Dimitar Bechev
Jun 22 2019

Tensions with the West do Turkey no good

Turkey’s principal foreign policy asset used to be its close ties with the West.  Membership in NATO along with its advanced level of integration with the European Union set apart Turkey from the bulk of its neighbours. The Western connection facilitated Turkish outreach to the Middle East, the post-Soviet space and the Balkans. But that is history now. In the coming weeks, we might bear witness to Turkey becoming target of sanctions from both the United States and the EU. 

The U.S.-Turkish rift has been debated ad nauseam for years in think tank papers, op-eds, and on social media. But matters are coming to a head now. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is adamant that Russian S-400 missiles will be delivered next month. In response, the United States is to trigger the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Senior Pentagon officials have indicated that the list of Turkish firms to be targeted goes beyond those cooperating with Lockheed Martin in the F-35 fighter jet consortium. The impact will likely be felt across Turkey’s defence industry. 

Short of a last-minute miracle compromise, such a move would seriously downgrade relations between NATO allies. In effect, Turkey would be put in the same basket as Russia, Iran and North Korea. While its NATO membership will not be terminated, as some hawks in Washington as well as Turkish ultranationalists wish, Turkey would remain an ally in name only. 

To see how that the drift will play out, it is important to pay attention to the small print: how Turkey positions itself in various NATO initiatives. The exclusion of Turkish pilots from the F-35 training programme (a bilateral issue between Turkey and the United States, rather than a NATO scheme) gives us some flavour of what is to come. One thing to watch, no doubt, is the Turkish contribution to NATO’s “tailored forward presence” in the Black Sea aimed at containing Russia. Turkey is participating in this year’s Saber Guardian, a biannual military exercise hosted by Romania and Bulgaria. But it has never been at the forefront of such activities, fearful of antagonising Russia. 

On the positive side, U.S. Air Forces Europe Commander General Tod D. Wolters has stated that there are no plans to relocate the powerful early-warning radar stationed at the Kurecik base near Malatya in eastern Turkey. U.S. F-35s are taking part in an exercise in Turkey this week. Last but not least, European allies such as Spain and Italy, which have surface-to-air missile batteries deployed on Turkish soil, have renewed offers to continue cooperation with Turkey. 

But in parallel, Turkey is facing off with the EU. Greece and Cyprus have raised alarms over Turkish offshore drilling for oil and gas in the divided island’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Greeks are also concerned about possible drilling in the waters around the Dodecanese island of Kastellorizo which is only some 2 km from the Turkish coast. 

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who is heading for early elections on July 7 is pushing together with Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades for a robust response, as the EU leaders gather for a two-day summit this week. Whether that means the insertion of strong language in the European Council’s communiqué or concrete, legally binding measures to sanction Turkey remains to be seen. But moving maritime disputes up the long list of contentious issues polarising EU-Turkish relations does not bode well. 

The rising tensions between Athens and Ankara also means that the positive momentum generated by Tsipras’ visit to Turkey in February has been squandered. Tsipras’ Syriza party, for all its flaws, was committed to resolving problems with Greece’s neighbours, but is now on its way out. The centre-right New Democracy is taking a hawkish stance. The new government headed by New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis is likely to be tough on Turkey. Mitsotakis will embrace and try to build upon the remarkable improvement in relations with the United States forged by Tsipras. Greece’s alliance with Israel also bolsters its position in the eastern Mediterranean. “Turkey is weak and isolated,” Tsipras opined in a recent TV interview. No doubt Mitsotakis shares this analysis, too. With the EU and the United States on their side, Greek policymakers are probably betting on Erdoğan giving in and offering concessions rather than the other way around.  

The doomsday scenario – Turkey out of NATO and a complete breakdown in ties with the EU – might not come to pass. Both Erdoğan and Turkey’s Western partners have powerful interests in keep tensions under control, but it is obvious that Turkish foreign policy is in a bind. Issues with both Europe and the United States limit Turkey’s room for manoeuvre and give advantage to its competitors. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.