‘Peace at home; peace in the world.’ Atatürk’s homely ambition has never been more important for Turkey. However, a number of crises are coming together inexorably to force Ankara to think long and hard about its future intentions. Turkey is at a major crossroads.
There are three main reasons: first Ankara’s relationship with the USA; second, Turkey’s position in the Middle East; and lastly, its delicate economic position.
The biggest snowball rolling down the hill is defence, surprisingly. Ankara has insisted that it will take delivery of a Russian-made S-400 advanced anti-aircraft missile system this month, but the US Congress says it will impose penalties on Turkey if it does so. The sophisticated Russian SAM system poses a direct threat to the latest hi-tech US F-35 fighter, also being supplied to Turkey.
Turkey faces a position in which it must either back away from Moscow’s S-400 deal, or accept the possible economic damage of sanctions and its eventual ejection from the US F-35 programme. The result would have been that, whether by levying economic sanctions, or by cancelling Turkey’s participation in the highly advanced (and very expensive) F-35 stealth fighter programme, the US could retaliate and hurt Turkey’s economy badly.
However, risks to its economy and the threat of US sanctions have not stopped Turkey from acquiring Moscow’s air defence system. Ankara stood firm. A government spokesman was defiant: ‘We are a serious country. Our deal with Russia continues.’ Ankara clearly believes that it can withstand US pressure over the issue – because America needs Turkey.
Then, in late June 2019 (in the margins of the G20 Osaka meeting), the Turkish president claimed that a deal had been struck. President Trump had told him there would be no sanctions over the Russian deal and that Turkey had been had been ‘treated unfairly’ over the move.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters that the first delivery of the S-400s would take place within 10 days and that he believed the dispute would be overcome ‘without a problem’ and without sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of Moscow’s missiles. The results were immediate; the Turkish lira soared nearly 3 per cent on 1 July 2019 to its strongest level since April 2019.
However, Ankara’s optimism is a risky calculation. A USAF spokesman later said: ‘Nothing has changed … Turkey will not be permitted to have both systems.’ Moreover, if the US Congress follows through on its threat to impose sanctions on Turkey by 31 July 2019 and ignores President Trump, that pressure will have a much wider impact on Turkey’s political and economic future than just defence.
Should the USA remove Turkey from the F-35 programme and impose sanctions on its NATO ally, it would be one of the most significant ruptures in recent history in the relationship between the two nations. It would be one more policy dispute that over the years have tested the complicated relationship between Turkey and the USA.
From Turkey’s military intervention to stop the Greek coup and civil war in Cyprus in 1974, to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, more recently, US support for the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units in Syria’s civil war, ties have frequently been strained between the supposed allies. The danger is that Turkey is, for many reasons, drifting away from the West.
This brings us to foreign policy. Turkey is being forced to recalibrate its foreign and regional policy at a time when the Middle East is undergoing a major transformation. Both Russia and Turkey are seeking more influence in an unstable region. Their relationship is a curious mix of cooperative and competitive. Whilst Ankara is well aware of the dangers of creating new risks to its already weakened economy, it also needs to demonstrate its power as a major regional player.
The problem is that Turkey and Russia have serious form going back to the days of the Tsars. For example, the Crimean War in the 1850s was really all about Russian and Turkish rivalry. Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has always sought to deny Russia a significant presence to the south or in the eastern Mediterranean. But that is now where Russia is becoming increasingly active – especially in Syria. As Russian influence grows, Turkey’s room for regional influence shrinks. Turkey’s recent accommodation of Russia is therefore historically and geopolitically unusual.
However, given Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian civil war in 2015 – and its determination to support President Assad in power – some form of engagement between Russia and Turkey, Syria’s neighbour, was inevitable. The two sides seem, for the moment, to have settled on a wary cooperation. Russia controls northern Syria on Turkey’s border. When Turkey is frustrated with the West – as it is now over US support for Syrian Kurdish forces and the EU’s doublespeak on enlargement –- it finds in Russia a sympathetic ear.
The third factor is economics. Turkey is a major energy-importing country. It needs low energy prices, particularly given its alarming level of borrowing and an unsustainable current account deficit, much of it caused by its increasing energy needs. Ankara is however in serious economic trouble. This spills over on to the streets of Turkey itself, as recent elections have shown.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won support on the streets by using nationalism to highlight frequent challenges from alleged EU and Western hostility, fear of Islam and foreign pressure against the country. The fragile state of Turkey’s economy now however threatens social and political stability. The country’s economy dipped into a recession since the last quarter of 2018. The lira has lost 30 per cent on the global money market.
Over the next year, the Turkish private sector must pay back at least $150 billion in debts, and in foreign currency too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the money. Financially, Ankara is drifting towards national bankruptcy without serious economic reforms – or getting a lot of new money.
However, there are four more years until the next scheduled elections in 2023. The AKP leadership is banking on having time to stabilise the economy, as Ankara believes it can find alternative sources of money.
Two obvious pots of gold are the hydrocarbons beneath the sea off Cyprus and the lure of a sell-out to the East. To deal with the latter first, China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative (to buy up ports and infrastructure across the Middle East and eastern Europe) could be a tempting offer for Ankara. Turning to the East offers easy cash – but at a heavy price.
The second cash cow could be hydrocarbons off Cyprus, and Ankara has shown itself determined to get as much as it can and, in the process, warn off any competition. South Nicosia’s optimistic alliance of Italian, French, Israeli, US and Egyptian backers to support their national oil companies’ ambitions is being met with hard words and the threat of maritime force. The balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean is being challenged.
Inside Turkey the first tremors of a domestic political earthquake are being felt, too. With the country in economic turmoil, AKP’s legitimacy is suddenly facing serious challenges. It suffered stinging defeats in municipal elections in March and was humiliated in the recent mayoral election in İstanbul, the key to national political power. Already there is talk of a rival party based on AKP’s original blend of Islamism with democracy and liberal market policies. Both former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan and former president Abdullah Gül are now looking to create a rival party and bid for power themselves.
The result is that politically, economically and abroad, Turkey is at a crossroads; ‘peace at home and with the neighbours’ is a fine slogan, but is looking to be an increasingly distant dream …