Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the Europe At Large column.
PARIS — It’s time to talk Turkey.
A joint approach to reining in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s dangerous adventurism in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Caucasus should be high on the European Union’s priority list for collaboration with the incoming Biden administration in the United States.
EU leaders are considering at this week’s summit whether to increase their own so-far largely symbolic sanctions against Ankara over its militarized drilling for gas in Greek and Cypriot waters. But only coordinated transatlantic action, setting clear red lines and offering incentives for more cooperative behavior stands a chance of changing the Turkish president’s calculus — if anything will.
At the start of 2020, this column asked “How rogue can Turkey go?” If this were an end-of-year corporate performance review, the rating would have to be “exceeded expectations.”
In the last 11 months, Erdoğan has:
– Intervened militarily in Libya’s civil war with arms supplies, drones and Syrian mercenaries to tilt the balance of power in favor of the Tripoli government.
– Prevented U.N.-mandated French and German ships on an EU mission to enforce an arms embargo on Libya from inspecting Turkish cargo ships in the Central Mediterranean.
– Aided and abetted Azerbaijan in recapturing territory around the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave from Armenia.
– Fought intermittent clashes with Western-backed Kurdish fighters and with the Syrian armed forces in northern Syria.
– Sought to weaponize refugees by busing hundreds to the Greek border and pushing them to cross in a bid to pressure the EU and Athens.
– Sent a research ship escorted by gunboats to prospect for gas in waters internationally recognized as part of the exclusive economic zones of Greece and Cyprus.
– Deployed and tested a top-of-the-range Russian air defense missile system in defiance of U.S. and NATO warnings.
– Continued to block NATO defense plans for Poland and the Baltic states in an attempt to coerce allies into declaring their Kurdish partners in Syria a “terrorist organization.”
– Called on the Muslim world to boycott French goods over Paris’ support for the right to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad considered blasphemous by many Muslims.
That’s a bumper record of geopolitical disruption for a country in the throes of an economic and monetary meltdown, and which still officially aspires to join the EU even as it threatens to flood Europe with asylum seekers.
This all happened with the indulgence or malign neglect of U.S. President Donald Trump, who blocked congressional sanctions over the S-400 missile purchase and did little, if anything, to restrain Erdoğan’s aggressive behavior from Tripoli to Stepanakert.
True, Trump did at one stage in 2019 threaten in a tweet to “destroy and totally obliterate” the Turkish economy if Erdoğan went too far in Syria. Yet a few months later, he quietly pulled out U.S. special forces from parts of northern Syria without consulting European allies, clearing the way for a cross-border Turkish offensive to thump the Western-aligned Kurdish forces.
Erdoğan appeared to have Trump’s number both literally and metaphorically — circumventing U.S. foreign policy officials by calling his authoritarian buddy directly on his cellphone.
Washington’s patience finally snapped this month, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a NATO foreign ministers’ videoconference to excoriate Turkish behavior, accusing Ankara of undermining NATO’s security and handing a gift to Russia with its S-400 purchase, destabilizing the Eastern Mediterranean and exacerbating conflicts by deploying Syrian mercenaries.
The EU, for its part, has diminished influence in Ankara because Turkey’s long-stalled effort to join the bloc has lost all credibility. The main European powers are visibly divided between France — which denounces Erdoğan’s policies and has send warships and supplied arms to support Greece and Cyprus — and Germany, which mostly seeks to mediate and mollify.
Erdoğan’s foreign adventurism and attempts to project himself as leader of the Muslim world may be designed partly to distract from the sharp decline of Turkey’s economy, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep ultra-nationalist domestic coalition partners on board.
It also filled a strategic void, with the U.S. missing in action as a mediating force under Trump’s “America First” philosophy. It was left to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to try to avert an armed clash among allies in the Eastern Mediterranean by creating a “deconfliction mechanism” between Athens and Ankara at NATO headquarters. But tension remains high.
To be fair, Turkey does have some legitimate grievances about being shut out of Eastern Mediterranean energy development by an alliance of Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. Its own offshore prospection is constrained by the perverse effects of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which allows Greece to assert exclusive rights to extensive waters around tiny islands close to Turkish shores. And the Turkish Cypriots, with Ankara’s backing, twice accepted U.N.-mediated peace plans to reunify the divided island, only for the internationally recognized Greek Cypriots to reject them.
Furthermore, Turkey has borne the brunt of hosting some 3.6 million Syrian refugees. EU financial assistance for their absorption, which helped resolve the 2015-16 migration crisis, expired this year and has not yet been renewed. Nor has the EU kept its full part of the bargain by taking in as many asylum seekers directly from Turkey as Greece returns from its islands. Erdoğan’s saber-rattling about opening the flood gates to Europe was partly an attempt to draw attention to those issues.
Whatever his motivation, putting the Turkish strongman back in his box will be one of the first challenges for a revitalized transatlantic alliance once U.S. President-elect Joe Biden enters the White House.
America, NATO and the EU all need Turkey as an ally. Its pivotal location on the hinge of Europe and the Middle East and as gatekeeper to the Black Sea — an area of increasing strategic rivalry with Russia — as well as the power of its armed forces and the weight of its economy make the nation of 84 million an indispensable partner. Washington would lose a vital staging point in the Middle East and a key component of its global military footprint if it were denied use of Incirlik air base in southern Turkey.
So Biden and the Europeans need to jointly communicate red lines to Ankara and agree on both rewards and potential penalties to try to change Erdoğan’s trajectory.
Rewards might include supporting Turkish integration into the East Mediterranean energy community and prospective pipeline networks, facilitating negotiations on maritime and airspace delimitation, renewing the migration pact and negotiating a modernized and expanded customs union with the EU, and offering NATO-compatible air defense missile systems if Ankara mothballs the S-400.
Penalties could entail reducing military and intelligence cooperation, working around Turkey more explicitly at NATO, preparing to move some U.S. strategic assets from Incirlik to Greece (already discreetly underway), building ties with Turkish opposition leaders, discouraging tourism with travel advisories and weighing on Ankara’s access to Western financial markets.
None of these steps is risk-free, and some could trigger a backlash. But a common Euro-Atlantic stance, with Biden’s explicit backing, and the mere disclosure that some of these measures are under active consideration ought to present Erdoğan with a clear choice: Stop flexing your muscles or face incrementally growing pressure from a united West.