by Eldar Mamedov
When the European Parliament delegation visited Turkey last week—chaired by the influential chairman of the EP Foreign Affairs Committee Elmar Brok, a German Christian-Democrat—both the president of the Republic Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu received the group. Add to this the increasing traffic of top European officials visiting Turkey in the last weeks, such as the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn, and EU Energy Commissioner Maroš Šev?ovi?, and one is left with a distinct impression of a reset in the EU-Turkey relations.
True, the accession process of Turkey in the EU remains stalled. But the emerging consensus both in Brussels and Ankara is that both sides have a lot to gain from enhanced cooperation in foreign and security policy, particularly in the Middle East around the civil war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), the disintegration of Iraq, and Iran´s regional ambitions.
From the perspective of the EU, Turkey as a NATO member and a EU candidate country is a natural regional ally in tackling these challenges. For Turkey, one of the chief drivers of its foreign policy under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been to maximize its influence in the world. The prospect of Turkey playing a leading diplomatic and trade role in the new, post-Arab-Spring Middle East now lies in shatters. So, moving closer to the EU makes perfect sense to Turkish policymakers.
However, Turkey´s actual policies in the Middle East make cooperation with the EU more difficult and seriously limit Turkey´s ability to influence EU policies.
The Challenge of Syria
The EU, like the US, has clearly identified fighting IS as its main priority. Turkish officials, although agreeing that ISIS is a threat, made it clear that their cooperation is contingent on a broader strategy that includes removing President Bashar Assad from power in Damascus. Turkey blames the flourishing of ISIS on the West´s supposed inaction in “taking out” Assad. Ankara was furious at the announcement by Secretary of State John Kerry that the US might eventually need to negotiate with Assad the end of the Syrian civil war. A top AKP MP, echoing the line of the Turkish government, stated in a meeting with Euro MPs that “you cannot negotiate with a Hitler.”
To be sure, the EU has also repeated that Assad “cannot be a partner in this fight,” a sentiment reflected in the Council conclusions on the strategy against ISIS adopted on March 16. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls immediately reacted to Kerry´s statement by saying that “there can be no political solution in Syria as long as Assad remains in power.”
But for these words to be backed up by action there must be massive political will on the side of the EU and US. Such will is manifestly lacking. The Obama administration in particular sees Assad as firmly, albeit not decisively, in power, and, in any case, a lesser evil than IS. In this context, Turkey´s position is self-defeating. By insisting on unrealistic conditions, such as the removal of Assad prior to political negotiations, Ankara is helping to prolong the bloodshed and handicap the fight against IS.
Also unrealistic is Turkey’s decision to withhold full cooperation against IS. Refusing to let the allies use the Incirlik airbase does not increase Turkish leverage vis-a-vis the US and EU. Rather, it leads to Turkey´s isolation, while other actors fill the void. The US-led allied coalition de-facto relies on Iran-backed Shiite militias and Kurdish peshmergas as the ground forces against IS in Iraq. With the 5+1 powers engaged in the final stages of nuclear negotiations with Iran, the US and EU are eyeing a broader rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, which, sooner or later, would include engagement on Syria, where Iran has been Assad’s chief backer.
Given the intensely personal nature of the Syrian issue for the Turkish leadership, especially President Erdogan, Turkey will not likely make a U-turn on Assad. But the resistance to Assad is acquiring increasingly sectarian overtones as an opposition to Iran and its Shiite allies. Erdogan might find the role of champion of the downtrodden Sunni masses attractive for domestic political reasons. He faces a crucial general election on June 7 and needs to mobilize all his supporters to achieve a sufficient parliamentary majority to pass a new constitution that would establish a presidential republic, with him as an executive rather than in a largely ceremonial post.
Meanwhile, pro-AKP newspapers fuel sectarianism daily by denouncing the evils of “Shiite expansionism” and repeating the tiresome neoconservative-Salafi-Likudnik trope of a “neo-Persian empire controlling Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Sana´a” and even claiming that “Iran is now under an American protectorate.” Such discourse, which sounds more Saudi than Turkish, pushes Turkey closer to Saudi Arabia and the Sunni alliance it wants to construct against Iran. A budding Turkish-Saudi rapprochement, following the visit of Erdogan to Riyadh this month, fits into the logic of containing Iran.
But Turkey has to be careful not to overplay its hand. The adoption of an overtly sectarian foreign policy outlook will deepen sectarian polarization at home, radicalizing Turkish Sunnis and pitting them against Alevis and Shiites. It is likely to provoke a backlash from the Kurds and prompt Tehran to revert to its old policies of supporting the PKK against Ankara when bilateral relations are frayed. This in turn would damage, perhaps irreparably, the peace process between Ankara and the PKK, arguably the AKP´s government most important claim to historical legacy.
It is not inevitable that Turkey will embark on this self- destructive path. Although the AKP government seems to be reviving ideological Islamism, characteristic of Necmettin Erbakan’s governance in the 1990s, it also has a strong pragmatic streak. Turkey´s economic interests are best served by a close relationship with both the EU and Iran. That’s why Turkish officials have shown a keen interest in modernizing the EU-Turkey Customs Union. And that’s why Turkey has always opposed crippling sanctions against Iran (in 2010, Turkey actually tried to mediate between the world powers and Iran when, together with Brazil, it got Iran to agree to a confidence-building deal on its nuclear program). Unlike the Saudis, Turkish officials are still adamant that they wish the nuclear negotiations between 5+1 and Iran to be a success.
If the Erdogan government could extend such pragmatism to the Syrian dossier and discard its maximalist positions, foreign policy cooperation between the EU and Turkey could ultimately benefit both sides and provide a measure of much-needed stability to the Middle East.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.
Photo: Elmar Brok, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament