Turkey: Strategic Partner or Precarious Antagonist?
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday to discuss foreign policy relating to Afghanistan and Iran among other topics. Mr. Obama had recently sought to increase the number of US forces in Afghanistan before announcing that the U.S. would send an additional 30,000 troops within the next six months. For his part, Mr. Erdogan has repeatedly and steadfastly refused to increase the level of Turkish troops in Afghanistan above the current level of 1,750, and has confined those existing troops to non-combat positions.
Turkey holds what is perhaps the greatest strategic significance in the Middle East as Mr. Obama and his military advisors dwell over how to proceed in Afghanistan and address a potentially nuclear-capable Iran. On his first trip abroad as President, Mr. Obama signaled this was clear by visiting Ankara and Istanbul before many other locations in Europe. Turkey is geographically significant for the fact that its borders are shared by the European Union, Syria, Iraq, the Caucasus, and Iran. After recently taking over the rotating command of NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Turkish military represents the second largest number of armed forces in NATO, the only predominantly Muslim state currently engaged in Afghanistan, and possibly the most important partner in the region. Turkey also holds a position on the United Nations Security Council as a non-permanent member.
Despite the strategic significance of a strong alliance between Turkey and the U.S., Ankara has signaled overt resistance to U.S. foreign policy strategy. Mr. Erdogan recently canceled a planned military exercise with Israel, instead deciding to hold it with Syria. The Turkish Prime Minister has also dismissed concerns over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, resisting calls for sanctions and instead urging diplomacy and negotiations. Erdogan has even proposed storing enriched uranium produced by Iran in Turkey after discussions with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Mr. Erdogan has also fostered closer economic ties with Tehran, seeking to increase commerce beyond the $10b in annual bilateral trade by recently agreeing to a number of business deals worth millions of dollars. Turkey’s principal trading partner is now Russia, and since 2006 trade with Sudan has reportedly tripled.
Turkey will continue to remain a significant strategic auxiliary of the U.S. as long as U.S. interests remain in the Middle East. Whether Turkey acts as a mediator between the West and the Islamic world or as an apologist for Iran and other radical elements in the Middle East will largely depend on how Mr. Obama and the European Union approach Ankara in the years to come. Certainly, Turkey’s Exclusion from the European Union has created some resentment within the country, and relations between Ankara and Washington were never spectacular under the presidency of George W. Bush. Mr. Obama has called Mr. Erdogan a personal friend, and Mr. Erdogan has replied that the U.S. and Turkey maintain a “model partnership.” Where this partnership leads will likely be determined by the actions of President Obama and the next several years of U.S. and European foreign policy towards Turkey and the Middle East.