Few leaders are as controversial as the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, yet his country is of vital importance to NATO, as it constitutes the organization’s eastern-most front and bulwark against the upheavals in the Middle East. For Europe, Turkey matters too in light of the landmark deal that saw the country agree to halt the flow of refugees from Syria and Iraq. In March 2016, the Turks negotiated a lump sum payment of €6 billion in exchange for accommodating the immigrants. Turkey has kept its end of the bargain and the flow of refugees to Europe via the Balkans route has all but stopped. The country on the Bosporus is now housing around three million Syrian refugees without complaint.
Turkey’s membership of NATO dates back to 1952 and the country has been a reliable ally. However, its relationship with Europe and with NATO has become increasingly tenuous in recent years. There was the Iraq War, civil war in Syria, and the rise of Daesh in Iraq and Syria, all of which brought shifting alliances between the various players in the region. And this all happened against the geopolitical backdrop of rising Russian influence, which worries NATO greatly.
Western players need to be aware of Turkey’s strategic importance, while Ankara would do well to remember old alliances and the importance of European markets and tourists to its economy.
For the West and its allies, it was important to make inroads against Daesh and the Assad regime, and if that meant supporting Kurdish militias, so be it. Turkey watched the rapprochement of the US, Germany and other NATO members with the Syrian Kurdish YPG and other Kurdish groups with a sense of trepidation, because they saw them as allies of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whom they consider terrorists. To make matters even more complicated, there was the ill-fated attempted coup of July 2016 in Turkey. Erdogan blames the followers of cleric Fethullah Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania in the US. Erdogan demands Gulen’s extradition, which is not forthcoming. In the year and a half since the coup, the Turkish government has fired many of its employees and arrested dissidents, journalists and members of NGOs for allegedly being “Gulenists.” The EU and, to a lesser degree, the US watched these developments with increasing disquiet. European governments were also concerned when Turkish politicians tried to campaign on their soil — the last thing they wanted to see was AK Party politics and the Kurdish-Turkish conflict hitting their streets.
Hence the relationship between the historic and natural allies became increasingly fraught. This was neither good for Turkey nor for the NATO alliance. One could see a short-lived rapprochement in January, when Erdogan visited French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held simultaneous talks with his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel. For a moment, it sounded encouraging, but it was not meant to last. Things have since flared up again: Turkey is fighting the YPG militia in the Afrin region across the Syrian border, and has threatened to take the fight to Manbij. This puts the Turkish army potentially in direct conflict with US forces, who are after all their NATO allies. At the end of 2017, Erdogan poured oil in the fire when he announced he would purchase the S400 air defense system from Russia, reportedly breaking US sanctions.
When Tillerson visited Ankara last week, he held talks with his Turkish counterpart Cavusoglu. There was also a marathon three-hour session with Erdogan. Tillerson emerged from the talks stating that the crisis had been averted and Turkey and the US would convene working groups to avoid facing off in Afrin and Manbij. That all sounds encouraging. However, the question remains about how lasting that detente can be while the partners want different things. Turkey is worried about the potential impact of emboldened Kurdish nationalism on its geographic integrity, and the US and NATO are concerned with eliminating Daesh, boxing in Bashar Assad and curtailing the ever-growing Russian influence in the region. The Europeans’ main preoccupation is the flow of refugees.
As long as every player intends to achieve potentially contradictory goals, it will be hard to come to lasting agreements. The West needs to be aware of Turkey’s strategic importance, and Turkey would probably do well to remember old alliances and the importance of European markets and tourists to its economy. Let us hope that Tillerson’s announcement will hold for at least a few weeks.
Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources