March 14, 2017
First, it was “zero problems with neighbors”. Then, it was regime change in Syria. Ankara was so determined that it shot down a Russian fighter-jet provoking a major crisis with Moscow. In May 2016, following an unavoidable government reshuffle, the motto became “more friends and fewer enemies” and that appeared to make sense. Reconciliation with Russia thus started to move forward, at a cost of course. The future of relations with the Trump administration remain uncertain because of the question of Fethullah Gülen’s extradition as well as America’s collaboration with the YPG. And now, Ankara is burning bridges with its traditional European allies who are also Turkey’s major economic partners and home to millions of Turks. The first was Germany (*) only to be followed by the Netherlands not to mention the others.
Last week a trilateral meeting in Antalya brought together the chiefs of staff of Turkey, Russia and the United States. Without saying much, newspapers reported about the meeting and carried some pictures. One showed Turkey’s Chief of General Staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar at the head of the table. On his right was Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., America’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and on his left Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian General Staff. As a Turkish columnist said, “appearances can be deceiving”. Because, looking at the picture one could get the impression that Turkey had brought Russia and the United States together in a groundbreaking meeting to forge a united front to deal a fatal blow to Daesh. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
The reported purpose of the meeting was to discuss “the fight against all terrorist organizations in Syria” and “the importance of additional measures for de-conflicting operations”.
Turkey has stated time and again that it considers the YPG a terrorist organization, an extension of the PKK. Yet, on March 8, 2017, commenting on the Antalya meeting State Department’s Acting Spokesperson Mr. Toner stated the following:
“With respect to Manbij, which I thought you asked about – if you didn’t, then I’ll offer it up – they did discuss Manbij, but only in the context of the larger fight against ISIS in the region. They also discussed other terrorist organizations that are active including PKK, al-Qaida, al-Nusrah Front as part of the regional security picture…
“… again, I would say, with respect to the YPG, we’ve always long supported the YPG within the context of the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces that are operating in northern Syria. They’ve been very effective – we’ve talked about this many times – in removing ISIS from the battlefield, dislodging them, and ultimately destroying them. I think they’ve liberated some 6,000 kilometers and more than 100 villages from ISIS around Raqqa since the operation began on November 4th. We’re also obviously mindful of Turkey’s concerns with respect to the YPG and we respectfully disagree with them linking the YPG with the PKK. And let’s be very clear that, with respect to the PKK, we still view them as a terrorist organization…”
And, on March 12, Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL stated the following in Baghdad:
“… We are, of course, very actively focused on Raqqa, and the Syrian Democratic Forces now are about 10 kilometers outside of the city, so — and we are, of course, helping to enable those operations…”
It is clear, in the light of the foregoing, that the recent temporary deployment of additional American troops to the outskirts of Manbij aims at ensuring that Turkish forces and the Syrian opposition groups in the area “remain focused” on battling ISIS rather than each other.
Suffice to say, before the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) government plunged into the Syrian conflict, Turkey did not have a PYD problem. Now, however, Ankara’s main problem has become preserving Syria’s territorial integrity. And, no doubt in an effort to prepare the public opinion for another about-face, some have started to suggest that under the present circumstances Ankara can perfectly resume its dialogue with Damascus.
Since the Syrian conflict has become our principal foreign and security policy problem one would expect Ankara to look for stability on other fronts. On the contrary, our relations with Europe have taken another blow with the recent spat with the Netherlands. With regard to this latest episode, the following might be highlighted:
- Turkish law bars election propaganda abroad. This includes Turkey’s diplomatic and consular missions. The argument that this is not an election but a referendum is not relevant.
- Countries have the right to allow or to disallow such activities on their territory.
- Therefore, Ankara should have refrained from sending its ministers to the Netherlands in the context of Turkey’s constitutional referendum to be held on April 16.
- Ankara should also have foreseen that the sending of ministers only a few days before the Dutch parliamentary elections would trigger a negative reaction by The Hague.
- Dutch authorities should have allowed the Turkish Minister of Family and Social Policy to proceed to the Turkish Consulate in Rotterdam and informed her that no propaganda would be permitted. Their preventing the Turkish Consul from leaving the building to meet the Minister was wrong.
- NATO and the EU are right to invite the two countries to seek dialogue and avoid inflammatory language. Turkish government and the main opposition which is also trying to use the crisis for internal political purposes need to hear the calls for moderation. Regrettably, only a month before the constitutional referendum such calls are likely to fall on deaf ears.
- Turkish communities in Europe will bear the brunt of the escalation in Ankara’s relations with the EU.
- Turkey’s latest spats with Germany and the Netherlands reflect an overarching problem of chemistry with Europe and may prove to be the final nail in the coffin for Turkey’s long-defunct EU accession process.
(*) Turkey’s Latest Spat with Germany, March 6, 2017