Erdogan’s complicated calculus
Istanbul - Following years of questions about a fundamental axis shift by Turkey away from its traditional anchors in the West, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war is pushing Ankara back towards its old allies in Europe and NATO.
In recent years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been known for his harsh criticism of the European Union and for his public musings about Turkey one day joining the Asian “Shanghai Five” organisation, which is dominated by Russia and China. But lately, Erdogan has condemned Moscow’s involvement in Syria while sounding positive about the European Union and seeking the solidarity of NATO.
Erdogan’s shift, coupled with recognition by the European Union that Europe needs Turkey to deal with the refugee crisis, has opened new opportunities to revive dormant ties between Ankara and Brussels. Erdogan met EU leaders in Brussels on October 5th, his first visit to the European Union since becoming president more than a year ago. Both sides agreed to have further talks about the refugee issue and moving Turkey’s comatose bid for EU membership forward.
Critics of the Turkish government say Erdogan has been directing the country’s focus away from the West and towards the Islamic world. Turkey has been an EU candidate country since 2005 but has made little headway towards membership. Following his early October visit to Brussels, Erdogan said he asked the European Union to open new avenues in the membership talks.
Analysts say the new opening towards the European Union is dictated by tactical interests and does not necessarily mark a return to Erdogan’s reform agenda that shaped Turkish policies in the early 2000s. “It’s a marriage of convenience,” said Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, an EU expert at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. “It will last until it becomes inconvenient.”
Turkey’s move is driven by the shock wave of Russia’s intervention in neighbouring Syria. The Kremlin’s decision to lend direct military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad in his fight against a multitude of insurgents runs counter to Turkish interests in the war-torn country.
A Turkish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Turkey could no longer handle the Syrian crisis alone. He called on the European Union, NATO and the West in general to “take responsibility”.
Russia’s action in Syria could keep Assad in power for some time to come while Turkey calls for the Syrian leader’s resignation. Air strikes by Russian war planes south of the Turkish-Syrian border have hit positions of rebel groups that are supported by Turkey, violating Turkish airspace on at least two occasions.
Ankara is concerned that any change in the military balance in north-western Syria brought about by Russia’s intervention could send a new wave of refugees to Turkey. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said more than 1 million Syrians could arrive in that case, adding to the 2 million already in Turkey.
Erdogan has few options to counter Russia’s actions, says Behlul Ozkan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Marmara University. “Turkey can do almost nothing,” Ozkan said. As a global power, Russia has demonstrated the limits of Turkey’s capabilities as a mere regional player, he said.
With Russia’s military on the move south of the Turkish border and the risk of an unintentional confrontation between Turkish and Russian warplanes in the border region, Turkey has been seeking NATO protection.
“The violation of Turkey’s airspace is a violation of NATO’s airspace,” Erdogan said during his visit to Japan. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was ready to send troops to Turkey. “NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey, against any threat,” Stoltenberg said October 8th.
Erdogan hinted that Turkey could take economic steps against Russia, a major trading partner. Turkey’s dependence on Russian natural gas did not mean the country did not have other options, Erdogan said while travelling to Japan. “If need be, Turkey can get natural gas from other places,” he said.
Referring to a multi-billion-dollar contract with Russian companies to build Turkey’s first nuclear power station, Erdogan added that there were other possible suppliers for that project as well. “To lose Turkey would be a serious loss for Russia,” the president warned.
He said he was disappointed with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who hosted Erdogan for talks in Moscow in September. “The airspace violations [happened] after our talks,” Erdogan said. “It doesn’t make sense for me to call [Putin] again under these circumstances. Of course I am upset about what happened.”
While criticising Russia and Putin, Erdogan praised EU Commission Chief Jean-Claude Juncker, EU President Donald Tusk and President of the EU Parliament Martin Schulz who met the Turkish leader in Brussels. “They displayed a much more positive stance than in our previous talks,” Erdogan said.
Several EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have stated opposition to allowing Turkey join the European Union but Erdogan said Juncker had told him that Turkey’s EU process should be sped up.
The European Union needs Turkey’s cooperation to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees headed towards Europe, many of whom travel to EU territory via Turkey. An EU action plan calls for building additional refugee camps in Turkey but the government in Ankara says there is no agreement on the plan yet.