January 9, 2017
In early April 2009 Mr. Obama visited Ankara on his first trip abroad as US President. His address to the Turkish Parliament was full of praise for Turkey’s “strong, vibrant, secular democracy”. In May 2013, Prime Minister Erdogan visited Washington. Remarks made by the two leaders at their joint press conference reflected nothing but a cordial and strong relationship. Four years later, we have a different picture (1).
Relations with Turkey’s other allies/EU partners also look troubled. These countries are getting their share of the criticism for what is perceived by Ankara as Western support to terrorist group aiming at destabilizing Turkey and concocting another Sykes-Picot. Media outlets supportive of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) are constantly discussing the irreconcilable conflicts of interest between Turkey and the Western world.
Following the downing of a Russian fighter-jet in November 2015 Turkish-Russian relations had experienced a dramatic setback. Ankara had rushed to Brussels to seek NATO solidarity. Now, as Ankara’s reconciliation with Moscow is progressing at a pace chosen by the latter, relations with the West have taken a downturn. Why do we witness these ups and downs? Are they of a passing nature or here to stay?
Firstly, Turkey’s march towards authoritarianism has been a disappointment for the West. Yes, the West has always entertained close relations with undemocratic Middle East regimes. And yes, President Obama himself has said: “United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.” The problem is that Turkey always projected a different image; made others believe that its commitment to democracy was unshakable. Thus, it was seen as a source of inspiration for the Middle East, if not a model. Unfortunately, exactly the opposite now seems to be underway.
Secondly, the Syrian conflict has also changed Western perception of Turkey. Indeed, in the beginning both the West and Turkey focused on regime change in Damascus rather than fighting Daesh. But later, the West had a change of heart while the JDP government continued to advocate regime change no matter what. This led some Western media outlets to carry reports on Turkey’s tolerance for jihadists travelling to Syria. And lately, Ankara has accused the US and others for supporting terrorist organizations including Daesh. Not a bright picture for the West’s 68-nation anti-Daesh coalition…
In brief, Turkey’s internal political developments coupled with differences over the handling of the Syrian conflict have resulted in a negative perception in the West.
As the US approaches Inauguration Day, relations with the US have been reduced to criticism directed by Ankara at Washington’s support to YPG (which Turkey considers as an affiliate of PKK) and its lack of support for Turkey’s efforts to recapture al-Bab from Daesh. For a long time, in response to such criticism, the Obama administration repeatedly stated that Turkey was valued NATO ally and a partner in the fight against Daesh. In its final days in office, it seems to prefer silence.
As for relations with the EU, the JDP government gives the impression of having concluded that Europe is only after its selfish interests; that it was never sincere in its approach to Turkey and that the launching of an “open-ended” accession process was nothing but a scheme to keep Turkey at bay, forever (2).
There may be varying degrees of truth in all of that. And, there are many other factors which impact Turkey’s relations with the West. In the final analysis, however, the underlying reason for the current downturn is lack of mutual confidence and more than anything else lack of confidence in Turkey’s attachment to democracy. Because, this has created an overarching problem of disharmony, incompatibility.
The JDP government now appears to have pinned its hopes on a “reset” with the Trump administration. However, a change of administration in Washington is unlikely to lead to a major reversal in policies. On March 1st,2003 Turkish Parliament refused “full cooperation” with the US in the pending invasion of Iraq. A warming up of relations took some years and a US President who himself had opposed the invasion. Thus, under the present circumstances, “working on core interests” with Washington may be the only option.
Insofar as relations with Europe are concerned, Turkey and the EU will remain on different wavelengths. Because of the refugee issue and their being home to millions of Turks, EU countries would probably continue to follow the German lead and avoid public confrontations with Ankara. However, far-reaching progress in Turkey-EU relations will be an inconceivable. Pragmatic cooperation on matters of common interest would be an achievement.
Today, Turkey is still trying to recuperate from a string of terrorist attacks which have claimed hundreds of lives. The country is divided in multiple dimensions. Turkish currency’s loss of value has reached dangerous levels. Regardless, the Turkish parliament has started debating the constitutional amendments proposed by the JDP for a presidential system. But, the parliament channel of the TRT (Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) is broadcasting sports. Let alone Turkey’s relations with the West, Turkey itself is standing at a threshold.