After taking a nosedive, US-Turkish relations seem to have entered a holding pattern, as policymakers ponder ways to revive the strategic partnership. Many analysts in both the United States and Turkey say that a major rethinking is needed if bilateral ties are to be sustainable.
The last few weeks have put US-Turkish ties to the test. The recent adoption by a House of Representatives subcommittee of a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide inflamed public opinion in Turkey and led to threats by Ankara that it would cut off American access to a vital military airbase used for the supply of troops and equipment to Iraq. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Meanwhile, continued attacks by rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) on Turkish forces including one on October 7 that killed 13 soldiers led to the Turkish parliament's approval of a motion which would allow the military to go into Northern Iraq in pursuit of the PKK's fighters. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Any such military action would put the country on a collision course with the United States, which has made clear its opposition to any Turkish cross-border move.
Although the genocide bill now appears to be stalling on its way to a full vote in the House, and Ankara has, for the moment, held off on any military raid into Iraq, observers in both Turkey and the United States say they remain concerned that the once close relationship between the two NATO allies may continue to deteriorate.
"I think we bought some time, but I'm not so sure whether we can state comfortably, if you're someone who values the trans-Atlantic relationship with Turkey, that the relationship, in its current form, is sustainable," says Suat Kiniklioglu, a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and spokesman for the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.
"When you look back, 20 or 15 years later, this may be a milestone or turning point in [Turkish]-US relations."
The current tension represents a dramatic reversal for Ankara and Washington, two countries that enjoyed close strategic ties during the Cold War. The relationship at that time was based on a mutual fear of the Soviet Union. Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, says the end of the Cold War has left both countries struggling to redefine their alliance.
"Previously both sides were very careful in what they said to each other. That was borne out of mutual need during the Cold War, and that is not the case now, and that, I think, will allow for the relationship to continue to deteriorate," Aliriza says.
"This is very serious, and both sides have neglected tackling the core problem of the relationship, which is the absence of an accord on a strategic relationship," he adds. "And unless that happens, this is an alliance in name only."
The reaction, for example, from Turkish political and military leaders to the approval of the House subcommittee's genocide resolution, was unusually harsh. "Our military relations with the United States can never be the same," Turkey's top general, Yasar Buyukanit, told the Milliyet newspaper. "The United States shot its own foot."
But observers point out that the recent vote in the US Congress is actually only the latest incident in a string of crises involving Ankara and Washington that has undermined mutual trust. The touchstone for tension was the Turkish parliament's failure in March, 2003, to approve a motion that would have enabled US forces to move into Iraq from across the Turkish border. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"I think in the Pentagon there is still residual resentment over what happened in March, 2003," says one long-time lobbyist in Washington, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic. "I think there's also a sense on the Hill that Turkey is less of an ally. There is a sense that it's a different Turkey."
In Turkey, meanwhile, perceptions of the United States both among the general public and the ruling elites have also taken a negative turn over the last few years. A 2006 survey taken by the Pew Research Center, found that only 12 percent of Turks had a favorable view of the United States. The arrest of several Turkish soldiers by US troops in northern Iraq in June of 2003, and a widespread belief that Washington is doing little to get rid of the PKK's presence in northern Iraq have helped turn Turks against Washington.
As Ali Bulac, a columnist for the liberal-Islamic Zaman newspaper, recently wrote: "The clearest fact is that the real threats against Turkey come not from its neighbors, but from its
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.