The deterioration of Turkey’s relationship with the United States has been a slow and gradual process that at one time, both sides chose to ignore. It began in earnest during the second term of US President Barack Obama whose seemingly smooth diplomatic language that wooed America’s European allies became noticeably absent when engaging with Turkey, a country that many western neo-liberals tried to paint as south-eastern European rather than Eurasian.
Although both engaged in an illegal war on Syria, the only thing the US and Turkey had in common during the Obama years was a mutual desire to overthrow the legal government of the Syrian Arab Republic and replace it with a Takfiri extremist regime. This mutual goal was proved to be untenable even before Donald Trump’s electoral victory in the US. The new ‘normal’ in Syria dictates that Takfiri regime change is no longer a practicable reality. This was then combined with the one part abrasive and one part confused “diplomatic” style of Trump and his associates and has subsequently led to an open schism with Turkey.
Obama and Gulen–Trump and The Kurds
However, it was under Obama that the former Erdogan ally turned wanted terrorist Fethullah Gulen was granted asylum in the US. This irritation was turned into a dramatic rift when the botched anti-Erdogan coup attempt of 2016 left Ankara fuming at the fact that the US not only refused to hand Gulen to the Turkish authorities, but also at the fact that the US denials of involvement in the attempted coup were noticeably muted.
Under Trump, Turkey has become all the more enraged at the apparent sympathies in the US towards the Fethullah (Gulen) Terrorist Organisation (FETO). What’s more, the Trump pivot towards the Kurdish YPG and away from Takfiri groups has predictably resulted in a contest for occupied Syrian land. This contest has been made all the more magnified due to the fact that as Syria restores its legal control over more and more parts of its territory, there is becoming less land available for the occupying forces.
Therefore, Turkey and the US are engaged in a race against time which sees the two countries competing for nearby parts of land in northern Syria. For the US, the Kurdish YPG who form the majority of the so-called SDF as well as America’s new “Border Security Force” in Syria, are the proxy foot-soldiers of the American military, just as Takfiris flying under the SDF flag are the foot-soldiers of the Turkish military. As the US tries to push further west into Syria, along Turkey’s border and with Turkish troops and the FSA pushing ever further east, there is a very real prospect that the US and Turkey could find their troops literally standing on the brink of military engagement. Adding insult to injury from the Turkish perspective, in calling its Kurdish proxy force a “Border Security Force” the US is implying that it is more suited to patrol Turkey’s borders than Turkey itself is.
Previously, Russia worked behind the scenes to create a buffer zone between pro-US Kurds and Turkey, but with various reports of partial to full Russian withdrawals from the area, this buffer zone could disappear, not least because Russia feels far less good will towards the US than it did when Trump was first elected, while simultaneously, Russo-Turkish relations continue to expand in a positive direction. Most of all, no one in Russia wants a single Russian soldier in harms way in order to stop the US and Turkey from fighting. This is universally understood in Russia, even though it is hardly articulated.
Enemy or Rival?
Nations become enemies for a verity of reasons including historical enmity, ideological incompatibility, historic border disputes, historic disputes over resources and membership in different alliances. For the US and Turkey, none of this applies. The US is a far younger country than Turkey, is not located anywhere near Turkey and since 1952, both have been members of NATO.
Turkey and the US therefore are not enemies in the traditional sense, they are rivals and the rivalry is being felt most acutely in Syria where they are both competing to be the most prominent unwelcome occupying power. What’s more is that this isn’t the only place they are rivals. The US and Turkey have taken opposite approaches to Iran, with Turkey trying to increase its influence in the country though new economic and security cooperation agreements. By contrast, the US seeks to increase its influence among seditious groups who seek to overthrow the Islamic Revolution’s leadership with US aid. Turkey strongly condemned the “protests” in Iran during December and January of 2017/2018, while the US overtly encouraged the rioters to transform themselves into agents of regime change.
In Palestine, Turkey is also actively competing for influence against the US. While the US insists that it is still the only natural arbiter for peace between “Israel” and Palestine, Turkey is positioning itself as a champion of Palestinian justice while still retaining legal recognition of the Zionist regime–one of only three Muslim majority countries to do so. In this sense, Turkey is taking both the moral high-ground vis-a-vis the overtly pro-Zionist United States, while still leaving the door open to Tel Aviv, in spite of the pro-Palestine rhetoric. There is little doubt that Turkey considers itself a a ‘must-have’ at any multilateral peace conference for Palestine.
Lastly, Turkey and the US are both competing for influence among Gulfi Arabs. Turkey’s overt support for Qatar contrasts with the US whose official neutrality has been tainted by Trump Tweets in support of Saudi Arabia’s anti-Doha position.
Just because Turkey is rivalling the US imperialist hegemon does not automatically make Turkey a moral superior to the US. Indeed, Turkey’s occupation of Syria remains illegal and much though Syria is enraged with the US proxy PYG, Damascus is equally enraged with a renewed illegal Turkish invasion. However, the fact that Turkey is part of the Astana Group which also includes Russia and Iran, means that if forced to choose between Turkey and the US as an temporary occupier of Syria, many Syrians would privately admit that the US is a worse occupier as it is even more powerful, even closer to the Zionist regime in Tel Aviv and most importantly, on poor terms with Syria’s partners Russia and Iran, while Turkey remains on good terms with both Moscow and Tehran.
That being said, geographically speaking, Turkey is a Middle Eastern nation and the United States is not. Therefore, if over the course of time, Turkey continues to assert itself vis-a-vis US interests in the region, Turkey will likely be the eventual winner. The governments of Iran, Iraq and Palestine know this and behind the scenes the Syrian government almost certainly does as well. There have even been reports of Syria tacitly agreeing in private to the now obvious green light which Russia offered Turkey in respect of its anti-Kurdish Operation Olive Branch.
With the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warning that the US “does not want to face Turkey in the north of Syria”, it is all but clear that Turkey has publicly declared the US a rival in all but name. Confusion in the US continues to abound because many in Washington fail to grasp the fact that while not fully an enemy, Turkey is very much a rival to the US. Because rivalries do not have a historical or ideological component that can be diplomatically massaged, this is all the more dangerous for American ambitions in the Middle East.