Transatlantic Take

Reducing Risks in Turkey’s Neighborhood

4 min read
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BRUSSELS – On March 7th, an extraordinary but little noticed meeting took place in Antalya in southern Turkey.

BRUSSELS – On March 7th, an extraordinary but little noticed meeting took place in Antalya in southern Turkey. That day, the military chiefs of staff of Turkey, the United States, and Russia met to discuss their operations across the border in Syria, where forces from all three countries, plus various militia groups, are operating in close proximity. However, the meeting does not imply a common strategy toward the defeat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State group, much less a concerted approach to the future of Syria. Rather it signals a common understanding of the critical importance of risk reduction as competing actors address the protracted chaos in Turkey’s neighborhood. The remarkable gathering also underscores Turkey’s obvious central importance as a partner — and a key stakeholder — in managing the most pressing challenges on Europe’s periphery.

The strategic value of Turkey to Europe’s own security has arguably never been higher. Terrorism linked to Islamic extremism in the Middle East, Africa, and the sub-continent, including the phenomenon of foreign fighters, will continue to head the list of problems faced by Europe, alongside human security and the criminal trafficking. The increasingly fraught relationship between Russia and the West is reshaping the security environment in the Black Sea, the Levant, and the Eastern Mediterranean. These are also key theaters for proxies backed by Iran and others. This is an extraordinary catalog of flashpoints and conflicts, many open-ended. Turks, and friends of Turkey, have traditionally seen the country as a physical and cultural bridge. Today, transatlantic partners are far more concerned about the continued viability of Turkey as a barrier to forces threatening the security of Europe.

The tenuous refugee deal between the EU and Turkey is just one example of what is at stake for Europe (and by extension, U.S. interests in European stability). But a truly comprehensive, strategic approach to cooperation with Turkey is becoming more elusive. The political relationship between Ankara and key EU members has deteriorated steadily, fueled by Turkey’s accelerating slide away from European democratic norms, and by the prominence of anti-Muslim, and sometimes explicitly anti-Turkish, discourse in the European political debate. The refugee deal is hardly a grand solution to ongoing migration pressures, but it is a hedge against politically explosive surges.

Under these conditions, the European relationship with Turkey could come to look more like that of Washington and Ankara. For decades, Turkish–American relations have been described as “strategic” by both sides. In reality, this has meant a series of operational agreements, overwhelmingly in the area of defense and security, often alongside sharp disagreements on overall policy. Questions of political and human rights have been especially difficult in recent years, but these have generally been put aside in the interest of national security. In all likelihood, the Trump administration will go even further in this direction. With Turkey’s EU candidacy all but derailed, but with regional concerns, from refugees and terrorism to energy security and stable relations with Russia at the top of the agenda, European and Turkish leaders may opt for a similarly transactional approach.

But Turkish–European interests are closely interwoven in ways that go well beyond regional security. Europe is Turkey’s leading economic partner, and millions of Turks live in the EU. Political disputes in Turkey can easily spill over into European societies. The ongoing war of words over the ability of Turkish politicians to campaign in Europe before the country’s upcoming April referendum on a presidential system underscores the importance of the European factor in Turkish politics — and vice versa. A purely transactional relationship with Turkey will be very hard to manage without the flywheel of a shared stake in the “European project” as Americans like to say.

Does Turkey have alternatives? The preference for closer, commercially driven ties to the Muslim world has proven a dead end, as Turkey has become more exposed to the violent sectarian spillovers of a troubled Middle East. Ankara’s periodic flirtation with Eurasian alternatives owes more to economic interest and pique at perceived Western neglect than to any serious strategic opening. Presidents Erdogan and Putin met this week in Moscow. Since Turkey’s dramatic downing of a Russian warplane in November 2015, both countries have moved swiftly to restore their shattered relations, and reduce the risk of a military clash. The talk in Moscow is likely to center on energy projects, tourism, and the conflict in Syria. Useful perhaps, but hardly a substitute for NATO as the security situation around Turkey continues to deteriorate.

Risk reduction — political, military, and economic — rather than sweeping strategic projects, has become the hallmark of the new engagement with Turkey. Policymakers on all sides are rightly looking for ways to hedge against further instability around Turkey, and in Turkey itself. Given the increasingly strained discourse between Ankara and its international partners, this is an understandable and perhaps a reasonable approach. Big, common projects are off the table. Tactical cooperation is the order of the day against a backdrop of mutual suspicion and frustration.