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17 January, 2020  ▪  Спілкувався: Yuriy Lapayev

Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı: “I think the US-Turkey relationships as we have known it is already dead”

During the 3rd Lviv Security Forum, the director of German Marshall Fund's office in Ankara discussed the current state of relations between Turkey, USA, and Russia and perspectives of Ukraine-Turkey dialogue

What are the roots of the current declining in the relationship between the USA and Turkey?


  • I believe there are three core problems in the US-Turkey relationship. The first problem is mutual suspicions. Basically, American policy-makers suspect, that Turkey at some point could flip to another side. The other side could be Russia, Iran or whatever, but away from West. The second suspicion, which is growing in Washington, is that the current administration in Turkey has implicit foreign policy agenda of Islamists, cooperating with radical Islamists in a way, that undermines the security interests of the US-allies in the Middle East. This is maybe a conspiracy theory or not, but for the people, who are believing in them perceptions replace reality. So when they are making their policies, these suspicions whether they are true or not, play a role. When we come to Ankara, Turks in general, actually, not only the government, believe and fear that the US has a long-term plan to create a Kurdish state on Turkish borders, that would in time claim some territories from Turkey and destabilize the country. This belief is actually very widespread in Turkish society right now. And therefore US cooperation with certain Kurdish groups in the Middle East actually seen through this prism. The second important suspicion in Turkey is limited to President Erdogan and his political circle, which is that the US plan of removing President Erdogan from power. Some people think, that this is just talking points for President Erdogan, but I think he really believes in this. On one of the rallies, he said on the record exactly the following: "They came against us with Gezi protests, they failed. They came with corruption allegations and failed. They came against us with a coup attempt and failed. Now they are coming against us with the economic crisis, they will fail. In the future, they will come with other means and again they will fail." And the "they" in these sentences is always the United States. 

The second core problem is the lack of a valid strategic framework of the relationship. Basically, the US-Turkey relations were set up in the middle of the Cold war and this was actually the response to the Soviet Union's claims for further control over the Turkish straits. And for this reason, Turkey reached out to NATO and was welcomed, became a NATO member. Turkey was also included in the Truman doctrine, became a US ally. So the relationship was based on that reality. On the other hand back to a strategic framework is about how the United States will protect Turkey and how Turkey would contribute to NATO's strategy for containing Soviet aggression. Turkey was basically the key country in the Alliance southern flank. So at that point, Turkey was a flank country. But now the Cold war is over, we have other challenges. Turkey is actually no longer a flank country if you think of the other theaters in the Middle East and North Africa. The current strategic framework explains very well how the United States would protect Turkey from major power such as Russia or how Turkey would contribute to European security, but it tells us nothing about how the US and Turkey will cooperate in the Middle East, which seems to be the main theatre right now. So we need a more updated strategic framework, for the cooperation between two countries. 

The third problem is an ownership problem. In the good old days, the owners of this relationship were the American military and the Turkish military. Two things happened with the American military: after the 9/11 military gained the upper hand in the foreign policy formulation in the US. In the past, The White House, Department of State, the CIA, etc would play the major roles. But after this terrorist act, everything was securitized and there for the Pentagon, particularly if it contains the use of hard power. This was not necessarily bad for Turkey, because we have perfect relations with Pentagon at that time. But another thing had happened simultaneously, which is within the US military: the CENTCOM gets the upper hand against EUCOM. In the Cold war, the EUCOM was the core of the US military, they were the most active part of the Army in defending Europe against the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold war, the EUCOM became less significant and due to never-ending wars in the Middle East, the CENTCOM become more important. With that Turkey starts experiencing problems, because while Turkey enjoyed excellent company with EUCOM, it did not have the same type of experience with the CENTCOM. That was because of Turkey's reluctance to join the Gulf war in 1991, and then Turkish rejection to open the country for American troops during the Iraq war in 2002. Officers of CENTCOM had not so good relations with Turkish colleagues, but same time have good cooperation with Kurdish groups, which Turkey sees as a challenge. So the Turkis and American military actually give up their ownership of the relationship, as the result of this follow-up. But not only that, there were individuals in both armies, who would stand up for the relationship. But now the atmosphere in Ankara and in Washington is so toxic, that people are intimidated to defend the relationship any longer. This is the case in Ankara, but also in Washington. I don't keep silent that we need this relationship, but many people do. So that three core problems are generating all other problems, that we are facing, such as US cooperation with YPG, or Americans imprisoning in Turkey. These are not the causes of the problems, but the outcomes. I think the US-Turkey relationships as we have known it is already dead. If we value this relationship we need to build a new one. 


If we talk more about perspectives for defence cooperation – what is the future for S-400 and F-35 programs?


  • It's very gloomy. Turkey for a decade wants to buy Patriot, but the United States was unable to make this offer attractive to Ankara in terms of price, financing and technology transfer. After the decade of negotiations, Turkey at the end of the day decides to buy S-400 systems from Russia, which Turkish politicians thought was a better deal. The problem is that Turkey was in the F-35 program, so Turkey would not only procure more than 100 of this fifth-generation fighters but also Turkish companies would manufacture key components of these planes, make a lot of revenue as opposed to the money, that Turkey would be paying for acquiring F-35s and there will be a serious technology transfer. The F-35 is the most advanced network-based system that NATO will have. And so far as American policy-makers are concerned F-35s and S-400s should not come together. So Turkish ongoing procedure of acquiring and operationalizing the S-400 systems for Americans means that Turkey can not have the F-35 and cannot play a role in the manufacturing of these planes. I don't think that this would change unless Turkey gives up on S-400. The story doesn't end here. This purchase makes Turkey a possible subject of CATSAA sanctions. If they are imposed upon the country, this could concern the future of Turkish own defence sector and of course, there would be implications not only for Turkish F-35 program (which is already over, I think) but also for updating of its existing F-16 fleet or other important systems that require American components. Either this could be included to CATSAA sanctions, or because of the US Congress could decide to create additional hindrances for Turkey.

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Are there concerns that the US could move its nuclear arsenal from Turkey?  


  • It is very interesting, because President Trump by mentioning it, actually, has acknowledged that the United States store gravity nuclear bombs in Turkey, which officially was not acknowledged earlier. But it can lead to that situation when the US will remove everything from Turkey.


There are other symbolical steps, such as recognition of the Armenian genocide. What could be the impact of that?


  • I think that decision was wrong for three reasons. First of all, this is the legislation of history. There is already a dominant version of history, which is that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against Armenians. But that doesn't mean that there are no other versions of history. Legislation of history by US Congress tells us, that there is only one vision. I don't think that the Parliaments are the right place to make decisions on what history was. Second, that legislation was clearly based on political development, which is totally irrelevant to what happened in Anatolia in the First World War. If I was an Armenian lobbyist, I would be actually against it, because they had been struggling almost a century to make the US Congress acknowledged that there was a genocide, but now the US Congress could use that as an argument in nonrelated political development, what undermines the credibility of the claims. Third, it is a short-term reaction to short-term development with long-term implications for US-Turkey relationships. When the relationships can be actually fixed, in the near future, but gestures like this could create permanent rapture and also destroy whatever support the US enjoys in Turkish society.


Coming to another close neighbor. Why nowadays we witness some cozy relations between Erdogan and Putin? What are the reasons for that?


  • There are a couple of ways to explain that. Countries, when they are facing a threat, they have two options. They either bandwagon with the source of the threat, meaning that they try to appease the source of threat. Or they balance against the threat with other countries. The answer is either Turkey is perceiving the threat from Russia and then Turkey doesn't have a chance to balance against Russia and therefor bandwagoning with Russia. Or Turkey is actually perceiving the threat from the USA and trying to balance together with Russia. If Turkey was perceiving a threat from Russia, it could easily balance against Moscow with the US and NATO, this is what we are doing for decades. Turkey had balanced the Soviet Union when it was much stronger than Russia is today. That is why the bandwagoning is not very usual. So the second version seems more likely. But then we need to ask who in Turkey perceives the threat from Russia and here we should make analysis at the state level and at the individual level. On a state level, I don't think that Turkey perceives a threat from the United States. Otherwise, the Turkish policy-makers wouldn't be so keen on buying F-35 and wouldn't be so reluctant as oppose to President Erdogan for buying S-400. The purchasing of the Russian system is the decision of the Turkish president and the government, but not the military. So at the state level, I don't see the Turkish government fears the US. But at the individual level of analysis, we see President Erdogan and circles around him fear that the US has a plan to remove him from power. So it is he who balancing against the USA with Russia. There is a very important angle here: if there would be a political change in Turkey, the Turkey-Russia relationship will collapse. Because it is Erdogan relations with Russia. But if President of the Russian Federation will be replaced, President Erdogan will continue his relations with whoever comes next. What should the USA do in this situation – to alleviate President Erdogan's fears, and do whatever it is in their capacity to prove that the US has no intention to play any role in the Turkish domestic political future.


What to do with further militarization of the Black Sea?


  • Russia is decided to militarize this region, so it is Moscow, who should agree to demilitarize it. And the only way that Russia could be persuaded is to make the militarization too costly. It is already very expensive and the Russian economy is not doing great. It could appear as a military giant but economically is rather a dwarf, facing the whole transatlantic community. But how Russia can still afford all these costs? Because it is benefiting from the growth of its military power, Black Sea Fleet in particular. Russia pursues two goals with this militarization – first, do dominate countries in the Black Sea region and to make sure that they can not integrate into Euroatlantic structures and second, to project power to Eastern Mediterranian and beyond. The response to the Russian strategy should be not to allow Russia to dictate the future of the countries in this region. Which would be to continue the integration of these countries to the Euroatlantic sphere, whatever Russia does. And actually, because Russia is doing what it does. And then second – to make it more expensive for Kremlin. We are not doing well on either front, so basically we slowed down the integration of Black Sea countries to NATO, precisely because of the Russian strategy, what is a mistake. Because we are not united in the transatlantic community, we cannot respond to the Russian strategy in the Eastern Mediterranian. Look at what Turkey and the Americans are doing in Syria. Russia is playing there for dividing two NATO allies very successfully. And in the Mediterranian NATO and the United States need to cooperate with Turkey in order to contain Russian expansion there. But there is draft legislation in the US to contain Turkey in Eastern Mediterranian. How do they expect to cooperate with Ankara after that? We need to unite better, but we are not there. 


What is the current Turkish position on Crimea? 

  • Despite the close relations between Erdogan and Putin, the Turkish policy toward Crimea and Ukraine is crystal clear, has not changed and will not change. First of all the Turkish Black Sea policy is based on the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of newly independent states in the area. This is why when there was a separatist’s movement in Georgia with groups, who feel the closeness to Turkey because of the religion, Ankara actually stood with Georgia for the territorial integrity and actively helped Tbilisi. This Turkish attitude has not changed. Turkey strongly rejects the illegal annexation of the Crimea. We are also concerned about the human rights of Crimean Tatars. And that remains the priority.


But same time just recently we have witnessed an official meeting of President Erdogan with some members of the Russian Parliament, including illegally elected Natalia Poklonska.

- That is maybe a contradiction, but it doesn't change Turkish policy. Because changing of policy would be contrary to Turkish interests. Before 2008 Turkey enjoys two buffer states between our country and Russia, I mean Ukraine and Georgia. After the Georgian war and annexation of Crimea, Russia is much closer. Russian S-400 systems, which probably could be soon replaced with more advanced and long-ranged S-500, if located in Tartus, Crimea, and Yerevan, can cover up to 90% of Turkish airspace. That makes Turkey uneasy. Also after the annexation of Crimea Russia try to replace Turkey as a dominant power in the Black Sea, this is not good for Ankara either. And the last thing - Turkey gives lots of importance to non-changing of the national borders through war because Turkey is concerned about protecting its own borders. Turkey for its own interests will always be against changing borders by military means.


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Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı. Hehas graduated from the Robert College (Istanbul), received his bachelor's degree in business administration from Marmara University and his master's degree from Koç University. Worked as a consultant at AB Consulting and Investment Services. Then continues as the director of the ARI Movement, a Turkish NGO promoting participatory democracy. Later Ünlühisarcikli was the manager of the Resource Development Department of the Educational Volunteers Foundation of Turkey. Now Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı is the director of GMF's office in Ankara.

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