Ankara should be in a strong geopolitical position today, courted by both the West and Russia because of its importance in neighbouring Syria and the wider Middle East, as well as its location on the frontier of Europe for both energy pipelines and refugees.
But Ankara is finding it difficult to convert these advantages into concrete achievements. Part of the problem is that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s focus on scoring domestic political points ahead of next month’s elections is squandering Turkey’s many advantages.
Europe’s refugee crisis should have been a golden opportunity to start repairing the relations between Brussels and Ankara. Turkey has long sought visas to the European Union and a restart for its frozen accession process. Faced with thousands of desperate Syrian refugees at the EU’s borders, Brussels has been dangling several carrots in front of Ankara’s nose to persuade it to be more of a barrier to the human flood.
However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made it clear that Europe’s attitude to Turkish membership of the EU has not fundamentally changed.
"I have always been against EU membership, President Erdogan knows this, and I still am," Merkel told a talk show on German public broadcaster ARD on October 7, reiterating a position the no-nonsense German leader has held since before taking office in 2005. The most she has ever been prepared to concede is an ill defined “privileged partnership”.
Turkey’s hopes of major concessions were always unrealistic. Erdogan fell out of favour with the EU long ago over his increasingly authoritarian rule, after a brief honeymoon period in the boom years just after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government took office and about the same time that Merkel came to power. In response, Erdogan has been saying for a while that he has gone cold on the idea of EU membership.
Turkey’s role in the Syrian crisis is also seen by the West as unhelpful. Ankara has been trying to obstruct the Kurdish guerrillas, among the most militarily effective force against President Bashar al-Assad, and until recently has allowed Islamic State fighters – the West’s main worry - to come and go at will.
The meeting between EU leaders and Erdogan on October 5 was therefore conspicuously short of concrete results, and appeared more of a PR stunt for both sides: Erdogan could be seen as a key player ahead of the general elections; while the EU could be seen as doing something about the threat of migrants in Turkey heading westwards.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has lavished a lot of attention on Turkey recent as part of a divide and conquer strategy. Keen to bypass Ukraine, which transports half of Russia’s gas exports to its biggest customers in western Europe, it has offered to build the Turkish Stream pipeline to supply it with gas. Another deal to build a Russian nuclear power station in Turkey also plays to Ankara’s desperate need to supply the economy with more power.
However, in a sign of Turkey’s difficult position on the geopolitical faultline of Europe, Erdogan got into a diplomatic spat with the Kremlin following Russian incursions into Turkish air space during its air campaign in Syria. The incident highlighted that Turkey also has fundamental differences with Russia over Syria that will make closer relations difficult.
Russian aircraft twice entered Turkish air space at the weekend. Turkish F-16 jets have also been harassed by Syrian-based missile systems and unidentified planes since then.
"We can't accept the current situation. Russia's explanations on the air space violations are not convincing," the Turkish daily Sabah and others quoted Erdogan as telling reporters as he flew to Japan for an official visit.
The Turkish president told Russia there were other countries Turkey could buy natural gas from and which could build its first nuclear plant..
The gas talks were not going well even before the airplane incident. Russian state-owned gas export monopoly Gazprom has recently delayed the start of construction work on the Turkish Stream pipeline and announced that it would send half as much gas through it (32bcm) should it ever go into operation.
At the root of Erdogan’s outburst is a fundamental disagreement between the two presidents over who should run Syria. Russia has been strongly supporting Assad’s regime, while Turkey believes he can play no part in Syria’s future. Likewise, Russia has been cosying up to Iran (which also received a Russian-made nuclear power station), while Iran is a regional rival for Erdogan.
In short, Russia’s military intervention in Syria is endangering Ankara’s warmer relations with Moscow, while Turkey’s hopes of winning concessions from the EU look to be forlorn. Rather than skillfully playing both sides against each other, Erdogan’s diplomacy so far has only managed to put Turkey’s relationships with both Russia and the EU appear under greater strain.