Turkey the Pariah

Ankara's Syria offensive is prompting scrutiny of Turkey's place in the world -- especially from Europe.


Last week, President Trump abruptly ordered a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria. Within 24 hours, Turkish forces crossed the border, attacking the Syrian Kurdish fighters who had been allied with the United States in the battle against ISIS. The offensive has displaced at least 130,000 and prompted the Kurds to strike a deal with Bashar al-Assad’s government to fend off the Turkish military. Predata signals suggest that the offensive may reshape geopolitical alignments in the region, especially for the Kurds, and affect Turkey’s role in the international system more broadly. 

So far, the Turkish incursion has triggered a dramatic increase in online interest toward Syria and its ongoing civil war. This attention has not been focused on ISIS, despite urgent warnings from European leaders and others that the chaos is creating room for the terror group to resurge. Rather, online audiences are focused on the future of the Kurds. Activity on web pages about Kurds in Syria hit its highest level of all time.

The effect is so pronounced, that interest has spilled over into Iraq. Online attention toward Iraqi Kurds, though uninvolved in northern Syria, has jumped significantly. The withdrawal of U.S. forces and attack on the Kurds seems to have galvanized concern about the fate of the group region-wide.


Additional signals suggest that critical aspects of Turkey’s international relations are under the microscope. For instance, the offensive has driven a signal that captures online attention to EU-Turkey relations to its highest level in more than two years. Turkey has been an applicant to join the European Union since the late-1980s. Accession negotiations, however, have been on the rocks as the Erdogan government has exhibited increasingly autocratic tendencies. The invasion may represent the last straw for Europe. Even a statement from the European Council in summer 2018 that the negotiations were frozen drove less online interest in Turkey-EU relations than the Syrian offensive. 


Further, the invasion has driven online interest in other European-Turkish disputes. For instance, after the offensive began, activity on Greek-language web pages about the longstanding Greek-Turkish dispute over Cyprus surged to its highest level in years.


Similarly, activity on German-language pages about Germany’s Turkish population has been sharply rising in the wake of the Syria offensive. That population has often found itself as the focal point in incidents that damage relations between Berlin and Ankara.


These patterns of online attention point to a further distancing of Europe from Turkey and may herald the final end of possible Turkish accession to the EU.