How to Save the U.S.-Turkey Relationship

For the Sake of the Alliance, Erdogan Must Fold

Trump and Erdogan meet during the UN General Assembly in New York, September 2017 Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The tense relationship between the United States and Turkey is reaching an inflection point. As the Turkish government has taken an increasingly authoritarian turn and made questionable foreign policy choices in recent years, Washington has tried to exercise strategic patience and engage Turkish leadership to resolve differences between the two countries. But that patience is wearing thin, as Ankara has repeatedly failed to respond to Washington’s concerns—chief among them right now the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina, on specious terrorism charges. The handling of the Brunson case, which came to a head last week when he was moved to house arrest rather than released, will affect the future of bilateral ties. If negotiations fail, the United States may feel compelled to shift its approach away from diplomacy and toward economic leverage. In this game of foreign policy poker, Turkey’s struggling economy may force President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to fold first.

The United States and Turkey have collected long lists of grievances against each other over the last few years. On one side, the Turkish government feels that the United States has failed to take seriously its security challenges. It has been frustrated with U.S. support for a faction of Syrian Kurds (People’s Protection Units, YPG) in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Given the group’s links to a domestic Kurdish terrorist organization (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK), Ankara’s primary goal in Syria has been preventing the YPG from creating an autonomous Kurdish region along the Turkish border, which it fears could lead to an independence bid or be used to stage attacks on Turkey. Ankara pressed the point by launching military action against YPG forces in January 2018, which diverted some fighters away from U.S.-led operations against remaining ISIS elements.

Many Turks remain hurt by the perceived failure of Western leaders to comprehend the trauma of the July 2016 coup attempt and to express immediate support for the country’

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