Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu comes to Washington this week with more positives in US-Turkish relations than at any time in years.  However, upcoming and potentially grave challenges – Syria, Iran, Egypt, and others – mean Turkey and US-Turkish ties will face many risky problems in the months ahead.

  Davutoğlu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton need to think through likely dissonances and divergences and plan accordingly. 

American and Turkish leaders deserve credit for turning regional negatives of mid-2010 and before into good, or at least better, pictures today. 

  • Ankara and Washington have gotten back in sync on the Iran nuclear problem after the May 2010 uranium swap debacle and June 2010 falling out at the United Nations over sanctions. 
  • Tough talk and teamwork on Syria has replaced the years of discord over Turkey’s cultivation of ties with the Assad regime. 
  • Diplomats in Washington and Ankara effusively describe their regular and apparently very full consultations on other Arab Awakening countries and issues.  Prime Minister Erdoğan’s September 2011 evocation in Cairo on the virtues of secularism lined him up, in this place and time, squarely on the side of transatlantic values. 

The 2012 picture is not one of zero regional problems in US-Turkish relations, to be sure.  The Turkish-Israeli relationship and related polemics still turn heads in Washington.  The Armenian genocide issue may be seem off the agenda, but never really can be. 

Against a rosier recent past, the coming months seem packed with risks that could affect both countries’ key interests.  Tough choices among competing priorities lie ahead for Davutoğlu and Clinton. 

Syria is Exhibit A.  Ankara changed its Assad policy last summer from embrace to rejection.  Turkey paid a price for this in terms of lost investments and sharply reduced trade with Syria and through it to Arab countries beyond.  But the cost to Turkey so far of abandoning the Damascus regime cannot have been high. 

The future looks far riskier.  The Assad regime’s growing loss of control, its rising brutality, and the opposition’s increasing readiness to use arms suggest the country cannot be far from all-out civil war that will affect vital Turkish and very important American interests.  Media reports of US-Turkish talks about some kind of joint intervention and heated Turkish denials, regardless of where the truth lies, reflect the increasingly difficult choices facing the United States and Turkey.  Others include financial and/or material aid to the Syrian National Council and Free Syrian Army, humanitarian corridors, the problem of international legitimacy for such corridors or other forms of intervention, and countering al-Qaeda and PKK opportunists who would exploit Assad’s demise for even worse ends.  Pressures that push the United States and Turkey apart on Syria will be bad for that country, Turkey, and US-Turkish relations. 

More problematic if less immediate is Iran, where circumstances and recent, careful diplomacy on Davutoğlu’s part have helped to avoid choices on issues where Washington and Turkey disagree.  Turkey hosted one round of negotiations in January 2011 between Iran and the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany (the P5+1 negotiating group) and promoted itself this past January as a venue for further talks.  Quiet Turkish diplomacy in Tehran has urged negotiations and Iranian compliance with its International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty commitments.  To back up its words, Ankara agreed to host a NATO missile defense radar site.  This progress seemed difficult at the time to those involved, but was relatively painless. 

The turning screws on the Iran nuclear issue suggest that 2012 and 2013 will be much harder.  Iran affects vital interests of both the United States and Turkey.  Leaders in Ankara are no more convinced than they were in 2010, 2008, or 2006 that sanctions will succeed, that Iran actually is on the verge of a nuclear weapons breakthrough, or that it can be stopped at any acceptable price if it is.  While some in both capitals are sensitive to the other’s concerns and/or recognize that Ankara and Washington have no choice but to stay in sync on the Iran nuclear issue, the dynamics will run in different directions as tensions build. 

  • Turkey is not part of the P5+1 group, and it will get left out. 
  • The United States and Turkey may not share in real enough time sensitive information about Iran’s nuclear efforts or other aspects of the Iran issue. 
  • US and especially Israeli chatter about military action against Iran is and will be heard in Turkey like the scratching of fingernails on a blackboard – not so much because people doubt whose side they should be on if push comes to shove, but because of a recognition of the cataclysmic effect such action could have on an already deeply unstable region.  Perhaps naturally, it will engender a Turkish impulse to do something. 

Although Turkey’s decision to break with Qadaffi put at risk billions of dollars of Turkish investment and trade, as well as tens of thousands of expatriates working there, it ended up being reasonably cost free.  Turkey’s other choices in the Arab Awakening world have been even easier.  Risks to Turkish interests and to US-Turkish concord have been few. 

But here, too, the choices may be harder in 2012, especially in Egypt.  Cairo’s developing estrangement with Washington will affect US calculations, just as Turkish-Ottoman/Egyptian enmities burden Ankara’s today.  Neither country will be as influential was it was – or thinks it may still be.  Egypt’s increasing politically-Islamist character may put the Turkish public and its leaders against the United States on some issues – and perhaps Egypt’s against Turkey, as well.  What happens to the Camp David Accords obviously matters, too, and the effects for Turkey’s relations with Israel, the United States, and others could be dramatic. 

Other regional problems loom.  The developing agreement on a united Palestinian government seems more likely to divide Washington and Ankara than not.  Iraq may be sliding into chaos that the United States can disregard, but Turkey cannot, and that is already producing real friction between Ankara and Baghdad of concern to the United States.  Renewed Azeri-Armenian fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, which cannot be excluded, would also expose many problematic fault lines in US-Turkish relations. 

Clinton and Davutoğlu have done much to restore a healthy tonic to the bilateral relationship and made it an additive to regional stability.  Upcoming problems will test that progress.  While both countries can and must pursue their own interests and priorities, one of those should remain ensuring that the break that so devastated US-Turkish ties in 2003 does not recur.

Ambassador Ross Wilson is the Director of the Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. As a U.S. diplomat, he served as American ambassador to Turkey in 2005-08 and to Azerbaijan in 2000-03.

Related Experts: Ross Wilson