In recent months, relations between Turkey and Western countries have become aggravated, which has contributed to increasing signs of Western hostility toward Ankara. These signs are associated with several key issues, perhaps most importantly the Western countries’ feeling that Ankara has not fully aligned itself with the Western position against Russia, since it did not join the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. The issue of Sweden and Finland joining NATO has further complicated Turkey’s relationships with Western countries, and Ankara has shown some obstinacy by imposing conditions on the two countries’ admission into the alliance. This has prompted some to say that Turkey’s policies may lead to the dissolution of NATO. The issue does not stop here, however; indeed, demonstrations in European countries have raised slogans against Islam in front of Turkish embassies.
Despite this mounting hostility in Western countries toward Turkey, the terrible earthquake that hit Turkey on 6 February has raised anew the question of the relationship between Ankara and the West, especially since most Western states have expressed their solidarity with Ankara and rushed to provide it with support and aid.
A Broader Crisis
Of late, Turkish-Western relations have gone through a crisis phase reflected in a growing wave of hostility against Turkey in several Western countries, which can be detailed as follows:
1. Repeated accusations that Ankara is weakening NATO: Over the years, Ankara has been repeatedly accused of weakening NATO by adopting policies that are not necessarily consistent with the alliance’s approaches. The Ukrainian war has renewed these charges, with some in the Western media even beginning to describe Turkey as a "disruptive ally," as Michael Crowley and Steven Erlanger put it in their article in The New York Times last May. Last year, Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership after Russia attacked Ukraine. However, both faced unexpected objections from Turkey and, since then, have tried to gain its support. In return, Ankara wants Helsinki and Stockholm to take a tougher stance against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Subsequently, the three countries reached an agreement on the way forward at the NATO summit in Madrid last June.
Nevertheless, Ankara continues to obstruct the two countries’ accession to NATO—especially Sweden’s—in order to exploit the situation and pressure the Western countries to accept Turkey’s moves on several contentious fronts. Turkey seeks to secure the West’s compliance with its demands and to extract concessions from the West, most notably that NATO not criticize or impose sanctions on Turkey if it launches any attacks on Western-backed Kurds in Syria and Iraq. In addition, Ankara wants to pressure the Biden administration to lift Congress’s suspension of the deal to sell 40 F-16 fighter jets, and the Turkish foreign ministry is trying to convince the Americans that any sale of those fighter jets to Turkey will be in line with US security interests and will serve the long-term unity of NATO, especially given Turkey’s military support for Ukraine in the war.
2. Criticism of Turkey’s policy toward Syria: Several Western countries have publicly criticized Turkish policy toward Syria, beginning with repeated Turkish signaling in recent months of a military operation in northern Syria against Kurdish groups there, and leading to Western repudiation of the steps toward rapprochement between Ankara and the Syrian regime.
The US State Department has reiterated its opposition to the normalization of relations between Ankara and Damascus, while Erdogan has increasingly signaled openness to normalized relations with his southern neighbor, especially since the process is occurring under Russian sponsorship. Ministerial meetings held in Moscow are expected to pave the way for a summit between the leaders of the two countries, alongside a resumption of secret communications between the heads of the intelligence services in the two countries about three years ago. This helped strengthen US support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which prompted senior Turkish officials to accuse Washington of having ties to terrorist attacks attributed to the PKK, such as the Istanbul bombing last November that killed six people.
3. Escalating populist protests against Turkey in the West: Last month, a series of anti-Turkish protests in Sweden caused deep anger in Ankara, which threatened to further delay Stockholm’s attempt to join NATO. The demonstrations contained PKK symbols and included hanging Erdogan in effigy from a lamppost. In addition, Rasmus Paludan—a Swedish-Danish dual citizen and the leader of a Danish far-right party—burned a copy of the Quran outside the residence of the Turkish ambassador in Stockholm.
Swedish officials quickly moved to condemn these acts, and the government disavowed the protests, which Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson described as an act of sabotage against his country’s bid to join NATO because Turkey (with Hungary) had not yet ratified Sweden or Finland joining the alliance. The Swedish and Danish foreign ministers accused Russia of being behind the Quran-burning incident, but their Turkish counterparts were not influenced by these explanations and immediately canceled official visits to Ankara by the Swedish parliamentary speaker and the minister of defense. Moreover, Erdogan criticized Sweden, warning that disrespect for Turkish and Muslim beliefs would cost Sweden the loss of Turkish support for its request to join NATO.
4. Mutual accusations of racism between Turkey and Western states: At the end of last month, Turkey warned its citizens of possible Islamophobic, xenophobic, and racist attacks in the US and several European countries. The Turkish foreign ministry stated that the recent increases in anti-Islamic and racist acts reflect the dangerous dimensions of religious intolerance and hatred in Europe. This came in response to security warnings issued by several embassies in Ankara—including the American, German, French, and Italian embassies—to their citizens in Turkey, indicating possible retaliatory attacks by terrorists against houses of worship following the recent Quran-burning incidents in Europe.
5. American threat to punish Turkish companies and banks: In recent days, the US has threatened to punish Turkish entities that may have a role in providing certain goods to Russia. According to a February 4th report published on the Ahval Turkey website, "in February, Washington warned Ankara about exporting chemicals, microchips, and other products to Russia that can be used in its war effort against Ukraine, noting that it may move to punish Turkish companies and banks that violate the sanctions."
According to the Ahval Turkey story, "Brian Nelson, the US Treasury Department’s top sanctions official, met with government and private-sector officials in Turkey on 2 and 3 February to urge greater cooperation in hindering the flow of these goods." In a speech to bankers, Nelson said that "a marked year-long rise in exports to Russia leaves Turkish entities particularly vulnerable to reputational and sanctions risks or loss of access to G7 markets."
The Earthquake’s Impact
Despite this increasing conflict between Ankara and the Western states, the February 6th earthquake, which had a devastating effect on Turkey, opened the door to the potential de-escalation of tensions between Turkey and the West. This scenario is linked to several key dimensions, which consist of the following:
1. Adoption of sympathetic discourse with Turkey: Western countries adopted a sympathetic discourse with Ankara following the earthquake. For example, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated that his "thoughts are with the people of Turkey and Syria this morning, particularly with those first responders working so valiantly to save those trapped by the earthquake." And US President Joe Biden tweeted: "I am deeply saddened by the loss of life and devastation caused by the earthquake in Turkiye and Syria. I have directed my team to continue to closely monitor the situation in coordination with Turkiye and provide any and all needed assistance."
In the same vein, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expressed his sympathies for the victims of the quake, saying on Twitter: "We mourn with the victims’ loved ones and fear for those trapped under the rubble." French President Emmanuel Macron also tweeted, saying: "Terrible images come to us from Turkey and Syria after an earthquake of unprecedented force. We sympathize with the families who have lost loved ones."
2. Major Western nations’ rapid provision of aid: Notably, the major Western countries rushed to provide aid to Turkey. The American president directed US agencies to "continue to closely monitor the situation in coordination with Turkiye and provide any and all needed assistance," and the White House announced the dispatch of two teams, each made up of 79 medics. The German chancellor likewise confirmed that Germany would provide the necessary assistance to Turkey and Syria.
France also confirmed its assistance and announced that 139 civil service rescue workers were headed to Turkey, especially to Kahramanmaraş Province, in addition to about 30 volunteers from the France-based International Association of Fire and Rescue Services.
3. Activation of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism: The European Union activated its Civil Protection Mechanism, and "teams from ten member states were urgently mobilized." According to a statement issued by the European Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, the Dutch and Romanian teams left on February 6th to participate in relief efforts in Turkey.
4. Swedish and Greek declaration of readiness to provide aid: Despite the existing tension between Ankara and both Sweden and Greece, those two countries expressed their sympathies to Ankara and offered aid to Turkey. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis noted that Greece was ready "to place all its forces at Turkey’s disposal," and he phoned the Turkish president to offer condolences to the quake victims and offer assistance to Turkey.
Similarly, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson indicated that his country, "as a partner to Turkey and entrusted with the EU presidency, is ready to assist Turkey." Sweden also announced the donation of about USD 650,000 to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Turkey and Syria.
Relief diplomacy and Western sympathy for Turkey may de-escalate tensions between Ankara and the Western countries and lessen the hostility between them. However, the earthquake is not likely to lead to a radical change in relations among the parties, as each party’s relations will continue to be governed by pragmatic calculations due to fundamental considerations, most importantly:
1. Extensive structural differences between Western countries and Ankara: This is especially so because the European states refuse to grant Turkey EU membership. Turkey has been an EU candidate country since 1999, and accession negotiations began in 2005. However, since June of 2018, negotiations between the two parties have been at a virtual standstill, and their mutual relations have gradually deteriorated. According to the European Commission’s assessment, Ankara has not committed to carrying out the required reforms in key areas of the accession process, and there has been continuous backsliding in the areas of fundamental rights, rule of law, and independence of the judiciary, in addition to the deterioration of economic governance and macroeconomic imbalances.
For Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean remains the most significant obstacle to bringing Turkey’s foreign policies closer to the unified European position, and the issue is twofold. The first aspect relates to the question of Cyprus and the second to maritime boundaries and illegal oil exploration inside the borders of Greece, an EU member country. Erdogan habitually criticizes EU members for their lack of support for his country’s accession to the bloc, accusing them of not supporting Ukraine until after it was attacked by Russia and wondering whether the bloc is waiting for a repeat of the Kyiv crisis before taking a serious position on his country’s accession to the EU.
2. Difficulty in changing Turkish regime policy: The Turkish regime’s policy toward the West is not likely to change. In fact, it is trying to use important issues to make gains. For example, Ankara is haggling over the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO in return for Washington’s approval of Turkey’s purchase of advanced F-16 fighter jets. During the Turkish foreign minister’s visit to the US last January, he made no explicit mention of Finland and Sweden in his remarks, but he stressed the importance Turkey places on getting US approval to purchase these fighter jets, taking advantage of the opportunity of the Biden administration’s support for this deal while it faces major opposition in Congress.
A group of senators from both parties believes that Congress cannot support the USD 20 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey until after Ankara ratifies the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland. It is worth noting that this is the first time that Congress has explicitly and directly linked the sale of the aircraft to Turkey with offers to the two Northern European countries to join NATO. However, Turkey remains stubborn on the process of facilitating Sweden’s membership in the alliance, clarifying that it may approve Finland’s application to join NATO before Sweden’s. Finland’s president and foreign minister reject this idea on the basis that the security of both Nordic countries is dependent on the other, and therefore the mutual give-and-take between the two parties may complicate the situation between them on this issue.
3. Transfer of negative attitudes to societies: In recent years, signs have appeared that the negative attitudes governing Turkish-Western relations are being carried over to their societies as well, with many of them adopting negative opinions of Turkey. The situation is the same in Turkish society. For example, an opinion poll conducted by the Turkish company, Gezici, in December of 2022, showed that 72.8% of the Turkish citizens polled supported good relations with Russia. By contrast, nearly 90% believed that the US is a hostile country. Thus, indicators of popular opinion may play a role in influencing Erdogan’s foreign policies, especially in the near term, as he prepares for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections previously set for May 14. However, more time is needed to know the impact of Western aid to Turkey after the earthquake on Turkish society’s attitude toward the West.
In conclusion, it seems that the Turkish earthquake may allow a degree of de-escalation in Turkey’s relations with Western countries, though it is hard to say whether Western solidarity with Turkey will lead to a radical change in the course of the two parties’ relations given the complex issues over which Turkey and the West are clashing. Therefore, the two parties will continue to maintain pragmatic relations that serve their respective interests. The West needs Turkey for security, policy, and economic considerations given the latter’s openness to Moscow. For its part, Turkey will not sacrifice its relations with Western countries, which means that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Ankara to push matters to the point of no return, especially on the issue of new NATO members.