Transcontinental Turkey: Where is it heading?

Source: Wikimedia CommonsSource: Wikimedia Commons

Relations between Turkey and the West are undeniably fraught. The post-war paradigm of relations has shifted. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule has brought him into conflict with Western leaders, the debacle of Pastor Brunson indicating a new crisis point with the US, and the jailing of journalists bringing complaints from Germany. These shifting relations seem at least one part of the large-scale shake-up of complacency around the post-war world order.

Increasing Autocracy in Turkey

Turkey has long participated in much of the Western world order as it stands today. Turkey is a charter member of the UN, and an early member of the IMF, the World Bank, and NATO; it was also a founding member of the OECD and the G-20, and has long made clear its ambitions to be properly part of Europe, beginning accession negotiations with the European Union in 2005. However, Erdogan has broken with this tradition. The accession negotiations with the European Union have essentially ground to a halt since 2017 because of ‘Turkey’s path toward autocratic rule’.

Erdogan founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001, serving as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014. In 2014, he became President of Turkey. In August 2016, elements within the military staged a coup against Erdogan’s government, for which Erdogan held the Gulenist faction responsible. Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist cleric with a very large following and a once-ally of Erdogan, had fallen out of favour following the 2013 corruption allegations that implicated parts of the AKP, and now resides in Pennsylvania. Turkey demands his extradition, however the US government refuses. Since the failed coup, tens of thousands have been purged in an extensive reorganisation, all under the guise of pushing out the Gulenists – a means of consolidating Erdogan’s control and stoking anti-US sentiment.

Erdogan has since cemented his control. On 16 April 2017, a constitutional referendum was held to decide whether to approve 18 proposed amendments to the Turkish constitution. The office of Prime Minister would be abolished, and the parliamentary system of government replaced with an executive presidency and presidential system.  The President has the power to appoint ministers who are unaccountable to parliament, is above legislative scrutiny, and can appoint 18/28 of the highest ranking members of the judiciary. Notably, the referendum was held under a state of emergency following the failed coup of July 2016, and opposition was given little air time. The proposed amendments were approved.

Souring Relations with the West

Relations with the West have soured unmistakably. Turkish accession to the EU is no longer really in question. Neither Turkey nor the EU desire it, and EU countries are alarmed by the increasing authoritarianism of the government in Ankara, as it is clear that the end of the state of emergency does not indicate a return to democratic rule. Erdogan is now angry that EU countries will not extradite Turkish civilians and soldiers whom he holds implicated in the 2016 coup, and Germany demands the release of its imprisoned nationals – the German Foreign Ministry claims five are being held for reasons of a political nature. In 2017, Erdogan took an openly hostile tone in accusing Germany of ‘Nazi practices’  when he was prevented from holding campaign rallies in several cities.

US-Turkish relations reached crisis point over the question of Pastor Brunson, a US minister arrested in October 2016, as part of the purges following the failed July 2016 coup d’état. On 26 July 2018, US vice president Mike Pence called for Turkey to release Brunson, or face significant sanctions. Turkey giving no ground, on 1 August, 2018, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two top Turkish government officials who were involved in the detention of Brunson, Turkish justice minister Abdulhamit Gül and interior minister Süleyman Soylu.  The US-imposed sanctions on Turkish aluminium and steel have had rampant effects on the Turkish lira, which fell to more than 7 to the dollar, a record low, and have led Erdogan to characterise Trump’s actions as ‘pressure and blackmail’. Trump’s actions also enable Erdogan to stoke anti-US sentiment and displace some blame for the terrible state of the Turkish economy.

Though Brunson has now been released and flown out of Turkey, after a court released him from two years of detention, the tensions are by no means resolved.  Poor relations between Turkey and the US have been fostered by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and frustration over US inaction over Assad in Syria. The US providing the YPG with arms in its fight against ISIS has also greatly exacerbated tensions, since the YPG is a sister organisation of the PKK, a militant political organisation with separatist aims which has engaged in armed conflict with the Turkish state since 1984 and is recognised as a terrorist group by the EU, the US, and Turkey. The Brunson case allowed Trump to tap into evangelical support, but a Turkish-US national and a former NASA scientist are still in jail on terrorism charges, and three local employees of the US consulate have also been detained. Attention could very well turn this way.

Saudi Arabia may also prove to be a new point of contention between the US and Turkey, in light of the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Though Saudi Arabia’s state television has now acknowledged Khashoggi’s death, implausibly reporting that he was killed in a fight in the consulate, there was outright denial of any knowledge or involvement for the first two weeks of his disappearance. Angered by Khashoggi’s disappearance in the consulate and Saudi denial, Erdogan demanded the Saudis release footage of Khashoggi leaving the consulate, and Turkish media has been briefing its own and US media with details of his disappearance.

The US response has been, in contrast, confused and halting. Trump has manifested an unwillingness to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the disappearance, initially suggesting that the affair may have been the work of ‘rogue killers’.  Though the US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin joined the UK and other European partners, including Germany, in pulling out of the economic forum in Saudi Arabi known as Davos in the desert, and secretary of state Mike Pompeo flew to Turkey to discuss Khashoggi’s disappearance with Erdogan on Wednesday 17th October, Trump has consistently emphasised the value of US relations with Saudi Arabia over all else. Pompeo too, following his visits to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, has emphasised the need to wait for all the facts, stating that ‘I think it’s important for us all to remember too, we have a long, since 1932, a long strategic relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia’. At the root of this unwillingness lies a desire to avoid throwing a mutually beneficial relationship into political jeopardy – the US and Saudi Arabia have a considerable trade in goods and services, including weaponry. The US is also more reliant on the Saudis for oil than previously, following the collapse in US-Iranian relations precipitated by Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. An insipid US response to the Khashoggi affair may very well anger Turkey.

Eurasian Drift?

As Turkey’s relations with the West sour, relations with Russia and Iran appear to be improving. On 4 April 2018, a summit meeting was held in Ankara between Erdogan, Putin, and Rouhani. The leaders pledged to support the ‘territorial integrity’ of Syria and seek a diplomatic end to the war, followed by reconstruction in the wake of the devastation elicited by the seven-year conflict.

Though relations between Turkey and Iran have largely been peaceable, Turkey’s collaboration with Russia is a relatively recent affair. It was as recently as November 2015 that antagonism arose between the two countries when Turkey shot down a Russian military jet for alleged airspace violations, which led Moscow to impose economic sanctions on Ankara. However, both Erdogan and Putin wish to challenge the dominance of the US in the Middle East, and share an interest in shaping any post-war settlement in Syria. Following the coup attempt in 2016, Putin commiserated with Erdogan and indicated his support. Western countries have been increasingly uneasy over Ankara’s growing defence cooperation with Moscow, which includes a $2bn deal to buy S-400 surface-to-air missile systems.

What now?

Though the big personalities of Trump and Erdogan have no doubt exacerbated tensions between the two countries, the decline in relations comes as no surprise. Clashing geopolitical interests, as made evident by responses to the wars in Iraq and Syria, and the issue of the Khashoggi killing, lie at the heart of this disintegration. Yet Turkey’s relationship with the EU is another matter. Turkey is, by comparison, heavily reliant upon the EU economically. The EU-Turkey Customs Union of 1995 underpins Turkey’s foreign trade policy. Erdogan cannot afford a break with the EU, especially now that the Turkish economy is in such a dire state. Erdogan already shows signs of wishing to ease relations, particularly with Germany. Turkey and Germany share key regional interests – there are almost 7,000 German businesses in Turkey – which has helped forestall a break in relations between the countries. The EU-Turkey migrant deal also leaves European countries unwilling to worsen relations with Turkey, in the face of a still challenging migrant crisis.

On Thursday 27 September, Erdogan arrived in Germany on a state visit. Tensions were by no means dissipated, and Angela Merkel faced criticism for having invited Erdogan. However, the visit signals a recognition on both sides that relations between Turkey and Europe cannot be left to disintegrate. Cooperation with Iran and Russia should not be let to compensate for the shared geopolitical and economic interests of Turkey and Europe. Erdogan took a conciliatory tone in reviewing the German state visit, stating that ‘at a critical period, we made an extremely productive, extremely successful visit’. Though the visit was in fact rather less successful, and more tense, than this would suggest, it does demonstrate that both Erdogan and Merkel are intensely keen to preserve good relations. While the release of Brunson also indicates a desire to ease tension, the underlying instabilities in US-Turkish relations remain, and may be exacerbated by US inaction over Khashoggi. The West is no monolithic entity; unlike Turkey’s relationship with the USA, a working relationship with Europe, however fraught with problems it might currently seem, remains crucial.