Currently, Turkey is active in a record number of military conflicts in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. Turkey is militarily engaged in the Eastern Mediterranean, Nagorno-Karabakh, Cyprus, Libya, Syria, and specifically in Kurdish-ruled areas of Iraq and Syria. Turkey has been acting more and more unilaterally and without coordination with its NATO partners, its purchase of Russian S-400s marking just one of many escalations in this regard. Further, the Eastern Mediterranean crisis deepened in 2020, creating more pressure among European Union countries such as Greece, Cyprus, and France to more strongly oppose Turkey’s foreign policy. In the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, which started in fall 2020, Turkey sided with the latter. As clearly as this growing Turkish expansionism has emerged, as reluctant have the EU and the US become to counter these ambitions. Their approach towards Turkey, a country that joined NATO as early as 1952, has been one of appeasement.
The current reluctance towards Turkey has three different dimensions: First, the EU cannot exert pressure on Turkey even if it would like to, because of several dependencies. On one side, there is Germany, an old partner to Turkey in the EU that will veto any attempt by EU states to sanction the country. Germany has repeatedly backed Turkey in internal EU negotiations. The EU is further guided by the refugee deal of 2016, by which Turkey has agreed to keep migrants from entering Greece in exchange for financial aid and concessions on visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU. Second, pressure on Turkey has never been exerted thoroughly by the West, since it has been too important of an ally to be marginalised. Not even three military coups from 1960 to 1980 have remotely changed Turkey’s status. It seems that whatever regime has ruled Turkey it has never bothered the West, as long as geostrategic allyships were kept intact. Third, the strategic partnership with the US became much more personalised in the face of Donald Trump’s presidency. On top of the aforementioned geopolitical dependencies, Trump’s presidency brought in the factor of his own private business relationships to Ankara. Although the Special Counsel investigation against Trump focused on Russia, the role of Turkish meddling with figures of the Trump administration as well as with his private businesses cannot be underestimated when examining these policy decisions (Kirkpatrick and Lipton 2019).
In Donald Trump’s continuing to appeasement of Turkey, he went so far as to abandon the United States’ only on-the-ground ally against ISIS, the SDF, in October 2019 by withdrawing US troops from northeastern Syria. The Turkish invasion that followed just minutes after Trump’s announcement can therefore be considered the product of years of reluctance, both by the EU and the US, to check Turkey; this reluctance is based on long-held geostrategic considerations and has more recently been fortified by private business ties. This path dependency has immense repercussions for the people in the region and the fight against ISIS.
A clear US take on Turkey can also enable the EU to act more strongly and more coherently vis-à-vis Turkey in other contexts, such as in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, and Armenia. It is time for the EU, especially Germany, to reconsider its present relationship with Turkey. Neither are negotiations on EU admission ongoing, nor are there clear plans to sanction Turkey. This political limbo cannot go on endlessly – it just encourages Turkey to keep testing its limits. Further, Germany should try to dampen the power the Turkish state has in Germany, specifically against political dissidents and oppositional figures who have sought refuge there. Much of Germany’s reluctance is rooted in its awareness of this condition. Turkish state networks in Germany should be dismantled to allow for both the safety of Turkey critics in Germany and a foreign policy that does not bend to Ankara’s influence.