Turkey Burns its Bridges

As Turkey drills in the Cypriot EEZ and kicks off military operations in Northern Syria, the country appears to have pivoted towards Russia – and away from traditional partners Europe and NATO

Turkey seems determined to burn its bridges with the EU and NATO.

Once on the accession track to join the European Union, the past few weeks – indeed, the past few years – have seen Turkey turn away from its Western allies and perform increasingly contentious actions in the eastern Mediterranean. The result? Increased instability, and a contribution to the worsening refugee crisis across the Mediterranean and Southern Europe.

Pushing into Syria

Turkey’s long-anticipated push into Northern Syria has angered and outraged many. It comes at an opportune time, just as United States President Donald Trump announced American troop withdrawals in advance of this military action. Supporting Kurdish efforts were “too costly”, the President said, a statement roundly condemned by European nations and other American politicians. The move has left the semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave known as the Rojava, who have been key Western allies in the region, to fend for themselves.

Many believe the withdrawal is a betrayal of staunch pro-Western allies in the region, and consider it to be counterproductive to American and European interests in the area. Kurdish militias, including the YPG – who are a part of the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance alongside the Kurdish Regional Government – are instrumental in the fight against IS. In addition, the Turkish incursion has left the region open to additional bombardment from Turkish, Russian, Iranian, and Assad government forces – presenting an opportunity to the Islamic State to regain and revive lost ground.

Russia and Iran are strong backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Turkey and the US have called for Assad to resign and supported anti-government rebels. However, this Turkish incursion could open the non-hostile, SDF-controlled region to both Turkish and anti-Assad rebel forces. The ensuing chaos would be a boon for the Islamic State, as Syrian-Kurdish leaders’ ability to hold onto their thousands of IS prisoners would be severely compromised due to destabilisation caused by Turkish military activity.

Turkey’s assault has already had a “detrimental effect” on American counter-IS operations, which have “effectively stopped”, a senior US defense official told CNN, as the offensive “has challenged our ability to build local security forces, conduct stabilisation operations and the Syrian Democratic Forces’ [ability] to guard over 11,000 dangerous ISIS fighters”. The major fear is that SDF forces will abandon their prison posts altogether. A congressional aide told CNN that “It’s a really bad situation”.

Unlike the US and Europe, Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG forces a threat to its borders and is keen to deepen its own control over the region. President Erdoğan wants to create a “safe zone” in Syria, to which they can repatriate some of the almost 4 million refugees – most of them Sunni Arabs, not Kurds – they currently hold.  The country has threatened other states that they will “open the gates” and flood Europe’s borders with refugees if their safe zone project is not supported.  An event like this would be likely to re-ignite populist and anti-migrant tensions in the EU, though so far, the plan has not been met with any Western support.

Turning on NATO and the EU

France, one of the US’s main allies in the region, warned of the risks associated with their withdrawal – particularly the possible resurgence of the Islamic State – noting that it would force them to draw back their own troops. “We are going to be extremely careful that this announced disengagement from the United States and a possible offensive by Turkey does not create a dangerous manoeuver that diverts from the goal we all pursue – the fight against Islamic State – and which is dangerous for the local population”, said Florence Parly, a French politician serving as Minister of the Armed Forces. “We must be extremely vigilant that a manoeuver of this kind cannot, contrary to the goal of the coalition, strengthen Daesh (Islamic State) rather than weaken it and eradicate it”, she said.

France is especially sensitive to the threat posed by the Islamic State after several major deadly attacks on its soil. Hundreds of French citizens have joined IS in recent years, and many are now currently being held in Kurdish-controlled camps. “Terrorist fighters in detention, including those of foreign nationality, must be tried in the place where they committed their crimes”, France’s foreign ministry spokeswoman told reporters. “This judgment and their secure detention in north-east Syria are a security imperative to prevent them from reinforcing the ranks of terrorist groups.”

The United States has pulled out military support from Syria, leaving fellow compatriots the Kurdish militia, to fend for themselves against Turkey. Copyright: Gino Santa Maria /

President Trump has dismissed concerns about fleeing IS operatives, claiming “Well, they’re going to be escaping to Europe.”  Though most are from Syria and Iraq and only about 2,000 IS fighters are foreign – from which only several hundred are European. Trump then tweeted that he would “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it took action in Syria that he considered “off limits”.

Despite American objections and the severe undermining of their position with NATO, Turkey has also accepted a shipment of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles. This has allowed Russian technology inside the territory of a key NATO ally, and presents engineers setting up the system with the opportunity to learn more about the American-made fighter jets that are a part of Turkey’s arsenal. In response, the US has blocked delivery of the technologically advanced F-35 fighter jet and suspended training Turkish pilots to fly them. Though backing opposite sides in Syria, this is a major win for Putin, who seeks to divide NATO and encroach on the EU.  It is unclear how Turkey can remain an active member of the alliance while using Russian-made air defenses, as the S-400 is technologically incompatible with many of the weapons systems used by NATO countries.

This is complicated by the fact that Turkey is the site of many American-made Patriot surface-to-air missiles, which have been stationed there since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. The country has tried to purchase its own Patriot system for years, but was unable to work out a deal with the US. Upon receipt of the S-400 missiles, Turkey will be vulnerable to the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which demands US sanctions against anyone making significant deals with the Russian defense industry.

“The political ramifications of this are very serious, because the delivery will confirm to many the idea that Turkey is drifting off into a non-Western alternative”, said Ian Lesser, director of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. “This will create a lot of anxiety and bad feelings inside NATO — it will clearly further poison sentiment for Turkey inside the alliance.”

Turkey has responded strongly to criticism of their actions in Syria. A statement from the Foreign Ministry reads: “As the most affected country from Syria-based terror, Turkey has, as is the case in the past and in the future, demonstrated once again, with the operation initiated today, that it will not hesitate to take the measures required by its national security within its rights stemming from international law.”

Simmering Over Cyprus

Turkey has also long been at loggerheads with Cyprus and the EU over the divided island-nation, and tensions have only increased with the race for hydrocarbon extraction in Cyprus’ EEZ.  Last week, Turkey severely escalated tensions by sending the drill ship Yavuz back into the EEZ, this time into an area where Greek Cypriot authorities have already awarded hydrocarbon exploration rights to Italian and French companies.

Cyprus released a statement condemning the action as “utterly provocative and aggressive behavior“, and accused the Turkish government of putting regional stability and security at risk by choosing to “irreversibly depart from international legality”.  The statement included that it would not yield to “threats and bullying tactics” of a bygone era and would continue combatting their incursions with the EU. “Illegality, no matter how often it’s repeated, does not generate law”, the Cypriot government said.

The EU has already imposed sanctions against Turkey for earlier drilling activities in the Cypriot EEZ, where they drilled two exploratory wells, though previously it was in areas that had not yet been licensed out to energy companies. That Turkey is, this time, targeting areas that have contracts awarded out is a major escalation.

The European Union has backed up Cyprus, with EU Council President Donald Tusk saying that Turkey’s drilling in the EEZ would further damage the ties between them. “Turkey’s continued illegal drilling activities only undermine good neighbourly relations between the EU and Turkey”, Tusk said on Twitter. “The EU stands united behind Cyprus.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also added that Turkey’s drilling activity is “illegal” and “unacceptable”. “No country can hold Europe hostage”, he said. Turkey’s intention to conduct a new round of offshore drilling within Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is “completely contrary to any notion of legality”, added the Greece Foreign Ministry.  France and Italy also expressly condemned the move.

Speaking at the EU Parliament, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also stood with Cyprus, saying that “As far as Turkish illegal drilling in the eastern Mediterranean is concerned, I must say again, that in this, and other ways, but mainly in this, I am a Cypriot and will remain in solidarity with Cyprus.”

Soon after, during a joint summit in Cairo, the countries Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt released a statement calling on Turkey to “end its provocative actions”, which are widely considered to breach international law – an assertion Turkey rejects.

“The Heads of State and Government expressed their grave concern over the current escalation within the maritime areas of the eastern part of the Mediterranean, condemning the continuing Turkish actions in the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus and its territorial waters, in violation of international law”, the statement reads. The Turkish Foreign Ministry slammed the joint declaration, saying it contained “baseless claims”.

“Turkey’s unacceptable practices and drilling … are a blatant assault on the rights of the Cypriot Republic and the international law”, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said at a joint news conference, adding that Cyprus would resort to “all available diplomatic means to halt Turkey’s aggression”.

Cyprus has also received support from some of Turkey’s neighbours. Israel’s envoy to Cyprus expressed support, with Ambassador Sammy Revel tweeting “Friends should stick with each other”, adding that Israel is following events in the region closely and with some concern. Cyprus has also acquired four Israeli-made drones, a first for the state, that will be used to monitor the EEZ.

Israel, Cyprus, and Greece have forged an energy-based partnership since discovering hydrocarbon deposits in the eastern Mediterranean, and the US joined these talks earlier this year. In 2018, the group agreed to build a pipeline to funnel natural gas from the region to the rest of Europe, which would help to erode Russia’s dominance of Europe’s energy market, as well as curb Iranian ambitions to use Syria as an access point to the area.

Hidden Opportunities

Despite Turkey’s increased animosity towards their erstwhile allies, some hope for peace in the region remains. Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı is eyeing a tripartite meeting with UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, in addition to a five-party conference with the guarantor powers by the end of the year, in order to resume peace talks.

Previous week-long meetings with Guterres’ envoy Jane Holl Lute, who last month was sent to delineate the parameters for the talks, failed after Northern Cyprus urged that the issue of political equality for Turkish Cypriots be a prerequisite for further negotiations. However, this precondition was rejected by Greek Cypriots.

“We must give up creating impressions and playing games and explain to our communities the realities”, Akıncı said, referring to Greek Cypriot rejection of the June 2017 document laying down the framework for talks. “We have an urgent procedure ahead of us that should be focused on the outcome.”

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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