Turkey and the West after the elections

Before the November elections, political uncertainty was widely seen as a defining element of Turkish politics. International commentary suggested that the burgeoning political, security and economic challenges had fragmented Turkish politics, and even worse undermined the political capacity to address Turkey’s problems. Yet, the missing element in these reports was the country’s unifying ethos to advance political and economic stability, and steadfastly address the growing challenges of PKK and ISIS terrorism.

The size of AKP’s electoral victory last year came as a surprise, even to the party’s own leadership. Much ink will be – and has been – spilled on the outcome and its implications for Turkey and beyond.

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Perhaps foremost among post-election questions is what the resounding victory means for relations between the new AK Party government under Ahmet Davutoğlu and the West – i.e., the United States and the European Union.

With the Turkish economy losing steam and security challenges reaching the heart of Turkey’s capital, there is an emerging consensus among AKP leaders to mend Western ties. Despite the media portrayal of Erdogan and his government as an icon of anti-Western forces, building Western policies on this misrepresentation would be a strategic blunder. The idea that Turkey needs the West as much as the West needs Turkey is a more accurate description of the current state of affairs.

In fact, a number of developments over the past five months demonstrate that Ankara is entering a period of constructive engagement with its Western partners, perhaps to an extent not seen since the height of EU-Turkey cooperation in the early 2000s. 

Turkey has not, to this point, been able to establish an institutionalized commercial relationship with the U.S. and has fallen short of walking hurdle-free through the accession process to full EU membership. Nonetheless, a resumption of Cold-War security-only Western partnership is a non-starter for the Turkish people.

Turkish leaders clearly favor consolidated security ties with the U.S. and further progress in political and economic integration with the EU.

Despite recent political uncertainties, Turkey has taken steps towards these ends. First, European leaders are engaging with the Turkish leadership to address the burgeoning refugee crisis. This was demonstrated by the understanding we have reached with the EU to work on the refugee issue and regional challenges, as well as to revitalize Turkey’s EU accession talks. This partnership will not only combat the challenges of instability, but will serve as a beacon of hope for the people of the region towards a co-existential international order.

Second, after lengthy talks, Ankara agreed to open the Incirlik air base to the international coalition and promised active participation in the fight against ISIS. This included a tacit agreement on Turkey’s cross-border military response to PKK’s terror attacks and a broader check on PYD, which Turkey sees as an offshoot of the PKK, to eschew its greater ambitions in Syria.

Indeed, Turkey and the West together must counter two dichotomies in the broader neighborhood. This includes the growing assertiveness of what could be called the anti-systemic forces headed by Russia and Iran. With Russian military activism in Ukraine and Syria, and a possible invite from Iraq, Turkey is compelled to act in tandem with its Western partners to neutralize Russian expansionism and its propensity to prosper in frozen conflicts. Far from being moderated by the nuclear deal, Iran is perpetuating its direct military involvement in Syria and beyond. Against abortive international attempts, Turkey must side with Arab and Western allies to put an end to Iranian interventionism.

Turkey should be a vocal voice against sectarianism, which has become a structural element in the broader region, including Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iranian and Saudi claims to respectively represent the Shia and Sunni grievances cannot be allowed to steer the regional order to an irreversible civil war. Following the elections, Turkey should lead the reconciliation talks to rally around the moderate and non-sectarian voices in the region, a prospective initiative that needs to be encouraged by the West.

The Turkish people firmly granted the AKP a single-party majority rule and opened a window of opportunity for recalibration of the policies to effectively address today’s challenges. It presents an opportunity to reset and further enhance the relationship between Turkey, the U.S. and the EU. This moment should be seized immediately.

Aras is a professor of International Relations at Sabancı University in Istanbul, Turkey. Yorulmazlar is a Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) fellow at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University.

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