The relationship between the U.S. and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership can best be described as a zigzag—sometimes cooperative, sometimes acrimonious, and usually with sharp transitions. The most recent upset revolves around America’s decision to withdraw two of its Patriot missile batteries from Turkey this fall for “critical modernization upgrades,” before deploying them to other higher-risk areas. (On Saturday, Germany also announced it will pull its patriot missiles from Turkey by early 2016 because the risk of Syrian ballistic missiles is “low.”)
The New York Times reported that four American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sunday that Turkish officials were livid when told two weeks ago that the U.S. was withdrawing the Patriots. The NATO batteries have been stationed just north of the Syrian border since early 2013. The public reason for their withdrawal is that the threat from Syria has diminished, and that the Patriots are needed elsewhere, i.e., to guard against Iran and North Korea. However, an unnamed NATO official said on Monday that there was still a small chance that Syrian missiles could fall into Turkey.
The timing of the withdrawal may seem surprising, coming so soon after Ankara’s decision to allow the U.S. to conduct airstrikes against ISIS from bases in southern Turkey. That was the first time such permission was given since the Syrian civil war started over four years ago, and it seemed that previous bad blood between the U.S. and Turkey was now water under the bridge. But perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Patriot withdrawal comes as President Erdogan cracks down on the Kurds and seeks to formalize his authoritarian actions.
In late July, Turkey began its own airstrikes against ISIS. But simultaneously it has bombed far more positions of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara and Washington officially list as a terrorist organization. But still, the Kurds are some of the most active and reliable fighters in the ground campaign against ISIS, so Turkey’s airstrikes are complicating operations. (Cemil Bayik, one of the PKK’s leaders, has even asked the U.S. to intervene and mediate in the group’s war against Turkey, saying the PKK would accept a ceasefire under U.S. guarantees.)
And on Friday, Erdogan raised eyebrows when he called for formalization of his de facto deployment of enhanced powers. “Whether one accepts it or not, Turkey’s administrative system has changed. Now, what should be done is to update this de facto situation in the legal framework of the constitution,” he said.
In any case, the U.S. stated that if needed in a crisis, the Patriots and their 250 troops could be rushed back to Turkey “within one week” to fulfill an American and NATO commitment to Turkey’s air defenses, and air defenses aboard U.S. warships in the region can also help out.
Erdogan may make a fuss, but he’ll get over the perceived insult.