Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations In Brief

September 19, 2017 (R44000)




Turkey, a longtime NATO ally, is of significant relevance to U.S. interests, largely owing to its status as a constitutional republic with a large, diversified economy and a Muslim-majority population that straddles Europe and the Middle East. The history of the U.S.-Turkey relationship is replete with complications. Bilateral ties have experienced a period of particular stress over the past five years in connection with conflict in Syria and Iraq, increasing domestic contention in Turkey, and the continuing consolidation of power by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Nevertheless, Turkey continues to allow the United States and other members of the coalition assembled to fight the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS/ISIL) to use Turkish territory for airstrikes against IS targets.1

Since 2014, the United States has openly assisted Kurdish militias in Syria (known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG) who are fighting the Islamic State but have links with the Kurdish militant group PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party or Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government. The YPG plays a leading role in the U.S.-partnered umbrella group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which also includes Arabs and other non-Kurdish elements. In May 2017, U.S. officials announced a decision to arm YPG elements directly to counter the Islamic State, while contemplating measures to limit the prospect of YPG use of U.S.-provided arms against Turkey.2 Turkey, whose military has intervened in Syria since 2016 to counter both the YPG and the Islamic State, has protested U.S. support for the YPG.3

This report provides information and analysis on the issues mentioned above, as well as on Turkey-Russia relations (including a possible Turkish purchase of a Russian S-400 air defense system).

For additional information and analysis on issues involving Turkey—including Israel, Armenia, Cyprus, the European Union, and various regional and domestic issues—see CRS Report R41368, Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed]. For information and analysis on a proposed September 25, 2017, referendum in various Kurdish-populated areas of Iraq, which could significantly affect Turkey and other regional actors, see CRS Insight IN10758, Kurds in Iraq Propose Controversial Referendum on Independence, by [author name scrubbed].

Syria and U.S. Relations

Turkish Military Intervention: Kurds and Islamic State

Turkey's military incursion across the border into IS-controlled areas of northern Syria began in August 2016. One of the Turkish operation's main objectives is to prevent Kurdish fighters within YPG-led units from indefinitely controlling the town of Manbij or other areas between the Kurdish-controlled cantons of Afrin (in the west) and Kobane (in the east).

Turkish military forces have provided air and artillery support for Turkish armored vehicles and special forces, and for ground forces drawn from Syrian Arab and Turkmen units nominally associated with "Free Syrian Army" (FSA) opposition to the Syrian regime. Some of these FSA-affiliated units have reportedly received additional external support from Gulf Arab and Western sources. Turkish leaders declared initial operations (also known as Operation Euphrates Shield) to be complete in March 2017, but Turkey continues to provide cross-border support to allied Syrian forces. Turkish officials have routinely speculated about expanding operations into other Kurdish-held parts of Syria.4

Turkey appears to view the YPG as the top threat to its security, given the operational and moral support its military and political success could provide to the PKK's insurgency within Turkey.5 At the same time, the United States has partnered with the YPG because—with the possible exception of certain forces aligned with the Syrian regime—it has arguably been the most successful anti-IS ground force in Syria.6 This has led to a challenging and sensitive situation in which U.S. officials and military commanders seek to assist both Turkey and the YPG, and also to rein them in from activities that could lead them into direct conflict with each other.7

Even though the United States has provided air support for some Turkish-allied actions in Syria, it has stayed out of other such actions, either to avoid operating too closely to Syrian or Syrian-allied forces, or because of threats posed to the YPG. In April 2017, Turkish air strikes on targets in northeastern Syria (YPG) and northwestern Iraq (PKK) drew U.S. condemnation and led to the positioning of U.S. troops along the Turkey-Syria border to discourage further Turkish attacks.8 During an August 2017 visit to Turkey, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reportedly discussed assisting Turkey with intelligence on possible PKK targets in Iraq, including the PKK's longtime safe haven in the Qandil Mountains near the Iranian border, and an outpost in the northwestern area of Sinjar that the PKK has built up over the past two years.9

Figure 1. Turkey-Syria Border: Contested Territorial Areas

Sources: Areas of influence based on data from IHS Conflict Monitor, and adapted by CRS based on media accounts. Other sources include UN OCHA and Esri.

Objectives and Potential Outcomes of Turkish Intervention

By launching operations in Syria in late 2016, Turkey apparently adopted a more independent and flexible stance regarding (1) outcomes in Syria and (2) actors it can work with to achieve those outcomes. During the first few years of Syria's civil war, Turkey permitted Islamist and other Syrian opposition groups to use its territory to undermine Asad politically and militarily, but sought to avoid direct military action in Syria. The change in Turkey's willingness to use its military in late 2016—with or without U.S. help—may indicate that Turkish leaders decided to accept the risks of establishing and maintaining a zone of control or strong influence near their border in order to address the following threats:

Given the U.S. prioritization of anti-IS operations over other objectives, and the success of Russia and Iran in helping Syrian forces retake key areas in northern Syria, Turkey may have calculated that it had little to no power to compel Asad's departure. Turkey adopted an approach that combines military force to mitigate short-term threats or perceived threats (the YPG, the Islamic State, and refugee flows), with an openness to diplomatic dealings with Asad's allies in hopes of shaping the political outcome.

The complex patchwork of state and nonstate actors operating in northern Syria further complicates the situation. For example, in one case, Russia and the United States may have coordinated action to prevent Turkish-supported forces from approaching Manbij.10 Meanwhile, Turkey is engaging in a diplomatic process with Russia and Iran that has been interpreted by some analysts as tacitly identifying spheres of influence in northern Syria.11 As a possible result of such dealings, Turkey might claim greater freedom of action in areas closer to its border, where it seeks to halt and perhaps reverse gains made by Syrian Kurdish groups,12 while easing its support for anti-Asad rebels—especially in other parts of the country.13 Some reports have suggested possible Iranian willingness to make common cause with Turkey against PKK elements in the region, specifically in Iraq,14 despite a regional rivalry between Iran and Turkey to some extent.15

An announced May 2017 Turkey-Russia-Iran agreement on "de-escalation areas" in Syria may reflect Turkish interest in finding ways to reduce refugee-producing conflict while possibly also complicating U.S. air support for YPG-led forces in contested areas.16 The rebel-held province of Idlib, along Turkey's border in northwestern Syria, is the largest of the proposed de-escalation areas and presents challenges for all parties involved. July 2017 setbacks in that province for Turkish-supported forces at the hands of Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters (formerly known as the Nusra Front) could complicate Turkish plans for the area.17 Operations in Idlib province by the Syrian regime, Russia, or others could create an additional influx of refugees into Turkey.

Going forward, it is unclear

Domestic Turkish Developments

Over more than a decade, President (and formerly Prime Minister) Erdogan has increased his control over key national institutions. A failed July 2016 coup attempt probably contributed to efforts by Erdogan and his supporters to accelerate the timetable for the constitutional referendum discussed below. Some Turkish media outlets and Turkish officials accused the United States of prior knowledge of or involvement in the coup attempt. President Obama dismissed such accusations as "unequivocally false" and threatening to U.S.-Turkey ties. The claims may stem partly from popular Turkish sensitivities about historical U.S. closeness to Turkey's military, and partly from widespread allegations that figures loyal to Fethullah Gulen (a former Turkish state-employed imam who lives in the United States and is the inspiration for an international socioreligious movement) were responsible for the attempt. Erdogan and other Turkish officials have declared the Gulen movement to be a terrorist organization and have called for Gulen's extradition from the United States.18

The Erdogan Era

Since Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, he and the ruling AKP have led a process of change in Turkey's parliamentary democracy that has steadily increased the power of Erdogan and other civilian leaders working with him. They have been supported by a substantial political base that largely aligns with decades-long Turkish voter preferences and backs Erdogan's economically populist and religiously informed socially conservative agenda.19

Erdogan has worked to reduce the political power of the military and other institutions that had constituted Turkey's secular elite since the republic's founding by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. He has also clashed with other possible rival power centers, including the Gulen movement. Domestic polarization has intensified since 2013: nationwide antigovernment protests that began in Istanbul's Gezi Park took place that year, and corruption allegations later surfaced against a number of Erdogan's colleagues in and out of government.20 After Erdogan became president in August 2014 via Turkey's first-ever popular presidential election, he claimed a mandate for increasing his power and pursuing a "presidential system" of governance.21

Analyses of Erdogan sometimes characterize him as one or more of the following: a reflection of the Turkish everyman, a cagey and pragmatic populist, a protector of the vulnerable, a budding authoritarian, an indispensable figure, or an Islamic ideologue.22 Analyses that assert similarities between Erdogan and leaders in countries such as Russia, Iran, and China in personality, psychology, or leadership style offer possible analogies regarding the countries' respective pathways.23 However, such analyses often do not note factors that might distinguish Turkey from these other countries. For example, unlike Russia or Iran, Turkey's economy cannot rely on significant rents from natural resources if foreign sources of revenue or investment dry up. Unlike Russia and China, Turkey does not have nuclear weapons under its command and control. Additionally, unlike all three others, Turkey's economic, political, and national security institutions and traditions have been closely connected with those of the West for decades.

In the aftermath of the attempted coup, the government announced a dramatic restructuring of Turkey's chain of command, placing the military more firmly under the civilian government's control.24 President Erdogan also revealed plans to place Turkey's national intelligence agency under his direct control, and to reorganize institutions involved with military training and education.25 Widespread dismissals (within both the ranks of the military and its officer class) have taken place. Partly as a result, there are doubts in some quarters about the efficacy of the Turkish military in combating the numerous threats to Turkish security, including those from the Islamic State and the PKK.26

Rule of Law, Media Freedom, and Economic Issues

During Turkey's initial years of rule under Erdogan and the AKP, vigorous debate took place regarding Turkey's political and economic trajectory and its leaders' commitment to democracy, free markets, institutional stability, and pluralism. After the AKP's third electoral victory in 2011, and especially after domestic contention increased in 2013 in association with public protests and corruption charges, Turkey experienced

  • major personnel and structural changes to the justice sector and the widespread dropping of charges or convictions against Erdogan colleagues27 and military leaders amid government accusations that the Gulen movement had used its own agenda to drive police and prosecutorial actions and was intent on establishing a "parallel structure" to control Turkey;28
  • efforts by officials or their associates to influence media expression through intimidation, personnel changes, prosecution, and even direct takeover of key enterprises;29
  • various measures to prevent future protests, including robust police action, restrictions on social media, and official and pro-government media allegations that dissent in Turkey largely comes about through the interaction of small minorities and foreign interests;30
  • the May 2016 replacement of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's AKP government by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and others characterized as more deferential to Erdogan;31 and
  • U.S. and European statements of concern regarding Turkish measures targeting civil liberties and the potential for developments that may undermine the rule of law and political and economic stability.32

Many of these trends have expanded or accelerated in the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt.33 The Turkish parliament voted within days to approve a three-month state of emergency, and has extended it every three months since, most recently on July 17, 2017. This allows the government to rule by decree. Turkey also partially suspended the European Convention on Human Rights, citing examples from France, Belgium, and Ukraine as precedents.34 Experts debate how the failed coup and echoes of past Turkish military interventions might influence future military and government actions.35

According to an August 2017 estimate, as many as 150,000 Turks have been fired from government posts since July 2016, and 50,000 people have been arrested.36 Many sources indicate that the government's actions have affected individuals beyond those with suspected involvement—or direct affiliation with the suspects—in the coup attempt, a possibility even government officials have acknowledged.37 Amnesty International alleges that some detainees have been subjected to beatings, torture, and other human rights violations.38

The Turkish government also reported in May 2017 that it had seized the assets of 965 companies, totaling around $11 billion.39 The crackdown, which has included sectors and firms considered important parts of Turkey's post-2000 economic growth, has caused considerable uncertainty regarding the economy's future. Some observers say governance under the state of emergency has undermined the rule of law.40 In April 2017, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) described Turkey's economic outlook as "clouded" due to "heightened political uncertainty, security concerns, and the rising burden of foreign-exchange-denominated debt caused by lira depreciation."41 However, a subsequent July report forecast higher growth rates driven by stronger-than-expected exports.42

Since Erdogan's April referendum victory (see below), mass dismissals, suspensions, and detentions have continued, along with acts of media suppression or intimidation, and dozens of nongovernmental organizations have been shuttered.43 On July 5, ten human rights activists, including a German citizen and the Turkey director of Amnesty International, were detained.44

April 2017 Constitutional Referendum

In an April 16, 2017, nationwide referendum, constitutional changes to establish a "presidential system" in Turkey were adopted via a 51.4% favorable vote. The changes alter the country's system of governance to an extent that possibly represents a threshold moment for the future of democracy in Turkey.45 Most of the changes will take effect after Turkey's next presidential and parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for November 2019, but could take place earlier if parliament calls for them.46 Among other changes to government structure and the electoral system, the amendments will

The contentious campaign and close vote, accompanied by allegations of fraud and other irregularities, arguably deepened Turkish societal instability.47 Additionally, some outside observers expressed skepticism regarding the vote's legitimacy.48 President Erdogan and the AKP had campaigned vigorously in support of the changes after obtaining the requisite parliamentary approval with the support of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) in January 2017.

Constitutional Implementation and Future Elections

When, how, and by whom the constitutional amendments will be implemented remains unclear. Erdogan has dominated Turkish electoral politics since 2002 and it is uncertain whether viable opposition could materialize in the next two years. However, his dominance could change if key constituencies' attitudes shift as a result of political or economic developments. For example, Turkey's economic well-being depends on foreign exchange and investment, and the flow of capital could decrease if international investors have less confidence in the Turkish market under increased state controls.

Regarding the amendments' impact, a U.S. analyst who undertook a comprehensive analysis in March 2017 stated that, on paper, some checks and balances would remain on the president's executive power.49 However, he also wrote that if Erdogan wins the presidency and the AKP wins a parliamentary majority, "one-man rule is very likely," and the result would put two major Turkish state institutions—the judiciary and the military—"firmly under the president's thumb."50 The more time Erdogan spends in office, the more he may be able to use his powers of appointment and patronage to cement his or his family's control over state institutions—possibly "immunizing" himself from future prosecution.51

Critics of the presidential system generally inveigh against Erdogan's illiberal turn and repressive measures, and warn that the changes could permit Erdogan to remain in office through 2034.52 Some proponents, meanwhile, assert that Turkey is better off with a strong government focused on one clear leader than returning to past troubles with weak parliamentary coalitions or unelected elites from the military and bureaucracy holding greater power.53

In the summer of 2017, a 23-day march from Ankara to Istanbul led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition party (the secular-oriented CHP, or Republican People's Party), attracted some popular support,54 but some observers doubt that the CHP can successfully challenge Erdogan.55 Erdogan condemned the march and its participants as supporting terrorism, and government and media figures aligned with the AKP have subsequently used threatening language against the CHP.56

Government Measures Regarding Kurds

Under the post-coup-attempt state of emergency, Turkey's government has cracked down on domestic political opponents. A primary focus, in addition to the Gulen movement, appears to be Turkey's Kurdish minority. Heightened ethnic Turkish-Kurdish tensions predated the attempted coup, having been exacerbated since mid-2015 by renewed conflict between government forces and the PKK.57 Key Kurdish political leaders have been imprisoned since late 2016.58

The future trajectory of Turkey-PKK violence and political negotiation may depend on a number of factors, including the following:

Effect on Relationship with Western Countries

President Erdogan's consolidation of power amid challenges to Turkey's national security and economy has attracted criticism from some governments and other sectors of society in the United States and Europe who view Erdogan as increasingly authoritarian and anti-Western.59 Relations between Turkey and some European Union states (namely Germany and the Netherlands) were strained in the spring of 2017 over those countries' restrictions on rallies by Turkish government officials seeking to raise support for the constitutional referendum among Turkish populations.60 Western countries have also voiced concerns over the rule of law in Turkey, particularly as it relates to the detention of several U.S. and European nationals, including American pastor Andrew Brunson,61 a German human rights activist, and a number of journalists.62

Criticism of Erdogan among some Members of Congress spiked after an incident during Erdogan's May 2017 visit to Washington, DC, in which members of his security detail appear to have assaulted individuals protesting near the Turkish ambassador's residence.63 That event, in which nine individuals were injured, marked the third incident of violence or heated contention on U.S. soil involving President Erdogan's security detail.64

U.S. Court Case on Iran Sanctions: Connections to Turkey65

A federal court case in the Southern District of New York has been ongoing since shortly after the March 2016 arrest of Reza Zarrab, a gold trader and dual Turkish-Iranian citizen viewed by prosecutors as previously involved in a conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran. In September 2017, prosecutors indicted four additional Turkish citizens in absentia, including former Turkish economy minister Zafer Caglayan and two employees of Halkbank (which is majority-owned by the Turkish government).

Zarrab has retained former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani as legal counsel in hopes of negotiating a diplomatic resolution to the case. Giuliani has met with President Erdogan in connection with these efforts. Erdogan has regularly criticized the case, and specifically denounced the indictment against Caglayan as a "step against the Turkish state." U.S. investigators used the findings of 2013 documents from Turkish prosecutors whom Erdogan has accused of seeking to undermine his government in connection with the Gulen movement.

Overall Strategic Considerations for U.S./NATO Cooperation

Turkey's location near several global hotspots makes the continuing availability of its territory for the stationing and transport of arms, cargo, and personnel valuable for the United States and NATO. Turkey's hosting of a U.S./NATO early warning missile defense radar since 2011 and the transformation earlier this decade of a NATO air command unit in Izmir into a ground forces command appear to have reinforced Turkey's strategic importance for the alliance. Turkey also controls access to and from the Black Sea through its straits pursuant to the Montreux Convention of 1936. Turkey's embrace of the United States and NATO during the Cold War came largely as a reaction to post-World War II actions by the Soviet Union seemingly aimed at moving Turkey and its strategic control of maritime access points into a Soviet sphere of influence.

On a number of occasions throughout the history of the U.S.-Turkey alliance, events or developments have led to the withdrawal of U.S. military assets from Turkey or restrictions on U.S. use of its territory and/or airspace.66 Calculations regarding the costs and benefits to the United States of a U.S./NATO presence in Turkey, and how potential changes in U.S./NATO posture might influence Turkish calculations and policies, revolve to a significant extent around the following two questions:

Incirlik Air Base

Turkey's Incirlik (pronounced in-jeer-leek) air base has long been the symbolic and logistical center of the U.S. military presence in Turkey. Over the past 15 years, the base has been critical in supplying U.S. military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States's 39th Air Base Wing is based at Incirlik. Turkey opened its territory for anti-IS coalition surveillance flights in Syria and Iraq in 2014 and permitted airstrikes starting in 2015. At various points in the anti-IS effort, the United States has reportedly deployed F-16s, F-15s, A-10s, EA-6B Prowlers, and KC-135 tankers at Incirlik. U.S. Predator drones based at Incirlik had reportedly flown unarmed reconnaissance missions for some time before 2014 to help Turkey counter the PKK in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq.67 Predators (both unarmed and armed) have also reportedly flown anti-ISIS missions. Recently, the number of U.S. forces at the base has been reported at around 2,500. Before anti-IS operations, U.S. troop levels were generally reported to be between 1,500 and 2,000. Turkey's 10th Tanker Base Command (utilizing KC-135 tankers) is also based at Incirlik.

Turkey continues to allow the United States and other members of the coalition that have assembled to fight the Islamic State to use Turkish territory for airstrikes against IS targets. However, at least one media source has reported that Turkey has obstructed some deliveries of jet fuel to coalition planes supporting YPG-led forces in Syria.68 Dependents of U.S. military and government personnel were ordered to leave Incirlik and other U.S. installations in Turkey in March 2016.69

Effects from some of the July 2016 coup plotters' apparent use of Incirlik air base temporarily disrupted U.S. military operations, raising questions about Turkey's stability and the safety and utility of Turkish territory for U.S. and NATO assets, including the reported storage of around 50 aircraft-deliverable nuclear weapons at Incirlik.70 In June 2017, Germany's government decided to relocate a detachment of German troops and surveillance and refueling aircraft from Turkey's Incirlik air base to Jordan after Turkey refused to allow German parliamentary members to visit the detachment. Turkish officials explained their action as a response to German grants of asylum to Turkish military personnel suspected in participating in or sympathizing with the July 2016 coup plot.71 No similar issues regarding U.S. officials' access have been reported, though some observers have advocated exploring alternative basing arrangements in the region.72 Turkey maintains the right to cancel U.S. access to Incirlik with three days' notice.

Figure 2. Map of U.S. and NATO Military Presence in Turkey

Sources: Department of Defense, NATO, and various media outlets; adapted by CRS.

Notes: All locations are approximate. All bases are under Turkish sovereignty, with portions of them used for limited purposes by the U.S. military and NATO.

The cost to the United States of finding a temporary or permanent replacement for Incirlik air base would likely depend on a number of variables, including the functionality and location of alternatives, the location of future U.S. military engagements, and the political and economic difficulty involved in moving or expanding U.S. military operations elsewhere.

Any reevaluation of the U.S./NATO presence in and relationship with Turkey would take a number of political considerations into account alongside strategic and operational ones. Certain differences between Turkey and its NATO allies, including some related to Syria in recent years, may persist irrespective of who leads these countries given their varying geographical positions, threat perceptions, and roles in regional and global political and security architectures.

Turkey lacks comparable alternatives to its security and economic ties with the West, with which it shares a more than 60-year legacy of institutionalized cooperation. Turkey's NATO membership and economic interdependence with Europe appear to have contributed to important Turkish decisions to rely on, and partner with, sources of Western strength.73 However, Turkey's historically and geopolitically driven efforts to avoid domination by outside powers—sometimes called the "Sèvres syndrome"74—resonate in its ongoing attempts to achieve greater self-sufficiency and to influence its surrounding environment.75

Turkey-Russia Relations and S-400 Air Defense Deal

Some analysts posit that in light of geopolitical realities involving Syria and increasing public contention between Turkey's leaders and the West (including in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup), Erdogan may opt to seek closer relations with Russia, possibly at the expense of Turkey's long-term ties with the United States and Europe.76 However, Turkey also has a long history of tension with Russia.77

In June 2016, Turkey began making strides toward repairing relations with Russia that had been strained since November 2015, when a Turkish F-16 downed a Russian Su-24 aircraft near the Turkey-Syria border under disputed circumstances. In advance of launching military operations in Syria in August 2016, Turkish officials reportedly consulted with Russian officials—in part to deconflict airspace after a period of tension following the November 2015 aircraft shoot-down.78

Certain Russian policies, such as occasional public contemplation of a greater Syrian Kurdish role in administering some territory in northern Syria, could indicate that Russia seeks to dissuade Turkey from an independent or pro-U.S. policy course in Syria. Others, such as Russia's efforts to sell Turkey an S-400 air and missile defense system, may be an effort to more assertively place a wedge between Turkey and its NATO allies. More broadly, Turkey depends on Russia for a majority of its natural gas supply, and a Russian company is constructing Turkey's first nuclear power plant.

Russia and Turkey reportedly reached a preliminary $2.5 billion agreement in July 2017 under which Turkey would receive two S-400 missile batteries within a year and then produce two others domestically.79 Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik announced in July that the S-400 deal would "meet Turkey's urgent requirements," but also that Turkey anticipates cultivating a more long-term missile defense relationship with the French-Italian consortium Eurosam in the wake of a preliminary Turkey-Eurosam deal on joint research, development, and production.80 President Erdogan confirmed the S-400 preliminary deal in September 2017.81

In response to a question about the S-400 deal, the State Department spokesperson said on September 12:

it's important for NATO countries to have military equipment that's considered interoperable with the … systems that NATO nations currently have. A Russian system, if Turkey were to buy these S-400s, as is being reported, [would] not meet that standard, so that would of course be a concern of ours. It would be inconsistent with the … commitments made by allies at the Warsaw Summit that [are] supposed to enhance resilience by working to address existing dependencies on Russian-sourced legacy military equipment through some of our national efforts.

During a September 6 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Turkey, Ranking Member Ben Cardin stated that the S-400 deal could violate section 231 of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (P.L. 115-44)—relating to transactions with the Russian defense sector—that was enacted on August 2, 2017.82

Author Contact Information

[author name scrubbed], Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs ([email address scrubbed], [phone number scrubbed])
[author name scrubbed], Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs ([email address scrubbed], [phone number scrubbed])



Turkey opened its territory for coalition surveillance flights in 2014 and permitted airstrikes starting in 2015.


Pentagon statement quoted in Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt, "Trump to Arm Syrian Kurds, Even as Turkey Strongly Objects," New York Times, May 9, 2017; Anne Barnard and Patrick Kingsley, "Arming Syrian Kurds Could Come at a Cost," New York Times, May 11, 2017. The Pentagon statement sought to reassure Turkey that "the U.S. is committed to preventing additional risks and protecting our NATO ally." It further said, "The U.S. continues to prioritize our support for Arab elements of the SDF. Raqqa and all liberated territory should return to the governance of local Syrian Arabs." To date, U.S. officials have not equated the YPG with the PKK as Turkey does. Gordon Lubold, et al., "U.S., Turkey Boost Antiterror Cooperation," Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2017. See also CRS Report R44513, Kurds in Iraq and Syria: U.S. Partners Against the Islamic State, coordinated by [author name scrubbed]. For information on U.S. authorities to train and equip select armed Syrian groups to fight the Islamic State, see CRS Report R43612, The Islamic State and U.S. Policy, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed].


In July 2017, Turkey's state-run media agency published sensitive information about U.S. military positions in northern Syria, with some observers speculating that Turkey's government provided the information in retaliation for U.S. support for the YPG. The reporters cited their own observations as sources. John Hudson and Nancy Youssef, "The US Is Furious Turkey Published Location Of US Troops In Syria," BuzzFeed, July 19, 2017.


Dominic Evans and Orhan Coskun, "After military shake-up, Erdogan says Turkey to tackle Kurds in Syria," Reuters, August 7, 2017. The center of much of this speculation is the Kurdish-held canton of Afrin in Syria's northwest, where Turkey was reportedly considering intervention in July 2017 before the deployment of Russian troops in the area. Fehim Tastekin, "Turkey waiting ... and waiting ... to intervene in Afrin," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, July 14, 2017.


Aaron Stein and Michelle Foley, "The YPG-PKK Connection," Atlantic Council, January 26, 2016; Amberin Zaman, "Ankara intensifies strikes against YPG, moves to arrest PYD leader," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, November 22, 2016.


Liz Sly, "U.S. Military Aid Is Fueling Big Ambitions for Syria's Leftist Kurdish Militia," Washington Post, January 7, 2017.


"Syria War: US Warns over Turkish-Kurdish Violence," BBC, August 29, 2016. In a March 2017 decision that has attracted congressional scrutiny, Turkey revoked the registration of Mercy Corps, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that has provided humanitarian assistance to Syrians. One media source claims that Turkey "is widely seen as using Mercy Corps as leverage to get the United States to cease its support for Syrian Kurds." Julian Pecquet, "Congress Wants Answers from Turkey on Shutdown of US Aid Pipeline to Syria," Al-Monitor Congress Pulse, March 15, 2017. Some observers posit that the Mercy Corps case may be part of a broader crackdown on international aid workers. Ruby Mello and Colum Lynch, "Inside Turkey's NGO Purge," Foreign Policy, August 3, 2017.


Cengiz Candar, "Turkey continues its foreign policy blunders," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, May 2, 2017.


Amberin Zaman, "Mattis pledges Erdogan US support against PKK," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, August 23, 2017.


Henry Meyer and Selcan Hacaoglu, "U.S. Puts Troops on the Ground in Syria to Blunt Turkish Campaign," Bloomberg, March 8, 2017.


Philip Issa, "Assad Gains Aleppo, but Others Likely to Shape Syria's Fate," Associated Press, December 26, 2016.


See, e.g., Amberin Zaman, "US move to protect YPG could push Turkey into Russia's arms," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, May 1, 2017.


Aaron Stein, quoted in Max Fisher, "Turkey, Russia and an Assassination: The Swirling Crises, Explained," New York Times, December 19, 2016; Soner Cagaptay, quoted in Fritz Lodge and Mackenzie Weinger, "An Extremely Vulnerable Turkey," Cipher Brief, December 20, 2016.


Ahmad Majidyar, "Turkey's 'Three Options' in Idlib amid Growing Tehran-Ankara Cooperation," Middle East Institute, August 23, 2017; Ali Hashem, "Iran, Turkey move to re-establish role as regional backbone," Al-Monitor Iran Pulse, August 23, 2017.


"What is behind the hostility between Iran and Turkey?" Al Jazeera, February 26, 2017.


Turkey had previously sought U.S. assistance to establish "safe zones" in Syria, but U.S. officials had expressed reluctance, based largely on various logistical and geopolitical uncertainties regarding which state or nonstate actors would contribute to air and ground forces, and what parameters would govern such forces' deployment.


Fehim Tastekin, "Turkey might have to do its own dirty work at Idlib," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, July 30, 2017.


For more on Gulen, the Gulen movement, and the question of possible extradition, see CRS In Focus IF10444, Fethullah Gulen, Turkey, and the United States: A Reference, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed].


Soner Cagaptay, "Farewell, President Demirel," Hurriyet Daily News, June 27, 2015.


Freedom House, Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media, and Power in Turkey, February 3, 2014.


Prior to the constitutional changes approved via popular referendum on April 16, 2017, the presidency was officially nonpartisan and was less directly involved in most governing tasks than the prime minister, and yet Erdogan remained active politically and claimed greater prerogatives of power.


See e.g., Soner Cagaptay, The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2017; Mustafa Akyol, "Turkey's Authoritarian Drift," New York Times, November 10, 2015; Nora Fisher Onar, "The populism/realism gap: Managing uncertainty in Turkey's politics and foreign policy," Brookings Institution, February 4, 2016; Burak Kadercan, "Erdogan's Last Off-Ramp: Authoritarianism, Democracy, and the Future of Turkey," War on the Rocks, July 28, 2016.


See e.g., Oral Calislar, "A Tale of Two Rambos: Putin, Erdogan Take on West," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, December 2, 2014; Douglas Bloomfield, "Washington Watch: Is Erdogan the New Ahmadinejad?" Jerusalem Post, July 17, 2013; "Sending the Wrong Signal to Turkey," New York Times, April 19, 2016.


Lars Haugom, "The Turkish Armed Forces Restructured," Turkey Analyst, September 30, 2016.


Danny Orbach, "What Coup-Proofing Will do to Turkey's Military: Lesson from Five Countries," War on the Rocks, September 27, 2016. Responsibility for oversight of the National Intelligence Organization (Turkish acronym MIT) was formally transferred from the prime minster to the president by a presidential decree in August 2017. Zia Weise, "Erdogan tightens grip on intelligence agency," Politico, August 25, 2017.


Michael Rubin, "Five ways Erdogan has destroyed Turkey's military," American Enterprise Institute, June 30, 2017; Ali Bayramoglu, "Is Turkish military's role in politics over? Al Monitor Turkey Pulse, January 17, 2017.


Tim Arango, "Some Charges Are Dropped in Scandal in Turkey," New York Times, October 17, 2014.


Piotr Zalewski, "Erdogan Turns on Gulenists' 'Parallel State' in Battle for Power," Financial Times, May 6, 2014.


State Department, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016, Turkey, updated March 3, 2017; "Turkey's Zaman: Editorial Tone Changes after Takeover," Al Jazeera, March 7, 2016.


Lisel Hintz, "Adding Insult to Injury: Vilification as Counter-Mobilization in Turkey's Gezi Protests," Project on Middle East Political Science, June 6, 2016.


Reuben Silverman, "Some of the President's Men: Yildirim, Davutoglu, and the 'Palace Coup' Before the Coup," reubensilverman.wordpress.com, August 1, 2016.


State Department, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016, op. cit.; European Commission, Turkey 2016 Report, November 9, 2016, available at https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/pdf/key_documents/2016/20161109_report_turkey.pdf.


For example, regarding constraints to media freedom, see Stefan Dege, "Turkey's Constitution Guarantees Press Freedom—but That's Not the Whole Story," Deutsche Welle, March 1, 2017.


"Turkish Lawmakers Give Leader Erdogan Sweeping New Powers," Associated Press, July 21, 2016.


See, e.g., William Armstrong, "INTERVIEW: Simon Waldman and Emre Caliskan on Upheaval in the 'New Turkey,'" Hurriyet Daily News, January 14, 2017.


"Turkey purges hundreds of civil servants in latest decrees," Reuters, August 25, 2017. The ongoing firings span several government sectors, including the military, law enforcement, education, and the judiciary.


Peter Kenyon, "Victims of Turkey's Post-Coup Purge Invited to Prove Their Innocence," NPR, October 3, 2016; Robin Emmott, "Pleading Innocence, Wanted General Says Turkey's Purge Ruining Military," Reuters, November 23, 2016.


Mark Lowen, "Turkey Torture Claims in Wake of Failed Coup," BBC, November 28, 2016; Merrit Kennedy, "Amnesty International: After Turkey's Failed Coup, Some Detainees Are Tortured, Raped," NPR, July 25, 2016.


Mehul Srivastava, "Assets worth $11bn seized in Turkey crackdown," Financial Times, July 7, 2017.


"Turkey's Purges Are Hitting Its Business Class," Economist, February 4, 2017.


World Economic Outlook, April 2017, International Monetary Fund. As of May 2017, the lira has depreciated more than 20% over the previous year.


World Economic Outlook Update, July 2017, International Monetary Fund.


Patrick Kingsley, "Turkey Purges 4,000 More Officials, and Blocks Wikipedia," New York Times, April 30, 2017.


Patrick Kingsley, "Turkey Detains a 2nd Amnesty International Leader," New York Times, July 6, 2017.


Some have drawn a link between Erdogan's growing authoritarianism at home with an increasingly divisive series of developments in Turkish foreign policy. Aykan Erdemir and Merve Tahiroglu, "Turkey's Patchwork Foreign Policy: Between Islamism and Pragmatism," Foreign Affairs, July 5, 2017.


Some have speculated that Erdogan might call elections earlier. Abdulkadir Selvi, "2018'de secim mumkun mu?" Hurriyet, August 9, 2017.


See, e.g., Cengiz Candar, "Where does Erdogan's referendum win leave Turkey?" Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, April 17, 2017.


Election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe produced a report criticizing the electoral board for counting unstamped ballots and addressing other concerns. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, "Turkey: Constitution Referendum, 16 April 2017: Final Report," June 22, 2017. Available at http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/turkey/324816.


Alan Makovsky, "Erdoğan's Proposal for an Empowered Presidency," Center for American Progress, March 22, 2017.




See, e.g., "Turkey's referendum: The vote that will determine the fate of Turkey's democracy," Economist, April 15, 2017.


Claire Berlinski, "Guilty Men," American Interest, April 24, 2017; Can Dundar, "The high price of saying 'no' in Turkey's referendum," Washington Post, April 13, 2017; Suzy Hansen, "Inside Turkey's Purge," New York Times, April 13, 2017. Under the changes, Erdogan can run for two additional five-year terms, and if Erdogan were to run and win in 2019 and 2024, an early election before the end of the second term in 2029 could extend his term for another five years.


See, e.g., "Voting 'Yes' in Charter Referendum Could Support Turkey's Anti-Terror Fight: Deputy PM Kurtulmus," Hurriyet Daily News, January 29, 2017.


Kemal Kilicdaroglu, "A Long March for Justice in Turkey," New York Times, July 7, 2017.


Mustafa Akyol, "Will Turkish opposition rally around Erdogan challenger in 2019?" Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, May 11, 2017. Popular female politician Meral Aksener may seek to assemble a centrist coalition to challenge Erdogan. Amberin Zaman, "Despite AKP sputtering, support grows for Erdogan rival," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, August 29, 2017.


"Main opposition CHP calls Erdogan's comments on Kilicdaroglu 'a threat,'" Hurriyet Daily News, July 13, 2017; Barin Kayaoglu, "German interview could cost Turkey's opposition leader dearly," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, August 9, 2017.


See, e.g., International Crisis Group, Managing Turkey's PKK Conflict: The Case of Nusaybin, Europe Report No. 243, May 2, 2017; Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, "Reports on the Human Rights Situation in South-East Turkey: July 2015 to December 2016," February 2017.


Selahattin Demirtas, the prominent co-leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party (Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP), was sentenced to a five-month prison term in February 2017 for insulting the Turkish state and nation and its institutions. The other co-leader, Fiden Yuksekdag, has been expelled from parliament and criminally convicted, but faces additional trial for a string of other terrorism-related allegations. Umar Farooq, "As Erdogan Consolidates Power in Turkey, the Kurdish Opposition Faces Crackdown," Los Angeles Times, March 8, 2017; Hilal Koylu, "Lawyer for jailed HDP politician Yuksekdag in Turkey: independent verdict would be a 'miracle,'" Deutsche Welle, July 5, 2017. Additionally, dozens of elected Kurdish mayors have been removed from office and replaced with government-appointed "custodians." Turkish officials routinely accuse Kurdish politicians of support for the PKK, but these politicians routinely deny ties of a criminal nature.


See, e.g., Carlotta Gall, "For Turkey and Germany, Chill in Relations Puts Much at Stake," New York Times, August 26, 2017; Cagaptay, The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey, op. cit.


While campaigning abroad is technically an administrative offense under Turkish law, Turkish officials, including representatives of both the AKP and opposition parties, have held rallies in European cities in past election campaigns. See, e.g., Ozlem Gezer, "Erdogan Hopes Germany's Turks Can Get Him Re-Elected," Der Spiegel, March 7, 2011.


On February 15, 2017, 78 Members of Congress sent a letter to President Erdogan calling for the release and return of Andrew Brunson, an American who has long served as a Christian pastor in Izmir. Brunson was detained in October 2016 and charged in December 2016 with membership in a terrorist organization, reportedly due to claimed but undocumented ties to the Gulen movement. Brunson was charged with additional offenses, including espionage, in August 2017. Nour Malas, et al., "Turkey Ups Ante in U.S. Pastor's Detention," Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2017.


See, e.g., Andrea Shalal and Tuvan Gumrukcu, "Germany's Merkel blasts Turkey's arrest of human rights activists," Reuters, July 18, 2017; "Report: 18 Germans detained in Turkey since coup attempt," Deutsche Welle, April 21, 2017; "Macron once again calls Erdogan to seek French journalist's release," France24, August 28, 2017.


Malachy Brown, et al., "Did the Turkish President's Security Detail Attack Protesters in Washington? What the Video Shows," New York Times, May 26, 2017. Criminal charges were later filed against a number of Turkish security personnel, some of whose visas were revoked, leading the Turkish government to summon the U.S. ambassador in protest; 19 individuals, including 15 guards, were indicted in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in connection with the incident in August 2017. Erdogan denounced the indictment. Congressional responses to the incident have included the June 2017 passage of H.Res. 354, condemning the use of force against protesters. In July 2017, the House passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 (H.R. 2810) with "sense of Congress" language that a proposed U.S. small arms sale to Turkey's presidential security detail should "remain under scrutiny until a satisfactory and appropriate resolution is reached to the violence." In September, the Senate Appropriations Committee reported the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2018 (S. 1780) with a provision [section 7046(d)] that would restrict funding from supporting arms transfers to Turkey's presidential protection detail absent human rights-related certifications. Later in September, the Trump Administration withdrew the proposed small arms sale from consideration.


Turkish security clashed with protestors outside an Erdogan speech at the Brookings Institution in March 2016, and with U.N. guards during the September 2011 U.N. General Assembly general debate in New York.


The material in this textbox is drawn from Benjamin Weiser, "U.S. Expands Case Against Turks Over Iran," New York Times, September 7, 2017; and Nour Malas and Erdem Aydin, "Indictment Draws Turkish Rebuke," Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2017.


For more information, see CRS Report R41368, Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed].


U.S. officials reportedly are discussing upgrading efforts to share intelligence and to help Turkey target PKK targets in Iraq. Amberin Zaman, "Mattis pledges Erdogan US support against PKK," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, August 23, 2017.


Amberin Zaman, "Mattis pledges Erdogan US support against PKK," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, August 23, 2017.


Andrew Tilghman, "U.S. Military Dependents Ordered to Leave Turkey," Military Times, March 29, 2016.


Dan Lamothe, "The U.S. stores nuclear weapons in Turkey. Is that such a good idea?" washingtonpost.com, July 19, 2016.


For more information on Turkey-Germany tensions, see Patrick Kingsley, "Turkey Refuses to Back Down in Feud with Germany," New York Times, July 22, 2017; Julian E. Barnes and Emre Peker, "Political Rift Poses Risk for NATO," Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2017.


John Cappello, et al., "Covering the Bases: Reassessing U.S. Military Deployments in Turkey After the July 2016 Attempted Coup d'Etat," Foundation for Defense of Democracies, August 2016.


In one prominent example, as of May 2017, Turkey had 659 personnel serving in NATO's Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, and leads the Train, Advise, and Assist Command – Capital. Turkish troops served in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from shortly after its inception in 2001 to its transition to Resolute Support in 2014.


See, e.g., Nick Danforth, "Forget Sykes-Picot. It's the Treaty of Sèvres That Explains the Modern Middle East," foreignpolicy.com, August 10, 2015.


Turkish defense spending (around $12-14 billion a year) has increased slightly in recent years, though it has generally declined as a percentage of GDP (to around 2%) with broader strengthening in the Turkish economy. "Global Defence Budgets: Annual Report 2016," Jane's by IHS Markit, December 9, 2016.


See, e.g., Moira Goff-Taylor, "Why Turkey Needs Russia," Wilson Center, September 7, 2017.


Soner Cagaptay, "When Russia Howls, Turkey Moves," War on the Rocks, December 2, 2015.


"Turkey needed detente with Russia to pursue Syria operation: minister," Reuters, November 30, 2016.


Bruce Jones and Kerry Herschelman, "Turkey signs deal with France and Italy to build its own anti-ballistic missiles," Jane's Defence Weekly, July 18, 2017.


Ibid. According to this source, it "appears that NATO concerns are not only limited to the S-400's interoperability with that of NATO systems but also the fact that it would not be subject to the same constraints imposed by the alliance that bars Turkey from deploying such systems on the Armenian border, Aegean coast, or Greek border." Also, it is "unclear whether Eurosam SAMs to be developed with Turkey will be interoperable with S-400s if Turkey buys them." See also Vladimir Karnozov, "Turkey Considers Russian or European Missile Systems—Or Both," AINOnline, August 17, 2017.


Carlotta Gall, "Turkey Agrees to Buy Russian Missile System, Pivoting From NATO," New York Times, September 13, 2017.


For more information on P.L. 115-44, see CRS In Focus IF10694, Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, by [author name scrubbed], [author name scrubbed], and [author name scrubbed].