Turkey Relationship

It's Complicated

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016. Erdogan has called on the United States not to delay the extradition of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of orchestrating last month's violent coup attempt. (Presidential Press Service via AP)
The increasingly fraught relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Turkey is an important geopolitical power when it comes to the conflict in Syria and the ensuing refugee crisis.

  • Facts


    • An attempted coup on July 15 was thwarted after supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came out onto the streets.
    • There has been a widespread crackdown, focusing on a network of followers of Islamic preacher, Fethullah Gülen.
    • Turkey is a NATO ally of the West’s and is at the heart of the European Union’s attempts to curb the refugee flow into Europe.
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How complicated and contradictory the relationship of the West to Turkey has become is evident in the headlines of recent days.

After the horrible suicide bombing in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, Washington, Brussels and Berlin are outdoing each other with expressions of solidarity with their alliance partner in the fight against terror. Shortly beforehand, the German government fought for days about a position paper on Turkey drawn up by the federal foreign intelligence agency, the BND, in which Ankara is accused of clandestinely supporting those radical Islamists who are now being held responsible for the murderous attack last weekend at a Kurdish wedding celebration.

For weeks now, the West has been seesawing between adherence to principle and realpolitik. First the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is condemned for turning ever further away from Western democracy and cozying up to like-minded autocrats such as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Shortly thereafter comes the assertion that Turkey is an “important partner” (Angela Merkel) in NATO and that Europe can’t do without Ankara’s help in the refugee crisis.

This zigzag course shows that up to now, the West hasn’t come up with a clear policy toward Turkey. Yesterday on the island of Ventotene, Chancellor Merkel, the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, and President François Hollande of France sought a way out of the Turkish dilemma that condemns Europe to a partnership with the unpredictable autocrat Mr. Erdogan.

The United States isn’t doing much better. Ankara accuses the Americans of being behind the failed coup attempt in mid-July and demands the extradition of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. Washington, on the other hand, is asking itself how dependable its NATO partner Turkey still is and whether it would be better to withdraw the some 50 short-range nuclear weapons that are stored at the Turkish Air Force base at Incirlik. Tomorrow U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden will travel to Ankara to calm the agitated diplomatic waters. But he too lacks a plan for how the West should handle its difficult partner on NATO’s southeastern flank.

The prerequisite would be that Washington, Brussels and Berlin recognize geopolitical realities without throwing their own principles overboard. A glance at the world map is enough to recognize that the West has a permanent interest in a partnership with Turkey. Not only because the country is a bridge between East and West, as well as between Western democracies and the Islamic world. Some 1,200 kilometers by overland route lie between Istanbul and Aleppo. That is how big the buffer is between Europe and the murderous chaos of the Syrian civil war. That unalterable geography is already reason enough, at least for Europeans, to see that their difficult partner in the East toes the line.

But this doesn’t mean that the West has to accept everything that the Sultan of Ankara is doing in his own country. The message to Mr. Erdogan must be unambiguous: As long as the autocrat doesn’t adhere to the democratic rules of the game, there is no possibility of European Union membership. And there can only be visa-free travel, a key demand from Ankara, if the Turkish government meets the necessary requirements and adapts its anti-terror laws more strictly to European standards.

Of course that isn’t easy. Negotiations with Mr. Erdogan require great tact but also backbone. It’s not clear that Mr. Erdogan has the upper hand just because he can use the refugee agreement with the E.U. as a bargaining chip. After all, the Turkish president also has much to lose if an irreparable split were to occur with Europe – above all economically, if many European firms were to withdraw from Turkey.

But politically as well, Mr. Erdogan has no interest in isolating himself internationally.

So it isn’t by chance that the Turkish prime minister and Mr. Erdogan confidant Binali Yildirim has now hinted that Ankara could accept a political role for the hated Syrian President Assad during a transition period. Turkey is thereby acceding to demands from Washington and Moscow. Mr. Erdogan is apparently ready to play a more active role in the search for peace in the Middle East. He has also already been active beforehand, but he was playing with concealed cards (see the BND dossier). So it is all the better if he is now laying his cards on the table.

Because here too geography supersedes the urge for political purity. Due to its geopolitical situation, Turkey is one of the few powers in the region whose implosion would endanger stability far past its own borders.


Torsten Riecke is an international correspondent for Handelsblatt. To contact him: riecke@handelsblatt.com.

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