What Has Strained U.S.-Turkey Relations And What Needs To Be Done

Gen. Ilker Basbug Former Chief of the General Staff, Turkey
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The relationship between the U.S. and Turkey has long held strategic importance for both countries, but lately it has come under strain. Two major issues are exacerbating tensions: The U.S.’s support of the PYD in Syria, and concerns regarding how the U.S. will respond to the requested extradition of Fethullah Gülen.

As we enter 2017, it is of utmost importance that these two critical allies repair recent rifts so as to return to a relationship of constructive global leadership and cooperation.

In Syria, it is natural for both the U.S. and Turkey to have and pursue their own interests. Military cooperation is not about going against these interests but instead finding common ground. While current support of the PYD may fit with Washington’s short-term interests in the fight against Daesh, it is ultimately a tactical decision that will not help the U.S. realize its long-term interests in the region.

Chief among the dangers to U.S. interests is the strain this policy is putting on the U.S.’s relationship with Turkey. As an organization founded by Abdullah Ocalan, the PYD is effectively the Syrian wing of the PKK, which has been waging a decades-long war against the Turkish state and people. U.S. support of an enemy of Turkey is making the Turkish public uncomfortable and runs the risk of alienating one of the U.S.’s most strategic allies.

Turkey’s decision to work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as part of Operation Euphrates Shield is also misguided, and Turkey should revisit this policy for the sake of its long-term interest, which is a stable neighbor on its southern border. Certainly, there are legitimate reasons for Turkey to be backing the FSA currently. When the U.S. did not respond positively to Turkish suggestions for a no-fly zone in Syria and greater U.S.-Turkey military cooperation, Turkey was forced to act in order to protect its border and people.

However, its is crucial for American and Turkish long-term interests that both countries abandon tactical approaches and come together with other regional actors like Russia and Iran to find a real and lasting solution to the Syria crisis. While this solution should include strategies to defeat Daesh and prevent PYD threats to Turkey, it must also consider the bigger picture. The U.S., Turkey, Russia and Iran all want to see the preservation of Syria’s territory, and to that end they must come together to resolve their differences.

For the U.S., this means halting support to the PYD, which presents a real danger to Turkey as well as to the integrity of a unified Syria. For Turkey, this means establishing direct dialogue with the Assad government. These may be tough decisions in the short-term, and finding common ground with Russia and Iran will be difficult, but there are no alternatives for a lasting peace in Syria.

Other regional concerns must also be addressed if both the U.S. and Turkey are to realize their interests while preserving their alliance. In Iraq, the presence of the PKK in the northern portion of the country threatens Turkey’s security. As a NATO ally, the U.S. needs to support Turkey in its desire to see the PKK denied a safe haven in northern Iraq.

Lastly, for relations to heal between Turkey and the U.S., the issue of Fethullah Gülen must be resolved. Gülen and his shadowy group of followers have long been a threat to the integrity of the Turkish state. Their infiltration of institutions like the Turkish Armed Forces has been well documented by military officials and journalists.

The main aim of the group, which has been legally recognized as a terror organization with the name of the Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization (FETO), has always been to subsume Turkish state power through dominance of state institutions. The best example of FETO’s threat to the Turkish nation – to its people and its democracy – can be found in the form of the July 15th failed coup.

There is no doubt that Gülen gave the orders for his followers in the military to carry out the attempted coup. Though it was foiled, FETO still cost more than 200 Turkish citizens their lives. The Turkish parliament was bombed, the Turkish public was attacked, and the nation was traumatized.

It is my hope that U.S. authorities will treat Turkey’s request for Gulen’s extradition with the seriousness and diligence required when the government and people of its most important NATO ally have been threatened.

The relationship between our two countries is as vital today as it has been throughout its history. It is time that the United States work more closely with Turkey to resolve current issues so that both countries can work together regionally and globally to realize their long-term interests.

Retired Gen. Ilker Basbug served as the Chief of the Turkish General Staff, the highest rank in the Turkish military, from 2008 to 2010.