June 28, 2017 | Policy Brief

German-Turkish Relations Continue to Deteriorate

The fractured Berlin-Ankara relationship has been hit by perhaps its biggest diplomatic crisis, resulting in Berlin’s decision to withdraw German forces stationed at the Incirlik Air Base in Adana, Turkey, near the Syrian border, and relocate them to Jordan.

The early June row pits one NATO member against another and could hinder the campaign to destroy the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. German surveillance planes, along with 280 military personnel, use the Incirlik base. 

The confrontation has its roots in the refusal of Turkey’s Islamist government to allow German members of Parliament access to Incirlik, a refusal for which it offered no justification. After a failed attempt by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to negotiate access for the MPs, the Merkel administration pulled the plug on its military presence.

Although the clash over Incirlik is the most significant dispute between Germany and Turkey in decades, Turkish leaders have demonstrated little concern. Prior to the German announcement, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “If Germany decides to pull out of Incirlik, we might as well say goodbye.”

Comments from Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, mirrored Erdogan’s. “If they want to leave, it is up to them. We are not going to beg. They were the ones who wanted to come and we helped them,” said Cavusoglu.

The tension between Berlin and Ankara has built sharply over the last year. Erdogan lashed out at the Merkel administration in March for refusing to allow Turkish politicians to hold rallies in Germany, where 1.4 million German Turks are eligible to vote in Turkish elections. In response, Erdogan said Germany used “Nazi practices,” and one pro-government paper depicted Merkel as Hitler.

For its part, Ankara has antagonized Berlin by arresting two German reporters, Deniz Yucel and Mesale Tolu. The charges against them, including support of Kurdish terrorists, are widely believed to be manufactured. Also, last week, Germany charged a Turk with spying on behalf of Turkey’s MIT intelligence agency. The alleged espionage entailed the monitoring of pro-Kurdish activity in Germany since 2015.

According to German intelligence data released in April, Turkey ranked third on the list of countries investigated for illicit spy activity (15 cases) in the Federal Republic from 2007-2017. Russia led with 27 cases and Iran accounted for 22.

The anti-Erdogan activism of Germany’s large population of Turkish Kurds also contributes to tensions with Ankara. In March, roughly 30,000 Kurds protested in Frankfurt against Erdogan’s referendum on presidential powers, which narrowly passed in April.

The Kurdish mass rally unleashed a wave of Turkish criticism about alleged German hypocrisy. Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said, “It is unacceptable to see PKK symbols and slogans … when Turkish ministers and lawmakers are being prevented from meeting their own citizens.” 

The back-and-forth between Turkey and Germany over a growing number of disputes continues unabated. Last week, the German government took the unusual step of rebuking Ankara for its criticism of a new liberal mosque in Berlin. 

The mosque, founded by Seyran Ates, a lawyer of Turkish origin and leading women’s rights activist in Germany, faces heated rhetoric from Turkey’s media and Diyanet, or Presidency of Religious Affairs.

Meanwhile, Islamic State attacks in Turkey have prompted German company managers to avoid placement in Turkey.

Just this week, Merkel’s administration warned Erdogan about bringing to Germany the same bodyguards who assaulted American protestors in Washington. 

All of this makes clear that German-Turkish relations remain on a collision course. The gulf between the Merkel administration and Erdogan’s anti-German outbursts is far too wide for there to be a full reconciliation.

Benjamin Weinthal is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal.