The U.S. needs its NATO ally in the fight against the Islamic State group, but a crackdown on democracy is making the partnership increasingly uncomfortable.

By Teresa Welsh, US News

For 10 years, Soner Tufan has run a sightseeing company aimed at Western travelers hoping to spend hours or days experiencing the rich cultural landscape of Istanbul, from the Haghia Spohia’s crossover religious history to the stunning facade of the Blue Mosque and bevy of merchant stalls nestled within the bustling Grand Bazaar.

This year, however, has been the business’ worst.

A precipitous reduction in foreign travelers has reflected growing distress inside Turkey over domestic terror concerns, the threats from spillover of the protracted civil war in neighboring Syria and an increasingly authoritarian leader trying to preserve power by cracking down on civil liberties.

Tufan says that along with nervous foreigners, Turkish civilians now recognize they, too, could be targets while going about their daily business as security in the country deteriorates and a war against Kurdish separatists heats up. The anxiety was on display less than two weeks ago, after a bombing in one of the busiest shopping districts in Istanbul killed four people.

“The following day all the big streets were empty, all the shopping malls, metro stops were empty. Almost nobody used the metros, buses,” 32-year-old Tufan says. “Normally, those days, Sundays, would be very busy in Istanbul. People would go to the shopping malls, parks, walk around the Bosphorus, but everywhere was empty.”

The scene is drastically different from where the country was three years ago, when President Barack Obama referred to Recep Tayyip Erdogan – then Turkey’s prime minister, now its president – as a partner, calling for broader economic ties with the NATO ally and hailing Erdogan’s efforts to negotiate peace with Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish population.

But since then, Erdogan has led a crackdown against Turkey’s domestic extremist element, conducting air raids, imposing curfews in Kurdish areas and killing over 5,000 militants. He has publicly questioned the U.S. commitment to their alliance and attempted to consolidate his power. He has targeted foreign and domestic journalists who criticize him or his policies, drastically restricting press freedom.

Fueling Erdogan’s moves are security fears tied to an increase in terror attacks inside Turkey – six in the past year alone, with two taking place less than a week apart this month. A suicide bombing in Ankara on March 13, less than a week before the deadly blast in Istanbul, killed 37 people. Some of the attacks have been blamed on Turkey’s Kurdish separatists, while the Islamic State group has taken responsibility for others.

Michael Rubin, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, calls Turkey “Pakistan 2.0” for the U.S., referring to the situation in which that country was accused of publicly claiming to fight terrorist groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda while silently working to support them.

“You’ve got a country which is perceived to be crucial to counterterrorism and to be strategic, given all the neighboring concerns, and is a long-term Cold War partner of the United States, which itself is very problematic,” Rubin says. “There’s a huge gap between what the government says and does.”

The conundrum faced by the U.S. is clear.

Turkey plays a valuable role in allowing the U.S. to fly sorties against the Islamic State group from its airbase in Incirlik, on the Mediterranean in southern Turkey. Before, raids were carried out from the Gulf, which Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute, called “costly and time consuming.”

“It wasn’t ideal for what the U.S. wanted to do in Syria,” Tol says. “The U.S. pushed the Turks to open the airbase and it plays an important part of the U.S.’ Syria strategy.”

But Turkey’s cooperation hasn’t always been assured. Although the deadly civil war across the border in Syria has been raging since 2011, Turkey didn’t join the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group until August 2015. Even then, its participation appeared reluctant. Turkey is what Rubin calls “the front door for the Islamic State” group, the border over which foreign fighters have flowed to join the militants in Syria. Turkey’s lack of control over that frontier has created further anxiety about the country’s security situation. And when it did join the fighting, it promptly attacked U-.S.-aligned Kurds fighting the extremists in Syria.

The U.S. is concerned Erdogan’s focus on targeting the Kurds is distracting attention from the fight against the Islamic State group, the American priority. Since a cease-fire that had kept relative calm collapsed in July, the Turkish president has zeroed in on eradicating the Kurdish militants, who want their own autonomous region in Turkey, by launching attacks against them in the southeastern portion of the country.

Differing opinions on the Kurds and how to handle them is one of the largest points of friction in the U.S.-Turkey relationship.

Turkey views all Kurdish elements as enemies, while the U.S. has a more nuanced approach. Both countries consider a group of Turkey’s domestic Kurds, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party or PKK, a terrorist organization. But beyond that, Turkey also opposes the Kurds across the border in Syria, the People’s Protection Units or YPG, which are a key ally in the U.S. fight against the Islamic State group. The YPG is the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD.
The position has seriously strained relations between the U.S. and Turkey. Erdogan hasn’t been shy about venting his anger with Washington for supporting the group and demanding the U.S. choose: “How can we trust you? Is it me that is your partner or is it the terrorists in Kobani?”

Those comments came in February after Obama’s envoy for the fight against the Islamic State group visited the Syrian city, which was retaken from the extremists by the Kurds last year.

As recently as this week, Erdogan reportedly criticized the administration during an appearance in Washington, where he attended the Nuclear Security Summit. After suggestions that Obama had rebuffed Erdogan’s efforts to schedule a private meeting while in the U.S., the White House said the leaders would likely have at least an informal conversation.

The U.S. has largely steered clear of overtly criticizing Erdogan for his authoritarian tendencies, which include a crackdown on media, imprisoning journalists and closing the country’s most widely circulated newspaper. Reporters have been punished for coverage criticizing government policies and Erdogan personally. Last year, authorities blocked access to eight news websites, reasoning the move was necessary for a domestic counterterrorism operation. Earlier this month, the government seized control of of Zaman, a newspaper that regularly criticized the government. Foreign journalists have also been expelled from Turkey.

Erdogan has reacted to the growing chaos by trying to constitutionally increase his grip on power. He renewed efforts last month for a referendum that would give the Turkish presidency executive powers, rather than the mostly ceremonial role it currently holds.

And, while its criticisms are muted, the Obama administration’s view on Turkey have clearly evolved. In 2012, the president referred to his relationship with Erdogan – along with the lines of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron – as a “friendship” with “bonds of trust” that has enabled his doctrine of diplomacy on tough issues to succeed.

But now, Rubin says, Obama is much more of a realist when it comes to the alliance, and he recognizes a productive relationship benefits both nations despite Erdogan’s authoritarianism.
“Obama truly understands what the problem is in Turkey now. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to be proactive or apply pressure to change it. … Time is running out, and because of the strategic imperative, he doesn’t want to antagonize an already prickly Erdogan at time when he believes he needs Turkey’s assistance,” Rubin says. “The White House has calculated that even though they now recognize that Turkey is two-faced, the White House believes there is more to gain by playing good cop rather than bad cop.”

According to a recent report in The Atlantic that provided an in-depth look at Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, the president came into office thinking Erdogan was a “moderate Muslim leader who would bridge the divide between East and West” but now views him to be “a failure and an authoritarian, one who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria.”

Turkey, though, has substantial leverage in its relationship with the European Union, due to a deal agreed to earlier this month that will give Ankara $3.4 billion in exchange for its assistance in stemming the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe. Migrants who arrive in Greece from Turkey by irregular means will be sent back to Turkey, which will then send a refugee who has legally registered there to be resettled in the EU.

Rubin says the Europeans will likely look the other way on Erdogan’s domestic crackdown if he continues helping with their refugee problem, unless he then becomes so overwhelmed by the increase in Syrians – Turkey hosts about 2.7 million of them currently – that he tries to send them back to their warring country. Doing so would violate international law.

“What Turkey is more interested in is the money at this point. There’s going to be problems if Turkey starts forcibly relocating refugees back into Syria, repatriating them,” Rubin says. “With the Turkish economy being what it is, honestly, as long as the is money flowing, I think that’s what Erdogan cares about more.”

To sweeten the deal, the EU also promised to relax visa requirements for Turkish citizens traveling to the EU and will consider restarting talks over Turkey’s accession into the body, which began in 2005 but have been delayed by concerns over human rights and an opposition from some current members. The latter consideration doesn’t appear imminent, as several European nations have expressed discomfort with Erdogan’s sudden turn from democracy.

“I don’t think it’s right around the corner,” Tol says. “Considering what’s happening in Turkey … on the Kurdish front especially, I don’t see how Turkey will be able to meet all those criteria for membership.”

“When it comes to Turkish democracy, I think the European Union has more leverage than Washington. And the EU has historically been more idealist when it comes to Turkey’s democracy, but even the EU seems willing to turn blind eye to what’s happening in Turkey,” Tol says. “I’m not expecting major change in the U.S.’ policy, and the red line … has to be something that will affect the U.S.’ Syria strategy – and that could be Turkey’s Kurdish conflict.”