This article was published in Ahval News on March 16, 2018.
Turkey should maintain good ties with both Russia and the United States
Turkey’s relations with the Euro-Atlantic community have been less than friendly for more than a decade. One of the refraction points in the deterioration process is a vote in the Turkish parliament. On March 1, 2003, the Turkish parliament voted down a motion to allow U.S. forces to cross Turkish territory to open a new front against Saddam Hussein in the north of Iraq.
Another refraction point is on the European leg of the Euro-Atlantic community: In the early years of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the EU requested then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to encourage Turkish Cypriots to vote in favour of a solution plan for the Cyprus dispute drafted by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He fulfilled this request, the plan was put to a referendum, the Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of it, but the Greek Cypriots voted against it. The EU then admitted the Greek Cypriots but refused to admit the Turkish Cypriots who voted in line with the EU approach. This caused deep disillusionment for Erdoğan. He felt cheated and lost confidence in EU leaders.
Other negative developments in Turkey’s accession process contributed to the further erosion of this confidence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel maintained her policy of refusing Turkey’s full membership to the EU and proposing privileged partnership, instead. Then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy used his veto to block Turkey’s negotiation process in eight crucial chapters.
Turkey’s relations with the Euro-Atlantic community have gone from bad to worse ever since. Turkey refused to allow German parliamentarians to visit German soldiers deployed in the Incirlik airbase. The Netherlands government banned a Turkish minister from addressing her citizens in the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam.
Relations with the United States have deteriorated more than with the EU. Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen’s extradition and the court case against a Turkish businessman of Iranian origin are among the problems that poisoned the relations. The United States opposed Turkey’s military operation in the Afrin district of Syria. Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles added insult to injury. The most acute crisis broke out because of the support that the United States provides for the Syrian Kurds. This crisis has the potential to destroy the foundations of Turkish-American relations.
The Wall Street Journal, on March 11, reported that the U.S. military has curbed combat operations flying out of Incirlik air base in Turkey and permanent cutbacks could be in the works. Pro-government Turkish media reacted by pointing out that Turkey has other alternatives, intimating that if relations with the United States could not be restored, Turkey may turn to Russia. Such allusions have to be avoided, because it may be perceived as blackmail and backfire.
In fact, Turkey’s relations with Russia affect always, one way or another, its relations with the United States. Turkey-Russia relations have never been cordial, but they developed business-like relations after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While they were reaping the fruits of these relations, Turkey downed a Russian jet fighter in November 2015 for having violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds. Russia responded by imposing heavy economic sanctions on Turkey, which were later partly eased upon a written apology by the Erdoğan. Turkey’s cooperation with Russia in the Sochi-Astana Syria talks process helped adjust its Syria policy to the reality in the field, but did not yet restore lost confidence.
Turkey is carrying out a military operation in the Syrian district of Afrin to put an end to the domination of the Kurdish minority in the district. This is a legitimate act, but the method to achieve it has to be reconsidered. Since Turkey has already announced its commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity, it would be more logical to carry out this mission in cooperation with the Syrian government.
Political developments in recent years have forced Turkey to turn some times to Russia, some other times to the United States. It is still hesitant and negotiations with the United States will show what its final decision will be, but the best course for it would be not to turn towards one of these super powers to the expense of the other. It should maintain reliable, predictable and coherent relations with both at the same time.