valued at $2.5 billion. Moreover, Ankara’s efforts to secure the modernization of its aging F-16 fleet and the purchase of new F-16 fighter jets have not yielded positive outcomes thus far.
Ankara’s delay, extending over a year, in approving Sweden’s NATO membership in the Turkish Parliament, despite President Erdogan’s earlier pledges to expedite the process, continues to be a contentious issue between Turkey and the US. The Erdogan government failed to submit the NATO protocol for the approval of Swedish membership to parliament before the summer recess. Furthermore, it has yet to take any action in this regard, even after the reopening of parliament on October 1.
Turkish military operations in Syria that target the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a local partner of the US military in combatting ISIS, is another thorny issue at the bilateral level. On October 12 the White House explicitly cited Turkey’s military actions in northeast Syria as a major threat to US national security and foreign policy.
According to the notice, Turkey’s military offensive “undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), endangers civilians, and further threatens to undermine peace, security, and stability in the region.” This marks a significant shift, as the US administration directly implicates Turkey in contributing to regional instability and the persistence of ISIS.
Another indication of mistrust between Turkey and the US was evident during the evacuation of US nationals from Israel after Hamas’s attacks on Israeli targets, prompting a robust response from the Israeli armed forces. Instead of using Turkey, the transfer of US citizens to safety involved Cyprus and Greece.
Part of the reason for this tension may be the pronounced anti-US sentiment in Turkey, seemingly exacerbated by the rhetoric of Turkish officials. Over the past few days, the US diplomatic and military presence in Turkey has encountered significant pressure and faced angry crowds protesting Israeli attacks on Gaza targets and the increasing civilian casualties. The US Consulate in Adana witnessed individuals throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the outer wall of the building, while at the NATO radar base in Malatya province, where US troops are stationed, there were confrontations between angry protestors and police and gendarmes.
A parallel distancing from Turkey has also been manifested in relations with the European Union, which effectively suspended accession talks with Turkey in 2016 due to non-compliance with the union’s criteria. Furthermore, the EU stopped extending invitations to Turkey for Gymnich meetings, informal gatherings of foreign affairs ministers held every six months.