Last Thursday, the SETA Foundation in Washington hosted Richard Outzen of the US Department of State, Mark Kimmitt of MTK Defense Consultants, Kilic B. Kanat of the SETA Foundation, as well as moderator Kadir Ustun of the Foundation to discuss the future of US-Turkey relations. The discussion gave an overview of the history of relations between the two countries, examined contemporary challenges, and proposed solutions. The discussion was timely, because of the recent “mini diplomatic crisis” that began in October, when the US halted the issuance of nonimmigrant visas to Turkish citizens, and Turkey reciprocated. Despite the gravity of this development, which was caused by the detention of US consular officers in Turkey as part of coup investigations, Ustun maintained that there are other, more serious points of contention.
The history of US-Turkey relations is replete with both long-standing tension and cooperation. Outzen outlined three main events as points of conflict: the presence of US troops in Turkey in the 1990s, the distrust that emerged because of Turkey’s Cyprus operation in the 70s, and the ensuing US embargo on Turkey. Kanat described the history of US-Turkey relations as a “roller coaster” distinguished by a vague dynamic. Kimmit shed light on positive developments in relations between Turkey and the US, citing their cooperation in Bosnia and Iraq, the existence of a US base in Turkey, and agreement on the Kurdish referendum.
Outzen and Kanat also described current causes of conflict. First is the “complex of issues” linked to the Turkish coup and Turkish political and religious figure Fethullah Gulen. Gulen, accused by the Turkish government of having organized the coup attempt of 2013, has been living in the United States and has been the subject of an extradition request by the Turkish government. The US government’s “failure to extradite Gulen,” Outzen explained, has been seen as unworthy of an ally. Outzen acknowledged that the US believes the coup to have been violent and unjustified, but that Washington also had concerns about blatant rights violations in the process of punishing those deemed responsible.
The PKK issue was also another point of tension. Outzen described the two sides, saying that Turkey interpreted the US integration of PKK fighters into the Syrian Democratic Forces as a show of support for the PKK and, by extension, undermining of Turkish power. The United States, on the other hand, sees the SDF as admirable, particularly in light of its contributions to the fight against ISIS. Kanat emphasized the significant distrust that the apparent US support for the PKK has caused, saying the PKK issue “unites Turks.”
There are nevertheless possibilities to strengthen the US-Turkey relationship. Outzen stated that an increased understanding of the other country’s national interests and values should be fostered on both sides, and that “economy to economy cooperation” should be developed and given more importance than military cooperation, for which a framework which already exists. Kimmit emphasized that the current challenges to the relations between the US and Turkey are not “structural and long-term” but rather temporary and solvable. He highlighted the importance of Turkish trust of the United States, which he found to be lacking, as well as improved public relations on both sides. Kanat called on the United States to be more transparent with Turkey on its positions and plans, mentioning specifically the lack of a clearly communicated policy on Syria, which, if shared, could foster understanding and create possible areas of cooperation.