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What Could Still Go Wrong: More Reasons for Pessimism on U.S.-Turkish Relations

That so many people in Turkey – including many in the government itself – believe that the United States is systematically working to destroy their country certainly ranks among the major challenges facing the U.S.-Turkish alliance. But another challenge comes from the tentative optimism of those with a more sanguine view of U.S. motives.

For conspiracy-minded Turkish commentators, unpopular U.S. policies like support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) or refusal to extradite Fetullah Gulen make sense as part of a broader effort to weaken either Turkey or President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But for others these decisions have appeared as more of a puzzle, eliciting a range of potential explanations. U.S. support for the YPG, for example, has been explained as a remnant of former president Barack Obama’s controversial Syria policy, or of ongoing confusion in the current White House empowering the U.S. military to take the lead on key decisions.

One consequence of these less conspiratorial interpretations, in turn, is a widely voiced belief that at some point the U.S. government will come to its senses, recognize its own interests and abandon the policies that have needlessly antagonized Turkey. Someone in Washington, the assumption seems to be, will eventually get around to making a sober calculation of the country’s priorities and realize that siding with Turkey, a large regional power, makes more sense than casting America’s lot with, say, the Syrian Kurds.

What stands out about this assessment, of course, is that, unlike many of the conspiracies that get peddled it is not at all absurd. Critiques of Obama’s Syria policy have been widespread, and the general confusion in the current White House is far too real. More to the point, there are certainly people in Washington who to some extent share this assessment of U.S. interests, and have advocated for a similar shift in U.S. policy.

But, as even many of Turkey’s most sympathetic American interlocutors would be quick to point out, there are numerous obstacles preventing Washington from taking a more pro-Turkish turn. Moreover, any Turkish assessment that is not self-critical enough to recognize these factors will likely lead to disappointment.

Much as the Turkish government’s refusal to engage with the inescapable legal dimension of Gulen’s extradition heightened tensions after the attempted coup, its recent actions have shaped U.S. political and public opinion in ways that risk undermining attempts at accommodation. For example, U.S. support for the YPG emerged out of Washington’s frustrations with Turkey’s own anti-ISIS policies. More recently, the decision to seek a life sentence for jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson in the midst of bilateral negotiations over the future of Manbij, whether intentional or not, shows just how self-defeating Ankara’s aggressive approach can be.

Turkish observers are not wrong to detect a certain cynical self-interest in the U.S. foreign policy decisions. By ignoring the limits and the logic of that cynicism, however, they risk misunderstanding how Turkey has fallen afoul of it. U.S. policy can happily look the other way when a friendly strongman imprisons an opposition leader, but when an unfriendly one imprisons U.S. citizens and State Department employees, the pressure to respond mounts. 

In short, anyone in Ankara who is expecting the United States to recognize its own interests in regard to Turkey should also recognize the impediments Ankara has created. Absent any evidence of this recognition, everyone would do well to resign themselves to an ongoing impasse — and hope that if the tentative optimism of those still counting on a change in U.S. policy gets dashed, this does not produce a new crisis in itself.

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