Turkey’s not so splendid isolation

Despite its confidence in negotiations with the EU, Turkey remains beset on all sides by problems

Also available in

Turkey is in a bind. It is on the losing side of the war in Syria and engaging in an increasingly bloody fight with the Kurds. Domestic politics are becoming ever more fraught and the human rights situation is steadily deteriorating. It also feels isolated in a troubled region. The spat with Russia continues and Moscow shows no sign of wanting to normalise relations.

Meanwhile the EU – consumed by the refugee crisis – has re-engaged with Turkey in hope of gaining Ankara’s support for stemming the flow of refugees. The EU-Turkey summit on 7 March has been sold by European leaders as a great success and “possible breakthrough” in the refugee crisis. This remains to be seen.

Turkey has committed itself to taking back all new irregular migrants who go to the Greek islands and, for each migrant, the EU will take one Syrian refugee from Turkey. The arrangement might work to reduce the numbers refugees who decide to cross the Aegean but it is riddled with practical challenges and legal questions

The price the EU paid for Turkey’s surprise proposal is high. The EU committed to pushing forward the date for visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens to June 2016, preparing to open five negotiation chapters, and speeding up the payment of the promised €3 billion, to become €6 billion over the next two years.

The problem with this deal, as with the deal from November, is that it relies on mutual distrust. Neither side believes the other will deliver on its commitments. Visa liberalisation requires support from all member states. This is far from certain – and is why Ankara demanded that it be brought forward to June, a point in which the wave of refugees entering Europe is likely to peak. The opening of new chapters is still blocked by Nicosia. While prospects for a deal over Cyprus look better than in a long time, an agreement is far from certain. A failure to deliver on commitments could set back the EU-Turkey relationship by years.

But the more fundamental challenge to the relationship, however, relates to where Turkey is heading domestically and its place in a troublesome region.

No mater how confidently Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu acted in Brussels, politics in Turkey are becoming increasingly polarised. The ruling AKP party seeks to consolidate its rule and President Erdoğan is working to revise the constitution to introduce an executive presidential system. At the same time, journalists and intellectuals are being intimidated and imprisoned for supporting terrorism or for “insulting the President”. The dissatisfaction with the regime (supported by around 55 percent of Turks, and bitterly opposed by the rest) also taints the EU, which is seen as failing to live up to its own principles. The latest crackdown on media freedom happened when the government seized the most popular opposition newspaper Zaman Daily. The protests that followed were put down with tear gas and water cannons.

At the same time, Ankara’s relationship with the Kurds is deteriorating. An intense military campaign is spreading against groups associated with the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Such actions are tied to Erdoğan’s electoral calculations, and to fears that Syrian Kurds could consolidate control over a swathe of land in northern Syria. The primarily Kurdish HDP finds itself squeezed between the war-mongering mood propagated by the government and the mobilisation of Kurds by the PKK. The constant presidential push for the Parliament to lift the immunities of HDP’s leaders and members after accusations of terrorism, raises the spectre of Turkey sliding back towards the 1990s.

The situation in the predominantly Kurdish southeast is dire and likely to deteriorate. Towns such as Cizre and parts of Diyarbakir have been under a 24 hour a day siege since early December. The wave of violence is likely to intensify and possibly spread, with little chance that peace negotiations will restart anytime soon. The PKK guerrillas may become directly involved come spring and summer, which will only worsen the situation as the latest Ankara attack proves. The politically desperate co-leader of HDP Selahattin Demirtas is now calling for resistance and protests are held on a daily basis.

In Syria, even before the fragile truce, Turkey had lost the initiative and could do little against regime forces and Russia air power. While the mini-war in Turkey's southeast is intimately tied up in domestic politics, it is also linked to Ankara’s stand-off with the PKK’s branch in Syria – the Democratic Union Party (PYD). For the Turkish government, fighting the PYD’s territorial ambitions is the top priority in Syria, as a Kurdish entity in the neighbouring country would provide a platform for Kurdish separatism in Turkey. 

However, the PYD has gained international support, including from the US, through its fight against Islamic State (ISIS). Russia has stepped up its support for the Kurds after Turkey shot down the SU-24. Russia and the US are pursuing contradictory goals through their support for the Kurds in Syria. Given its obsession with the PYD, Ankara is right to believe that if a more permanent truce comes as a result of a United States-Russia agreement, Turkey will be the biggest loser.

Although the media attention is elsewhere, thousands of Syrians from Aleppo and the surrounding areas have sought refuge at the border with Turkey. Ankara continues to push for a safe zone in hope that the US would find itself forced to defend it. However, there is little prospect that the current administration in Washington would act at all. And a “safe zone” without anyone to ensure its safety could end up being a death trap.

These are tremendous challenges. By focusing primarily on the refugee issue, the EU is entering into a transactional relationship with Turkey but with a weak hand. In the end, this may lead to the EU losing Ankara. Yet the EU has an interest in engaging on a much broader platform with Turkey: a strategic relationship is more necessary than ever.


ECFR organised a study trip to Istanbul, Ankara, Gaziantep and the Syrian border, and Diyarbakir in February 2016. Some of the main findings were used in this text.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director of the Wider Europe Programme

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.