Turkey: time to bring it back on board?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

The 19th century British statesman, Benjamin Disraeli, famously described Turkey’s former Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe”. He was referring to the Turkish Sultan’s inability to keep his sprawling empire together as its neighbours greedily eyed its territories in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. Today, by contrast, Turkey is increasing its presence and influence in these regions rather than meekly allowing the other powers to push it out of them; and it is Turkey’s gathering strength, self-confidence and assertiveness which is worrying its European and transatlantic allies.

There are a number of factors behind this re-emergence of Turkey as a regional player, and power to be reckoned with.

In the first place is the political stability that Turkey has enjoyed under the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP)  and its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for nearly two decades now. Many Europeans will lament that this has come at a high price in terms of the crackdown on civil society, and particularly the freedom of the press and the judiciary. It is a political stability that has moved Turkey away from European values rather than toward them. Yet it marks a contrast with the decades of military coups, domestic unrest and terrorism that blighted Turkey in the last decades of the last century.

The recent stability has enabled the Turkish economy to grow, and Turkish banks and high-tech industries to expand into international markets. Turkey has become a major arms producer – the drones it has deployed in Libya attest to that. Economic growth has allowed a new middle class to emerge in Anatolia, more conservative, pious, and nationalist in outlook than the more secular and Europe-oriented elites in Istanbul that had long set the tone of political life after Ataturk proclaimed the modern Turkish Republic in 1923.

As we have seen elsewhere, stability in authoritarian states is a fragile affair, as popular protest is never far away. That is why such regimes tend to maintain such a large internal security apparatus of police, paramilitaries and intelligence services. The opposition has recently gained control of the two largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara. So, the dominance of the AKP and Erdoğan is no longer as absolute as they once appeared. This said, political stability has allowed the Turkish government to develop a long-term, forward-thinking strategy in the region that eluded its crisis-prone predecessors.

These old links have facilitated inroads for Turkish business and religious and cultural foundations

A second element is the collapse in the 1990s of those empires and multinational constructs that, unlike the Ottoman Empire, did not disintegrate at the end of the First World War. The end of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia created a number of new states with populations having a long religious, cultural and linguistic relationship with Turkey. This is true of Central Asia, in states like Azerbaijan in the Caucasus but also with Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo in the Balkans. On a campaign trip to Bosnia, President Erdoğan even described Sarajevo as a “Turkish city”.

These old links have facilitated inroads for Turkish business and religious and cultural foundations, and thus inevitably political influence as well. Before the downtown in Turkey’s economic fortunes and the pushback against the Arab Spring in 2011, Turkey was seen as a role model within its wider region: a successful Muslim country with a modernising economy and society that offered a way forward in reconciling traditional Islamic values with intellectual freedom and female emancipation. In similar fashion, the large Turkish communities permanently established in EU countries such as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have also increased the leverage of Ankara, which has courted them in much the same way that China stays in close touch with its own diaspora. Turkish politicians have held campaign rallies in West European cities thereby raising issues of interference and of the primary loyalty of minority ethnic communities.

Third, the end of the Cold War relaxed the bloc discipline that kept alignments largely within formal allies and existing security arrangements. Turkey is arguably the NATO country that has taken the greatest advantage of this relaxation to forge new partnerships. This has not been wholly to the disadvantage of NATO. At a time when the alliance has been more engaged in the South and building relations with the Arab countries through training programmes and the like, having a country in its ranks which is also a prominent member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and can attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as an observer helps to build bridges and avert the dreaded ‘clash of civilisations’ that was such a feature of the debate after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Yet these new relationships can hide a darker side. Turkey has drawn closer to Russia and become a purchaser of Russian weapons, like the S400 air defence system, which are not compatible with NATO standards and may even compromise NATO’s own capabilities. It has moved away from Israel and closer to Gulf states like Qatar that have funded radical movements in the Middle East. At the same time, Turkey has felt less inhibited engaging in both old and new disputes with its allies – whether it be Greece, Cyprus, the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and now France.

So far, this growing unpredictability has not led to Turkey leaving NATO, nor formally giving up its membership aspirations for the EU, nor allowing bilateral disputes to culminate in an open break in diplomatic relations. Indeed, Turkey has used NATO’s Article 4 treaty provision frequently to obtain the alliance’s support for its actions in Syria. Yet the growing number of flashpoints have polluted the atmosphere and started a debate on ‘Quo Vadis Turkey’. At the very least, its actions have created a perception that Turkey views its relationships largely in transactional terms; more interested in what it can extract rather than what it can add, and more concerned about preserving its freedom of manoeuvre than being part of a defined community of values.

In recent times, Turkish soft power in the region – at least vis-a-vis the populations if not the regimes – has been in decline. Turkey’s drift away from democracy and its economic downturn has curtailed aspirations of a Turkey at peace with all its neighbours, to recall the slogan of former foreign minister, Davutoğlu. The war in Syria, lasting divisions in post-Saddam Iraq, Western pressure on Iran (an important Turkish trading partner) and Ankara’s inability to find a peaceful and sustainable solution to the problem of its large Kurdish minority, have all conspired to darken Turkey’s strategic outlook.

This has led to the temptation among many NATO and EU policymakers to resort to the two classic strategies in dealing with an unpredictable and difficult neighbour. The first is to sit it out and wait for an authoritarian regime to underperform, deplete its credibility and cede to popular pressure. The second is to wait for external pressures on the regime to lead to overextension; and then to offer an olive branch as the state realises it needs its old friends and allies after all, and seeks to return to the fold.

The risk of all these manoeuvres is more outside intervention

The problem with playing the long game here is that as Turkey has been haemorrhaging its soft power, it has been reverting to the hard power version. This has made it more necessary to seek a better working relationship with Ankara, but also more difficult.

The first bone of contention is the Turkish intervention in Syria. Rather than drive back Assad’s forces and create a large humanitarian safe zone in the north, it has served the narrower objective of driving the Kurdish YPD forces away from the border areas and preventing the Kurds from building a crypto-state in northern Syria as they did in Iraq after the demise of Saddam Hussein. Turkey’s policy has indirectly helped Assad to regain control, with Russian and Iranian help, of large parts of northern Syria. It has also deflected attention away from ISIS which was under pressure from the Kurdish armed groups around Raqqa before they were pulled away to resist Turkey. ISIS has received a welcome breathing space to reconstitute its cells and rebuild its logistics in eastern Syria and over the border in Iraq. Consequently, the common front of the US, France, the UK and Turkey – which allowed the West to retain some influence over future developments in Syria – has largely fallen apart.

The second issue concerns Libya. Turkey has not sent its army but rather advisors, military technology like armed drones, and even Turkish-sponsored Syrian militias into Libya. This support has proven crucial in allowing the UN-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli to turn the tide against the forces of General Haftar, who was laying siege to Tripoli for the past year. Haftar has been forced to retreat all the way to Sirte 450 km away and to abandon the national airport and the key military base at Al-Watiya in the process. The GNA is close to regaining control of Libya’s oil production facilities.

Yet this success is not without risks. Turkey has rejected peace overtures as it believes its proxies have the momentum. Egypt is now threatening to intervene if the GNA forces push further east and Russia has sent 14 modern fighter aircraft to the eastern forces. It does not take much to swing the balance back in favour of the east even if Haftar has lost much of his earlier shine as a viable alternative to the Tripoli-based GNA. The risk of all these manoeuvres is more outside intervention, and an escalation of the fighting into the kind of full-scale, multiple local and foreign actor conflict that has been so catastrophic for Syria since 2011. The prospect of Russia, Iran, jihadist radicals or even Turkey gaining a permanent foothold just across the Mediterranean from Italy is not a rosy one for an EU seeking to stabilise the North African littoral.

In addition, Turkey is embroiled in a dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean over drilling rights for natural gas. Large deposits have been discovered around the coast of Cyprus, and Cyprus, Greece and Israel have already begun exploration and drilling ventures. Turkey has claimed its share as well, notwithstanding legal disputes over the division of sovereign areas, and has sent warships and threatened the use of force to back up its claims. Turkey has also concluded an agreement with Libya to create a joint economic exclusion zone covering large parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. This has been rejected as illegal by the EU. The EU has issued statements condemning Turkey’s actions as a result of tensions between Turkey and EU member states in the Eastern Mediterranean,

This perfect storm of disputes risks further alienating Turkey from its transatlantic and European partners

More recently, France has accused Turkey of interfering with the EU’s IRINI mission which is aiming to implement the UN arms embargo against Libya in the Eastern Mediterranean. France claims that Turkish warships prevented a French frigate from inspecting a suspect Tanzanian cargo ship. At the recent NATO defence ministers meeting, the NATO military authorities were tasked to investigate this incident – a somewhat delicate undertaking given the high emotions currently crossing between Paris and Ankara. At the same meeting, the EU High Representative Josep Borrell asked for NATO’s logistical assistance for the IRINI mission along the same lines as the support NATO provided to the EU Sophia mission in the Central Mediterranean. Yet this request requires consensus within the alliance. This is something Turkey is unlikely to agree to given tensions with the EU, and its belief that the IRINI mission is more focused on blocking aid to the Tripoli GNA government than to General Haftar, who it accuses France of secretly supporting. The divisions in the alliance have given President Macron the pretext to declare once more that NATO is “brain dead”.

This perfect storm of disputes risks further alienating Turkey from its transatlantic and European partners. It might be tempting to conclude that Turkey has left the West in the way that Putin’s Russia departed the structures of Euro-Atlantic cooperation around 2007/8. Some may believe that Turkey is returning to the posture of the latter-day Ottoman Empire, opportunistically manoeuvring among the European states for advantage, only to pick the wrong side. Yet this would be short-sighted and put emotions before interests. Turkey has the second-largest army in NATO. Dealing with the instabilities of the Middle East, North Africa, the Caucasus and the Balkans will be easier if Turkey is inside rather than outside the Western tent. The task of diplomats is to build bridges and to find ways of working together even in the most difficult of circumstances. There is probably no more urgent challenge for EU and US diplomacy today than to get Turkey back on board. There are of course no easy or automatic solutions but four policy routes are worth a try.

First is to show sensitivity to Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. Since Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, NATO’s focus has been very much on Eastern Europe. The great majority of the defence improvements and the major land, sea and air exercises have been in that area. Although of late NATO has turned its attention more to the Black Sea area with more exercises and improvements to its command structure and missile defence, Turkey has long felt that its own southern borders have been neglected. For this reason, Ankara has been holding up final approval of NATO’s military plans for Eastern Europe as it is seeking something equally substantive for its own territory. The alliance has agreed to packages of measures to reinforce Turkey with ships, fighter aircraft and Patriot air defence systems; but the implementation has lagged behind what was so rapidly achieved in Poland and the Baltic states. By keeping its reinforcement commitments to Turkey, NATO will gain more leverage over Ankara, especially when it comes to issues like not deploying the Russian built S400s, or allowing the US and other allies full use of certain airbases in Turkey. After all, the Turks like to present themselves as a reliable ally. The Turkish defence industry is strongly tied into the NATO defence and technology industrial base, as witnessed in its co-production of key components of the US Joint Strike Fighter. Despite the occasional threats, Ankara has been careful to preserve the extensive NATO infrastructure in Turkey, such as the land headquarters in Izmir, a missile defence radar, and US tactical nuclear weapons for the NATO deterrence mission.

A second way forward would be for the EU and the US to become more diplomatically active in places like Syria and Libya, and in the other hotspots around the Mediterranean. The lack of viable ceasefires, of negotiations between the warring parties and of international frameworks for a lasting peace has created a vacuum that Ankara is tempted or feels compelled to fill, if only to keep other interfering powers out. When the international community is firmly behind a diplomatic effort, as was the case with the Iran JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2015, the Turks have no option but to play along.

We need to stop stumbling into crises through a much better quality of horizon-scanning

Third are the negotiations between Brussels and Ankara on Turkey’s future membership of the EU. Recent reports by the European Commission on Turkey’s progress in meeting EU standards and criteria have not been particularly encouraging. Brussels and Ankara have entered a vicious spiral in which neither side believes that the other is seriously committed, and therefore sees little reason to engage. The recent spats between France and Turkey, as well as long-standing opposition to Turkey’s EU membership from some EU member states, will not re-energise the negotiations any time soon.

Yet the EU framework, with all its frustrations, is the best way to keep Turkey on a Western course and to stop further backslides from democracy. Certainly, that framework has to be applied skilfully and consistently by EU officials and diplomats, but it gives Brussels the right to speak up on domestic issues in Turkey, and it gives Turkey concrete incentives and rewards to modernise its economy and build stronger institutions based on the rule of law and European norms and standards. There really is no viable alternative here as ideas of the past, notably from Germany and France, to offer Ankara something less than full EU membership (such as associate memberships or privileged partnerships) have never gained traction.

Finally, there is a need to rebuild trust. As mentioned already, the political elites in Turkey have changed over the past two decades. New faces with different world views have emerged from the Anatolian heartland to replace the more secular, liberal and Kemalist middle classes in Istanbul and the coastal cities which today are grouped around the Republican People’s Party (CHP) opposition. Turkey has many friends in the transatlantic community who are not ready to give the Erdoğan government a free pass but who are convinced of Turkey’s strategic importance to the West.

There is a need for a quiet behind the scenes dialogue to understand each other better and to develop better situational awareness and anticipation of how Turkey and its allies are likely to act and react in the future. We need to stop stumbling into crises through a much better quality of horizon-scanning and political dialogue in the alliance. This was behind Macron’s call for NATO to act also as a political alliance and his proposal (now adopted) for an expert review of how the alliance’s political consultation machinery can be overhauled. In the meantime, through a track two dialogue, a high-level Friends of Turkey group composed of senior transatlantic and European politicians should reach out to Ankara to seek out common ground.

We cannot impose democracy on other countries, nor force them to adopt our system and standards if they do not want to. Diplomacy is only the art of the possible. Clearly countries like Russia or China are beyond the reach of any Western transformation agenda. Yet the test of multilateralism as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis will be to bring those countries back on board that may look towards the authoritarians on the inside, but which are still basically oriented towards the West on the outside. Turkey is not the only medium-sized power in this category. Yet it has been a member of NATO since 1952 and a candidate for EU membership since 1963. So, it is definitely the best place to start.

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