When Ahmet Davutoglu was Turkey’s foreign minister his explicit policy was to have friendly relations with all his neighbors. That was a tough task in a region as riddled with conflict as the Middle East, and when the civil war in Syria lurched out of control Davutoglu’s vision was doomed. Turkey is in a difficult neighborhood, with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Georgia to the east, Russia to the north and Europe to the west; life where orient collides with occident is fraught.
Turkey is NATO’s easternmost member and its last line of defense against turmoil in the Middle East. Ankara’s relationship with Europe has always been strained, especially since Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the reins. His autocratic tendencies do not play well with Europe’s liberal democracies.
Nevertheless, Europe needs Turkey and vice versa. The economic relationship is particularly important to Turkey as the EU is its main trading partner. Turkey is of significant importance to Europe because it houses more than three million Syrian refugees. When the eastern EU member states feared being overrun by refugees via the eastern Balkans route, the EU sealed a deal with Ankara whereby Turkey kept the refugees in return for 3 billion euros. Not all those funds were transferred, because EU nations objected to Turkey’s human-rights record. Still, the Europeans are well aware that cooperation with Turkey is important, in light of the growing numbers fleeing conflict in the Middle East.
The same holds true for NATO. Its relationship with Ankara has not always been easy, as was demonstrated in November 2017 when German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen reassigned 250 military personnel to Jordan from their base in Incirlik after Erdogan refused to allow German parliamentary delegations to visit them.
It is in everybody’s interest for Turkey to be able to keep out of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, which does require talking to Russia and a whole host of other regional actors.
Further strife will occur in early July when Ankara takes delivery of Russian S-400 air defense missiles. NATO, especially the US, is not pleased at Turkey’s purchase of weapons that can shoot down NATO aircraft. Turkey could even face US economic sanctions, which would harm its already stuttering economy. The question is, how would it be in US interests for the fragile economy of a NATO ally to decline even further? For the EU, the question will be whether Turkey can afford to host three million refugees if its economy disintegrates.
So why is Turkey putting itself in this position? For one, Erdogan is strong willed and not easily persuaded to change course. In addition, Turkey’s relationship with Russia is geopolitically important.
A brief spat occurred in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet operating out of Syria, but reason prevailed and they resolved their differences. Ankara has to consult Russia on Syria, where Vladimir Putin has gained strength and influence by backing Assad while Turkey supports the opposition. Ankara is concerned about the flow of Syrian refugees, particularly with increased fighting in Idlib, where Assad’s forces last week attacked Turkish outposts. Syria is a quagmire of fractious militias, proxy forces and the Assad regime. In that context it is understandable that Ankara wants to keep communication with Russia open. It may also buy the odd piece of weaponry from Moscow if it supports that aim and keeps its borders secure at the same time.
In other words, Turkey has to negotiate fraught relationships in a fragile region. It is in everybody’s interest for Turkey to be able to keep out of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, which does require talking to Russia and a whole host of other regional actors.
While NATO’s concerns are understandable and Erdogan may not be everybody’s favorite politician, sanctions against Turkey would serve nobody’s interest. Neither NATO nor Europe wants the Turkish economy to deteriorate any further. The former benefits from having a stable ally on its eastern front, and the latter would prefer not to worry again about refugees using the eastern Balkans route.