Time for Turkey to return to the West
Two important developments in two days reanimated hopes that Ankara is opting to improve its relations with the West and that, vice versa, the West is opting to better understand Turkey’s problems.
Two key contacts with Turkey’s two major NATO allies were on the agenda: Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım visited Germany to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the occasion of the Munich Security Conference. And U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ankara to meet President Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
In Yıldırım’s meeting with Merkel, which took place on the eve of the formation of a new coalition government in Germany, ways to leave behind the many crises between the two countries were on the agenda. Despite problems in 2016 and 2017, including the arrest of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel, economic ties between the two countries continued to grow.
For example, Siemens, which has a history stretching back more than 160 years in Turkey, won a $1 billion wind energy contract with its Turkish partner Kalyon in the second half of 2017. Indeed, a day before Yıldırım’s departure for Berlin, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser paid a visit to President Erdoğan in Ankara on Feb. 14. What’s more, German tourists have reportedly started to return their gaze to Antalya, long one of their most popular destinations, in 2018. The German government also recently dismissed calls to prevent the use of Leopard tanks in Turkey’s ongoing military operation into the Syrian district of Afrin. In Turkey, meanwhile, on Feb. 16 an Istanbul criminal court finally accepted the indictment against Yücel and released him from jail, which was welcomed in Berlin.
All these developments indicate that with improving relations on the political side, relations on the economic and social sides also have the potential to improve. The same is valid for Turkey’s relations with France and Italy, the presidents of which Erdoğan spoke to recently in visits to Paris and Rome.
These contacts could ultimately result in an improvement in Turkey’s relations with the European Union as a whole. Within that framework, the Feb. 14-15 visit to Turkey by Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland was also probably important.
It is same for relations with the U.S., only much more complicated. Çavuşoğlu had said in advance of Tillerson’s visit that relations between the two countries could either get better or worse but not stay the same. Following a three-hour-plus meeting between Erdoğan, Tillerson and Çavuşoğlu on the evening of Feb. 15 - and a near two-hour meeting between Tillerson and Çavuşoğlu with their delegations on the morning of Feb. 16 - the joint declaration and joint press conference showed that Ankara-Washington ties are at least not going to get worse for the time being.
The U.S. condemned the July 2016 coup attempt, which is widely believed in Turkey to have been masterminded by U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen and his network. Gülen is also one of the subjects of the working groups that the two ministers announced will be established, holding their first meetings in the first half of March.
But the main focus of the Tillerson visit was the Turkish-U.S. rift in Syria. It was interesting to see Tillerson saying the status of the town of Manbij was a priority, as Çavuşoğlu said Turkey wanted the U.S. to keep its promises and remove the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Manbij to the east of Euphrates as a precondition for coordinating actions in Syria.
The YPG is the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting Turkey for decades and which is considered a terrorist group by both Turkey and the U.S. It is also worth mentioning that the working groups include diplomats, soldiers and intelligence officers, probably to avoid any excuses about “lack of coordination between agencies.”
It is too early to say that Turkey’s relations with the West are back on track following recent troubles. But we can perhaps say they are getting closer to normalization, which should ultimately also be good for reviving Turkish democracy within EU standards.