Why Turkey Turned Its Back on the United States and Embraced Russia

A Rift That Began in Iraq and Syria Now Threatens to Divide NATO

Turkish protesters trample on an American flag outside the U.S. Embassy in Ankara in September 2012 Umit Bektas / REUTERS

Turkey’s fraught relationship with the United States has been in a downward spiral for years. Divided over an ever-lengthening list of issues, from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian turn to the United States’ refusal to extradite a Pennsylvania-based cleric accused of trying to overthrow the Turkish government, the putative allies are increasingly at odds. Yet there is still a widespread belief among U.S. policymakers and national security professionals that despite the superficial hostility, the Turkish national security elite continues to view the United States as an indispensable ally. Ankara cannot secure its national interests without working with the U.S. government, or so the thinking goes. 

But since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which paved the way for a more assertive Kurdish regional government, Turkey has viewed the United States as a destabilizing force in the Middle East. U.S. support for Kurdish militias in Syria has cemented that view in Ankara, driving Turkey into Russia’s arms and raising questions about the country’s commitment to NATO. For proof of how little faith Turkey places in Washington these days, look no further than its plan to acquire Russia’s advanced S-400 missile defense system. 

Last month, the Pentagon warned that purchasing the Russian system would cost Turkey its place in the U.S.-led F-35 fighter jet program. As a member of the international consortium that funded the F-35’s development, Turkey is slated to receive 100 of the jets, and it had planned the future of its air force around them. But the S-400 is designed to defeat U.S. stealth technology, and the United States worries that it could be used to collect valuable intelligence on the fifth-generation fighter jet—intelligence that could end up in Moscow’s hands when Russian technicians inevitably maintain parts of the system. The United States has already grounded Turkish pilots training on the F-35 at bases in the United States, and once the S-400 arrives in Turkey, the

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