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.
The summer of 2020 may have passed with no war and Turkey-Greece relations may at least be “warless,” with “exploratory talks“ on the way, but they are now in a “cold war” period. Greece and Turkey have lost the peace between them somewhere deep in the Aegean — for the time being.
So far, the mutual “controlled crisis escalation” policy of Athens and Ankara has somehow worked. It has “worked” in the sense that there has been no war, but tensions have risen higher and higher. But what if things get out of control within this “controlled crisis escalation” policy?
Berlin’s intention was to pick up the Greece-Turkey negotiations in September and they are sticking to the time frame they set. So, all is fine and right on track for Germany. However, Greece’s patience is running thin, and instead of sitting idly by, Athens is trying to jolt Germany through its political rights within the European Union.
If there is one beneficiary of the Greece-Turkey crisis, it is France’s President Emmanuel Macron. Macron has a very clear stance on backing Greece, which stands in deep contrast to Germany and the European Union Commission, both of which are hesitant to do so.
Just as “détente” seemed to be in the cards for Turkey and Greece, things soured once more. And they soured big time.
The Istanbul Convention may become the new rupture point between the European Union and Turkey. Gender rights are just starting to be a battleground in Turkey, Poland and beyond.
The seismic research vessel Oruç Reis is now parked inside the port of Antalya. The magic behind the rapprochement is named “Merkel” — but the recent spike of the Euro (and the U.S. dollar) vis-à-vis the Turkish lira may have to do with the sudden change of hearts in Ankara.
Prior to the Hagia Sophia controversy, Turkey was already a “hot potato” issue both for the EU Commission and Germany. Some serious brainstorming has already been going on regarding what to do with Turkey as far as some EU countries are concerned.
Ankara wants to play the “Leader of the Muslim world card” — but there is more to Hagia Sophia’s conversion than just that. Just like the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “West Bank annexation” policy, Ankara banks on the strategy of “creating an international problem to overshadow debating domestic grievances and making national politics dependent on the existing government through isolation” strategy.
Ankara is more concerned with France’s involvement in Libya than either Greece or Cyprus at the moment. Is this a window of opportunity for a Turkey and Greece-Cyprus rapprochement? It might be, provided that the EU concedes to visa liberalization, the Customs Union, or both.
In the coming years, “Green Deal” policies for tackling the climate crisis will be the new contentious area between the EU and Turkey, replacing the traditional rupture point of human rights. It is not that Turkey will turn into a human rights bastion, but in its international relations, the EU has already backpedaled on prioritizing human rights.
Ankara has been readying for Germany’s EU Presidency in its own way. The first thing on Ankara’s agenda is brokering and concluding a new migrant agreement with the EU, and doing so by gnawing away some serious concessions. We may translate this as “money talks”.
Hagia Sophia means “Holy Wisdom” in Greek, and according to the holy wisdom of Turkish politics, if “reconquering the Hagia Sophia” is becoming the motto, the target to redesign the political, electoral and legislative scene is looming over the horizon in Turkey.
Relations between Turkey and the European Union may indeed be back on track, but which track is that exactly? Just when I had given credit to EU-Turkey rapprochement, despite my usually pessimistic self, the usual flare-ups with Greece started up again.
On Turkey’s side, there is renewed interest building up a new foreign policy front: not just with regards to the EU and but also the U.S., and even Israel. If there is a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, why not between the EU and Turkey?
Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı, who resigned yesterday, is referred to as the “architect of Turkey’s recent policy in Libya, and the Aegean and the Mediterranean.” Now that he is gone, there might be room for Ankara to maneuver and revise its Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean policies to win hearts (but maybe not minds) in Brussels.
Ankara’s newfound warmth towards the EU must have to do with its economic contraction and the foreign currency crisis Turkey is rolling into. Engaging with Europe for a possible bailout would be easier and more internally marketable than an agreement with the IMF. Will Turkey’s post-corona relations with the EU be substantially different than China’s pragmatic engagement with Europe?
The race for vaccine in the EU’s case does look like the race for the antidote nationalism, too.
The world stopped with the coronavirus pandemic, but the crisis between Turkey and Greece did not. In other words, the Greece-Turkey conflict is immune to COVID-19: even the coronavirus cannot smother the seething cauldron that is the Ankara-Athens axis.
After the current coronavirus crisis even if returning back to “normal” begins, it seems that the rest of the world will be like the “delivery guys” for Europe. In the new “normal,” Turkey’s citizens or not, regardless of nationality, the only non-Europeans entering the gates of the EU will be transport personnel (like drivers), residency holders and some very selective cases of business or service providers for some time to come.
While various countries including Turkey are now embarking on “corona diplomacy,” China was the first to begin attempts to win hearts and minds with direly needed aid. Beijing was the first to extend a helping hand to European countries suffering the worst from the pandemic— Italy and Spain—and to the economically most fragile one, Greece.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak several European leaders have called launching an all-encompassing Marshall Plan-style public investment program to mitigate the economic impact. Turkey was a part of the Marshall Plan as it was automatically considered to be a part of Europe and the Western bloc back in 1951. How about now?
Hungary’s new “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law” allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. he COVID-19 crisis may pass, but the dagger in the back is there to stay. And Hungary’s new legislative turn may prove to be the real “epidemic”: draconian systemic changes going viral.
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact.
Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution.
Money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair.
While Ankara may not receive the solid backing from NATO that Turkey is seeking against Russia now, dialogue channels with NATO are stronger compared to other international institutions — for example, the European Union. Despite all the conflicts of interest and tensions that Turkey and European states, as well as Ankara and Washington, have endured, their links with NATO are still intact.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey, followed by Japan, China, and Hungary, respectively. While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey.
Várhelyi’s statement on a “revised methodology” for EU enlargement and the official document for this new approach do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.
Since March 2018, obtaining a visa through the Ankara Agreement got increasingly harder. The UK Home Office made an unexpected announcement at midnight on March 16, 2018; declaring that new applications will not be accepted until further notice.Real impact of Brexit over Turkey may be on trade front though: Britain has signed 18 free trade agreements with 55 countries so far.
2020 seems already to be ridden with unexpected crises erupting all around the world: Turkey had to face one of its worst fears, an earthquake. The warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the Berlin Conference turned out to be worsening Greek and Turkey relations. Already the Eastern Mediterranean question was the elephant in the room in relations between two countries; now the state of crisis has become permanent and “East Med” issue is right in middle of everything. Troubles with Greece will lead to worsening of already dreadful relations between Turkey and the European Union institutions, too.
U.S.-Greece relations are on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
Clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threathening to bomb 52 sites in Iran in allusion to the same number of diplomats taken the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brusells. However, at the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or roadmap.
If I had one way to describe this year, it would be “bittersweet. While I am more optimistic about Europe in general, I am less optimistic about Turkey and Greece as we slowly step into 2020.
Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a formal comeback on Dec. 13 with the new party he founded, the “Future Party.” Former Finance Minister Ali Babacan’s new party is counting down the days to its launch and is due to take off either by the end of December or in the early days of January. There is also a surprise movement making its debut in Turkey: the pan-European movement DiEM25-Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.
While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns.
At first glance, Turkey may seem to be missing the “climate activism” heyday that’s on-going in Europe. Afterall, it is not the best of the times for any sort of grassroots activism in Turkey. But if you probe deeper, you will come across a diligent and robust climate activist movement budding all over the country.
According to Sept. 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases.
As Budapest’s new mayor (and also a political scientist by profession) Karácsony pointed out, maybe the cities are winning at the expense of the populist center specifically because “the correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”
At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.