Since the failed coup attempt on July 15, Ankara has been full of angry voices against the Obama administration. One can find a deep-seated, and perhaps understandable, disappointment with Washington’s reaction. Obama administration’s stance on the Egyptian coup and its aftermath can explain, to some extent, why Washington did not take an immediately principled stance against the July 15 coup plot. While President Obama and Secretary Kerry – after an initial period of wait-and-see passed – have spoken out against the coup and in support of the parliamentary democracy in Turkey, the fight against ISIS is the primary framework that has affected American reactions to the coup attempt. Extradition of Gulen appears to be down in the administration’s priority list and a number of factors make it less likely that the White House would be obliged by the Turkish government’s request. Despite reassurances from President Erdogan and Chief of General Staff General Hulusi Akar to Washington, however, mutual distrust, if it further settles, may disrupt the fight against ISIS. This would be a lose-lose scenario for both Ankara and Washington.
Both the Pentagon and the State Department have been under constant pressure from the White House to deliver on the fight against ISIS. Fast approaching his lame-duck period and feeling the heat of imminent terrorist attacks across the Western hemisphere, Obama needs concrete wins in both Iraq and Syria to safeguard his foreign policy legacy. The prizes to collect are many: Re-capturing Mosul and Raqqa, and potentially eliminating the self-claimed caliph of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And Turkey simultaneously presents potential solutions and complications in the path to realize these goals. President Obama has a habit of creating catch-22’s for himself: When it comes to Turkey, the President does not hide his discontent with Erdogan but he also cannot seem to decide if he can risk a weakened Turkey.
But the fact is yet another rift between the US and Turkey is imminent. American support to PKK-affiliated PYD has already strained Turkish-American relations. Given the fragility of Middle East, Obama administration would seek to minimize the crisis areas in the immediate region. Therefore, a prolonged instability in Turkey is not preferable to the Obama administration. But the level of mistrust between the White House and the Turkish government, as well as the still thorny mil-to-mil relations between the American and the Turkish armies complicate bilateral relations. The fight against the PKK and General Votel’s public visit with the PYD/YPG in northern Syria have emerged as additional concerns over the last three months and have further damaged perception of the US among Turkish public.
Despite this already complicated atmosphere, however, could anti-Erdogan sentiments in the US cloud a more balanced and pragmatic approach to Turkey? Although the mil-to-mil relations between the Turkish and American militaries have intensified after Ankara allowed Incirlik airbase to become a key launching pad for the fight against ISIS, Washington will continue to feel conflicted about Turkey exactly because of its antipathy towards Erdogan on the one hand and the realpolitik of needing Turkey for the fight against ISIS.
Turkish government is aware of this. While think-tankers and liberal Western media continue to reproduce reductionist analysis of Turkey that draw heavily on anti-Erdoganist sentiments, the administration would be better served devising a communication strategy that avoids potential blunders. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, however, provided one such example. DNI Clapper claimed there was no intelligence that pointed to Gulen’s involvement in the coup attempt. He voiced his concern that the commander of Incirlik air base and few other commanders who were involved in the anti-ISIS campaign were among those who were purged. DNI Clapper’s remarks point out three problems that run amok in the Obama Administration.
First, the White House does not seem to have adapted a coherent position on its short to mid-term discourse on Turkey. Shunning Turkish concerns publicly and without regard for the sensitivities of subjects at hand is counterproductive at best. Second, treating Turkey based merely on its value for the anti-ISIS campaign also carry hints of a potentially bumpy road ahead in Turkish-American relations. The core of Clapper’s remarks underline that the White House is still most concerned with the fight against ISIS and how the trajectory of events in Turkey will affect this fight. Finally, publicly contesting Gulen’s involvement in the coup attempt – despite increasingly concrete evidence to the contrary – feed into the anti-Americanist sentiments that continue to flourish among Turkish public, regardless of party-affiliation.
If these risks are allowed to take root and fester, bilateral relations will soon further deteriorate. To avoid this, the Turkish government, for its part, should avoid communicating with the US on the question of Gulen’s extradition via the media. Honest, technical, and professional communication between the relevant agencies in both capitals can produce a more meaningful solution to this issue. Second, Obama administration should recognize the gravity of the coup attempt and resist anti-Erdogan sentiments cloud its relationship with Ankara. Finally, the fight against ISIS, as critical as it is, runs risk of becoming a bargaining chip at the hands of both capitals. If this continues to be the case, a sudden and irreversible crisis may exert too much damage to the relationship. It would be wise to avoid this scenario. High-level and level-headed conversations between Turkish and American officials would be a good starting point to re-calibrate and ameliorate the relationship.