A New Middle East?
Turkey at the Turning Point

Four big stories are coming to a head right now in Turkey that will affect the future of that country and two vital regions, Europe and the Middle East.

First, a possible entente with Iran: Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu flew to Tehran on Saturday, where he met with President Hassan Rouhani. Both declared that the two nations, which have backed opposing sides of the Syrian Civil War, must put aside differences. “It is extremely important for Turkey and Iran to develop some common perspectives in order to end our region’s fight among brothers, to stop the ethnic and sectarian conflicts,” Davutoglu said. Rouhani echoed the need for “cooperation” and “lasting peace,” adding pointedly that, “We believe regional issues should only be resolved by the regional countries and nations.” Both also spoke of building trade ties in a post-sanctions world.

Meanwhile, the Turkish justice ministry submitted a measure to Parliament that would lift the immunity of the leaders of the Kurdish HDP Party. The leaders have immunity as Members of Parliament; Erdogan is now alleging that the HDP (which thwarted AKP ambitions in the first of two elections last year, but not the second) is an offshoot of the PKK, the armed Kurdish group.

And on Friday, the Turkish government seized control of Today’s Zaman, the largest circulation paper in the country. The paper has been linked to the Gulenist movement, which is also opposed to Erdogan. It’s also one of the more important and influential opposition sources: we cited a story Zaman (after checking it) just the day before it was closed.

Finally, the EU has come more or less hat in hand for a new negotiation over refugees. Basically, the Europeans need the Turks to stop the refugees from leaving for Greece, and are prepared to pay through the nose for it—despite the terrible optics. This is an unseemly time to be getting in to bed with Turkey, as Gideon Rachman notes in the Financial Times, adding that:

The EU’s discomfort is increased by the fact that European officials are aware that their requests to Turkey would be difficult for any government, democratic or undemocratic, to swallow. The Turks are already playing host to over 2m Syrian refugees – and many more could be on their way, if and when the fighting in Syria resumes in earnest. And yet the EU wants Turkey to close the safety valve that allows many Syrians to cross the sea to Greece and the EU. As one German official admitted to me in Berlin recently: “We’re asking Turkey to keep its border with Syria open to refugees, but to close its border to Greece and to accept non-Syrian migrants that we turn back from the EU. I’m not sure I would agree to that, if I were them.”

Nevertheless, the Europeans are desperate; look for Brussels to make some sort of deal (again), involving a large amount of money and favors heading to Ankara. Turkey’s demands went up even as the conference was in progress earlier today.

These stories are connected. As far as one can tell, Erdogan appears to be making a concerted effort to clear the decks to crush the Kurds as part of a process of power consolidation that will make him the uncontested ruler of Turkey. Presumably his deal with Iran over Syria is largely Kurd-centered: Iran (which shares an interest with Turkey in crushing Kurdish aspirations) won’t push the Kurdish cause in Syria and won’t interfere with Turkey’s desire to secure its own borders against pro-PKK Syrian Kurds. Part of the implicit price with Brussels, meanwhile, is that Europe won’t fight Turkey on human rights even as the hammer comes down internally.

In a way, Erdogan seems to be returning from his “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy of a few years ago to a “neo-Kemalist” stance: reducing his interest in Middle East matters beyond Turkey’s control while doubling down on the internal security of Turkey. And what about what the United States thinks? Sadly not much of a factor these days in the minds of regional powers.

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