Turkey at the tipping point

Mary Southcott finds the boiling cauldron of issues, from war to migration to authoritarian repression, in and around Turkey require a new world order

When Dominic Cummings made “£350 million and Turkey” the focus for the last weekend of the EU referendum he depended on ignorance not only of economics but also of foreign affairs. The unique geography of Turkey between Russia and the Mediterranean, Syria and Greece lends it strategic significance alongside its membership of NATO (with emphasis on the North Atlantic). Its insistence on the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, being a terrorist organisation; the imprisonment of the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and denial of rights to its peaceful representatives in the HDP, the People’s Democratic Party; and its conversion, from Atatürk’s secular state, to leadership contender with Saudi Arabia for a Sunni Muslim caliphate in the Middle East, make Turkey a hugely contentious state. These policies were always going to confuse relationships with the EU and specifically the USA and UK and it was “front and central” to the Leave victory.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s instruction to Robin Cook in 1997 was to get Turkey into the EU. Now the EU policy seems to be to keep refugees and asylum seekers out by throwing money at Turkey and to protect investment and trade, especially for the UK arms industry. Turkey’s policy seems to be anti-Kurd, anti-Assad, anti-EU, anti the Law of the Sea and supporting anyone but Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akıncı, whose victory in postponed elections could have led to a Cyprus settlement.

There was no danger that 80 million Turks would arrive in the UK if we stayed in the EU. Turkey, despite its Customs Union with the EU and the Ankara Agreement in 1995, had far to go to qualify for the acquis communautaire necessary for EU membership.

When Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was elected Prime Minister in 2002 he was unable to take up his post until the following year because of a prison sentence for religious incitement. He needed the EU, said he was “Muslim and a Democrat”, opened the Cyprus Green Line in 2003 (now closed because of coronavirus), and as late as 2010 held preliminary talks about devolving power to the Kurdish provinces – even making overtures to Öcalan, the PKK leader. The West proclaimed the Turkish model as the answer to the Arab Spring.

But Turkey turned away from the EU, instead promoting Sunni Islam in Palestine, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Somalia. Until recently, Turkey and Israel were US surrogates in the Middle East. Turkey also took a firm stand against President Assad – he is an Alawite.

Erdoğan’s overwhelming victories since have depended on the weakness and nationalism of the CHP, the Turkish People’s Party, and on working with ultra-nationalist secularists the MHP and the Grey Wolves. But their coalition lost the 2019 rerun of the Istanbul mayoral elections to CHP’s Ekrem İmamoğlu, who has challenged Erdoğan’s handling of the coronavirus as a weapon of war, particularly where it comes to prisons: the jail amnesty excludes academics, journalists, lawyers, civil servants and political prisoners such as the HDP’s former leader, Selahattin Demirtaş and philanthropist, Osman Kavala.

Turkey’s recent negotiations with Russia, and its decision to buy their S400s rather than the US equivalent, mark a deterioration in their relationship with the US. In Syria, Russia and Turkey are on rival sides, with Turkey supporting IS and the Rebels until it was pulled into line by NATO. The Russians have their warm water port in Syria and recently Russian ships sailing through the Dardanelles provoked the Express headline, ‘Sink them now!’.

Trump is accused of betraying its allies by withdrawing US troops. The Kurds in Syria who did the heavy lifting against IS were left to deal with Turkey in Idlib.

The recent attacks on the last remaining rebel stronghold meant that not only was Turkey receiving €3 billion from the EU, it was creating the refugees and then opening the gates to Greece, thereby dumping people on the EU. Covid-19, which is no respecter of difference, will attack the vulnerable in camps in Turkey and throughout the region.

After coronavirus, the culture of international institutions needs to change, from macho domination to cooperation at every level to tackle gross inequality. NATO needs to recognise its internal contradictions. The military needs to be dedicated to peace-keeping and construction, hospitals, bridges. Where is China in NATO thinking? Europe needs to stop depending on the US, to deal with its own regional conflicts and not just franchise migration out to Turkey.

Although self-determination and a Kurdish state may not be the answer, Kurdish citizens deserve some autonomy in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. The whole region needs a break from Turkish aggression and aggrandisement. We do not need a Turkish-led caliphate any more than a Saudi one. Some suggest Islam needs a reformation to create a mutual recognition and respect of different traditions – Sunni, Shia, Alevi – and their relationship not to secularism but democracy. The UK needs to postpone the implementation of a Brexit decision based on lies irrelevant to the challenges we face. The ‘big men’ in the world – Bolsonaro, Erdoğan, Johnson, Modi, Morrison, Netanyahu, Putin, Trump – need to change, or be replaced, because gross inequality, authoritarianism, patriarchy, nationalism and populism can never be an answer to pandemics any more than to war and climate emergency. It all starts in Turkey – watch this space.

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