Jihadist violence suddenly puts Turkey in EU’s sights

After Suruc horror, Turkey to ‘ramp up’ military response to Islamic State

Protesters carry the coffin of Gunay Ozarslan, killed by Turkish police at an anti-terror operation, in Istanbul,  yesterday. Photograph: Sedat Suna/EPA

Protesters carry the coffin of Gunay Ozarslan, killed by Turkish police at an anti-terror operation, in Istanbul, yesterday. Photograph: Sedat Suna/EPA

 

Today’s emergency meeting of Nato ambassadors in Brussels has focused minds on the increasingly complex geopolitical situation unfolding on the border between Europe and the Middle East.

The decision by Turkey to request the meeting is indicative of the recent change in the country’s policy towards Islamic State.

Since the militant group emerged as a serious terrorist threat, Turkey has adopted a policy of non-intervention. It refused to take part in US-led air strikes on IS bases within Syria and wouldn’t allow coalition war planes to use its Incirlik airbase.

The sight of thousands of Kurds under siege in the town of Kobane last autumn while Turkey stood by angered many, prompting suspicion that Turkish policy was being driven by old grievances against Kurdish separatists.

This stance has changed dramatically over the past week. The suicide bomb in the southeastern Turkish town of Suruc just over a week ago propelled Turkey into action, prompting it to launch military action against IS in northern Syria and open the Incirlik air base to the US.

Ongoing talks

Washington

US president Barack Obama has made no secret of his wish for greater co-operation from the Nato ally. On the margins of the G7 in Germany last month, Obama said Washington has been seeking “deeper co-operation with Turkish authorities” who had not “fully ramped up the capacity they need” to tackle IS.

Two weeks ago, senior US diplomats, including Gen John Allen, the president’s special envoy managing the offensive against the Islamic militant group, were in Ankara for talks.

The decision by Turkey to co-operate with the US and other European Nato members will be welcomed by Washington. But equally it opens up questions about the EU’s influence on Turkish policy.

The European Union finds itself caught in a no man’s land between the strong transatlantic alliance of Washington and Ankara. The US fetes Turkey as a strategically important Nato ally, but the attitude in Brussels towards Turkey is much more ambivalent.

Talks on the country’s EU membership, which officially began in 2005, have essentially stalled, fuelled by German opposition to Turkish accession. German chancellor Angela Merkel favours a “preferred partnership” rather than full membership.

The unresolved territorial dispute in Cyprus remains a barrier to negotiations, but more recently the crackdown on the judiciary, democracy and media freedom, epitomised during the Gezi Park protests two years ago, have raised alarm bells in Brussels.

Accession negotiations rumble on – in May both sides reiterated their commitment to moving ahead with talks, despite little sign of concrete progress. But events since the Arab Spring have forced the EU to sit up and take notice of Turkey.

In a signal that Brussels was willing to step up engagement, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini visited Turkey within weeks of taking up her position in December.

Following terrorist attacks in Europe this year, Brussels and Ankara have intensified counter-terrorism co-operation, with the sides gathering most recently on June 23rd for talks in the Turkish capital.

Turkey’s role as a transit country for refugees entering the EU from Syria has also highlighted the country’s importance as a partner in tackling the migration crisis.

The EU is also eyeing Turkey’s potential as an energy partner as it seeks to wean itself off Russian gas in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

Energy union

European Commission

This highlights the importance of Turkey’s status as a transit country that could provide access to gas-rich areas such as Azerbijan, Turkmenistan and possibly Iran, given the recent diplomatic breakthrough.

In terms of the EU’s response to the events of the past week, Mogherini spoke to Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu on Saturday, highlighting the importance of keeping the Kurdish settlement process on track, a highly sensitive political issue. In Brussels there is real concern that recent events could derail the Kurdish settlement.

In the meantime, however, Turkey’s next steps are a matter for Nato and not the EU.

Turkey’s status as a non-EU Nato member occupying a strategically important position on the edge of Europe means it holds a uniquely powerful geopolitical position that may directly affect citizens of the EU.

But while there are formal contacts between the EU and Nato – Mogherini, for example, attends the Nato meetings of defence and foreign ministers – ultimately the EU will have little say on how Turkey proceeds militarily from here.

Some would say that the lack of a firm promise of EU membership has weakened the EU’s influence on Turkey. But the fact remains that Turkey’s Nato membership is the country’s most important geopolitical alignment.

For Washington, crucially, it also ensures that Turkey looks West rather than East as it forges a response to the conflict at its borders.

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