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EU and Iran Inevitable Choice: De-Securitization of Relation

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Iran’s deal with great powers in the framework of 5+1 negotiations (or 3+3 as European partners prefer to name it!), leads to Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Both sides seem to be committed to the plan so far; Iran to reduce its nuclear double use technologies and the west to remove international sanctions for that regard. But US election outcome brought a threat to the agreement. Trump since election’s campaign criticized the deal as the worst in the history of the United State. Forgetting how true this claim can be, concerning current trends in the Middle East, he is up to not extend the US partnership in the agreement anymore in the next step.

This happens in the circumstance which Europeans consider the agreement one of the biggest achievements of their approach toward managing global peace and security in order to settle the challenges with dialogue. This stand is normal for pro-EU actors after some severe damages to EU structure like BRIXIT or far right movements’ successes in some domestic elections which remind us the problem of democracy where it was born.

On the other hand some European states had deep good economic and industrial ties with Iran before imposing extensive international sanctions by United Nations Security Council on Iran for its nuclear project in 2010. Therefore Europeans tried to redesign economic contracts with Iran and at the meantime keep US in the deal. German, British and some other’s high officials visited Tehran. The last one was French foreign minister Le Drian diplomatic visit which all are rare event in European-Iranian relations. Announcement of French president Macron plan for an official voyage to Tehran comes to absolutely unique occasion during last four decades which we used to see Tehran’s isolation by western leaders despite mentioned trade connections.

Not like extremists in the US, mostly European civic pioneers believe that with deepen relations with Iran, they can improve democracy and social society in Iranian alive and dynamic community.  Therefore this can serve western global values as well. In spite of Iranian authority demonstrates modest motivation to promote and support this capacity. Does this case show a weakness point in European agenda which has to forget some basic norms it was established for?

But Iranian wise politicians consider the gaps between EU and US. Even though they cooperate with each other in the world’s securitized issues but Europeans are gradually coming out of Americans military shadow. Some plans for establishment of a European military organization embedded in EU not NATO is an evidence. English depart also accelerates this trend. Whereas other competitions in economic and trade fields are severely considerable in two sides of Atlantic.

With no doubt EU has not a unique spirit. New members in particular from eastern part are more interested in business affairs comparing to founders in the west which civic values are still important. Therefore individual members are capable to have different approach in relation with a rich energy state like Iran whiles their bosses in EU trying to teach them lessons of liberal democracy!

Iran’s Rise

After about four decades past from the Islamic revolution, Iran is going to regain its historical place in the region as a leader. Although reemergence of ancient Persian Empire after long term deprivation and current international political system seems not viable, but acting as a regional hegemony is lowest desire. Both world’s great powers and average states in the Middle East (e.g. US and Saudi Arabia) are concerns about Iranians ambitions and have declared that, beside practical measures in counter. But Iran is trying to reduce tensions by de-securitizing the relations in particular with the west explaining that: “this is our “breathing space” and reasonably normal for a power in our size!”. But here are some other facts which must be respected by critics.

Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, European-Iranian relations have fluctuated. US embassy crisis, Iran-Iraq 8 years’ war, Salman Roshdi’s book case, Mykonos court in Germany, Nuclear and Missile file beside human rights problem and some other events during last 4 decades severely damaged bilateral relations. In better word EU-Iran relations followed an action-reaction model instead of initiative productive approach which could serve both side’s interests.

Question is: For a world actor like EU and regional one like Iran, in spite of differences, a productive approach in relations is promising which maximizes achievable interests for both sides?

In some realistic perspective, analyzers believe that two sides’ different ideologies and norms make it difficult to be cooperative partners. But more social security approach proposes an alternative method. In this practical approach, de-securitization of relations is a solution. Most of available affairs are mainly politically oriented and are not security issues at all. Therefore establishment of productive relations is possible. Particularly when we remember in recent decades they had deep good economic relations even after revolution. In this context spillover of Functionalism agenda -which is an interesting approach in EU’s enlargement process – is also applicable.

Roots of Current Situation

Iranian Islamic republic had some essential principles which have been inflexible since the revolution. But various administrations in power -each for period of eight years- had different domestic and foreign policies. Like a spectrum, one based its strategy against west (by conservatives) and another one rather more pro-western at least in case of Europe (by reformists), and it is observable that both trends have their supports in the entire community of Iran. So, could Europeans take a strategy to strengthen one serving their own interests?

Indeed Iran’s strategic situation in the Middle East between Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea and being the leader of Shie’ Muslims, besides Iranian’s challenge with US and Israel, made Iran a crucial actor for EU. Keeping in mind energy resources and Iran’s big economic and trading market capacities never allowed Europe to put this vital state out of EU’s main agenda in the region, if not the world. Iranians also tried to divide US and Europe from the beginning. Europeans kept their strategic economic and political relations and even did not followed unilateral US sanctions imposed on Iran for US’s Embassy hostage in Tehran although they remain alarmed. Till the recent Nuclear file (non proliferation policy which normally EU sees itself more committed) announced by UN Security Council’s resolution, could unify EU and US against Iran.

But we know EU has some internal security challenges in globalized world which Iran can play more efficient role even if being a bad actor. Iran as a regional power and leader for a large branch of Muslims and also active neighboring with countries which almost all are in domestic terrible (e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc); with its energy and trade capacity can be a helpful partner for EU in the Middle East more than many others. Rooted terrorism in the Middle East, migrants and refugees flood, Energy resources (Iran has one the largest stocks in the world), and trade market capacities, environment and last but not the least drug smuggling road (which Iran is first in the world for fighting with Opium planted in Afghanistan) are of both sides main concerns.

More importantly Iran is not anymore same decades ago actor in the world politics. 1979’s revolution brought new young extremist politicians on power. They were against west oriented and pro Muslim community. But imposed war by  Saddam as representative of majority of Arab tyrant states (to prevent export of revolutionary waves) and many years challenge with some neighbors (in particular KSA or UAE and the rest!) made these currently matured politicians more realistic which are considering national interest in higher priority. They are pursuing practical ways to play viable role and gaining respectable position, while not violating revolution’s principles. New young generation as surveys show, is also less anti-western people despite continued propaganda and antagonism.

An opportunity for Europe is that Iran does not like to work with the US officially[1] and correspondingly US administration tries to keep and introduce Iran as a threat for liberal world. Thus with Iran’s leverage, EU can be more active actor in the Middle East; that is important for EU to prevent US unilateralism in the world politics. Internal security concerns and migrations challenge, rising of far right movements -which complains Union’s weak performance- and various other social and economic challenges are threatening European integration future. However Union’s practical capacity in the world politics highlighted among pan-Europeans and Iran could be for one more time the Victory Bridge[2].

Although for an actor like Iran, working with individual European states is more beneficial. Since most of critics against itself are not really in Union’s smaller states domestic interest, but they seems more EU’s general normative concern. Nevertheless in this context, these two actors can establish a regime for cooperation which benefits both sides. De-securitization of relation and focusing on mutual interests in the region with development of economic and trade capacities can shape better future.

Historically, they [EU-Iran] transferred from “critical dialogues” in the first decade of Islamic revolution (1980’s) to “constructive dialogue” in the second decade(1990’s) which synchronized with the proposal of the idea of “dialogue among civilizations” by Iranian reformist president, leads to recent nuclear talks and settlement (2010’s) by E3+3 in 2015. As mentioned earlier, if EU plays a more observable positive role with Iran, this will support reformists to achieve sets in domestic administration and it helps growth of democratic society easier and faster.

It seems today, is the time for long-term connections to de-securitize bilateral relation in order to be supportive partners for common interests in the region. It can assist Iran be a more productive actor in the region respecting more EU and world’s normative order and either being an asset for EU to deal with home challenges.

Conclusion and future Perspective

Iranian-European relation in spite of periodic fluctuation had a module during recent four decades and it inspired by both sides interests and benefits of cooperation and coordination. Although Iran had a more ideological approach and Europe had more economic priorities. Regarding Iran’s capabilities to influence processes of affairs in the Middle East and even beyond, American approach was quiet aggressive and made barriers in the course in particular by securitization the situation around Iran. It happens both in regional and international levels and also in case by case striking (like recent nuclear file).

Therefore, in order to keep the enthusiasm of Iran-EU connections alive, de-securitization of relation is essential in spite of US will. It is clear that both sides do also prefer this trend but till EU cannot get rid of American military shadow, European efforts to reduce Iranian threat perception should be continued since Iran has much fewer tools to enhance this agenda in public environment regarding the importance of media influence in the west.

Construction of this basement will spill over to other sub-fields which can develop bilateral connections. Respecting Iranian community potentials this will lead to improve Iran’s behavior in the framework of European values which by confrontation strategy by the west will reinforce conservatives in Iran and moving in counter way. For a recent US administration which tries to weaken European Union integration, rethinking the relations with a complicated actor like Iran in such a way will be great chance for pan-Europeans.

All in all, reminding the facts of collapse in western community in face of Iran, hence keeping in mind current real chaos in the Middle East and western Asia; US exit from nuclear deal (JCPOA) can divide US-EU more in coming years and encourage Europeans to have their own strategy toward world’s challenges.

[1] To be as one of Islamic revolution’s columns; this introduced USA as an Imperialist state beside Israel as an occupier regime dominates an Islamic state.

[2] Like during Second World War in 1943 for British-Russian joint operations connecting south-north in winning the great battle.

PhD in international relations from Iran. Young guest professor in number of universities and researcher in various think thanks in Tehran including center for Middle East strategic studies and institute for Iran-EU-US researches. Formerly served as expert in the center for Globalization studies dependent to Iranian presidency. Have various papers and international academic experiences in Europe and East Asia.

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Middle East

Reigniting Chaos in Syria

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Syria has been the nexus of brutality and terror for almost a decade now; with more than 6 million natives who have already fled and numerous displaced over the territory itself, the region casts a ghastly shade that has only turned grimmer with time. Although the conflict seemingly raved its catastrophic footprint in early 2000, the root cause arguably always ends up to be the infamous ‘Arab Spring’ that actually tuned the Syrians against their very own regime. Something to compare and contrast that communal unity acted in Iraq’s benefit back when USA invaded the territory to avenge the 9/11 Attacks in 2003 while casted a fiasco in Syria when invaded in 2014. Large scale protests and rampaging violence gradually morphed into a series of relentless efforts to first deter Bashar Al-Asad’s efforts to first peacefully and then collaboratively resolving the raging unrest. Some would say it was inspired by the historical besiege of Libya and the subsequent execution of the Libyan prime minister Muammar al-Gaddafi as an ensue of that revolution yet Bashar Al-Asad proved a far more tensile force to overthrow. Such tumultuous turn of events, lead Syria to first economic sanctions followed by severe isolation in the global community opposing and downright rejecting Assad’s actions to curb the political tremors. Yet intermittent interventions, both implicit and explicit, by the western powers and their counter-parts have defined the region more as a battle ground of mercenary motives instead of mere efforts to safeguard human rights and ensuring regional peace.

Since 2011, three core actors have remained active in skirmishes that have more oftener than not transformed into battles of gore and toil and sometimes even full-fledged wars that have not only dismembered the expanse of over an 185,000 kmof land into mounds of dust and rubble with terror now crawling over the lanes but have even shuddered the immediate vicinity. With the downfall and perpetual dissipation of ISIS, losing much of its occupied land to active contenders, Assad’s militia and Kurdish forces remain the helming competitors along with a smattering of other oppositions like Jaish al Fateh and Nusrta Front. The conflict between the Kurdish forces backed by the US regime against ISIS and then eventual betrayal on the Turkish front had been a matter of contentions in the latter part of 2019; Kurds making it abundantly clear to harness the borders they surmise to be rightly theirs while Turkish policies, especially under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have been outright fearless and needless of any other inference regarding their austere stance over the issue; claiming their bordering territories and inferring stern response in case of any dissension caused by the Kurds.

However, the outlining threat in the recent time can be perceived at a novel yet a totally realistic stage, where proxy wars no longer remain the ground reality of armed unrest in Syria. This notion has arisen since harsh words were exchanged between Moscow and Ankara; the metropolis’ of the neighbouring giants: Russia and Turkey respectively. A glimpse in the historical scaffolding of the entire Syrian conflict, Russia has always backed Assad’s regime despite its initial block over Syrian policies revolving over strategies to deal with the blooming protests in the early tremors of the Arab Spring who’s effects had started to resonate in the entire Middle East following up on Ground 0, Tunisia. The vantage point of Russia, however, shifted when the political paradigm was drastically nudged by the terror-driven escalation of ISIS after severe US blunders and baffling retreat from Syria that even threatened the sovereignty and security of the region following their besiege of the state of Raqqa, establishing ISIS as a looming concern, thereby aligning the aims of both Russian reign and Assad’s regime, ultimately inciting a continued alliance. Turkey, on the other hand, being the northern neighbour to Syria also contended as a root protagonist in economic isolation of Assad’s government, imposing stringent financial sanctions that tightened the bottlenecks and eventually led to the deterioration of their financial virility that already staggered after sanctions and embargos placed by both EU and USA.

This conflict that permeates in the north-western terrain of Syria lilts an innuendo that a spark may be brewing between the two nations. The besieged province of Idlib exudes the source of the strife; an area that has witnessed countless Turkish troops slain by Assad’s forces in cross-border disputes; close to seven Turkish soldiers were recently killed in a thorough retaliation of Syrian forces in the de-escalation zone, much to Turkey’s dismay. However, the Russian involvement in backing the Syrian government in their dissent in Idlib and heavily bombing of the territory with artillery servers as a link to presumably leading a head-on conflict between Russia and Turkey; hinted by Erdoğan that any effort made in the region will not go answered, clearly warning the Russian forces to avoid any transgression that could cause fatality to their personnel. The people of Syria, blended with the rebels, look in the eye of a dead end; bombardments to deter the tyrants have shredded their innocent bodies similar to the incursions in Eastern Ghouta and with no one on their side but with ulterior incentives, they are left with no choice but to see Turkey as a savior. To any sane mind, however, its not really a complex interface of modes and interests involved. With clash of alliances, historical narrative of both the world wars fought, coherently brings about the model of war despite a never-ending argument at whim. Without contesting any theory by any analyst, its imperative to gauge at the systematic progression of the tensions flowing yet not mitigating. Turkey being stranded from its western allies and Arab assistance in wake of the murder conspiracy and being locked in a bound-to-doom NATO relation with Russia, the outcome of this steady conflict can bring about equal amount of damage yet in lesser of a decade and more pandemic effects.

Recent Israeli airstrikes targeted the Iran-linked elements in Syria. One of the biggest attacks even in at least half a decade period of relative dormancy in the region hint at the start of something gruesome. The attacks pointed Iran-backed sites like Al-Bukamal in intensity, riddling the city that acts as a focal point to Iran’s influence over and beyond the borders of Baghdad and Damascus, as well as paving way to militants from the fore stretch of Lebanon. The attacks reportedly served as an active Israeli position against the Irani militants and revolutionary guards, casting a heavy presence in the core hit areas of the province of Dair al Zor, claiming 57 casualties. The attack assumes a step-up stance of Israel picking up from a cold targeted strike within Iran, months back, eliminating the crucial scientific figure of Iran, that earned promises of retaliation both from the military leads and the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

These attacks nurture an underlying message of Israel following on the shadow war footsteps dictated under the premiership of Mr. Donald Trump. Now, with his nefarious exit from the presidential office following the riots at US Capitol and Mr. Biden’s ascension to power just days away, Israel insinuates its true deterrence of Iran’s growing influence and hostility in the expansive areas of Southern, North-western and Eastern regions of Syria. With US intelligence cultivating the Israeli position in Syria while Iran enriching its plans of Nuclear power along with backing militias under the lead of Lebanese force of Hezbollah, a possibility of another proxy clash is re-emerging in the peripheries of Syria. Now as Israel continues to welcome Arab nations to set camp around Syria to end Tehran’s influence, US faces a tough choice in over a decade to either exit the war before it even flames or repeat their interference regretted since the Arab Spring to jump headfirst into another round of decade long destruction.

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Post Trump Palestine

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Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo: UNRWA/Marwan Baghdadi

The unconditional United States’ political, financial and military support to Israel enabled the latter to occupy the Palestinian territories. The former became involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an arbiter to resolve the issue. But the foreign policy of US has always remained tilt to Israeli interests. From recognizing Israel as sovereign state in 1947 to accepting Jerusalem as capital of Israel has clearly unearthed the biased attitude of US for Israel.

Similarly, Trump also adopted the traditional stance of Washington on Palestine, i.e. outright support for Israel. Trump’s policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more aggressive but not in contradiction with his predecessors’. For instance, he brought into reality the law passed by US congress in 1995 that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shifted US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed office of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington DC in Sept 2018 and closed US consulate in East Jerusalem the area under Palestinian control. His bigotry against Palestinians unveiled more distinctly when he announced defunding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides food, education and healthcare to the refugees. Moreover during his regime in November 2018 the state department of US proclaimed that the construction of Israeli settlements in West Bank does not come under the ambit of violation of international humanitarian laws. Certainly, the belligerent policies in last four years of trump era paved the way for the colonization of Palestine by Israel and helped the latter to put unlawful restrictions on Palestinians making them deprived of all civil liberties and peace.

As per world report-2020by Human Rights Watch HRW, Palestinian citizens are restrained from all basic necessities of life such that, education, basic healthcare, clean water and electricity. The movement of people and goods to and from Gaza strip is also inhibited. According to World Health Organization WHO 34 percent of applications by Palestinians, for medical appointments outside Gaza strip, were not addressed by Israeli army. Moreover, HRW report states that the Israeli government destroyed 504 homes of Palestinians in West Bank during 2019 and facilitated 5995 housing settlements for Israelis. The country is trying at utmost to eradicate indigenous Palestinians from their home land. According to United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNOCHA, the demolitions of Palestinian homes displaced 642 people in 2019 and 472 in 2018.Moreover, the illicit attacks by Israeli side have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in the same years. According to UNOCHA on November 11, 2020, 71 innocent Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli forces while 11,453 were lethally injured in a single day. Furthermore, UN secretary general exhorted that Israeli armed forces have infringed the children’s rights during the conflict as in 2018, 56 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli armed forces.

While, other international actors criticized the Israeli annexations of the region and declared it as violation of international humanitarian laws, US supported the Israeli escalations in West Bank. The former also stopped aid support through USAID for Gaza strip where eighty percent of population depends upon aid. Such partial attitude of US has put the country outside the international consensus on the issue. Apparently, US pretend its position as arbiter but her policies accredited the colonization of Palestine by Israel.

Thus, it seems futile to expect any big change in US policies regarding Israeli-Palestinian issue during forthcoming administrations. However, the president-elect Joe Bidden may alter some of the trump’s decisions such as reopening of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington, resuming funding of UNRWA and reopening of US consulate in East Jerusalem.  But his policies will not contradict the congress’ stance on the issue. As, he and his team have clearly mentioned prior to elections that they will not shift back the US embassy to Tel Aviv as it seems politically and practically insensible to them. Moreover, Blinken, the candidate for secretary of state in Joe’s upcoming regime, made it clear through his controversial statements, that the imminent president will inherit historic US position on Palestine-Israel dispute. Further, Chinese expansionism, Russian intervention in American and European affairs and Iran nuclear deal issue would remain the main concerns of foreign affairs of US during initial period of Joe Biden’s regime. He is likely to favor the status quo in Palestine and remain focused on other foreign interests. In addition to this the inclination of Arabian Gulf to develop relations with Israel will also hinder the adherence for Palestinians from the gulf countries. Subsequently, it will enable Israelis to continue seizing the Palestinian territories into Israel and leave indigenous Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Summing up, it is significant for Palestinians to continue their struggle for the homeland and seek support from other international actors to marginalize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. As well as, the peace accord of 1993 signed in between both nations, to share the holy land, should also be revoked by both countries.  Both nations should try to resolve the issue on equitable grounds by negotiations so that either side could not be deprived of its interests.

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An Enemy Among Us

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The upcoming talks regarding the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, that are due to take place on January 25, should not disillusion us from the dangers of Turkey’s unilateral aggression on all fronts. Erdogan has made no real efforts to improve ties with the EU, except for the occasional vain promise of turning over a new leaf. Since October, he has urged the Muslim world to boycott French products, continued gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, blatantly ignored the arms embargo in Libya and has aided Azerbaijan in committing war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite the numerous warnings issued by the EU and the many failed attempts at resolving the crisis in the East Med diplomatically, the latest EU summit concluded with an anti-climactic promise to sanction certain Turkish officials regarding the East Med. This minimally symbolic promise could only be described as a mere slap on the wrist that will prove unsuccessful in deterring Turkey’s belligerent tendencies. Turkey’s increasingly hostile attitude, its callous use of the refugee crisis and its clear violation of international law in the East Med, Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh represent a danger to European values, identity and security.

We are witnessing before our eyes a dictator in the making who dreams of a return of the Ottoman empire and seeks to destroy the democratic and secular legacy of Atatürk. He is a fervent supporter of political islam – particularly the muslim brotherhood – and he relentlessly accuses the West of wanting to ‘relaunch the crusades’ against Islam. In fact, since 2014, Erdogan and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have continuously facilitated cross-border movement into Syria and shipped illegal arms to a number of radical jihadist groups. The Turkish government also uses SADAT Defense, an islamist paramilitary group loyal to Erdogan, to aid groups that can be considered as terrorist organizations such as Sultan Murad Division and Ahrar al-Sham in Northern Syria and use their jihadi fighters to send to Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and, most recently, Kashmir in order to bolster Turkey’s foreign policy.

Erdogan uses a mixture of islamism and nationalism to expand Turkey’s influence around the world and to consolidate power within. The two most influential factions in Turkey are the radical islamists and secular neo-nationalists, who despise each other but share a deep disdain for the west. Courtesy of neo-nationalist and former Maoist terrorist leader Dogu Perinçek, the NATO member has also enjoyed warmer ties with Russia and China over the past 5 years. As a result of these shifts in alliances and growing anti-western sentiments, Turkey is becoming increasingly at odds with the West. 

Furthermore, the growing discontent at home pushes him to adopt more aggressive tactics, divisive policies and his behavior mirrors that of a panicked authoritarian leader. Erdogan is desperately looking for a conflict to distract the Turkish population from the fall of the lira, the spread and mishandling of COVID-19, and the overall declining economy that predates the pandemic. Turkey’s future will most likely be determined by the upcoming general election that is set to take place within the next three years. If Erdogan wins the next election, it will solidify his power and bring him one step closer in turning Turkey into a dictatorship. During his stay in power, he has already conducted a series of purges to weaken and silence dissidents. Turkey now has the most imprisoned journalists in the world. 

Yet, the loss of Istanbul and Ankara in the last municipal election of 2019 demonstrate his declining popularity, and offer a glimmer of hope for the opposition. Political figures like the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, or the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, represent a brighter future for Turkey. Erdogan currently finds himself in a position of weakness, which represents a rare window of opportunity for the EU to strike. Unfortunately, the EU remains deeply divided on how to handle a situation that continues to deteriorate. It seems that some member states, particularly Germany, are holding on to the naive belief that Erdogan can still be reasoned with. 

Our reluctance to impose the slightest sanctions against Turkey demonstrates our division and weakness, which emboldens the neo-sultan. A strong and united response from the European Union is the only way to curb Erdogan’s expansionist agenda. This should include renegotiating the migrant pact, imposing targeted sanctions against SADAT Defense and its leader Adnan Tanrıverdi, imposing an arms embargo, suspending the EU-Turkey customs union and finally suspending Turkey’s membership in NATO. 

Ultimately, Erdogan’s bellicose foreign policy and his contentious nationalist-islamist rhetoric makes it impossible to consider Erdogan’s Turkey as our ally. As the EU reaches out yet another olive branch, Erdogan has his eye on the wars to come. 

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