Turkey’s ongoing attack against U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria has led to mounting concern about the possibility that if Turkish forces press east they could come into direct conflict with U.S. soldiers. But even if this nightmare situation is avoided, the situation as it stands today is doing enormous damage. Already, Turkish papers and politicians are presenting Turkey’s incursion into Syria as a battle against the United States itself – a narrative that will poison the bilateral relationship regardless of how events unfold in the near future.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, commenting on U.S. military support for Syrian Kurdish forces, announced recently that it was proof Washington “had designs against Turkey.” Meanwhile, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag announced that U.S. soldiers in uniforms of the Kurdish YPG “could be targeted” as well.
As always, one of the most dramatic examples of anti-American rhetoric in the Turkish press came from Ibrahim Karagul, editor in chief of the pro-government Yeni Safak. In a column, conveniently posted in English, Karagul wrote that the “U.S. is now the closest, greatest and most open threat for Turkey. It is an enemy country. It is a serious threat to our country’s existence, its unity, integrity, present and the future. It is carrying out an open attack, and an undeclared war against Turkey.” In the newspaper Sabah, one columnist wrote that it was time for the United States to decide which end of Turkey’s guns it wanted to be on, while another suggested elements of the U.S. deep state would try to initiate an armed incident in Syria to open a wider war against Turkey. Most recently, when five Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack on a Turkish tank, the Turkish press was unanimous in declaring, absent any evidence, that they had been killed by a rocket provided by the United States.
Not surprisingly, Turkish public opinion is fiercely anti-American.
Not surprisingly, Turkish public opinion is fiercely anti-American. Tellingly, one recent survey revealed that 85 percent of Turkish citizens support the government’s military operation in Syria, while 90 percent see the United States as “behind” the enemy that Turkey is fighting there. Indeed, what makes the situation alarming is that support for the government’s anti-American rhetoric resonates far beyond Erdogan’s base of support. In some cases, Erdogan’s nationalist opponents have taken the lead in trying to escalate the situation. For example Meral Aksener, a female politician who has garnered favorable press as a possible challenger to Erdogan in the 2019 presidential election, earlier called for the Incirlik airbase to be closed to U.S. forces. More recently, she demanded that Turkey march not only on Manbij but even further east, thereby risking a confrontation with U.S. forces.
Some analysts have speculated that the alarming rise in anti-Americanism could be reversed if Erdogan, perhaps under U.S. pressure, simply told Turkey’s tightly controlled press to knock it off. Others have suggested, alternatively, that it would diminish if America just stopped supporting the YPG. Even if either of these moves would be sufficient though, neither is going to happen in the near future. This means that U.S. policymakers should be planning for the consequences of today’s alarming rhetoric. At the very least, it might be a good time to check out some of the alternatives to Incirlik.