Tough decisions lie ahead for Turkey in the wake of NATO and EU summits

Yasar Yakis

Turkey is faced with some difficult choices after two important summits that took place last month.

The first was the NATO summit of June 14. Turkey’s attention in this meeting was focused on the talks between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his US counterpart Joe Biden, which were held on the margins of the summit. The two leaders managed their countries’ relations without disrupting them, but did little to improve them. Controversial issues such as the S-400 air defense system and Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 super-fighter program have been pushed under the carpet or referred to bureaucrats to find a solution.

The second meeting was the EU summit of June 24-25. It focused more on the bloc’s internal conflicts, the regression in the human rights record of Hungary and the EU’s Russia policy.

On Turkey’s relations with the EU, the most important question regarded refugees. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in search of an agreement with Turkey because, if the latter cannot be persuaded to stop the flow of refugees toward EU countries, right-wing parties in Germany may boost their vote share, to the detriment of Merkel’s Christian-democratic political alliance in the forthcoming elections.

For Turkey, the most important issue in the EU summit was the modernization of its customs union with the bloc. However, the EU did not take any concrete action on this important subject. It simply “took note of the start of work at the technical level towards a mandate for the modernization of the EU-Turkey Customs Union.”

Turkey’s oil and gas exploration activities in the eastern Mediterranean seem to be suspended for now, but the EU’s sword of Damocles continues to hang over Turkey if the exploration is resumed.

Why would these two summits give Turkey some difficult choices? Because their outcomes offer Ankara both challenges and opportunities.

The Black Sea has the potential to become destabilized as a result of the Ukrainian and Crimean crises. The first signs of this were witnessed late last month, when a Russian ship apparently fired warning shots at a British navy vessel. A Dutch vessel was also harassed by Russian aircraft last week. The UK and Netherlands consider Crimean territorial waters to belong to Ukraine because of their refusal to recognize Crimea’s annexation by Russia. If tensions grow in the Black Sea, Turkey may be dragged into a conflict it does not want to be a part of.

However, in its capacity as a Black Sea riparian country, as well as custodian of the Montreux Convention of 1936 that regulates maritime passage through the Turkish straits, Ankara cannot easily shy away from getting involved in this unstable situation. This may bring Turkey into opposition with Russia, as it is a member of NATO and does not recognize Crimea’s annexation. It also has close cooperation in the defense industry with Ukraine, with which Moscow is at loggerheads.

Meanwhile, the South Caucasus is not yet stabilized, despite Russia’s efforts. Nikol Pashinyan’s re-election as prime minister of Armenia and defeated ex-President Robert Kocharyan’s initiative to cancel the results may encourage the former’s Western supporters to be tougher toward Russia, while dragging his feet in the normalization of Azeri-Armenian relations. Turkey is eager to get more closely involved in this process but Russia prefers to remain as the exclusive game-maker.

Ankara has volunteered to assume responsibility for the security of Kabul airport in Afghanistan, which will implicate it more deeply in the Afghan crisis. The Taliban controls more than a third of the territory in Afghanistan and may ultimately seize Kabul.

The Afghan people, including the Taliban’s supporters, have no strong feelings against Turkey in general. Two ethnic groups that speak Turkic languages — the Uzbeks and Turkmen — make up about 13 percent of Afghanistan’s population. The country’s northeastern border touches the Xinjiang province of China, which is again inhabited by a Turkic people. These complicated connections make Ankara’s role in Afghanistan all the more delicate.

Turkey’s involvement is already deep enough in Syria, Iraq and Libya. It will not be able to easily disengage from them. The US does not seem to be prepared to give up its support for the Kurdish cause in Syria, which constitutes a nightmare for Turkey, but Ankara continues to cooperate with Washington in the quest to get rid of the Assad regime. In the Idlib province of Syria, Turkey is engaged in a difficult cooperation with Russia. They cooperate for two contradictory causes — Russia wants to eliminate every single opponent of the Syrian regime, while Turkey wants to persuade them to lay down their arms.