Today has brought a cluster of news emphasising the growing estrangement between Turkey and the West.
Turkish President Erdogan has condemned Albanian expansionism in the Balkans despite the implicit encouragement this has been getting from the West, which has been quietly encouraging Albania’s ‘Greater Albania’ project in order to weaken the influence in the Balkans of Serbia and above all of Russia.
Turkey is now also reported to be sending more troops to Syria, this time apparently expressly targeting the Kurds, who have become the US’s principal allies in Syria.
Now comes news of an overwhelming vote in the German parliament for a complete withdrawal of German forces from Incirlik air base in Turkey, the main air base used by NATO forces in Turkey, and the one from which many of the flights of NATO aircraft into Syria are launched.
News of the German withdrawal is not unexpected. Relations between Germany and Turkey have been deteriorating steadily for months, with the Germans becoming increasingly critical of President Erdogan’s domestic policies and Erdogan in turn criticising Germany for its decision to prevent Turkish politicians campaigning amongst the Turkish community in Germany during Turkey’s recent constitutional referendum.
Behind the growing estrangement between Germany and Turkey is the growing realisation in Turkey that the country’s longstanding objective of joining the EU is unachievable, with large swathes of the European public and several EU states determined to prevent it ever happening.
As the prospect of Turkey’s integration into the EU has waned, Turkish policy has gradually reoriented towards a more nationalist direction, with Turkish leaders – not just Erdogan – increasingly emphasising Turkish national interests over NATO and Western ones.
The conflict between Turkey and the Kurds crystallises the issue. European opinion – including in Germany – has long sympathised with the Kurds in their conflict with Turkey, and has come increasingly to support the Kurds in Syria fighting ISIS.
Opinion within Turkey however sees this issue very differently, with even many of Erdogan’s opponents seeing the possible emergence of a Kurdish independent or autonomous area led by the YPG in Syria as an existential threat to Turkey.
Turkey refuses to distinguish between the YPG in Syria and the Kurdish group the PKK which is leading the Kurdish struggle against the Turkish authorities in Turkey itself. It points out correctly to the obvious ideological affinity between the two groups (both are leftist) and tends to think of one as a branch of the other. It claims to be baffled that the West, which along with Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist organisation, has aligned itself so closely with the YPG.
The low opinion many Western leaders have for him must have become clear to Turkish President Erdogan even more obviously following the lukewarm support they gave him during his conflict with Russia following the downing in November 2015 by the Turkish air force of a Russian SU-24 bomber in Syria, and still more so following their failure to rally to him during last year’s coup attempt. Indeed it is an open secret that many European leaders would have been quietly delighted if the coup attempt had succeeded. There are even persistent rumours – never convincingly denied – that European leaders rejected Erdogan’s enquiries about possible asylum during the coup.
Erdogan’s and Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia since June last is in part a consequence of this growing estrangement between Turkey and the West, but it is now also becoming a contributory cause.
With the German finance minister talking today of Europe’s mission being to limit the spread of Russian and Chinese influence, the growing partnership between Turkey and Russia, and Turkey’s gradual engagement with the Eurasian institutions being set up by Russia and China (Erdogan for example attended the recent One Belt, One Road conference in Beijing) is inevitably heightening suspicion of Turkey in Germany and the West.
The decision of the German parliament to pull German forces out of Incirlik and to redeploy them to Jordan is therefore unsurprising.
The big question is not whether Turkey and Europe – and indeed Turkey and the West – are becoming estranged from each other. It is how far this estrangement will go.
I remain skeptical that Turkey is heading for a full realignment with Russia and China. I doubt that there are many people in Turkey who want that, and I am sure that there are many people within the Turkish elite – including within Erdogan’s own entourage – who would strongly oppose it. I doubt also that this is the desire of Turkish President Erdogan himself.
However beyond a certain point events begin to acquire their own momentum. As I wrote recently in connection with the boorish reception of President Erdogan during his recent visit to the US, the West seems to have a tin ear to Turkish sensibilities, and seems incapable of understanding that Turkey’s size and power and its key importance in the eastern Mediterranean, in the Middle East and in Central Asia means that it is a country which must be listened to and taken seriously.
As I have said previously, Western leaders seem to be doing everything in their power to drive Turkey away, and if it eventually does so they will have no one to blame but themselves.