U.S.-Turkey’s Security Cooperation: Strong as Ever or More Complicated?

Middle East and North Africa

Vice President Joe Biden’s recent remark that the American-Turkish partnership is “as strong as it ever has been” raised eyebrows both in Washington and Ankara. Despite strong security cooperation historically, recent relations have seen increased strain, raising questions about the future of the U.S.-Turkey security relationship. As Henri Barkey of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace noted, the two allies have always had differences, but “the issues over which Turkey and America differ are far more numerous and complicated than in the past.”

Turkey’s role in fighting the Islamic State (IS) and its clampdown on free expression, among other issues, have seemingly hurt U.S.-Turkey relations over the past few years. Turkey’s reluctance to participate in the coalition to combat IS or even open its airbases to coalition forces fighting against IS has frustrated U.S. security officials. In 2013, the application of forceful police tactics against peaceful demonstrators during the Gezi Park protests led the State Department to condemn the crackdown and assert that “Turkey’s long-term stability, security, and prosperity” is best upheld through “the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.” 

Historically, Turkey’s government has often helped the U.S. advance its priorities since its ascension into North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952. Whether partnering in International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations in Afghanistan, working to maintain control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits or participating in counterterrorism operations, Turkey’s partnership with the United States has endured.

For most of the 1990s, Turkey was a major recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, receiving over $400 million, on average, in military aid per year from FY1990 to FY1997. In return, the United States and its allies were granted access to Turkish territory to launch attacks against Iraq in the first Gulf War. Following U.S. concerns about serious human rights violations in Turkey, U.S. military aid slowed down in the late 90’s until 9/11. Then, the United States saw Turkey as a key ally in the “War on Terror”. In FY 2002, U.S. military and police aid to Turkey reached $73.7 million. This aid comprised almost entirely of military equipment, including several U.S. frigates. Since then, U.S. security aid to Turkey has plummeted, falling to an estimated $5.4 million in FY 2014.

This decrease in U.S. military aid corresponds with a period of strong economic growth for Turkey, which experienced six percent GDP growth per year between 2001 and 2008, suggesting that the aid reduction may demonstrate Washington’s belief in Turkey’s “increasing military and economic self-sufficiency.”

While U.S. security aid to Turkey has steadily declined, U.S. commercial arms sale authorizations through Direct Commercial Sales have continued to grow since 2001. In FY 2012, U.S. commercial arms sales reached $1.6 billion compared to $1.4 billion in U.S. government arms sale deliveries to Turkey through Foreign Military Sales in FY 2012. Popular U.S. commercial items sold to Turkey in 2012 included aircraft and associated equipment, which accounted for $814 million, and military electronics, which constituted nearly $376 million dollars. Since 2006, Turkey has completed the sale of 48 surface-to-air missiles for $162 million, and is expected to purchase 30 F-16’s, 14 Chinook helicopters, and 72 Patriot missiles from American defense firms. And, in 2013, the U.S. government allowed Turkey to be part of a new Strategic Trade Authorization license exception, which allows U.S. companies to export military related goods controlled by the Commerce Department to Turkey with limited U.S. government review.

Despite such strong cooperation with the United States on arms procurement, the United States has raised serious questions about some of Turkey’s recent defense procurement decisions. In September 2013, for instance, Turkey announced that China’s State owned Precision Machinery Import-Export Corp (CPMIEC), which is on the U.S. sanctions list for violating U.S. embargoes on Iran, North Korea and Syria, would be awarded a Turkish contract to provide Turkey with advanced missile defense system. While Turkey may now choose the French to deliver the system, Turkey has yet to make a final decision.

As shown from the above picture of U.S.-Turkey security cooperation, it continues to be a complicated relationship. Ankara’s resistance to fully support the U.S. coalition against IS, as well as relations with Hamas and its suppression of free expression will continue to irk U.S. officials. Despite these recent challenges, agreements to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels and allow the placement of a U.S. radar unit in Turkish territory seem to illustrate that the partnership will continue.