Does the United States Have an Alternative to Turkey?
Already, the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey on June 24 has offered several surprises. The first was unquestionably the announcement of holding snap elections itself, almost a year and a half early. The second unexpected turn was the new alliance of opposition parties, led by CHP and Iyi Parti to compete in the parliamentary elections. As Ozgur Unluhisarcikli writes, despite critical advantages for the incumbent President Erdogan, the elections will likely be much more competitive than observers expected. Thanks to the constitutional reforms to be implemented, the election’s outcome will be of interest to Turkey’s partners in Europe and to the United States. Given Turkey’s human rights record and possible military confrontations with NATO Allies in Syria, American and European voices are calling for an end of the partnership. Aside from uncertainty about the U.S. government’s commitment to stay involved in Syria and Iraq, this poses the fundamental question: Does the United States have an alternative to Turkey?
If the answer is yes, the grave state of relations might lead the United States to cooperate less with Turkey and increase efforts with a new partner. Such a scenario would be bound to considerably reshuffle the power balance in a region already in turmoil, causing even more instability. In a region still embroiled in a civil war and simultaneously starting to recover from ISIS, this additional instability might already be a risk not worth taking.
Nonetheless, contemplating to find an alternative to the Turkey–U.S. partnership, what characteristics constitute a substitute partner? Since Turkey–U.S. relations are based on security considerations and Turkey’s NATO membership, at a minimum, the substitute country would need to have sufficient military and security capabilities. Since the North Atlantic Treaty does only allow for European countries to be invited, NATO membership generally is no prospect for any new partner from or adjacent to the MENA region. This circumstance heavily favors a close partnership with Turkey over other countries from the region. In addition to security capabilities, the potential partner state should be as stable as possible, politically and economically. Furthermore, the partner cannot be hostile toward Israel. A certain size of the country, its economy and its military, in addition to an advantageous strategic location, would likely be further requirements.
Looking at the possibilities, there is no obvious front runner. In fact, there appears not even to be a single viable option, as many countries feature Turkey’s “flaws,” but few offer the same advantages. Some countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt might be able to compensate Turkey’s military capabilities. Some, such as Israel, Jordan, or Oman might offer more political stability. Saudi Arabia could offer vast natural resources. Jordan has a beneficial strategical location, bordering both Syria and Iraq, both highly likely to remain unstable in the foreseeable future. Egypt’s location would enable the United States to exert more influence on Northern Africa. Israel even has a Western-oriented democratic society and already a comprehensive partnership in multiple areas with the United States.
However, each of these alternatives offers serious disadvantages or is lacking the benefits Turkey provides. Oman might be the least disadvantageous, although the country is significantly smaller. And despite being strategically located toward Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, most areas of the MENA and Black Sea regions are rather distant. Saudi Arabia appears stable at the moment; however, the pending changeover of power and reforms have the potential for unrest. Egypt seems less stable politically and, like other countries — namely Jordan — faces economic uncertainty. Except for the increasingly illiberal Israel, none of the countries can be considered a democracy. Substituting Turkey with Israel however would mean an end to Turkey as a bridge for the United States to the Muslim world. This would likely cause a significant blow to the U.S. image, especially among Muslims. Israel and Saudi Arabia are also involved in violent conflicts with Palestine and Yemen that neither the United States or NATO should be keen on getting entangled in. Especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who’s Wahhabism seems especially incompatible with U.S. values, are engaged in the Sunni–Shia proxy conflict with Iran, which NATO should avoid as well.
Moreover, Turkey offers many advantages without rival. The country has been a longstanding ally and NATO member and therefore is familiar personnel, aims, and means. Even though the focus on Turkey’s unique strategically beneficial location might at times be to the relationship’s detriment, it provides great access to several regions. Turkey borders regions in crisis like Syria and Iraq, the volatile Caucasus, the Black Sea, Iran, and is located in proximity to ex-soviet states like Uzbekistan, which deal with the formation of terrorist groups. Turkey also has the region’s largest military at its disposal, especially regarding the Black Sea region. However, it remains to be seen how purges among senior and mid-level military leaders in the aftermath of the attempted coup will affect Turkish military capabilities. The political instability and increasingly frequent foreign policy adjustments are a source for concern as well. Nevertheless, compared with most countries in the neighborhood, Turkey at least offers political continuity. Importantly, despite current question marks, Turkey’s economic power remains unrivaled in the region. And even though there are concerns about Turkey distancing itself, many NATO member states have enjoyed close ties with Turkey over the decades.
Despite the bilateral discontent, there does not appear to be a suitable alternative to Turkey for the United States. The same is true for Turkey, since despite the current and likely short-lived rapprochement, there is not much common ground with Russia and no other alternatives in sight. Security considerations are binding Russia and Turkey for the moment, mostly regarding terrorism and sense of being marginalized by the United States and EU. Therefore, if the United States intends stay engaged in the region and to continue with Turkey as a partner, two paths remain. The first being a continuation of the current transactional relationship, with both sides defending their stance. Yet, this business as usual approach has led to a steady worsening of the bilateral relations in recent months and years, with the respective patience getting thinner and thinner. This is an increasingly fragile and risky approach, especially with potential military confrontation in Syria looming. A second, more viable option could therefore include a more conciliatory position as part of a comprehensive relationship. Keeping in mind the significant economic and societal developments Turkey experienced during the last two decades, the United States and Turkey should try to facilitate a closer, friendly cooperation, expanding from mere security cooperation.
Though the current U.S. government increasingly features hawkish personnel, and election campaigns in Turkey are almost certainly going to exploit public anti-U.S. sentiment, mutual understanding would be appropriate to advance past the current status quo. The purges in Turkey are completely out of proportion, but the coup attempt has reopened Turkish collective traumas. Measures to cooperate with Kurdish forces in Syria and Iran do not align with Turkish priorities, but the United States and EU do not plan on dismantling Turkey. The European approach might be a helpful model. EU member states kept bearing Turkish governments’ posture without giving up on the country itself, showing a considerable degree of patience, self-constrain, and tolerance. Regarding the lack of alternative partners in the Middle East, this could be a way forward for the United States as well.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.