Commentary

Is Turkey Drifting away from the West?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

American and European officials continue to express concerns over Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s apparent drift away from the West. It is telling, perhaps, that despite a visit from two high profile European politicians, it was the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin that attracted the most attention in Turkey. Recent agreements between Turkey and Russia that aim to transform Turkey into an energy hub for the region have confirmed fears that the Turkish president is steering his country away from its traditional allies. And judging from Mr. Erdogan’s recent criticism of the military leadership in Egypt, it is clear that Turkey’s realignment is not limited to its relationship with the West.

Signs of a frayed relationship between Turkey and its erstwhile allies have been visible for some time, but the contrast in reception between the new EU foreign policy chief and the Russian president, at least according to a recent Saudi Gazette editorial, has made even the unthinkable seem possible: “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be setting his country on a radical new course, the consequences of which are only now becoming apparent. It is no longer impossible to imagine that a Turkey will seek to leave NATO or at least have its membership suspended by other NATO states. It also seems likely that after over 30 years of knocking on the door of the EU seeking admission, Turkey may abandon the whole business as a complete waste of time and effort....The new EU foreign policy chief  Fredrica Mogherini has just been in Turkey urging Erdogan to get on side. But Erdogan will have taken far more notice of his other visitor, Vladimir Putin.”

Much of the realignment in Turkey’s foreign policy has much to do with the ongoing violence in Syria as well as serious overtures made by Mr. Putin. That is the argument made by a Khaleej Times editorial, which points out that diverging strategies on the situation in Syria are at the heart of the current crisis of confidence between the West and Turkey: “The fact that Turkey is at loggerheads with the regime in Damascus and wants the West to bring down President Bashar Al Assad and impose a no-fly zone over the war-weary country are issues that keep the West and Turkey in two different camps. Last but not the least, the growing cordiality between Turkey and Russia is also being seen as a sign wherein the pro-West Ankara is gradually sliding into Kremlin’s lap. It is a déjà vu of sorts for the West after the debacle of Ukraine and the rise of Moscow as a dictating power in the region....the undeniable fact that Russia provides the bulk of Turkey’s gas requirements and Ankara had refused to slap sanctions on Kremlin in the wake of annexation of Crimea makes them robust partner of the future with a common denominator against the West....It would be much better if the West settles down on a minimum agenda of cooperation with Turkey without pushing it to take extreme positions.”

This view is also confirmed by Hurriyet Daily News reports which suggest that the disagreements over the “no-fly zone” issue could be exacerbating an already frail relationship: “President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said Ankara and Washington are ‘on the same page’ about equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels, but differences remain over the no-fly zone and safe zone issues, thwarting the striking of a deal. ‘No commitment has yet been given by the coalition powers, particularly about a no-fly zone and safe zone,’ Erdoğan told reporters at a joint news conference with visiting Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite late on Dec. 8....Meanwhile, the Turkish foreign minister said the U.S.-led program for training and arming the moderate Syrian opposition to fight against ISIL militants would only be successful with the declaration of safe havens and no fly zones in Syria.”

Meanwhile, Hurriyet Daily News’ Gunes Komorculer reports that Russia, faced with its own increasing isolation, has been all too eager to fill in the gap left by the growing rift between the U.S. and Turkey: “Turkey has set very ambitious targets to decrease its energy dependency, including increasing its local energy production, becoming an energy hub and diversifying its energy sources. To be sure, it is good for such an energy-hungry country to set such goals. However, Turkey may be failing to reach them....Russian President Vladimir Putin made a ‘surprising’ announcement on Dec. 1 during his one-day visit to Ankara, which served Turkey’s desire to become an energy hub. Putin scrapped the South Stream pipeline project intended to supply gas to southern Europe without crossing Ukraine. Citing EU and specifically Bulgarian objections, Putin instead named Turkey as its preferred partner for an alternative pipeline, with the promise of energy discounts....Turkey will be buying around 40 bcm of gas from Russia by the 2020s, during which the country’s gas needs are projected to be around 70 bcm, which means Turkey will be still very dependent upon Russia for energy.”

The shift has been perceptible enough that it has drawn the attention of EU officials, who, as another major Turkish daily Today’s Zaman reports, are concerned about the growing disparity between EU’s foreign policy positions and those of Turkey: “EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on Monday that Turkey, an EU membership candidate, had signed up to less than a third of the bloc's recent foreign policy positions, compared to some 80 percent in the past.... ‘Turkey makes very important contributions to the EU's security and defence policies. But until now Turkey was not included in any decision mechanisms related to security and defence,’ Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Tuesday....Çavuşoğlu said the EU had not made criticism about diplomatic divergences in talks on Monday, nor had the EU made a concrete proposal on the issue. He also cited Turkey's contribution to EU forces in Mali and the Central African Republic as an example of Ankara's cooperation.”

But as Daily Sabah’s Etyen Mahçupyan points out, the Turkish prime minister’s anti-West discourse has proven popular among the people in the region, which means that there is little incentive for Mr. Erdogan to change his foreign policy: “One of the themes President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterates at the meetings he attends with representatives of the Islamic world is that the West does not desire our wellbeing — a fact he does not have to put a lot of effort into proving....it is certain that Erdoğan's discourse will greatly appeal to the people in the region. Erdoğan does not have a romantic view of who the authorities he addresses are, and how they will behave. He underlines on every occasion that the administrations in this region are actually in charge of the situation in the Middle East. But he has a dual message, and one of them is for the West. He demands the creation of a democratic perspective in the real sense, and a change in behavior from the West.”

The desire to be seen as the leader of the Muslim world could be behind Mr. Erdogan’s constant criticism of the military regime in Egypt, which as Daily News Egypt reporter Menna Zaki writes, has drawn the rebuke of the Egyptian government: “Egypt’s foreign ministry condemned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s remarks and his ‘flagrant intervention’ in Egypt’s internal affairs, according to a Monday statement by the ministry. Erdogan’s comments about Egypt came during a joint press conference Monday with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in which they discussed the situation in Syria....Tensions have arisen between the two countries as the Turkish president has reiterated his critical comments on Egypt’s internal situation on different occasions since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, which resulted in the downgrading of relations with Turkey....During Egypt’s attempts to broker a peace treaty between Israel and Gaza  to end the conflict in July, Erdogan commented on Al-Sisi calling him an ‘illegitimate tyrant’ and noted that Egypt “could not be relied upon” to broker a peace treaty between Israel and Hamas.”


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