Monday Commentary: Turkey - an awkward but indispensable partner and ally for the west
19 February 2018

"Diplomatic efforts have managed to clear some of the air in the relations between Turkey and the west. An increasingly ambitious and assertive Turkey will need to be dealt with differently in the future. However, different should not be an excuse for indifference" , writes Dennis Sammut

It has been a busy week for Turkish diplomacy: on Thursday President Recip Tayip Erdogan met in Ankara for several hours with the visiting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in what had been billed by the Turkish media as a make or break meeting; In the meantime, in Berlin Prime Minister Binali Yildrim met with Chancellor Angela Merkel and other members of her government. The Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorborn Jagland, was also in Ankara, where he met the Turkish leadership and other key stakeholders. At the heart of all these discussions was more than simply bilateral relations, but the deeper issue of where Turkey stands in its relations with Europe and the United States.

That Turkey, a long standing and reliable NATO ally, and a candidate for membership of the European Union should be having these discussions at all signifies the complexity of these relations, and of Turkey itself. Harsh statements expressed over the last year gave the impression of an imminent crisis that could escalate at any moment.

At the heart of the issue is a question of perception. Turkey sees itself as a giant waking up, a successor of the Ottoman empire (when it was still great), and the leader of the Turkic and Islamic worlds. It demands respect, which it claims is often denied, and comprehension of its challenges and difficulties, which it complains are often ignored. The West's somewhat tepid response to the failed coup in July 2016 is often cited as an example of western contempt; the US support for Kurdish groups fighting against Daech in Syria, despite Turkey's concerns, is seen as an example of western double standards. Turks cite plenty of other examples.

Not surprisingly, these matters are perceived differently outside Turkey. There are concerns about both the domestic, as well as the international agenda being pursued by the ruling AK Party. The clamp down against Gulenists accused of plotting and executing the 2016 coup is seen as being overzealous, taking in anyone who does not like the government, regardless of where they stood on the issue of the coup. In Europe criticism of Turkey's Kurdish policy is widespread, and Turkey's incursion in Syria is often seen as unhelpful in the pursuance of the bigger objective of fighting Islamic State terrorists.

Both sides are able to make a solid case on individual issues, but of more significance are the deeper implications of these conflicting perceptions for Turkey's long-term relations with the west.

Last week's meetings have gone some way to clear the air.

Tillerson's three-hour chat with President Erdogan could not have been anything but frank. Tillerson opted to go into the meeting without a translator or note taker - a somewhat controversial decision, but one could see why that sort of discussion could have benefited from the intimacy of a tete-a-tete meeting. Both sides emerged pledging commitment to each other's security and defence. A joint statement attempts, even if not fully successfully, to show the sides singing from the same hymn sheet on Syria, terrorism and other issues. As for the details, mechanisms were created, and one has yet to see how these will play out.

In Berlin, Prime Minister Binali Yildrim made it clear that he wanted to turn the page in relations with Germany and the EU. "We are of the opinion that it's time for Turkey and Germany to return to normal life," he told journalists traveling with him to Berlin. Both Merkel and Yildirim made an effort to emphasise the positive, during a joint press conference, even if some harsh truths could not be ignored.

Of course these meetings could only happen as a result of many months and weeks of behind the scenes work. Turkish media pointed out the efforts of the foreign ministers of the two countries and the role they played in the "normalisation process". Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hosted his counterpart Sigmar Gabriel in October in Antalya, and on his part Gabriel hosted Cavusoglu in Germany's Goslar city "to drink tea together in Turkish style".

Some seasoned Turkish commentators are cautiously hopeful about last week's meetings. Senior columnist Murat Yetkin, writing on Hurriyet Daily News, said "it is too early to say that Turkey's relations with the West are back on track following recent troubles. But we can perhaps say they are getting closer to normalization, which should ultimately also be good for reviving Turkish democracy within EU standards".

In Brussels, Berlin and Washington the issue of managing relations with Turkey is now high on the agenda. If President Erdogan's strategy was to get the west's attention, now he's got it. The view that Turkey, despite often being an awkward friend, is an indispensable ally and partner is shared across most of the chanceries of NATO and EU member states.

It was left to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorborn Jagland, also visiting Turkey in the last week, to highlight Turkish awkwardness by flagging  up the many concerns that the west has vis-a-vis governance issues in Turkey, whilst at the same time reminding everybody of how indispensable Turkey is, saying " to those Europeans who want to push Turkey away, if that happens, they will also see that Europe will have many more problems than we are have today. We depend on each other and we should realize that we a part of a bigger picture that everybody is dependent on".

An increasingly ambitious and assertive Turkey will need to be dealt with differently in the future. However, different should not be an excuse for indifference. Jagland was right to highlight the need for Turkey to respect the European Convention on Human Rights and other commitments it has signed up to as part of its efforts to rebuild relations with the west. Mechanisms to deal with outstanding issues need to be created, or re-energised and re-activated if they exist already. A better understanding of the Turkish perspective, and more sensitivity to its concerns, can go a long way in avoiding problems and tackling outstanding issues and can help turn the nice words of last week into tangible positive action in the future.

source: Dennis Sammut is the Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research). His Monday Commentary appears weekly on

photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel shakes hands with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim after the news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany February 15, 2018