In one way or another, the killing of the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi marks a historical turning point for the region and beyond. ISIS will be instantaneously eradicated once and for all now that its leader has finally been taken down after many false flags. This terror group built upon radical Islamism and purist Salafism is likely to be here to stay. 

As for Turkey, the big question mark is how this terror group’s leader was able to feel secure enough a stone’s throw away from the Turkish border. Is Turkey’s security bureaucracy incapable of monitoring such radical Islamist terrorist activity right under its nose? Or is there a degree of “Pakistanization” due to infiltration of radicalism within the security apparatus, causing an all-encompassing self-inflicted blindness? 

All such possibilities end up with the same disturbing conclusion: the world’s most wanted man was located within walking distance from Turkey. 

The day after Baghdadi’s killing, there were police operations targeting ISIS cells in Ankara and Samsun, and 34 alleged members of the terror group were detained. One cannot help pondering why this hadn’t happened earlier.

The presence of ISIS in Turkey has gone completely undiscussed for a few years now: one notable exception was a news story covered by Duvar on October 13. This exclusive report by Hale Gönültaş detailed how a young Yazidi man from Iraq helped rescue his 18-year-old sister from where she was being held captive by an ISIS member in an Ankara apartment.

The surrealism of the emerging status quo

These weeks have indeed been the time of a “surreal reality”: President Donald Trump thanked Syria, alongside “Russia, Turkey, Iraq and the Kurds” for their assistance in the operation that killed al-Baghdadi. Certainly, with Trump at the helm in the White House, nothing is impossible. But still, the pace at which things are changing on the ground in Syria is simply overwhelming.  

Sometimes an image speaks volumes. Photojournalist Delil Souleiman’s shots from the northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli displayed an image that was unthinkable a few weeks back: U.S. troops passing through Assad’s checkpoints as the American and Syrian flags rippled in the same breeze.  

The international relations of all parties involved with the Syrian war are changing fast, abruptly, and surrealistically. Turkey may have its share of changing relations and perceptions in surprising and unforeseen ways as well.

All eyes were on Ankara’s relationship with Washington after Turkey’s “Peace Spring Operation” was launched. Speculation abounded that the path of these once-allies and then “strategic partners” had diverged for good. In fact, it was Turkey’s relations with the European Union and Europe in general that took the real and probably most lasting blow. In other words, it may be Turkey’s relations with the EU that have entered into the “final phase of deterioration” rather than with the U.S.—at least for the foreseeable future.

No friends but Hungary

No EU state (with the notable exception of Hungary) was even remotely empathetic to “Peace Spring Operation.” Only Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán cozied up with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the “Turkic Council” meeting in Baku in mid-October. The two also had Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó as company, since he bypassed the European Union foreign minsters meeting in Luxembourg that was imposing an arms embargo on Turkey. Hungary had already created a happy stir among Turkish social media users on October 10, when German news weekly Der Spiegel heralded the news that Szijjártó vetoed the issuing of a statement condemning the “Peace Spring Operation.”

The Hungary’s ambassador to the EU, Olivér Várhelyi, declared news of the veto “fake news” on his official Twitter account. Nevertheless, Szijjártó subsequently bragged to Hungarian news site hvg.hu that Hungary “blocked the EU condemnation statement for a long time.”

Although Hungary solidly stands by Turkey, it is in a unique position, advocating its own reactive policy vis-á-vis the EU. When Prime Minister Orbán praised Turkey’s military incursion into Syria on October 25 (using his favorite mode of communication, the radio), he emphasized it would help in preventing “3 million refugees from flocking to Europe.” 

Successive sanctions from the EU?

While the U.S. sanctions on Turkey that were looming on the horizon were widely debated domestically and internationally, it was the EU states that imposed the only tangible and possibly long-term sanctions by way of barring arms sales to Turkey. 

To recap, the domino effect from the European arms sanctions began when Germany, France, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, and Spain imposed individual embargoes against Turkey immediately after the “Peace Spring Operation” was launched. On October 14, the EU foreign ministers convening at Luxembourg issued a statement, condemning Turkey’s military operation in Syria and affirming their commitment to “strong national positions regarding their arms export [policies] to Turkey.” This is not an all-encompassing, EU-wide arms embargo as demanded by some member states, but technically the consequences are de facto the same—plus there is room for faster individual national implementation.

Of course, it is debatable whether the EU and the European states themselves pushed their limits in coercing Turkey through these sanctions. Turkey’s military and government circles are reportedly already shrugging off the potentially detrimental effects of the sanctions by contending that Ankara already has an increasingly self-sufficient domestic defense industry. They also point to alternative global arms suppliers: first and foremost China and Russia, and then Belarus, South Korea, Ukraine and Pakistan.

However, when the EU foreign ministers issued their condemnation and barring of weapons sales, they also agreed to prepare a list of potential sanctions regarding Turkey’s drilling activities off the coast of Cyprus. What the EU foreign ministers agreed on so far was to draw up a sanctions framework targeting both individuals and legal entities in response to the activities of Turkey’s oil and gas drilling ships in the area around Cyprus. The framework will be followed up by a list of sanctions ready to be put into effect once member states give their approval.

Three conclusions may be drawn from the EU’s “arms plus Eastern Mediterranean sanctions” package: first, the eastern Mediterranean is becoming a real issue of contention between the EU and Turkey, and actual and more biting sanctions may be triggered by this political conflict. Secondly, the EU is already pursuing an “a la carte” approach in their restriction of weapons sale to Turkey, and we may come across the implementation of individual (and therefore more swiftly and effectively imposed) sanctions against Turkey in case of the eastern Mediterranean.

Such an individual-level action may have already come from Italy: junior defense minister Angelo Tofalo told the Italian parliament on October 24 that they have begun preparations for withdrawing their anti-missile batteries from Turkey. The SAMP/T batteries, alongside 130 Italian soldiers, were stationed in the southeastern city of Kahramanmaraş since 2016 as a part of a NATO commitment to defend Turkey. Tofalo argued that that the move is not a “reaction” to the military operation by Turkey widely condemned in Italy. 

El País reported on October 11 that Spain will be pulling back its Patriot missile defense system from Adana, where the anti-missile batteries are deployed around the the U.S. Incirlik military base along with 150 Spanish soldiers. But officials from Spain were less clear about the decision: Spain’s Embassy in Ankara made an official statement that the decision to keep the missiles deployed is renewed every six months, and their Patriots will remain deployed until December 2019. Spain’s Defense Minister Margarita Robles affirmed that they are not removing the Patriots from Turkey and can even extend their presence for six more months at the beginning of 2020. She was reiterating this at the NATO defense ministers meeting on October 24 at Brussels, but she was more elusive when speaking back in Spain, stating they are indeed considering pulling out the Patriot systems.

Italy’s silent removal of SAMP/T missiles from Turkey has symbolic significance: these missiles are devised and produced by the Italian-French consortium Eurosam. Since 2010, Eurosam has been among the contenders for Turkey’s “Long-Range Air and Missile Defense System” project. In 2017, Turkey signed a letter of intent with France and Italy to strengthen cooperation on joint defense projects, including the development of a new missile defense system. There were also subsequent steps to launch a Turkey-France-Italy consortium to develop new versions of Eurosam’s AMP-T air defense systems in 2018. Turkey awarded Eurosam, Aselsan and Roketsan a contract for Turkish Long-Range Air and Missile Defense System during the meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Emmanuel Macron in January 2018. At the end of July 2019, when the “S400 crisis” was at its height, France offered to deploy Eurosam missiles to Turkey and the Turkish Defense Ministry accepted the proposal. While there was no confirmation that this proposal is on the table, there were reports in Turkish media that “French Eurosam missiles are coming to Kahramanmaraş,” coinciding with the recent NATO foreign ministers meeting. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu adopted a “devil may care” approach back to Turkey, stating it is France’s business to decide about Eurosam’s deployment to Turkey.

France may already have decided: on October 12, France announced the suspension of weapon sales to Turkey, stating, “France has decided to suspend all export projects of armaments to Turkey that could be deployed as part of the offensive in Syria. This decision takes effect immediately.”

While the U.S. sanctions imposed by the White House have already been lifted, “individualized” sanctions by EU countries are becoming concrete realities. In 2013, the government was arguing that Turkey maintains “valuable loneliness” in international relations, arguing that their moral global politics puts the country in a prized state of noble loneliness. Six years on, the EU-Turkey relations may indeed become the pinnacle of Ankara’s “worthless desertion” rather than its “valuable loneliness,” especially if the crisis in the eastern Mediterranean deepens.