In my previous piece in this column, I discussed how the U.S. presidential election process is impacting the U.S. image and standing around the world. The fact that the nominees for the highest level of power in the U.S are talking about building walls, preventing people from coming in and plans to put chips to track immigrants and visitors have significant repercussions about the perception of the U.S. in Turkey. However, this is not the only thing that influences the U.S.’s position around the world. The ambiguity and lack of clearance in terms of its relations with its allies also indirectly shaping the image of the U.S. The U.S. allies around the world are questioning the U.S. commitments and adherence to the agreements and accords with the U.S. In regards to this category, Turkish public opinion’s skepticism about the goals and objectives in the region. This skepticism had started with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was part of the public reaction against the unilateral U.S. actions in the region that was prevalent throughout the world. With the beginning of the Obama presidency and his message about multilateralism, the U.S. image around the world improved rapidly. In part what made U.S. President Barack Obama receive the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office was the positive feedback around the world about the message of President Obama.
Seeing U.S. soldiers cooperate with the PKK’s Syrian wing, the PYD, while the PKK was killing Turkish soldiers, will have serious long-term challenges for U.S. public diplomacy in Turkey.
However later this message started to fail to synchronize with the actions of the U.S. administration. With the Syrian crises, the U.S. image and standing among its U.S. allies started to get a major hit. The “Assad must go” speech and lack of action after that; the “red line” speech and failure to react to the breach of the red line; and constant condemnation and lack of an effective policy to stop the violence in the country impacted the U.S. standing in the eyes of the people of the region. For Turkish public opinion the last wave of U.S. skepticism started with the Kobani operation. The U.S.-led international coalition’s military assistance to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces in Kobani despite the expression of concerns by the government started to negatively influence the U.S. image in Turkey.
After the Kobani operations, the U.S. administration’s military support for the YPG forces did not end. In the meantime, the Turkish wing of the YPG, the PKK, ended the cease-fire in Turkey and started to attack Turkish targets in the country. While almost every terror expert in the world stated organizational, ideological and personnel overlap between two organizations and recognized them as part of the same terror group, the U.S. insisted on the artificial distinction it came up with and significantly increased the capacity of the YPG in Syria.
As the death toll after the PKK attacks increased and as the PKK started to attack urban centers in major cities of Turkey, including Bursa and Ankara, the U.S. did not re-evaluate or re-consider its military support to the YPG. The fact that an important U.S. ally in the region was being attacked by a terrorist group that was armed and trained by the U.S. generated a major anomaly for the alliance relationships. Other than the statements of the spokespeople of the State Department and White House about the distinction between the PKK and YPG, the U.S. administration did not consider the possible after effects of this controversial policy of supporting a terrorist organization. Current administration’s goal of degrading DAESH by providing support for the YPG within its tenure prevented the assessment of the long term implications of this policy.
With the pictures of U.S. soldiers having YPG signs on their uniforms, this skepticism about the U.S. in the Turkish public opinion had another major hit. The impact of supporting an armed group that was considered a terrorist organization by itself and its allies will have serious challenges for the mutual trust and confidence between U.S. and its allies. While PKK was killing Turkish soldiers to see the U.S. soldiers partnered with PKK’s Syrian wing will have long term serious challenges for the U.S. public diplomacy in Turkey. The current administration in this sense is leaving a major burden for the next administration in regards to its relations with Turkey. When we bring together this factor with the increasing public attentiveness in Turkey to the foreign policy issues we can see the coming period of significant risks for the bilateral relations.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on May 30, 2016.