Few U.S. allies have a more important strategic position than Turkey. None has a more troubled relationship with the U.S. Both countries must use prudence, patience and perseverance to repair their alliance.
Turkey is the size of Texas, has a population of 80 million, and an economy that ranks 17th in the world. Its military is the second largest in NATO, with more personnel than Germany, the U.K. and France combined.
Its strategic location is exceptional. On land it neighbors the Balkans, the Caucasus, Iran, Iraq and Syria. To its north, across the Black Sea, is Russia. Turkey’s Bosporus and Dardanelles straits control Russian naval transit from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. To its south, across the Mediterranean Sea, are Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and the Suez Canal.
Modern Turkey emerged in the 1920s from the wreckage of the Ottoman empire through the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He replaced Islamic law with legal codes from European countries. He introduced economic and educational reforms. And he established a parliamentary democracy with the armed forces as the guardian of secularism.
Turkey passed further reforms to join NATO and apply for EU membership. Turkey’s free market economy has improved the life of its people: GDP per capita grew from $282 in 1961 to $10, 817 in 2016.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2003 as the leader of AKP, an Islamist party. He introduced a presidential system and as president brought under his control the military, parliament, government, the judiciary, media, and schools. Mr. Erdogan extols the glories of the Ottoman empire and encourages public expressions of Islamic piety.
The state of emergency was introduced in Turkey in July 2016 after a coup attempt that lasted two days. It is still in force. A March 2018 report by the U.N. human rights office condemned the repeated extensions of the state of emergency and the erosion of the rule of law. The report’s numbers are staggering: 160,000 arrested and many tortured, 152,000 civil servants dismissed, 100,000 websites and TV channels blocked, and 300 journalists arrested. Other reports talk about thousands of military officers purged, including 40% of generals and admirals.
Turkey has foreign problems as well. The U.S. and Europe complain over its human rights abuses. NATO, Russia and Iran object to its Syria policy. Iraq and Syria have protested Turkish military incursions on their territory. Greece and Armenia remain traditional adversaries. Relations with Israel, once good, are now tense. Because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey has alienated Saudi Arabia and Egypt, one the richest and the other the most populous Arab country.
Turkey’s main disagreement with America regards the Kurds, the world’s largest ethnic group without a state. They are 20 percent of Turkey’s population, with a concentration in the country’s southeast. Across Turkey’s border are majority Kurdish areas in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Turkey fears that the Kurds will claim a piece of Turkey to form their own state.
In its fight against both ISIS and the Assad regime, America has trained and armed fighters from the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish organization. Turkey claims that the YPG is secretly aligned with the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organization. PKK’s decades-long insurgency inside Turkey has claimed over 40,000 dead. Turkey wants America to stop its cooperation with the YPG. America finds this hard to do since the YPG is its only reliable local fighting ally in Syria.
In January 2018, large numbers of Turkish troops crossed into Syria and attacked YPG units near the border. This invasion (with the puzzling name “Operation Olive Branch”) is opposed by Iran and Russia who support the Assad regime, and by the U.S. that has 2,000 special forces in the area.
Both America and Turkey want to repair relations. Presidents Trump and Erdogan met in September 2017 and reaffirmed the strategic partnership between the two countries. The U.S. secretaries of State and Defense, and the U.S. national security adviser had extensive consultations in Ankara in 2018. Following these consultations, the two countries established three joint working groups to address areas of mutual concern.
Turkey knows that without the help of America and NATO it cannot stand up to expansionist Russia and Iran, both centuries-old adversaries. Early in the Erdogan rule, Turkey described its foreign policy as “zero problems with neighbors.” Today it could be called “zero neighbors without problems.” What an Erdogan adviser recently called “worthy solitude” is another term for international isolation, a dangerous position for any country.
Russia and Iran are determined adversaries of America as well. To deal with them, America needs Turkey, an imperfect ally, but an ally nevertheless. Turkey was NATO’s southeastern flank during the Cold War, fought alongside the U.S. in the Korean War, and has been helping in the Afghanistan war. America must repair the relationship with Turkey and keep Turkey in NATO. Failure to do so would have incalculable consequences.
• J. William Middendorf II is a former secretary of the Navy and ambassador. Mr. Negrea is a New York investor.