Turkey needs solid steps for a better image
It is obvious from diplomatic contacts and statements last week that the Turkish government is seeking to adopt a new line to decrease antagonism with the West, both with the U.S. and the European Union. The change comes after a steady course of declining relations for the past six or seven years, roughly since the start of the Arab Spring.
Gülnur Aybet, the foreign policy advisor of President Tayyip Erdoğan, tells Barçın Yinanç in today’s Hürriyet Daily News that the Feb. 15-16 visit of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Ankara helped avert a “collision” - and perhaps a complete breakdown of relations - between the two NATO allies. Her assessment is in line with what Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said before Tillerson’s visit: Ties would either improve or get worse, but could not stay the same. Considering the Feb. 17 comments of U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, in which he showed more empathy to Turkey’s security concerns regarding Syria, it is possible to say that a further downward spiral in ties has at least been halted for the time being.
Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım was in Germany to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel on Feb. 15, again aiming for a bettering of relations. The grounds for the visit, which took place on the eve of the formation of a new coalition government in Germany, had been prepared by two foreign ministers: Çavuşoğlu and Sigmar Gabriel. The next day, as Yıldırım was on his way to the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 16, an Istanbul court released Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel from prison. His trial on “terrorism propaganda” charges will continue but he will not be under arrest. Yıldırım had said on Feb. 14, while en route to Berlin, that he hoped Yücel would be released soon. In his subsequent address to the conference, he linked Turkey’s military operation in Syria – which has the indirect backing of Russia - with the wider security of Europe.
As was discussed in the NATO Defense Ministers’ meeting in Brussels last week, the issue of Europe’s security is gaining importance again due to the strengthening of Russia. But Turkey needs to talk about more than security to mend ties with the EU. The state of rights and freedoms - many of which have been limited by the state of emergency declared after the July 2016 military coup attempt - has increased the gap between standards in Turkey and those in the EU, particularly regarding the question of journalists and politicians in jail. A Feb. 14-15 visit to Ankara by Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland - in which he met ranking Turkish officials from Erdoğan to Çavuşoğlu and EU Affairs Minister Ömer Çelik - showed that some politicians in Europe also do not want to keep Turkey on the political boundaries of the continent.
The Ankara government seems to be aware that more has to be done to correct Turkey’s image. But it is still not likely that it will lift the state of emergency any time soon, as it believes the security threats that justified its declaration in the first place still exist. Those threats include the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its extensions in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG); the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Qaeda networks, and the network of U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, who is accused of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt and is still active in the U.S. and Europe.
However, the government could make some moderating changes to Turkey’s anti-terror law, in accordance with domestic and international criticism, especially from the EU. Certain changes may also be submitted to parliament to improve the judicial system. If such steps are taken, will it lead to a more emphatic attitude from the U.S. and the EU regarding Turkey’s anti-terror struggle? Time will tell. But if such steps are taken it would certainly make reconciliation between Turkey and the West easier, while also updating the quality of democracy in Turkey.