Thursday, 01 February 2018 20:16

The U.S. and Turkey: Past the Point of No Return?

The American Interest


The U.S. and Turkey: Past the Point of No Return?


With Ankara and Washington on a collision course in northern Syria, both sides will have to rethink their priorities if they want to salvage an increasingly hollow alliance.

U.S.-Turkish relations have deteriorated for some time. But until recently, no one would have thought that the American and Turkish militaries, closely allied since the 1950s, could end up confronting each other directly. Yet in northern Syria today, that is no longer unthinkable.

In mid-January, to forestall U.S. intentions to build a “Border Security Force” composed mainly of Syrian Kurdish fighters, Turkey launched a military operation in the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave in northwestern Syria. On January 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his determination to move beyond Afrin into other parts of northern Syria, mentioning specifically the town of Manbij, where U.S. forces are deployed alongside Kurdish YPG troops. Turkish officials warned the United States to sever its ties to the Kurdish forces, which Turkey considers a terrorist group. This led President Donald Trump to tell Erdoğan to “avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”

The collision course Ankara and Washington are on is making any notion of a Turkish-American alliance increasingly hollow. If a point of no return is to be avoided, both sides will have to rethink their priorities, and begin to build trust. That process can begin with an honest appraisal of how we got to this point, with America and Turkey on the verge of coming to blows.

In the United States, much of the blame has naturally been laid at the feet of Erdoğan, the headstrong and authoritarian Turkish President. To American eyes, it is easy to see how Erdoğan’s growing intolerance of dissent goes hand in hand with an increasingly adventurist foreign policy that directly challenges American interests. Yet while Erdogan is part of the problem, its full scope goes far beyond a single individual. The real story of the past several years is how the Syrian and Kurdish issues have interacted with Turkish domestic politics to pull Ankara and Washington apart.

Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds: A Long Story                    

For a variety of reasons ranging from water distribution to border disputes, Turkey and Syria were archenemies during the Cold War. Even then, the Syrian and Kurdish questions were interrelated: Hafez al-Asad provided safe haven to the leadership of the Kurdish separatist PKK, which Turkey, the European Union and the United States all rightly considered a terrorist organization. After the Cold War, the threat hardly abated: From training camps in Lebanon’s Syria-controlled Bekaa Valley and bases in northern Iraq, the PKK mounted an increasingly sophisticated campaign of terror targeting the Turkish state and Turkish civilians in the early 1990s.

Herein lies the seed of Turkish-American discord: While Turks had no love lost for Saddam Hussein, Ankara and Baghdad had cooperated quite effectively against the PKK.

Herein lies the seed of Turkish-American discord: While Turks had no love lost for Saddam Hussein, Ankara and Baghdad had cooperated quite effectively against the PKK. By contrast, it was the American intervention in Iraq, and the subsequent creation of a de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq, that allowed the PKK to establish a foothold in the mountainous areas bordering Turkey. This generated frustration, but America was still helping Turkish efforts to fight the PKK. By the mid-1990s, Ankara had made numerous military operations on Iraqi soil to manage the problem. In 1998 Turkish threats of military action forced Assad to expel the PKK and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan. With the help of American and Israeli assistance, Turkey was eventually able to apprehend Öcalan in Kenya, and confine him to the prison island where he remains today.

By the time Erdoğan was redesigning Turkish foreign policy in the mid-2000s, Syria occupied center stage. It was Turkey’s conduit to the Arab Middle East, where Erdoğan wanted to play a bigger role. The objective was to turn Syria from an adversary into a vassal—essentially replacing Iran’s role for the Assad regime. Yet these plans came to naught with the onset of the Arab upheavals of 2011. Those events touched a sectarian and ideological nerve among Erdoğan’s Islamists: They saw in the upheavals the impending crumbling of the post-Ottoman order in the Middle East, and a historic chance to impose a new order led by the Muslim Brotherhood under Turkish tutelage. This led Erdoğan to support the opposition against Assad, and in particular to help arm the Free Syrian Army components that were close to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Lacking deep understanding of the regional dynamics, however, Ankara miscalculated. Evidently, Erdoğan and his then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu thought the Assad regime would fall much like Qaddafi had in Libya. But they underestimated both Tehran’s commitment to the Assad regime and Assad’s ability to counter Turkish moves. In July 2012, the Syrian regime effectively ceded the northeast of Syria to the Kurdish Syrian YPG forces that are aligned with Turkey’s archenemy, the PKK.

This move had deep implications for Turkey. As the Syria conflict turned into a quagmire, the rise of a Kurdish entity emboldened Kurdish nationalism in Turkey itself, thus sabotaging Erdoğan’s attempt to negotiate with the imprisoned PKK leader from a position of strength. For Turkey, the biggest threats in Syria were the PKK-aligned PYD and the Assad regime. The Sunni jihadis fighting the regime were seen not so much as a problem as an asset: Turkey’s initial protégés on the battlefield had turned out hopelessly inept, leading Ankara to move to support increasingly radical factions, including domestic jihadi groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra front, while turning a blind eye for some time to ISIS’s use of Turkish territory as a rear base for its establishment of a caliphate in Syria.

Thus, American and Turkish interests began to diverge. Obama and Erdoğan had initially coordinated closely on Syrian matters, with Turkey calling for an American intervention to topple Assad, and planning to be America’s subcontractor in Syrian affairs. Disagreements were initially minor, as when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought a much more broad-based opposition coalition than the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated version boosted by Ankara. But gradually, America’s main objective shifted from overthrowing Assad to containing and combating the ISIS caliphate. This, in turn, pushed the United States into the arms of the Syrian Kurds, who had the only fighting force willing and capable of fighting ISIS in Syria. Meanwhile, Americans were growing increasingly suspicious of Turkish covert support for jihadi factions in the war.

Domestic politics now intervened to worsen matters: In 2013, the repression of the Gezi Park demonstrations that began in Istanbul but spread across Turkey wrecked Erdoğan’s international image. A disappointed President Obama now essentially stopped talking to Erdoğan. Meanwhile, the split between Erdoğan and his erstwhile allies in the Fethullah Gülen movement intensified into an open and direct conflict. Erdoğan, who was growing increasingly conspiratorial, saw an American hand behind both Gezi and the Gülen movement, whose leader he believed to steer a vast network of supporters from his home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

To counterbalance the Gülen network, Erdoğan now rehabilitated, then struck up an alliance with the neo-nationalist America skeptics within the Turkish military that had been purged in previous years. By 2015, this alliance led him to end talks with the Kurds and adopt the military’s preferred option: a renewed reliance on the military option to destroy the PKK inside Turkey. This had the added benefit of shoring up nationalist support for Erdoğan, making his transition to a presidential system possible. His new friends also happened to fervently buy in to the notion that America’s aims in Iraq and Syria included the promotion of Kurdish nationalism, and that this policy in the long term envisaged the breakup of Turkey itself. Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear that Erdoğan himself bought into this conspiracism.

American Errors

It goes without saying that America’s dithering in Syria has been a major factor in the growing suspicions in Turkey concerning America’s intentions. As noted, Turkish suspicion of American intentions started with the creation of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan in the early 1990s. It intensified with the Iraq War in 2003. And it has reached a boiling point with the conflict in Syria. In all three cases, Turkey has entertained the notion of partnering with America, but ultimately seen America take steps that undermine Turkey’s interests and security.

Americans frequently look back to the Presidency of Turgut Özal as the golden age of Turkish-American relations. Özal, indeed, supported America’s war against Iraq, provided America with the use of the Incirlik base in southern Turkey, and closed pipelines delivering Iraqi oil to Turkey. But he did so at great cost: In 1990, both the chief of general staff and the foreign minister resigned in protest against Özal’s Iraq policies. In subsequent years, the economic costs to Turkey were estimated in the billions of dollars, not counting the rising PKK insurgency, which would hardly have been as intense had Baghdad remained in control of northern Iraq.

These matters were very much on the minds of Turkish leaders in late 2002, when the George W. Bush Administration came calling to enlist Turkey’s help to invade Iraq once again. Immense pressure was brought to bear on the newly elected AKP government—formally run by Abdullah Gül, because Erdoğan had yet to rid himself of a ban prohibiting him from political activity. The Turkish military remained far from enthusiastic, and a parliamentary vote in March 2003 failed to approve the use of Turkey’s territory for a U.S. land invasion. This debacle sent Turkish-American relations into a tailspin, fostering lingering resentment between what had been the core of the relationship: the respective military leaderships of the two countries. While Turkey’s various power brokers mishandled the matter, there was enough blame to go around: U.S. officials largely failed to provide Turkey with an incentive to support American plans in Iraq.

From Ankara’s vantage point, the main consequence of America’s invasion was that the PKK, sensing an opportunity, broke a long-standing ceasefire and began operations on Turkish soil again. America, preoccupied with Iraq, did little to mitigate this, and even went as far as apprehending Turkish special forces officers in northern Iraq, generating fury across the Turkish political spectrum. Meanwhile, Iran was actively cooperating with Turkey in cracking down on the Iranian PKK affiliate, PJAK. Ironically, to most Turks Iran now seemed a better ally against terrorism than the United States.

Against this background, it may seem surprising that Erdoğan actively encouraged an American intervention against Assad, while his population and much of the Turkish elite were largely opposed. But at the time, Erdoğan thought he could use American cover to implement his vision of a “moderate Islamist” order in the Middle East under Turkish leadership. This is how Erdoğan interpreted Obama’s support for the Arab upheavals.

Yet over a few months of 2013, Erdoğan came to revisit this assumption. The starting point was the Gezi protests of May and June, followed in early July by the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, in which Erdoğan had invested heavily. Turkish fury at America’s equivocation on the coup (which Turkey’s Islamists equated with the Gezi protests) was exacerbated only weeks later by Obama’s Syria red line controversy. It was now clear that the United States was not going to play along with Erdoğan’s regional plans. Instead, due to a combination of domestic and foreign factors, U.S. actions in the Middle East came to be viewed as directly antithetical to Turkey’s vital interests.

Indeed, the trigger for the current crisis was the American decision to create a largely Kurdish “border security force” of over 30,000 personnel in northern Syria. There is no question that when the Pentagon developed that plan, Turkey was not the main motive. It was at least as much about establishing a foothold in Syria to contain Iranian hegemony, and to ensure that ISIS was unable to regroup. But to the Turks, none of those factors are relevant: American actions are viewed against the background of the events of the past three decades, and through the prism of the leadership’s particular penchant for conspiracy. American officials are aware that Erdoğan blames Washington for involvement in the failed July 2016 coup against him, and are equally cognizant of the vehemence with which Turkey opposes America’s intimacy with the Syrian Kurdish forces. Erdoğan has lately even come to speak obliquely of America as the force behind ISIS, echoing Russian propaganda to that effect. Erdoğan’s reaction should have been quite predictable: To Turks it all follows a clear pattern of America working over three decades to establish a Kurdish vassal entity in the Middle East that undermines the security and integrity of Turkey itself.

Is There a Way Out?

Whether or not the current crisis is overcome, the longer trajectory of U.S.-Turkish relations is alarming. The leadership of a close NATO ally has effectively become a cheerleader of anti-Americanism; its leadership views America as its primary adversary, accusing it of scheming to undermine its very statehood. And unfortunately, as this analysis has sought to demonstrate, this is not due solely to the idiosyncrasies of an erratic leader. Erdoğan’s perspective on America’s role in Syria and Iraq is shared by broad segments of Turkey’s political spectrum.

The Turks have a point: American policies in Syria and Iraq have had the effect of undermining Turkey’s interests.

The Turks have a point: American policies in Syria and Iraq have had the effect of undermining Turkey’s interests.And it borders on the absurd for the United States to “train” a PKK affiliate in Syria, while hoping that this will not affect relations with a country it terms an ally. Any Turkish government will see this as a hostile act; Erdoğan enjoys the support of over 80% of Turks on this issue.

But the United States, too, has a point. The growing anti-Americanism of Turkey’s leaders—Erdoğan first and foremost—is not primarily a result of America’s Syria policy, or even of any of America’s actions. Rather, it is a result of an ideologically grounded, conspiratorial mindset that sees America as a force for evil in the world. It is not America’s fault that Erdoğan now appears to view everything from protests in Istanbul and coups in Cairo and Ankara to campaigns against his Qatari friends as efforts to undermine Turkey’s prestige and his own position of power. If this is what Turkey is becoming, why should America defer to Ankara on matters of regional security in the Middle East?

The problem is, effectively, on two levels. First, American and Turkish objectives in the region have come increasingly to diverge. Were there trust and goodwill between leaders on both sides, this divergence could be overcome, or at least managed. Defense Secretary James Mattis has expressed understanding for Turkey’s security concerns, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu seeks to convince Americans that his country is a better partner for America than the YPG. Left to their own devices, these leaders and others like them would probably be able to work things out. For example, Washington and Ankara could agree to the creation of a Turkish security zone on the Syrian side of the border. That would significantly calm tempers in Ankara.

But on another level, America lacks a strategy for either the region or for its relationship with Turkey. Without such a strategy, U.S. officials will likely bounce from crisis to crisis, seeking to contain the damage while being unable to take on the underlying problem. And similarly, as long as Erdoğan and important forces in the Turkish leadership continue with their anti-American pronouncements, the likelihood of anyone making a serious effort to rescue the relationship will diminish by the day.

In the final analysis, U.S. officials would be well-advised to take a long view: How important is Turkey for American interests in Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East in a 20-year perspective? If they determine that it continues to maintain the immense strategic value that many assume, they should focus on ensuring that the average Turks find no reason to buy into the loony conspiracies peddled by some of their leaders, and instead view America as a reliable and positive force. That will require adjustments to the Administration’s Syria policies. In the meantime, Erdoğan’s government can be treated in a transactional way—as a troublesome force that needs, somehow, to be managed with that broader objective in mind.

Published on: February 1, 2018

Svante E. Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’sGemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2018 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service


Read 28568 times Last modified on Tuesday, 12 June 2018 15:02





  • ASIA Spotlight with Prof. S. Frederick Starr on Unveiling Central Asia's Hidden Legacy
    Thursday, 28 December 2023 00:00

    On December 19th, 2023, at 7:30 PM IST, ASIA Spotlight Session has invited the renowned Prof. S Fredrick Starr, who elaborated on his acclaimed book, "The Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane." Moderated by Prof. Amogh Rai, Research Director at ASIA, the discussion unveiled the fascinating, yet lesser-known narrative of Central Asia's medieval enlightenment.

    The book sheds light on the remarkable minds from the Persianate and Turkic peoples, spanning from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China. "Lost Enlightenment" narrates how, between 800 and 1200, Central Asia pioneered global trade, economic development, urban sophistication, artistic refinement, and, most importantly, knowledge advancement across various fields. Explore the captivating journey that built a bridge to the modern world.

    To know watch the full conversation: #centralasia #goldenage #arabconquest #tamerlane #medievalenlightment #turkish #economicdevelopment #globaltrade

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Some Lessons for Putin from Ancient Rome
    Thursday, 04 January 2024 17:01
    By S. Frederick Starr 
    American Purpose
    January 4, 2024
    Vladimir Putin, having sidelined or destroyed all his domestic opponents, real or imagined, now surrounds himself with Romano-Byzantine pomp and grandeur. The theatrical civic festivals, processions of venerable prelates, cult of statues, embarrassing shows of piety, endless laying of wreaths, and choreographed entrances down halls lined with soldiers standing at attention—all trace directly back to czarism, to Byzantine Constantinople, and ultimately to imperial Rome. Indeed, Putin considers himself as Russia’s new “czar,” the Russified form of the Latin “Caesar.”
    But besides all the parallel heroics, Roman history offers profound lessons for today’s world. All of America’s Founders saw the Roman Republic as the best model for their own constitution. Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler, by contrast, found in imperial Rome a stunning model for their own grandeur. True, some of Rome’s ancient chroniclers, including the celebrated Livy, so admired specific politicians that they saw only their good sides and ignored the problems and failures. Yet there were others, notably the pessimistic Sallust, who not only wrote bluntly of history’s painful issues but delved deep into their causes and consequences.
    Is Putin likely to delve into the history of Rome for insights on his own situation? Unfortunately for Russia, Putin is not a reader, preferring instead to engage in exhibitionist athletic activities, preside at solemn ceremonies, or offer avuncular obiter dicta. However, if he would study the Roman past, he might come to realize that that model presents more than a few chilling prospects that he will ignore at his peril.
    To take but one example, a glance at Roman history would remind Putin that self-declared victories may not be as victorious as he and Kremlin publicists want to think. Back in the 3rd century B.C., when Rome was still a small state in central Italy, it was attacked by a certain King Pyrrhus, a rival ruler from Epirus, a region along today’s border between Greece and Albania. In his first battles Pyrrhus routed the Roman legions, and celebrated accordingly. But matters did not end there.
    Like Pyrrhus, Putin’s army scored some early victories in its war on Ukraine. As recently as December 1, Putin’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu was still claiming, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Russian forces “were advancing on all fronts.” Pyrrhus made similar false claims, only to discover that his own soldiers were no match for the determined Romans. As the Romans drove Pyrrhus’ army from the field, he groused, “If we win one more such victory against the Romans we will be utterly ruined,” which is exactly what happened. Pyrrhus’ statement gave Romans the term “Pyrrhic victory,” which we still use today. Putin should apply it to his “victories” at Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
    Another crisis in Rome’s early formation as a nation occurred when a peasant uprising threatened Rome itself and, according to the historian Livy, caused panic in the Roman capital. In desperation, the elders turned to Lucius Cincinnatus, who was neither a military man nor a professional politician, but who had earned respect as an effective leader. It took Cincinnatus only fifteen days to turn the tide, after which he returned to his farm. George Washington rightly admired Cincinnatus and consciously emulated him, returning after the Battle of Yorktown to Mount Vernon. By contrast, Putin’s “special military operation,” planned as a three-day romp, is now approaching the end of its second year. Putin, no Cincinnatus, doomed himself to being a lifer.
    Roman history is a millennium-long showcase of motivation or its absence. In this context, Putin might gain further insights by examining Rome’s centuries-long battle against the diverse tribes pressing the empire from the north. For centuries Rome’s legionnaires were well trained, disciplined, and committed. The list of their early victories is long. Both Julius Caesar and the philosopher-emperor-general Marcus Aurelius succeeded because they motivated and inspired their troops. But over time the Roman army was increasingly comprised of hirelings, déclassé men who fought not to save the empire but for money or a small piece of the bounty. Inflation and rising costs outpaced pay increases. Punishment was severe, in some cases including even crucifixion. In the end, Rome’s army eroded from within.
    This is what is happening to the Russian army today. Putin attacked Ukraine in February 2022 with what was then an army of several hundred thousand trained professional soldiers. But after the Ukrainians killed more than 320,000 Russian troops, their replacements were unwilling and surly conscripts and even criminals dragooned from Russia’s jails. Putin quite understandably fears such soldiers. Putin’s army, like that of the late Roman Empire, is collapsing from within.
    By contrast, Ukraine’s army at the time of the invasion was small and comprised mainly Soviet-trained holdovers. Both officers and troops of the line had to be quickly recruited from civilian professions and trained. Yet they quickly proved themselves to be disciplined and resourceful patriots, not tired time-servers. True, Ukraine is now conscripting troops, but these newcomers share their predecessors’ commitment to the nation and to their future lives in a free country.
    Sheer spite and a passion for avenging past failures figured prominently in Putin’s decisions to invade both Georgia and Ukraine. Roman history suggests that this isn’t smart. Back in 220 B.C., Rome defeated its great enemy, the North African state of Carthage. Anticipating Putin, the Carthaginian general Hannibal sought revenge. Acting out of spite, he assembled 700,000 foot soldiers, 78,000 mounted calvary, and a force of war elephants, and crossed the Alps. Though he was a brilliant general, Hannibal’s war of spite turned into a disaster.
    Why did Hannibal lose? Partly because of his sheer hubris and the spite that fed it, and also because the Romans avoided frontal battles and simply ground him down. They were prudently led by a general named Fabius Maximus, whom later Romans fondly remembered as “the Delayer.” Today it is the Ukrainians who are the Delayers. By grinding down Putin’s army and destroying its logistics they have positioned themselves for victory.
    The Roman Republic fell not because of any mass uprising but because of the machinations of Julius Caesar. A victorious general, Caesar looked the hero as he was installed as imperator. As was customary at such ceremonies, an official retainer placed behind the inductee solemnly repeated over and over the admonition to “Look behind you!” Caesar failed to do so and underestimated the opposition of a handful of officials and generals who feared the rise of a dictator perpetuus. Even if Putin chooses not to read Cicero, Plutarch, or Cassius Dio, he could productively spend an evening watching a Moscow production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.
    Turning to a very different issue, Putin seems blithely to assume that whenever Russia defeats a neighboring country it can easily win the hearts and minds of the conquered, whether by persuasion or force. This is what many Roman generals and governors thought as well, but they were wrong—fatally so. Speaking of the impact of corrupt officials sent by Rome to the provinces, the great orator-politician Cicero declared to the Roman Senate, “You cannot imagine how deeply they hate us.” Does Putin understand this?
    Finally, it is no secret that Russia today, like ancient Rome, is increasingly a land of immigrants; its economy depends on impoverished newcomers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere in Central Asia who fled to Russia in search of work. Yet Moscow treats them as third-class citizens and dragoons them as cannon fodder or “meat” to die by the thousands on the Ukrainian front. Rome faced a similar problem and wrestled with it unsuccessfully over several centuries. Over time the despised immigrants who poured across the Alps from Gaul demanded a voice in Roman affairs, and eventually took control of the western Roman Empire.
    Sad to say, neither Putin himself nor any others of Russia’s core group of leaders show the slightest interest in learning from relevant examples from Roman history or, for that matter, from any other useable past. Together they provide living proof of American philosopher George Santayana’s adage that, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” In Putin’s case, though, he seems never to have known it. 

    ABOUT THE AUTHORSS. Frederick Starr, is a distinguished fellow specializing in Central Asia and the Caucasus at the American Foreign Policy Council and founding chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute.

    Additional Info
    • Author S. Frederick Starr
    • Publication Type Analysis
    • Published in/by American Purpose
    • Publishing date January 4, 2024
  • CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr comments on "Preparing Now for a Post-Putin Russia"
    Friday, 03 November 2023 18:30

    Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin dies in office, is ousted in a palace coup, or relinquishes power for some unforeseen reason, the United States and its allies would face a radically different Russia with the Kremlin under new management. The geopolitical stakes mean that policymakers would be negligent not to plan for the consequences of a post-Putin Russia. On November 2, 2023, CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr joined a panel organized by the Hudson Institute’s Center on Europe and Eurasia for a discussion on how US and allied policymakers can prepare for a Russia after Putin.

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Central Asia Diplomats Call for Closer Ties With US
    Monday, 26 June 2023 00:00

    REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
    By Navbahor Imamova

    WASHINGTON -- U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.

    Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

    Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.

    He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.

    "I've always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies," he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.

    Key issues

    In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.

    Kazakhstan's Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.

    "Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest," Ashikbayev said.

    The Kazakh diplomat described a "synergy" of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. "As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it's in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers."

    During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.

    That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan's longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.

    Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with "long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years."

    "The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1," he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region's five governments.

    "This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration," said Sidiqov. "We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism."

    Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia's development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.

    'Possibility of positive change'

    Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.

    In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, "even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours."

    This is the only region that doesn't have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. "We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it's not going to. It's not against anyone."

    "Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."

    "Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia," he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, "Are we so insignificant that they can't take the time to visit?"

    Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. "This would not be a big drain on the president's time, but it would be symbolically extremely important," he said. "All of them want this to happen."

    Read at VOA News

  • Read CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr's recent interview on the resurgence of Imperial Russia with The American Purpose
    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

    What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”

    Click to continue reading...