Replace Turkey as a Strategic Partner?

April 20, 2006, 3:21 pm


by Jonathan Eric Lewis
Middle East Quarterly*
Spring 2006
* Cross-posted with permission

The U.S.-Turkish partnership remained strong throughout the Cold War. Turkey was a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member and a frontline state against the Soviet Union. Washington valued Ankara as a strategic partner. But, with the end of the Cold War, the pivotal status of Turkey receded. Successive U.S. presidents paid heed to the importance of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, but few cultivated it. Until the Turkish parliament shocked Washington by failing to authorize the use of Turkish facilities for Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 1, 2003, many in Washington took the Turkish partnership for granted. The loss of Ankara as a reliable ally has forced U.S. policymakers to readjust their regional strategy. Turkey may no longer be a pivotal state, but the Black Sea and Caspian littoral remains a pivotal region as a bulwark against radical Islam and for energy security. While Washington seeks to repair its once strong partnership with Ankara, increasingly, the security and stability of the region requires a more active and engaged U.S. approach not only to Turkey, but also to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Romania.

Shaken Confidence

The Turkish National Assembly stunned U.S. policymakers by voting against participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The no vote exposed severe fault lines in the U.S.-Turkish relationship, exacerbated by the subsequent outreach of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Iran and Syria and the tendency of members of his Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) to engage in anti-American rhetoric.[1] Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has indicated a desire to develop further ties with Turkey.[2]

Washington’s ambiguous attitude toward the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan, PKK) and Erdoğan’s autocratic tendencies further eroded bilateral confidence.[3] A July 2005 Turkish poll underlined the deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations. Some 50 percent of respondents held an “absolute negative view” of the United States.[4] Among U.S. policymakers?at least those outside the diplomatic service?the view toward the Turkish government was mutual.

Turkey’s growing flirtation with Islamism has also undercut U.S. confidence in its long-time ally. Prior to becoming prime minister, Erdoğan was arrested for reciting an Islamist poem that challenged the Kemalist basis of the state.[5] The AKP has worked to promote an Islamist agenda, seeking to empower graduates of religious schools, and facilitating the influx outside of regulatory oversight of billions of dollars from Persian Gulf and other Islamist sources.[6] More recently, the imprisonment without charges of a Van University professor?who later committed suicide?and the unprecedented arrest of the university’s secularist rector has caused mainstream Turkish society to question Erdoğan’s intentions.[7]

Erdoğan’s government has also undercut the West’s war on terrorism. By criticizing Israel’s counterterrorism operations as “state terror,” Erdoğan enabled Turkey’s European critics to characterize the Turkish military’s operations against the PKK in the same way. The sympathy of AKP deputies toward Iraqi insurgents also implied some forms of terrorism to be more legitimate than others, a logic which can be turned against Turkey by its longtime Islamist opponents.

Regional Concerns

While the White House might turn its back on other partners whose governments have engaged in rhetoric and activities similar to that of Erdoğan’s, the U.S. government simply has too many interests in the region to ignore. Aside from countering Iran’s attempt to export its revolution and other antiterrorism concerns, Washington’s preeminent interest in the South Caucasus is energy security, and specifically, protection of the 1,090-mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which delivers Caspian Sea oil to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. This project, initiated during the Clinton administration and brought online on May 25, 2005, is part of a U.S. strategy to become less reliant on Persian Gulf energy supplies.

Securing the BTC pipeline from a terror attack is difficult because large sections of the South Caucasus remain out of the reach of the states’ central governments. This makes it imperative that Washington work for realistic, pragmatic solutions to the Abkhaz, South Ossetian, and Nagorno-Karabagh conflicts. These solutions must simultaneously abide by the international and regional consensus on preserving the territorial integrity of the regional states and also recognize that during the decade or so in which these conflicts have remained “frozen,” local officials and populations have established self-government.[8] A positive step toward ensuring the security of the BTC pipeline has been the U.S. training of local military units in the region to protect the infrastructure from attack.[9]

At the same time that Turkey’s commitment to regional security waivers, Iran’s nuclear proliferation and terror-sponsorship activities continue to threaten regional security. Tehran, for instance, has supported both Sunni and Shi?ite Islamist groups in the region. One such Sunni organization is Turkish Hezbollah, an Islamist terrorist group that seeks to establish an Iranian-style regime in Turkey. Its members may have links with the November 2003 bombings outside two Istanbul synagogues.[10]

Islamists?be they supported by Iran or by Saudi Arabia?remain active in the northeast Caucasus. Although the first Chechen war against Moscow (1994-96) was a nationalist struggle resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union, an influx of Arab jihadists has transformed the conflict from one primarily about independence to part of the larger Islamist struggle against the West.

Stock Photos from 123RF

They have had some success. Due to the influx of both Arab jihadis and Wahhabism in the mid-1990s, Chechnya should be viewed in the context of wider difficulties in the Greater Middle East and to U.S. security rather than just as a local problem.[11] Several of the Islamists directly implicated in the 9-11 attacks were interested in fighting Russians in Chechnya. Saudi donors have long supported the Chechen cause and promoted the creation of a jihadi subculture among young Chechens, leading to the Chechen mujahideens’ adaptation of the tactic of suicide bombings. Not only were Chechen fighters able to achieve de facto independence from Russia between 1996 and 1999, but there are also increasing signs that Moscow might not be able to maintain a firm grip on the region’s other republics in the years ahead.[12]

Dagestan, especially, has become a target for jihadists. Aside from being a debacle for the Caucasians themselves, an implosion of Russian power could further the exodus of ethnic Russians from the North Caucasus and further consolidate Muslim majorities in regions that have been, for the past two centuries, religiously heterogeneous and culturally Russified.

A 2004 Johns Hopkins University Central Asia-Caucasus Institute study group found that “with the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalitions projecting power into Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the South Caucasus has de facto been drawn into the perimeter of Euro-Atlantic strategic concerns.”[13] It is essential that Washington maintain its strategic reach, even if it cannot rely on Ankara to do so. The deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations mandates not abandonment but rather a search for new allies.

Uncertain Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan could be at the top of the U.S. government’s list. As a pro-American, secular Shi?ite state with strained ties with Iran and good relations with both Israel and Turkey, Azerbaijan remains a major strategic asset for Washington. Azerbaijan has cooperated in the war on terror by allowing for coalition overflights. Baku has also contributed troops to Iraq.[14] Baku’s strategic position on Iran’s northern border has also made it a valuable partner in containing Tehran’s influence in the Caucasus, a phenomenon made more complex due to the ethnic kinships between Azerbaijanis and Iranian Azeris.[15]

However, while Washington has continued its outreach to Azerbaijan, there are worrying signs that Baku may not be as reliable a partner in the future. The lack of democracy in Azerbaijan has recently become a point of contention between Washington and Baku. Western observers criticized the fairness of the November 6, 2005 parliamentary elections in which President İlham Aliyev’s party nominally won. The State Department concluded that “the elections did not meet a number of international standards.”[16] It is always possible that Aliyev’s impatience with Washington human rights concerns may cause him to reappraise his relationship, much as Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov did when he withdrew permission for U.S. forces to use Uzbek facilities.

Iran has moved to exploit Baku’s uncertainty about Washington’s actions. Iranian diplomats often warn Azerbaijani officials that U.S. involvement in the region may be temporary while Iran will remain a regional power. Azerbaijani authorities have sought to promote a good-neighbor policy to placate the Islamic Republic, and Baku has opened a consulate in Tabriz?an ethnically Azeri city in northwestern Iran.[17]

Tehran, meanwhile, has also worked to augment its influence in Azerbaijan. It has sponsored missionary activity to promote Ayatollah Khomeini’s notion of religious governance. Even before Azerbaijan’s 1991 independence, Iranian missionaries were active in the rural areas around Baku, in Nakhichevan and Lenkeren.[18] In recent years, the Islamic Republic has sought to gain more direct control over Shi?ite religious life in Azerbaijan by rebuilding mosques and by encouraging Azerbaijani clerics to study in the Islamic Republic.[19] Iranian authorities have also proselytized among Azerbaijani refugees in camps near the Iranian border.[20] Iran’s most overt attempt to undermine Azeri secularism has been through its support for the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, a theocratic anti-Turkic party, founded in 1992 but banned three years later.[21]

Simultaneously, the Islamic Republic has moved to undermine Azerbaijani stability. The Iranian government has sought to bolster nationalism among Azerbaijan’s small Talysh minority. State-employed Iranian academics, for example, have helped to form the International Talysh Association to work for the rights of the “oppressed” Azerbaijani Talysh.[22] Azerbaijan’s minority Sunni community is also susceptible to radicalization. Senior members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad have spent time in the country.[23] Sunni Islamists have used Azerbaijan as a hub for plotting terror attacks, including the 1998 Al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S. embassies in East Africa and one foiled attack on the U.S. embassy in Baku.[24] There are also growing concerns about the radicalization of the ethnic Lezgin community, some of whom have turned to Wahhabism.

The Azerbaijani government has not remained passive in the face of Iranian subterfuge. In 1997, it banned Iranian missionary activity on its territory. Tehran’s religious influence has since waned.[25] Azerbaijanis’ resentment at the Iranian oppression of their Azeri ethnic kin also limits the Iranian influence operations.[26] Long-standing disagreements over territorial Caspian waters and the corollary oil rights also hamper further developments of Iranian-Azerbaijani ties.[27]

While the U.S. government was disappointed in the November 2005 elections that returned Azerbaijan’s ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party to power,[28] Washington realizes that it currently has little choice but to retain robust ties with Baku. Azerbaijan remains an important energy supplier and could play a crucial role in containing Iranian influence in the Caucasus should Washington and its allies embark upon a policy of containment toward Tehran. While democracy concerns will prevent the warmth in U.S.-Azerbaijani ties that existed in the mid-1990s, Baku still has the potential to be an important strategic partner should Ankara continue its slide toward accommodation with both the Islamic Republic of Iran and Baathist Syria.

Warming U.S.-Armenian Relations?

Another regional state with which Washington might develop ties is Armenia. Of all the Caucasian states, Yerevan’s relationship with Washington has been the coolest. The Armenian government’s contentious policies toward both Washington and Ankara, as well as its continued occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, led both the U.S. and Turkish governments to exclude it from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

Stock Photos from 123RF

Nevertheless, some factors make Armenia attractive in the fight against Islamist terrorism. Armenia is the only state in the South Caucasus without an active Islamist constituency on its territory. Rather than treat Yerevan as a political backwater, Washington might try to tie the small country to the West. The Armenian government has indicated willingness for a stronger strategic partnership with the United States. In late October 2005, Armenian defense minister Serge Sargsyan visited both Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon to discuss U.S.-Armenian military ties.[29] Despite low public support, Yerevan sent noncombat troops to Iraq to serve as detonation experts, doctors, and truck drivers.[30] Increased dialogue between Washington and Yerevan has opened the door for a possible Armenian entrance into NATO. Indeed, even Vladimir Socor, a critic of Armenian foreign policy and its ties with Russia, has argued that Armenia, if it is able to resolve its conflict with Azerbaijan, should be offered an opportunity to join the alliance.[31]

U.S. policymakers should not take any warming of bilateral relations for granted, though. Both Iran and Russia continue to court Yerevan actively. Tehran, for example, is cooperating with Yerevan to run a pipeline through the southeastern Armenian province of Syunik.[32] Washington is likewise concerned by the warmth of Russian-Armenian ties.[33] The Russian Federation is the largest investor in the Armenian economy,[34] and the two states have close military ties. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a regional military alliance akin to NATO, which also includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.[35] Moscow, therefore, was not pleased by Sargsyan’s visit to Washington.[36] Should Armenia fall further under either Russian or Iranian sway, it can undermine U.S. strategic interests.

From Tbilisi to Bucharest

Georgia has become a key player in the U.S.-led war on terror through its participation in the International Military Education and Training Program. Likewise, its counterinsurgency operations in the Pankisi Gorge region of northeastern Georgia, where Al-Qaeda had established a foothold, and its contribution of soldiers to both Afghanistan and Iraq have bolstered Tbilisi’s importance in Washington.[37]

U.S.-Georgian relations improved following the November 2003 Rose Revolution and the January 2004 inauguration of pro-U.S. president Mikhail Saakashvili. In November 2004, Tbilisi increased its troop presence in Iraq more than fivefold to 850.[38] During his two-day visit to Georgia in May 2005, President George W. Bush offered his support to Georgia’s new government and suggested that Washington might help solve Georgia’s separatist conflicts in its Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.[39] Demonstrating Washington’s renewed interest in Georgia was the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government body providing foreign development aid based on economic reforms and good governance. One Georgian analyst called the deal, which Saakashvili signed on September 12, 2005, “the most important economic aid project offered to Georgia since its gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.”[40]

Given Georgia’s location on the eastern Black Sea, its predominantly Christian and pro-American population, and its short flying distance from not only Iraq but also Iran and Syria, policymakers should consider Georgian airfields as important strategic resources. That NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer recently said that the “door is open” to Georgian membership in the alliance strengthens the need for a robust U.S.-Georgian military alliance.[41]

Romania, unlike Georgia, is already a member of NATO, and unlike Greece, its political life is not dominated by anti-Americanism. The Romanian military’s NATO-driven interoperability with the U.S. military, as well as the cementing of a democratic system, may soon belie the claim that Turkey is “the most stable country in the Black Sea region with effective armed forces.”[42]

Bucharest has played an important albeit unappreciated role in the liberation of Iraq. In sharp contrast to Turkey, which did not allow the U.S. military to launch operations from its territory, the Romanian government allowed the U.S. military to use the Kogalniceanu air base in southeast Romania as a staging ground to transport some 7,000 combat troops into Iraq. U.S. negotiators working to extend the U.S. lease at the Incirlik air base in Turkey considered Romanian bases as a contingency should Turkish politicians place too many restrictions on Incirlik’s use. U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld alluded to such a “Plan B,” that might involve airlifting infantry directly into northern Iraq from another country.[43]

In July 2005, the Romanian and U.S. militaries conducted joint training exercises at the Babadag Training Area.[44] Romanian troops have served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.[45]

Given Romania’s willingness to provide future bases in the realignment of U.S. military forces, policymakers should recognize this new strategic role that Romania is now playing in U.S. efforts in the Middle East. Although everything should be done to continue positive ties with Ankara, a more engaged and robust American-Romanian military alliance would be advantageous should an increasingly nationalist-Islamist Turkey continue its drift toward both Iran and the Arab world.


There has been scant attention to the emergence of the Caucasus and the Black Sea periphery as a pivotal strategic area for U.S. interests and Washington’s long-term agenda of promoting democratic reform in the Greater Middle East and countering the ideology of Islamism. Any state’s importance to Washington policymakers can be correlated to the number of high-level visits it receives. In 2004, for instance, Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Georgia. [46] Tbilisi was one of relatively few capitals to receive a presidential visit in 2005. While Madeleine Albright visited Turkey twice while at the helm of the State Department, Powell visited only once before the war. His subsequent visit to Ankara was meant to stem damage to the relationship following the March 1 vote, but it was too little, too late. His final 2004 visit to Istanbul coincided with the NATO meeting; it was pro forma.[47] Romanian prime minister Adrian Nastase had two working visits to Washington in 2004.[48] While Bush received Erdoğan at the White House in June 2005, the meeting was chilly.[49]

Does this mean that Ankara should cease to be considered a U.S. ally? No. The Turkish military remains a major U.S. partner in Afghanistan, and the United States remains Turkey’s third largest export partner.[50] Washington should do all that is reasonable to maintain strong military ties with Turkey.

This does not mean, however, that U.S. policymakers should turn a blind eye to some worrying signs in Turkish political life, most notably anti-Americanism. The deterioration in relations and palpable White House distrust of Erdoğan suggest further U.S. outreach toward the South Caucasus and Romania might be prudent. U.S.-Turkish relations do not preclude closer ties with Georgia and Romania. Nor should the formerly strong U.S.-Turkish partnership prevent contingency planning for a time when the West may lose Turkey. Likewise, Washington should pay greater attention to threats emanating from the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya and Dagestan, and prepare for a possible worst-case scenario? the loss of Ankara as a strategic partner and an implosion of Russian control over the North Caucasus.

It is still the case that most Americans have little or no knowledge of such places as Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and Romania and their linkages with the Middle East. Nevertheless, for the past several years, there have been intimate connections between these places, as well as others in the Caucasus and on the Black Sea, and the Arab-Islamic world. The politics of Dagestan, the BTC pipeline running from the Azerbaijani Caspian Sea coast to the Turkish Mediterranean, and the strategic importance of the eastern Romanian Black Sea coast have the real potential to shape and dictate Washington’s opportunities for a successful forward strategy in the Middle East. It is thus imperative that government bureaucrats, journalists, and policymakers working on the Middle East emphasize that this peripheral zone?a faraway land of which Americans know little?could be the key to Washington’s success or failure in the Middle East in the years ahead.

Jonathan Eric Lewis is a Washington-based political analyst writing on Eurasia and the Middle East.

[1] Soner Cagaptay, “Where Goes the U.S.-Turkish Relationship?Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2004, pp. 43-52.
[2] Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Nov. 9, 2005.
[3] The New York Sun, Nov. 2, 2005.
[4]Turkish Public Opinion about the USA and Americans,” ARI Movement, sponsored by Koç ˆolding, July 5, 2005; “Short Analysis by Dr. Emre Erdoğan,” Infakto Research Workshop, ARI Movement, accessed Nov. 28, 2005.
[5] BBC News, Nov. 4, 2002.
[6] Michael Rubin, “Green Money, Islamist Politics in Turkey,” Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2005, pp. 13-23.
[7] The Turkish Daily News (Ankara), Nov. 15, 2005.
[8] The National Interest, Dec. 1, 2004.
[9] Fiona Hill, “The Eurasian Security Environment,” testimony to the House Armed Services Committee Threat Panel, Washington, D.C., Sept. 22, 2005.
[10] Evan Kohlmann, “Terrorized Turkey,” National Review Online, Nov. 23, 2003.
[11] Lorenzo Vidino, “How Chechnya Became a Breeding Ground for Terror,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2005, pp. 57-66.
[12] Liz Fuller, “North Caucasus: No Clear Strategy in Region,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Oct. 2, 2005.
[13] Svante E. Cornell, Roger N. McDermott, William O’Malley, Vladimir Socor, and S. Frederick Starr, Regional Security in the South Caucasus: The Role of NATO (Washington: Johns Hopkins University, 2004), p. 25.
[14] “Azerbaijan Support to the Global War on Terror,” U.S. Central Command, U.S. Department of Defense, accessed Nov. 28, 2005.
[15] Brenda Shaffer, Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), pp. 1-11.
[16]Azerbaijan Parliamentary Elections,” U.S. Department of State, news release, Nov. 7, 2005.
[17] Fariz Ismailzade, “Azerbaijan Wrestles with Geopolitical Dilemma,” Eurasia Insight, Feb. 15, 2005.
[18] Igor Rotar, “Islamic Fundamentalism in Azerbaijan: Myth or Reality?Jamestown Foundation Prism, Aug. 31, 2000.
[19] Tadeusz Swietochowski, “Azerbaijan: The Hidden Faces of Islam,” World Policy Journal, Fall 2002.
[20] Author’s correspondence with Brenda Schaffer, research director, Caspian Studies Project, Harvard University, Nov. 14, 2005.
[21] Raoul Motika, “Islam in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan,” Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions 115, July-Sept. 2001, pp. 111-24.
[22] Eurasia Daily Monitor, May 27, 2005.
[23] Samir Razimov, “Bin Laden’s Azeri Connections,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Oct. 5, 2001.
[24] Hayder Mili, “Securing the Northern Front: Canada and the War on Terror, Part II,” Terrorism Monitor, July 28, 2005.
[25] Rotar, “Islamic Fundamentalism in Azerbaijan.”
[26] Author’s correspondence with Shaffer, Nov. 14, 2005.
[27] RFE/RL, July 25, 2001.
Netflix, Inc.
[28]Azerbaijan Elections,” press statement, U.S. Department of State, Dec. 2, 2005.
[29] PanArmenian Network, Oct. 29, 2005.
[30] Eurasia Insight, Jan. 1, 2005.
[31] Vladimir Socor, “Future Business for NATO’s Summit,” American Enterprise Institute, May 1, 2004.
[32] EurasiaNet Business and Economics, Mar. 3, 2005.
[33] Vladimir Socor, “Armenia’s Energy Sector, Other Industrial Assets Passing under Russia’s Control,” IASPS Policy Briefings: Oil in Geostrategic Perspective, Nov. 13, 2002.
[34] PanArmenian Network, Nov. 3, 2005.
[35] Noyan Tapan (Yerevan), Dec. 1, 2005.
[36] Regnum News Agency (Moscow), Nov. 29, 2005.
[37] George W. Bush, address, Tbilisi, Georgia, May 10, 2005.
[38] News release, Embassy of Georgia, Nov. 8, 2004.
[39] Khatuna Salukvadze, “Bush Visits Georgia to Support ?The Beacon of Liberty’,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, May 18, 2005.
[40] Lasha Tchantouridze, “Georgian Economy after the Rose Revolution,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, Sept. 21, 2005.
[41] RFE/RL, Nov. 28, 2005.
[42] Orhan Babaoglu, “Black Sea Basin: A New Axis in Global Maritime Security,” PolicyWatch, no. 1027, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Aug. 24, 2005.
[43] The Turkish Daily News, Feb. 21, 2005.
[44] The Stars and Stripes (Washington, D.C.), July 25, 2005.
[45] American Forces Information Service, Oct. 13, 2004.
[46] “Secretaries of State Foreign Travels, Countries Visited and Mileage: 2004,” U.S. Department of State, accessed Nov. 28, 2005.
[47] “Secretaries of State Foreign Travels: Madeleine K. Albright,” U.S. Department of State, accessed Dec. 1, 2005; “Secretaries of State Foreign Travels: Colin L. Powell,” accessed Dec. 1, 2005.
[48]Visits to the U.S. by Foreign Heads of State and Government?2004,” U.S. Department of State, accessed Nov. 28, 2005.
[49] The Washington Post, June 9, 2005.
[50]Background Note: Turkey,” Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State, Sept. 2005.

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