"Danse Macabre": The new era in Turkey, EU and US relations

The most recent “mot du jour” invented by the punditry at large to define the new era of the combined U.S.-EU relations with Turkey is “firm transactionalism.”

At their last December meeting the EU council did two things, if I understood what they did correctly which is not always obvious. One, they threw their hands up and said: “OK, we are done, we have no longer neither any capacity nor any intention to have a say in Turkey’s domestic politics.” And two, they also said: “Let’s figure out a way to switch from accession to adherence and see if Ankara raises to the bite.” Meanwhile they punted towards incoming Biden administration. In the worst of two worlds, for the EU they would have gained some time.

They did. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dialed down the inflammatory rhetoric. Macron who needed a quick visit to the doctor for a mental health evaluation, now became “cher Emmanuel”. The seismic survey ships are pulled back to within the territorial waters. No more sabre rattling towards the East of Euphrates in Syria seems to be in the agenda. Varosha, following the joint picknicking by the Erdoğan-Bahçeli duo appears to be relegated to remain an afterthought.

The sixtyfirst round of exploratory Turkish-Greek talks are announced soon to be held in Istanbul. Foreign Minister received his German counterpart Heiko Maas and exchanged pleasantries following their meeting about the star footballer Mesut Özil. Right after that, he flew to Brussels and the EU top diplomat Borrell remained tight lipped as a tombstone concerning the human rights and freedom of speech issues in Turkey. Now, according to Çavuşoğlu, Ankara saw the abovementioned EU Council resolutions as an extended hand –rather than an affront.       

Erdoğan also strayed the muscular activity away from the inquisitive eyes by dispatching his defense minister General Akar to Baghdad and Erbil. Actually, it so appears that former stop was just an excuse for the latter. Now, while intriguingly the return flight of Akar was not signalled and that no official statement made available as to the gist of his one-to-one discussions with the Barzani trio was not made public, many concurred that the visit was due to an oncoming large scale military intervention into northern Iraq.

Not so surprisingly, Erdoğan yet again for public consumption declared that “we can come (to visit) unannounced one night without a moment of notice”. New targets probably include Shengal and Makhmour. Setting up permanent bases in western Mosul to further cut Qandil’s communication and transportation lines with Rojava are in the cards. In other words, West of Mosul is the new East of Euphrates. Among the contentious files including Libya, East Med, Cyprus and Syria, Iraq is traditionally the one that does not raise any eyebrows in the West. Consider it as a private playground for Turkey. All the more so, that the main interlocutor KRG, or KDP lack thereof, does not protest, openly at least.   

On the U.S. side, old Obama era foreign policy and national security hands hit the ground running one after the other. It most certainly remains to be seen how the man as perceived by Ankara the architect of “vicious” U.S. policy to support YPG - an extension of the PKK- in northern Syria Brett McGurk and former CENTCOM commander new Secretary of Defence General Austin will be see to look eye in the eye with their Turkish opposite numbers. As for the fresh secretary of state Blinken, he did not miss the opportunity to question the strategic value of partnering with Turkey during his confirmation hearing at the Senate. CIA Director Ambassador William Burns and the deputy national security advisor to the vice president Gordon are the other two whose attitude towards tackling the Turkish file that would need watching carefully.

At the end of the day, Turkey remains in the same place on the world map. Turkey also remains a key NATO ally. In plain English, that means Turkey’s role as a bulwark for the EU against the refugee stream from the (larger) MENA countries is as it is. Turkey is also a reference customer for the German, Italian and Spanish military industries. Which in turn explains why, France and the usual Greek-Southern Cypriot duo have difficulty garnering solidarity from their EU partners when it comes to locking horns with Turkey. Within NATO, and by default for the US, containing Russia and (by out of the area extension) Iran are the tasks that fall on Turkey’s shoulders.   

The most recent “mot du jour” invented by the punditry at large to define the new era of the combined U.S.-EU relations with Turkey is “firm transactionalism.” Whether that augurs well for the hapless democratic opposition in Turkey remains to be seen. With the hands that are dealt to them, as well as with other priorities like balancing the social and economic fall-out of the global pandemic and checking China’s rise, that is the best the US and the EU can come up with. On the Turkish side, the internal centennial soul searching will define whether the current state of play will result in a separation or full divorce with the West.          

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