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In the Eye of the Storm: Turkey and the New Security Equation

No NATO member has been more deeply affected by the chaos and conflict on Europe’s periphery than Turkey writes Ian Lesser. The country is in a critical position as a consequence of both its proximity to multiple crises and its unique exposure to deteriorating security relationships in both the south and the east. The collapse of the regional order around Turkey also poses special problems of adjustment for a state whose recent international strategy was predicated on benign conditions and receptive neighbors.

Ankara faces a double challenge. It must keep regional conflicts from further undermining the country’s internal security. It must also strengthen ties to NATO and EU partners whose demands on Turkey are set to increase, but whose cooperation will be essential to meet proliferating regional security threats. The prevailing atmosphere of mutual suspicion between Ankara and its Western allies suggests that this will not be an easy task. But it will be an essential one if Turkey, Europe, and the United States are to deal with new risks emanating from the Middle East and Russia.

Violent Spillovers and the War Economy: For Turkey, the war in Syria and the turmoil across the Middle East is seen, first and foremost, through the lens of internal security.

The resurgence of PKK terrorism in southeastern Anatolia has raised the specter of a protracted counter-insurgency campaign of a kind not seen since the struggle against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in the 1990s. Few in the West remember that this conflict cost at least 35,000 lives inside a NATO country. The experience has left a searing legacy in Turkey.

Many observers fear that the breakdown of the truce with the PKK and the end of the Kurdish peace process risks the emergence of wider inter-communal violence between Turks and Kurds, something Turkey has so far been fortunate to avoid. The risk is heightened by the over-heated climate of nationalism surrounding Turkey’s most recent national elections and public anger over the surge in terrorism from multiple sources.

The overriding focus on the PKK will continue to drive Ankara’s approach to the conflict in Syria, where Turkish planners have seen the battle against the self-proclaimed Islamic State group (ISIS) as a secondary concern. The situation is different in northern Iraq where, in cooperation with the Kurdish Regional Government, Turkey has now deployed armored forces near Mosul, poised for joint operations against ISIS. The tension between Turkish aims and wider Western priorities, which are firmly fixed on the struggle against ISIS, is vexing to policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic. These differences could wane if Turkish worries about jihadist terrorism and the ISIS risk to Turkey’s regional interests grow. But real alignment of perceptions and policies will be hard to achieve.

Ankara has been playing a complicated game in a multi-faceted proxy war in Syria. For President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad has become a personal vendetta, but Ankara’s policy is also bound up with wider regional dynamics. Turkey has been drawn into a more sectarian posture in which the competition with Iran looms large and the sunni regimes of the Gulf are natural allies. Arguably, Ankara’s confidence in its ability to shape conditions in Syria, born of a decade of activism in the region, outstripped its ability to manage a rapidly deteriorating situation.

It is difficult to judge the extent to which Turkish policy has bolstered more radical Islamist forces, but the suspicion that Turkey has wittingly or unwittingly done so is widespread among Western observers. Yet, as the terrorist bombings in Suruc and Ankara make clear, Turkey itself is now firmly in the sights of ISIS. Major Turkish cities are just as exposed to the risk of Islamist terrorism as other European capitals — perhaps more so.

Turkey is on the front line in other respects. Since the start of the war in Syria, millions of refugees have arrived in Turkey. Many have transited to Western Europe as part of the vast flow of migrants now confronting EU member states. But many, perhaps most, are still in Turkey and may never leave. Official figures refer to at least 2 million refugees in Turkey. The real number may be closer to 3 million.

The social, economic, and political challenges posed by this influx are stark, especially against a backdrop of a weakening Turkish economy. The €3.2 million package of assistance recently agreed with the EU will help to offset immediate humanitarian needs. But the sustained costs to Turkish society will likely be borne by Turks alone.

The pressure on Ankara to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers is set to become a permanently operating factor in EU-Turkish relations. There has been widespread dismay over the failure of the Turkish authorities to close down the trafficking networks facilitating the flow of migrants across the Aegean. In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, these concerns have reinforced long-standing worries over the circulation of foreign fighters through Turkey.

Notwithstanding the obvious difficulty of sealing off Turkey’s highly permeable border with Syria, it seems clear that the Turkish authorities have only recently cracked down on the passage of foreign fighters from Europe and the Maghreb. Since the start of 2015, Turkish authorities have reportedly detained over 1,000 people alleged to have ties to ISIS. At least one of the conspirators involved in the Paris attacks appears to have passed through Turkey en route to France. The November 2015 deal with the EU, under which Turkey is set to get visa liberalization in return for tightening its border controls and helping to control the flow of asylum seekers, is certain to face obstacles in terms of implementation and political acceptance in an increasingly xenophobic Europe.

Turkey’s ability to control its western borders as the EU demands, and its border with Syria as Washington demands, will be conditioned by the local war economies that have emerged from the conflict and chaos in Turkey’s neighborhood. Smuggling of people and goods is rife, including the trade in contraband fuel that has been the focus of European and U.S. concern dating back to the period of the Iraq sanctions.

Security vacuums and the availability of arms facilitate criminal activity and vice versa; this is one reason why drug trafficking flourished at the height of the PKK insurgency in the mid-1990s. The nexus between armed conflict and crime is likely to be a key variable in the security equation confronting Turkey and is allies in the coming years.

Russian Risks: Even before the Turkish downing of the Russian SU-24 “Fencer” fighter-bomber on November 24, the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the West placed Ankara in a difficult position. Russia has been a leading economic partner for Turkey, a relationship that goes far beyond energy trade. Russian revisionism and challenges to the territorial order do not sit well with Turkey’s conservative approach to borders and separatism. Deepening confrontation with Moscow forces uncomfortable choices on a Turkish leadership more naturally inclined to a non-aligned approach.

Turkey’s NATO membership has not been at the center of the AKParty worldview over the past decade. This diffidence toward Western security partners now seems a dangerous anachronism. In addition to the risks inherent in air operations in border regions — a problem in the Baltic and Black Seas as well as the Eastern Mediterranean — Ankara’s pronounced sensitivity to questions of sovereignty and the defense of national territory may have played a role in the shoot-down incident. With more aircraft operating over Syria and Iraq, and a parallel build up on naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, these risks are set to increase.

Allies Look South: Against a background of deep concern about Russian behavior, NATO has focused heavily on bolstering deterrence and defense in the East. This requirement is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. But it is rapidly being overtaken by a very different but no less challenging set of security concerns in the south, including terrorism and maritime security. The United States, France, Britain, Belgium, Germany, and others are engaged in an active campaign aimed at ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey is an essential partner in this endeavor, as a provider of forces, as an operational hub, and as consumer of security in its own right. For the first time since 1991, Turkey has allowed the United States to conduct significant offensive air operations from Incirlik airbase, and other NATO allies are likely to make increasing use of this and other Turkish facilities. All of this has cast a spotlight on Turkey’s place in NATO planning, and will give Ankara a strong stake in shaping Alliance strategy looking south. The confluence of risks on Turkey’s borders, from ISIS to a highly unstable relationship with Russia, makes this the most dangerous flashpoint in the NATO area.

Moreover, this is not a transient question of crisis management, but in all likelihood a durable problem of chaos and conflict in Turkey’s deeply troubled neighborhood. Relations with Turkey are set to become the most critical in the Alliance — the 21st century equivalent of the inner German border of the Cold War years. Recent developments should concentrate minds in Ankara and Brussels.

Ian Lesser is a Senior Director, Foreign and Security Policy; Executive Director, Transatlantic Centre of the German Marshal Fund (GMF). This article was first published by the GMF.

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