For over seven decades, the United States saw Turkey as its key ally in countering Russian influence in the Middle East and the Balkans. From its vantage point bordering Bulgaria and other key eastern European countries, Turkey was traditionally viewed as a bulwark against Russian expansion. Turkey also sits on Russia’s strategic southern flank on the Black Sea and controls all the Bosporus Straits.
As Russia’s navy is forced to cross through this choke point, Turkey’s control over the Bosporus provided a key observation point for U.S. military intelligence during the Cold War. In addition, Turkey has always played a central role for the United States’ first and second strike capabilities vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.
The alliance between the two countries spans the length of the entire Cold War. Already by 1947, the U.S. Congress designated Turkey as a recipient for military and civilian aid amidst hopes that Turkey would provide a crucial barrier against the Soviet Union. A few years later, Turkish forces assisted U.S. troops in the Korean War, and by 1961, the U.S. had placed Jupiter medium-range ballistic missiles in Turkey that were aimed at Moscow in the event of all-out nuclear war.
The U.S. reliance on Ankara persisted after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. U.S. military planners put Turkey, the bastion of westernism in Islamic-dominated Middle East, at the center of American strategic command. The U.S. reportedly continues to maintain an arsenal of nuclear missiles at its airbase in Incirlik along with reconnaissance planes which constantly keep watch over Russia.
Other than anti-Russia activities, the Incirlik base stands at the forefront of America’s ability to project power. The airbase lies at the center of virtually all U.S. contingency plans in the Middle East and served as a hub for the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the previous two decades.
Yet recent events suggest that the close relationship between the United States and Turkey may not be what it once was. Ankara has recently taken steps to suggest that it may be more interested in coordinating with Moscow, rather than Washington, D.C.
The new strategic reality was evident last week at the U.S. Middle East summit in Warsaw, Poland. While representatives of Israel, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other key regional players hobnobbed and exchanged ideas regarding how to counter Iran, the one nation that was noticeably absent was Turkey.
Rather than join in the U.S.-led gathering, Turkey instead attended a different summit, one chaired by Russia in the Russia resort town of Sochi on the Black Sea. There, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan talked policy with his Russian and Iranian counterparts regarding the Syrian civil war, which is finally drawing to a close after nine bloody years.
Following the meeting, Turkey released a statement along with Russia and Iran “rejecting all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism, and [expressed their] determination to stand against separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.”
The statement was heard loud and clear: rather than standing with Western interests in the Middle East, Turkey had instead chosen to ally itself with the West’s biggest rivals. This summit is also not a one-off deal; a follow-up meeting between Iran, Russia, and Turkey is planned for April, to touch base on everything relating to Syria.
Another sign of Turkey’s newfound change of pace is last week’s announcement that it will be purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system. The S-400 is considered one of the premier missile defense systems in the world. Accurate up to 250 kilometers and with detection capabilities stretching to 400 kilometers, the system is capable of taking out enemy aircraft, ballistic missiles, and UAVs, and is considered by military experts to be second only to the United States’ Patriot batteries.
The S-400 cannot be integrated into the established system used by other NATO members, and as such, acquisition of the S-400 could lead to Turkey potentially being excluded from NATO drills and operations in the future.
Indeed, the U.S. said in response that it will scuttle a $3.5 billion proposed deal to sell Turkey the Patriot missile system. Washington is also prepared to torpedo a deal it signed with Ankara, to sell F-35 jets, and has warned that additional sanctions may follow.
Yet Erdoğan remains defiant. “We made the S-400 deal with Russia, so it is out of the question for us to turn back. That’s done,” said the Turkish president.
The story doesn’t end there. Turkey has come out as a strong defender of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, despite the U.S. leading an international coalition designed to force Maduro to step down.
Turkey has also been turning its back on the United States’ traditional allies in the Middle East, such as Israel. For over 50 years, Turkey was one of Israel’s strongest strategic partners in the region and, together with Jordan, furthered U.S. interests against rogue nations such as Iraq and Syria.
Yet within the past five years, Erdoğan has allowed the leadership of the Palestinian terror organization Hamas to set up shop in Istanbul. Disregarding the fact that the U.S. views Hamas as a terror group, Erdoğan has given its foreign leadership free reign.
In recent years, Erdoğan has never missed an opportunity to accuse Israel of alleged gruesome crimes against humanity in international forums. Tensions between the two nations reached a boiling point last year when Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and then forced him to undergo a humiliating security search at the airport in front of the Turkish press, which had received an advance invitation to watch the spectacle.
Another area of contention between the U.S. and Turkey is the Kurds. While the U.S. views the Kurdish militias as a crucial piece in the anti-Iranian coalition, Erdoğan has been making it clear that he would love nothing more than to invade northern Syria and wipe them out.
In fact, the potential U.S. abandonment of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is becoming one of the biggest stories of President Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria.
Erdoğan’s decision to spurn the U.S. in favor of Russia is a result of the Turkish strongman’s calculated view that U.S. influence is on the wane in the region. Rather than continue the traditional alliance with the United States, Erdoğan now seeks to align his country with the new up-and-coming power: Russia.
“I think we’re seeing a realignment,” Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the New York-based Soufan Center, told NBC News. Clarke added that the “U.S. has gone from the position where we called the shots, to where we are making mere suggestions to Turkey. That’s a major sea change.”
Contributing to Tukey’s newfound change of pace is its desire to be a regional power, akin to what the Ottoman Empire was at its height. By definition, this means opposing U.S. hegemony in the region and challenging the United States at every turn. This explains Erdoğan’s pressure on President Trump to pull the remaining U.S. troops out of Syria, upgrade its ties with Russia, and assist Iran in skirting sanctions on its nuclear program.
Turkey’s shift away from the United States creates a new strategic reality. The moment is rapidly approaching in which the U.S. will need to ask itself whether Tukey can still be seen as an ally. While the joint relationship was fruitful during the Cold War, it’s hard to find justification for the continued alliance, especially in the wake of Erdoğan’s embrace of Moscow.
The U.S. also needs to ask itself some hard questions about whether it is worth maintaining the Incirlik air base as its main post in the region. Putting such emphasis on one air force base leaves the U.S. exposed to Turkey’s whims, due to fears of being left without a major strategic asset in the area. The time is ripe for the U.S. to develop further alternatives in places such as Jordan, Cyprus, and Romania.