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In 2017, Will Turkey Choose Better Relations With The U.S. Or Russia?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All this week, we are looking at the challenges facing the United States in the New Year. And no challenge seems more central than the relationship with Turkey. It's a NATO ally crucial in the fight against ISIS, but as 2016 draws to a close, Turkey might be moving away from the West and towards a closer relationship with Russia. And let's talk about this with NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, good morning.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: I guess we have to start with what really was the defining event in this relationship, which was the political coup in Turkey. It failed, but I gather the impact is still being felt there.

KENYON: Yeah, very much so. This uprising was a huge shock. It left 270 people dead, reminded Turks of the coups that happened in the last century. And the government responded very strongly. They've been imposing a state of emergency. They're conducting a massive roundup - soldiers, police, government workers - critics say virtually anyone who disagrees with them.

And we've already had the first coup-related trials this week - police officers in that one. There's another one coming up with writers and journalists in the dock. This coup may have been aimed at toppling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but its failure has left him stronger than ever with really no visible opposition.

GREENE: And since then, I mean, this is a country that has seen a string of explosions and attacks. Is there reason to think that that's just going to keep going on?

KENYON: Yes, many here do see it that way - more of the same in terms of the threat of terror attacks. As Islamic State forces are losing ground in Iraq and Syria, some argue one consequence will be more ISIS fighters leaving. And they'll probably leave via Turkey, raising the prospect of more attacks here. And you have to remember Turkey's own conflict is still ongoing. That's with militants from the Kurdish minority - no sign of resolution there. And that's the other major source of attacks here.

GREENE: And, Peter, this was a country that really had become a tourist destination. I mean, the tourism economy was doing well. The economy in general was - was not doing all that badly, but is that all changing now? Is that all at risk?

KENYON: It seems to be at risk. The forecasts range from uncertain to downright gloomy. The government continues to push ahead with its program of mega projects. We've got a third bridge over the Bosphorus. There's a new tunnel for cars running underneath it, new airport in the works.

But tourism, as you mentioned, is way down because of the security concerns. Other sectors are hurting as well. And this is important to President Erdogan because his political success has largely been over the economic growth he's presided over when Europe was stagnant.

GREENE: So, Peter, all of that is the backdrop. I mean, we had the coup that Turkey pointed to a cleric in the United States in terms of blame. We have more terrorist attacks. Now, we have a new administration coming in in the United States. What does all this mean for Turkey, the United States? And as we mentioned, Turkey seems to be warming with Russia a little bit.

KENYON: They certainly have been, and that's likely to continue. And the impact of a Donald Trump administration on that remains to be seen. I mean, America relies on Turkey in the fight against ISIS, especially for this air base, Incirlik, down in southeast Turkey. But there are some very difficult differences between Ankara and Washington, especially in this fight against ISIS. President Erdogan, in fact, just accused Washington of backing terrorists, including ISIS.

The State Department says that's ludicrous. And meanwhile, some allies of President-elect Trump have been questioning whether Turkey even belongs in NATO. Now, so far, the line from Washington and Ankara has been this relationship's too important to ruin it over some policy differences. Whether the Trump administration agrees with that is what remains to be seen 'cause Turkey continues to reassess its ties with both Eastern and Western powers.

GREENE: OK, talking about the U.S.-Turkey relationship in 2017 with NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.