Global Insights: Syria Crisis Overshadows Broader Turkey-U.S. Tensions

Global Insights: Syria Crisis Overshadows Broader Turkey-U.S. Tensions

At their White House summit last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed the two countries’ “model partnership” as they jointly called for greater international efforts to end the Syrian War. Thus far, the Arab Spring has had an overall positive effect on the Turkey-U.S. relationship. Before 2011, the Turkish-U.S. policy discourse focused on their divisions over Iraq, Iran and other regional security issues. But since the Arab Spring, Ankara and Washington have been preoccupied with harmonizing their policies toward the Arab world. This has become increasingly difficult with regard to Syria. Meanwhile, the preoccupation with Syria has obscured unresolved sources of tension between the two countries on other issues.

The war has focused the Ankara-Washington dialogue on the Arab Middle East at a time when the Obama administration considers Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific region a higher priority. Turkey’s important current and potential contributions to supporting U.S. policies in these areas are overshadowed by the frustrating Syrian civil war. The conflict presents both countries with the unappealing options of relying on weak, divided and increasingly extremist rebel fighters or using their own forces directly in Syria. Turkey has reportedly been arguing for more direct Western intervention in the conflict, which the Obama administration has steadfastly resisted. Direct intervention would likely prove more effective in the short term, but would confront Western forces with a difficult post-conflict stabilization mission, and a probable state-building mission, in the long term.

Other trouble spots where Washington and Ankara need to make a greater effort to cooperate more effectively include Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Turkey’s already important role in Afghanistan will likely increase in coming years as the United States and other NATO countries reduce their military presence in that country. More than 1,000 Turkish soldiers have served for years in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), mostly training the Afghan National Security Forces. The Turkish government has also been pursuing regional peace initiatives, such as the Istanbul Process, designed to reconcile Istanbul and Kabul and integrate Afghanistan more deeply with other Eurasian countries. The decision of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to make Turkey an official dialogue partner earlier this year highlighted Ankara’s rising influence in Central Asia at a time when other NATO countries are downgrading their presence in the region.

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