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Western Relations with Turkey: Time for Consequential Learning

By Abraham Thicke

After achieving power in 2002, the AK party cultivated warm relations with Western governments. They reciprocated in kind, promoting Turkey as a model Muslim democratic state.

Voices warning that all was not as it seemed were generally ignored. An early sign of the troubles ahead was the now infamous Ergenekon case, which began in 2007. It has subsequently become clear that the evidence was largely fabricated. More than this, the conduct of both the investigations and subsequent trials strongly suggested the Turkish judiciary had been co-opted to serve the government’s ends.

Since then, things have gone steadily downhill. Domestically, Turkey has become increasingly authoritarian and dysfunctional. Internationally, as Turkey’s ambitions have expanded, so has its isolation. Relations with the West are tenser than for decades —exemplified by Turkey’s current penchant for taking Western hostages to use as bargaining chips.

Through all of this, Western governments have been cautious in their approach to Turkey. The gradual snuffing out of democracy has attracted little more than expressions of concern. Western responses to fraying relations have also been complacent, apparently based on the premise that ties with Turkey are like pieces of elastic that will, in the natural scheme of things, drag Turkey back towards them.

Winds of change

But times may be changing. Foreign policy analysts are now queuing up to suggest the West takes a harder line with Turkey (examples here and here).

Some Western governments have also upped the ante. Germany, drawn into one of Turkey’s innumerable diplomatic spats, has responded to Ankara’s largely vapid threats with real ones. America, meanwhile, continues to back Kurdish groups in Syria against a chorus of Turkish protests.

It seems the West is not only hardening its rhetoric, but readying itself for action.

The reasons are not hard to fathom. A co-operative Turkey is self-evidently in the West’s interests. But years of pandering to the Turkish regime have resulted only in the distance between Turkey and the West increasing. An example is the recent deal Turkey signed with Russia to buy an air defence system, a move at odds with NATO membership.    

Should the West not only bare its teeth but actually bite, the Turkish regime will likely be surprised. For a start, Ankara has grown accustomed to Western appeasement. For example, President Erdoğan’s virulent anti-western rhetoric has been met, until recently, with shrugs and calm words. The regime may also calculate, and with good reason, that the West lacks the stomach for a fight. Any Western actions, such as economic measures, that hurt Turkey will also have negative consequences for the countries initiating them.

Possible Turkish response

The question, of course, is how Ankara, and in particular President Erdoğan, might react if push comes to shove.

Two scenarios are often considered.

In the first, the regime would react much as it did in the wake of Russia’s imposition of punitive economic measures against Turkey in 2015, following the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian military aircraft. After months of anti-Russian rhetoric and increasing pain, Ankara apologized. Memories of that pain still inform Turkey’s decisions. In Syria, Turkey acts as Russia’s unwilling, but acquiescent, assistant: helping Russia fulfil strategic goals that often diametrically oppose Turkey’s. The Turkish regime’s spokesmen, and its media, raise barely a whimper of criticism.

In the second scenario, any concrete Western action against Turkey would simply light Erdoğan’s notoriously short fuse. He may even be prepared to burn Turkey’s bridges with the West. There would be strong opposition within Turkey, particularly from business. But Erdoğan might not care. He would, no doubt, dress up the ensuing pain as a price worth paying to free Turkey from Western tutelage. Any who disagree would be branded traitors.

A third possibility, one that has escaped much scrutiny, involves Erdoğan taking a page from Bashar Al-Assad’s playbook. At the start of the Syrian uprising, Assad emptied his prisons, intending to make the opposition so unsavoury that the West would come to regard Assad’s regime as the lesser of several evils. This is largely what transpired, although the cost has been fantastic. Erdoğan might try something similar, blackmailing the West with threats of chaos inside Turkey.

No pain, no gain

If Western nations do adopt a harder line, the most obvious measures would be those affecting Turkey’s economy. Given the high level of economic dependence on the West such measures could be made very painful.

Any measures could be applied in an incremental manner, being ratcheted up or down depending on Turkey’s response. This would offer the hope of reigning in Erdoğan, whilst minimizing the risk of uncontrollable escalation.

A problem with this is that it puts Erdoğan in the driving seat. He is adept at calling the West’s bluff and if there is a way to do this, he will likely find it. Therefore, the prospects of this cautious approach yielding the desired results are far from certain.

An alternative would be to imitate Russia and employ relatively stern measures from the outset. This appears a riskier approach. However, there are some arguments to be made in its favour.

  1. It worked for Russia.
  2. There is little reason to be concerned about Turkish public opinion. It is already stridently anti-Western. Any action the West takes, whether milder or harsher, will fuel regime narratives that interpret events in terms of Western conspiracies against Turkey. Many Turks already think in these terms. On the other hand, Turks who revile Erdoğan will not need much persuading to blame him for the negative consequences.
  3. Erdoğan is weaker than he seems. His quest to concentrate power in his own hands appears to be his only means of retaining power. The negative consequences of his power grab are obvious, not only to external observers, but also to those inside the regime. Turkey’s foreign policy is marked by U-turns and a lack of dependable allies. It is not much different at home, where Erdoğan shuffles through his pack of potential allies, some of whom hate each other, with bewildering rapidity. Sooner or later he will find his hand empty. Firmer Western actions offer a better chance of exploiting these weaknesses.
  4. Turkish business still has some influence on political decisions. Their response to Western action will, essentially, be a contest between the fear of being branded traitors and economic pain. But such is the feverish atmosphere in Turkey that it may take considerable pain before economic interests trump patriotism. Likewise, the ardent support many Turks profess for the regime depends, to some extent, on economic factors. Reduce economic benefits, the argument goes, and their devotion will suffer.   

On the flipside, if relatively hard-hitting measures are implemented from the outset, they might drive relations straight over a cliff, rather than into line with Western interests. The escalatory response might be hard, fast and driven by emotion rather than logic, leaving no time for backpedalling. Russia would be lurking in the wings.

In addition, a robust approach has not always worked in the past. Decades of sanctions against Iran, for example, cannot be considered a resounding success.

The West’s doubtful resolve

If the West does indeed move from words to actions, then harsher measures seem a better bet. The risks are greater, but so are the prospects of success. Even in the event of failure, it is unlikely that an Erdoğan led Turkey would be able to forge anything more than the shallow, transient and transactional relationships it currently maintains with countries such as Iran and Russia.

For the West too, the negative consequences of failing to turn Turkey from its current trajectory are hardly more palatable than those that would accompany the backfiring of any action. They both lead to approximately the same destination, though at differing speeds. So the risks associated with a robust stance might be offset by the higher likelihood of it succeeding.

It seems most likely though that the West, should it see beyond its complacent notions of relations with Turkey returning to normality of their own accord, will restrict itself to timid measures. The West’s desire to check Turkey from its current course cannot be doubted. But its cohesion and, above all, its resolve to tolerate much pain of its own are another matter.    

Erdoğan, as he has done in the past, will run rings round any half-hearted measures. In fact, such measures will allow him to play to the gallery, presenting Turkey as victim once more, while experiencing little discomfort. All the while, Turkey will continue eating itself, from the inside out. Is that in Western interests?


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