Turkey’s choice: Russia-Iran or US-Europe?

Murat Yetkin/ Hurriyet

The answer to the question in the headline is obvious, but the current scene may be confusing for some. Just an hour before the joint press conference of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani started in Ankara, German Ambassador to Turkey Martin Erdmann held a lunch meeting with the press. “There isn’t any logical place for Turkey’s geopolitical location other than the Euro-Atlantic sphere. And I’m saying this on the day after the ground was broken for a Turkish-Russian nuclear power plant,” Erdmann said.

It is a fact that Turkey is a member of the Western alliance NATO, with the U.S. as its most important military partner. Ankara is also a long-time candidate to join the European Union, having a Customs Union with Brussels and conducting half of its foreign trade with EU countries.

But it is also a fact that neither Turkey nor its Western allies have been able to satisfy their expectations enough from each other – either in the past or especially in recent years.

If the Turkish president is happy to host and cooperate with the Russian and Iranian presidents on a key security matter like Syria, then not only German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump but all Western allies involved in security cooperation with Ankara (such as on migration control or cooperation on foreign terrorist fighters) should think again. If Turkey wants to buy Russian S-400 air defense systems instead of NATO-interoperable American Patriots then its Western allies should start considering their political excuses for not delivering defense systems to Turkey. (Following the Akkuyu ceremony, Putin reportedly promised to Erdoğan a rather urgent delivery of S-400s in July 2019, before the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in November.)

Turkey has a number of problems regarding the state of its democracy. Those problems have gotten heavier due to the declaration of the state of emergency declared after the July 2016 coup attempt. Emergency rule restricts certain rights and freedoms and bypasses certain powers of parliament, while judicial independence and media freedom is also getting worse. However, Western partners should carefully consider whether the best way to secure a better working democracy in Turkey and better cooperation on security is to keep pushing the country away (only to get upset when Ankara ends up in the frame with Russia and Iran, like yesterday).

Germany, as Turkey’s most important political, economic and social partner in the EU, which has millions of Turkey-origin people living in it, started a thawing process with Ankara after its September 2017 election campaign. Erdmann’s meeting yesterday was part of that process. But – like Germany and the EU – Turkey also wants to see certain promises kept. Perhaps the best way for both sides to get what they want is for them to both take simultaneous steps, without waiting for the other side to move first.

And instead of trying to ignore the Astana process between Turkey, Russia and Iran for de-escalation in Syria, the EU should perhaps try to help it along. All three presidents underlined yesterday that the Astana process is not an alternative to the Geneva process but simply a compliment to it. If that process is intended for the good of the people of the region, it also means it is good for the security of EU countries.