Of Turkey, Syria and Europe (6/28)     Print Email

By Michael Mosettig, Former Foreign Editor, PBS News Hour

In a twist of fate, Turkey may provide the backdoor for deeper European and NATO intervention in the Syrian crisis. But whatever happens to Syria, the European Union is no closer to opening its front door to Turkey.
Those were two threads running through a serendipitously scheduled Middle East Institute conference on an "Ascendent Turkey," that drew more than 700 to the National Press Club ballroom. The day-long meeting, whose date was set in May, just happened to coincide with Turkey going to its NATO allies, so far only for consultations,  and its prime minister issuing some strong rhetoric after Syria shot down a Turkish military airplane.

The conference keynoter, Republican Senator John McCain, once again urged more vigorous U.S. and NATO response to the conflict in Syria, which has taken an estimated 12,000 lives. McCain insisted he was not advocating for U.S. forces or "boots on the ground" to be deployed to Syria but repeated his call for allied airpower to help enforce a zone of protection on the Turkey-Syria border that would allow forces opposed to the government of Bashar Al-Assad to organize, better arm themselves and re-group. The Senator also took an unusual pot-shot at NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, "who seems to think his prime duty is to say NATO won't be involved."

As numerous conference participants noted, the U.S. and the Islamist government in Turkey are deepening their alliance, even as Turkey's relations with Israel --the other key U.S. ally in the Mideast-- remain in the deep freeze. But the closer American-Turkish ties coincide with a continued stall in Ankara's bid to join the European Union.

Former Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Akis said his country has been waiting since 2006 for action on accession but did not anticipate any progress soon since Europe "has its own problems." He suggested Turkey continue its political and democratic development and reforms of its legal and penal codes, putting it in a stronger position a few years hence.

Former U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson said the EU will take Turkey more seriously as its relations with the region and with the United States grow stronger.

Dutch-born Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Turkey has not given up on Europe, "which remains extremely important." He added that the EU sees Turkey as a bridge between Christian Europe and a more Islamist Middle East.

"There is an innate fear in Europe of anything Muslim,"  Hiltermann said, and Turkey can play a role in helping ease those concerns as its democracy and influence both grow.