Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with his Western counterparts at a NATO summit Wednesday in Brussels. The summit comes amid questions over Turkey's commitment to the military alliance, given the country's growing ties with Moscow.
Under Erdogan, Turkish-Russian relations have deepened politically and economically. Both countries, along with Iran, are closely cooperating in efforts to end the Syrian war. Adding to NATO’s unease is Ankara’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 missile systems, which the alliance has warned could compromise its own.
“We [Turkey] need to decide between NATO, EU [European Union] and Iran-Russia,” political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners said. “That will be the hardest choice ever to be made. We can no longer sit on the fence; whichever side we take, the other side will dole out punishment.”
Ankara maintains it remains committed to its strategic alliance with the West, arguing its relationship with Tehran and Moscow is based on trade and the need to work together to resolve the Syrian conflict.
“Turkey was always using this balance of power diplomacy,” international relations professor Huseyin Bagci, of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, said.
“[Turkish-Russian] relations are going more and more in a positive direction, but Turkey knows the limitation of this relationship. Turkey won't leave NATO; it's out of the question,” said Bagci.
Erdogan is expected to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the summit. Along with Ankara’s purchase of the Russian missile systems, pending U.S. sanctions on Iran are expected to be on the agenda. Ankara is lobbying for an exemption from the sanctions due to come into effect later this year following Trump’s withdrawal from the international agreement over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran is a crucial supplier of oil and gas to energy-poor Turkey.
Syria is also a point of tension among the NATO allies, with Ankara pressing Washington to end its support of a Syrian Kurdish militia in its war against Islamic State. Ankara accuses the militia of being linked to a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey. Bilateral tensions have been reduced significantly following a roadmap agreed upon over Washington’s support of the Kurdish militia, but differences remain.
Analysts point out that Erdogan and Trump have built up some positive chemistry, given that both portray themselves as political outsiders. Trump, however, is under pressure from the U.S. Congress to press for the release of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson. The pastor has been incarcerated in Turkey for nearly two years and is currently standing trial on terrorism charges.
Trump has dismissed the charges as baseless, while some U.S. lawmakers have accused Ankara of hostage taking.
“To release the pastor tomorrow is possible — of course, it's possible,” international relations expert Bagci said. "Probably, we can call him a political hostage. We had the jailed German journalist (Deniz) Yucel. He was released. The president decided this — he can decide again. Now, he has more space to decide."
Erdogan has linked Brunson’s release to Turkish demands that the U.S. extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed for an attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016. Congress has warned it will introduce sanctions against Turkey if the pastor is not freed. Ankara has countered by saying it will retaliate and argued the issue is a matter for the courts.
Rocky EU ties
The Turkish president is also expected to meet some EU leaders on the fringes of the summit. Ankara’s EU membership bid is frozen. There is little expectation of any change, given the bloc’s concern over human rights and Erdogan’s assumption of sweeping powers after being re-elected recently.
One of Erdogan’s first decisions in assuming office Monday for a second term was to shut down the EU membership ministry, incorporating it into the Foreign Ministry. The move is interpreted as a powerful message about the president's priorities.
When Erdogan meets with EU leaders, he knows he has leverage. Turkey is acting as a gatekeeper to controlling migrants entering Europe following a migration deal with the bloc. Erdogan is expected to press for the unfreezing of talks on updating a customs union with the EU.
Germany is reportedly blocking such a move, but with it being one of the chief beneficiaries of the migrant agreement, analysts say a deal may be in the offing.
Ertugrul Kurkcu, a Council of Europe member and honorary president of Turkey’s opposition HDP, said Erdogan’s re-election opens the door for a new era of "real politics."
"I am sure they (EU) are going to be pragmatic. They see no reason to invest in hopes for democratic change in Turkey, so they say let us make business," said Kurkcu.
“The EU is very happy with the deal. They are saying this is a miracle — they have stopped the migrants. They are happy with what they got, and they are happy Turkey is not going to be a vigorous candidate to join the EU. So, everybody is happy. With nationalism and xenophobia on the rise, they don’t want to deal with EU membership,” added Kurkcu.