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Aug 4, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

13 mins read

Insights Into Turkish Domestic and International Politics (May-June 2017)

The diplomatic break between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors threatens to pull Turkey into another Middle Eastern conflict.
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By John VanPool for European Geopolitical Forum (EGF)

Key Points:

  • Qatar finds itself isolated after the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt sever diplomatic ties. In contrast President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doubled down on support for the small gulf emirate, providing food supplies, Turkish troops and diplomatic support.
  • Turkey's image in the West is hampered by high profile incidents and arrests by the government, leaving positive coverage in Western outlets few and far between.
  • The Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq announces a September 2017 independence referendum, putting Turkey in a complicated position despite generally positive relations between Erbil and Ankara.
  • Turkish Stream Pipeline's next step is a 200 km land-based section across Turkey, with Gazprom announcing it is seeking financing options worth $700 million to complete the second phase after underwater sections in the Black Sea are complete.
  • Tourism – a major economic boon – edges up in Turkey after relations with Russia improve and the security situation stabilizes under the emergency decree.

Turkey remains supportive of Qatar

A diplomatic break between Qatar and its gulf neighbors threatens to pull Turkey into another conflict in the Middle East. In early June, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar and began a process to expel the nation's expatriates from their countries. Tensions between Qatar and its Sunni neighbors in the region have been strained for some time, though it appears the acquiescence of American President Donald Trump precipitated the full break, despite the American military base there.

Turkey, which has an agreement with Qatar to house a base of its own, sped up the deployment of its soldiers despite the diplomatic fall out.

Turkey already has poor relations with Egypt following the military coup there in 2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood was ejected from office and its president was thrown in prison. Though Turkey, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are nominally backing the same side in Syria – that of Sunni Arab fighters opposed to the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and Kurdish militias – relations between Ankara and the gulf kingdoms remain cool.

Turkey sent its foreign minister to attempt to mediate the dispute, though it remains unclear what specific instances resulted in Qatar becoming a pariah amongst its Gulf Cooperation Council partners. In the international press, speculation is that Doha's support for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist movements – or dissident, depending on who you are asking - have complicated regional tensions. Qatar's flagship news channel Al Jazeera has reported, critically at times, on conflicts around the Middle East, making few friends amongst the Gulf monarchies.

Though those are longstanding issues, the breaking point may have been Saudi Arabia's growing irritation with Qatar's open stance on Iranian influence in the gulf. With the approval of the Trump Administration, Saudi Arabia has drawn a literal line in the sand when it comes to Iran, and Qatar finds itself surrounded by angry neighbors.

To reinforce the point, sea and land corridors to the gulf emirate have been closed while Qataris are barred from travelling to flights to the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

In not breaking from Qatar, Turkey is seeking to alleviate some of the pressure on the emirate. Though this may raise tensions with Riyadh, the government of President Erdogan may be calculating that a demonstration of its regional military prowess is worth the trouble if a full diplomatic break between Turkey and Saudi Arabia can be avoided.

The small number of Turkish troops in Qatar – estimated to be between 3,000 to 5,000 once fully deployed – is symbolic. The presence of two NATO allies – Turkey and the U.S. – is a positive in some respects though. Their presence means the likelihood of a military conflict erupting between Qatar and its erstwhile GCC partners is unlikely, for the time being.

For Turkey, the troop deployment and diplomatic overtures provide an opportunity to demonstrate its influence in the region.

Perhaps it is an opportunity to necessitate a "zero problems" foreign policy?

Turkey's image in the West

Ties with the U.S. remain tenuous after the American prosecutors issued arrest warrants for 12 Turkish security officers involved in the melee outside the Turkish embassy in Washington D.C. in May.

As well as those security officials, two Canadians have also had arrest warrants issued, while two Turkish-Americans involved in the attack on unarmed protestors face prosecution by authorities there.

Several other high profile cases of arrests and imprisonment – and a release in one instance – continue to reflect poorly on Turkey in many Western nations.

On June 12, a reporter for the now closed JINHA news agency was convicted for a painting she created showing the demolished southeastern Turkish city of Nusaybin after combat between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers Party in 2016. ("Turkey Crackdown Chronicle: Week of June 11, 2017," Committee to Protect Journalists Blog, 12 June 2017.) The painting was copied from a photograph widely available online showing the city's devastated landscape, and it has resulted in landing its creator a nearly three year long prison sentence.

On June 9, National Geographic magazine photographer Mathias Depardon was released from custody after the French citizen had been detained in Batman Province on May 8. ("French photojournalist freed from custody in Turkey," AP, 9 June 2017.) New French President Emmanuel Macron told his Turkish counterpart that the photographer should be released when the two met at the NATO summit in May.

On June 6, the local chair of Amnesty International was arrested along with nearly two dozen attorneys who the government alleged were members of the Fethullah Gulen movement. (Zaman, "Turkish crackdown snares Amnesty International chair,", 13 June 2017.)  Taner Kilic's arrest even drew a rebuke from the U.S. Department of State, which has been notably more cautious about condemning human rights and rule of law abuses under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

In late May, National Basketball Association player Enis Kanter, a visible follower of Gulen who plays basketball in the United States, narrowly avoided being arrested and sent back to Turkey following the Turkish government's cancellation of his passport on the allegation that he glorified a terrorist organization. Kanter, a legal U.S. resident, was detained in Romania while travelling internationally from Indonesia. In recent months the Turkish government has cancelled passports citing similar charges as those leveled against Kanter, with some governments repatriating Turkish citizens where they are promptly arrested. (Coker, "NBA Star Dodges a Turkish Crackdown," The Wall Street Journal, 1 June 2017.) Kanter's father – with whom he had broken the previous year over the Gulen Movement – was arrested days later.

Reporters Without Borders estimates more than 100 Turkish journalists remain in custody, while estimates are that 50,000 people have been arrested, 100,000 detained at some point and 100,000 civil servants, academics and security service members have been fired amidst the emergency decrees following the failed July 2016 coup attempt.

Reports such as these continue to filter into the press worldwide, but are becoming regular staples of Western media coverage on Turkey. These are nations where rule of law and freedom of expression are protected to varying degrees. Many of these nations seem increasingly alienated from the direction of the government under President Erdogan.

The KRG to vote for independence

A day long talked about occurred on June 7, 2017 when the president of the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, Massoud Barzani, announced that the region would hold an independence referendum on September 25.

The KRG gets along well with the AKP government under President Erdogan, having long established ties in energy and construction sectors. As noted by Cengiz Candar, Turkey may even have some practical reasons to acquiesce to an independent Kurdistan headed by the Barzani clan.

"A Sunni Kurdish buffer to Shiite-dominated Iraq might serve Turkish interests. Massoud Barzani's animosity toward the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — Turkey's Kurdish adversary in Turkey and Syria — could serve as another element in Ankara's acceptance of an independent Kurdish state." (Candar, "Kurdish independence in Iraq will take more than a referendum,", 13 June 2017.)

The former point seems very relevant given Erdogan's recent statement about opposing Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.

The term 'Kurd' masks the deep divisions across various political factions that hold sway over the various Kurdish populations spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In this case, the KRG, led by Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party, get on as well with Erdogan as any regional player in the Middle East. Barzani's KDP is also avowedly opposed to the PKK and its offshoots in Syria like the PYD and Iraq. In 2013 the PKK supported the opposition Goran Party, which currently is in a standoff with the leading KDP. The result of this standoff is that the KRG parliament hasn't met in two years, with Goran refusing to call a quorum because Barzani refused to step down from the presidency after he was term limited in 2014.

These positives aside, Turkey has announced its opposition to the move, along with the United States and several other Western powers like Germany. For one, the threat of another conflict breaking out in the region seems all too likely.

Further, the status of the city of Kirkuk remains controversial. Iraq has extensive energy infrastructure there, while the multiethnic city of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen make the possibility of a smooth transition out of Iraq seem implausible. The city's Turkmen, with established ties to Turkey, have already announced their opposition. ("Iraq: Kurdistan Regional Government Announces Another Independence Referendum," Stratfor, 8 June 2017).

Yet with Turkey increasingly focused on developing its energy infrastructure and suppliers – the KRG supplies and sells its oil exports via a pipeline ending at a Turkish port – there may be room for Ankara's acquiescence. Though the foreign ministry and prime minister both spoke out against the referendum, President Erdogan has thus far said nothing himself, odd for a man never shy from expressing his opinions.

The role of Barzani is key. He has built a positive relationship with Turkey in economic and security sectors, even taking a hard, public line against the PKK and its Syrian and Iraqi affiliates. For some time he has stated his intention to resign as president once an independence referendum is affirmed, leaving the direction of the newly free Iraqi Kurdistan in the hands of a new leader. However, the Barzani family is likely to remain influential, if not in charge, given its standing in the Kurdish independence movement.

Should the referendum fail, or an armed conflict erupt between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi government in Baghdad – namely over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk - Turkey may be the only viable connection between the region and the world. As relations and ties shift in the Middle East due to ongoing conflicts and tensions, the Turkey-KRG partnership could prove to be the lifeline Iraq's Kurds need to fulfill their long wished for goal of independence.

Turkish Stream

The Turkish Stream Pipeline continues to progress, with Gazprom recently announcing that it is attempting to secure financing - worth $700 million - that will traverse Turkey's territory. (Graebaer, "Financing sought for Russian pipeline through Turkey," UPI, 1 June 2017.") Construction is already underway on the pipeline, with Gazprom predicting that it will come into use by 2019. Once that 1,000 km line of underwater pipeline is complete, the approximately 200 km land-based line in Turkey will be built.

As reported in the European Geopolitical Forum's May 2017 Gazprom Monitor, there remains the possibility of the project's expansion to two lines.

"Although the Russia-Turkey IGA states the possibility of constructing two lines (with a capacity of 15.75 bcm per year each), thus far only the construction of the first line appears to have been approved by the Turkish authorities." (Sharples, "GPF Gazprom Monitor," European Geopolitical Forum Gazprom Monitor, May 2017.)

In a late-May meeting between Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Erdogan, the Russian official said that Turkish Stream will enter EU markets via Bulgaria and Greece. According to estimates, the pipeline's capacity will be 15.75 billion cubic meters once both sections are complete.

The previous incarnation of the line – South Stream – was opposed by the European Commission as Brussels argued that the sections of the project that were to be laid down inside the EU did not conform to European law.

It will be interesting to see the EC's stance on the pipeline over the coming year if relations between the European Union and Turkey further deteriorate.

According to the European Geopolitical Forum's Georges Vlad Niculescu though, the likelihood of such a breakdown are unlikely. Tensions over Turkey's April referendum appear to be easing, especially in Brussels' bureaucratic circles where such decisions are debated and made.

"Problems for Turkish Stream could rather emerge from the economic competition with the Nord Stream 2 and the Southern Gas Corridor, as well as from tensions in the broader EU-Russia relations," said Niculescu. "However, the latter might be decreasing in the aftermath of the visit of President Trump to Europe in late May, though the resumption of large scale military hostilities in Ukraine might favor the Turkish Stream project as a supply line outside of the conflict zone."

Russian Economic Impact

Good news on the horizon in time for the summer season as Turkey appears to be benefitting from a normalization of ties with Russia. Tourism appears to

be on the rise with 18 percent more foreign visitors coming compared to the same time last year.

A Bloomberg report on the importance that tourism plays in Turkey's economic fortunes, noting that the country relies on revenues from foreign exchange to help fill its account deficit, predicted to be 4.7 percent of GDP this year. (Ant, "Tourists Are Finally Coming Back to Turkey," Bloomberg, 30 May 2017.)

On June 2, Russia lifted its ban on imports of Turkish agricultural products and a ban on Turkish companies in construction, tourism and engineering sectors. The ban occurred following the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkish forces in 2015.

According to a statement by Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, two restrictions remain; a ban on tomato imports and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens going to Russia. ("Russian lifts further trade sanctions against Turkey," Hurriyet Daily News, 2 June 2017.)

While relations with Russia improving certainly played a part – the stability of the country's domestic security situation has likely contributed to the return as well. Despite souring relations with NATO allies and the EU over the latter's concerns of the rule of law and freedom of the press in Turkey, what likely kept many Europeans away over the past two years has been the threat of terrorist attacks and an unstable security environment.

For all the criticism of the government's emergency decree since the July 2016 putsch attempt, the crackdown has coincided with less frequent terrorist attacks by ISIS and the PKK.

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