Report to Congress on U.S.-Turkey Relations

February 22, 2019 9:43 AM

The following is the Feb. 8, 2019 Congressional Research Service report, Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations In

From the report

The United States and Turkey have been NATO allies since 1952 and share some vital interests, but harmonizing their priorities can be difficult. These priorities sometimes diverge irrespective of who leads the two countries, based on contrasting geography, threat perceptions, and regional roles.

Turkey’s core security and economic relationships and institutional links remain with Western nations, as reflected by some key U.S. military assets based in Turkey and Turkey’s strong trade ties with the European Union. However, various factors complicate U.S.-Turkey relations. For example, Turkey relies to some degree on nations such as Russia and Iran for domestic energy needs and coordination on regional security, and therefore balances diplomatically between various actors. Additionally, Turkey’s president and longtime leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be concerned that the United States and some other Western countries harbor sympathies for some of the groups that have been marginalized domestically under Erdogan. Also, Turkey has played a larger role in the Middle East since the 2000s, but has faced a number of setbacks and has problematic relations with Israel and most Sunni Arab countries other than Qatar.

Bilateral relations between the Trump Administration and the Erdogan government have been difficult, but have improved somewhat since October 2018, when a Turkish court allowed Pastor Andrew Brunson to return to the United States after a two-year imprisonment.

The following are current points of tension in the U.S.-Turkey relationship.

  • F-35 aircraft acquisition endangered by possible S-400 acquisition from Russia. Turkey’s planned purchase of an S-400 air defense system from Russia could trigger U.S. sanctions under existing law and decrease Turkey’s chances of acquiring U.S.-origin F-35 aircraft. The possible S-400 transaction has sparked broader concern over Turkey’s relationship with Russia and implications for NATO. U.S. officials seek to prevent the deal by offering Patriot air defense systems as an alternative to the S-400.
  • Syria and the Kurds. Turkey’s political stances and military operations in Syria have fed U.S.-Turkey tensions, particularly regarding Kurdish-led militias supported by the United States against the Islamic State over Turkey’s strong objections. President Trump’s announcement in December 2018 that U.S. troops would withdraw from Syria came after a call with President Erdogan in which Erdogan accepted responsibility for countering the Islamic State in Syria. Efforts to coordinate U.S. and Turkish actions related to a U.S. withdrawal have triggered debate about the possible consequences of Turkish intervention in northeast Syria, especially for those Kurdish-led militias, which have links with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The PKK is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that originated in Turkey and wages an on-and-off insurgency against the Turkish government while using safe havens in both Syria and Iraq.
  • Congressional initiatives. Within the tense bilateral context, the 115th Congress required the Trump Administration—in the FY2019 John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, P.L. 115-232)—to report on the status of U.S.-Turkey relations, with particular emphasis on the possible S-400 deal and its implications. The Department of Defense (DOD) submitted a mostly classified report to Congress in November 2018. Appropriations legislation proposed for FY2019 in the 116th Congress (H.R. 648) would require an update to the DOD report.
  • Turkey’s domestic trajectory and financial distress. President Erdogan rules in an increasingly authoritarian manner, with his power further consolidated in June 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections. A number of developments (a globally stronger dollar, rule of law concerns and political uncertainty, significant corporate debt) led to a precipitous drop in the value of Turkey’s currency during 2018. A major September 2018 interest rate hike by Turkey’s central bank helped reverse some of the currency’s downward slide, but concerns remain about Turkey’s financial position and the possible consequences that higher interest rates might have for economic growth. Local elections are scheduled for March 2018 against the backdrop of these economic concerns.

The next steps in relations between the United States and Turkey will take place with Turkey facing a number of political and economic challenges. Given Erdogan’s consolidation of power, observers now question how he will govern a polarized electorate and deal with the foreign actors who can affect Turkey’s financial solvency, regional security, and political influence. U.S. officials and lawmakers can refer to Turkey’s complex history, geography, domestic dynamics, and international relationships in evaluating how to encourage Turkey to align its policies with U.S. interests.

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