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The Dangerous Unraveling of the U.S.-Turkish Alliance

Washington and Ankara Still Need Each Other

President Donald Trump and Pre​sident Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House, November 2019  T.J. K​irkpatrick / The New York Times

The United States and Turkey are on a collision course. Although the two countries have been NATO allies for nearly 70 years, that partnership has gradually deteriorated over the past few years, as Washington wondered if it could rely on Turkey and Ankara feared that the United States didn't take its security concerns seriously. In the last six months, however, relations have taken a real nose-dive. 

In July, Turkey acquired advanced Russian air defense systems over U.S. objections, and in October, it targeted Syrian Kurdish militias allied with the United States as part of an incursion into northern Syria. The United States responded to both developments with indignation and a raft of punitive measures: the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump refused to deliver advanced F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, sanctioned senior Turkish officials, and raised tariffs on Turkish steel exports, while Congress advanced legislation that would impose powerful sanctions on Turkey’s defense industry, called for an investigation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s finances, and overwhelmingly passed a resolution—for the first time in both houses of Congress—recognizing the 1915 massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. Some in Washington are now questioning Turkey’s continued membership in NATO, even though the alliance has no mechanism for expelling a member.

Turkey, in turn, has angrily insisted that it will not back down. It has threatened to buy even more Russian defense equipment, retaliate against U.S. tariff increases, and expel U.S. forces from two critical military bases in Turkey. The latter threat has prompted the United States to explore moving strategic assets out of Turkey and expanding defense cooperation with Greece and some of Turkey’s Gulf rivals, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Less than a decade ago, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama—in which we served—aspired to build a “model partnership” with Turkey. There are high costs to now treating Turkey like a rival, 

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