Friends Without Benefits: The US-Turkish Alliance

October 24, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

At a time when humanitarian intervention was developing into a normative standard above and beyond a legal principle, highlighted by the “illegal but legitimate” intervention in Kosovo, Turkey was afforded a privileged position of international immunity. While behaving in a manner that ordinarily ought to have defined itself as an outlier nation and a candidate for international military intervention, Turkey not only managed to avoid such attention, but also to remain as an ally in both name and substance to most of the international community. This appears to be a contradiction in nature that Turkey has failed to grow out of.

The 1990’s saw the international community supply significant resources, troops and political energy into halting mass atrocities within global conflict zones, including East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Though often limited in scope and flawed in application, these conflicts demanded our moral attention, and similarly scarred our consciences through their failures. For the most part, Turkey escaped our collective attention and outrage.

Though it has become customary to refer to Turkey’s long running conflict with its Kurdish population as a ‘civil war’, the historical record and weight of evidence unambiguously indicates a more one-sided and criminally suffused scenario. During the 1990’s and early 2000’s the Turkish government undertook a vast and systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing upon its Kurdish residents.

This sustained violence was only possible due to the political protection, and particularly the sale of arms from Western nations (the United States supplied over 80 per cent of Turkey’s military armaments during this period). In the midst of this harm, 1994 stands out as the high-water mark of the violence – a year that ignominiously coincided with Turkey becoming the world’s single largest importer of US military equipment. By the year 1997, annual US arms’ exports to Turkey were surpassing the entirety of such exports for the period from 1950 to 1983. With this increased military capability, and guarantee of future supply, Turkish forces killed tens of thousands of Kurds, created 2-3 million forced refugees, and destroyed seven times as many population centres as NATO did during their entire intervention in Kosovo.

Yet it tends to be the other face of the Turkish state that draws international attention. After the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, headed by once Prime Minister, now President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has become an economic success story. In this period, GDP has more than trebled, the economy has been growing at an average rate of 6 percent annually, Turkey now resides within the world’s top twenty global economies, and is an increasingly important member of the G20. And, unlike that of China, Turkey’s growth has been accompanied by increased levels of domestic consumption which, despite leading to large current account deficits, has instilled a sustainability and structural resilience to the pattern of growth. Furthermore, Turkey has maintained its position as a stalwart of NATO, and a country actively seeking deeper global integration through EU membership.

This public face has seen Turkey consistently championed from both sides of US politics as, not just an important regional ally, but as one of the few international actors with whom the United States truly shares common values.

This belief is mistaken – and its insistence has allowed Turkey to sustain as the four highest recipient of US military aid, having received well over $40 billion since the end of the Second World War, whilst simultaneously behaving in the most unconducive and obstructionist manner toward US foreign policy objectives.

Despite fighting alongside American troops during the Korean War and sustaining as a key ally throughout the Cold War, Turkish posturing toward Cyrus throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s continually soured the relationship. After Turkey eventually invaded the island, the US were embarrassingly forced to impose an arms embargo, though temporary, upon a fellow NATO partner. Turkey later refused to open its territory for the US military during the 2003 Iraq War, thereby diminishing the strength of the northern front in the conflict, and Turkish support in Afghanistan proved to be ostensibly symbolic, with troops only deployed within the relative safety of Kabul, from where they largely refused requests to extend or relocate their mission. Beyond this, Turkey opposed the humanitarian intervention in Libya despite the United Nations Security Council successfully invoking the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P), and was painfully slow to withdraw its support of Assad in Syria. Moreover, despite operating as a proxy for Iranian nuclear disarmament, Turkey signed the Tehran Research Reactor deal in 2010 with Iran and Brazil, thereby effectively undermining disarmament efforts, and later voted against proposed United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran in response to Iran’s continued violations of international nuclear protocols.

This is a partnership without substance, built entirely upon the tacit value Washington places upon its ‘friendship’ with Ankara. A partnership where, beyond the perpetual supply of foreign aid, the US feels obliged to champion the moral fibre of the Turkish government, whilst also feeling obliged to remain substantially silent concerning their international absenteeism and internal suppression of minorities, journalists, academics and critics. This dichotomy has deeply infected the US political landscape, whereby publicly mentioning the 1915 Armenian Genocide is increasingly seen to be on a par with the sort of political suicide that similarly corresponds to criticising Israel.

The latest manifestation of this paradigm has played out over the besieged Syrian town of Kobane and its connection to what is ignominiously referred to as the ‘Kurdish Problem’.

The spectre of Kurdish ethnic separatism has long been the justification for the maintenance of a semi-authoritarian state in Turkey. Historical attempts at forced assimilation and cultural suppression by the Turkish state understandably resulted in Kurdish resistance movements, which predominantly formed around the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). However, these hostilities were brought to an end in 2013, after the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan announced a negotiated ceasefire with the Turkish government. The subsequent withdrawal of PKK troops into Iraqi-Kurdistan brought an end to 30 years of conflicts, and over 40,000 deaths.

In light of this, and in light of the Turkish parliament having declared war on both the Syrian regime and ‘Islamic State’ following the recent release of Turkish hostages, the fact that Kobane is predominately Kurdish and loosely affiliated with the PKK would appear to be entirely incidental to Turkey’s publicly declared national interest. No conscionable state would allow a massacre on its border if it had the capacity to stop it, as Turkey does. And with Syria now existing as a collapsed state, and with the unquestionably humanitarian impetus for intervention, international law would likely not present as a barrier to defending the citizens of Kobane from Islamic State militants.

Yet as the situation in Kobane has descended into running street battles, with Islamic State holding approximately a third of the town, and as coalition airstrikes attempt to protect the remaining population (180,000 have already fled); only a few hundred meters away, and literally within eyesight of the violence, the Turkish military, as the second largest army in NATO, has remained within the Turkish border.

Worse still, Turkey has inexplicably arrested both Kurdish refugees fleeing the violence and Turkish citizens returning from the fighting in order to seek medical treatment. Moreover, until recently, Turkey has barred both Kurdish fighters and supplies from entering Kobane to help with the fighting.

Kobane unequivocally represents a worsening humanitarian emergency, and a strategically important town in the global effort to degrade Islamic State. Turkish willingness to not only let the conflict continue, but to obstruct efforts that might save the town and its population, is not only morally, but also strategically unjustifiable. The only reasonable explanation for this behaviour, is that despite the calming of Kurdish hostilities, Turkey still sees the Kurds as a danger to their country – and a danger on par with Islamic State. This conviction has seemingly made Turkey unwilling to engage Islamic State and to fulfil its international obligations, out of fear that such actions might in some small way help a Kurdish population, though be it a foreign one. In violation of their own publicly stated commitments to the contrary, Turkey is effectively aiding and facilitating Islamic State fighters on its own doorstep, in the hope that these fighters can engage the Kurdish population of Kobane is an exhaustive, and resource-depleting conflict.

Recognising this reality, and being forced to watch helplessly as their own people are killed within eyesight, Turkish-Kurds vented this anger in street protests on the 7th of October. Where an unfolding genocide on their border could not convince Turkey into military action, these street protests succeeded – the Turkish military finally mobilised. Yet, rather than striking Islamic State they bombed PKK strongholds in North-Eastern Iraq (an action that had been predicted in some quarters due to the openness of the language employed by the Turkish parliament in its declaration of war).

Throughout all of this, the United States has been betrayed as much as anyone. It has, through various diplomatic avenues and mediums (leading all the way up to Secretary of State John Kerry), been pleading with Turkey to behave an as ally in substance, rather just in name. Until now however, no amount of begging has yet managed to convince Turkey to intervene in Kobane. Moreover, currently the US and its allies have been refused access to Turkish airbases to facilitate the international air campaign against Islamic State.

The United States, NATO, and indeed the international community as whole, must begin to realise that they are receiving an ever-decreasing return from their investment in Turkey, and must begin to face the realisation, that Turkey, though masquerading as a constructive international actor, is proving ever-increasingly to be an outlier nation.