Turkey

The title of Sir Peter Westmacott’s new paper, Turkey’s European Journey, does not indicate where he thinks the country stands on that path, whether he believes Ankara is still headed toward Europe or whether it has turned off that road permanently. A conversation with Westmacott, a distinguished ambassadorial fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative who has served as the United Kingdom’s ambassador to France, Turkey, and the United States, sheds more light on how he sees Turkey’s current status under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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In his brief time in the White House, US President Donald J. Trump has made a point of bestowing praise on the world’s leading autocrats. He repeatedly called Vladimir Putin a “strong leader,” described Xi Jinping as “a very good man,” said Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was doing a “fantastic job,” and lauded Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for his triumph in a referendum that greatly expanded his presidential powers.

Trump’s new friends represent a rogues’ gallery of modern authoritarians.  These 21st-century strongmen are responsible for introducing an arsenal of new tactics to use against their domestic opponents, and have gone on the offensive in an effort to subvert and replace the liberal international order.

But modern authoritarian systems are not simply adversaries of free societies. They also represent an alternative model—a nuanced system anchored in regime control of government policy, the political message, the economy, and the organs of repression and a steadfast hostility to free expression, honest government, and pluralism. 

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US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to arm Kurdish rebels in Syria, despite objections from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicates that the new administration’s Turkey policy is secondary to winning the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

This decision “would suggest to me that Trump really doesn’t have a Turkey policy,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “Turkey policy is secondary to the need to prosecute the war against ISIS quickly,” he added.

“The key actors in the US bureaucracy are not on team Turkey,” said Stein. “They don’t care. They are elevating different priorities now.”

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The proposal for de-escalation zones in Syria, which will enter into force at midnight on May 5, is unlikely to be effective in the long term, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

“Maybe” the agreement will temporarily have a demonstrable effect on lowering the number of civilian deaths in Syria, said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, speaking in an interview with the New Atlanticist. However, he added, “I don’t see the thing lasting.”

The de-escalation zones, a Russian and Turkish-led initiative, backed by Iran, were agreed upon in a deal signed on May 9 as part of the ongoing United Nations Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. However, few details regarding implementation and monitoring of these zones have been released. The United States is not party to the agreement, and has expressed initial skepticism.

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Speakers at the Atlantic Council’s Istanbul Summit on April 27 emphasized the importance of strengthening transatlantic bonds to the Middle East with the goal of jointly addressing challenges and harnessing opportunities.

“We all need each other, and we are strong when we can work together, and pull in the same direction, and address the many challenges in the three regions,” said John Bass, the US ambassador to Turkey.

“We’ve got some differences in the meantime, but how we deal with those differences… is an essential piece of what we do,” he added.

This sentiment reflected the theme of this year’s summit: Strengthening Transatlantic Engagement with a Turbulent Region.

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The controversial referendum which consolidated the executive powers of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will negatively impact Turkey’s relationship with the European Union, and may doom prospects for Turkey’s EU membership, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

“The EU process is like a zombie—it moves along, but it’s dead,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) “has already come out and raised some serious questions about the conduct of the election,” adding, “it is almost certain that elements of the European Union will say the same thing.”

In light of Turkey’s “considerable democratic backslide,” further demonstrated by Sunday’s referendum, “it looks poor for EU-Turkish relations moving forward,” said Stein.

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Despite the tentative March 13 agreement between the European Commission and Gazprom on the liberalization of gas markets in Central and Eastern Europe, it is still premature to declare an end to the Russian energy giant’s dominance in the region. In its statement of promises, Gazprom pledges to remove destination clauses in its long-term contracts barring the re-exporting of excess gas imports, to renegotiate pricing to reflect spot hubs in Western Europe, and to drop its refusal to allow virtual gas transfers along the Gazprom-dominated transit pipelines. However, Gazprom’s behavior would depend on the political will of its clients to directly challenge it amid its allegedly receding market power in Europe amid greater competition, liquidity, and supply sources.

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On March 1, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian regime reached an agreement allowing Syrian regime forces to create a buffer zone between the Syrian regime and Syrian Democratic Forces around Manbij. The buffer zone serves as an attempt to prevent fighting between Turkish recruits and Kurdish forces. Listen to Rafik Hariri Center’s Senior Resident Fellow on Turkey, Aaron Stein's commentary on the agreement and how it could affect Turkey’s military campaign in Syria.

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Though Turkey’s engagement in the war in Syria has resulted in a series of attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) over the course of the past year, the most recent attack on a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Day will only harden the Turkish government’s resolve to defeat the Islamist group, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

“I think these attacks have pushed the Turks to conclude that this [war against ISIS] is something we have to finish,” said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “In that sense, it’s focusing anti-ISIS efforts, not disrupting them,” he added.

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The assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey on December 19, while a tragic incident, is unlikely to have a significant impact on the diplomatic relationship between Moscow and Ankara that has been forged over priorities in Syria, according to two Atlantic Council analysts.

“This incident, in theory, could be a pretext for the Russians to do something against the Turks, but there is no interest in Moscow to do that,” said John. E. Herbst, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.

“This is one of those spectacular incidents that is a one-off,” he added.

Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said: “Russia has every incentive to express its displeasure at the incident and express sorrow at the tragedy that took place, but also to manage it.”

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