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The West Is Losing Turkey

As the West grew more and more disapproving of Erdoğan, the Turkish president began finding a like-thinking political partner in Vladimir Putin
By The News · 17 of October 2016 10:15:20
Turkish President Erdoğan delivers a speech during the International Istanbul Law Congress in Istanbul, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during the International Istanbul Law Congress in Istanbul, Turkey, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer, photo: Reuters/Murad Sezer

There was a time, back in March, when it seemed that Turko-EU relations were at a high point after Ankara agreed to help stem the tide of migrants from the Middle East into Europe in exchange for economic assistance in housing and feeding the displaced masses and a promise of visa-free entry for Turkish citizens into Europe.

Unmentioned in the agreement, but certainly inferred, was the assumption that Europe would finally stop dragging its feet and let Turkey be fast-tracked into its exclusive economic club.

(Ankara has been negotiating accession into the EU for more than 10 years, but Europe keeps changing the entry rules for the predominantly-Muslim nation that straddles two continents.)

For the most part, Turkey has kept its end of the bargain, turning the former flood of migrants to Europe into a trickle.

But Europe, hit by the global economic turndown and still reeling after Great Britain’s June decision to quit its membership, has not fulfilled its side of the accord.

In the first place, there has been no progress on the visa waver for Turkish citizens entering Europe.

This has been a serious stick in the craw for Turkey, which has long considered itself a European nation and was a founding member of NATO.

But, more importantly, the pledged money has been slow to come for cash-strapped Ankara, which was already fighting two wars on its own soil against Islamic State (I.S.) militants and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) before being dragged further into the Syrian conflict by the West, representing an even heavier burden on its military budget.

Earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan openly criticized the European Union for not delivering the promised 3 billion euros it had committed to send after the migration deal.

In accordance with the March agreement, the EU had pledged to increase financial aid from 3 billion euros to 6 billion euros to help defray some of the costs for the more than two million Middle East refugees living in Turkey.

“The year is coming to a close,” Erdoğan said.

“Europe promises, but does not deliver.”

As for Turkey’s accession into the EU, the proposal is pretty much dead in the water.

Just last week, French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy gained rave reviews from supporters after declaring “Turkey does not belong to the European Union; it belongs to Asia.”

Add to the mix that fact that both Europe and the United States have been anything but supportive Erdoğan’s administration after a failed coup attempt against him in July (strongly criticizing him for subsequent crackdowns on dissidents and human rights abuses), plus Washington’s adamant refusal to even consider the repatriation of imam Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, who Ankara claims was instrumental in the stillborn putsch plot.

So it is little wonder that Ankara, feeling rebuffed by Brussels and Washington, has recently mended its tattered ties with Moscow (a relationship that had been on the skids after Turkey accidentally downed a Russian warplane over Syria in November of last year).

Russia graciously accepted a formal apology from Turkey for the inadvertent attack on its aircraft, and Moscow took a sympathetic stance regarding the failed coup against Erdoğan.

Moreover, Moscow reopened trade with and tourism to Turkey, which provided a much-needed boost to Ankara’s economy.

Now, combined two-way trade between Russia and Turkey is on track to top the $32 billion high of 2014, when Moscow was Ankara’s second-largest trade partner, right after Germany.

Two years ago, the relationship between the two countries had begun to soar after Ankara steadfastly sided with the West on issues regarding Syria.

While Moscow maintained — and still maintains — that Bashir al-Assad is the legitimate president of Syria and that no foreign government has the right to overthrow him, Ankara had insisted that there could be no viable resolution to the Syrian crisis as long as Assad is still in power.

This clash of views contributed to considerable strain in Russian-
Turkish relations, as did Russia’s cozy friendship with Greece, Cyprus and Armenia, diehard enemies of Turkey.

But as the West grew more and more disapproving of Erdoğan and his authoritarian approach to governing, the Turkish president began finding a like-thinking political partner in Vladimir Putin.

As it stands, the Kremlin is exploiting the growing frictions between Ankara and the West, and playing into Erdoğan’s paranoiac obsession with Gülen by being Ankara’s new BFF.

In exchange, Turkey is playing nice with Russia on the Syrian front.

Erdoğan’s relative quiet regarding the battle for Aleppo is just one more sign that he is redefining his geopolitical priorities to focus more on Russia than on the West.

Whether any of the concerned players want to admit it or not, there is a new Cold War brewing between Moscow and Washington, and it is clearly being played out on proxy territories in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Yemen.

Turkey is a key asset in that face-off and it can definitely shift the balance of power in that Cold War one way or another.

The West has been sucker-punching Turkey for far too long, and now it is about to lose a key strategic ally which could, in the near future, entail serious security, political and economic costs.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at therese.margolis@gmail.com.