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Turkey at crossroads as EU, US consider sanctions

Dec 08,2020 - Last updated at Dec 08,2020

Turkey is facing one of the biggest challenges in recent times: punitive measures from its European neighbours and US ally over what is seen as disruptive, provocative and destabilising policies, as well as playing into the hands of Moscow. EU foreign ministers meeting in Berlin on Monday, ahead of a European leaders’ summit on Thursday, are expected to recommend carefully planned measures against Ankara that could include sanctions and an arms embargo. The main issue here is Turkey’s infringement on the sovereignty of two EU members, Greece and Cyprus, namely in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Ankara has sent vessels to explore for gas in what it says are contested maritime borders. Turkey’s dismal human rights record will also dominate the talks.

A week ago during a virtual NATO meeting at the level of foreign ministers, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched what was described as a parting shot against his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, accusing Ankara of undermining NATO’s security and creating instability in the Eastern Mediterranean. He reportedly chided Turkey for sending paid Syrian fighters to Libya and for intervening in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. He said that Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defence system was “a gift” to Moscow.

Last week, the US Senate approved a final version of the annual defence policy bill, which mandates the president to sanction Turkey for its acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air missile defence system. Once the bill is signed sanctions would become mandatory. President Donald Trump had opted not to punish Turkey for its 2017 purchase of the Russian weapon, which NATO claims is designed to target the sophisticated F-35 aircraft. Turkey was denied access to the F-35 program as a result.

Pompeo’s harsh language against Turkey signals a departure from the vague and tolerant policy that Trump had adopted over the controversial policies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with regard to his close ties to Russia and Iran and his role in Syria and Libya.

Erdogan is worried about the EU’s growing hostility. Last month, while playing down the effect of sanctions on his country, he declared that Turkey, which continues to jockey for a European Union membership, sees itself as an inseparable part of Europe but will not give in to attacks and double standards. Germany has been trying, with little success, to ease tensions between Erdogan and French President Emanuel Macron, which in recent weeks has got out of control.

Both men, facing domestic challenges, have tried to demonstrate a greater regional outreach. They differ on Syria, Libya, political Islam, Ankara’s ties to Moscow and its effect on NATO’s unity and now the conflict between Turkey and Greece. Engaged in heated verbal exchanges, Erdogan called on the French last Friday to dump their leader at the ballot box in 2022 when Macron is expected to seek reelection.

Erdogan’s aides have tried to send reconciliatory signals to Brussels ahead of the EU summit. The leaders will try to avoid a head-to-head clash with Turkey. If approved, the sanctions will be measured and conditional to future provocations by Turkey. A crisis with the EU will have a negative impact on the unity of NATO. Recently, Erdogan suggested that the North Atlantic alliance replace Turkey’s military presence in Libya; a suggestion that didn’t find many takers.

There is no doubt that with Trump’s imminent departure, Erdogan knows that Washington’s behaviour towards his country and other regional issues will change dramatically. The new president, Joe Biden, will seek to rebuild America’s military and commercial alliance with the EU. NATO will emerge once more as the cornerstone of that alliance. Turkey will have to choose where it wants to be; an integral member of NATO or standing with Russia and Iran. It cannot choose both.

Erdogan’s domestic challenges; a growing opposition even among former allies, a struggling economy, a bleak human rights record and costly regional adventures, will come back to haunt him. Despite his maverick style Erdogan is a pragmatist at heart and he is unlikely to sacrifice his country’s relationship with Europe where Turkey is the fifth largest trading partner with the EU.

Furthermore, the US and Europe will not accept further Turkish infringement on the sovereignty of Greece and Cyprus and will seek to put additional pressure on Ankara to accept a negotiated settlement.

Chances are that we will see a less defiant Erdogan in the coming weeks; one who will reconsider his country’s long-term regional priorities and interests, its relationships with its neighbours and its strategic alliances as the US reverts to multilateralism under Biden. In response to latest Turkish overtures to Europe, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell attempted to reciprocate by stating last week that the EU and Turkey share common interests on developing a good neighbourhood, adding that EU leaders decided to seek positive engagement with Turkey and evaluate the situation according to whether more positive approach would be seen from the Turkish side. The ball is now in Erdogan’s court and his next move will be crucial to his own political survival.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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