The US, the EU and Turkey: Now what?

The US, the EU and Turkey: Now what?

Nate Schenkkan, David J. Kramer
The collapse of coalition talks and the scheduling of new elections for Nov. 1 concluded a tumultuous summer for Turkey. The “game-changer” of Turkey engaging more fully in the anti-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) campaign now seems hollow. It appears clear that President Erdoğan’s interest is less in confronting the challenge of ISIL – despite recent terrorist attacks inside Turkey itself – and more in dealing a knockout blow to domestic Kurdish forces in order to secure a parliamentary majority for the Justice and Development Party (AKP). This poses a significant challenge to the West and the U.S. in particular as they struggle to formulate any kind of coherent approach to Syria and the crumbling Middle East. 

Following the EU’s new foreign policy head Federica Mogherini’s visit to Turkey in December 2014, the EU has been attempting to reset the relationship with Turkey by focusing on areas where there can be bilateral progress outside the accession process. This had been unhelpfully preventing necessary engagement on issues of mutual interest for the two sides – visas and migration, a deepened customs union, and counterterrorism, especially. The policy recognizes that there is little hope for real progress on accession, due to the grave (and in some cases increasing) opposition to Turkish membership from key European parties, the Turkish side’s regular and overt rejection of the EU’s values agenda, and a lack of meaningful Turkish effort in a number of technical areas. It was an appropriate reaction to the Erdoğan years, setting aside for better times the issue of accession, while hoping the intervening period does not make things worse. Yet the refugee crisis rooted in Syria and Iraq that is now consuming Europe is a sign it will not be enough. 

Meanwhile, the approach of the U.S. threatens to extend from a strategic disaster in Syria into a strategic disaster in Turkey. It is hard to escape the sense that the US was played when it announced that it welcomed the opening of the İncirlik airbase for lethal U.S. operations against ISIL, only to have the announcement undercut by the Turkish bombing raids against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq. The timing ensured that the U.S. could not roll back its declaration of gratitude to Turkey, even as Turkey was pounding targets of the mother organization for the U.S.’s best fighting ally so far in northern Syria – the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. Add to this the total failure of the “train and equip” program for U.S.-approved Syrian fighters, and now Russia’s rapid military build-up in Latakia, and it is clear that the U.S. has no idea what it wants in Syria or how to get it. 

At a minimum, the U.S. must not trade Turkish support for the anti-ISIL bombing campaign at the cost of a peace agreement in Turkey. More actively, it must address the tremendous risk in Erdoğan’s determination to remain in power at all costs, even to the point of rejecting pluralist governance and embracing Turkish nationalism. Erdoğan is not going to change his approach based on U.S. pressure. But other political actors in Turkey, including more moderate members of the AKP, need to understand that the U.S. sees a nationalist turn as damaging the alliance with the U.S. and NATO. Despite wide public hostility to the U.S. in Turkey, Turkish elites understand the importance of the U.S. relationship and communicating that message quietly might be the best way forward. The U.S.’s terrorist listing of the PKK should not obscure the fact that a peace settlement in Turkey is a must.

The U.S. and the EU need to ensure that Turkey remains a democracy, not only in the narrow sense of having free and fair elections, but also in the ability of citizens and others within Turkey’s borders to realize their rights and to feel represented in the political process. This is a key interest for the West because any sustainable solution to the present nightmare in the Middle East will require making Turkey a constructive actor in the region and integrating it more with the West. These interests may not intersect with Erdoğan’s agenda, but that is no reason for the U.S. and EU not to pursue them. 

* Nate Schenkkan is Project Director for “Nations in Transit” at Freedom House. David J. Kramer is Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and former President of Freedom House. This is an abridged version of the original article in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Summer 2015 issue.