In the early 1970's it was common among U.S. students of Turkey to refer to the nation as a "hooked fish". The term was not inherently derogatory. It was simply intended to convey the idea that Turkey had no alternative but to go along with U.S. policy requirements even when they did not seem to be in Turkey's best interest. After all, the reasoning went, Turkey was surrounded by historical enemies, and NATO alone could be counted on as a (sometime) friend. And yet...by the early 2000's the fish had grown...and broken the fishing line.
U.S. ties to Turkey date back to 1831 and were interrupted only when the U.S. declared war on Germany and, by extension, its Ottoman ally, in 1917. It was only in 1927 that relations were formally resumed and with Turkey determined to renounce its Ottoman legacy, it was a generally agreeable arrangement. Overall, it was an amicable relationship but one of a very low key. All of that was to change drastically around 120 years later.
When Greece and Turkey joined NATO in 1952, it had all the hallmarks of a perfect marriage. Greece was vehemently hostile to the USSR, having defeated a pro-Soviet rebellion in 1949 that had left thousands of its citizens dead. Turkey, mindful of the 13 wars the Ottomans had fought with Russia and Moscow 's seemingly endless desire to control the Dardanelles, was glad to have the US and Western Europe in its corner. For the West, Greece and Turkish membership in NATO meant help to protect the southeast flank of that bloc. From a strategic point of view, Turkey also possessed another virtue: it was the only NATO member with a border on the USSR. That would -and still does- provide a critical platform for peering into Moscow, an opportunity the U.S. did not long neglect.
The U.S. began a large-scale campaign in the early 1950's to strengthen Turkey's armed forces which, though large, were terribly outdated. Well over a thousand U.S. military and civilian advisors flooded the country in what was then one of the largest U.S. military aid programs in the world. Perhaps one of most significant parts of this arrangement was Turkey's willingness to station a squadron of Jupiter C intermediate range ballistic missiles outside of Izmir. All were fitted with nuclear warheads aimed at the USSR.
And then things began to go wrong through a series of carefully orchestrated blunders by the U.S., started by Cyprus.
While hitherto a British colony, the Republic of Cyprus was established as an independent state commencing in 1960 and guaranteed by Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom. While the majority of Cypriots were ethnic Greeks, a substantial minority of the population was Turkish. A militant (terrorist?) group Greek Cypriots established in 1955, EOKA (Ethniki Oranois Kyprion Agoniston- the National Organization for Cypriot Struggle), had been active in seeking to end British rule and unite with Greece (enosis) but that organization appeared to dissolve once independence was achieved. Or so people thought.
At the end of 1963, Greek Cypriots initiated a series of attacks aimed at Turkish Cypriots, and in mid-June 1964 the Cypriot government formed plans to sharply expand its military: it was presumed, fairly or not, that their first target would be the Turkish Cypriots. Facing this situation, Turkey, as a guarantor of Cypriot security and independence, threatened to intervene.
What happened then came as a bombshell in the heart of Ankara.
In a letter to Turkish President Ismet Inonu, President Johnson warned that if a Turkish intervention sparked a Soviet attack on Turkey, Ankara could expect no help from NATO. In the eyes of Turkey, this was nothing short of outright betrayal by a trusted friend. While Turkey backed down from its threat, it generated a degree of suspicion and distrust that would - and did - last for years.
In 1974, it was again Cyprus that sparked an even worse crisis between Ankara and Washington. EOKA had given way to a resurgent group, now labeled EOKA-B, and its intent was union with Greece, coupled with violence against Turkish Cypriots. In July 1974, EOKA-B, aided by the Greek government, overthrew the elected President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, and replaced him with Nikos Sampson, a known EOKA-B terrorist. Turkey appealed to the United Kingdom and Greece (as guarantors of Cypriot independence) to reverse the situation. They refused.
On 20 July 1974, the Turkish military invaded, capturing around 3% of Cyprus. While generally successful, Ankara launched a second operation in August 1974, against Greek Cypriot forces, this time occupying almost 40% of the island.
Although the UN had agreed with Ankara' initial onslaught, their second expedition was condemned. Faced with Turkey's determination not to back down, the U.S. Congress imposed an arms embargo on Turkey in 1975, a catastrophe for the Turkish armed forces and a disaster for the U.S. as Turkey shut down virtually every U.S. installation there. It was a remarkable lose-lose for both sides that lasted for almost three years.
While the arms embargo was eventually ended in 1978, it did little to improve Turkey 's views of the U.S. The needles from the U.S. kept coming, tearing away at the scab that might have shown evidence of healing the rift with Turkey. It was common, for example, for the U.S. Congress, to call for resolutions condemning the Armenian genocide of 1915, a measure heartily endorsed by congressmen and women who had significant blocs of Armenian voters in their districts. They rarely went anywhere but that was not the point: it made some American voters happy and if it infuriated the Turks ...so what? As one congressman said to me in 1978, "how many Turkish restaurants are in my district?"
And along came the Kurds ...
The rise of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) at the end of the 1970's also proved to be yet another barb in the fabric of U.S.-Turkish relations. For decades, the official policy of Turkey was that the Kurds did not exist: they were merely "mountain Turks" who spoke an odd Turkish dialect. As one senior Turkish security officer said to me "there is no Kurdish language. In any event, it is illegal'. So much for logic.
The Turkish response to the PKK was as predictable as it was heavy handed: crush them with overwhelming force. If this policy brought some success, it also generated Kurdish hostility toward Ankara while also subjecting Turkey to increased condemnation for its disregard for human rights.
Some of this hostility towards the Kurds abated, however, following the election of Turgut Ozal as Turkey's newest prime minister and the head of the Motherland Party. A businessman with close ties to the West, he was particularly friendly toward President Bush and readily allowed U.S. forces to use Turkey as a platform against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. He was also willing to allow talks to be conducted with the PKK; while none particularly successful, there was a marked decline in violence on all sides in that conflict. Ozal's role as PM ended in 1989 when he became the President of Turkey from then until 1993. U.S. relations with Turkey appeared, in general, to be back on track. Within ten years, however, there was to be a significant setback for both sides.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not your typical politician when he became mayor of Istanbul in 1994. He had attended a religious school as a young man, and he had a gift for connecting with ordinary citizens. If socially conservative, he was liberal with regard to the economy and he dramatically improved the lot of Turks in that sprawling metropolis. His religious inclinations, however, led to his ouster as mayor in 1998. He helped found the Justice and Development Party in 2001 and ultimately became the Prime Minister in 2003, largely due to his demonstrated effectiveness in bringing economic prosperity and integrity to the public. There was a price to be paid for this, however.
Turks had never seen a PM quite like Erdogan. His wife covered herself with a scarf in public, a first in modem Turkish history. He also demonstrated a very thin skin, and he was more than prepared to employ the levers of power in order to squelch criticism, leading to increasingly large numbers of journalists being arrested on dubious grounds. After he became president in 2014, he demonstrated even greater intolerance, succeeding in setting a world record for the number of journalists under arrest for "terrorism", "espionage" or "insulting the state".· In a bid to demonstrate his grandeur, he constructed a new presidential palace with over 1000 rooms, more than the White House and Buckingham Palace combined.
In order to deal with Kurds, Erdogan began authorizing cross-border operations into northern Iraq in 2008. Similarly, strikes against Kurds in Syria started in 2016 and these have sharply escalated with the decision to send thousands of Turkish troops into northwest Syria in 2018. The fact that Ankara is attacking the very forces that Washington is supporting in Syria is clearly a matter of little concern to Erdogan.
Indeed, Erdogan's contempt for Washington (and democracy) has been demonstrated elsewhere. In December 2016, an American pastor resident in Turkey, Andrew Brunson, was arrested on charges of trying to overthrow the government, espionage and spreading Christianity. At least 2 other Turks working in American consulates have also been arrested on similar charges, usually associated with the failed military coup of July 2016. Over 100,000 other Turks have been either arrested or dismissed from employment in connection with that attempted coup.
For the foreseeable future, there is no reason to believe that relations between Ankara and Washington will improve and every reason to suspect that they will deteriorate even more. The 'hooked fish' has grown, and now it is a shark on the prowl.