By Edward Rowe,
Now that campaigning has finished on the April 16th referendum on a presidential system, we can finally go back to discussing Turkey’s role in the international arena. As I see it, the country remains a critical partner that the West cannot afford to lose. I often call Turkey “the three-sided piece of the Eurasian jigsaw puzzle” linking Europe, the Middle East, and the Caucasus geographically, culturally and politically to each other. In this critical location, Turkey is at the forefront of many issues that Western powers are critically interested in including Syria and the resulting refugee-migrant crisis, alongside other issues such as security, energy, and trade.
Moreover, even Western observers who have been critical of Turkey still understand the country’s importance despite mutual exchanges of harsh words and actions; as the European Parliament rapporteur on Turkey Kati Piri MEP told me in Brussels on April 11th “Pragmatic co-operation in the interests of all our citizens is still there, when it comes to the economy, anti-terrorist co-operation, when it comes to trying to solve the war in Syria, we have so many interests at stake and we shouldn’t stop all of that”. When leading EU officials still make statements like these, despite the presently tense nature of the Turkey-EU relationship, the strategic importance of partnership with Ankara hits home even harder in the West.
On Syria early this year, for example, we saw Turkey co-operate effectively with Russia and Iran to establish a ceasefire between certain rebel groups and the Assad regime, with Ankara and Moscow acting as the guarantors and all three partners agreeing on a trilateral framework to monitor and implement the ceasefire in Astana. Though the conflict still rages on today with increased outside involvement as shown by the recent American missile strike on the Assad regime’s Shayrat airbase, no other NATO member state or Western ally has come as close to being directly involved in the most meaningful efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis as Turkey.
Having already contributed to attempts to initiate the first steps towards short-term solutions for the civil war, namely the cessation of violence and the defeat of Daesh, Turkey has also made strides towards long-term ones. Take the town of Jarabulus in Aleppo province, for example, an area that was liberated from Daesh through the combined efforts of the Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army partners. Since then, according to the Gaziantep regional migration office head, almost 24,000 Syrians have been able to return there from Turkey. Both these efforts show the capacity Turkey has as a partner to Western states in Syria and shows the country’s commitment to both short and long-term normalization and wider stability in the Middle East. With other displaced Syrians, Turkey has also proved an important partner to Europe by hosting nearly 3 million refugees, even when Brussels has yet to fully honor its commitments to Turkey after promising too much and delivering too little.
For its Euro-Atlantic allies, Turkey has also shown itself recently and in the past to be an invaluable partner for fostering both security and energy cooperation with the Caucasus. Turkey was previously a leader in facilitating military partnership with both Azerbaijan and Georgia, who had made friendly overtures to the West by joining post-Soviet regionalist alignments such as the pro-NATO Georgia-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Moldova group (which later included Uzbekistan from 1999-2005). In 1999 for example, both Georgian and Azerbaijani forces were deployed to aid Turkish NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo.
More recently under successive Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government's these two countries’ co-operation with Turkey has also been expanded more effectively to the energy sector. Caspian hydrocarbon pipeline projects completed and initiated under the AK Party for example have been instrumental in setting Turkey up as a critical energy hub for its Western allies and a key transit route for Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline which, once completed, started bringing oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey’s Ceyhan Mediterranean port in 2007 is a useful indication of this. The pipeline has ensured Caspian hydrocarbons access to Western markets through Turkey, a reliable NATO ally that has also strengthened the West vis-à-vis its competitors by bypassing Russia and isolating Iran. What’s more, this project is also accompanied by the new Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, a project which was agreed between Turkey and Azerbaijan in 2011 that will carry Caspian natural gas to Europe after completion through a connection to the Trans-Adriatic pipeline, which runs through the territories of NATO allies Greece, Albania, and Italy. This energy infrastructural integration between Turkey and the Caucasus has made Ankara an even more important partner for the West critical to its energy security.
A NATO partner since 1952, Turkey has long been our friend, crucial as it was at that time in the Cold War, it remains of paramount importance to us in many areas at present. Whether in addressing the Syrian conflict and refugee crisis, the fight against Daesh or helping to provide and preserve European energy security through its strong ties to the Caucasus, Ankara is simply too important for the West to lose.
Edward Rowe is a writer with a special interest in Turkey. He has an MA in Turkish Studies and a BA in History and Study of Religions from SOAS, University of London. He writes mainly on Turkey's role in international affairs and relations with the West, as well as on its Ottoman and Republican history.