Turkey's Strategic Choices
Over the last few weeks, a number of prominent world leaders have called on Turkey.
Late in November, for example, Vice President Joe Biden was in Turkey to discuss cooperating against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. His visit was followed by that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This month it was Frederica Mogherini’s turn, the European Union’s new foreign policy chief. Her visit coincided with ones by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskite, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who also holds the presidency of the European Council.
Clearly, Turkey is in high demand, but which way will Turkey actually go: East or West. East represents a world with an emphasis on sovereign democracy, state capitalism, authoritarianism, populism and the rise of religiously driven nationalism, in contrast to a West traditionally associated with liberal democracy and markets predicated on the rule of law, transparency, and accountability. Here Putin’s Russia offers a good approximation of the East compared to the transatlantic community which represents the West. It will be important to sustain the pace of these visits from members of the transatlantic community and match them with deeds to revitalize Turkey’s relations with the West, especially economic ties.
It is no surprise that Turkey is in high demand. It sits in the midst of a neighborhood in a chronic state of upheaval. Across the Black Sea, Putin’s Russia has annexed Crimea and continues to destabilize eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, Russia continues to perpetuate frozen conflicts of the post-Soviet space from Transnistria in Moldova to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.
However, no challenge has been greater for Turkey than the instability in Iraq and Syria. Turkey is hosting a refugee population fast approaching two million and is far from seeing the moderate opposition gain the upper hand and replace Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Instead, the emergence of IS has further exacerbated the situation and led to Turkey being portrayed in Western media as both a key player in efforts to “degrade and ultimately defeat” IS as well as a spoiler of these efforts. The latter portrayal is often based in part on Turkey’s reluctance to support the Kurdish resistance to IS’s onslaught on the Kurdish town of Kobani located on the Syrian-Turkish border. Some have gone so far as to accuse Turkey of directly assisting IS.
The need to improve relations with Turkey and better coordinate the fight against IS brought Biden to Turkey. The visit came on the heels of deep policy differences between the U.S. and Turkey over how to deal with IS. The U.S. emphasized the immediate threat from IS and the need for Turkey to be more forthcoming in its support to defeat IS militarily. For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted on the need to create no-fly zones along the Turkish border to increase pressure on al-Assad and bring about regime change.
These differences brought bilateral relations to a new low when Biden claimed publicly that Erdogan had privately recognized Turkey’s failed policies in Syria. This remark precipitated denials and calls for an apology from the Turkish side. Nevertheless, the threat from IS and the growing instability in the Middle East elicited a more pragmatic approach from both sides, as was captured by Biden when he stated, “We need Turkey. And I think Turkey believes that they need us, as well.” Time will tell whether his remarks will translate into action on the ground and if these two allies will be able to transcend their differences and achieve greater strategic cooperation.
Russian President Putin’s visit to Turkey occurred within a week of Biden’s departure, against the backdrop of Turkey minimizing its criticisms of Putin on Crimea and Ukraine. Such a response is very puzzling, particularly because “territorial integrity” has long been a sacrosanct principle of Turkish political culture. Turkish citizens have long been warned about conspiracies threatening Turkey’s territorial integrity and unity. Turkey’s silence is all the more puzzling considering that there is a large minority of Tatars in Crimea with close ethnic, historical and religious ties to Turkey. Much more conspicuously, in Syria, Russia and Turkey hold diametrically opposed policies: Putin has been unrelenting in his support for al-Assad, while Erdogan has been a virulent opponent and considers any attempts to compromise with him as amounting to treachery.
Turkey’s silence on Crimea is likely due in no small part to its massive dependence on Russian energy, especially natural gas. Prospects of Russian gas, coupled with Russia’s capacity to interrupt gas and petroleum flows through the South Caucasus, clearly weighs heavily on Turkey’s stance on Russia. Furthermore, Turkey runs a massive trade deficit with Russia and can only balance it partly with income from Russian tourism in Turkey and with Turkish companies doing business in Russia. Thus, maintaining good relations with Russia has become an economic sine quo non for Turkey.