Don’t sacrifice Turkey to save Syria
Murderous suicide bombings. A deadly upsurge of ethno-sectarian violence spilling over from Syria. A country whose friendship with the US and EU is increasingly fragile, and is now at daggers drawn with a historic enemy, Russia.
With another 28 people killed in the 17 February attack on Turkish soldiers in Ankara, there seems no end to Turkey’s misfortunes. Even scarier scenarios doing the rounds in the Turkish capital include talk of a 14th Russo-Turkish war, unprecedented polarisation of Turkish society and a continuation of the wave of Syrian refugees.
The time has come to focus on Turkey which, for all its troubles, remains an anchor of stability for many of today’s stressed geopolitical fault lines – between Russia and the west, the Middle East and Europe, the existing world order and a violent extremist alternative.
Some parts of Turkey’s many-fronted crisis are of its leadership’s own making. But a major intervention by Turkey’s friends is needed to reverse the vicious cycle dragging it down, whether through high-level joint visits, financial support for refugees or action on the ground. On the western side, at least, Turkey, the US and Europe’s true interests lie where they always really have done: in an enduring, interdependent and stable partnership.
Nothing has altered the connections binding US, European and Turkish interests together: 80 million people on Europe’s south-eastern flank in what is historically one of the most democratic, secular-minded and economically advanced of the 57 countries of the Muslim world.
And its troubles must be seen in context. Turkey’s economy still boasts vibrant manufacturing tigers. Istanbul airport bustles with the far-reaching success of Turkish Airlines, Europe’s best airline for five years in a row. Recent history teaches that the Turkish state is most unlikely to crumple or abandon any of its territory to any other force.
Turkey has been a full member of Nato since 1952, even if Ankara and its allies have not always seen eye to eye. Western decisions to invade Iraq in 2003 or bomb Libya in 2011 flew in the face of Ankara’s counsel, the wisdom of which is now evident. As a neighbour of Syria, Turkey was rash to turn so irrevocably against Bashar al-Assad. But history may yet judge just as harshly the west’s decision to ignore Ankara and not take short, sharp, early action in Syria.
A dangerous turning point is now evident in northern Syria, where Turkey faces challenges from Kurdish fighters, Russia and Iran. Wrong moves by both Turkey and the US here are already cracking open the Nato bedrock of Turkey’s relationship with the west. US and European leaders have rushed into a policy that posits Islamic State as the principal threat that must be countered at all costs.
This diagnosis is incorrect. Isis’s brutal antics are less a cause than a dreadful symptom of previous bad policies and a power vacuum at the heart of the Middle East. Far more people have been killed by the wanton bombings of the Syrian government of Assad than by Isis.
Viewing everything through the lens of Isis falls into the propaganda trap that it has set. Isis-first tactics risk losing the much greater prize, a stable, prosperous Turkey. Any sustainable Syria strategy must go the extra mile to integrate the Turkish dimension.
Here Turkey and the west must overcome their friction over the Syrian Kurds. In the name of combating Isis, the US is cooperating intimately with the Syrian Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG). Yet the YPG is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which has fought a 31-year-old insurgency against Turkey, and which the US and the EU call a terrorist organisation.
Western governments must get their own policies in tune with one another. They should hold Turkey strictly to international standards in its handling of just governance, including Kurdish rights, and go the extra mile to persuade Turkey to return to peace talks with the PKK that were cut off last year. But they must also recognise that the PKK played a big role in sabotaging the ceasefire, its ambitions pumped up by the feeling that western support in Syria would carry over to new gains in Turkey.
Turkey believes Russia and Iran are supporting the PKK precisely because it sees the organisation as a means of tripping the country up, opportunistically using the Syria crisis to weaken Turkey’s links to the west and, ideally, to create a crisis in Nato. Russian warplanes are constantly flying up close to Turkey’s Syrian border, trying to light the legendarily short fuse of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erdoğan now needs to engage constructively with his western partners, on whose goodwill Turkey’s strategic security relies. He should restart peace efforts with the PKK and reach a deal in direct talks with the YPG that would ensure Turkish border security and end Turkish army shelling into Syria.
For its part, the west should return to the proper strategic long view: warning the PKK that destabilising Turkey is unacceptable; urging a return to the peace process; helping Turkey in its efforts to de-escalate with Russia; and building up Turkey-EU relations on a broad front.
Nobody knows what the future holds in terms of Turkish membership of the EU. The end goal has been vague ever since the Ankara agreement began an integration process in 1963, and multiple crises in the EU means there is no appetite for further enlargement today. But progress in the negotiations gives Turkey a credible reform agenda to work towards, improving life and governance in the country.
Europe, struggling with and torn over the refugee crisis, has offered €3bn to Turkey in a desperate, long-overdue attempt to control refugee flows. But the price tag for Europe will be immeasurably higher if Middle Eastern predicament reaches further into Turkey, not just in extra costs but, as in the 1990s, perhaps also in Turkish Kurd refugee numbers as well.
European leaders – whose countries are far richer and safer than Turkey – should take a high-minded lead. Among a newly engaged class of European officials working on Turkey, there is already little of the old subtext that it is a faraway buffer, or that Brussels will be able to dictate outcomes in the country. Their Turkish official counterparts are often eager for avenues to restore the old cooperation.
The Syrian war is a cumulative international tragedy. In the current geopolitical storms, Turkey and the west are clearly in the same boat.