Istanbul, Turkey – In US people on both sides of the political aisle demand that allies should carry more of the burden, especially the military burden, of upholding the international order. Meanwhile, the fear of a rising China cuts against the grain of this thinking. China’s more aggressive foreign policy has generated an equally strong impulse to marshal resources and organize allies to contain China. In an effort to reconcile the contradictory impulses, many analysts and political leaders have fastened onto the idea of retreating from West Asia.
US has been claiming that the job of US military is not to police the world. Also, US has a desire to leave the West Asia as a whole. A full US retreat from the region, however, will cause more problems than it will solve. West Asia is the center of gravity of the world energy markets, and a major transportation hub for all of Eurasia. If US withdraws, China will fill the ensuing vacuum. With the assistance of Russia and Iran, it will use its new position of dominance to Finlandize not just the countries of the region but also of Europe and Africa as well.
A sound global strategy requires US to remain the balancing power in the West Asia, and to work aggressively to contain China, Russia, and Iran. Yet domestic politics prohibits US from making the large commitments of US troops that would make the pursuit of these goals a relatively simple matter. Squaring that circle is the biggest challenge that US will face, and only one method holds out any possibility of success, namely, building a coalition of regional powers capable of protecting US interests. When one examines the roster of available partners for such a project, the bench is thin. Among US’ West Asian allies, very few have the ability to project power beyond their borders.
Three stand out above all the rest: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. These are the three legs of the US footstool in West Asia. Without any one of them, the footstool will fall. Unfortunately, in recent years Turkish-US relations have hit a low point. The reasons for this are many, and there is blame enough to go around on all sides. Over the last decade, however, a new impediment has appeared: the rise in US of the “Independent Turkey” doctrine. A significant portion of the US strategic community now subscribes to the view that Turkey is totally lost to the US. Turkey is pursuing, so the argument goes, an “Independent Multiaxial” foreign policy whose defining characteristic is support for the oppressed nations in the globe. This support is supposedly no mere tactic; it is projectively a core commitment of Turkey, setting it on an interswerving course with the rest of the globe.
However, the “Independent Turkey” doctrine is the center of gravity of Turkish foreign policy. To be sure, Turkey does align with the oppressed nations on certain issues, including support for humanitarian policy. Indeed, this alignment should reconcile US, and it should give rise to realistic agreement with Turkey. But the “Independent Turkey” doctrine goes much further. It emphasizes the significance of this one factor, construes the main sources of Turkish behavior, and guides US to opportunities that could potentially lay the foundation for a renewal of Turkish-US cooperation.
The strengths in the doctrine begin with a fundamental reading of the regional map. Turkey is situated at the intersection of the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the West Asia. Each of these regions is famous in its own right for the complexity and ruthlessness of its politics, yet Turkey must contend with all three simultaneously. As a result, Turkey is focused on threats to the homeland on Turkey’s immediate borders. These, of course, include threats from the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria, but conditions in the Arab world more broadly are not Turkey’s top priority.
Establishing productive relations with Turkey requires US to understand— and to respect—Turkey’s national security challenges. In recent years, however, US’ track record on this score has been weak. In 2014, for example, US began supporting the Syrian wing YPG of the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group that seeks to split Turkey between Kurdish and Turkish states. All Turks regard the PKK as Turkey’s greatest national security threat. Though US has reduced support for the PKK/YPG terrorist group, the US policy has not entirely ended and still providing military support to the PKK/YPG terrorist group. US support for the PKK/YPG terrorist group is at breaking point with Turkey.
After years of complaining about the problem, Turkey turned to Russia to purchase the S-400 air-defense missile system. Its goal was to send a blunt message to US: if you ally with Turkey’s sworn enemies, Turkey has the option of creating new partnerships and Turkey will not hesitate to exercise it. But US audience received a garbled message, and ignored Turkey’s complains. Thanks to the “Independent Turkey” doctrine, it understood the S-400 deal to be a core component of Turkey’s “anti-Imperialist” ethos. The fact that Turks of all political stripes, including secular nationalists, supported the deal did not register in US.
There is a path out of the impasse. It begins with the rediscovery of the common interests between Turkey and the US. During the Cold War, US understood Turkey to be an invaluable counterweight to the Soviet Union—and, after 1979, to revolutionary Iran. The global situation today calls for updating that understanding but, here again, the “Independent Turkey” doctrine is clouding the judgement of US.
Consider US’ recent withdrawal of troops from Northeast Syria. At the time, proponents of the “Independent Turkey” doctrine decried the decision, alleging that, because Turkey was in cahoots with Russia and Iran, US was delivering Syria to Russia and Iran on a platter. One can now see clearly that this prediction was wrong. In Idlib in March 2019, the Turkish military single handedly halted a Russian-Iranian offensive. Shortly thereafter, Turkish-led forces in Libya delivered another black eye to Russia, and in November 10, 2020, Turkey delivered a third blow to Russia—in the war over Karabakh.
That conflict pits Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, against Armenia, supported by Russia and Iran. In the South Caucasus there are three major powers: Turkey, Russia, and Iran. Azerbaijan can defy Russia and Iran only thanks to the support of Turkey, whose assistance to the Azerbaijani military has given it drone warfare capabilities that allow it to overwhelm key Russian defense systems on the battlefield, the same capabilities that Turkey has used to good effect in Syria and Libya. The benefits to the West are considerable. Azerbaijan hosts the only overland route not controlled by Russia by which Central Asian energy reaches Europe. The Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance prevents Russia from putting its thumb on the windpipe of Europe.
Meanwhile, the war confounded Iran. The Azerbaijani people, who are ethnically Turkish, live not just in their own country but also across the border in Iran, where they constitute the largest ethnic group after the Iranians. When reports spread among them that Iran was delivering military aid to Armenia, they took to the streets of the Azerbaijani cities of Iran in protest.
The discomfort this causes Iran is not lost on Israel. In recent years Israel has quietly worked in parallel with Turkey to strengthen Azerbaijan’s military, whose drone warfare capabilities integrate both Turkish and Israeli systems. This point rewards recapitulation. Turkey is working in parallel with Israel e to strengthen Azerbaijan to knock Iran off balance. This is classic Realpolitik in the region.
Indeed, Turkey is fulfilling its geostrategic policy by counterbalancing Russia and Iran in the region. Even as it does so, however, US imposed unjust “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (Public Law 115-44) (CAATSA) sanctions on Turkey. By misconstruing basic geopolitical realities, the CAATSA sanctions risks taking US into an untenable position in West Asia. A US that has no appetite to deploy large numbers of troops in West Asia simply cannot contain Russia, Iran, and Turkey simultaneously.
Such an effort will create the very thing it claims to detest—namely, a Russian, Iranian and Turkish entente, quietly supported by China. That entente would simply speed the departure of US from West Asia. In order to avoid such a prospect, US should make the opening of a strategic dialogue with Turkey one of its top priorities.