Brexit Could be Beneficial for Turkey

30 January 2017
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Expressing that Europe has always treated Turkey like a "second class citizen," Professor Nurşin Ateşoğlu Güney claimed that the Brexit process might prove to be beneficial for Turkey.

According to Professor Güney, the head of the Political Science and International Relations Department at Yıldız Technical University with academic works also in the field of energy security, Turkey may rebalance its relations with the European Union as a country that has close ties with Europe following Brexit.


Deputy chair of the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies, Güney asserted that in today's Middle East — still highly unstable after the Arab Spring — there are struggles on the routes of both natural gas and oil pipelines, and the Syrian war could be considered a part of this struggle.

Güney stated that the chaos in Syria was an attempt to put both Turkey and Russia out of the energy game and said this was the main reason why Russia entered the Syrian conflict.

Daily Sabah spoke with Professor Güney about the Astana Summit, Turkish-EU relations and geopolitics of energy.

Daily Sabah: With the Astana Summit, the hope for a permanent cease-fire in Syria and a political resolution were renewed. It was announced that this process will continue with a meeting in Geneva by the end of February. How do you regard these efforts to end the Syrian crisis?

Nurşin Güney: I believe the summit was a critical success. Parties of the conflict had previously met at Geneva I and Geneva II. At these meetings, global powers promised to make the cease-fire permanent, but they could not back up their promises. That is why I believe the Astana Summit was important, as certain rules to maintain the cease-fire were discussed. Turkey's aim in this process is to achieve a permanent cease-fire. As you know, certain countries want the cease-fire to be limited to certain periods of time, while Turkey wants it to be permanent so that a political resolution can be implemented.

Today, Turkey is trying to eliminate the threats it faces from the Syrian crisis. For this reason, Turkey is continuing Operation Euphrates Shield. In addition, the operation meant Turkey got onto the ground and was one of the factors strengthening the country's hand at the negotiations.

What we are observing is the beginnings of key cooperation with Russia and Iran. It is not an alliance, since the actors might cease cooperation once it begins to conflict with their interests. It seems Iran has the highest chance of walking away from this cooperation.

On the other hand, being a global power, Russia's relations with the U.S. will shape the future of the Syrian crisis. As you know, Russia attempted to divide the alliance between Europe and the Atlantic world prior to Donald Trump's inauguration. This is actually not independent from the Syrian issue; by prioritizing cooperation with Turkey, Russia demonstrated what kind of strategic relations it could form with one of the most important NATO countries.

Russia employed a similar strategy in the Balkans with Bulgaria and Serbia. While Russia is infuriated due to Western-imposed sanctions, we know that Vladimir Putin gave Trump a carte blanche. Even though the current condition of the Syrian cease-fire could be considered successful, future relations between Russia-Iran, Iran-U.S. and Russia-U.S. might affect the consensus.

DS: In accordance, with the power balance you have expressed, do you believe regional and global actors desire permanent peace in Syria?

NG: Some do and some do not. We are not sure about Trump. The Barack Obama administration's stance on this issue was clear: they desired to have a fragmented and unstable region. The examples of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya are clear to see. They believed that they could stall their rivals and allow the region to be managed easily. But the result was negative for the allies, as a terror belt was created south of the Turkish border.

Turkey understood that while Russia seemingly has the advantage by capturing bases in Syria and maintaining a "boutique state," it is also burdened by military expenses. In the end, Russia, like Turkey, understood the importance Syria's territorial integrity and affirmed that it was more rational to have close ties with Turkey, instead of the U.S., to avoid a fragmented region. Russia's Syrian policy covers more than Syria; with the 2015 Naval Doctrine, Russia declared that it has to established bases in the Mediterranean to assure a constant presence in the region. Otherwise, it is hard for Russia to deal with the strategic game U.S. imposed on the Middle East, Mediterranean and Europe after 2001.

Russia is not in any real shape to compete with the U.S.'s military capacity, but by employing its own capacity smartly, it made it hard for the West to advance in certain areas. Think about the air defense systems in Syria as one example. By wise deployment of its resources at the right time, Russia managed to become a part of the Mediterranean geopolitics and, more importantly, a part of Mediterranean geo-economics, which is based on energy routes.

DS: As you have said, the Trump administration's foreign policies are not clear yet. However, in your opinion, can the Trump administration resolve the confidence crisis between Turkey and the U.S.?

It is hard to state anything at this point; Trump expressed that they will improve relations with Israel, but also prioritized the fight against Daesh. In this issue, Turkey is concerned about Syria's territorial integrity and the security of the Turkish-Syrian border. While Trump's mention of a safe zone seems promising, it is not clear if it is something that Turkey desires for the long-term or as just a temporary solution to the PYD (the PKK's Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party) .

The tension between Turkey and the U.S. is also a result of the allies' discontent with the Obama administration's Middle East policy. The main reason of the discontent is the U.S.'s nuclear deal with Iran. The West expected much from this deal. The most important expectation was the emergence of a more peaceful and law abiding Iran after being engaged in the international community.

However, today we can see that Iran is expanding its influence in the region with foreign policy apparatuses, like Hezbollah and its affiliates. This situation worries the Gulf countries and Israel.

On the other hand, Turkey also has concerns. During the evacuation of eastern Aleppo, we witnessed Iran's resistance to the agreement and that the optimism about the nuclear deal was therefore not shared by all countries in the region. As a result of the military expenditure, Iran is now in an era when it will face pressure from the Trump administration. I believe Iran might step back a little in the near future.

DS: Was the support for the PYD a policy of the Obama administration or the U.S. state? Can this policy be easily changed?

Since the end of the Cold War, a liberal hegemonic foreign policy was dominant in the U.S. This inclination of the U.S. caused them to reshape regions in accordance with their own values and interests. Even those periods when the Obama administration stood away from the region were just a part of this reshaping; no regional power with the influence to reshape the region was allowed to do so, while the countries of the region were either divided or fatigued with wars. Trump is seemingly against these liberal policies.

However, how far Trump will go and whether he will be able to transform this dominant approach are questions without answers, at least for the moment. The U.S.'s inclination towards working with countries on the field is promising, but the main issue for Turkish-U.S. relations will be the PYD. The U.S. has vested interests in the PYD since the 1990s. They have legitimized PYD in the context of the Syrian crisis today, though the role that was given to PYD, and thus the PKK, was shaped during the invasions of Iraq. It was claimed that the Federation of Iraq would become a successful economic and political example, whereas the central government was weakened, while certain groups and the "good terrorists" were empowered. Even though Turkey has expressed that all of these developments may cause the spread of radicalism, its calls have not been heeded.

Nonetheless, al-Qaeda's removal from Iraq did not prevent the rise of Daesh. These factors particularly harmed the region and the regional actors. The U.S. was not immune to this damage as we have seen the liberal hegemonic approach lost the elections. In this sense, the struggle within the U.S. is continuing.

They might try to persuade Trump, pressure him, or they might utterly fail and Trump's realist approach will gain dominance. If that is to be the case, relations between Turkey, Russia and the U.S. will determine the fate of the PYD.

DS: Looking at history, there were wars between Turks and Russians almost every decade and they all had devastating effects. Now, we are cooperating with Russia to resolve the Syrian issue. On the other hand, you have said that Russia wants permanent presence in Mediterranean. Does this mean Turkey is being strategically surrounded by Russia?

I don't believe that is the case. You might say that Russia is the new neighbor in the region. However, Turkey's momentum with Russia is important to balance Turkey's relations with its allies. As the conjuncture constantly changes in the Middle East, I am talking about the moment.

It is natural to have certain reservations about Russia. It is seemingly a powerful country and Turkey depends on Russia for energy. However, we have to realize that we are facing a Russia which is not in a good shape, economically speaking.

Oil is around $55 per barrel today, but for a long time, it was around $40. To compensate for its losses, Russia spent most of its foreign currency reserves; the condition of ruble is there for everyone to see.

Moreover, the U.S. is trying to strike an energy deal with Europe and is continuing to take steps with the EU to achieve this. Northwest Europe completed this integration. Thus, Russia needs a Turkey that is ready to cooperate. With its need for natural gas, desire to become an energy center, and the determination to continue to build the reactor at Akkuyu Nuclear Plant that Russia invested in, Turkey is important for Russia's political economy.

On the other hand, the security of the Black Sea is also crucial. The U.S. has been trying to position U.S. and NATO forces in the Black Sea. Turkey and Russia have a common interest in this matter. According to the Montreux Convention, Turkey is the only country which can arrange the conditions of passing the straits. Turkey has the right to close the straits to warships during a war. For this reason, Turkey is crucial to Black Sea security. All of these factors make Turkey valuable to Russia. The interdependency of the two countries might create dialogue and cooperation. Considering Trump's views on NATO and Brexit, along with the EU's search for a new organization to achieve internal security, the improving relations with Russia and other neighbors is a tremendous gain.

DS: How do you perceive EU-Turkish relations? Do you foresee a breaking point in 2017?

Currently, relations are tense. This is mostly due to the EU, as it has unresolved issues and is unable to offer any strategy and has failed to achieve a consensus. Brexit has triggered many issues, even though it now provides an opportunity for countries like Turkey. Nevertheless, it is not possible to talk positively about the EU and Europe because of the rise of radicalization. The EU is striking energy deals and facing dissolution due political wins for the far-right and ultra-nationalist movements.

In such a highly uncertain environment the EU has started to lose its appeal. However, for Turkey, the EU is important because Turkey defines its bilateral relations with European countries in view of this institution. Moreover, there is an ongoing process with the EU. For instance, Turkey reintroducing the customs union agreement is important, as the EU was hesitant in signing the agreement. In short, Turkey will not depend on the EU tightly, nor will it let it go.

On the other hand, Brexit could prove beneficial for Turkey. They were treating Turkey as a 'second class citizen,' proposing Turkey become a privileged partner, but not a full member. Now, the tables have turned. The customs union agreement might be brought to the table and it may be rearranged. Turkey might redefine its relations with the EU, while preserving its own interests.

DS: You are specialized in the geopolitics of energy. There are claims that all of the wars in the Middle East, including the Syrian war, are for the distribution of energy resources and energy routes. How do you evaluate these claims?

Oil and natural gas is part of the Middle East geopolitics, thus it is a part of U.S. policy towards the region. Securing the flow of oil is a constant of U.S. policy. The relation between the Gulf countries and the U.S. is defined by this issue. After the shale oil and shale gas revolution in the U.S., discussions about how the U.S. could retreat from the Middle East began, as they no longer needed the resources in the region. But such ideas are mistaken because Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries continue to balance the oil market. Let us assume that there was a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, during which Saudi Arabia stopped supplying oil. This would still affect the U.S., even though it is self-sufficient in energy production. That is why the Middle East is still important for the U.S. Its bases and navy continues to be a part of the Middle East geopolitics.

Today, in the new Middle East, unstable after the Arab Spring, there is a fight for the arrangement of natural gas and oil pipelines. This is also being stated by Western academics who work on international relations. They claim that the Libyan war was for the distribution of oil. Syria does not have a significant oil reserve; yet, it sits on the energy routes. The Syrian war is for natural gas pipeline routes. Before the war, there were two rival energy pipeline projects involving Syria.

DS: Can you elaborate on this?

The first one was about transferring Iranian natural gas to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria. The other one was the Qatari-Turkish pipeline; it would go through Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and finally reach Europe. These were rival projects. Russia supported the Iranian pipeline project at the time. After the war in Syria, these projects were abandoned, but the fight continues. Considering the terror belt south of the Turkish border was the factor that killed these projects, it can be argued that certain forces were trying to put both Turkey and Russia out of the energy game. This is what brought Russia to Syria.

Talking about energy, the natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean is important. This was being discussed at an energy meeting held in Brussels a month ago. It was asked whether the EU could use the Mediterranean reserves to bypass Russian natural gas supply. They are making plans on the Zohr region near Egypt. On the other hand, Trump said that they should have had the Iraqi oil, deeming it a mistake. We can understand that certain forces are following the geo-economic fights, continuing the war for dominance and supporting the fragmentation of the region as that would allow those actors to control the oil and gas markets easily.

DS: Does the geopolitics of energy only cause war and conflict? For instance, the normalization between Turkey and Israel, and the continuation of negotiations in Cyprus is due to the natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, which are to be transferred to Europe through Turkey. In this sense, can the geopolitics of energy achieve peace?

All of these were actually the brainchild of the West. They wanted to use this as an incentive in the negotiations of Cyprus. However, it did not work. As Brenda Shaffer, one of the leading experts in energy, said, "Pipelines will not make peace."

We started to normalize with Israel six years after the Mavi Marmara incident. Unless there is an improvement in political relations, energy cooperation is not possible. I believe that the energy cooperation between Turkey and Israel will be beneficial for both countries. However, I disagree that gains comes before stability. Our experiences show that if the Middle East is not stable, then none of the reserves can bring peace.

DS: Talking about natural gas, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has a significant reserve of it and there were projects on carrying it to Europe through Turkey. Will the realization of these projects result in regional cooperation between Turkey and Iraq?

It is once again a case of "pipelines will not make peace." Turkey has spent much effort on this issue, but without much success, due to the internal conflicts of Iraq. The parties in Iraq cannot agree on the distribution of oil revenue and they interpret the constitution differently. Moreover, the conflict in Syria has also spread to some parts of Iraq.

Returning to your question, according to the policy of the government, Turkey is trying to improve its relations with its neighbors. One example of this was the visit to Iraq. Iraqi-Turkish relations were strained because of the Bashiqa military training camp, and with this visit an the parties tried to reach an agreement to solve the issue. Still, it is not easy. Iraq has long been fragmented; even though it has a central government, its actual authority is questionable. Security and stability will be prioritized, despite the benefits of trade. This will be the basis of cooperation.


This interview is originally published on Daily Sabah on January 30, 2017 and available at


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