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AEI: Could the United States and Turkey go to war?

Michael Rubin writes on the AEI's site that the idea of a war between nominal allies Turkey and the USA is far less far fetched than it sounds.


It was the stuff of nationalist drivel and mad conspiracy, but in Turkey it was an instant best-seller. Almost 15 years ago, Turkish novelists Orkun Ucar and Burak Turna penned a thriller titled Metal Storm, which describes a U.S.-Turkey war in which the United States occupies Istanbul, a Turkish agent detonates a stolen nuclear warhead in Washington, and Russia and China ultimately come to Turkey’s rescue. While the premise was far-fetched, many Turkish commentators at the time suggested a U.S.-Turkey conflict could become reality. It is time to recognize that they were right.

donald trump welcomes erdogan to white hopuse

President Donald Trump (L) welcomes Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the entrance to the West Wing of the White House in Washington, May 16, 2017. Reuters

No, the United States is neither going to launch a surprise attack on Turkey nor engage its putative NATO ally in the next several years, but the trajectory that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken Turkey suggests that enmity and conflict, rather than partnership and cooperation, are inevitable. While unlikely, it is no longer inconceivable that Turkey and the United States would one day be shooting at each other.

Consider the path down which Erdogan has taken Turkey:

  • Erdogan is now friendlier toward Russia and Iran than the United States. There’s a tendency in Washington to self-flagellate and assume deterioration in relations is our fault, but it’s not. Erdogan’s shift toward Russia had nothing to do with U.S. support for the Kurds. After all, Moscow has welcomed Syrian Kurdish political leaders while Washington has acceded to Ankara’s request to keep them isolated. And when Syrian Kurds have killed invading Turkish troops, they have done so with Kalashnikovs and RPGs, weaponry they had received from Russia or its clients, not the United States. Rather, Turkey’s turn toward Russia is driven by deep-seeded and ideological anti-American animus among Turkey’s top leaders. Anti-Americananti-Western, and anti-NATO incitement are daily themes of Erdogan’s speeches.
  • The Turkish military is now an engine for Islamism rather than a bastion of secularism. Every officer up to lieutenant colonel has now arisen in the Erdogan era and, because of Erdogan’s manipulation of promotions, pretty much every flag officer with two, three, or four stars is now Erdogan’s man as well. Hulusi Akar, the Turkish General Staff’s commander, betrayed both colleagues and oaths for the sake of personal ambition. In recent weeks, Fetih TV showed pictures of hardline Islamist mullahs visiting Turkish military units. Dogu Perincek, the Turkish military’s philosophical guide, is a former Maoist who is fiercely anti-NATO and pro-Russian. Adnan Tanriverdi, Erdogan’s military counselor, is an Islamist who founded SADAT, which now forms the core of Erdogan’s personal militia, the Turkish equivalent of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
  • There is very little discipline left in the Turkish military. Erdogan has purged most of the professional officers. Those left behind are now making videos honoringconvicted mafia leaders like Sedat Peker or gang leaders like Burak Doner. While the United States may not want a shooting war with Turkey, it is conceivable that a radical Islamist within the military’s midst will undertake an action that will solicit a response.
  • Turkey has become a terror sponsor. Erdogan embraces Hamas’ most militant leaders and arms them. There would have been no Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had it not been for Turkey’s open door to tens of thousands of foreign fighters. Erdogan’s own son-in-law’s emails show he profited off the Islamic State while thousands perished at their hands. When Turkish journalists provided photographic proof that Erdogan was arming an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, he had the journalists jailed. The West may cheer Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman for cracking down on extremism after decades of its Saudi sponsorship, but Turkey is picking up the slack in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Turkey’s financing of radical mosques now means that it is indoctrinating, funding, and training the next generation of extremists.
  • Turkish threats against the United States and its allies are becoming commonplace. After Houston-based Noble Energy began drilling in Cypriot waters in September 2011, Turkish Minister Egemen Bagis warned U.S. personnel not to enter the region, and said, “This is what we have the navy for. We have trained our marines for this; we have equipped the navy for this. All options are on the table; anything can be done.” Erdogan’s recent suggestions to create “an army of Islam” are, in Erdogan’s mind, not simple rhetoric.
  • Turkey has always been revanchist, but as Turkey’s economy falters (Turkey’s currency has lost more than half its value under Erdogan’s leadership) Erdogan has upped his claims to neighboring territory. Consider the following: Turkey occupies one-third of Cyprus, and occupies territory in both Iraq and Syria against the wishes of both those governments. In recent months, Erdogan has also laid claimsto parts of Greece and Bulgaria. Again, this is not mere rhetoric: Incidents between Greece and Turkey have skyrocketed. 

The West has a Turkey problem, and it is silly to pretend otherwise. Yes, Turkey is strategic, but it is lost. It has flipped into Russia’s camp, just as Egypt and Libya did during the Cold War. The difference then was that the West recognized the setback and moved to contain it; they did not pretend the alliance persisted and allow enemies open access to defense secrets nor share intelligence or latest-generation aircraft with an enemy.

While it is fashionable among diplomats and some analysts to argue that the transactional nature of Erdogan’s Turkey requires more and targeted engagement rather than coercion, such efforts have a very poor track record. Indeed, for much of the past 15 years, Turkish enmity has grown against the backdrop of NATO denial and Bush and Obama-era denial, coddling, and engagement. Rather than smart diplomacy, efforts to engage Erdogan now uncomfortably appear like efforts to coddle Saddam Hussein into moderation three decades ago. On June 15, 1990, the late Sen. Arlen Specter explained his opposition to military sanctions on Iraq. “There is an opportunity, or may be an opportunity, to pursue discussions with Iraq,” he said, “And I think that it is not the right time to impose sanctions.” When Specter took to the floor of the Senate, the notion of war with Iraq was considered crazy. But less than two months later, Saddam’s actions put the United States on war footing. What once was unimaginable became a possibility.

As Erdogan chooses his path, it behooves the United States and Europe to recognize that what once was outside the realm of possibility is now possible. And while all efforts should be taken to prevent such a scenario, at a minimum it is time to isolate rather than partner with Erdogan. It is time to remove all American personnel (and any remaining nuclear warheads) from the Incirlik Airbase and find another home, before repelling nationalist mobs at Incirlik itself becomes a flashpoint for conflict. It is essential for U.S. national security to cut Turkey off from intelligence sharing and military technology, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and recognize that prevention of conflict mandates better preparing regional states like Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Romania, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Iraq, as well as Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, to also counter the Turkish challenge. Historians can debate who lost Turkey, but what is obvious is that Turkey is not simply no longer a friend and ally, but rather it has become an adversary and potential belligerent.

author: Michael Rubin

source: AEI