Turkey and the World: SAME’s Briefing at the UK’s House of Commons
The South Asia and Middle East forum hosted its latest forum on Thursday 14th April in the House of Commons titled “Turkish Foreign Policy Aims in the Middle East.” The forum focused on the geopolitical repercussions of Turkish foreign policy and the humanitarian issues associated with the Syrian crisis and the inflow of migrants to Turkey and to Europe.
Turkey and the Refugee Crisis
Following introductory remarks by Mr. Khalid Nadeem, chairman of the forum, Mr. Tom Brake MP (Lib Dem Chief Whip and Shadow Leader of the House) spoke about Turkey and the refugee crisis. Opening with observations about the current state of British politics and advocating the government’s stance on remaining in the EU, Mr. Brake stressed the need for the UK to greatly increase its involvement with the EU refugee crisis.
“There is more that the UK can and should do from a humanitarian perspective for what is after all the biggest refugee crisis that Europe has faced since the Second World War.”
However, Mr. Brake warned against supporting the EU deal with the Erdogan government, citing concerns of forced deportation of Syrian refugees, including unaccompanied children, by Turkish authorities. While Mr. Brake supports greater UK involvement in dealing with the refugee crisis, he admitted that “tough decisions must be made” regarding the acceptance of refugees.
“The UK can’t open its doors to every economic migrant from around the world,” he said.
Mr. Brake talked about how the refugee crisis is impacting the Brexit referendum. “The more we delay, the more photos we see of refugees coming West, the more likely Brexit.” Mr. Brake continued: “If you’re a good European like I am, the UK plays a role in helping EU re-location. Cutting off sea routes will just shift routes to overland, affecting different countries.”
Save the Children wants the UK to take 3000 unaccompanied children who are already in the EU (out of 30,000). That breaks down to 5 kids per parliamentary constituency.
Turkey-Syria Relations in Historical Context
Henry Hogger, former British ambassador to Syria, spoke about Turkey-Syria relations. Under Ottoman rule, Syria prospered and culturally assimilated while maintaining a measure of autonomy. Their resentment of French colonial rule made them nostalgic for Ottoman times and has colored their view of the West ever since.
After WWI, Turkey largely ignored Arab world for 100 years, and its relations with Syria had little substance, and what geopolitical events there were, were not constructive: Syria still resents the French awarding the province of Hatay (Antioch) to Turkey prior to WWII, as a bribe to keep Turkey neutral (highlighting their grievance, Syrian maps still show Antioch as part of Syria). In the 1990s, Turkey argued with Syria over their accommodation of PKK (Kurdish) dissident leader Abdullah Ocalan, who was living in exile in Syria. Syria eventually expelled him, but not to Turkey.
The arrival of new Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, brought a rapprochement, solidified with exchanges of high-level visits. At the time, both Syria and Turkey were essentially secular regimes, faced with growing fundamentalist Islamist tendencies in the region. Turkey as a West-supported “role model” for democracy and good governance in the Middle East may have had attraction for Bashar in the early days of his Presidency, when he showed signs of interest in political and economic liberalisation. Turkey was also involved (with Egypt) in brokering the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
The 2011 uprising in Syria complicated the relationship. Syrian regime became suspicious of Erdogan, now President and more overtly Islamist and authoritarian, as a threat given his support for Syrian opposition, all of which the Syrian regime regards as “terrorists.” Turkey accused of allowing IS to infiltrate border, and of buying Syrian oil from IS. They probably underestimated durability of Syrian regime and its underpinning security apparatus, assuming it would go the way of other Arab Spring regimes.
Kurdish issue a further complication. Turkey initially supported Kurds as allies against a Syrian regime they came to hate – as well as one of the few effective forces fighting the Daesh. But their identification of Syrian Kurdish fighters with those of the PKK, which Turkey had started to attack after a period of stand-off, caused them to bracket Syrian Kurds with PKK as a potential threat to Turkish unity.
Tensions were heightened by more active Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict starting in 2015 and came to a head with the Turkish shooting down of a Russian aircraft crossing Turkish airspace in late November 2015. That was an alarming event for the West, because Turkey is in NATO and that would pit the US and its NATO allies in armed conflict against Russia.
Turkish pressure for safe haven/no-fly zone on the Syrian side of border a further irritant: it is resisted by both the Syrians and the Russians. It is also likely impractical while Russian aircraft remain active in the area. However, the no-fly zone concept may be revisited following Russian military “withdrawal,” particularly in light of the difficulty Turkey is having in housing refugees returning from Greece under new agreement with the EU on their own side of the border.
Dr. Latif Tas, a research fellow at SOAS, spoke about Turkish- Kurdish relations. Kurds are the 4th largest nation in the Middle East, after the Turks, Arabs and Persians. Dr. Tas openly accused the Erdogan government of increasingly authoritarian tendencies and failing to deliver on election pledges made in 2002, namely:
- A clear constitution
- A strong democracy
- Rule of law
- Free speech
- Good neighbor policy
- Peaceful resolution with the Kurds, with greater inclusion of their communities.
Dr. Tas said none of those promises had been kept and warned that tensions between Kurdish militant groups and the Turkish government are reaching dangerous levels, with the recent spate of terrorist attacks providing evidence of increased mutual hostility. “Personal power is more important than peace to Erdogan,” he stated. Consequently, younger Kurds are being radicalized because they are disillusioned with thought that they can be reasonable with the Erdogan government.
The Kurds defend Kobany, and the PYD and PKK both want autonomy in their current nation-state; Turkey will have to accept it, while resisting the label of ‘Kurdistan.’ The YPG and PKK are fighting a two-front war: against Daesh in Syria, against Erdogan in Turkey. Yet the YPG and YPJ are the boots on the ground against ISIS/Daesh: they liberated Kobany, not the Peshmerga.
Dr. Tas said women have a role to play in the peace process because Kurds are more gender equal that the Turks. He thinks it is unconscionable that he Kurds are not part of the Syrian peace talks in Geneva.
Veteran journalist Adel Darwish commented on Turkey’s relationship with Iran and the Middle East. Turkey-Iran relations, he claimed, are an example of the complexity and contradictory nature of regional interactions, driven by ideology against pragmatism and politico-economic interests. He illustrated the continuance of trade between the two countries which has remained at a stable level since 1915 and cited cooperation between the two in supporting Azerbaijan against Russian intervention. He then elaborated on Turkish relations with the rest of the Middle East, complicated by Iran’s relationship with Saudi Arabia; agreement between Turkey and various Middle Eastern nations over animosity with the Assad regime and simultaneous antagonism between Gulf States and Turkey instigated by Erdogan’s alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood. He cited accusations of Erdogan following a neo-ottoman agenda, and Turkey’s insistence on the removal of Assad as a source of prolonged tension in the region following Russian involvement in Syria and subsequent long-term prospects of the Assad government.
Lieutenant General Sir Barney White-Spunner, former Deputy Director of Defence Policy at NATO, spoke about Turkey, NATO and the Syrian crisis. He provided insight on the perspective of the Turkish Armed Forces. He stressed Turkey’s significant military capabilities as the second largest army in NATO, with 400,000 troops. Yet it funds this impressive force with only $18 billion, a military budget equivalent to Algeria’s.
Sir Barney explained how the army sees itself as the guardians of the legacy of modern Turkey’s founder Kemal Ataturk, and how the Army’s position has changed significantly since 2010 when Turkey enjoyed strong relations with the EU, was involved in dialogue with the Kurds and had a stable neighbor in Syria. Within 5 years, Turkey’s strained relations with Russia, the increased political and military capabilities of Turkey’s Kurdish minority and advances by allied Kurdish forces against ISIS in Syria and Iraq have placed greater pressure on the Turkish army, increasing its aggressiveness. Furthermore, since 2010 Erdogan has weakened the Turkish military leadership. Consequently, they are becoming a third force, separate from Erdogan.
Sir Barney completed his presentation by assessing that it looks increasingly likely that Assad “will be a fixture,” and he looks quite certain to remain in power for at least the next two years.
Turkey – Russia Relations
Bill Park (email@example.com), senior lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at Kings College and the UK Defence Academy, spoke about Turkey-Russia relations.
Turkey’s flirtation with Moscow up until the November 2015 downing of a Russian jet was extensive and even worrying for Turkey’s western allies. The Turkey-Russia High Level Cooperation Council established in 2010 mirrored similar arrangements that Turkey made with a number of its near neighbours, and very much reflected the ‘Zero Problems with the Neighbours’ strategy of then foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. It led to regular government-to-government meetings, and among the initiatives it produced was visa free travel between the two countries, and an expansion of cultural exchanges and the like. Such initiatives were accompanied by rapidly expanding trade relations, an increase in the flow of investments and business contracts between them – Turkish construction companies did particularly well from this blossoming of the bilateral relationship – while Russia overtook Germany as the biggest source of tourists to Turkey. The two countries also cooperated within the context of regional multilateral arrangements such as the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and the Black Sea Naval Force (BlackSeaFor), both of which stemmed from Turkish initiatives and predated the election in November 2002 of the Justice and Development Party in Ankara.
In more recent years Ankara’s positive approach to Russia appeared to take a more emphatic turn. In 2010 Turkey awarded the contract to build the country’s first nuclear plant, at Akkuyu in Mersin province, to a subsidiary of the Russian company Rosatom. Following Moscow’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea, Turkey failed to join EU sanctions against Russia, notwithstanding the potential risk to the security of the peninsula’s Turkic and Muslim Tatar population, and even moved to replace the EU’s export of foodstuffs to Russia. Turkey also risked increasing its energy dependence on Russia by its embrace of President Vladimir Putin’s sudden cancellation of the South Stream gas pipeline in December 2014 in favour of Turkish Stream, which was accompanied by a price cut in Russian gas supplied to Turkey. South Stream, which would deliver Russian gas to the European market via Bulgaria, avoiding Ukraine, had been controversial in Europe from the outset, and had become even more so in the wake of Russia’s Ukrainian aggression. Ankara’s embrace of the Turkish Stream project also reflected Turkey’s ambition to develop as an energy hub.
All this took place against a backcloth of what was seen as the ‘Putinisation’ of Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two leaders appeared to like each other but also to resemble each other in their growing authoritarianism and anti-western rhetoric. This was symbolised by Erdogan’s 2013 appeal to Putin to ‘include us in the Shanghai Five (the Moscow and Beijing sponsored Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and we will forget about the EU’. Turkey had embarked on a more undemocratic and non-western path which continues to this day, and Erdogan’s relationship with Putin appeared as an expression of this trajectory.
However, there were many often long-standing underlying foreign policy differences between the two countries, and the blossoming of Turkey-Russia relations indicated a readiness to compartmentalize issues and to sweep difficulties under the carpet, a tendency similarly evident in Ankara’s relationship with Tehran. Russia had long been more sympathetic to the Greek side on Cyprus; and with Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan, which is Islamic, Turkic, an alternative supplier of energy to Turkey, not least via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (TBC) pipeline which had represented an attempt to circumvent Russia’s domination of regional pipeline routes, and a recipient of Turkish military assistance. Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008 had disrupted Ankara’s burgeoning friendship with Tbilisi. Turkey’s 2012 hosting of an early warning radar component of NATO’s ballistic missile defence system had earned the wrath of both Tehran and Moscow. Furthermore, the energy relationship between the two countries had long been bedeviled by differences over contracts, price, routes, supplies, and the like. Nor could the relationship quite free itself from a centuries-old legacy of mistrust and rivalry dating back to Ottoman and Tsarist times.
However, the uprising against Syria’s Assad regime had really pitted Ankara and Moscow against each other. Turkey had actively sought the regime’s overthrow since late 2011, while for its part Moscow (and Tehran) had lent the regime financial, diplomatic and military support from the outset. Russia’s direct military intervention on behalf of Damascus in September 2015 escalated this rivalry in Turkey’s immediate backyard, and it was perhaps only a matter of time before an incident such as the November 2015 downing of the Russian plane occurred. The incident followed repeated warnings from Turkey, but also came in the wake of intensified Russian attacks against Ankara-backed (and largely Turkmen) fighters around Idlib. These had prompted a Turkish complaint to Moscow’s ambassador to Ankara just days before the Russian plane was shot down. Turkey was also on the verge of increasing its involvement in Syria, in agreement with the US, to create an Islamic State-free zone along the so-called Marea line, between Jarabulus in the east and the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the west. From Ankara’s perspective, it would also be a zone free of Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
Turkey appeared not to anticipate the ferocity of the Russian response, which included a further intensification of attacks against Ankara-backed opposition forces along the Syria-Turkish border, the banning of food imports from Turkey, the cancellation of the visa-free travel agreement, the exclusion of Turkish companies from commercial tenders in Russia, the cancelling of charter flights (flights and travel are currently fifty percent down on their pre-crisis levels), various restrictions and obstructions on cultural exchanges, travel and trade, a hint at a criminalisation in Russia of Armenian genocide denial, and an end to military cooperation.
There have also been threats to energy cooperation between the two countries. Gas flows from Russia were reduced, the price reduction of gas to Turkey was cancelled, there have been apparent delays in the Akkuyu nuclear plant project, and negotiations over the Turkish Stream project, which had in any case already met with obstacles, were halted.
There is though an element of self-destructiveness in Moscow’s behavior, and it is perhaps not surprising that by mid-April Moscow had restored both the flow of gas to its previous levels and re-instituted the agreed price reduction. Russian exports to Turkey, even when energy sales are taken out of the equation, are greater than other way around, and much greater if energy is included. Also the damage done by EU sanctions on Russia, and the drop in the global oil price, mean Russia is already suffering severe economic problems. Furthermore, the penalties to Russia of contract non-fulfillment that were written into the Akkuyu and Turkish Stream projects are considerable. Of course in the short term Turkey is suffering from the decline in agricultural exports and in tourism, an impact reinforced by the decline in trade due to the Middle East’s multiple crises. But over time Turkey has very real energy alternatives to reliance on Russia, and Ankara is already pursuing them with vigour. The Trans-Anatolian pipeline (TANAP), bringing gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz II field to Turkey and beyond, is due for completion in 2018. Gas should also begin to flow into Turkey from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s considerable fields in 2018. Turkey also plans to take liquid natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, Egypt and Algeria. The obvious route for the transportation of gas from Israel’s Leviathan field is also via Turkey, which no doubt goes some way to explain the current talks between Turkey and Israel aimed at a full restoration of their troubled relationship.
The impact on Turkey’s position in Syria has been more problematic for Ankara. Washington has been obliged to dissuade Turkey from greater military involvement in Syria through fear of a Russian retaliation. The US has also been actively cooperating with Moscow in a search for peace in Syria, and appears to have softened a little in its determination that Assad be removed from office. Both the US and Russia are cooperating with the Kurdish forces of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD. Much to Ankara’s consternation, this has served to enhance the position of the PKK-linked Syrian Kurds still further, although Ankara has managed to exclude them from the Syria peace talks in Geneva. Ankara’s fixation on overthrowing Assad is now very much at the mercy of Russia (and Iran). Russia has added its voice to the widespread accusation that Turkey has been actively assisting IS and other jihadi groups, and even that Erdogan and his family have been benefitting from oil trade with IS. The emergence of Jihadism is surely a very real concern in Moscow, and Turkey is viewed with suspicion by Moscow and others for its approach to jihadi forces in Syria.
The recent Armenia-Azerbaijan flare up has added to the tension between Ankara and Moscow. Ankara has pledged its full support to Azerbaijan, while Russia has augmented its Mig fighter and attack helicopter forces in Armenia, basing them just a few miles from Turkey’s border. There are now Russian aerial patrols along Turkey’s borders with both Syria and Armenia. Were the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict to escalate, the BTC pipeline would be extremely vulnerable. Add to that the scope for maritime incidents in the Bosphorus as Russian naval vessels exit the Black Sea, then it becomes clear that potential flash points and triggers are numerous.
Moscow’s behaviour appears vengeful, risky, rash, and economically self-destructive, and it raises questions concerning the economic price ordinary Russians might be prepared to pay in return for Putin’s indoubtedly popular strong man image. Turkey in a stronger position economically perhaps, but it too is suffering from the alienation of most of its neighbours – Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt etc – and its western allies alike. Ankara’s inflexibility towards the role Syrian Kurds have played in the fight against IS, towards the Assad regime, and its slow and unconvincing response to the IS threat, has caught it in a diplomatic and political trap of its own making. This is compounded by the collapse of the peace process with its own Kurds, and the violence that has ensued. For now, Russia is a key determinant of Syria’s more immediate future, Turkey isn’t.
Rationally both Putin and Erdogan should step back, but the foreign policy of their two countries in general and the relationship between their two countries specifically appears very dependent on two proud and risk-taking individuals. They can both be difficult to predict and can behave self-destructively. Trust has been broken, differences have come to the fore, and neither seems ready or able to compromise. Even if relations do improve – and this cannot be excluded given the mercurial nature of both Erdogan and Putin and the stakes involved – both will have learned from the breakdown of their earlier embrace. Both Moscow and Ankara – and especially Erdogan – might tread more carefully in future, and it might be far less possible to compartmentalise the relationship between their two countries.
Diana Johnson MP, shadow minister for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, spoke on Turkish-UK relations. She referred to the strong cultural link between Turkey and the UK which has a large and active Turkish community; Turkey’s strategic significance in NATO as the only Muslim majority member of NATO; and the potential future EU membership of Turkey as a defining factor in UK-Turkey relations. Ms. Johnson advocated Turkey’s membership of the EU, citing its strong relations with the Middle East; economic benefits of access to Turkish markets; increased cooperation over the Syrian refugee crisis and security cooperation as a key ally against Assad and Daesh. However, she stressed the need for openness, democracy and respect for the rule of law within Turkey.
The current UK EU referendum campaign has detracted from the UK’s long term goal for securing Turkish membership of the EU, she said. Furthermore, Turkish aggression against the Kurds is damaging the fight against IS. Domestic concerns within Turkey about freedom of press and the absence of a fully-functioning democracy are of major concern for the UK, Ms. Johnson said. It was important, she said, that Britain should be “a critical friend” to Turkey.
Nevertheless, both Obama and Cameron initially misread Erdogan: they bought thought he was moderate and benign. Neither has turned out to be the case.
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