How did US-Turkey relations fall apart?

On May 16, 2013, Barack Obama, whose second term as president had begun a few months earlier, met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister. Calling each other “friends” and complimenting each other’s families during a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, they were looking at the cameras and presenting a picture of a close alliance of two NATO members reaffirming their commitment to their mutual security. Erdogan’s Washington visit appeared to be an ordinary formal meeting between two leaders; however, that day was historical concerning the future of Turkey-U.S. relations.

Just five days before his visit to Washington, two car bombings had taken place in the Turkish town of Reyhanlı, a town 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Syrian border, in southern Hatay province. Fifty-three people were killed and at least 140 injured. The Syrian regime was responsible for the terror attack; the suspects were arrested by Turkish law enforcement, and another suspect was captured in Syria later in 2018 and brought to Turkey by Turkish intelligence.

To recap, the Assad regime had admitted to possessing chemical weapons as early as July 2012. A month later, Obama had said that the use of such weapons was a “red line” and crossing it would entail “enormous consequences.” As the leader of a country whose national security had been under direct threat due to the violence in Syria and where numerous Syrians have fled to in order to escape the civil war, Erdogan’s priority was Syria during his visit. He was in Washington to discuss the information, the documents about the use of chemical weapons as well as missiles and rockets targeting civilians, which had already been shared with the U.S. administration.

Erdogan had asked Obama to mobilize the international community in order to stop the bloodshed. Stating that the White House had seen evidence of the use of chemical weapons inside Syria in the past, Obama said to the press, “But separate and apart from the chemical weapons, we know that tens of thousands of people are being killed with artillery and mortars and that the humanitarian crisis and the slaughter that’s taking place by itself is sufficient to prompt strong international action.” He promised to take steps on humanitarian efforts, strengthening the opposition both politically and on the ground, fighting to protect themselves from the Assad regime.

The rest of the story is very well known. Obama did none of that. He abandoned the Syrian opposition which had initially been encouraged by the U.S.

When the Ghouta chemical massacre was perpetrated and Bashar Assad crossed Obama’s famous “redline” in August 2013, the U.S. quickly planned to launch up to 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian army. Obama was on TV every day talking about military intervention. But then, for some reason, he threw the ball to Congress. The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations approved the use of military force against the Syrian regime. And somehow the U.S. and Russia reached an agreement to disarm Syria of chemical weapons.

During his announcement about the unrealistic deal, Obama also said the nuclear negotiations with Iran would start soon. It was crystal clear then; what we had watched until then was just a show. All the threats against the Assad regime were a bargaining tool to force Assad’s backer Iran to come to the negotiating table with a weaker hand. The P5+1 Iran nuclear deal was signed a short while later, while Assad continued to shell, starve and find other ways to systematically murder Syrian people. The nuclear deal could have comprised some limitations on Iran’s brutal activities in Syria and Iraq; but on the contrary, it made Tehran’s job easier.

All in all, Obama decided to change his Syria policy despite being the first world leader to say Assad must go, and Europe followed in his footsteps. Meanwhile, Turkey insisted that its allies had to respect its national security concerns as it has a more than 900-kilometer (559-mile) border with the war-torn country where the terror organizations had already started to run wild. Since Ankara did not accept the new U.S. policy, it was accused of being isolated due to its own faults. But in fact, Ankara was abandoned by its allies while it was on the front line of the threats stemming from Syria and carrying the burden of millions of refugees on its shoulders all alone.

A lot has happened since then. Day by day, the U.S.’ accusations against Erdogan of being an autocrat and an undemocratic leader have increased. The threats against Ankara have almost become routine. Between 2013 and 2016, Turkey survived many terror attacks, which were carried out by the outlawed PKK’s Syrian offshoot the YPG and the notorious terrorist organization ISIS, both of which were aiming to bring the Syrian civil war into Turkey. Neither the U.S. nor Europe under the influence of Washington lifted a finger in order to protect their NATO ally. Even after the attempted coup in July 2016, the solidarity messages came too little and too late. It took almost 40 days for then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to visit Turkey to express the administration’s condolences for the failed coup in which 251 civilians were killed and 2,734 severely injured by the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ).

Since the U.S. prioritized its human rights messages for the putschists and murderers instead of the security of the nation and justice for the victims, anti-American sentiment has risen among Turkish society. As some seniors in Washington, such as then-head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Joseph Votel, said that the officers with whom the U.S. had relations were imprisoned for their role in the coup attempt, Turks have believed that the U.S. was involved in the heinous attack, or at least was aware of it.

Within time, the tension has further escalated. Turkey has accused the U.S. of assisting a terror organization, the YPG, which is an existential threat, and criticized Washington for providing safe haven to the leader of FETÖ and his loyalists.

The U.S., on the other hand, continued to blame Turkey, claiming that it has become an undemocratic country where there is no rule of law. But, in fact, Turkey intervened in Syria to cleanse terrorist elements on its border, and that was unacceptable for the U.S. Turkey made a deal with Russia to buy S-400 air defense systems in order to protect itself because the U.S. did not sell Patriots to its NATO ally, and that made the U.S. furious. Problems between the two countries have piled up, and relations continue to deteriorate. And here we are today.

That’s all water under the bridge now. No one discusses all those issues in detail anymore. No one even remembers how they all started. That’s why I traveled down memory lane at the beginning of this piece, to the exact day when Obama and Erdogan had their last friendly photo taken on May 16, 2013, in the Rose Garden.

Later, we learned that the discussions between the two administrations were very harsh. The Obama administration accused Turkey of supporting al-Qaida-like organizations by letting them use the border between Turkey and Syria. Erdogan and his team were there just five days after a terror attack on Turkish soil, which was staged by the Assad regime, and their ally attacked them instead of offering support. The allegations were nonsensical and merciless.

During my visits to Washington D.C. in the last couple of years, I met several bureaucrats who worked in the White House then, and every time, the conversations over U.S.-Turkey relations came back to that fateful day in 2013. When I said, “Let’s assume you are right. Even if Obama believed in that Turkey supported a terror organization, the Erdogan government might not have had any knowledge of it,” and asked, “Now we all know that FETÖ, the enemy of Erdogan, had already founded a parallel state structure in those days. Don’t you think that it could be their setup to make the two allies grow apart from each other,” they all became quiet and then answered, “You can definitely be right, but the damage has already been done.”

We are now talking about many differences and a number of problems between Turkey and the U.S. But if we go back to square one, nothing else but Syria was the starting point of the disagreements which got all balled up in time. When Obama decided to focus on ISIS in Syria and Iraq instead of draining the swamp, he was obviously trying to keep the U.S. soldiers out of the chaos and looking for other forces on the ground. If Turkey and the U.S. worked together and trained and equipped the Syrian opposition, which was under attack from ISIS already, together to fight against the terror organization, the result would probably have been a success. But, at the end of the day, the Obama administration chose to work with a terror organization to fight another terror organization, both of which posed national threats to Turkey.

President-elect Joe Biden, who was the vice president of the Obama administration at the time, distanced himself two days ago from Obama amid “third-term” comparisons. However, his foreign policy team looks like Obama’s dream team as he continues to announce the names of who will be in charge. We don’t know how the new U.S. administration will approach Turkey after Donald Trump’s four years in office. We can just make assumptions and try to be optimistic, although Biden’s statements about Turkey were not friendly during his presidential campaign, most notably his “interventionist” comments.

“He (Erdogan) has to pay a price,” Biden told New York Times editors in the winter, adding that Washington should embolden Turkish opposition leaders “to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan.”

Biden said, “Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process.” His approach irked Turkish society, which still cannot forget the 2016 attempted coup that took place during the last months of Obama’s second term. We will see soon if the new U.S. president has a friendly or hostile approach to the elected administration of Turkey. But, in any case, both parties should stop for a second and recall how and why the two close allies ended up here in the first place.

Merve Şebnem Oruç is an award-winning Turkish journalist and columnist for Daily Sabah and HABER. She is on Twitter here.