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Friend or Foe? How US Perceptions of Turkey Have Shifted

US Perceptions Turkey
A picture worth a thousand words? The leaders of Russia, Iran, and Turkey present a united front at their meeting in Tehran earlier in July 2022. Credit: Russian Presidency

US perceptions of Turkey have shifted in the last decade to the extent that analysts and policymakers are openly questioning whether Ankara remains a reliable ally under Erdogan.

“I think people in Washington have been questioning the reliability of Turkey as an ally for some years now,” said Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC).

Before 2013, Turkey was seen in Washington as a democracy, a model for the Muslim countries of the Middle East and the Turkic-speaking republics of Central Asia. It was viewed as the easternmost bulwark of NATO against Russia and Islamic extremism.

Now, things have changed. In his confirmation hearing for the post of secretary of state in January 2021, Antony Blinken said that Turkey is not acting like an ally. “The idea that a strategic—so-called strategic—partner of ours would actually be in line with one of our biggest strategic competitors in Russia is not acceptable,” he said at the time.

“If you look at the Congressional level the change of attitudes towards Turkey is huge. Last summer a whole hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was entirely devoted to Turkey which is unprecedented,” Zemenides told Greek Reporter. “A US ally being treated in a hearing shows how problematic the US-Turkey relation has become.”

The Greek-American analyst also pointed out a 2018 landmark report on Turkey by the influential Council of Foreign Relations titled “Neither Friend nor Foe.”

That report is very indicative of the mood in Washington, says Zemenides, who adds that “if you look at a number of recent reports by think-tanks that traditionally were very supportive of the US-Turkey alliance they now have become tremendously critical, especially the think tanks that do not take foreign money or money from Turkish interests.”

2013 Gezi crackdown a turning point in US perceptions of Turkey

For Zemenides, who spent over a decade at the intersection of policy and politics, US perceptions of Turkey began shifting in 2013 during the so-called Gezi protests.

Violent protests and strikes initially to contest the urban development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park spread across Turkey. The protests developed into a wide range of concerns at the core of which were issues of freedom of the press, of expression, and of assembly, as well as the alleged political Islamist government’s erosion of Turkey’s secularism.

Police suppressed the protests with tear gas and water cannons. In addition to the eleven deaths and over eight thousand injuries, more than three thousand arrests were made.

“The extreme crackdown of the Gezi Park protests [started] getting the attention of Democrats in the US,” Zemenides said.

“Until that point, President Obama was speaking to Erdogan as often and as much as he was speaking to [German Chancellor] Merkel and [UK Prime Minister] Cameron,” he adds.

The coup against Erdogan and S-400s

The Gezi revolt crackdown, the reluctance of Turkey to join whole-heartedly the fight against ISIS, and the new crackdown against Gülenists after the alleged coup against Erdogan in 2016 alienated policy-makers and lawmakers in the US.

“If you look at the Obama-Erdogan relationship before and after 2013 they are two completely different relationships,” Zemenides notes. “Turkey’s attack on Democracy was the beginning of a shift in the US.”

“Erdogan purged his opponents and declared war on the Gülenists who up to that point were the major Turkish lobby in the US [, and as] a result, that not only deprived Turkey of some political capital in the US, but also created another lobby against,” Zemenides added.

In May 2017, Turkish security agents, along with Turkish-American citizens attacked a group of people, protesting against Erdogan at Sheridan Circle. The assailants crossed police lines and assaulted the protesters, screaming “Die, Kurds!” while punching and kicking many of them.

“I think the exclamation point of this shift in American perception of Turkey came during the attack of demonstrators in 2017 on American soil under the watchful eye of Erdogan,” he said.

The Russian S-400 debate was a tipping point,” Zemenides told Greek Reporter. He was referring to the 2017 decision by Turkey to override US opposition and sign a $2.5 billion agreement for delivery of the S-400 air defense system agreement. The US retaliated by suspending Turkey from the F-35 fighter program and imposing CAATSA sanctions.

Turkey’s request for F-16s

The acquisition of the Russian missile system has complicated Turkey’s request to buy new and upgrade existing F-16 fighter jets, the Greek-American analyst said.

“The upgraded F-16s share some elements of the F-35. Having these upgraded F-16s in the same theater as the S-400s presents a danger…The Pentagon does not want to have F-35s in the same theater as S-400s because it could make US technology vulnerable to the Russians,” Zemenides said.

He stressed that despite several press reports, President Biden has not applied any pressure on Congress to agree to the sale of fighter aircraft to Turkey.

“The sale process will depend on how the administration in its negotiations with Turkey accommodates the congressional concerns,” the analyst said explaining that lawmakers in Congress are questioning whether it’s appropriate to send weapons to a NATO ally that threatens another NATO ally, namely Greece.

“There is also the concern about whether the sale of F-16 to Turkey is legal as CAATSA sanctions have been imposed,” he said. “It is difficult to see how the administration is going to get over this. Will Turkey somehow come into compliance? There are still a lot of factors that need to be sorted out.”

Turkey has problems with almost all of its neighbors, and people in Washington are taking note. “They are thinking: Where there is smoke, there is fire,” Zemenides told Greek Reporter.

Greece-Turkey crisis

The Greek-American analyst said that there is a fear in Washington that a military confrontation between Greece and Turkey may erupt.

“Even if there is no fear of a concerted or a planned conflict, the opportunities for conflict are just too high,” Zemenides said.

He noted that in the four months before Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited the US in May, Turkey conducted 2,500 airspace violations. “Reasonable thinkers cannot explain that number. You cannot also expect Greece to let it go by.”

He said that there is great concern in the US that there are not any meaningful de-escalation measures if a military incident does occur.

“There is great concern in the US that Greece and Turkey are not speaking to each other,” Zemenides said, and “The fact is that there is no line of communication which makes de-escalation problematic.”

Zemenides laments the fact that the US leverage over Turkey is now at an all-time low.

“Washington does not use its leverage,” he said. “Three consecutive administrations have allowed Turkey to think that the US will blink first. They allowed Turkey to think that the US needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the US.”


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