Turkey’s ties with EU, US under pressure as Ankara pulls away from traditional allies

Major differences with the US over Syria and other issues and the European Union’s refusal to accept Turkey’s membership bid have opened cracks between Turkey and the West that may be permanent.
Saturday 20/07/2019
Fait accompli. First components of a Russian S-400 missile defence system are seen after being  unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport, known as Akinci Air Base, near Ankara, July 12.(Reuters)
Fait accompli. First components of a Russian S-400 missile defence system are seen after being unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport, known as Akinci Air Base, near Ankara, July 12.(Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Turkey’s ties with the United States and Europe are under serious strain as rows over an arms deal with Russia and natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean reveal a growing gulf between Ankara and the West.

The United States threw Turkey, a NATO member and EU accession candidate, out of a fighter plane programme while the European Union decided to impose sanctions against Ankara.

In a blunt description that summed up increasing friction between his country’s policy priorities and those of the United States and Europe, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the West had become a source of “threats.”

“Despite our political and military pacts with the Western alliance, we see the biggest threats coming from there as well,” Erdogan was quoted July 14 as saying. He spoke shortly before the anniversary of a coup attempt in 2016 that some in his government blamed on Western powers.

Some observers say Turkey’s recent policy choices exposed an axis shift by Ankara, away from its traditional focus on its Western partners.

At the very least, the development demonstrates Turkey’s determination to push through its own agenda despite warnings by the United States and the European Union, two allies sometimes seen by Ankara as acting against Turkish interests. Under Erdogan, Turkey has changed its political self-image from that of a trusted partner of the West to that of a regional power of its own that does not necessarily act in unison with the United States or Europe.

Murat Yetkin, author of Yetkin Report, a blog on Turkish political matters, said Turkey was going through a “redefinition of its relations with the US and the EU.”

Yetkin said Erdogan’s verdict about “threats” coming from the West was serious and reflected a view shared by many Turks. “That has an echo in public opinion,” Yetkin said by telephone.

Roland Popp, a security analyst focusing on Middle Eastern affairs, said Erdogan had no intention to initiate a sweeping crisis with the West “but — as a consequence of his policy choices — might indeed end up with one.”

“As so often, Erdogan is a prisoner of his badly conceived and erratic policy decisions,” Popp said via e-mail. “His musings about the threat coning from the West might prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

However, the government is confident that Turkey is so important for US security interests and for EU efforts to stem the flow of refugees from the Middle East that the West will not cut ties completely.

“Turkey is an indispensable partner for Europe’s security,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu wrote last year in a commentary for the French newspaper Le Monde.

Following delivery of the Russian S-400 air defence system, the United States excluded Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet programme. Republican and Democratic lawmakers pressed US President Donald Trump to impose sanctions on Turkey.

Russian officials said they were ready to look at selling Russian fighter planes to Turkey as well. In a statement likely to increase concerns in NATO, Erdogan said he hoped for future “joint production” of air defence systems with Russia and for cooperation with Moscow in developing a new system, the S-500.

The European Union has slapped sanctions on Turkey over Ankara’s insistence to drill for gas and oil off EU-member Cyrus, an action seen as illegal by Brussels and Nicosia.

The European Union suspended negotiations on the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement and agreed not to have the Association Council and meetings of the EU-Turkey high-level dialogues. It endorsed a proposal to reduce pre-accession assistance to Turkey for 2020, a move that could result in a loss of $170 million for Ankara.

Ankara shrugged off the EU decision and announced it would intensify its drilling off Cyprus in response to the sanctions.

The twin confrontation with Washington and Brussels, coupled with Ankara’s changed world view, could shake the foundation of relations between Turkey and the West. The country has been a NATO member since 1952 and has been trying to join the European Union and its predecessors since 1963.

Major differences with the United States over Syria and other issues, the European Union’s refusal to accept Turkey’s membership bid and an ever-closer cooperation with Russia have opened cracks between Turkey and the West that may be permanent, some analysts say.

Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and now senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think-tank, told NBC News there was a “greater shift in Turkey’s orientation away from the transatlantic alliance and its values, to the East and an authoritarian bloc of countries.”

Kerim Has, a Moscow-based expert on Turkish-Russian relations said the S-400 deal deepened the Kremlin’s influence over Turkey.

“Turkey’s dependency on Russia’s regional politics will increase after [the] S-400 missiles deployment and its weakening ties with the US and Europe considering the multiple sanctions from multiple directions,” Has said in an e-mail.

Has compared the Erdogan government to that of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. He said the leadership in Ankara was likely to feel threatened by possible US moves to unseat it and therefore sought closer ties to Russia.

The Turkish political elite felt in need of “Russian political and military support to overcome a potential ‘Maduro scenario’ of Venezuela in Turkey,” Has wrote.