By Ruben Tjon-A-Meeuw
It was hardly a coincidence.
Mere hours before U.S. Vice President Joe Biden landed in Ankara to stress the significance of Turkish-American friendship, Turkish tanks rolled into northern Syria in an effort to drive Islamic State forces out of the border town of Jarablus. They were backed by U.S. air support and Syrian rebel fighters.
The foray into the Syrian quagmire, the first major Turkish ground offensive since the beginning of the civil war more than five years ago, illustrates the cardinal role Ankara could play in resolving the protracted conflict. It also comes at a time when Turkey’s relationship with its NATO allies is potentially at a turning point.
Biden’s visit on August 24 was aimed at smoothing strained U.S.–Turkish relations.
Following a thwarted military coup on July 15, Ankara responded with mass purges of governmental institutions and detained tens of thousands of military officers, journalists, judges and police.
Instead of quickly backing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to end the coup, many European and American leaders, concerned over human rights abuses and the erosion of democratic principles, instead urged the Turkish leader to proceed with restraint.
That, for many Turkish commentators and officials, demonstrated a worrisome lack of solidarity and misplaced concerns.
A possible Turkish turn away from its Western allies?
Meanwhile, Turkish media have been fanning conspiracy theories about American connivance, or even involvement, in the foiled coup. According to recent polls, two thirds of Turks believe the United States in some way helped the plotters.
Nurturing suspicions is the fact that Erdogan’s nemesis, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, lives in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. Turkey’s government holds Gülen’s network of supporters responsible for the events of July 15.
Erdogan has insisted that the United States should extradite Gülen. Washington’s failure to comply up until now has only bolstered Turkish leaders’ suspicions of their nominal ally’s priorities.
Against the backdrop of similar tensions between Ankara and several European countries, Erdogan’s visit to St. Petersburg earlier this month, where he met Russian President Vladimir Putin, has stoked apprehension among American and European diplomats.
Although relations between Ankara and Moscow turned openly hostile after Turkey’s air force last year shot down a Russian bomber aircraft that had allegedly entered Turkish air space, in recent weeks there have been signs of a rapprochement.
Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to declare steadfast support for the Turkish government after the coup attempt. In contrast to many European heads-of-state, he has not criticized alleged human rights abuses or Erdogan’s authoritarian style of governing.
Add to this ever more frequent top-level contacts between Turkey and Iran, and you have analysts warning of a possible Turkish turn away from its Western allies.
NATO and Western markets are still crucial to Turkey.
Such fears are almost certainly overblown. The St. Petersburg meeting most likely does not presage a strategic shift in Turkey’s diplomatic outlook. Differences dividing Putin and Erdogan still vastly outweigh any common anti-Western sentiment they might harbor.
Historically, the two countries have been regional rivals. The Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and its subsequent military build-up in the Black Sea have worried Turkey, and they serve as a reminder that NATO membership still represents Ankara’s most reliable security guarantee.
The same goes for the war in Syria, where Ankara and Moscow hold sharply divergent objectives. Turkey has long maintained that there cannot be peace without Syrian President Bashar al-Assad being removed from power, a prospect that is anathema to Moscow and Tehran.
Moreover, the ailing Russian economy can be no substitute for European and American markets. For Turkey to escape a looming middle-income trap, Western investment and expertise are indispensable.
It is time to acknowledge Turkey’s challenges and contributions.
Still, Ankara’s recent diplomatic overtures do force Washington and Brussels to acknowledge the country’s strategic importance. European security depends to a substantial degree on Turkey holding up its end of a refugee deal with the European Union. With its incursion into Syria, Ankara has demonstrated its potential role in defeating the Islamic State, and the intense coordination with NATO air support illustrates that there is still ample room for collaboration.
Erdogan is not fully at fault for criticizing the lack of solidarity shown by many Western nations in what are the most troubling times in decades for Turkey. Apart from the attempted coup, Turkey has been hit by a wave of terrorist attacks, is embroiled in an armed conflict with its Kurdish minority and has taken in more than three million Syrian refugees.
It is time for Western leaders to acknowledge Turkey’s challenges and contributions, and to demonstrate support for the Turkish people and their democratically elected government. This would add credibility to their undeniably necessary appeals to Ankara to respect democratic principles and the rule of law.
Hopefully then, Biden’s visit will not remain the only one of its kind.
(The views are the author’s.)
Ruben Tjon-A-Meeuw is a Swiss national in his second year of undergraduate studies at King’s College London, pursuing a degree in European Studies. He is interested in history, current affairs and economics, and hopes to enter a career where he can engage himself passionately with these topics.