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It’s Complicated Between the U.S. and Turkey

Not all allies can be long-term allies. Former years of unified strategy in the War Against Terror era are long gone. Approaching is Turkey’s decoupling from the West.

Once considered a valuable ally to the U.S., Turkey no longer represents liberal democratic ideals in the Middle East. Since the Trump administration withdrew U.S. troops in 2019 from northeastern Syria as their civil war began to wind down, Ankara has attacked U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, sought S-400 weapons from Russia and joined the Kremlin’s TurkStream pipeline project, and financially partnered with China as a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) member country. On January 12th, 2022, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The next day, three explosives wreaked havoc in Turkish-controlled Syria, which Turkey deemed came from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). And on February 27th, 2022, Turkey’s president called Putin’s attacks at the Ukrainian border a war; yet, by the next day, emphasized that it needed to maintain relations with Russia and Ukraine despite the circumstances. Turkey’s preference for U.S. adversaries including Russia and China merits the U.S. considering a fresh foreign policy toward the NATO member. If we thought that Turkey’s actions are of little consequence to the U.S. and our interests, we are mistaken.

Turkey has been drawing closer and closer to calling Russia a competitive friend that can supply its defense and economic desires, regardless of the current invasion of Ukraine. Shortly after Turkey’s failed 2016 coup, Ankara bought the S-400 air defense system from Russia, which signaled that the NATO ally was seeking to acquire its weapons from non-U.S.-aligned partners instead of American ones. And on September 24th, 2021, Erdoğan stated his intent to buy a second round of Russian S-400 missile defense systems. Today, the trend continues, with Turkey continuing to hold stronger economic ties with Moscow than Washington. Though Turkey was quick to call the invasion of Ukraine a war, it also demonstrated that the benefits it receives from partners Ukraine and Russia would be too costly to forfeit. Instead, buffering its own safety by “limit[ing] the passage of some Russian vessels from Turkish straits”, the country is still pursuing its own national interests despite moral imperatives to act otherwise. Turkey, by neither containing or deterring Russia’s advances, but doubling down to ensure that both Ukraine and Russia know that Turkey will not turn its back on its obligations to its partners, has made a choice that can be heard miles away. Only Russia has Turkey on its side, and Turkey’s refusal of access to the “Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits that connect the Mediterranean and Black seas and can limit the passage of warships” for Russia and Ukraine serves Ankara’s defensive interests. After all, action against Russia could harm Turkey’s energy imports and tourism industry in a time when Ankara is already economically suffering. Turkey has also joined TurkStream, Russia’s project to connect southeastern Europe with Russian gas, making Turkey a potential long-term beneficiary of Russian gas.

Furthermore, Turkey’s activities in China are indicative of its preference for Eastern infrastructure and economic backing assistance. On January 12th, 2022, Turkish and Chinese Foreign Ministers met with the intent to converse regarding the joint partnership and economic cooperation possibilities between Ankara and Beijing, with topics including “Belt and Road Initiative [BRI] routes to Europe, cooperation in energy, technology, [and] big data”. In addition, in June 2021, Turkey and China struck an agreement which was a currency swap deal that raised from previous $2.4 billion to $6 billion, in effect enabling Turkey to boost its foreign exchange currency reserves. This preference for the Chinese yuan over the American dollar is notable. And while China has been formulating its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) impacts in virtually all continents of the globe since 2013, Turkey has bought in to desiring the investments of China in its energy, transportation, and mining sectors despite signaling it does not want to combine its own infrastructural project, the Middle Corridor (MC) with the infrastructural projects of the BRI. Meanwhile, Turkey signaled that it is willing to take an active role in the BRI by administering funds through helping to found the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). By investing in BRI projects, Ankara is saying that it wants to also receive energy investments from China in return. That is, if the Sino-Turkish relationship is truly a two-way street.

These circumstances are only some of many that Turkey is participating in. Let’s not forget about the Armenian-Azerbaijani and Kazakhstan clashes, among many others, that Turkey has involved itself in, as well as the fraught relationship already existing between the U.S. and Turkey due to diverging interests in their involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Taken as a whole, it is clear Turkey is decoupling itself from the West and striving to make itself strategically autonomous through intentional relations with China and Russia.

As Christians, we should look not only turn to reactive deterrence and detainment in the midst of turmoil. If we truly support the liberal international order along with its democratic aspirations, I believe we may build a different perspective on the actions of countries such as Turkey. Faced with countries that have not been the main perpetrator, but have been enablers of corrupt regimes, we must ask ourselves how we are obligated to respond as believers seeking to follow the example of Jesus Christ. Compelled by His command to love God and love others, we have often assumed that loving one’s neighbor in international affairs is demonstrated in on-the-ground offensive and defensive action on behalf of just causes domestically and abroad. This is certainly justified if absolutely necessary. But what if loving one’s neighbor can also be displayed in the intermediary, where war is not justified, but doing nothing is also unsatisfactory and morally questionable? As we look to Turkey’s actions in the events around our globe, we should question if diplomatic measures or signals could be used to compel Turkey back into the NATO fold.