Improved U.S.-Turkish Relations Are Vital to Better Security in the Persian Gulf and Middle East

For Release

February 3, 2010

The United States can take a major step in improving the security environment in the Middle East and Persian Gulf by giving new impetus to revitalizing its security partnership with Turkey, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The study finds that Turkey plays a critical role in four areas of increasing strategic importance to the United States: the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Europe, and the Caucasus and Central Asia region. Turkey's cooperation in each area is needed to achieve U.S. policy goals.

As a result, revitalizing the U.S.-Turkish security partnership should be a top U.S. foreign policy goal, said study author Stephen Larrabee, who holds the Distinguished Chair in European Security at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

The study notes that Turkish foreign policy has undergone an important evolution since the end of the Cold War, as the end of the Soviet threat reduced Turkey's dependence on the United States. It also opened new opportunities in areas that previously had been neglected or were off-limits to Turkish policy, particularly the Middle East and the Caucasus/Central Asia.

Turkish leaders have sought to make use of this diplomatic flexibility and room for maneuverability by establishing new relationships in these areas. This has resulted in a gradual broadening and diversification of Turkish foreign policy, Larrabee says.

The broadening of Turkish foreign policy has been accompanied by important domestic changes that challenge many of the basic tenets of the Kemalist revolution on which the Turkish Republic was founded, particularly secularism. Kemalism remains an important social and political force in Turkey. However, the democratization of Turkish political life in the last several decades has led to the emergence of new political and social elites that have increasingly challenged the Kemalist elite's traditional dominance of Turkish political life.

These changes have made the security partnership with Turkey more difficult to manage, according to the report. Turkey today has interests in a number of regions—particularly the Middle East and Caucasus—that it did not have two decades ago. As a result, Turkey's government is less willing to automatically follow the United States' lead on many issues, especially when U.S. policy conflicts with Turkey's own interests. At the same time, Turkey has increased its regional influence.

President Obama's trip to Turkey in April 2009 was an important first step toward improving U.S.-Turkey relations. However, Larrabee says, if the effort to revitalize the relationship is to succeed, the visit needs to be followed up by concrete actions in a number of areas. In particular, the study recommends that the United States should take several steps, including:

  • Increase political and intelligence support for Turkey's struggle against terrorism from the Kurdistan Workers Party. Many Turkish officials consider this as the litmus test of the value of the U.S.-Turkish security partnership.
  • Put greater pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government to crack down on the Kurdistan Workers Party and end its logistical and political support of the group.
  • Encourage Turkey to carry out social, economic and legal changes so Kurds in Turkey enjoy the same rights and benefits as ethnic Turks. The Kurdish terrorist threat will not be resolved by military means, but by a strong anti-terrorist program combined with social and economic reforms that address the root causes of Kurdish grievances.
  • Express readiness to engage Iran and Syria in diplomatic efforts to help stabilize Iraq as U.S. forces are drawn down there. While such diplomacy would not improve U.S. relations with Iran and Syria overnight, it would more closely align U.S.-Turkish policy and reduce a past source of friction between the two nations.
  • Encourage and support Turkey's recent efforts to promote an improvement in relations with Armenia, particularly the opening of the border between the two. The normalization of relations between these two countries would significantly contribute to enhancing peace and stability in the Caucasus. It would also enable Armenia to reduce its economic and political dependence on Russia and Iran.
  • Intensify efforts to persuade Iran to abandon any attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran will destabilize the entire Persian Gulf region and potentially spark a nuclear arms race in the Gulf and Middle East, directly threatening Turkey's security.

The study also recommends that the United States continue to support Turkey's membership in the European Union, and improve defense cooperation by initiating discussions with about Turkish leaders about the future use of military bases in Turkey, particularly the Air Force base at Incirlik.

The study, "Troubled Partnership: U.S.-Turkish Relations in the Era of Global Geopolitical Change," can be found at It was prepared by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

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