Turkey-US ties in 2013: Tension simmering over Mideast boils over amid graft probe
US Marines move into position with umbrellas as rain falls during a joint news conference between Prime Minister Erdoğan and US President Obama in the White House Rose Garden on May 16. (Photo: Reuters)
Ankara and Washington began 2013 as model allies with a shared interest in the Middle East. But after a series of behind-the-scenes disagreements over Syria and Egypt, the year ended in a tense exchange between the two countries over a graft probe in which several high-level Turkish officials were implicated.
The two NATO allies, which never seem to miss an opportunity to insist on their desire for close cooperation at all levels, are ending 2013 with ties strained over a corruption and bribery scandal that has shaken Turkey's political and business elite and pushed several ministers to resign.
After the scandal exploded onto Turkey's agenda, several pro-government newspapers accused Washington of having a hand in the anti-corruption operation, claiming that US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone had told a group of European ambassadors that Turkey hadn't followed the US's instructions and said they were watching “the fall of an empire.” Ricciardone immediately denied the allegations.
Following the appearance of reports in the Turkish media accusing US Embassy officials in Ankara of playing a role in the scandal, the US State Department called attacks in the Turkish media against American citizens “deeply disturbing," according to reports.
Amid these accusations against the US, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who paints the corruption case as an international plot to weaken Turkey's growing economic power and diplomatic prestige, hinted that Turkey could expel the US ambassador. US President Barack Obama's administration has also warned Ankara not to use bilateral relations as a tool in Turkey's domestic politics and said that Turkish officials will not benefit from statements that might poison relations, diplomatic sources told Today's Zaman on condition of anonymity.
This was not the first time that Ricciardone has been the target of criticism by government officials.
This year, in early February, Turkish government spokesman Hüseyin Çelik criticized Ricciardone for sharp criticism of the Turkish judiciary and urged him not to overstep his bounds as ambassador. Çelik warned Ricciardone not to interfere in Turkey's domestic affairs.
However, Ankara and Washington began 2013 with pledges to further deepen ties and cooperate on several regional issues in what both have sought to portray as a model partnership.
Ricciardone started off the year saying terrorism could not damage the relationship between the two countries. In February 2013, when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device at the entrance of the US Embassy in Ankara, killing two people, Ricciardone said the attack had strengthened Turkish-US relations and pledged solidarity against terrorism.
Erdoğan returned from US with empty promises on Syria
The most important development in Ankara-Washington relations in the first half of 2013 was Erdoğan's visit to the US in May. Erdoğan had been expected to push Obama for more assertive action on Syria, where the ongoing civil war has become a serious problem for Turkey.
However, the visit made it clear that although the two allies share a common goal, the toppling of the Syrian regime, they were unable to agree on the methods and timeline to resolve the crisis.
Though hopes were high that Erdoğan would convince Obama to take a more active role in the Syrian crisis, Obama -- who has been reluctant to get militarily involved in the crisis -- made no mention of deeper engagement during a joint news conference with Erdoğan.
Needless to say, diplomatic statements highlighting cooperation and close ties notwithstanding, the visit revealed deepening divisions between the two NATO allies over Syria. After the visit, one could argue that Erdoğan failed to get what he wanted from Obama.
At the time, many argued that disagreements over the Syrian crisis were affecting bilateral ties, worsening a sense of mutual mistrust despite a long history of relations.
As Ankara found itself increasingly isolated and frustrated by a lack of US support in bringing down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia began to take on greater importance in US policy and it became clear that without Moscow on its side, the US wouldn't take strong action in Syria.
And that's how it played out. As international support for an intervention in Syria increased after chemical attacks in the country in August, Turkey said it would join an international coalition in a mission to punish the Syrian regime for the strikes.
But just as military intervention in Syria began to seem more likely, the US and Russia made a deal in which Syria agreed to surrender its chemical weapons to international control. Turkey was among the countries to welcome the proposal.
In brief, 2013 was not a very fruitful year in terms of the Turkey-US partnership on Syria.
Chinese missile last straw in Turkey-US ties
The Turkish foreign minister also paid a visit to Washington in mid-November. He made his visit at a time when Turkey's much-debated choice to acquire a Chinese long-range missile-defense system had been occupying the agenda.
Turkey announced in September that it had chosen the FD-2000 missile defense system from China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp. (CPMIEC) over rival systems from Russian, US and European firms.
NATO member Turkey's selection of a Chinese missile system highly irritated and frustrated the US, which had been advising Ankara not to opt for a non-NATO missile system that Washington said would cause interoperability problems.
Washington several times expressed its concerns about Turkey's choice of CPMIEC, which is under US sanctions for violations of the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act. However, there is increasing speculation that Turkey may cancel its highly controversial project with CPMIEC as pressure has been mounting and that Turkey will spend a few more months in contract talks with China before canceling the project entirely.
Turkey-US divergence on regional issues becomes apparent
Disagreements over Syria aside, the two NATO allies have also taken different positions on developments in countries like Egypt and Iraq.
Turkey emerged as one of the fiercest international critics of the coup that ousted Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, announcing that Ankara does not recognize the coup regime in Egypt, while the US has maintaining ties with the administration in Cairo.
In Iraq, Turkey's economic ties with the autonomous Kurdish region have raised eyebrows in Baghdad and Washington in recent years. Growing energy ties between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have drawn the criticism from the US, which is concerned that bypassing the Iraqi central government could exacerbate the already high tensions between the KRG and the administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad.
There is also divergence in the US's and Turkey's stances on Maliki, who is currently at odds with the Turkish government. Washington believes that Maliki offers the best chance for stability in Iraq at the moment, while Turkey has criticized what it calls the Shiite-led government's monopolization of power at the expense of other groups in the country.
US pushes for Turkey-Israel rapprochement
In March, Obama brokered a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, two countries that have been at odds since the Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos raided a Turkish aid flotilla, killing eight Turks and a Turkish American in May 2010. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to his Turkish counterpart for the raid on March 22.
The breakthrough came as a result of what appears to be a US bid to normalize relations between the two former allies.
Although Turkish and Israeli officials began talks on compensating the families of the victims of the raid -- one of the Turkish conditions for restoring relations with Israel -- there hasn't been significant progress in Turkish-Israeli ties since the apology.