By Deniz Yuksel
NATO heads of state met in Brussels last week. The alliance faces increasingly difficult challenges, stemming from both sides of the ocean, leading some to speculate whether the alliance will last. Many in Turkey seem to be reviewing Turkey’s relationship with the West, and even looking for alternatives.
Last month, Turkish President Erdogan travelled to India, Russia, Kuwait and China, perhaps to signal to his Western allies that Turkey has other choices. The Justice and Development Party, once again led by Mr. Erdogan, wants a foreign policy that is more independent, and is trying to take advantage of opportunities to engage with unconventional partners.
Turkey’s seeming shift away from the Transatlantic alliance is partly due to an ideological shift in Ankara, away from Atlanticism and towards Eurasianism. Eurasianism has been a major intellectual movement in Turkey since the inception of the republic, competing with Pan-Islamism, Pan-Turkism, and Westernism. It is a movement that aspires for a pro-Russian orientation in foreign policy, and has Euroskeptic, anti-American, neo-nationalist, and authoritarian tendencies.
The Transatlantic alliance should be more significant than ever for Turkey, facing immediate threats to its security from the conflict in Syria. Nevertheless, President Erdogan spent much of this year insulting Turkey’s allies, going as far as to accuse Chancellor Angela Merkel of Nazi practices. This came after authorities in Germany and other EU states refused to allow Turkish ministers to campaign for a “yes” vote ahead of the constitutional referendum in April.
Erdogan slammed EU leaders at a Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD) meeting on May 18, after TÜSİAD President Erol Bilecik called for a return to EU talks. Erdogan criticized the EU’s unfair treatment of Turkey during the accession process, accepting Bulgaria and Greece into the union but not Turkey. He pointed out alternatives to the relationship, listing China as a potential partner.
The diplomatic falling out is not limited to Europe. Prospects for U.S.-Turkey relations also seem dim. Mr. Erdogan returned from Washington last month with symbolic gains at best, failing to convince the White House to reverse its decision to directly arm the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). SDF is a multi-ethnic alliance, dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey sees as the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is a Kurdish militia that has been engaged in a bloody conflict with Turkey since 1984. It is listed as a terrorist organization by many countries and organizations, including the United States and the European Union.
Furthermore, there is limited evidence of progress on other issues that dominate the bilateral agenda: the extradition of Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen, who Turkey accuses of instigating a coup last summer, and the high-profile sanctions violation case against Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab.
Mr. Erdogan is known for using foreign policy as a tool to garner domestic support, especially ahead of important votes. He seems to be in an effort to repair relations with Europe since the referendum. Turkey and the European Union agreed on a 12-month calendar on the future of Turkey’s accession bid, following Erdogan’s meeting with European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker ahead of the NATO meeting. Such developments are cause for hope. Erdogan recognizes the economic impact of strained relations with the Europe. However, the 2019 presidential election is approaching, and anti-Western sentiment can be useful in appealing to nationalist voters, so we may see more damaging rhetoric in the future.
Amid rising tensions, Eurasianists in Ankara continue to push for an alliance with Russia as an alternative. We have seen increased engagement with Russia since the failed coup last summer, despite the two countries’ opposing interests in Syria. Putin is trying to capitalize on worsening Turkish-American relations, reviving the West’s concern over “losing Turkey.” Despite conflicting ambitions, Erdogan and Putin seem to be able to find some common ground in their authoritarian and populist styles, and support for state sovereignty and foreign policy independence.
While Erdogan’s narrow referendum victory was met with a lukewarm response from the West, Putin was quick to call Erdogan, while Trump was the only Western leader to congratulate him. A Kremlin spokesperson noted that the constitutional changes proposed were Turkey’s “internal affair.” Putin was also the first leader to call Erdogan on the night of the July 15 coup attempt, condemning the plotters and expressing support for the Turkish government.
Meanwhile, many believe that the West’s condemnation was weak, and too late, fuelling theories about The United States’ and NATO’s involvement in the unsuccessful coup attempt. Last summer, Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag implied that Washington and NATO knew what was coming and did nothing, after the United States refused to immediately extradite Fetullah Gulen. These convictions are being echoed by the pro-government media in Turkey, many outlets already used to framing events as a part of the “America’s grand plan.”
It was reported earlier last month that a deal has been reached “in principle” for Turkey to buy the S-400 long-range air-defense system from Russia. Turkey’s defense Minister Fikri Isik said: “It is clear that Turkey needs a missile defense system but NATO member countries have not presented an offer which is financially effective” and so Turkey decided to turn to the Russians instead. This is important, because the completion of this purchase signals a permanent shift away from the NATO alliance, and confirms the impression that Turkey prefers being a “semi-detached member of NATO.”
According to Nicholas Danforth of the Bipartisan Policy Center, the deal is not going to work for Turkey or Russia. It is not possible to integrate this system with existing NATO assets in Turkey. This makes the S-400 a “sub-optimal system.” At a Middle East Institute panel last month, Danforth said that the use of Russian systems for NATO exercises presents a problem for Russia. “There is political pressure to keep this going, but it will not work out because of technical reasons” he concluded.
Russia and Turkey’s conflicting interests in Syria are bound to be a significant obstacle to the ongoing rapprochement. Turkey has long insisted on the ousting of Russian-backed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Earlier this year, Turkish officials had signaled a move away from this approach, when Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said: “The facts on the ground have changed dramatically, so Turkey can no longer insist on a settlement without Assad, it’s not realistic.” However, Ankara seems to have decided against this shift in policy, as Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s immediate ouster in April, after a U.S. missile strike on one of his air bases.
Is Turkey’s alliance with the West in jeopardy? Probably not. Despite everything, Turkey’s security interests still align with those of the West, and Turks historically distrust Russia. The Ottoman Empire fought 12 wars with the Russians—almost all Russian victories that persist in Turkish memory. Moreover, it was Stalin’s claims over Turkish territory that pushed Turkey to the NATO alliance in the first place. Turkey’s distrust of Russia has not changed, and nor has its dependence on the West when tensions rise with Russia. After Turkey downed a Russian jet in 2015, President Erdogan quickly called for an emergency NATO meeting,
“Turkey’s Western alliance is stronger and more permanent than people think.” said Henri Barkey of the Wilson Center at a Kurdish Policy Research Center panel last week. He said that Russia has nothing to offer to Turkey but “gas and inferior arms.”
The EU is by far Turkey’s number one import and export partner and represents 64% of the foreign investment in Turkey. Turkey needs the economic benefits of its relationship with the EU more than ever. Ayse Sozen Usluer, head of foreign relations at the Turkish presidency said: “Neither Turkey’s alliance with the West nor its relationship with NATO is up for debate, nor is Turkey’s EU membership bid . . . I don’t see any possibility of a new axis of alliance.” She added, however: “But this doesn’t mean that Turkey will not diversify it’s foreign policy choices.”
This seems to be the strategy followed by the Turkish government. According to Alan Makovsky of the Center for American Progress, who spoke at a Middle East Institute panel last month, Turkey conducts foreign policy with greater independence today, but without a dramatic and costly break from the alliance.
Erdogan is known for his pragmatism. Anti-Western rhetoric that worries Turkey’s allies seem to not only be appeals to domestic sentiments, but also a greater move towards foreign policy independence within NATO. But without doubt, these statements are feeding anti-Western sentiment. Despite increasingly common diplomatic spats, Turkey and the West maintain common security interests, which are likely to hold up the relationship in the future. Time will tell whether sustained anti-Westernism in Turkish society and politics will cause permanent damage to the relationship.