Precious No More? A U.S. Strategy for a Lonely Turkey


Executive Summary

“Precious loneliness” is how one of Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s main advisors described Turkey’s position in the Middle East as its foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors” crumbled in the face of the Arab uprisings.

The full extent of just how lonely Turkey was willing to be on the world stage did not become clear until 2020, a year in which Erdo?an’s government provoked, entered, or exacerbated conflicts in seemingly every direction.

As recently as October 2020, Turkey was engaged in multiple conflicts ranging from North Africa, across the Middle East, and north into the Caucasus. A focal point of Turkey’s recently aggressive foreign policy has been the attempt to secure rights to energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

It is by no means, however, the extent of Turkey’s foreign adventures as it now deploys military forces at bases in Qatar and Somalia, has apparently sought a military base on Sudan’s Suakin island, and has actively intervened in the Syrian and Libyan
conflicts as well as in the renewed war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

One implication of this “precious loneliness” has been that Turkey has increasingly adopted a
hostile approach to American and European interests in the broader region. This is a dramatic
contrast to the situation twenty years ago, when Turkey was the chief regional ally of both the
United States and Israel and was seeking membership in the European Union.

Yet, Erdo?an appears to have had enough of Turkey’s isolation. As 2020 ended and 2021
began, Erdo?an engaged in a seeming blitzkrieg of diplomatic overtures, suggesting he was
willing to reset relations with a number of nations that he had crossed – especially the United

However, neither the sincerity of and motivation for this charm offensive, nor Erdo?an’s
ability to deliver on his promises are obvious. As Turkey faces growing economic trouble at
home and divisions plague the regime’s factions while new regional partnerships are forming
that further isolate Turkey, Erdo?an’s foreign outreach could be driven by various factors: a
sincere desire to come in from the cold; a need to secure financial assistance; or the hope that
rehabilitating his personal standing on the world stage can help keep him in power at home.

Each of these variations has different, but significant, implications for U.S. interests and policy.
Although rebuilding constructive relations with Turkey should be an objective for Washington
and its allies, the Biden Administration must judge the sincerity and motivation behind
Erdo?an’s recent entreaties before deciding how to proceed. This requires first assessing the
dynamics at play within the Turkish regime that are driving the current outreach efforts and
then evaluating them in light of U.S. interests vis-à-vis Turkey and the history of its recent,
mostly failed, attempts to further those interests with Erdo?an.

Ultimately, we conclude that Erdo?an’s pursuit of a reset with the United States and other
Western countries is insincere, driven more by political pressures at home than a foreign policy
about-face. As a result, though there are real and significant benefits Washington and its
allies could derive from a renewed, cooperative partnership with Ankara, there are also major
strategic costs to Erdo?an’s continued aggressive pursuit of Turkish unilateralism.

The Biden administration would be well-served to pursue a policy that seeks to test the
possibility of securing the former while protecting against the latter. The success of such a
policy depends on two elements. First, coordination between trans-Atlantic and Mediterranean
partners who all have overlapping, but often misaligned and differently prioritized, interests
8 Precious No More? A U.S. Strategy for a Lonely Turkey when it comes to Turkey. Second, unlike recent attempts to paper over differences with Ankara or conduct relations at purely personal, presidential level, a serious effort to offer Turkey a
chance to change its behavior, and serious consequences if it does not.

To this end, we recommend a strategy that is bureaucratic, transactional, and simultaneously
coordinated with trans-Atlantic and Eastern Mediterranean partners.

The U.S. strategy toward Turkey should be: bureaucratic by focusing diplomatic relations
on expert and technical contacts between government officials and eschewing conducting
the relationship via personal presidential phone calls; transactional by offering Turkey a
clear statement of U.S. expectations for Turkish policy with explicit benefits Washington is
willing offer for cooperation, and costs for intransigence – while clearly separating areas of
engagement; and coordinated by recruiting European and Mediterranean partners to develop
a joint approach to Erdo?an, offering him improved relations with all, or none.

Specifically, we recommend that the Biden Administration:

Right-size the relationship with Turkey. The U.S. relations with Turkey should be conducted via
frequent and direct contacts by U.S. bureaucrats and officials with their Turkish counterparts.
Meanwhile, presidential contacts should be limited, as the Biden Administration has done thus
far, at least until such a time as Turkish policy begins to change. Turkey’s continued belief that
it is an indispensable partner for the United States – a belief only reinforced by the recently
leaked U.S. suggestion that Ankara host peace negotiations between the Afghan government
and the Taliban9 – should not be abetted.

Assemble a coalition. Washington should make the case to its European partners that the
S-400 issue is of the greatest concern for the entirety of North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO). It should also coordinate support for Greece and Cyprus regarding their legitimate
concerns about Turkish aggression. However, to ensure a common approach, Washington
should be prepared to add issues to the agenda that might not be central to its own interests,
but which other countries will want to see addressed, such European concerns about

Offer a clear choice. Working together, such a coalition should offer Turkey the opportunity to
improve, as Erdo?an claims he wants to, relations with all of them at once, or risk alienating
the entire bloc. Topics that could be considered include cooperation against Russian
influence in the Black Sea in return for Turkey relinquishing the S-400, inclusion in plans for
transport of Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe in return for ending its maritime aggression,
or normalizing relations with Israel and Arab states in return for endings its support Muslim
Brotherhood-aligned and Islamist movements.

Stand up for democracy. The United States should make its concerns about democracy, rule of
law, and human rights, broadly construed, a talking point at each and every official interaction
with the Turkish government. Erdo?an must be brought to understand that U.S. concerns
cannot be alleviated by token gestures of goodwill. Absent meaningful human-rights progress,
Turkey should not be invited to the reported Summit of Democracies.

Seek a solution in Syria. The Biden administration should work to reconcile the reality of
continued U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish forces with Turkish fears. It should make the
Precious No More? A U.S. Strategy for a Lonely Turkey 9 case to Ankara that U.S. influence in northeast Syria is ultimately in Turkey’s interest, while pushing for an inclusive power-sharing arrangement in the area and offering Turkey assistance in dealing with legitimate terrorist and insurgent threats.

Plan for the deterioration of relations. Given the possibility that domestic and ideological factors
will continue to push Turkey toward an increasingly aggressive and independent foreign policy,
notwithstanding the above strategy, the Departments of State and Defense led by the National
Security Council, should visibly engage in contingency planning including: relocating U.S. air
operations from the Incirlik base to new location(s); mechanisms for sidelining Turkey within
NATO if it deviates from the alliance’s common interests; further restricting Turkey’s ability to
obtain U.S. weaponry in its military buildup; and imposing further economic sanctions if Turkey
persists with the S-400.


March 31, 2021 | 3 Comments »

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3 Comments / 3 Comments

  1. On generational scale, the strategy should be to break Turkey up and give at least 1/3 of it to Kurts, together with Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian Kurdistans unified into one Kurdish country.

  2. Take Northern Cyprus away from Turkey. Give most of it back to the Greek Cypriots, and keep a few relatively small enclaves for major NATO navy base there.
    Or don’t make it NATO but just Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the United States.

    On long term aim at taking European part of Turkey away from them and giving it to Greece.
    The border should go through Bosphorus, Sea of Marmara and Dardanelles strait.