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Ted Galen Carpenter - Washington’s Support for Turkey’s Regional Ambitions
Washington’s Support for Turkey’s Regional Ambitions
Date: 19/11/2012 : 15:53:13Views: 842

One striking feature of the Syrian civil war is how strongly the Obama administration has backed Turkey’s position regarding the conflict. On virtually every occasion when there has been a military incident along the Syrian-Turkish border, Washington has blamed Damascus for the trouble, even when the underlying facts are unclear. U.S. officials have also praised Ankara for providing safe havens for Syrian refugees and have quietly supported Turkey’s logistical support for the rebel Free Syrian Army. Indeed, there are credible reports that the United States is funneling supplies to the FSA through Turkey.

Given the strains that existed in U.S.-Turkish relations in recent years, Washington’s prominent support for Ankara in the Syrian conflict comes as a surprise to many observers. There were repeated, and often acrimonious, disagreements over policy toward Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion and occupation in 2003. The refusal of Turkey’s government in early 2003 to let allied forces open a “northern front” against Saddam Hussein caused tremendous bitterness among U.S. political and military leaders. Many of them considered Ankara’s lack of cooperation an act of betrayal by a NATO ally. Tensions involving Iraq policy have surfaced repeatedly since then, especially over Turkey’s insistence on conducting punitive incursions into northern Iraq against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgent fighters. The Turkish military’s apparent cooperation with Iranian forces on such missions especially aroused suspicions in Washington.

Bilateral relations became strained over other issues as well. Ankara’s joint diplomatic effort with Brazil to seek a compromise solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, in open defiance of the policy embraced by the United States and the other NATO powers, greatly irritated Washington. So too did Ankara’s effort to forge closer ties to Moscow—an approach that not only featured deepening economic links, but also Turkey’s firm refusal to back U.S.-supported Georgia in that country’s 2008 war against Russia. And most of all, Turkey’s surging quarrels with Israel alienated key opinion groups in the United States.

Although the Syrian crisis has led to especially close cooperation between Turkey and the United States, relations had begun to improve for more than a year before the assault against Assad’s regime. Ankara gradually soured on its attempted rapprochement with Iran, as Tehran’s clerical government showed little willingness to compromise on the nuclear controversy, and Iran’s cooperation against insurgents in Iraq and eastern Turkey began to wane. Washington exploited that new opportunity by stressing support for Ankara’s policy positions on a number of issues, including the bid for membership in the European Union.

What has occurred is largely a return to the situation that existed before the disruption of U.S.-Turkish harmony beginning in 2003. Throughout the 1990s and first few years of the 21st century, Washington implicitly embraced what some pundits and foreign policy experts termed a “Neo-Ottoman policy.” That was a strategy to support Turkey as the leading power in the Middle East, Southeastern Europe, and much of Central Asia. It was a key reason why Washington backed Muslim forces against Serbs in both Bosnia and Kosovo, since Ankara favored that outcome. U.S. policy makers during the Clinton administration and initially in the Bush administration saw Turkey as a stabilizing power and a conduit for Western influence in all of those regions. The goal was a re-creation, albeit informal, of the old Ottoman Empire.

The extensive bilateral cooperation between Washington and Ankara regarding the Syrian crisis is a resumption of that strategy after a nearly decade-long interruption. But it is a risky and short-sighted strategy for the United States. Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and other populations do not have especially fond memories of the Ottoman period, and any attempt to revive Turkish hegemony is bound to be resented. Ankara also has its own agenda, which—at best—only overlaps at times with Washington’s goals. In particular, Turkey’s support for the Free Syrian Army could easily lead to Syria’s disintegration and the empowering of extremist political forces. Such a development would prove disruptive to the surrounding region, something U.S. leaders want to avoid. Backing Ankara’s Neo-Ottoman ambitions is an unwise move for the United States.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow for the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and studies on international issues. He is also a member of the editorial board of Mediterranean Quarterly.

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