Bilateral relations between Turkey and the US have been full of ups and downs.
They suffered some deterioration after the rejection of a motion in the Turkish Parliament in 2003 to allow American troops to cross Turkish territory during the invasion of Iraq. They did, however, start to improve when the two countries began cooperating in the early stages of the Syrian crisis.
The rate of improvement slowed when the US decided to be more selective in extending support to various factions of the moderate Syrian opposition. Turkey's definition of “moderate opposition” was not identical to that of the US. This difference came further to the fore when Turkey failed to meet US expectations in doing all it could to prevent Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters from using Turkey as a gateway to Syria.
Events in the city of Kobani became another key chapter in the story of Turkey-US relations when the city was besieged by ISIL in September 2014 and the US launched air strikes in support of the Kurds. Turkey reluctantly agreed to open its border to allow Turkish and Iraqi Kurds to join the Syrian Kurds in their fight to resist the ISIL siege.
Turkey undertook tough negotiations with the US to allow the use of its İncirlik military airbase in the south of the country as a platform from which to launch attacks on ISIL targets. Cooperation between Turkey and the US in the fight against ISIL has never reached the level of cordiality expected by the US, mainly because Turkey's priority has always been the fight against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rather than ISIL. Turkey's prioritization of the fight against the PKK did not upset the US as this organization is also listed as a terrorist organization by the US.
On the other hand, the divergence between the allies became starker when Turkey asked the US to recognize another Kurdish organization, this time in Syria, as a terrorist organization. This group was the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syria and its military branch the People's Protection Units (YPG).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan adopted a rhetoric seldom used by a president when he criticized the US for its attitude toward the PYD/YPG. Referring to Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk's visit to Kobani, Erdoğan said on Feb. 7: “He [McGurk] visited Kobani on the same day Syria talks were being held in Geneva. How can I trust you [the US] in such circumstances? Who is your partner? Is it me or the terrorists in Kobani?”
The US used to use conciliatory language to address the subject and point out that it supported Turkey's fight against the PKK. Furthermore, for the sake of satisfying Turkey's demands, it even used its leverage to prevent the participation of a PYD/YPG delegation at the Geneva Conference on Syria on Feb. 1.
But when Erdoğan candidly asked the US to choose between the PYD/YPG and Turkey, State Department Spokesperson John Kirby's response was unambiguous as well, saying, “We don't recognize the PYD as a terrorist organization.” He even elaborated further by adding: "We have been open and honest about how we need the PYD in our fight against ISIS [another acronym for ISIL]. Kurdish fighters are our best allies in the Syrian theater. We have provided support to them and that support will continue." Deputy Spokesperson Toner brought further clarification to the US position by saying that “the US and Turkey are two friendly nations and allies. Nobody should question this. The US understands Turkey's worries, and the negotiations will be continued on this subject.”
Although those following the process closely thought that the comments of Kirby and Toner would end the altercation, it was announced that the US ambassador to Ankara was summoned to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As a retired ambassador who worked in diplomacy for 40 years, I can easily figure out how the US ambassador may have answered the questions that he was asked.
Turkey needs advisors in the inner circle of the top decision makers who can explain to their bosses that nations assess developments in the world in light of their own national interests, that they give priority to their national interests and that it is not realistic to expect the entire international community to adjust its priorities according to those of Turkey.