Date
22 October 2018
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is said to be playing both sides between the United States and Russia and milking the rivalry between Washington and Moscow for all it is worth. Photo: Reuters
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is said to be playing both sides between the United States and Russia and milking the rivalry between Washington and Moscow for all it is worth. Photo: Reuters

The West cannot afford to anger Turkey’s Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been re-elected, and there is a chance he will be able to stay in power until 2028.

There is a widespread concern in the West about Erdogan’s rise as a dictator, but most western powers have accepted this harsh reality silently.

Even Washington, whose relations with Ankara have gone sour in recent years, is looking the other way as well.

Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Erdogan has been playing both sides between the United States and Russia and milking the rivalry between Washington and Moscow for all it is worth.

For example, Turkey has ordered F-35 stealth jet fighters from the US, but it is also purchasing S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia, a decision that has infuriated Washington, which has recently threatened to halt the delivery of the aircraft unless Ankara cancels the arms deal with Moscow.

Even so, the US has to put up with the defiant Erdogan, largely because of Turkey’s geopolitical and strategic importance.

First, Turkey is instrumental in sustaining America’s strategy to contain Iran, its biggest enemy in the Middle East. This explains why the US is keeping its temper despite Turkey’s defiance and political footsie with Russia.

Second, Washington has to avoid rupture with Ankara because the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey is key to NATO’s military presence and deterrence in the region.

And Erdogan is apparently well aware of the irreplaceable strategic value of the Incirlik Air Base, and has been using it as a bargaining chip against Washington.

As far as Europe is concerned, the stakes are even higher when it comes to maintaining a stable relationship with Turkey.

As a transcontinental country standing between Europe and Asia, Turkey has been acting as the de facto “port of first asylum” ever since the outbreak of the Syrian refugee crisis.

So far the country has already provided humanitarian aid for 3.5 million refugees.

Turkey is also fulfilling an important role as a gatekeeper that is preventing the European continent from being swamped by Middle East refugees.

This factor alone can explain why European powers simply cannot afford to alienate Turkey, and why the European Union has so eagerly promised Ankara juicy economic aid and agreed to expedite talks over its application for EU membership.

Given all these, it is quite unlikely that the West would ever dare to point their fingers at Erdogan despite the fact that he is working aggressively to consolidate his authoritarian rule.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 29

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal

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