On November 2, 2017, The SETA Foundation at Washington DC hosted a panel discussion, “Looking Forward at US-Turkey Relations” with Colonel Richard Outzen, a member of the Policy Planning Staff at the US Department of State; General Mark Kimmitt, a defense consultant through MTK Defense Consultants; and Dr. Kilic Kanat, the Research Director at the SETA Foundation at Washington DC. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Kadir Ustun, the Executive Director of the SETA Foundation at Washington DC.
Rich Outzen started the discussion by talking about the history of the relations between the US and Turkey. He underlined that there is no reason to think that there is a fundamental shift in geopolitics of what brought Turkey and the US together. Outzen suggested that while it might sound overly optimistic, the two countries have been through very bad times before and have maintained strong ties. Turning towards what he saw as the structural problems in the relationship, Outzen argued that the first issue is the question of the 2016 attempted coup and Fethullah Gulen. To Turkey and many Turks, the failure of the US to extradite Gülen is a clear example of how an ally should not act. He asserted however that that in the US, this issue is largely a matter of democratic norm and that many Americans view the coup attempt as a violent, criminal, and negative act that should be punished within the boundaries of law, but are concerned about the state of emergency that has been instituted. The second issue that Outzen highlighted is the Syrian conflict and the US’ cooperation with the SDF and PYD. Outzen ended his talk by noting that the US and Turkey share many interests, such as preventing an Iranian-dominated Middle East and seeing Syria remain united but under different leadership than the Assad regime. He suggested the US and Turkey maintain strong ties where it can, such as in the military to military sphere, and to expand economic relations, and expressed optimism for the long term relationship.
Kilic Kanat contended that the difficulties in the bilateral relationship can be attributed to the unclear nature of the alliance, which has fostered skepticism in its partners when they consider the US. He suggested that other alliances are experiencing similar issues, such as Poland. Kanat stressed that the US needs to be clear with its alliance partners about what it expects from them and how the US and its allies can find ways to balance the relationship so that it does not turn into a transnational relationship, but instead remains a true alliance. Like Outzen, Kanat spoke on the issue of the YPG in Syria. In his estimation, it remains unclear what the US really means when it says that its relationship with the YPG is “tactical and temporary.” It has made a number of promises to Turkey about its relations with the YPG, but both the Turkish public and Turkish government remain skeptical, in part due to public relations disasters by the US, such as allowing photos of US service members and officials to be posted on Twitter.
Mark Kimmitt began by discussing his time serving with NATO and and how it impressed on him the value in the relationship between the US and Turkey. He asserted that the current difficulties between the US and Turkey are not the result of structural problems in the relationship, but are instead temporary issues that can be worked out between the US and Turkey. Kimmitt argued that currently, the US is asking Turkey to trust it on a number of issues, such as Syria, where the US has repeatedly said that its ties with the YPG are “tactical and temporary,” and that it means that. He urged the Turkish government to be patient with the US on that issue and others such as Gulen, and added that he is confident that relations will get better if they are willing and able to do so. Speaking more broadly on Syria, Kimmitt maintained that US goals revolve around maintaining a unified Syria, which not redrawing regional or national boundaries.