Three weeks ago, Washington, alarmed that Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would overrun Kobani and massacre its residents, parachuted weapons and other supplies to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units defending the Kurdish town on the Syrian side of the Turkish border.
The easier supply route would have been through Turkey, but Ankara refused to play ball. In a fit of pique, the Turkish president even gave the United States a scolding when one or two of the airdropped pallets fell into the hands of ISIS.
Soon after, Turkey allowed a small company of Iraqi pesh merga fighters pass through its territory to join the defenders in Kobani.
But Ankara accuses the People’s Protection Units of being “terrorists” allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, its long-time foe. Washington sees the Kobani defenders as heroically resisting extremism and denies they are terrorists.
However frayed the US-Turkish relationship has become, divorce is not yet an option.
The post-1945 history of Turkey-US relations has been one of two members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization arguing at cross purposes. But at least before the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a common threat. Now the threat is complex, and the two nations often don’t see eye to eye on what their shared interests are.
Still, as sour they may be now, relations between the two countries were worse in 2003, when Turkey refused to provide logistical support to the US invasion of Iraq.
Compare that incident to the height of the Cold War, when it was Turkey that threatened to send troops into Iraq to bring down a communist coalition there sympathetic to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
US Secretary of State John Dulles rushed to Ankara in 1958 to demand restraint. “If there is any reaction, it must be initiated by Arabs and not Turkey or Western powers,” he cabled home.
Once the Cold War ended, Ankara was no easier to deal with, partly because its politics were unpredictable. There were 13 different foreign ministers during a series of unstable coalitions in the 1990s.
If the United States was guilty of talking over the heads of Turkish politicians to the Turkish military, it was because it wasn’t always clear who their civilian interlocutor would be.
After Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, the days of unstable civilian governments were over. Washington appeared to take the line that it was because of — not in spite of — its Islamic colouring that the party could breathe new life into the alliance. Previous Islamist parties in Turkey had been anti-US and anti-European Union. Justice and Development was neither.
President Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey early in his presidency was a signal that his administration was prepared to take the Justice and Development Party’s vision of Turkey as a responsible regional actor seriously.
The new president spoke of US-Turkey relations not in the Cold War language of “strategic” partnership — a stalwart to guard Nato’s southern flank — but as a “model partnership,” a country that exercised influence because of its own accomplishments.
Alas, no one speaks of a “model partnership” anymore. So what is keeping Turkey and the United States together?
One irreverent theory that was applied to the roller coaster days of the 1990s is that Turkey enjoyed leverage among its Western allies not just because of its strategic geography but because of its potential for volatility. It was less an asset to be deployed than a nation to be humoured, for the sake of keeping it on the West’s side.
Consider the International Monetary Fund’s rescue of the Turkish economy in 2001. There is little doubt that Washington encouraged the rescue because it did not want a country bordering Iraq to implode.
Its willingness to cater to Turkey has meant that its allies only coughed politely whenever systematic human rights abuse came to light in the years following the 1980 military coup.
Turkey’s unpredictable nature is once again in evidence. The country appears to be hankering for the days when it got its way on the international stage by threatening to play the role of spoiler. That might explain President Erdogan’s criticism of the world’s concern for Kobani.
All this comes at a time when Turkey is rapidly backtracking on its commitment to basic rights and freedoms, granting itself powers to crack down on demonstrations and to patrol the Internet.
If Turkey hopes that its volatility will keep the United States committed to their alliance — and refrain from criticising its increasingly authoritarian domestic policy — that would be a dangerous move.
For starters, the Obama administration appears ready to go over Turkey’s head — it is already literally doing that with its airdrops for Kobani. U.S. officials are also openly criticising their ally for not doing more to stop Islamic State trading in oil across Turkish borders.
The United States would prefer Turkey to be a more faithful ally. Turkey would prefer to be the tail that wags the American dog. Perhaps it will take the threat of ISIS to force the two sides to make common cause.