Turkey and the European Union: Conflicting Policies and Opportunities for Cohesion and Cooperation In Iraq and Syria

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There are major security events, issues and trends within Iraq since 2003 and Syria since 2011, that have influenced and impacted Turkey-European Union (EU) relations. In this policy paper we deconstruct the causal mechanisms that act as the primary drivers impacting bilateral relations. We then compare and contrast Ankara’s and Brussels’ current security interests, priorities and perceptions toward security threats originating in this troubled neighbourhood. Finally, we classify opportunities as culminating in three possible discrete or combined security policy scenarios: conflict, cooperation and/or convergence and make recommendations to improve Turkey-EU relations.

To address how Iraq’s and Syria’s security environment evolved to its current state and predict the subsequent outcomes and impacts on EU-Turkey relations, we look back and critically analyse Ankara’s and Brussels’ views on the following key events, issues and trends: security and political dynamics following the second term of al-Maliki, the withdrawal of the US forces in 2011, the 2011 Syrian revolution, the war against the Islamic state (IS), The Global Coalition against Daesh (GCD) backing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria, the rise of Kurdish nationalism and aspirations for statehood in Iraq and autonomy in Syria, the enhanced influence of Iran in Iraq and the growth of IS with subsequent mass displacement of person across both Iraq and Syria.

Iraq is now largely free of IS reign, yet is still threatened by terrorism, mass population displacement and weak governance, among other ills. In parallel, now that the Syrian civil war enters its seventh bloody year, generating large numbers of casualties and millions of displaced persons, Brussels and Ankara are strongly incented to converge and/or cooperate on security policies which mitigate the escalating humanitarian crisis and ease the path to a durable peace agreement. However, finding durable solutions to address high value, high impact problems stemming from Iraq and Syria requires identifying and mitigating the causes vs symptoms of these countries’ instability and insecurity affecting Ankara’s and Brussels’ own security interests, priorities and threat perceptions.

Central security priorities for the EU in post-IS Iraq include stabilization, the return of internally displaced people and refugees and eliminating violent jihadist organizations and ideologies. While Turkey shares these objectives in principle, Ankara’s security interests concentrate primarily on neutralizing the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and its affiliates’ presence and influence. Since 2014, Ankara and Brussels have mostly bifurcated on how they perceive security threats in Syria. Turkey-EU leaders continue to disagree on the Kurd’s role in the Syrian war and how Turkey should control its borders to cut flows of foreign fighters into Syria. As the IS invaded parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014, European states began providing PKK affiliated Kurdish groups in Syria with both intelligence and military support. Alternately, since the Kurdistan Region of Iraq held its referendum for independence on 25 September 2017, EU and Turkish leaders have mostly converged on how they perceive security threats in Iraq with both staunchly supporting the country’s territorial integrity, thus, both refused to recognize the referendum’s legitimacy.

We consider the issue of terrorism as a highly relevant driver of EU and Turkish security policies, perceptions and priorities. Though we see both countries as highly concerned with this issue, they diverge on which organizations pose the greatest threat. Ankara places the PKK at the top of its terrorist list – both within its borders and across the region – while Brussels prioritizes neutralizing jihadi terrorist threats on its soil, thus, the probability of convergence and cooperation and positive impact on EU-Turkey relations is moderate for this issue. Moreover, the IS is not given the same degree of priority by the two sides in the neighbourhood, including Iraq and Syria. Unlike the EU, Turkey considers the threat posed by the IS equal to the one posed by the PKK, but not as strategic. Here, the two sides diverge.

In sum, dissent between Brussels and Ankara is highly likely given the Turkish Armed Forces’ broad kinetic engagement in both Iraq and Syria which negatively impacts EU and US efforts to roll back terrorism, stabilise the region, deliver humanitarian aid and help displaced persons return to their homes. Thus, regardless of whether Baghdad and/or Damascus formally grant Ankara permission to launch assaults, the EU views these actions as bellicose destabilizers competing with its own interests, thus, degrades EU-Turkey relations.

Ultimately, this study calls for the EU and Turkey to prioritize mending cracks and fissures in their relationship and focus on the gains to be made through rapprochement on security issues originating in Iraq and Syria. Likewise, the EU can use its tremendous mediating capacity as an honest broker to settle entrenched disputes between warring parties in Iraq and Syria and for Turkey restart the peace process at home. More than ever, both must develop a long-term strategic security framework to ensure that bilateral security interests, priorities and interventions do not derail current stabilisation and reconstruction procedures in Iraq and/or progress toward a durable peace in Syria.

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About MERI:  The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.  Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.

MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).

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