Friday 21 October 2016

In times of stress, Turkey and the West only come closer together

All of Turkey's partners have an interest in continuity, writes Shashank Joshi

Shashank Joshi

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech to his supporters in Istanbul. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech to his supporters in Istanbul. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Turkey stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. As such, it has been a central player in Western strategy over the past several years.

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It is Nato's largest continental army in an age of Russian revanchism; a powerful force in the Syrian civil war; and at the crux of Europe's migrant crisis. It is therefore likely that, had last Friday's plotters succeeded in ousting Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Western countries would have come to terms with the new regime, much as they did with Pakistan's junta after 1999 and Egypt's after 2013.

Nato's history, after all, is littered with dictatorships. But it is evident that Erdogan has survived.

Erdogan had presided over an extraordinary period of Turkish foreign policy.

His aggressive intervention in Syria failed to dislodge Bashar al-Assad, but emboldened jihadists - while Syrian Kurds grew ever stronger. His relations with both Russia and Israel collapsed in violent acrimony. And his advocacy for the political Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood wrecked ties with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. As Erdogan cracked down at home, Europe and Nato squirmed. Turkey's cautious military was aghast but appeared impotent.

However, Russia's successful intervention in Syria last autumn, and the arrival of a new prime minister in May, appeared to trigger a course correction.

Turkey buried the hatchet with Tel Aviv and Moscow, stunned Syrian rebels by hinting at normalising ties with Assad, and continued to move closer to Saudi Arabia's new king. Rapprochement with Egypt, Iraq and Iran began to look plausible. The irony of last Friday night is that all this is surely not radically different to what a military government might have chosen.

Can these policies survive? We may see a period of even more erratic leadership as Erdogan reorients himself. The army is likely to be convulsed by sweeping purges that could trigger fresh crises.

Crucially, however, every one of Turkey's major partners has an interest in continuity. The EU will be desperate to protect the migrant deal agreed four months ago. The US and Russian foreign ministers, John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, increasingly agree that the focus in Syria ought to be on Isil, not Assad, and will be eager to secure Turkish agreement to a peace deal. Of course, one problem is that the US's extensive military support for Syrian Kurdish rebels linked to Turkey's own Kurdish insurgents has not gone away, and may well get worse as Isil is squeezed further.

At the same time, we are now likely to see a prolonged period of heightened repression. Erdogan has spent years undermining human rights. What does this mean for us? For one thing, it's a death knell for Turkey's already dim prospects of accession to the EU. For Nato, in the short-term, relations will be disrupted by the inevitable mayhem in the senior ranks of Turkey's military.

But the alliance's longer-term concern will be over Erdogan's posture towards Moscow. It will be eager that he does not now swing from the risky brinksmanship of last year. A more authoritarian Turkey sitting at the heart of regional diplomacy would be an apt reflection of our disordered times. The Western political, economic, and security order appears to be under stress. But it is that stress which will draw Turkey and its Western partners back together.

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

Sunday Independent

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