Though reckless, a Turkish attack on Manbij would be consistent with Erdoğan’s habitual disregard for the alliance that has bound the United States and Turkey together since 1950. Under Erdoğan, Turkey carried out one of the largest recorded efforts to evade U.S.-sponsored international sanctions on Iran. Its media published maps of secret U.S. bases in Syria. It arrested an American pastor, a NASA employee and two Turkish employees of the U.S. State Department, on spurious charges, holding them as Erdoğan’s de facto hostages. Last spring, Erdoğan’s authoritarian lawlessness reached American shores when his bodyguards attacked protestors in Washington. Now, Turkey is purchasing a state-of-the-art air and missile defense system from Russia (that will be incompatible with NATO systems) and attacking U.S. partners in Syria, presenting both as part of the country’s heroic resistance to U.S. imperialism.
The U.S. response to these provocations has been driven by the hope that treating Turkey like a good ally eventually will convince it to resume behaving like one. A Turkish banker was convicted in a New York court for helping Tehran evade sanctions, but the Turkish regime’s complicity has gone unpunished. Washington started getting tough with Ankara for arresting U.S. government employees — imposing sweeping visa restrictions on Turkish citizens, causing the Turkish lira immediately to drop 3.1 percent — but backed off … without securing the release of its employees.
The current administration’s inability to communicate U.S. positions clearly makes matters worse. Prior to Turkey’s Afrin operation, the Pentagon announced a new U.S.-trained, predominantly Kurdish “Border Protection Force” in eastern Syria. When Turkey objected, the State Department effectively walked back the announcement. More troubling, after President Donald Trump spoke to Erdoğan about Turkey’s current military operation, the Turkish leader denied the White House assertion that Trump had expressed his concern about the possibility of a clash between U.S. and Turkish forces. Whether the president was unclear, the Turks had selective hearing, or, as seems entirely likely, some combination of the two, the result is destabilizing.
Unfortunately, the administration’s lack of clear messaging has only reinforced Erdoğan’s conviction that the United States will not meaningfully challenge him.
Eric Edelman, is a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and under secretary of defense for policy. Jake Sullivan, previously national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, serve as co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Managing Disorder in the Middle East.