Erdogan’s Turkey: Reliable Partner Or Western Foe?
Turkish president unleashes unprecedented verbal attack on Germany, as West ponders future ties with NATO member
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan forcefully inserted himself into Germany’s upcoming elections by urging Turkish foreign-nationals to boycott major parties, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. “I am calling on all my countrymen in Germany,” he affirmed, “the Christian Democrats, SDP [Social Democrats], the Green Party are all enemies of Turkey, [therefore] support [other] political parties.” Germany has a large Turkish diaspora estimated at some three million people, many of whom will vote on September 24 when Merkel bids for a fourth term.
Erdogan’s comments are the latest in an escalating war-of-words between Ankara and Berlin, whose ties deteriorated sharply in the wake of last year’s failed coup in Turkey, to which authorities responded with a major crackdown on civil society. Some 150,000 public workers, journalists and activists have been dismissed, suspended or imprisoned—many over dubious charges—by their government, which blames the unrest on a clandestine network led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally-turned-foe.
Earlier this month, the Turkish leader accused Germany of “abetting terrorists” for failing to extradite so-called “Gulenists” and claimed the country’s Nazi past was not behind it; this, after he asserted that Berlin was “committing suicide” by not allowing him to speak to Turks at a July rally on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg (it was deemed a security threat by German authorities due to potential counter-protests by Kurdish nationals). In April, Erdogan slammed Germany as “fascist and cruel” after demonstrations by his supporters were banned ahead of a referendum that gave him sweeping new powers.
For her part, Merkel has questioned Turkey’s commitment to democracy and suggested there would be no further progress towards its ascension to the European Union. Over the weekend, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel censured Erdogan’s “unprecedented act of interference in the sovereignty of our country…[which shows] that he wants to incite people in Germany against each other.”
According to Dr. Deniz Cifci, a political advisor at the Center for Turkey Studies in London, Erdogan’s attacks on Germany are largely precipitated by internal politics. “The president is trying to strengthen his position,” he asserted to The Media Line, “by lashing out he is sending a message to the public that Erdogan is the only power in Turkey, and that this power can take on Europe.” Moreover, Cifci reinforced the notion that Erdogan remains furious at Germany for providing asylum to members of the Turkish army following the 2016 coup attempt—and by accusing Berlin of complicity in the affair he is trying to pressure Merkel to take a hard line against Gulen’s German-based network.
“But Germany has refused to bend,” he stressed.
As regards Erdogan’s intrusion into the German political arena, Cifci believes that it will have little tangible effect, as “most ethnic Turks there support either Kurdish-associated or left-oriented parties, those defined by Erdogan as enemies. They do not share the same views as the Turkish president and even if they did they will vote rationally and not for racist or nationalist parties because it is not in their interest.” Erdogan’s actions may also be motivated, Cifci elaborated, by a desire to confront the “one million Turks in Germany of Kurdish origin, most of whom left Turkey for political reasons. The majority of these Kurds oppose Erdogan and have some form of ties with the PKK.”
The rift between Turkey and its largest trading partner, the most influential country in Europe, has deepened a growing chasm with the west, in general, a dispute complicated by the fact that Ankara is a member of NATO.
Nevertheless, according to Prof. Dror Zeevi, an expert on Turkey at Israel’s Ben Gurion University and a Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, no formal decision has yet been made by either side to abandon the prospect of Ankara joining the EU. “While relations have soured considerably,” he expressed to The Media Line, “the Europeans have not closed the door to the bloc. They have made clear that should Turkey make changes this could lead to renewed talks. [For its part], Erdogan has been considering ditching the process for several years, but there are advantages to [maintaining good ties] with Europe—for example, the customs union—so he will tread very carefully.”
Zeevi highlighted that the “Turkish government, while showing little enthusiasm for Europe, is in a bind because of its role in NATO. Whereas Ankara would like to be closer to Russia and Iran, it is limited because [the western military alliance] is still important in terms of training and equipment as NATO has long been a part of Turkey’s geo-strategy.” Despite this, he concluded, under Erdogan’s leadership “there has been a slow shift towards the far east.”
In this respect, last week Erdogan hosted Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, the first public visit to Turkey by an Iranian army chief since Tehran’s 1979 revolution. The two reportedly agreed to boost military cooperation, specifically in Syria, where Ankara is engaged in a concerted effort to prevent the Kurdish forces at the forefront of the battle against the Islamic State in Raqqa from carving out an autonomous territory along the Turkish border.
In fact, Turkey’s ties with Washington are frayed over the latter’s support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, comprised primarily of Kurdish YPG militias that Erdogan views as part and parcel of the banned PKK that has been waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey for more than 30 years. In a bid to ease tensions, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is slated to travel to Ankara to meet with Erdogan later this month.
“Secretary Mattis will emphasize the steadfast commitment of the United States to Turkey as a NATO ally and strategic partner, seek to collaborate on efforts to advance regional stability, and look for ways to help Turkey address its legitimate security concerns,” a Pentagon statement read ahead of the trip.
Papered over, however, are other contentious issues that will be topping the agenda, including the detainment in Turkey of multiple American and German citizens on what many view as trumped-up charges stemming from the failed coup. Erdogan has been accused by western officials of “hostage diplomacy” for imprisoning foreigners to use as bargaining chips in negotiations to have Gulen and his foreign supporters extradited to Turkey. Relations with Washington will likely be strained further in October, when the trial of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish businessman accused of circumventing sanctions on behalf of Iran, is slated to begin. Analysts believe that Zarrab may have been connected to high-ranking Turkish officials who knew of, or were involved in, the alleged scheme, possibly even Erdogan or members of his inner circle.
Speaking to The Media Line, Benjamin Weinthal, a Fellow at the U.S.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, contended that Mattis’ upcoming trip should be used to publicly outline the American position vis-à-vis Turkey. “It can be useful if [the defense chief] can influence a change towards Erdogan’s behavior as regards Iran and the Kurds fighting the Islamic State—but this is a tall order.
“In many ways, Turkey has become a dangerous NATO partner, as it has welcomed the possibility of conducting joint military operations with the Islamic Republic. Mattis’ priority should be to stop this, as it defies logic to have a NATO member cooperating with a regime that has killed Americans in Iraq [and Afghanistan] and which the U.S. State Department considers the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism.”
In the broader picture, he expounded, “Turkey has crossed a line with Tehran, specifically, as well as with its relations with Qatar and Hamas. Coupled with Erdogan’s attacks on the Kurds and his rapprochement with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, on the macro level Ankara is on the side of the jackals and this should trigger a rethinking of relations with Turkey.”
The U.S. administration is indeed walking a tightrope, performing a delicate balancing act between holding Erdogan to account for perceived human rights violations and preventing him from falling out of its orbit.
Enter Moscow, whose relations with Turkey have been restored after being challenged by Ankara’s downing of a Russian warplane in Syria in November 2015. Since then, Erdogan has ingratiated himself to Putin, who holds the keys to Damascus. While ostensibly on opposite sides of the war, Erdogan’s primary aim has shifted away from deposing the Assad regime, backed by both Tehran and Moscow, to preventing the formation of a Kurdish state—and Putin is perhaps the critical element to actualizing this goal.
On the flip side, Moscow has a keen interest in courting Ankara as part of a strategy to weaken the west. To this end, Russia reached an agreement to sell Turkey the advanced S-400 missile defense system, a move that irked the U.S. defense establishment. Currently, the two countries are working to enhance economic ties at the Izmir International Fair, where Russia confirmed that it would lift all remaining restrictions on Turkish exports imposed after the downing of its fighter jet, as well as reinstitute visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.
According to Weinthal, the west has few options available to it in order to alter Erdogan’s calculus, citing as one remote possibility the implementation of robust sanctions against Turkey’s economy. “Russia did this,” he told The Media Line, “and it worked—Erdogan caved in. But it is highly unlikely that the west would flex its muscles to rein in Turkey’s jingoism in the region. The reality, however, is that otherwise countries will continue to stumble through this theater of the absurd.”
On Saturday came a new act, the arrest of German-Turkish author Dogan Akhanli in Spain after Ankara issued an Interpol warrant for the Erdogan critic. Akhanli has since been released—but only due to major objections by Berlin, which demanded that the writer under no circumstances be returned to Turkey.
That Erdogan feels emboldened enough to target such opponents abroad in such a manner bodes poorly, and suggests that Turkey’s standoff with the west risks metastasizing to heart of Europe.