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5 uncomfortable facts at the heart of the U.S.-Turkey relationship

President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House in 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The relationship between the United States and Turkey has been thrown into disarray since President Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria and Turkey subsequently launched a military offensive targeting areas held by Syrian Kurds.

In the days since, the United States has imposed sanctions on Turkey, a NATO ally that houses U.S. nuclear weapons, for attacking another U.S. ally.

Amid the rapid developments on the ground, here are the uncomfortable truths about the U.S.-Turkish relationship that need unraveling:

Turkey is a NATO ally

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in 1949 as a military alliance between North American and European countries. Turkey, along with Greece, joined in 1952, as part of a push to contain communism along Europe’s eastern flank.

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For much of its membership, Turkey has been considered a good NATO ally, but there have been moments of difficulty, including the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, which led to conflict with Greece and a U.S. arms embargo, as well as Turkey’s refusal to allow U.S. bases in the country to be used during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Those difficulties have been agitated further in recent years by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has taken an anti-Western position on a variety of issues, including purchases of Russian-made missile-defense systems.

Article 13 in NATO’s founding document, known as the Washington Treaty, lays out the ways that a member can leave the alliance, but it is not clear whether a member can be forced out.

The United States allied with Syrian Kurds against Turkey’s wishes

The most recent dispute between Turkey and its NATO allies centers on Ankara’s opposition to the Kurdish groups that became key partners of the United States and its allies in the fight against the Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq.

The Kurds are a primarily Muslim ethnic group spread throughout Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, though they have long pushed for their own independent state. About 30 million Kurds live in the region, half of them in Turkey, where they have waged a decades-long campaign for greater autonomy. Groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, have resorted to armed conflict and terrorism in that campaign.

In 2015, the United States turned to Syrian Kurds for assistance in the fight against the Islamic State, urging forces of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, to partner with Arab groups under the banner of the newly created Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. The group was armed by the United States and its allies and soon grew to control significant swaths of land along Syria’s border with Turkey.

Turkey had long threatened a military offensive against the Kurdish-led SDF, arguing that it was closely aligned with the PKK. However, it could not press forward with the operation as U.S. troops were in Syria’s Kurdish regions.

Turkey bought a Russian missile-defense system against U.S. wishes

This summer, Turkey completed its purchase of the S-400 weapons system developed by Russia. The move was opposed by the Pentagon, which argued that an ally could not both participate in the U.S. F-35 fighter jet program and purchase the Russian system. Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 system was suspended as a result.

The F-35 is the most high-tech and expensive U.S. fighter jet, and Washington has been keen for its allies to buy and operate the planes. However, one of the jet’s greatest strengths is its stealth capabilities. The S-400 has advanced radar capabilities, and some in the United States feared Russia would gain indirect access to the F-35 program via Turkey and use it to enhance the S-400′s efficacy.

Turkey has said it bought the Russian system after the United States did not make a satisfactory offer on its own Patriot missile-defense system, which lacks some features of the S-400 and is generally more expensive.

U.S. nuclear weapons are stored in Turkey

The United States houses an estimated 50 nuclear bombs at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, roughly 250 miles from the Syrian border, complicating an already difficult situation. U.S. nuclear weapons were first deployed to Turkey at the height of the Cold War in 1961. No nuclear-capable missiles are held in the country anymore, and only the United States has nuclear-certified planes on which to fly the bombs.

The United States also houses nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, where the presence of these weapons is relatively controversial. Turkey, meanwhile, has pushed to keep the weapons, apparently valuing them as deterrence. Speaking to supporters last month, Erdogan suggested Turkey should have its own nuclear weapons.

“There is no developed nation in the world that doesn’t have them,” the Turkish leader said, inaccurately.

Though there has been discussion of moving the weapons from Turkey for decades, a variety of issues in recent years — including a coup attempt in Turkey in 2016, the spread of the Islamic State and Turkey’s increasingly close ties to Russia — have given the debate an added urgency. After Turkey began its military operation in Syria last week, a U.S. official told the New York Times that Erdogan was effectively holding the weapons hostage.

The United States is putting sanctions on its own ally

After Turkish forces clashed with Kurds in Syria, the United States announced sanctions Monday that took aim at Turkey’s defense and energy ministries and personally targeted three senior Turkish officials, including the powerful interior minister.

Separately, Trump announced tariffs on steel imports from Turkey will be raised 50 percent, and the United States has halted negotiations over a trade deal with the country worth more than $100 billion.

Such moves against an ally are unusual but not unprecedented. In August 2018, Trump authorized a huge increase in tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum in retaliation for Turkey’s detention of Andrew Brunson, a pastor from North Carolina. In that case, Turkey’s lira lost more than 18 percent of its value in one day.

Turkey eventually released Brunson, but it is not clear that economic pressure will work this time. Erdogan’s push against Syria’s Kurds is broadly popular among Turks, and increased international pressure may push more Turks to rally behind their president.