Putting rising Turkish anti-Americanism in historical context

Putting rising Turkish anti-Americanism in historical context
5 min read
31 August, 2017
Analysis: US support for Kurdish groups in Syria is beginning to undermine a 70-year alliance, notes Paul Iddon.
US support for Kurdish fighters has undermined Turkey's faith in Washington [Anadolu]
It's important to place the dramatic rise of anti-American sentiment in Turkey in recent years in historical context in order to gauge its real significance.

Anti-Americanism in Turkey has reached a new peak in Turkey, according to a recent analysis in Al-Monitor. Pinar Tremblay observes anti-American feeling in the Turkish press tacitly rejoicing at internal political strife in the United States. "Most of these statements are brewing with a rather new type of anti-Americanism, rejoicing in the possibility of American suffering," writes Tremblay.

This rise undoubtedly stems from ill-feeling in Turkey following the failed July 15, 2016 coup - to which many Turks inside and outside of the government feel the US did not respond adequately.

It also comes after three years of the US lending support - in the fight against the Islamic State group - to the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which the Turkish government staunchly opposes, invariably arguing that it's little more than the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), against which Ankara has fought a four-decade insurgency in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast.

Turkey has long been a NATO partner of the United States. Ankara has for seven decades stood out as a long-term American ally in the Middle East. But there have been low points in the relationship. In 2003, after the Turks refused to support the US invasion of Iraq, the US arrested Turkish special forces in Iraqi Kurdistan who were reportedly plotting to assassinate the governor of Kirkuk. Photos of the Turks with hoods on their heads were widely published in the Turkish press, leading to anti-American sentiment. An ultra-nationalist Turkish youth group purposefully replicated this scene in 2014 when they assaulted three American sailors in Istanbul.

Professor Barin Kayaoglu is currently writing a book on the history of US relations with Turkey and Iran, and anti- and pro-American sentiment in the two countries. He talked to The New Arab about historical contrasts and parallels in America's relations with these two key regional countries and how they might inform us about current events.

"I don't think anti-Americanism in Turkey could go further up," he said.
In July the Turkish state press published a map showing American military positions in Syria

"Regarding the issue of political violence, we need to appreciate that there's a big difference between individual acts of violence and a confrontation between US and Turkish military units in northern Syria or northern Iraq. The former is not easy to control, 100 percent, just as it's not easy to avoid violence against Muslims in the US whenever there's a terror attack in the US or somewhere else in the West. To avoid the latter, the US and Turkish militaries have deconfliction processes."

Despite these "deconfliction processes", Ankara attacked a YPG headquarters in northeast Syria in April without giving US military personnel stationed there adequate forewarning. Furthermore, in July the Turkish state press published a map showing American military positions in Syria, clearly Ankara's way of showing its continued displeasure at American cooperation with the YPG.

Kurdish forces hold the Afrin, Jazira and Kobane provinces, in which they are seeking a degree of autonomy - despite strong opposition from Turkey


Looking back fifty years at the beginnings of Washington's strategic relations with Ankara and Tehran, we find quite a bit of pro-American sentiment. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had refused to withdraw Soviet troops from Iran in the late 1940s, after Britain and the Soviet Union invaded the country together in 1941. Stalin supported a secession in Iranian Kurdistan - resulting in the first and only, albeit short-lived, Kurdish state, known as the Mahabad Republic - and also supported separatist elements in Iranian Azerbaijan.

The US, meanwhile, supported Tehran against these efforts.

In Turkey, Stalin coveted large parts of Anatolia, drawing a country that had remained neutral in the Second World War straight into the Western camp in the Cold War. A fact openly lamented by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in a politburo meeting in 1955.

"I argue that US moves against Stalin were interpreted as part of a broader American effort to help the two countries succeed in their modernisation attempts," Kayaoglu explained. "So, it was both development and security assistance that increased pro-US sentiment in Turkey and Iran in the 1940s and 1950s."

But by the mid-1960s, anti-Americanism had been building "partly because those hopes regarding modernisation were by then frustrated".

Richard Nixon and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi would have never had an issue resolving this stuff without drama

"Meanwhile, apparent lack of US support for Ankara's case over Cyprus further hit America's standing in Turkey," he elaborated. "In Iran, the appearance that Washington was backing and propping up the Shah - a claim I take issue with - fuelled the opposition's sentiment."

The Shah, Kayaoglu notes, "was himself often sceptical of US intentions in the region". Before the beginning of the tumult which led to his downfall in the 1979 revolution, he would sometimes "dabble in anti-US sentiment to placate his own people".

In contrast, "Turkish politicians did not use anti-American rhetoric in public that much".

There are some parallels between the Shah's growing authoritarianism in the mid-1970s - when he abolished the already complacent two-party system and erected a flagrantly one-party state - and President Erdogan's pursuit of a presidential system in Turkey.

Also, as with the Shah later in his reign, Erdogan has interpreted negative press in the US as interference in his country's affairs, seemingly believing that American newspapers wouldn't dare criticise administrations in power.

One area where there isn't any historical precedent in the US-Iran relationship, or the US-Turkish relationship for that matter, is the present US support for Turkey's Kurdish "enemy".

"The US and Iran never had such a major disagreement during the Cold War where Washington armed a non-state actor that Tehran considered a terrorist organisation," said Kayaoglu.

"US President Richard Nixon and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi would have never had an issue resolving this stuff without drama."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon