Can Turkey turn a crisis into an opportunity?


Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with the newly appointed US ambassador to Turkey Jeff Flake in Ankara on Jan. 26, 2022.(PPO/Handout via REUTERS)

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Turkey has a working relationship with the EU, the US and NATO, but there are also points of contention between them. As tension rises over Ukraine, the question is whether Ankara can capitalize on it to obtain from those three allies what it has been unable to in the past.

The Turkish-EU relationship is a saga. Turkey has been a candidate for EU membership since 1999, but talks on the issue began only in 2005. To become a candidate, Turkey had to comply with criteria on human rights, the rule of law,and a market economy, but its entry to the bloc met strong opposition from France. Nicolas Sarkozy was vocal on the issue from when he took office as president in 2007, and campaigned for re-election in 2011 with the assertion that Turkey did not “belong to Europe.” The French position coincided with a general European fatigue with an overstretched union.

Turkey tried its luck again in 2015, this time using its leverage as a bulwark against the migrant wave heading for Europe. In March 2016, Ankara and the EU signed a dubious agreement whereby Turkish authorities would intercept migrants taking the sea route to Greece and bring them back to Turkey. In exchange, the EU said it would reduce visa restrictions for Turkish citizens, pay €6 billion in aid to Turkey for Syrian migrant communities, and re-energize the stalled accession talks — which 

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said was “a historic day” for EU-Turkey relations.

But it quickly went wrong. During a rancorous 2016 Brexit referendum campaign in the UK, government ministerMichael Gove tried to persuade people to vote to leave the EU by claiming that Turkey would be a full member by 2020. Then an attempted coup in Turkey in July, and the security crackdown that followed it, offered Europe theperfect excuse to renege on the deal. “Our relationship with the EU is full of disappointment and broken promises,” a Turkish friend told me.

Though Turkey is lying low, avoiding any blunt statements and trying to keep the balance between the West and Russia, the current situation offers Erdogan an excellent opportunity to mend his relations with the West.

Dania Koleilat Khatib

The Turkish leadership believed they had been duped. They had to take in waves of refugees that created a backlash at home, affected the popularity of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and led to the rise of ultranationalism, while receiving nothing significant from Europe in return. EU membership is as elusive as ever. Nevertheless, while Turkey is disillusioned about EU membership and knows it is unlikely, it can definitely use the Ukraine issue to obtain some benefits from Europe.

With the US, Turkey also has a sour relationship; the Turks view Washington as supporting their Kurdish enemies. The US backed the Kurds as the most efficient way to fight Daesh, after the failure to train and equip moderate Sunni fighters and a US sense of Turkish reluctance to face the militants. However, Turkey sees no difference between the YPG, the Kurdish militia in Syria, and the PKK, the organization responsible for terrorist attacks in Turkey for the past 30 years.

Meanwhile US President Joe Biden has made it clear that there will be no military intervention in Ukraine, and that any response will be limited to economic sanctions. The role of Turkey is therefore of prime importance. Turkey has already sent drones to Kyiv, upsetting Vladimir Putin, which the US would want to encourage. Turkey has been swinging between the camps, and the US would definitely not want it to strengthen ties with Moscow.

Again, Turkey can find a sweet spot where it can have leverage with the US. The relationship has been mainly transactional, and based on mutual blackmail. Will Turkey put pressure on the US to halt, or at least reduce, its support for Kurdish forces in Syria? That is a tricky issue for the US. It cannot withdraw support while Daesh appears to be re-emerging and gaining momentum in previously liberated areas. Turkey may also try to reopen the issue of the S-400 missile defense system and the F-35 fighter jet program.

As for NATO, the Turks’ main bone of contention was the alliance’s removal of Patriot missiles in 2015. As my Turkish friend told me: “What about common defense and Article 5? Isn’t that the raison d’etre of NATO? But they remove the defenses when we need them the most.” At the heart of NATO, Turkey has been having quarrels with France and Greece. With the Ukraine crisis, NATO needs to show unity more than ever. Will Turkey use it to repair relations with those two countries, or will it turn its back on the 70-year-old alliance and resume business as usual with Russia?

Though Turkey is lying low, avoiding any blunt statements and trying to keep the balance between the West and Russia, the current situation offers Erdogan an excellent opportunity to mend his relations with the West. However, it is a zero-sum game; better relations with NATO, the EU and the US will mean worse relations with Russia. We still have to see how Erdogan will play his cards.

• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view


1 reply

  1. Rafiq, you should know the word of God
    God will protect Israel from its enemy

    The nations will submit to you, and the peoples will bow down to you; be masters over your brothers, and your mother’s children will bow down to you. Whoever curses you is accursed, and whoever blesses you is blessed.” Genesis 27:29

    Those who curces Israel will be accursed

    Hamas, Turkey, Iran curse Israel
    God will punish them

    If Ahmadiyah hate or curse Israel and show favour to Hamas, Iran etc God will continue to punish Ahmadiyah through extrremist Muslim.

    I advice you Rafiq to stop blame Israel and USA.

    God bless ahmadiyah ❤️

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