Opinion

There's No Point in Europe Trying Again With Turkey. It Just Can't Compete With Putin

Turkey and the West no longer share any strategic interests. In fact, Ankara regards the West as a key security threat

A banner showing Turkey's President Erdogan and Russian President Putin during a protest against the Turkish offensive targeting Kurds in Afrin, Syria outside the U.S. embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus. March 12, 2018
Petros Karadjias/AP

Varna, Bulgaria, will be the 26 March setting of yet another meeting between European and Turkish officials who will once again try to bridge some of the rifts between Turkey and the West. 

Turkey and Europe are unlikely to kiss and make up anytime soon. There are just too many outstanding issues between them. One problem, which really stands out, is the sides’ strategic orientations.

In strategic terms, Turkey and Europe have completely different priorities. No wonder they continually fall out. 

If one were to think of the two or three biggest security threats facing Europe or the West, Russia - with its aggressiveness in both a traditional military perspective and in the realm of cyberspace - would probably be near to the top of the list. So would ISIS, together with lawlessness and civil war in the Middle East and the related problems of radicalization and refugees. Iran might also spring to mind. 

But Ankara’s main security concerns are completely different. It is not ISIS, Russia or Iran that keep Turkish government politicians awake at night but rather the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with its secessionist aspirations and violent activities in the southeast of the country.

Ankara’s other main threat is the Gulen movement, followers of the self-exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania. He is blamed for heading a network which infiltrated Turkish state institutions for nefarious purposes including the attempted coup in July 2016. 

What is noticeable about both the PKK and the Gulen movement is that they are, for the most part, an internal Turkish security concern, and barely a threat to Europe or America.

Syrian children carrying food walk in the northwestern city of Afrin, Syria, during a Turkish government-organised media tour into northern Syria. March 24, 2018
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

The only shared enemy of both the West and Turkey is ISIS, but Turkey for the most part turned a blind eye to Islamic militancy in Syria and allowed Turkey to be used as a gateway for the movement of armsjihadists and oil to and from all kinds of Salafist groups.

Instead Ankara prioritized defeating the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) which was the West’s best partner in the fight against ISIS. 

Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Europe  and America are seen as enemies, countries who collaborate with terrorists and supported the July 2016 coup attempt. The West is Turkey’s main security threat after the PKK and the Gulen movement.   

This is why since 2016, Ankara has cozied up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, despite his intervention in Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea. President Erdogan and Turkish ministers have met their Russian counterparts on many occasions despite Russia’s perpetual violations of the exclusive economic zones and airspace of European nations.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony marking the 103rd anniversary of Battle of Canakkale, also known as the Gallipoli Campaign, in Canakkale, Turkey. March 18, 2018
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

And while Russia peddles fake news and propaganda, Turkey agrees to let Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) build a $20 billion nuclear power plant in southern Turkey and boost the value of bilateral trade to $100 billion.   

While Russian nationals are being poisoned and murdered in Britain, Turkey continues with its intension to purchase S400s, the Russian surface-to-air missiles that are incompatible with NATO equipment. 

Not only does Ankara believe that Moscow is the dominant power in its region, but Russia shares with Turkey a joint enemy, the West. 

Meanwhile, by cozying up to Russia, Turkey was able to get involved in the future of Syria in talks and discussions in Sochi and Astana together with Iran. This legitimizes the wholly negative involvement of Moscow and Tehran (which Turkey helped to bypass the Iran Sanctions Act) in the Syrian civil war, the spillover of which in terms of refugees and radicalization negatively affects European security.

Even in the case of refugees, Turkey’s actions have hardly been rosy. True, Turkey has played host to over three million Syrian refugees. However, Turkish officials have declared that hundreds of thousands of these refugees will return to the tiny Syrian enclave of Afrin. 

A kurdish boy holds his baby brother, as he walks with his family in Afrin, Syria March 18, 2018
REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

But very few of the refugees are actually from Afrin, and if such a policy is implemented, Turkey will be interfering in the demographic make-up of the region, a recipe, as we have learned from other parts of the Middle East, for chaos and disaster. 

Regardless, this remains the policy of Ankara following the city’s fall to Turkish-backed forces which include nefarious Jihadist elements who may well one day be cause for European concern. This while Ankara uses the possibility of allowing an influx of Syrian refugees into Europe as a sword of Damocles over European lawmakers, a completely unproductive policy. 

Turkish and Western strategic interests are running in diametrically opposite directions. They do not share the same enemies, and, as a result, have different allies.

Until this is realized and recognized, handshakes and meetings at international summits and symposiums will be ineffectual.   

Dr Simon A. Waldman is a Mercator-IPC fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of the recently published The New Turkey and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press: 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1