By Harriet Fildes
Has the recent crisis in Gaza and the ever intractable Syrian conflict once again brought to the fore Turkey’s relative isolation from Europe? Erdogan has taken a firm stance on both of these issues, but where are his allies?
Since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated 8 days ago, Turkey has been an active force both in Gaza, with Davutoglu and Arab foreign ministers travelling there on Tuesday, and in Cairo, as one of the core mediators of the cease-fire negotiations.
However, this core role is not quite the one assigned to them by the West during calls for Turkey and Egypt to press Hamas to de-escalate.
In fact, Prime Minister Erdogan has shown his unequivocal support for his “Muslim brothers” right to self-defence against an aggressive Israeli state and expressed distrust in the ability of the U.N to negotiate a cease-fire. The PM also requested that the West be more active in this crisis; “I’m appealing to the West. Nobody can say Israel is conducting self-defence.” Davutoglu stated at a press conference in Gaza that; “Our second message goes to the international community and the United Nations. You may remain silent against what Israel is doing. However, we will continue to struggle against injustices.”
Erdogan, arriving for a meeting in Istanbul on Monday for the Eurasia Islam Council, stated that “what is happening is terrorism”. On Tuesday he went even further, arguing that Israel is conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
With the U.S publicly attacking Turkey for its stance on Israel, has Erdogan gone too far with his vehement rhetoric, isolating himself from Western backing?
The simple answer is no. Although playing very different games and using polarised rhetoric, reflective of differences in public opinion perhaps, Turkey and EU states are largely united in their aims for the conflict; namely an end to the violence and eventual moves towards a durable peace, evident in the growing number of EU states backing Palestine’s bid at the UN.
Moreover, bilateral policy-making during the Syrian crisis has arguably brought the EU and Turkey closer together and can be seen as a turning point in Turkish-EU relations.
Since the devastating bombing of Akçakale by Syrian forces loyal to the regime, the pressing nature of the crisis has been brought to the fore, impelling the powers that be into action.
The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Policy, Catherine Ashton expressed strong solidarity with Turkey in this matter, stating that “such violations of Turkey’s sovereignty cannot be tolerated”.
Turkey made statements immediately after the bombing, calling for the international community to act on Syria, a call which was not heeded until after the US elections. Nevertheless, the cogs of the international community are beginning to turn, particularly since the Syrian coalition was formed in the Qatari capital of Doha and was later acknowledged as the “only legitimate representative of the Syrian people” by the Gulf states and the EU, an act which was further praised during the second EU-Arab League meeting.
The EU and especially France have endorsed the emergence of a consolidated opposition, arguing that the opposition leader, al-Khatib should “advance rapidly towards forming a provisional government, capable of ensuring a political transition and cater to the needs of the Syrian people.”
The unification of numerous Syrian factions has led the EU to reconsider its arms embargo, a change in policy that has the potential to stimulate the demise of Assad’s regime by levelling out the vast power imbalance between the Chinese and Russian armed regime and the assortment of rebel fighters.
Led by Britain, this revision of policy will be accompanied by pressure on the US to priorities Syria, placing a possible intervention “back on the table” after British PM, David Cameron visited Syrian refugee camps in Turkey and saw the human cost of this devastating and intractable war.
This significant development, as well as the security council discussion in Britain over the possibility of implementing Turkey’s safe haven plan in which Assad would be offered safe passage out of Syria, should provide Turkey with reassurance that the EU is attempting to bridge the divide between discourse and practice in terms of their frequent condemnation of the Syrian regime and pledges of allegiance and assistance to Turkey in an effort to put an end to this crisis.
According to Cameron, “That means more help for the opposition, more pressure at the UN, more help for the refugees, more work with the neighbours.”
The US remains reluctant to commit to the new unified opposition however, and similarly, has refrained from pledging anything more that rhetorical support to Turkey.
Nevertheless, negotiations with NATO over the deployments of Patriot missile systems to Turkey for defence against Syrian border encroachments are coming to their final stages with the agreement that member states will supply Turkey with these defensive weapons and NATO chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen stating that; “Turkey can count on allied solidarity”.
Hurriyet Daily News asserts that around 170 German soldiers will be deployed, alongside the German supplied Patriot system, in order to protect Turkey’s turbulent 900km border with Syria.
According to Ali Hussein Bakeer, an expert in Middle Eastern and North African affairs for USAK, there are 3 main reasons for the deployment of the Patriot missile system.
Firstly, “to put more psychological pressure on Assad and as a policy to ensure that Turkey’s deterrence capacity is stronger. Assad is clearly willing to test this capacity; however, he will no longer be able to do so, as with the Patriot system, Turkey’s defensive and offensive capacity will exceed Assad’s.”
Secondly, “Turkey wants NATO to be more involved in the Syrian crisis, possession of the Patriot system will ensure this”
Thirdly, “by deploying Patriot missiles to the border with Syria, Turkey is covering the backs of the revolutionary forces operating I this area. Assad will need to make many calculations before he bombs this border area as any miscalculations will bring NATO into a war with Syria which Assad cannot combat.”
Yet despite this unusually overt assistance from NATO and the EU, Turkey continues to suffer the brunt of this crisis, receiving the majority of refugees which has now reached 120,147 according to UNHCR, with another 154,375 in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Thus, the Turkish understanding and need to combat this crisis is likely to be more pressing with the humanitarian tragedy so immediate.
Furthermore, Turkey has been let down and frustrated by the international communities apparent apathy or neglect until recently, condemning the U.N.’s Failure to act either swiftly or effectively in an attempt to end this crisis and raising the issue of a need to reform the security council which would have obvious ramifications for the equally intractable conflict in Gaza.
It is precisely Erdogan’s vocal condemnation of the U.N which shows the effect of the Syrian crisis on Turkey, pushing it further towards a position as regional hegemon. As Popp argues, the Western reaction, or inaction, during this crisis, compelled Turkey to combat it alone, meaning that “the fate of the Syrian people is currently being decided in Ankara.”
Turkey holds a sway in the Arab world that Europe cannot hope for, making them reliant on Turkey for diplomatic talks such as the ones currently taking place in Cairo. Turkey must entrench this reputation whilst simultaneously espousing its cooperation with the EU. Although the Syrian crisis has proved testing for Turkish-EU relations, they seem to be remaining strong despite the long and arduous road to Europe. All parties must present a consolidated face regarding the management of this unfolding crisis, particularly regarding the refugee problem and dealings with the new coalition opposition.
About the author: JTW
JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).