The risks of ignoring Turkey

The West refuses to acknowledge that Turkey has strategic interests of its own in the Eastern Mediterranean, and in doing so risks alienating a crucial ally.

Audience (West) ignoring Turkey giving a speech
The United States and Europe make very little effort to understand Ankara’s viewpoint. © GIS

Europe’s southeastern neighborhood – the Eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea region and the Caucasus – has long been an arena for major geopolitical actors to vie for influence. And Turkey lies at the center of this crucial nexus.

This presents Ankara with major challenges and responsibilities. The United States, the European Union, NATO and Russia all have strategic interests in the area, and other important actors like Israel, Egypt and Greece also have much at stake.

These broad geopolitical tensions in the region are playing out in parallel to various conflict hotspots, where legitimate minority interests like those of the Kurds and Palestinians are often polluted by terrorist activities. Infighting is raging in Lebanon, Libya and Syria. Bomb attacks happen regularly in Iraq. In the Caucasus, the situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia remains volatile despite the war being over. There is still a frozen conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These issues are all interconnected, and the list goes on.

Ankara needs a certain strategic autonomy in defending its interests.

Of course, the main conflict affecting the region is the outright war led by Russia against Ukraine. In addition to the terrible losses experienced by the Ukrainian population, the invasion has given rise to several global political and economic challenges.

All these burning issues are taking place in Europe’s immediate vicinity, making it essential to understand the position and interests of the country at the nerve center of the region: Turkey.

Old ties and rivalries

Turkey, without a doubt the strongest power in the Eastern Mediterranean, is located at the crossroads between Europe and Asia and guards the access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. It connects Europe with the Middle East, the Black Sea and the Caucasus.

The Ottoman Empire, which controlled parts of Southeastern Europe and most of the Middle East, was annihilated at the end of World War I. It was then fileted, mainly by the United Kingdom and France, into several new entities and colonial protectorates. Artificial states were born as a result. The territory of modern-day Turkey was divided into four occupation zones by France, the UK, Italy and Greece. Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who came to be known as Ataturk, a Turkish national army later defeated the occupying forces, resulting in the creation of the contemporary Turkish state. Turkey was meant to be a secular and national entity according to the French and Italian models – one nation, one language.

After World War II, confronted with an assertive Soviet Union, Turkey joined NATO and to this day remains one of the most important members of the alliance. Accession negotiations with the European Union are theoretically still ongoing, but de facto nonexistent.

Both the Ottoman Empire and afterward the Turkish republic have had strained relations with the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, whose expansion in the Black Sea, the Balkans and the Caucasus triggered several wars over the last 300 years. In the present conflict, it is crucial for Turkey’s security to uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine and to keep Russia out of Crimea.

Due to Turkey’s strong navy and military presence, respected by Moscow, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan successfully negotiated the release of Ukrainian grain shipments from a Russian blockade on the Black Sea. Turkey’s military strength was also demonstrated in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war, where Turkish support for Azerbaijan allowed the country to defeat Moscow-backed Armenia. It matters to Ankara that the integrity of Georgia be maintained and that Russian influence in the Balkans and the Middle East, especially in Syria, be curtailed. On the other hand, Turkey has to maintain relations with Russia because of its dependence on energy and trade.

Turkey has the potential to stabilize the Middle East and could play an important role in Central Asia.

Turkey also has a difficult relationship with Greece, which is also a liability in dealing with the EU. After World War I, Greece made the mistake of joining the UK and France in occupying Turkish territory. This led to a strong backlash, and when Turkey regained independence, large numbers of Greeks in Anatolia, mostly living by the shores of the Aegean Sea, were expelled and mistreated as retaliation. Since then, dealings between the two countries have been fraught with tension, in particular over two issues: Northern Cyprus and territorial waters.

The division of exclusive economic zones currently recognized by the United Nations is challenged by Ankara and puts Greece at a considerable advantage. Turkey’s territorial claim is restricted for technical reasons since islands are allowed more territorial waters than continental countries. This unresolved issue, made worse by the attitude of Brussels and other European capitals toward Turkey, has hindered good relations with the EU.

Turkey is facing additional challenges: an uncertain political situation that has also led to military involvement in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria. Ankara has old ties to North Africa, especially Egypt and Libya, as well as interests in the Indian Ocean.

Ankara’s concerns

There are 15 to 20 million Turkish citizens with Kurdish roots, some 20 percent of the population. The Kurds – an ethnicity comprising different subgroups – have not had a state for centuries, and are now split between eastern Turkey, northern Syria, western Iran and northern Iraq. The colonial borders set by the French and the British have divided the Kurdish population.

Kemal Ataturk’s one-language policy discriminated against the Kurdish language, although Kurds themselves were not oppressed. Soviet disinformation and defamation in the 1960s and 1970s stoked Kurdish opposition and caused some groups to turn to terrorism. The aim was to destabilize a major NATO partner. The strategy led to further antagonism. Now the Kurdish groups in northern Syria who used to fight the Islamic State with U.S. support have created their own territorial area. Their leadership backs a radical terrorist organization based in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The group is on both the U.S. and the EU’s terror lists. It is unfortunate that the terrorist activities of a small group frustrate the Kurds’ legitimate demands to have their ethnicity recognized. Kurdish minorities are scattered throughout eastern Anatolia, as well as in larger towns in the west of the country. Turkey, to protect itself against this threat, wants to monitor a 30km “cordon sanitaire” inside Northern Syria, which has irked many other powers.

In dealing with Turkey, Europe and the U.S. mistakenly assume that Ankara should share their interests. But Turkey has other legitimate concerns, and by defending itself it helps the West by preserving regional stability.

The U.S. and the EU ignore Turkish interests and constantly discredit the country on the international stage. This will backfire.

Turkey’s operations in Syria are logical from the perspective of counterterrorism. Turkish efforts to contain Russian influence in the Caucasus and preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity have proven essential. Ankara’s approach might differ from the West’s, but at times it also turns out to be more effective.

NATO members have criticized Turkey on several issues. One was the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system. The problem is that Ankara needs a certain strategic autonomy in defending its interests. Being fully dependent on Western equipment, especially not being able to control the software, would limit its room for maneuver. To maintain its independence, it has built a thriving defense sector. As Turkish interests are widely ignored by the West, Ankara sometimes has to resort to measures that are deemed blackmail but that are in fact simply protecting national interests. This was the case with blocking Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO unless the two countries stop sheltering PKK terrorists.

Turkey has gained considerable influence in Africa through economic activity. It has the potential to stabilize the Middle East and could play an important role in Central Asia. It is of vital importance for the West. And yet the U.S. and the EU ignore Turkish interests and constantly discredit the country on the international stage. This will backfire.

President Erdogan is a pure pragmatist. This makes him change his policies frequently. Many commentators consider Turkish politics unpredictable, but they are logical and driven by national interests. However, this is less true of economic policy. Regrettably, although the economy itself is not weak, inflation is soaring and the Turkish lira has dramatically gone down in value lately.

Without Turkey, Europe’s security and interests will be constantly challenged. If they made an effort to understand Ankara, Europeans would be rewarded with a safer and more stable immediate neighborhood.

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