Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations In Brief

Updated August 31, 2018 (R44000)
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This is an abbreviated version of CRS Report R41368, Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed].

Turkey, a NATO ally since 1952, significantly affects a number of key U.S. national security issues in the Middle East and Europe. U.S.-Turkey relations have worsened throughout this decade over several matters, including Syria's civil war, Turkey-Israel tensions, Turkey-Russia cooperation, and various Turkish domestic developments. The United States and NATO have military personnel and key equipment deployed to various sites in Turkey, including at Incirlik air base in the southern part of the country. Bilateral ties have reached historic lows in the summer of 2018. The major flashpoint has been a Turkish criminal case against American pastor Andrew Brunson. U.S. sanctions on Turkey related to the Brunson case and responses by Turkey and international markets appear to have seriously aggravated an already precipitous drop in the value of Turkey's currency. Amid this backdrop, Congress has actively engaged on several issues involving Turkey, including the following:

In the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, P.L. 115-232) enacted in August 2018, Congress has required a comprehensive report from the Trump Administration on (1) U.S.-Turkey relations, (2) the potential S-400 deal and its implications for U.S./NATO activity in Turkey, (3) possible alternatives to the S-400, and (4) various scenarios for the F-35 program with or without Turkey's participation. Other proposed legislation would condition Turkey's acquisition of the F-35 on a cancellation of the S-400 deal (FY2019 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, S. 3180), place sanctions on Turkish officials for their role in detaining U.S. citizens or employees (also S. 3180), and direct U.S. action at selected international financial institutions to oppose providing assistance to Turkey (Turkey International Financial Institutions Act, S. 3248). The S-400 deal might also trigger sanctions under existing law (CAATSA).

The next steps in the fraught relations between the United States and Turkey will take place in the context of a Turkey in political transition and growing economic turmoil. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won reelection to an empowered presidency in June 2018. Given Erdogan's consolidation of power, observers now question how he will govern a polarized electorate and deal with the foreign actors who can affect Turkey's financial solvency, regional security, and political influence. U.S. officials and lawmakers can refer to Turkey's complex history, geography, domestic dynamics, and international relationships in evaluating how to encourage Turkey to align its policies with U.S. interests.

Introduction and Issues for Congress

U.S.-Turkey ties, always complicated, appear to have reached crisis levels in the summer of 2018. Although the United States and Turkey, NATO allies since 1952, share some vital interests, harmonizing priorities can be difficult. These priorities sometimes diverge irrespective of who leads the two countries, based on contrasting geography, threat perceptions, and regional roles. Current points of tension in the relationship include the following:

For additional information, see CRS Report R41368, Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed]; CRS In Focus IF10957, Turkey's Currency Crisis, by [author name scrubbed]; and CRS In Focus IF10961, U.S.-Turkey Trade Relations, by [author name scrubbed].

U.S.-Turkey Relations: Questions about Ally Status

Numerous points of bilateral tension have raised questions within the United States and Turkey about the two countries' alliance. In the context of concerns about Turkey's strategic orientation (see "Turkey's Strategic Orientation and Foreign Policy" below), many Members of Congress are increasingly active in proposing legislation and exercising oversight on U.S.-Turkey matters that include arms sales and strategic cooperation, various criminal cases, and economic sanctions. For its part, Turkey may bristle because it feels like it is treated as a junior partner, and may seek greater foreign policy diversification through stronger relationships with more countries.1

U.S./NATO Cooperation with Turkey


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. From Turkey's perspective, NATO's traditional value has been to mitigate its concerns about encroachment by neighbors. Turkey initially turned to the West largely as a reaction to aggressive post-World War II posturing by the Soviet Union. In addition to Incirlik air base, other key U.S./NATO sites include an early warning missile defense radar in eastern Turkey and a NATO ground forces command in Izmir. Turkey also controls access to and from the Black Sea through its straits pursuant to the Montreux Convention of 1936.

Current tensions have fueled discussion from the U.S. perspective about the advisability of continued U.S./NATO use of Turkish bases. Reports in 2018 suggest that some Trump Administration officials have contemplated permanent reductions in the U.S. presence in Turkey.2 There are historical precedents for such changes. On a number of occasions, the United States has withdrawn military assets from Turkey or Turkey has restricted U.S. use of its territory or airspace. These include the following:

Some of the plotters of an unsuccessful coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016 apparently used Incirlik air base, causing temporary disruptions of some U.S. military operations. This raised questions about Turkey's stability and the safety and utility of Turkish territory for U.S. and NATO assets. As a result of these questions and U.S.-Turkey tensions, some observers have advocated exploring alternative basing arrangements in the region.3

The cost to the United States of finding a temporary or permanent replacement for Incirlik and other sites in Turkey 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. An August 2018 media report claimed that U.S. officials have been "quietly looking for alternatives to Incirlik, including in Romania and Jordan."4 Another August report cited a Department of Defense spokesperson as saying that the United States is not leaving Incirlik.5

Calculating the costs and benefits to the United States of a U.S./NATO presence in Turkey, and of potential changes in U.S./NATO posture, revolves to a significant extent around three questions:

Possible S-400 Acquisition from Russia

In December 2017, Turkey and Russia reportedly signed a finance agreement for Turkey's purchase of the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air defense system. Media reports indicate that the deal, if finalized, would be worth approximately $2.5 billion.6 Turkey's procurement agency anticipates initial delivery in July 2019, which is sooner than the first reports of the deal had indicated.7 (An expedited delivery could increase the purchase price.8) Alongside Turkey's pursuit of the S-400 deal to address short-term needs, Turkey also is exploring an arrangement to co-develop a long-range air defense system with the Franco-Italian Eurosam consortium by the mid-2020s.9

Turkey's planned acquisition of the S-400 has raised a number of U.S. and NATO concerns, ranging from technical aspects of military cooperation within NATO to broader political considerations. For some observers, the S-400 issue raises the possibility that Russia could take advantage of U.S.-Turkey friction to undermine the NATO alliance.10 In a May 3, 2018, press briefing, a State Department spokesperson said, "Under NATO and under the NATO agreement ... you're only supposed to buy ... weapons and other materiel that are interoperable with other NATO partners. We don't see [an S-400 system from Russia] as being interoperable."11 In March 2018, Czech General Petr Pavel, who chairs the NATO Military Committee, voiced concerns about the possibility that Russian personnel helping operate an S-400 system in Turkey could gain significant intelligence on NATO assets stationed in the country.12 Additionally, in November 2017, an Air Force official raised specific concerns related to Turkey's operation of the S-400 system alongside F-35 aircraft, citing the potential for Russia to obtain sensitive data related to F-35 capabilities.13 A Turkish columnist noted in July 2018 that a number of other countries planning to acquire the F-35 share U.S. worries about S-400 information-gathering on F-35s in Turkish airspace.14 The planned S-400 acquisition could trigger sanctions under Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA, P.L. 115-44), which was enacted in August 2017 to discourage transactions with Russian defense and intelligence sectors.15

Turkey has justified its preliminary decision to acquire S-400s instead of U.S. or European alternatives by claiming that it turned to Russia because its attempts to purchase an air defense system from NATO allies were rebuffed.16 Turkey has also cited various practical reasons, including cost, technology sharing, and territorial defense coverage.17 However, one analysis from December 2017 asserted that the S-400 deal would not involve technology transfer, would not defend Turkey from ballistic missiles (because the system would not have access to NATO early-warning systems), and could weaken rather than strengthen Turkey's geopolitical position by increasing Turkish dependence on Russia.18 According to one Turkish press report, Turkey may be taking various steps intended to assuage U.S. concerns, such as insisting on systems and training that allow Turkish technicians to operate the S-400 without Russian involvement, and allowing U.S. officials to examine the S-400.19 Nevertheless, a Turkish columnist has predicted that "either these S-400s are going to be stored somewhere without being installed, or Turkey will purchase something else from Russia…to appease Moscow."20

In March 2018, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said that Turkey would also be willing to purchase U.S.-origin Patriot systems if the Administration "guarantees that the US Congress [would] approve the sale."21 In April, following a meeting in Brussels in which Secretary of State Pompeo reportedly asked Cavusoglu to "closely consider NATO interoperable systems," Cavusoglu said that the S-400 process was a "done deal," and that further purchases would be in addition to, not in place of, S-400s.22 At a public event in May, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson referred to U.S.-Turkey discussions aimed at preventing the F-35 from being close to the S-400. In expressing an opinion about room for improvement with U.S. export controls, she added that the United States sometimes should design defense systems "to be exportable from the very beginning so that we can all operate off the same equipment [with allies]."23 In July, a State Department official confirmed ongoing talks with Turkey about the Patriot system.24

Previously, in 2013, Turkey reached a preliminary agreement to purchase a Chinese air and missile defense system, but later (in 2015) withdrew from the deal, perhaps partly due to concerns voiced within NATO, as well as China's reported reluctance to share technology.25

Selected Points of Bilateral Tension

The U.S.-Turkey relationship has always been complicated. Since the 2016 coup attempt, several differences and increased public acrimony have developed between the two countries. Turkey's possible S-400 acquisition from Russia has been discussed above, and U.S.-Turkey disputes over Syria are discussed in a later section of this report. This section discusses other points of bilateral tension.

Turkey's Strategic Orientation and Foreign Policy

Turkish actions and statements on a number of foreign policy issues have contributed to problems with the United States and other NATO allies. For example, Turkey's dealings with Russia on Syria, arms sales, and energy;26 its openness to better relations with China;27 and its periodic public spats with U.S. and European officials28 have fueled questions about its commitment to NATO and its Western orientation. Additionally, President Erdogan has taken a leading role in rallying regional and international opposition to President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the U.S. embassy to Israel there, and in condemning U.S. support of Israel during rounds of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Erdogan also has vocally opposed the May 2018 U.S. withdrawal from the international agreement on Iran's nuclear program, amid questions about Turkey's willingness to comply with sanctions that the United States is re-imposing on Iran's oil exports. Also during 2018, Turkey's interactions have become increasingly contentious with Greece and Cyprus over airspace and maritime access issues that have implications for NATO and the European Union.29

Key Points in Turkish Foreign Policy

A number of considerations drive the complicated dynamics behind Turkey's international relationships. Turkey's history as both a regional power and an object of great power aggression translates into wide popularity for nationalistic political actions and discourse. This nationalistic sentiment might make some Turks wary of Turkey's partial reliance on other key countries (for example, the United States for security, European Union countries for trade, and Russia and Iran for energy). Moreover, Turkey's maintenance of cooperative relationships with countries whose respective interests may conflict involves a balancing act. Turkey's vulnerability to threats from Syria and Iraq increases the pressure on it to manage this balance.30 Involvement in Syria and Iraq by the United States, Russia, and Iran further complicates Turkey's situation. Additionally, grievances that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his supporters espouse against seemingly marginalized domestic foes (the military and secular elite who previously dominated Turkey, the Fethullah Gulen movement, Kurdish nationalists, and liberal activists) extend to the United States and Europe due to apparent suspicions of Western sympathies for these foes.

Turkey's Middle Eastern profile expanded in the 2000s as Erdogan (while serving as prime minister) sought to build economic and political linkages—often emphasizing shared Muslim identity—with Turkey's neighbors. However, efforts to increase Turkey's influence and offer it as a "model" for other regional states appear to have been set back by a number of developments since 2011: (1) conflict and instability that engulfed the region and Turkey's own southern border, (2) Turkey's failed effort to help Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups gain lasting power in Syria and North Africa, and (3) domestic polarization accompanied by government repression. Although Turkey shares some interests with traditional Sunni Arab powers Saudi Arabia and Egypt in countering Iran, these countries' leaders regard Turkey suspiciously because of its government's Islamist sympathies and close relationship with Qatar.31 Turkey maintains relations with Israel, but these have become distant and—at times—contentious during Erdogan's rule.

Sanctions, Pastor Brunson, and Other Criminal Cases32

On August 1, 2018, the Treasury Department levied sanctions against Turkey's justice and interior ministers, blocking any property interests they might have within U.S. jurisdiction due to their "leading roles in the organizations responsible for the arrest and detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson."33 Turkey reacted with reciprocal sanctions against the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and Attorney General. Reciprocal sanctions of this type between the United States and an ally are unusual and suggest a crisis in bilateral relations.34 With the impasse on Brunson's situation ongoing, on August 10 President Trump announced a doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports.35 This prompted retaliatory action from Turkey.36

Pastor Brunson's case and a number of other cases that have stoked U.S.-Turkey tensions have some connection with the 2016 coup attempt. Shortly after the attempt, Turkey's government called for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen (the U.S.-based former cleric whom Turkey's government has accused of involvement in the plot), and the matter remains pending before U.S. officials.37 Sharp criticism of U.S. actions related to Gulen's case has significantly increased in Turkish media since the coup attempt. Parallel with nationwide efforts to imprison and marginalize those with connections to Gulen, Turkish authorities have detained Brunson (see textbox below) and a number of other U.S. citizens (most of them dual U.S.-Turkish citizens), along with Turkish employees of the U.S. government.38

On August 15, 2018, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders drew a distinction between the Treasury Department sanctions and the new tariff levels on steel. She said that the sanctions were "specific to Pastor Brunson and others that we feel are being held unfairly," but that the tariffs that are in place on steel are specific to national security and "would not be removed with the release of Pastor Brunson."39

Detention of Pastor Brunson in Turkey

The most high-profile case of an American detained in Turkey after the July 2016 coup attempt is that of Andrew Brunson, a Presbyterian pastor who had been living with his family and working with a small congregation in Izmir since 1993. Brunson was arrested in October 2016. In September 2017, President Erdogan appeared to suggest an exchange of Brunson for Fethullah Gulen, but a State Department spokesperson said in response to a question on the issue, "I can't imagine that we would go down that road."40 In March 2018, after nearly 18 months of detention without indictment, Brunson was charged with espionage and with working on behalf of terrorist groups (the Gulen movement and Kurdish militants). If convicted, he could face up to 35 years in prison. Also in March, Senator Thom Tillis visited Brunson in prison and reported a number of concerns about Brunson's well-being, including that Brunson's physical health had deteriorated and that he had lost 50 pounds.41

President Trump, other U.S. officials, and several Members of Congress have been openly critical of Turkish authorities in the case. Brunson is the only U.S. citizen on the "prisoners of conscience" list issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom,42 and his case has influenced some of the legislation on Turkey pending before Congress.

In July 2018, Brunson's case was scheduled for further action in October, and he was transferred from prison to house arrest, ostensibly for medical reasons. In response, President Trump and Vice President Pence demanded that Turkey release Brunson or face sanctions, amid conflicting reports about whether the United States and Turkey had reached an understanding for Brunson to go free.43 The U.S. sanctions mentioned above came days later, with Brunson still under house arrest.

Separately, two prominent Turkish citizens with government ties were arrested by U.S. authorities in 2016 and 2017 for conspiring to evade sanctions on Iran. One, Reza Zarrab, received immunity for cooperating with prosecutors, while the other, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, was convicted and sentenced in May 2018 to 32 months in prison. The case was repeatedly denounced by Turkish leaders, who were reportedly concerned about the potential implications for Turkey's economy if the case led U.S. officials to impose penalties on Turkish banks.44 This has not happened to date.

Legislation and Congressional Proposals

Bilateral tensions have contributed to various legislative proposals by Members of Congress, alongside a public debate about the potential costs and benefits of sanctions against Turkey.45 The most significant congressional action against Turkey to date has been an arms embargo that Congress enacted in response to Turkish military intervention in Cyprus. That embargo lasted from 1975 to 1978.

Report: U.S.-Turkey Relations and F-35 Program (FY2019 NDAA)

The FY2019 NDAA (P.L. 115-232) enacted in August 2018 includes a provision (section 1282) that requires a report to congressional armed services and foreign affairs committees within 90 days from the Secretary of Defense (in consultation with the Secretary of State) on the status of U.S.-Turkey relations. The report is to include assessments regarding the U.S. military presence in Turkey, Turkey's potential S-400 purchase from Russia and possible alternatives, and Turkey's participation in the F-35 program (including how a change in Turkey's participation might impact the program for the United States and other participants). Section 1282 prohibits the delivery of F-35 aircraft to Turkey until the report is submitted.

Turkey is a cooperative partner in developing the F-35,46 and as part of its involvement, several Turkish companies are assisting with development and manufacture of various F-35 components.47 Media reports indicate that Turkey plans to purchase 100 F-35s; the first was handed over in Texas at a June 21, 2018 ceremony, and training on the aircraft for Turkish pilots is now underway on U.S. soil.48 This first aircraft is reportedly scheduled to leave the United States for Turkey sometime in 2020.49 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in May 23, 2018, testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the State Department had not yet decided whether to permit Turkey's purchase of F-35s, and in the same sentence mentioned continuing efforts to persuade Turkey not to acquire the S-400 from Russia.50

Some Members of Congress have sought to prevent or place conditions on Turkey's acquisition of F-35s because of the S-400 deal, Pastor Brunson's imprisonment, or other U.S.-Turkey tensions described above.51 In a June 2018 Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) report (S.Rept. 115-262) accompanying an early version of the FY2019 NDAA (S. 2987), SASC described Turkey as a NATO ally and critical strategic partner of the United States, but also said that a Turkish purchase of the S-400 from Russia would be incompatible with Turkey's NATO commitments. Additionally, the report expressed concerns about U.S. citizens detained in Turkey (including Pastor Brunson) and called upon Turkey to uphold its obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty to "safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law." In May, Senator Jeanne Shaheen had said, "There is tremendous hesitancy in transferring sensitive F35 planes and technology to a nation who has purchased a Russian air defense system designed to shoot these very planes down."52

Because the F-35 program is multinational, unwinding Turkey's involvement could be costly and complicated. One source has said that "the Pentagon last year awarded [Lockheed Martin, a key contractor on the F-35 program] $3.7 billion in an interim payment for the production of 50 of the aircraft earmarked for non-U.S. customers, including Ankara."53 In May, two Members of Congress circulated a letter to other Members expressing concern about Turkey but opposing its exclusion from the F-35 program. According to these two Members:

As of January 2018, Turkey had contributed over $1 billion to the program. This investment would be required to be returned to the Turkish Government if the United States fails to deliver on the contract. Even more significantly, Turkey manufactures critical components of the F-35. Removing them from the program will lead to delays and [cost] overruns to the rest of the partners and allies.54

In a July letter to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said that he opposed removal of Turkey from the F-35 program "at this time." Secretary Mattis agreed with congressional concerns about "the authoritarian drift in Turkey and its impact on human rights and rule of law," but said that if "the Turkish supply chain was disrupted today, it would result in an aircraft production break, delaying delivery of 50-75 jets and would take approximately 18-24 months to re-source parts."55

Turkey could take a number of measures in response to U.S. actions to end Turkey's involvement with the F-35. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said that a U.S. withdrawal from the deal would not be in keeping with the U.S.-Turkey alliance, would trigger Turkish retaliation, and that Turkey could go elsewhere to meet its needs.56

Conditioning F-35 Transfer on S-400 Decision (Senate Appropriations)

The Senate version of the FY2019 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act (S. 3108) includes a provision (section 7046(d)(3)) that would withhold funding for the transfer of F-35 aircraft to Turkey until the Secretary of State certifies that Turkey is not purchasing the S-400 from Russia and will not accept delivery of the S-400.

Possible Restrictions Against Turkish Officials Entering the United States (Senate Appropriations)

On June 21, 2018, the Senate Appropriations Committee reported the FY2019 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act (S. 3108). Section 7046(d)(1) of S. 3108 would require the Secretary of State to deny entry into the United States "to any senior official of the Government of Turkey about whom the Secretary has credible information is knowingly responsible for the wrongful or unlawful prolonged detention of citizens or nationals of the United States," subject to a few exceptions or possible waivers on grounds of national interest, international obligation, or changed circumstances.

Possible U.S. Opposition to Assistance to Turkey from Selected International Financial Institutions (S. 3248)

In July 2018, six Senators introduced the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act (S. 3248), which would direct "the U.S. executive of the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to oppose future loans, except for humanitarian purposes, to Turkey by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and EBRD until the administration can certify to Congress that Turkey is 'no longer arbitrarily detaining or denying freedom of movement to United States citizens (including dual citizens) or locally employed staff members of the United States mission to Turkey.'"57


Turkey's involvement in Syria's conflict since 2011 has been complicated and costly.58 Turkey's chief objective has been to thwart the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG, which has links with the PKK) from establishing an autonomous area along the northern Syrian border with Turkey. Turkey appears to view the YPG and its political counterpart, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as the top threat to its security, given the boost the YPG's military and political success could provide to the PKK's insurgency within Turkey.59 The YPG plays a leading role in the umbrella group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which also includes Arabs and other non-Kurdish elements.

Since 2014, the SDF has been the main U.S. ground force partner against the Islamic State. U.S. support for the SDF has fueled U.S.-Turkey tension because of Turkey's view of the YPG as a threat.60 As part of SDF operations to expel the Islamic State from Raqqah in 2017, the U.S. government pursued a policy of arming the YPG directly while preventing the use of such arms against Turkey,61 and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis announced an end to the direct arming of the YPG near the end of the year.62 U.S. officials have contrasted their longstanding alliance with Turkey with their current but temporary cooperation with the YPG.63

After Turkey moved against IS-held territory in northern Syria as a way to prevent the YPG from consolidating its rule across much of the border area between the two countries (Operation Euphrates Shield, August 2016-March 2017), Turkey launched an offensive directly against the YPG in the Afrin district in January 2018. Some U.S. officials expressed concern during the operation because several YPG units went to help their fellow Kurds in Afrin, causing a manpower drain from the anti-IS mission east of the Euphrates.64 By March, the YPG had abandoned control of the district to Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies.65

In Afrin and the other areas Turkey has occupied since 2016, Turkey has set up local councils, though questions persist about future governance and Turkey's overarching role.66 The local councils and security forces reportedly provide public services in these areas with oversight and training from Turkish officials. Some observers, citing signs of a YPG insurgency, predict that the Turkish military may feel compelled to stay for an extended period of time.67 The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a report in June 2018 alleging possible violations by the de facto authorities of international humanitarian and human rights laws—including actions or omissions that prevent Kurds from returning to their homes.68

The town of Manbij, which the SDF seized from the Islamic State in 2016 with U.S. support, is a focal point of U.S.-Turkey tensions in Syria because of a continuing YPG presence there. After concerns grew in early 2018 that Turkish forces could conceivably clash with U.S. Special Operations personnel patrolling Manbij or its vicinity if Turkey advanced on the area, the two countries have sought to deconflict their forces.69 According to a senior State Department official, on June 4 the two countries

endorsed a roadmap which is a broad political framework designed to fulfill the commitment that the United States had made to move the YPG east of the Euphrates and to do so in a way that contributes to security and stability of Manbij and in a fashion that is mutually agreed between the United States and Turkey in every aspect.70According to this official, implementation of the roadmap will be based on developments on the ground,71 with one major factor being the YPG's willingness to cooperate.72 Syrian Kurdish leaders have expressed openness to negotiating with any party with whom their interests coincide, including the Syrian government.73

Turkey's priorities in Syria appear to have evolved during the course of Syria's civil war. While Turkey still officially calls for Syrian President Bashar al Asad to leave power, it has engaged in a mix of coordination and competition with Russia and Iran (Asad's supporters) on some matters since intervening militarily in Syria starting in August 2016. Similar interaction takes place between Turkey and the United States given the U.S. military presence in key areas of northern Syria east of the Euphrates River. Turkey may be seeking to protect its borders, project influence, promote commerce, and counter other actors' regional ambitions.

Domestic Turkish Developments

Erdogan's Expanded Powers and June 2018 Victory

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. Analyses of Erdogan sometimes characterize him as one or more of the following: a pragmatic populist, a protector of the vulnerable, a budding authoritarian, an indispensable figure, an Islamic ideologue.74

Erdogan's consolidation of power has continued. He outlasted the July 2016 coup attempt, and then scored victories in the April 2017 constitutional referendum and the June 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections. U.S. and European Union officials have expressed a number of concerns about rule of law and civil liberties in Turkey,75 including the government's influence on media76 and Turkey's reported status as the country with the most journalists in prison.77

In an election that President Erdogan moved up to June 2018 from November 2019, he was reelected to a five-year presidential term with about 53% of the vote. The election reinforced his dominant role in Turkish politics because a controversial April 2017 popular referendum had determined that the presidential victor would govern with expanded powers. Some allegations of voter fraud and manipulation surfaced in both elections.78 To obtain a parliamentary majority in the June elections, Erdogan's Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) relied on the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyet Halk Partisi, or MHP). The MHP is the country's traditional Turkish nationalist party, and is known for opposing political accommodation with the Kurds.

Economic Issues and Currency Crisis79

Despite a real GDP growth rate of over 7% in 2017, a number of indicators suggest that the Turkish economy may be entering a period of volatility and perhaps crisis, with potentially significant implications for the global economy.80 The Turkish lira has depreciated significantly—about 40% against the dollar—from January through August 2018.

Some observers assert that the "low-hanging fruit"—numerous large infrastructure projects and the scaling up of low-technology manufacturing—that largely drove the previous decade's economic success is unlikely to produce similar results going forward.81 Turkey's relatively large current account deficit increases its vulnerability to higher borrowing costs.

Prospects are uncertain for how the economy and foreign investors will respond under Erdogan's new government. In July 2018, Erdogan gave himself the power to appoint central bank rate-setters and appointed his son-in-law Berat Albayrak (the former energy minister) to serve as treasury and finance minister, exacerbating concerns about greater politicization of Turkey's monetary policy.82 Some observers have speculated that if investment dries up, Turkey may need to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a financial assistance package.83 This would be a sensitive challenge for Erdogan because his political success story is closely connected with helping Turkey become independent from its most recent IMF intervention in the early 2000s.84

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])



Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "Erdogan: How Turkey Sees the Crisis With the U.S.," New York Times, August 10, 2018; Umut Uzer, "The Revival of Ottomanism in Turkish Foreign Policy: 'The World Is Greater Than Five,'" Turkish Policy Quarterly, March 21, 2018.


Gordon Lubold, Felicia Schwartz, and Nancy A. Youssef, "U.S. Pares Back Use of Turkish Base Amid Strains with Ankara," Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2018.


Testimony of Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, September 6, 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.


Adam Goldman and Gardiner Harris, "U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Turkish Officials Over Detained American Pastor," New York Times, August 2, 2018.


Nimet Kirac, "US-Turkey cooperation against Islamic State ongoing, Pentagon says," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, August 27, 2018.


Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay, "Turkey, Russia sign deal on supply of S-400 missiles," Reuters, December 29, 2017. According to this article, the portion of the purchase price not paid for up front (55%) would be financed by a Russian loan.


Charles Forrester, "Turkey, Russia accelerate S-400 sale," Jane's Defence Weekly, April 4, 2018.




Turkey's procurement agency and two Turkish defense companies signed a contract in January 2018 with Eurosam to do an 18-month definition study to prepare a production and development contract to address Turkish demands. According to one source, a co-developed long-range system with Eurosam would comprise part of an air defense umbrella that would include the S-400 as a high-altitude system and domestic systems as low- and medium-altitude options. Lale Sariibrahimoglu, "Turkey awards Eurosam and Turkish companies contract to define air and missile defence system," Jane's Defence Weekly, January 8, 2018.


See, e.g., Yaroslav Trofimov, "Russia, Turkey Forge a Tactical Bond," Wall Street Journal, April 6, 2018.


Various NATO assets are deployed to Turkey, including a U.S. forward-deployed early warning radar at the Kurecik base near the eastern Turkish city of Malatya as part of NATO's Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) system.


Paul McLeary, "Top NATO General (A Czech) To Europe: 'Grow Up,'" Breaking Defense, March 7, 2018.


Valerie Insinna, "US official: If Turkey buys Russian systems, they can't plug into NATO tech," Defense News, November 16, 2017. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson reiterated these concerns in May 2018. Pat Host, "Turkey purchase of Russian S-400 air defence system draws US Air Force concern," Jane's Defence Weekly, May 30, 2018.


Barcin Yinanc, "With or without S-400, in both cases the loser is the Turkish taxpayer," Hurriyet Daily News, July 24, 2018.


Richard Lardner, "Senators Urge Trump to Robustly Enforce Russia Sanctions Law," Associated Press, September 29, 2017; State Department, Public Guidance on Sanctions with Respect to Russia's Defense and Intelligence Sectors Under Section 231 of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017, October 27, 2017.


Sebastian Sprenger, "Turkey defiant on purchase of Russian S-400 anti-missile system," Defense News, July 11, 2018.


Burak Ege Bekdil, "Turkey makes deal to buy Russian-made S-400 air defense system," Defense News, December 27, 2017; Umut Uras, "Turkey's S-400 purchase not a message to NATO: official," Al Jazeera, November 12, 2017. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insisted in February that Turkey needs additional air defense coverage "as soon as possible," and referenced previous withdrawals of Patriot systems by NATO allies. State Department website, Remarks by Cavusoglu, Press Availability with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Ankara, Turkey, February 16, 2018.


Gonul Tol and Nilsu Goren, "Turkey's Quest for Air Defense: Is the S-400 Deal a Pivot to Russia?" Middle East Institute, December 2017.


Ragip Soylu, "Turkey extends S-400 offer to Washington," Daily Sabah, June 27, 2018.


Yinanc, op. cit.


Kerry Herschelman, "US discourages Turkey from buying S-400s," Jane's Defence Weekly, March 19, 2018.


"Pompeo presses Turkey on S-400 missiles purchase from Russia," Reuters, April 27, 2018.


Ellen Mitchell, "Air Force secretary advocates for export control fixes amid concerns over Turkey," thehill.com, May 29, 2018.


"U.S. in Talks with Turkey to Sell Patriot Missile System to Block Russian Purchase," Reuters, July 16, 2018.


"Turkey confirms cancellation of $3.4 billion missile defence project awarded to China," Reuters, November 18, 2015.


See, e.g., Trofimov, op. cit.; Pepe Escobar, "From Ankara to Moscow, Eurasia integration is on the move," Asia Times, April 5, 2018.


See, e.g., Selcuk Colakoglu, "Turkey-China Relations: From 'Strategic Cooperation' to 'Strategic Partnership'?" Middle East Institute, March 20, 2018; Elif Binici, "Close cooperation on Belt and Road to fuel Chinese investments in Turkey," Daily Sabah, October 27, 2017.


See, e.g., Semih Idiz, "Erdogan's not doing Turks in Europe any favors," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, June 12, 2018.


"Rough seas," Economist, April 12, 2018; Yiannis Baboulias, "Greece and Turkey Are Inching Toward War," foreignpolicy.com, April 18, 2018.


See, e.g., Shehab Al-Makahleh, "Turkish foreign policy: From defensive to offensive," Al Arabiya, February 3, 2018.


See, e.g., W. Robert Pearson, "Saudi-Turkish ties take a turn for the worse," Middle East Institute, March 8, 2018.


For more information on U.S.-Turkey trade relations, see CRS In Focus IF10961, U.S.-Turkey Trade Relations, by [author name scrubbed].


Treasury Department press release, Treasury Sanctions Turkish Officials with Leading Roles in Unjust Detention of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson, August 1, 2018. The sanctions were authorized pursuant to Executive Order 13818, "Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption," which builds upon authorities from the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (section 1261, et seq. of P.L. 114-328). For more information, see CRS In Focus IF10576, The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, by [author name scrubbed].


See, e.g., Therese Raphael, "U.S.-Turkey Relations Will Never Be the Same," Bloomberg, August 10, 2018.


https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1027899286586109955. The formal presidential proclamation only explicitly referred to action on steel tariffs. White House, Presidential Proclamation Adjusting Imports of Steel into the United States, August 10, 2018. Earlier in the year, President Trump had applied new tariffs on steel and aluminum globally, with exceptions for some countries, but not Turkey. Ceyda Caglayan, "U.S. steel tariffs slash Turkey's exports; future orders recovering –association," Reuters, June 27, 2018.


Jethro Mullen, "Turkey ramps up US spat with huge tariffs on cars and other goods," CNN, August 15, 2018.


CRS In Focus IF10444, Fethullah Gulen, Turkey, and the United States: A Reference, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed]. For information on Turkish allegations about Gulen's link to the coup plot, see Carlotta Gall, "104 Turks Get Life Terms for Failed Coup," New York Times, May 23, 2018.


Henri J. Barkey and Eric Edelman, "Fight for these State Department workers detained in Turkey," Washington Post, July 29, 2018.


White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, August 15, 2018.


State Department Press Briefing, September 28, 2017.


Senator Tillis press release, Senator Tillis Visits Pastor Andrew Brunson at Turkish Prison, March 28, 2018. In November 15, 2017, testimony before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), Brunson's daughter Jacqueline Furnari stated that Brunson was battling anxiety and depression. https://www.csce.gov/sites/helsinkicommission.house.gov/files/PrisonersofPurge.pdf.




Raphael, op. cit.; Goldman and Harris, op. cit.; Michael C. Bender and Dion Nissenbaum, "U.S. Slaps Sanctions on Turkish Officials," Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2018; Murat Yetkin, "Here is the Brunson row in Erdogan's words," Hurriyet Daily News, July 30, 2018.


Adam Klasfeld, "Turkish Markets Brace for Banker's Sentencing in NY," Courthouse News Service, May 11, 2018.


See, e.g., Soner Cagaptay, "Sanctions on Turkey: Reconciling Washington's Diverging Views," Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 1, 2018; Amberin Zaman, "Congress, State Department divided on sanctions against Turkey," Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, February 28, 2018; Nicholas Danforth, "Things to Think about When Thinking about Sanctioning Turkey," Bipartisan Policy Center, February 27, 2018.


A 2007 memorandum of understanding among the participants is available at https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/102378.pdf, and an earlier 2002 U.S.-Turkey agreement is available at https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/196467.pdf. For information on the consortium and its members, see CRS Report RL30563, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program, by [author name scrubbed].


For details on Turkish companies' participation in the F-35 program, see https://www.f35.com/global/participation/turkey-industrial-participation.


Dylan Malyasov, "Source: Turkey to receive first F-35 Lightning II fighter jet on June 21," Defence Blog, June 5, 2018; Sarp Ozer and Ahmet Sultan Usul, "First F-35 jet delivery to Turkey slated for June 21," Anadolu Agency, May 11, 2018.


Aaron Stein, "The Clock is Ticking: S-400 and the Future of F-35 in Turkey," Atlantic Council, July 24, 2018.


Transcript of testimony available at http://www.cq.com/doc/congressionaltranscripts-5323484?0.


Some Members of Congress are preparing a letter to urge Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to prevent the sale of F-35s to Turkey. The text of the letter is available at http://dearcolleague.us/2018/05/deadline-extended-prevent-sale-of-f-35s-to-turkey/.


Senator Thom Tillis, Tillis & Shaheen Secure Bipartisan NDAA Provision Delaying Transfer of F-35s to Turkey, May 24, 2018.


Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay, "U.S. says in talks with Turkey on YPG withdrawal from Syria's Manbij," Reuters, May 30, 2018.


The text of the letter is available at http://dearcolleague.us/2018/05/support-the-f-35-joint-strike-fighter-program/.


Anthony Capaccio and Roxana Tiron, "Mattis Urges Congress Not to Hit Turkey with Lockheed F-35 Ban," Bloomberg, July 19, 2018.


Ibid; Tuvan Gumrukcu, "Turkey says it will retaliate if U.S. halts weapons sales," Reuters, May 6, 2018. One Turkish media source has claimed that Turkey would consider Russian Su-57s as alternatives to the F-35. Dylan Malyasov, "Turkish media: Ankara may switch to buying the Russian Su-57," Defence Blog, May 28, 2018.


U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee press release, Senators Introduce Bill Demanding Turkey End Unjust Detention of US Citizens, July 19, 2018.


For background, see Burak Kadercan, "Making Sense of Turkey's Syria Strategy: A 'Turkish Tragedy' in the Making," War on the Rocks, August 4, 2017.


Anne Barnard and Ben Hubbard, "Allies or Terrorists: Who Are the Kurdish Fighters in Syria?" New York Times, January 25, 2018.


U.S. military commanders have generally differentiated between the YPG and the PKK, but in February 2018, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats submitted written testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence stating that the YPG was the Syrian militia of the PKK. Daniel R. Coats, Director of National Intelligence, Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing, February 13, 2018.


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.


Lead Inspector General Report to the U.S. Congress, Overseas Contingency Operations: Operation Inherent Resolve, Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines, October 1, 2017-December 31, 2017, p. 25.


Selva Unal, "US determined to keep its word about YPG in Manbij, official says," Daily Sabah, March 1, 2018.


Eric Schmitt and Rod Nordland, "Amid Turkish Assault, Kurdish Forces Are Drawn Away From U.S. Fight with ISIS," New York Times, February 28, 2018.


U.S. officials voiced concerns about possible adverse effects on U.S.-supported anti-IS efforts in eastern Syria. State Department Press Briefing, February 22, 2018.


Khaled al-Khateb, "Turkey backs new opposition governance to mend Afrin," Al-Monitor Syria Pulse, April 25, 2018; Haid, "Post-ISIS Governance in Jarablus: A Turkish-led Strategy," Chatham House, September 26, 2017.


Borzou Daragahi, "Turkey Has Made a Quagmire for Itself in Syria," foreignpolicy.com, July 13, 2018.


U.N. OHCHR, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place – Civilians in North-western Syria," Monthly Human Rights Digest, June 2018.


Remarks by Secretary Tillerson, Press Availability with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Ankara, Turkey, February 16, 2018; Rebecca Kheel, "US 'deeply concerned' with situation in Syrian city taken by Turkey," thehill.com, March 19, 2018.


State Department special briefing via teleconference, Senior State Department Officials on the U.S.-Turkish Working Group on Syria, June 5, 2018.




James F. Jeffrey, "Will U.S.-Turkish Progress on Manbij Lead to Wider Cooperation in Syria?" Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 5, 2018.


Abdel Raheem Said, "U.S.-Kurdish Relations in Syria after the Manbij Roadmap," Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 5, 2018.


See, e.g., Soner Cagaptay, The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2017; Burak Kadercan, "Erdogan's Last Off-Ramp: Authoritarianism, Democracy, and the Future of Turkey," War on the Rocks, July 28, 2016.


See, e.g., State Department, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017, Turkey; European Commission, Turkey 2018 Report, April 17, 2018.


See, e.g., "Turkish Media Group Bought by Pro-Government Conglomerate," New York Times, March 22, 2018.


State Department Press Briefing, May 3, 2018; Elana Beiser, "Record number of journalists jailed as Turkey, China, Egypt pay scant price for repression," Committee to Protect Journalists, December 13, 2017.


Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Limited Referendum Observation Mission Final Report, Turkey, April 16, 2017 (published June 22, 2017); OSCE, International Election Observation Mission, Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, Turkey, Early Presidential and Parliamentary Elections, June 24, 2018 (published June 25, 2018).


For more information, see CRS In Focus IF10957, Turkey's Currency Crisis, by [author name scrubbed].


Peter Goodman, "In an Uncertain Global Economy, Turkey May Be the Most at Risk," New York Times, July 10, 2018; David J. Lynch and Kareem Fahim, "Turkey's currency plunge fans fears of new global financial crisis," Washington Post, August 13, 2018.


See, e.g., Stephen Starr, "Turkey's economy on the up, but deep-rooted problems remain," Irish Times, January 6, 2018.


Marcus Ashworth, "Erdogan's New Dynasty Makes Turkey Uninvestable," Bloomberg, July 10, 2018.


Mustafa Sonmez, "Is Turkey headed for IMF bailout?" Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, May 31, 2018.


Onur Ant, et al., "Erdogan's Road Map out of Market Meltdown Is Full of U-Turns," Bloomberg, August 8, 2018.