Welcome back, Turkey

Boy waves Turkish flag on empty tribune
Turkey’s move out of isolation may mark its reemergence as a regional power (source: dpa)

Turkey has spent most of the past year backed into a corner.

On Nov. 24, 2015, Turkish F-16s shot down a Syrian-based Russian bomber that had allegedly strayed into its airspace. This triggered a confrontation between Ankara and Moscow, and especially between the two presidents, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. The Russian ambassador was recalled, harsh and damaging economic sanctions were applied, and there were even threats of war.

The war of words and military muscle flexing in Syria, the Caucasus, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean continued all through the first half of 2016. Turkey requested a stronger NATO presence in the Black Sea to help protect it against a more assertive Russia.

Turkey and Israel had enjoyed a privileged relationship for more than 60 years. But relations between the two countries went into a deep freeze in 2010, when Israeli commandos attacked a Turkish ship in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

Mr. Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) also alienated old allies in Europe and the United States. His internal policies raised concerns about democracy, the rule of law, sectarianism and the rights of minorities. The U.S. also complained about insufficient Turkish support for the embargo against Iran and for operations against Daesh, also called Islamic State, in Iraq and Syria.

In a word, Turkey was isolated. Many feared that President Erdogan was leading the country into an Islamic dictatorship.

The decision to tone down the Russo-Turkish conflict should have come as no surprise

On the credit side of the ledger, Turkey has given shelter to almost 3 million refugees from Syria – many of whom eventually began to move on to Europe. As it gathered in strength, this exodus produced a paradigm shift in the European Union’s attitude. Suddenly, Turkish help was needed to contain the migrant stream.

Brussels responded by offering Ankara money and halfhearted concessions – some of them long overdue, like visa-free travel. Implementation of the deal has been halting, as the EU held back on concerns about Turkish governance.

Three changes

Then, over the past two weeks, three remarkable things happened. On June 26, Israel and Turkey agreed to restore normal diplomatic relations, potentially unlocking the development of huge offshore natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The next day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that Mr. Erdogan had apologized for the downing of the Russian warplane in a letter to Mr. Putin. Russia lifted its ban on package tours to Turkey the same week, and relations began to normalize.

This decision to tone down the conflict should have come as no surprise. As GIS predicted on Nov. 29, 2015, five days after the Russian warplane was shot down: “The tensions will cool, and the recriminations fade. There will be few lasting geopolitical consequences. The positive message is that all parties involved – despite their bellicose rhetoric – want to avoid conflict.”

Turkey is now back in the position of a leading regional power in the Eastern Mediterranean.

What is most encouraging about these developments is their common denominator: pragmatism

But that is not all. Perhaps the most important development of the past two weeks is President Erdogan’s offer to grant Turkish citizenship to Syrian refugees in Turkey.

The implications of this policy shift are enormous. It will integrate the refugees into Turkey’s economy, which is likely to accelerate growth – especially since many of the Syrians are highly qualified professionals. It also strengthens Mr. Erdogan’s political base, giving him a new cohort of likely supporters.

In sum, these moves transform Turkey’s position. President Erdogan now arrives at this week’s NATO summit not as a supplicant, but as the master of his situation. Europe will have to reconsider its hypocritically superior attitude toward a country that is an indispensible regional partner, and which has also done much more for Syrian refugees than the EU itself.

What is most encouraging about these developments is their common denominator: pragmatism. This may bode well for resolving Turkey’s worst predicament, the Kurdish conflict, which has degenerated into a near-civil war raging in the country’s southeast.

Pragmatic leadership in Ankara, dealing from a position of strength, may find ways to accommodate Kurdish interests within the Turkish republic. This solution could even prove attractive for the Kurdish state in northern Iraq, which might become Turkey’s close associate.

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