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Michał Münnich  26 listopada 2020

Turkey – a troublesome ally of the West

Michał Münnich  26 listopada 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 9 min
Turkey – a troublesome ally of the West Pedro Szekely - flickr.com

Patience is running thin in Europe and the United States in response to Turkey’s confrontational politics in recent years. Emerging fields of conflict cause increasing tension. Brussels accuses President Recep Erdoğan of pushing Turkey away from Western ways. The recent statements by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about possible mental problems of the French President are certainly not helping to de-escalate tensions. Has Turkey’s foreign policy been confrontational since the AKP took power in 2002? What are the fields of conflict and their causes?

Turkish foreign policy has for many years been shaped by a doctrine formulated by Istanbul University professor Ahmet Davutoğlu (later Foreign Minister and Prime Minister). This doctrine has become a reference point for today’s actions of Turkish decision-makers. Its main objective was to meet Turkey’s strategic ambitions. In his external policy, Davutoğlu proclaimed a powerful slogan: 'Zero problems with neighbours,’ which meant a complete change from the previous policy. The basis of relations with the neighbours was to be economic and cultural cooperation and development of relations between democratic institutions.

Breaking with the Davutoğlu concept

The Arab Spring brought significant changes in the political situation in the Middle East. From Turkey’s perspective, however, the most critical was the situation in the neighbouring territory – Syria. After the initial passive attitude of Turkish decision-makers, the arguments in favour of supporting the rebels quickly prevailed – the United States voted against Assad, the dictator seemed doomed to fail, and the AKP is ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the main opposition force to Assad’s rule.

Although the military support for the rebels contradicted  the Davutoğlu concept, the temptation was too strong and Turkish diplomats (including the author himself) decided to speak out against the Syrian authorities. Turkey opted for an armed solution.

Quite quickly, it turned out that the only significant military force fighting against Assad in Syria were Islamic organisations – the more extreme, the more effective. Despite this, Turkey has maintained its military support, accepting that it goes to extreme Islamist organisations. Since September 2015, it has been clear that the overthrow of Assad was unrealistic because Russia was directly involved in his defence. At that time, Turkey, forced to give up its main goal (overthrowing Assad and subjugating Syria), concentrated on an auxiliary goal, which was to weaken the Syrian Kurds and to tear out the frontier of Syria for itself.

The consequence of Turkish policy in Syria was a complete loss of confidence in Turkey by the Arab states. This was because Turkey began to appear not as a democratic country focused on economic cooperation but as a military aggressor striving to rebuild its empire.

Another consequence of this decision was that Turkey stopped being perceived as a secular and democratic state. Although the AKP is an Islamic party, it has also officially referred to the tradition of the secular Kemalist state. However, support for the clearly Islamist groups in the Middle East led to accusations from the West of moving towards religious fundamentalism.

Instead of being a mediator, mentor and role model, Turkey has also actively engaged in the internal conflict in Egypt, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi against General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. After the victory of the latter, Turkish-Egyptian relations were frozen.

The situation is similar in Libya, where Turkey supports the Islamic Government of National Accord of Fayez al-Sarraj against the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar. Turkey’s ally, as in Egypt, is exclusively Qatar (and to some extent also Al-Jazeera, although this station can sometimes be critical of Turkey), while Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France are its opponents. In the case of Libya, as in Syria, all rules made by Davutoğlu have been broken. Turkey is sending not only arms and its Syrian mercenaries, but starting this year also its own soldiers, directly participating in the armed conflict.

Another field of conflict are relations with Israel. In order to rebuild its image of the most important state in the Islamic world, Turkey has decided to take on the role of the defender of the Palestinians. Of course, this has led to a deterioration in relations with Israel and, consequently, the USA. Despite later attempts to alleviate the tension, relations did not improve significantly, and another bout of deterioration came after the US announced the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem. At that time, Turkey organised a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Ankara, which violently criticised this move.

On the other hand, Turkey has tried to maintain correct relations with Iran, despite supporting opposing parties in the Syrian conflict. The connecting factor was the Kurdish problem and the growing volume of trade, especially after Iran signed an agreement with the West (the so-called JCPOA) in 2015. However, already in 2018, the new US administration withdrew from the agreement, imposing sanctions on Iran and all those trading with it. Like many European countries, Turkey has repeatedly expressed its opposition but has gone one step further in trying to evade sanctions. In the USA, a trial is currently underway against the Turkish state bank Halkbank accused of laundering money obtained from trading with Iran.

Another dispute in which it can be seen that Turkey’s foreign policy is far from the principles developed by Davutoğlu is the neighbouring conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey has always been closer to the ethnically and culturally related Azerbaijan, with which it is additionally linked by trade ties (e.g. gas imports). However, in recent clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey not only has supported Azerbaijan diplomatically and by selling weapons, but also by sending Syrian mercenaries.

EU-Turkey tensions

The most serious conflict between Turkey and its neighbouring states is now the one with Greece. Its central axis is the Cyprus question, which has again hit the headlines due to the growing dispute over the designation of exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the Mediterranean. In its background there are discoveries of potentially significant gas deposits in the region. The conflict is getting dangerous. Both sides are sending their navies into the research area. The Greeks are mainly supported by the French (who are conducting joint manoeuvres with the Greeks and are present because of the Total company), and to a lesser extent by the Italians (Eni is involved in the exploration and extraction), the Americans (Noble Energy and ExxonMobil) and Israel (Derek Drilling). There is significantly less support for Turkey’s position on the international scene.

The increasing conflict with Athens is not the only type of tension that is growing between the EU and Turkey. The cooling relations were particularly pronounced during the 2015 migration crisis, which became a tool for Ankara to put pressure on the EU.

Chancellor Merkel will try to ease the tension, if only because of the three million German citizens of Turkish origin and bearing in mind the millions of migrants that Turkey can 'release’ at any time into Europe (mainly Germany). However, it seems that, with the coalition of Greece, Cyprus, Italy and France, operating with external support from the US and Israel, as well as parts of the Arab states (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE), the EU can ultimately resort to economic sanctions.

Any negative information, even limited sanctions, can lead to serious consequences for the Turkish economy, particularly the financial sector, all the more so as the lira has just exceeded the psychological limit of 8:1 against the dollar. It is difficult to predict whether the Turkish authorities will risk a dispute with the EU in the economic field, where Ankara is an incomparably weaker partner.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, is urging that a tough stance is adopted towards Ankara. France is sensitive to the Turkish intervention in Syria and its influence in Lebanon because it has traditionally been a zone of French influence. In addition, Paris supported the Kurds in Rojava (the most secular and leftist element in the whole of Syria) in their fight against the ISIS and was very critical of Turkish anti-Kurdish policy. What is more, the Turkish claims about the designation of the EEZ in the Mediterranean directly threaten the interests of the French giant, Total.

The secular attitude of Paris is also influenced by the clear Islamisation of political life in Turkey. The recent assassination of a history teacher in a secondary school near Paris – with religious underpinnings – has shocked French society and, following the declaration of war on radical Islam by Macron, has further escalated tensions on the Paris-Ankara line. The latter is trying to put itself in the position of a defender of Islam in the world, and it is no accident that it did not send its condolences to Paris, indirectly defending the motives of the bomber. Erdoğan’s statement (uttered twice) about the need for psychiatric examinations for Macron added insult to injury. It seems that in this dispute, apart from politics, the private animosity between the two presidents who consider themselves outstanding leaders also plays a major role.

It is also vital that France is giving up leadership to its stronger partner, Germany, in the EU’s internal politics, where economic issues are predominant. Berlin, on the other hand, is still hesitant to take an active role in external policy, especially if this involves the (potential) use of the army. France will be the leading country seeking to adopt a firm EU policy towards Turkey.

Break-up within NATO?

The loss of confidence in Turkey by the West was aggravated by extremely severe repressions which followed the failed military coup in 2016. Not only were the military involved in the coup arrested, but also anyone who questioned Erdoğan’s leadership. Lawyers, professors, editors, NGO activists and, in particular, people associated with Fethullah Gülen accused of inspiring the putsch, have been imprisoned. Freedom of speech in Turkey is now a fiction. Any criticism of Erdoğan even inside the power camp is unacceptable. This clampdown was also experienced by Prime Minister Davutoğlu, who, shortly before the putsch, was considered too independent and therefore dismissed. An additional blow to Turkey’s image was the fight against the Kurds in Syria, who were perceived as the only ones who effectively resisted the Islamic state. Although human rights issues, especially the Kurdish issue, are raised as being an aggravating factor for Turkey, they are voiced mainly in the media.

Another problem from the point of view of the widely understood West is the strengthening of Turkish-Russian relations. This is despite conflicting interests both in Syria, in Libya and Armenia, as well as a long history of mutual conflicts. Even the shooting down of a Russian plane in November 2015 resulted in only a temporary freeze in relations. In the end, Turkey’s apology was enough to receive Russian political support for Erdoğan during the attempted mutiny against him a year later.

Turkey is establishing active energy links (e.g. the construction of Turkish Stream and South Stream, the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant by Rosatom) and military links (for example, the purchase of the S-400 system) with Russia. The latter in particular, is of concern to the USA and has led to Turkey being expelled from the F-35 fighter’s shopping programme. Tensions with Washington are causing the part of Turkish society that favours the AKP to perceive the United States with increasing reluctance.

However, Ankara rejects accusations of having overly close relations with the Kremlin, stressing the hypocrisy of European countries in particular. It is defending itself by pointing out, among other things, German-Russian cooperation in the construction of Nord Stream II and French support for the Russian protégé of General Haftar in Libya. This criticism is all the more pertinent because some Western countries themselves would be happy to move away from sanctions against Russia and see no problem in economic cooperation with Moscow.

In fact, for some Western European countries, cooperation between Turkey and Russia is not a major problem, so they will not take any specific action in this regard. A possible political alliance between Turkey and Russia is something else, but it seems unlikely in view of the conflicting interests in Syria, Libya and Armenia / Azerbaijan and Turkey’s continued membership of NATO. This is not the case for the US, for which even the existing Turkish-Russian cooperation is worrying. If cooperation between Turkey and Russia deepens, American sanctions can be expected at both military and economic levels.


This review of the conflicts in which Turkey is involved shows all too strongly that this country is in dire need of a tension de-escalation. Before 2011, Turkey had a moderate and even partially successful policy. After the Arab Spring, Turkey started to gradually slide into a state of permanent conflict with almost all its neighbours. Several of these are also crucial for NATO and the EU. In particular, the conflict with Athens and Paris that supports it (which is likely to be supported by the rest of the European Union) may escalate in the near future.

The remaining conflicts in which Turkey is involved will either remain frozen (Cyprus) or will take place without the decisive participation of the West (Armenia, Syria, Libya). However, Turkey will remain alone in the Middle East (most Arab countries, Israel) because of its confrontational policy, and it may, on the other hand, move politically closer to Iran.

Polish version is available here.

Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 InternationalAny use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" (below) is mentioned.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.