Is Turkey turning East or West?

Turkey has long been a bridge between East and West. Today, it’s at a different crossroads, between constitutional liberalism and executive rule.

Formed nearly a century ago from the remains of the Ottoman Empire, the country has struggled to establish a modern, secular state that could be a democratic model for the Middle East, a trade frontier for Europe and a military ally for the West.

But that journey seems to be on hold, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan moves to consolidate more power than any leader has enjoyed since the country’s modern-day founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

In the two weeks since he won a referendum that will give him extraordinary powers and allow him to rule until the end of the next decade. Erdogan has cracked down on a range of opponents. Over the weekend, his government fired 3,974 civil servants, and shut down 45 civil society groups and health clinics. It also blocked access to Wikipedia, claiming its content is biased and inaccurate.

Military tensions with Kurdish fighters in Syria risk spilling over the border, too.

Turkey’s tumult was centre stage last week at the Atlantic Council’s 8th Istanbul summit, where Helima Croft, RBC’s global commodities strategist, spoke.

She came away with the following insights:

1. Can Turkey balance freedom and stability?

The conference took place one week after the controversial referendum that greatly expanded presidential powers and came amidst an ongoing crackdown on alleged supporters of the failed July 15 coup attempt. The day I landed, more than 1,000 individuals were arrested and over 9,000 police officers were suspended. During his keynote address to our group, President Erdogan said the referendum vote would usher in a “brand new era of stability” and called on the referendum losers to respect the winners in order to “ensure that the peace is not tarnished.” U.S. Ambassador John Bass insisted that despite recent differences, Washington still wants Turkey to succeed and remain “peaceful, prosperous and democratic.

2. Will Washington continue to work with Erdogan?

The assembled Turkish leaders expressed great optimism that the Trump presidency will lead to improved bilateral relations between Washington and Ankara. President Erdogan indicated that he would use his May 16 visit to the White House to press the United Stated to end its cooperation with the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish force that’s backed by Washington while being considered by Turkey to be a terrorist group. Erdogan is also hoping Trump will hand over Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric who his government has accused of orchestrating the coup attempt. And he’s looking for greater bilateral trade ties, especially in the defence sector. Erdogan praised the recent U.S. airstrikes in Syria.

3. Can Turkey resolve the Syria crisis?

Turkey is currently hosting more than 3 million refugees, at a cost to the government of $25 billion. Several officials cited the European Union’s failure to help Turkey shelter these refugees, despite commitments to do so, as a significant source of stress in the Turkish-EU relationship. President Erdogan reiterated his call for the establishment of safe zones and ruled out any agreement that would allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power. Several senior U.S. military officials suggested Syria is headed towards partition. Moreover, one Syria expert suggested there is significant tension between Assad’s two principal backers, Russia and Iran, which would increase Turkey’s sway over any solution.

4. How did the oil crash affect Turkey?

I was on a panel on the global energy outlook with the executive director of the International Energy Agency, Qatar’s minister of energy and industry, the CEO of Crescent Petroleum, and the chief economist of Japan’s Institute for Energy Economics. Multiple panelists warned that the prolonged period of depressed prices had caused a severe contraction in investment in conventional upstream projects, settling the stage for the market to tighten in the 2020s despite the growth in unconventional US shale production. Qatar’s energy minister, who held the rotating OPEC presidency last year, indicated that the cartel opted to cut output because the price decline was bad for both producers and consumers and that there were “no winners.” Some 70% of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves are located around Turkey, which is both a big consumer and an important energy transit country.

5. Does the West need Turkey to check Russia’s energy ambitions?

Energy Secretary Rick Perry opened his remarks with “howdy” and then laid out the Trump administration’s priorities. Atop his list: the development of “all forms of energy,” ranging from coal to natural gas to renewables. One apparent area of policy continuity with the Obama administration is the desire to wean Europe from its dependence on Russian gas. The acting State Department energy envoy said the U.S. would continue to support the development of a EU-backed Southern Energy Corridor, to bring Azeri gas to Europe through Turkey, and to oppose the Moscow-backed Nordstream 2 and Turkstream pipeline projects. It’s among the many files that allows Turkey to play West against East.