Turkey has always held a strong card in its relations with the United States over recent decades – its independent stance in foreign affairs is its way of telling allies that it is fully aware of its strategic and military strength. Ankara also does not shrink from showing that it could find friends elsewhere, as in its current flirtation with Russia. Athens, on the other hand, always sees a worsening in relations between Washington and Ankara as strengthening its own bond with the superpower. The United States always imposed a measure of balance in its relations with Greece and Turkey. This time could be different.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey is a very different country from what it was a couple of years ago. The Turkish president has repeatedly shown that he is a gambler, ready to raise the stakes. But he has never faced greater dangers than today, nor had a weaker hand. His country is rife with divisions and the Kurds on the borders are growing stronger. And so, Erdogan does what he always does when he is in difficulty – he raises the stakes. In the dispute with the United States which has led to both countries suspending visas for each other’s nationals, the Turkish leader yesterday raised tensions even further. “We are not a tribal state,” he declared. “We are the state of the Republic of Turkey and you will accept it. If you don’t, then sorry but we do not need you.” According to Hurriyet Daily News, he charged that while the US hesitated to sell arms to Turkey it provides “arms to the terrorist organization for free,” referring to US-allied Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State in Syria.
The recent withdrawal of German forces from the Incirlik base shows that Turkey is in fighting mood. Perhaps, though, Erdogan is putting too much store in his good chemistry with Donald Trump – the only Western leader to congratulate him on his (narrow) win in the referendum that will change Turkey’s constitution. This may be why he is going to extremes, thinking that, like him, Trump is free to lead his country in the wrong direction without anyone stopping him.
Sooner or later Erdogan will realize his mistake. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will visit the United States next week. He should keep in mind that the tension between Washington and Ankara is not a victory for Athens. Greece must always show independently that it has right on its side, it must inspire confidence that it is a credible partner in a difficult neighborhood. The fact that Erdogan has gone off the rails does not mean that Turkey will not turn toward the United States again.