Jacob L. Shapiro

Turkey and the United States are no strangers to disagreement. In recent years, Ankara has accused the U.S. of tacitly supporting an attempted military coup in Turkey and of openly supporting a Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, that is hostile to Turkey’s interests. The U.S., for its part, has complained that Turkey has not done enough to combat the real terrorist threat – the Islamic State – and it has criticized Turkish policies that increase the power of the president and curtail freedom of expression. Things got so bad at the end of last year that the two sides briefly suspended visa services after a U.S. Consulate employee was arrested on suspicion of espionage.

Through it all, one topic has always been more important than the others: the status of U.S. forces at Incirlik air base. That status is now in question, and with it, the future of U.S.-Turkish relations.

The Wall Street Journal reported March 11 that the U.S. military had not only curbed its combat operations at Incirlik but was also considering “permanent cutbacks,” according to unnamed U.S. officials. A spokesman for U.S. European Command insisted that U.S. operations continue unabated, and Turkish sources cited in state-run Anadolu news agency confirmed the denial. Yet neither report mentioned the future cutbacks, and the fact that there was something to refute in the first place is important in its own right. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.

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Back-Up Plans

The United States has, in no uncertain terms, scaled back its combat operations at Incirlik. The U.S. military moved a squadron of A-10 ground attack jets from Incirlik to Afghanistan in January, for example, leaving just a squadron of refueling aircraft and a squadron of Predator drones at the base. (The U.S. has at times stationed F-16s at Incirlik in the fight against the Islamic State but not recently.) The transfer of the A-10s to Afghanistan makes sense; Washington has increased its military presence in Afghanistan, and the A-10s are ideally suited for operations there. Their transfer has nothing to do with the fact that Turkey and the U.S. disagree from time to time.

Still, even the possibility of permanent cutbacks is notable, as is the timing of the leak. It comes a week before a high-level meeting between Turkey’s foreign minister and the U.S. secretary of state but roughly one week after it appeared that a bilateral agreement had been made to set aside their differences and work together in Syria.

As if the leak were not enough, there have been other developments in the past few days that suggest all is not well between the U.S. and Turkey. Over the weekend, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized NATO for not coming to Turkey’s aid in northern Syria despite his country’s participation in other NATO operations. Erdogan has a penchant for fiery rhetoric, but combined with the news about Incirlik, his comments suggest Turkey has sincere doubts about NATO’s commitment to its security and about its relations with the United States.

Meanwhile, Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based Saudi daily, reported March 11 that the Syrian government recently received a copy of a Russian-Turkish agreement on future control of northern Syria. According to the report, Turkey is to retain control over Afrin and will set up observation points in strategic areas important for its continued assault on the YPG. In return, Syrian government forces will be given 10 positions on the Turkey-Syria border. It is impossible to confirm the particulars of Asharq al-Awsat’s account, but even so, there is plenty of evidence that Turkey continues to seek an understanding with Russia and Iran over its presence in Syria. Indeed, Turkey’s foreign minister traveled to Russia on March 12 for talks with Russian officials over Syria, and the three countries are scheduled to hold a summit on Syria in April. So even as Turkey negotiates with the U.S., it is exploring back-up plans as well.

A Better Position

For Turkey and the U.S., this all comes down to a single issue: Kurds. Turkey opposes U.S. support of Syrian Kurdish groups, most notably the YPG. The U.S. does not want to abandon the YPG after having trained and supplied it in a largely successful fight against the Islamic State. But that is just the tactical issue. The strategic issue is that the days when the U.S. could dictate terms to Turkey are over. In the past, Turkey capitulated to the U.S. because if it didn’t, it might have to face potential enemies like Russia alone.

Turkey’s ideal strategy is to be a strategic partner of the U.S. that does not have to subordinate its interests to Washington’s, especially if that means making concessions on Kurdish autonomy. The price of Turkey’s friendship is the abandonment of the Kurds. If the U.S. cannot pay the price, then Ankara will figure things out on its own.

Going it alone, of course, would require some kind of arrangement with Russia and Iran over the future of Syria. Turkey and Russia might be able to work out an agreement on Syria’s future since both sides have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Iran, however, sees the next phase in Syria’s civil war as a tremendous opportunity for its ambitions as a great power in the region, and Russia will have a difficult time holding Iran back. Any agreement between the three will be as temporary as previous agreements, no more than a pretense for the continued pursuit of strategic objectives. But Turkey is better positioned in Syria long term than Assad, Russia or Iran. The Assad regime is a minority ethnic and religious dictatorship, Iran is a foreign Shiite invader, and Russia is tainted by its support of Assad and Iran and has little more than air assets to deploy to the Syrian theater.

Turkey, on the other hand, is supporting powerful anti-Assad rebel groups. Despite the ethnic differences between Arabs and Turks, they are at least both Sunni, a shared tradition that, along with the common fight against the Assad government, will go in Turkey’s favor. (Not to mention how much easier it is for Turkey, geographically, to bring force to bear in Syria than it is for Russia and Iran.) Turkey would prefer to be less assertive in Syria, but if the only other options are to continue to carry water for the U.S. or to accept a permanent Iranian presence on its southern border, Turkey will decline both. Instead, it will pursue an independent foreign policy and make temporary pragmatic arrangements as circumstances dictate.