The Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to drill the gas reserves off the coast of Cyprus, inside the island’s 200-km maritime economic zone, prompting the European Union (E.U.) to adopt a sanctions formula against Turkey earlier this month. It is now possible to sanction Turkish individuals or companies “responsible for, or involved” in, the drilling in Cypriot waters. This is significant change for a country that was until a while ago being considered for E.U. membership.
Member states of the E.U. will now be presenting the names of Turkish entities to have their European assets frozen and travel within the E.U. restricted. The threat of sanctions was supposed to deter Erdogan or force him to reconsider his policy over Cyprus, which, though it became an E.U. Member State in complicated and ambiguous circumstances in 2004, receives Brussels’ full support. Those threats do not seem to be working. Instead, Erdogan has bombastically counter-threatened that he will release the European ISIS fighters back to their home countries. “You may take this lightly, but these doors to Europe will open and these Daesh members will be sent to you!” said Erdogan on 11 November. “Do not try to threaten Turkey over developments in Cyprus”. “Whether they accept them or not, we will continue to send them back”, Erdogan added, selecting a genuine political pressure-point for European decision-makers.
According to the Stockholm-based Nordic Research and Monitoring Network, an institution tied to the anti-Erdogan Gülenist movement, Turkey has already started sending some of those terrorists back to Europe. At least eight of them have already been officially deported, with one British subject landing at Heathrow Airport in mid-November. Theresa May once said that “400 U.K.-linked individuals” had joined the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. While the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, based at King’s College London, assessed that up to 366 British citizens had been involved in the war in Syria as of December 2013. Defeated on the battlefield, ISIS returnees certainly have an axe to grind, both with their home countries and with the world at large.
It is unclear how many ISSI jihadists are incarnated in Turkey at the present time because Ankara has given inconsistent accounts. The most up-to-date figure of ISIS prisoners in Turkish jails was provided by Turkish Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül on 24 October 2019. He said that 1,163 of them were in Turkish prisons. Yet, in an earlier statement, in February 2018, Gül put the figure at 1,354, which means that 191 prisoners are unaccounted for.
The minister’s figure was dwarfed by a claim from President Erdogan himself, who, when speaking on 10 October, put the number at 5,000—an inflated number, no doubt, presumably to give him more leverage over the Europeans, who fear having to take back their renegade citizens, and to a lesser extent the Americans. The claims from the Kurdish militants attacked by Turkey’s incursion into north-east Syria in October that Turkish proxies have been releasing ISIS prisoners from Kurdish prisons unintentionally strengthens Turkey’s hand against Europe, too, by making Erdogan’s threats seem more concrete.
This lack of consistency about the number of ISIS terrorists held by Turkey is a general problem, however. When speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February 2018, former Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim stated that his country held 10,000 ISIS prisoners. In November 2018, Erdogan put the number of ISIS prisoners in Turkish jails at around 2,000. Three weeks after Erdogan gave the 5,000 figure, he was quoted in the state-run Anadolu Agency of 29 October as saying that in fact 13,696 ISIS prisoners were in Turkish jails—either indicating a remarkably swift and precise crackdown had taken place, or that both numbers were unreliable.
The Turkish Interior Minister stopped sharing information on persons arrested on terrorism charges as of 1 January 2019.
“The evolution of the Syrian war has seen a steady dip in Erdogan’s relations with the E.U.” said Kamal Alam, a London-based military analyst. “As the war peaked in 2015 Erdogan increasingly turned into blackmail tactics, first with refugees and then with terror suspects,” he said to EER. “The Cyprus sanctions are a prelude to more”. Alam went on, “Are ISIS prisoners being used as exchange in concessions from the E.U. to Turkey?”
“It’s no exaggeration to say that Ankara is using ISIS and other jihadi terrorists to push its agenda in Europe and to blackmail Europe”, added Cengiz Aktar, a professor of political science at the University of Athens. “Unfortunately for Erdogan” he said to EER, “that blackmail won’t work”.
European Parliament Assessment
On 20 November 2019, a two-hour event was held at the European Parliament in Brussels, assessing Turkey’s membership application to the E.U., in light of its mounting list of regional, international, and domestic problems. Turkey, unsurprisingly, boycotted the event, understanding that it would be a session that fiercely criticized Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) for the way they have run the government, in defiance of E.U. standards, something the Turks would be much less bitter about had the E.U. access process not played out in the deceitful way it has.
Frédérique Ries, the vice president of the Renew Europe Group, the largest centrist group currently active within the European Parliament, gave the opening remarks, saying that Turkey has not met the majority of European expectations. In her view, Turkish demands for membership are now meaningless, particularly after the latest military incursion against the Kurdish militants in northeast Syria, the acquisition of sophisticated military equipment from Russia (creating interoperability issues for NATO), and the ongoing deadlock on Cyprus.
Director of the Council of the European Union Kim Freidberg added that day-by-day, Turkey was drifting further away from European values such as freedom, judicial independence, and the rule of law.
Human Rights Problems
Erdogan knows that Turkey will never make it into the E.U. now. His country’s application has been pending since 1997. This was true long before the Europeans became enraged by the human rights abuses in Turkey, particularly the Turkish government’s handling of the Gezi Park protests in 2013, and the vast purge of the bureaucracy in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt. The October 2019 incursion into Syria and the flare-up over Cyprus have merely added to an already dire diplomatic situation.
The degradation of civil liberties in Turkey after 2016 is a particular bugbear for the Europeans. Ankara holds the U.S.-based Islamist cult leader, Fethullah Gülen, responsible for the putsch attempt and moved to expel his supporters—who, until 2013, were aligned with Erdogan—from the civilian and military establishments. Repression is rarely surgical, and so it has proven in Turkey. In the course of removing the Gülenists from the state, the AKP government took the chance for a general crackdown on dissidents, with thousands of people jailed arbitrarily, some for as mild an “offence” as expressing anti-government views in a tweet.
Part of Erdogan’s repressive measures involved the destruction of the independent media in Turkey. Under the cover of removing Gülenists from positions where they could incite sedition, the Turkish government took control 90% of the media outlets in the country and Turkey now ranks 157 out of 180 in the 2019 Press Freedom Index.
In Syria, the Arab proxies that Turkey has used for this incursion have been involved in looting and lynching, war crimes that Europe has declared offended its values, though Europe has proven able to absorb considerable affronts to its values in Syria without action.
Before Turkey’s Syria incursion(s), in January 2018, when Erdogan visiting the Elysee Palace, he was basically told to forget about joining the E.U. “I’d be lying if I said we could open new chapters,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, in reference to the application process, adding that recent developments in Turkey “do not allow any progress”. Displeased, Erdogan said that Turkey had already waited too long and was unwilling to wait any longer.
This was hardly a surprise to Erdogan and under his leadership Turkey has tried to diversify its relationships, investing time, effort, and money elsewhere—in Sudan, Somalia, Chad, and throughout the Arab and Muslim World. Erdogan also constantly needles Europe by saying that his government’s version of moderate Islam ought to be promoted in Europe, claiming that it would enrich and empower Europe. In October 2017, Erdogan added: “A Europe without Turkey will only reach isolation, desperation and civil strife. Turkey does not need Europe. Europe is the one that is in need (of Turkey)”.
The voices within the E.U. favouring engagement with Turkey have been weakened in recent years, partly due to the human rights situation in the country and partly because the United Kingdom—the strongest voice holding this position—is now leaving. The U.K. has good relations with Turkey for various historical reasons and was of the view that a Turkey closely integrated with the E.U. was one that could be—like the former Soviet satellites states—brought along the path of democratization. E.U. membership would ensure the independence of the Turkish judiciary, empower civil society, and curb the powers of Turkish intelligence, the argument went, with the benchmarks measured by the Copenhagen Criteria. This included not only issues of human rights but the stability of state institutions and an end to the military’s dominance over politics. While the military has, indeed, been domesticated under Erdogan, the trend has been centralization of another kind.
After Erdogan staged a referendum in 2017 to reform the presidency to give it executive powers, weakening the other branches of government that could check him, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that Turkey would never join the E.U. so long as Erdogan was in power. “The Turkish government and Erdogan are moving fast away from everything that Europe stands for”, said Gabriel. Subsequently, the E.U. said that Erdogan’s Turkey does not fit the Copenhagen Criteria.
The Cyprus Situation
For months, the E.U. has been discussing what to do about the dispute around Cyprus, perhaps the major immediate crisis in Turkish-E.U. relations. Option One was to impose sanctions, and those have now been prepared. Option Two was for the Republic of Cyprus to invite France to set up a naval base on the island to counterbalance Turkish influence and deter future action. Option Three was to take the matter to Interpol and to arrest the crewmen onboard the Turkish vessels drilling in Cypriot waters. That would certainly have prompted escalation from Erdogan, like preventing international drilling companies from venturing into territorial waters. This is what he did with Italy’s ENI in 2018. To avoid such an outcome, both ENI and Total have announced that they won’t work in Cyprus until the conflict with Turkey is resolved.
The Turkish position is that the drilling is taking place within its own territory, since northern Cyprus, the majority-Turkish area that has been under Turkish occupation since 1974, has rights to the Republic of Cyprus’ economic zone. “There are two people on this island so there needs to be fair sharing”, said Erdogan’s Vice-President, Fuat Oktay. On 28 October, Turkey’s ambassador to Greece said that Turkey’s drill ships will not leave Cypriot waters unless Nicosia includes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in decision-making regarding future exploration. In fact, the Greek part of the island has expressed a willingness to share 30% of energy with TRNC.
A specific, thorny problem within the Cyprus crisis is Varosha, the abandoned southern quarter of the Cypriot city of Famagusta. Its inhabitants fled after the Greek coup and the subsequent Turkish invasion in 1974. The United Nations resolutions on the matter say that the area can only be repopulated with its original Cypriot Greek residents. Erdogan has other plans, however, wanting to forcefully re-open the city and transform it into a tourist hub for TRNC and Turkey. Last July, he sent civil servants into the ghost town, ostensibly to inventory its abandoned homes, markets, and churches. Cyprus believes that the inventory is just a ploy by the Turkish government to repopulate Varosha with Turks and Turkish Cypriots, rather than former residents of the area, in complete disregard of the U.N. Resolutions.
In August 2019, TRNC’s Foreign Minister Kudret Ozersay arranged for Turkish and TRNC journalists to visit Varosha for the first time in 45-years, while TRNC Prime Minister Ersin Tatar has promised to make Varosha another Las Vegas. They sent a letter to the U.N., informing them of their activity in Varosha, but the U.N. has taken no action, except reminding all sides of their commitment to U.N. Security Council resolutions (UNSCR) 550 and 789, adopted in 1984 and 1992, respectively. UNSCR 550 considers any attempt to settle any part of Varosha with people other than its original inhabitants illegitimate and calls for the transfer of this area to the administration of the U.N., while UNSCR 789 urges directly that Varosha come under the control of the United Nations Peace-keeping Force in Cyprus. “No action should be carried out in Varosha, not in accordance with these resolutions,” the UNSC said.
Given the evolution of Turkish behavior in Varosha—from an inventory to ambitions to make it a regional Las Vegas—during a timeframe that coincides with the Syrian and Cypriot gas crises, it seems likely Ankara is using Varosha as a bargaining chip in regional affairs. This would not be a new position for a Turkish leader. Kenan Evren, the leader of the 1980 coup in Turkey and its long-time military ruler thereafter, was commander of the Turkish unit that entered the Varosha and sealed it off before occupying it back in 1974. “Taking Varosha was not among our targets and planning”, said Evren. “When the Greek Cypriots started firing, our soldiers followed, and the city came under our control without our wish. We closed it to civilians in order to use it in later negotiations”.
Appeasement has worrying precedents in Europe. If Europe accepts, or turns a blind eye to, Erdogan’s ambitions in Cyprus and northern Syria, it will only encourage him to make greater claims later. Erdogan is betting on a lack of Western appetite to confront Turkey since Turkey is or can be useful on many issues across the world, from containing Russia to preventing a resurgence of ISIS. The retreat of the U.S. in the Middle East—particularly President Donald Trump’s refusal to retaliate against Iran for the attack on ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia—has emboldened Erdogan to believe he can take his way in the region.
All Erdogan’s actions have cost him from the Americans to date are big words and threats of sanctions; no substantial action. Trump is under pressure to impose sanctions on Turkey because of the purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, tapping into a U.S. law known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). And last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed two bills to punish Turkey for the Syria incursion—one recognizing the Armenian massacres of 1915 as genocide and the other a sanctions package. But the House bills have to pass the Senate, and Trump can then still veto them, unless they have a two-thirds “supermajority”. Even if these bills become law, neither is likely to prompt Erdogan to change his behavior over Cyprus or Syria. These would be small prices to pay for Erdogan to secure his domestic position, his regional influence, and his legacy.
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