Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dictatorial tendencies, his support for Hamas, his passive aid to Islamic State, and his flirtations with Moscow and Tehran have led many in the U.S. to despair of Turkey’s future as an ally. Two weeks ago, the last straw seemed to come when, despite repeated warnings from Washington, Turkey began receiving Russia’s S-400 missile-defense system, designed specifically to shoot down American-made F-35s. To Michael Doran and Peter Rough, however, there are some legitimate grievances behind Ankara’s bad behavior, and moreover the alliance, which dates back to the beginning of the cold war, is too important to sacrifice:
The roots of Turkish disaffection are easy to identify. [They] begin with the failure of the United States to aid Turkey in securing its border during the worst of the Syrian civil war. . . . The United States chose to treat [a series of violations of Turkish territory] more as a disinterested bystander than as the ally of Turkey. The aloof American attitude contrasted sharply with that of Russia, which staunchly supported its Syrian client and aggressively sought to tilt the regional balance of power to its advantage.
The anemic American response gave Erdogan no choice but to address the challenge that Russia posed on the Turkish-Syrian border through bilateral negotiations with Moscow that sidelined the U.S. Even worse, it strengthened the voices of those Turks arguing for a policy of playing Moscow off against Washington. In short, American influence suffered.
Turkey’s S-400 deal is a hedge toward Russia that readies Turkey for the two most likely eventualities. [If] the Americans were to withdraw their forces from Syria before a final settlement to the civil war, then any agreement with Washington would be rendered worthless. Russia, in this scenario, would become the main arbiter of a settlement in northeastern Syria. [And] if the Americans, despite their obvious impatience to withdraw from Syria, decide to station forces in the country indefinitely, then Erdogan’s goal is to force Washington to move away from its current [support for Turkey’s Kurdish enemies] and to become more deferential to Ankara. In this scenario, the S-400s will serve as a goad to push the Americans to settle northern Syria on Turkish terms.
Russia has made it clear that it is in Syria for good, whereas America looks ever prepared to race for the exits. [U]ntil the U.S. adopts a long-term strategic posture designed to safeguard Turkey’s core interests, Erdogan intends to play Moscow off against Washington.
Arguing that “Turkey is more important than ever” as a bulwark against Middle Eastern disorder, Doran and Rough contend that Washington can be “just tough enough to send the right message” to Erdogan, but “not so tough as to drive the Turks away.”