Turkey as a U.S. Security Partner

  • Published

Turkey as a U.S. Security Partner by F. Stephen Larrabee. RAND, 2008, 48 pp.


Responsible for securing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) right flank against Soviet expansion into Europe and the Middle East during the Cold War, Turkey generally coordinated and aligned its security strategies with those of the United States. However, over the last decade, Ankara’s foreign policies have drifted away from those of the West. In his monograph Turkey as a U.S. Security Partner, analyst Stephen Larrabee explains why.

Larrabee, who has written extensively on NATO, Turkey, and the United States, holds the Distinguished Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation. Since its founding as a nonprofit institution, RAND has produced research projects for the public and private sector, authored by experts in many fields. It prepared this study for the Office of the Director for Operational Plans and Joint Matters, Headquarters US Air Force.

Larrabee paints a grim picture of current and future US-Turkish relations, predicting that Turkey likely will be “a less predictable and more difficult ally” (p. 29) because differences in regional security policies have strained relations with the United States. He outlines Turkey’s top concerns and explains how the two countries’ policy goals have diverged.

According to the author, Ankara’s primary concern is Kurdish nationalism in southeastern Turkey and Iraq. Since the 1980s, the Kurdish separatists’ radical arm, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), has carried out terrorist attacks throughout Turkey. Even though the United States labeled the PKK a terrorist organization, many Turks maintain that America has not done enough militarily to help them combat that group. Larrabee observes that US efforts to help its long-time ally neutralize the PKK have suffered from shortages in military resources brought about by the Iraqi war and the United States’ need to keep the Kurds active in reconstructing an Iraqi government.

Second, Iraqi instability troubles Turks, who fear that sectarian violence caused by the Iraqi war of 2003 could spill over into their country. Additionally, Turkish officials worry that the semiautonomous region created for northern Iraq’s Kurdish population during the war offers safe havens for the PKK and could strengthen separatist desires among Turkey’s Kurdish citizens.

Third, Iran’s regional assertiveness and progress towards a nuclear weapons capability upset regional stability. The Turks do not believe that Iran will target their country with these weapons, but Larrabee remarks that Turkish leaders have concerns about the instability that a nuclear-armed Iran could create in the Middle East. Ankara has responded by cooperating actively with Tehran, negotiating anti-PKK and energy trade agreements, even though this approach conflicts with Washington’s attempts to lead global efforts that would isolate Iran politically and economically.

Finally, the Turkish government is apprehensive about the PKK and other radical groups supported by Syria and Iran along its southern border. Again, Ankara has chosen to depart from US desires and talk with Syria about stemming its support of these groups. Turkish leaders have also met with a delegation from Hamas after it won the Palestinian elections in early 2006—a move contrary to US and Israeli efforts to isolate that organization.

Larrabee predicts that Turkey’s shift to policies opposing US desires could affect the use of Incirlik Air Base (AB) in southern Turkey. Since the end of the first Gulf War, Turkey has limited the use of Incirlik. Larrabee warns that the United States should not assume that it could utilize that base, or any other Turkish base, to stage combat operations in the Middle East.

Despite the apparent cold outlook for US-Turkish relations, Larrabee does mention some warm areas. Turkey values its security relationship with the United States, which supplies that country with most of its military arms, and the two countries have a robust military exchange program. An important member of NATO, Turkey is dedicated to ensuring that the alliance remains influential in Western security issues. To improve relations, the author suggests that the United States do more to address the PKK issue, work towards a missile defense system for Turkey if Iran becomes a nuclear power, and avoid heralding Turkey as a model for Muslim countries since doing so irritates both moderate Turks and Arab states.

Although Larrabee’s monograph offers a good summary of the main issues affecting US-Turkish relations and its findings agree with those of other recent analyses, it lacks depth. Key issues that have lasting effects on the two countries’ relationship, such as the United States’ arms embargo in 1975 and the effect of the first Gulf War on the Turkish economy, receive only brief treatment and lack a thorough explanation, sending the reader elsewhere for more information.

Furthermore, even though the author addresses the influence of Turkey’s increasingly politically active populace on its foreign policy, he only lightly assesses the role of governmental leadership in recent policy trends. By analyzing Turkey as an entity, he diminishes the influence of its leadership. Larrabee’s expertise would produce welcome commentary on such matters as whether Turkey’s policies could shift again if another party came to power and whether a different prime minister would place fewer restrictions on Incirlik AB.

Finally, a more extensive list of suggested readings would have improved the monograph. (The bibliography includes only 26 sources, three of them the author’s own work and at least eight newspaper citations.) Because RAND reports frequently find their way into professional military education reading lists, additional references would prove valuable.

Despite these shortfalls, Turkey as a U.S. Security Partner is a timely addition to strategists’ bookshelves. However, its currency may extend no further than Turkey’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2012. The report does provide vital insights into basing in the Middle East—a principal assumption for military planning and an important requirement for the Air Force’s global strategies. A decent review of trends in US-Turkish security policy, it nevertheless leaves the reader hungry for more.


Col William G. Eldridge, USAF

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Washington, DC

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."