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Doubling Down on Turkey in its Time of Need

Turkey’s deadliest terrorist attack in its history comes a critical moment in time. U.S. leadership is being questioned globally, and its regional allies, including those in Ankara, Jerusalem, and Riyadh, are weighing their options writes Dr. Joshua W. Walker. Turkey seems to be at a breaking point under the strain of domestic pressures and over 2 million refugees from the Syrian conflict. As the G20 summit host, Turkey will welcome leaders from the world’s top economies in less than a month — only two weeks after national elections scheduled for November 1. In all likelihood, a formal government will not be in place by the summit.

After the horrific attacks in Ankara over the weekend, a cloud of short-term doubt and pessimism hangs over this critical NATO ally, EU aspirant, and Muslim-majority democracy. Turkey must not turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy, and its friends in the West cannot give up on this nation. True friendship requires seeing the longer-term potential that has always been the hallmark of the Turkish people and the Republic since its founding in 1923.

The collective trauma from the terrorist attack on a planned peace rally in the heart of Turkey’s capital has brought the country to the precipice just three weeks before national elections. Rather than being a moment for national unity and mourning, it threatens to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back igniting a full-scale civil war within the country between Kurdish and Turkish nationalists.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the challenges facing Ankara. Instead of reactive gestures, Turkey needs friends that are willing to double down even as the going has gotten much tougher than anyone anticipated. In this regard, Washington must lead the way to work closely with international partners to offer enhanced humanitarian assistance and economic incentives to Syrian refugees in Turkey. This will create the conditions under which an eventual safe zone along the Turkish border in Syria could be repopulated rather than having displaced refugees migrate onward to Europe. Bear in mind, though, this is but a first step, and not a substitute for a proactive strategy on Syria. But it could catalyze transatlantic cooperation in an area of pragmatic mutual interests.

Unconditional and strong support for Turkey’s sovereign airspace through NATO Article 5 commitments and consultation, although obvious, should not be discounted. More challenging will be convincing Ankara that the Kurds are a necessary ally in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State group, and the closer it works with Erbil and Washington, the more empowered the moderate non-PKK elements of the Kurds will be in Syria. By proactively engaging its domestic Kurdish problem as part of a broader Kurdish solution, Ankara and Washington can help broker and support a viable regional status-quo. The United States’ good offices, cajoling, and incentivizing toward this end will go a long way in the necessary mediation efforts between the various Kurdish factions to coalesce around a non-PKK stance, like it once worked in the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The United States has never understood or played domestic Turkish politics particularly well. Therefore, rather than picking sides, it should stick by its principles. Free and fair national elections held on originally scheduled dates are in everyone’s long-term interest as the only legitimate form of national compromise and problem solving. Additionally, imposing press bans and limiting civil discourse does not suit a democracy as vibrant as Turkey’s. Continuing the United States’ engagement with the well-established rules of the game and balancing Turkey’s legitimate security concerns while supporting its democratic traditions will be critical in the coming months as Turkey forms a new government, most likely a coalition, for the first time in 13 years. Regardless of how the Ankara attack affects the November 1 elections, it is vital for the transatlantic community to proactively double down on its support of the Turkish people. Despite the gloomy situation and pessimistic short-term outlook for Turkey and its region, there is room for cautious optimism with the right U.S. approach, starting with the G20 summit next month.

Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at The German Marshall Fund (GMF)  and a former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State. This article was first published by the GMF


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