Turkey

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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At an art exhibition opening on Monday evening, right across the street from the US embassy in Ankara, an assassin shot dead Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov. The shooter, identified as 22-year-old Mevlüt Mert Altinas, was a Turkish policeman according to statements made by the mayor of Ankara. 

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Turkish-European relations have declined considerably in recent years, with little progress made on the accession of Turkey to the European Union (EU) since formal negotiations began in 2005. Turkey’s actions following the failed July coup attempt and the rise of right-wing nationalist populism in the west further damaged any prospects of improving relations. The matter reached a new low when, in November, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution to temporarily freeze Turkey’s accession process.

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US representative to the OSCE, Daniel B. Baer, responds to European call for arms control talks with Moscow

The United States shares European concerns about the erosion of Russian compliance with international treaties, but “it is not self-evident that the way forward is new commitments,” as has been proposed by the foreign ministers of fourteen European nations, said Daniel B. Baer, the US representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Baer said that the United States favors a dialogue at the level of all fifty-seven OSCE member states, including Russia. “In such a dialogue, we would expect to talk about threat perceptions and emerging challenges, and then, once we have done a stocktaking, figure out what is the most appropriate way to move forward,” he said.

The fact that Russia has withdrawn from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which led to the destruction of heavy weapons systems in Europe, is just one example of the erosion of Moscow’s international commitments. Russia has also violated by the terms of the Minsk Protocol, which seeks to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

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The international media often describes the city of Mosul, the capital of Ninawa province, as the Islamic State’s (ISIS) last remaining stronghold in Iraq. However, there is another major stronghold that may soon be a flashpoint between rival factions of the anti-ISIS coalition. In late October, Iraq’s Shia militias opened a new front in the military campaign against the Islamic State, aiming to liberate the city of Tal Afar, about 35 miles west of Mosul. The entrance of pro-government Shia militias—known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)—prompted a Turkish warning that it may intervene to protect Sunnis in Tal Afar from potential revenge killings at the hands of Shia militia forces.

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