The Turkish government is in a bind. While Turkey’s relations with the Europeans seem bumpy due to its beleaguered accession process with the European Union, when it comes to the Middle East, there is greater overlap between them. In Europe, Turkish leaders see a like-minded actor that shares their concerns on Jerusalem, the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nuclear programme, and the culpability of the Assad regime in the Syrian conflict. Ankara also welcomes European criticism of the Trump administration’s Middle East policies, many of which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers to be destabilising and, as with issues surrounding the Palestinians or Saudi Arabia, morally problematic.
Yet none of this has been enough to spur intense Turkish-European cooperation or to make Ankara run to Brussels, London, or Paris – rather than Washington – to settle some of its disputes in the Middle East. The situation stems from the Turkish perception that Europeans, though sympathetic to some of Turkey’s concerns, are largely irrelevant on the ground in the region. Turks broadly share the US view that Europeans talk about challenges in the Middle East but will not do anything about them.
Turkish officials rarely see the need to consult with Europeans on the region. This is not to say that there is no discussion between Ankara and Europe about the Middle East. Erdogan has occasionally picked up the phone to talk to European leaders about issues such as Palestine or the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018. Erdogan also pushed to enlist France and Germany in a summit on Idlib with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Istanbul in 2018. Nonetheless – given Turkey’s direct military involvement in Iraq, Libya, and Syria – Erdogan’s government sees itself as a much more serious actor than Europe in the Middle East.
Turkey shares the European view that the Trump administration’s abandonment of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is a major strategic mistake that could destabilise the region. Ankara is sympathetic to European efforts to bypass harsh US sanctions on Iran, but it is not an active participant in the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, a special purpose vehicle designed to facilitate trade with Iran.
For the Turkish government, Europe may play a useful political role in Russia’s calculations on Syria. As it is engaged in a proxy war with Russia in Idlib, Turkey can use all the political support from its European allies that it can get. Turkey and Europe have a strategic interest in both blocking Russia’s attempts to extend its control across all Syrian territory and in preventing another surge in the number of Syrian refugees travelling to Europe. This is why Ankara wants to keep Berlin and Paris in the loop about negotiations over Idlib.
One issue that Ankara would never fully trust the Europeans on – and on which it is somewhat concerned about European influence – is the Kurdish conflicts in Syria and Turkey, which are now seamlessly intertwined. Before Turkey’s EU accession process came to a halt, Turkish Kurds thrived under EU-led reforms and EU-funded projects. But, today, Ankara is pursuing hard-line security policies at home and has galvanised its military and diplomatic effort to disrupt the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish zone in Syria. The prevailing view within the Turkish security bureaucracy echoes its sentiments in the 1990s: if Turkey loosens up, the West will push for Kurdish autonomy or independence. Therefore, so the argument goes, the West can never be trusted.
This is not accurate: Europe’s governments and wider society may be sympathetic to the Kurds’ plight, but they have not pushed for Kurdish independence. Yet this is not how Ankara perceives the situation. Rather, it has a tendency to highlight one limited – but fundamentally important – area in which it acknowledges that Europe potentially has influence on the ground: the Turkish government sees European political and material support for Kurdish communities in Turkey and northern Syria as a direct enabler of Kurdish ambitions and a threat to the national interest. European engagement with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces – whether through direct support in combating the Islamic State group (ISIS) or through stabilisation efforts in northern Syria – is the focus of intense Turkish scrutiny. For Ankara, the Kurdish issue and Syrian-Kurdish autonomy has the potential to threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity. As such, it views any European interest in the topic with deep suspicion, which has roots in Turkey’s history and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.
On the Kurdish issue, Turkey and Europe will have to learn to disagree. In the absence of a return to the Turkish-Kurdish peace process in Turkey, Turkish officials will always mistrust European efforts to help stabilise northern Syria or support Syrian-Kurdish forces in their fight against ISIS. But, luckily for Europe, the real focus of Turkey’s indignation is the United States, as the key supporter of the Syrian Democratic Forces and a party to negotiations over the Turks’ establishment of a “safe zone” in northern Syria. Looking further down the road, Turkey views Europe as a potential sponsor of Syria’s reconstruction, hoping that Turkish contractors will get the lion’s share of construction contracts there, especially in non-Kurdish zones.
Erdogan views the world as an arena of competition between great powers and Turkey as an emerging force in this arena. His preferred mode of interaction with other global powers is transactional – which is one of the reasons why he gets along so well with US President Donald Trump (despite the broader differences between the American and Turkish positions on the Middle East). Erdogan’s warm personal relationship with Trump has replaced the institutional framework of Turkey’s transatlantic ties. But Erdogan has no such relationship with European leaders. He finds it difficult to strike deals on Middle Eastern matters with Europe, partly because the EU is a complex entity in which there is no single leader with whom he can engage in meaningful give and take.
As such, Turkey and Europe will continue to talk about the Middle East. But, without robust European initiatives and a significant European military presence in the region, this will simply amount to polite chitchat.