Chair’s Note, It’s Time for Turkey-USA 2.0, 6 August 2019

Chair’s Note

It’s Time for Turkey-USA 2.0

6 August 2019

Fellow Tagger Ben Hodges has just published a fascinating piece for the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) which the TAG has permission to republish. It is entitled, “It’s Time for USA-Turkey 2.0” and was prompted by the rush to marginalise Ankara for purchasing the Russia S-400 air defence system the US has excluded the Turks from the F-35 programme. The only likely outcome of this action is to further push Turkey, a powerful NATO ally occupies ‘terrain’ critical to the defence of Europe. As a former commander of the US Army in Europe Ben knows only too well the strategic importance of having Turkey in the West’s camp. Read and enjoy but, above all, be informed. I was. JLF

It’s Time for Turkey-USA 2.0


Ben Hodges

Our current relationship with our essential Ally, Turkey…“Turkey-USA Version 1.0”…will die this summer as a result of the F35-S400 issue, ensuing sanctions required by CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), and possible Turkish responses such as further purchases of Russian systems or closure of US access to Incirlik Air Base. But that doesn’t mean that this essential strategic relationship is permanently ruptured…rather, it’s time to get busy on Turkey-USA 2.0…immediately.

A viable Turkey-USA 2.0 requires that we hold each other accountable while respecting each nation’s sovereignty and prerogatives. To do otherwise…to allow our relationship to suffer irreparable damage…by either side…would be a gift to the Kremlin.

I believe there is potential for a new emerging Turkey…the beginning of which we are already starting to see…and which we should seriously consider as we work through the current, on-going issues affecting our relationship. The recent Mayoral election in Istanbul, the strong criticism within the Turkish business community of the sacking of the independent Governor of Turkey’s Central Bank, and the defection of former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan from the AK Party all point towards changing political dynamics in Turkey. If is, of course, possible to overstate this potential…and a lot can happen between now and the next elections in Turkey in 2023. But regardless of the outcome of those elections, we need to be working to preserve Turkey as an essential Ally and bulwark against Russian aggression and Islamic extremism in the greater Black Sea region and to help stem further massive refugee flows from the region.

I was recently in Ankara, the capital city of Turkey, and had the chance to meet with senior retired Turkish diplomats, academics, and think-tank members as well as naval attaches and senior diplomats from multiple countries including the USA, the United Kingdom, France, Ukraine, Georgia, Switzerland and some others in a variety of settings. I was also able to attend the US National Day reception which was widely attended…more than 500 guests were there. Most notable for their disappointing absence, however, were any senior Members of the Turkish General Staff or Turkish Military in general.

I was there to do research for a project that my organization, CEPA, is undertaking to see how NATO can improve its coherence along its Eastern Flank, from the Baltic region down thru the greater Black Sea region. My specific purpose for being in Turkey was to get a perspective on how our Ally, Turkey, sees the greater Black Sea region, how Turkey sees its own role there, and to get a better understanding of the specifics of the Montreux Convention which governs naval presence in the Black Sea for littoral and non-littoral nations.

I learned a lot about Montreux and Turkey’s perceptions…and the perceptions of other nations about Turkey.

But most importantly what I found were three core problems that need to be addressed if “Turkey-USA 2.0” is to be a trusting, reliable relationship between two long-time Allies and between NATO and one of its most important Members.

First, the current strategic framework is obsolete. Turkey’s membership in NATO started in 1952 and there’s been a NATO headquarters in Izmir since then, longer than any other NATO headquarters in the Alliance, except for Naples. This strategic framework was based on containment of the Soviet Union. While Turkey still plays a key role in deterring Russian aggression in the greater Black Sea region, this is only part of its challenge. The former Chief of Plans and Policy of the Turkish General Staff once told me, “Ben, I wake up in the morning and I have Russia to the North, the Caucuses to the East, the Balkans to the West and Iran, Iraq and Syria to the South…it’s a helluva neighbourhood.” Our strategic framework needs to recognize this unique Turkish perspective and the role that our Ally plays in the broader region, including to its south.

Second, we must figure out “ownership” of the relationship inside the US Government. For the most part it’s been based mainly on military to military relationships which has worked pretty well for many years…but the focus on providing weapons to Kurds and doing whatever it took to defeat ISIS, has perhaps distorted the relationship.

The boundary between US European Command (EUCOM) and US Central Command (CENTCOM) runs along the Turkish-Syrian border which necessitates extensive efforts between the two Commands to coordinate efforts against ISIS in Syria. Clearly this boundary does not facilitate the most effective military operations or coalition building or diplomatic and economic pressure. And because CENTCOM has become primus inter pares
among the Combatant Commands over the last 15 years…due to the priority of deployments and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, this boundary has also contributed, in my opinion, to a tendency to underestimate the significance of Turkish sensitivities about our arming of any faction of the Kurds in order to achieve greater effect against ISIS. Add to that the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey created by the Syrian Civil War and one can begin to understand the Turkish unhappiness about what’s happening south of their border with Syria.

Third, both sides of this relationship have got to find a way to remove mutual suspicions that frustrate serious discussions and hinder efforts to resolve conflicts. There are several: “Turkey may leave NATO”; “Turkey has a hidden Islamic foreign policy”; “Turkey is in Putin’s pocket”; “The US has a long-term plan to establish a Kurdish state on Turkey’s border”; “the US was behind the Gulenist-led attempted Coup and still has a plan to oust him”, “The US can remotely inactivate Patriot Missiles in order to prevent them from shooting down Turkish Air Force F16’s in a future coup attempt”, etc. It will take a lot of strong, consistent diplomatic effort as well as other candid conversations by both sides to address and remove these suspicions if we are to build a viable Turkey-USA 2.0 for the future.


This is not a defense of Turkey’s bad behaviour with regard to buying the S400 from Russia or other actions which frustrate the Congress, the Department of Defense, and other Allies. Turkey is a difficult Ally…they often seem “spring-loaded” to be offended. And the current situation with the purchase of S400 defies logic…nothing good for Turkey will come of it.

It’s also interesting to note that, as we consider sanctions required under CAATSA, as one Turkish academic told me, the “purchase of the S400 was an Erdogan purchase, not an institutional purchase.” In other words, the Ministry of Defense did not carry out this purchase…it was done by another agency which reports directly to the President. Perhaps part of our effort to build a strong “Turkey-USA 2.0” should take this into account.

NATO is so much stronger with Turkey as a Member than without it, because of its geographic location, its strong and professional military forces, and its influence in the greater Black Sea region. They’ve also been a strong Ally for the last 67 years, despite our inattention and the perceived lack of welcome and respect in Europe.

Turkey is an essential Ally and Member of NATO in this era of Great Power Competition. To keep our Alliance strong and cohesive and an effective deterrent against Russian aggression in the greater Black Sea region we need to think long-term about our relationship with Turkey and ensure we protect it. We need a Turkey-USA 2.0 relationship that holds our Turkish Ally accountable for decisions it makes but which also demonstrates understanding and respect for Turkey’s own sovereign concerns and geography.