Uncertainties and contradictions to cloud Turkish foreign policy in 2019

Last year the gradually growing gap between Turkey's power and its political targets was filled with severe economic and security risks; ambiguously declared interests were adjusted according to domestic politics and a fast-changing, uncertain and unfinished vision.

Turkey has been drawn into a vulgar authoritarian vortex leading to extreme social polarisation. It has abandoned the route of justice and all of the inspiration that comes with it. Thoughts and feelings of freedom have been buried alive. Drifting away from pluralism, equality, and participation, Turkey has forced its intellectuals to leave the country. It has given its heart to an arrogant monster politician, and is in the twilight zone when it comes to power, politics, sports, media, and art. Turkey has been at loggerheads with itself more than anyone else, and it appears like a troubled country with all of its settings de-calibrated. Of course, this picture leads to errors in foreign policy that reflect the internal unrest.

Risks leaping from Syria to Turkey

The Turkish army is facing a jihadist threat in Syria. Turkey’s agreement to deal with jihadists in the Syrian province of Idlib, struck in the Russian city of Sochi in September, has been extended into 2019. In Sochi, Turkey and Russia agreed to set up a demilitarised zone in Idlib, in which acts of aggression are prohibited. Under the deal, opposition groups in Idlib will remain in areas in which they are already present, while Russia and Turkey will carry out joint patrols to prevent the resumption of conflict. It is still one of the most critical points of bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey.

Another increasing possibility is that the Kurdish question could ignite in Turkey through the developments in Syria. Turkish forces launched military operations into the Syrian Kurdish-held district of Afrin at the beginning of 2018 after getting a green light from Russia and taking advantage of the room for manoeuvre it gained from the Washington-Moscow rivalry.

But far from eliminating the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Syrian Kurdish party, and its armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey deems terrorist organisations, the offensive deepened the historical problem. 

U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Dec. 19 that U.S. troops would withdraw from northeastern Syria, as Islamic State (ISIS) had been defeated. Now Turkey says it will carry out military operations into Syria to eliminate ISIS, but the real purpose is to attack the PYD/YPG.

It is no secret that PYD/YPG have close relations with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. It is also obvious that this relationship endangers Turkey's national security. 

But this issue cannot be solved by ignoring the Kurdish question in Turkey and neighbouring countries as well as ignoring the relationship between the Kurdish question and underdevelopment of democracy, law, and human rights institutions in the entire region. 

It cannot be solved by military operations while disregarding basic rights on identity and culture. Relying on military operations as a solution is not only delusional, but also a short cut for the region to be buried under an avalanche of unrest.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as they attend a news conference after talks on forming a constitutional committee in Syria, at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as they attend a news conference after talks on forming a constitutional committee in Syria, at the United Nations in Geneva, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

A parting of the ways is close

The balancing policy that Turkey tries to follow between the United States and Russia only works when Ankara is willing to make concessions and reflects Turkey's entrapped foreign policy since each choice has a cost.

Turkey’s release of American pastor Andrew Brunson under pressure from the United States after two years in detention was a clear example of Ankara switching to a "one step forward, two steps backwards" policy when it became desperate. Meanwhile, Turkey has made concessions to the Kremlin in the form of attractive terms for the construction of the TurkStream gas pipeline from Russia and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, and agreeing to keep under control jihadists in Idlib. 

The U.S. decision to withdraw troops from Syria will legitimise Syrian President Bashar Assad internationally, whether or not Washington decides to leave the country entirely or just reduces its presence. Moscow would want to fill the power gap, but the possibility of the Kremlin's plans clashing with those of the White House cannot be neglected.

Moscow might not object to a temporary Turkish military presence east of the Euphrates if Ankara agrees not to go too deep into Syria and stay close to the border. But if the United States hands over its military positions in Syria to the Turkish army, Moscow may cooperate with the PYD/ YPG as leverage against Turkey. The Kremlin would probably object to Washington and Ankara eating the 'Syria meal' cooked by Moscow, Ankara and Tehran in Astana. 

Also, if things go wrong, the jihadist threat to Turkey's security in Idlib may switch to Hatay, a southern Turkish province bordering Syria. Of course, we should add Assad's ambitions to take revenge on Turkey, which it accuses of being the principal warmonger of the Syrian civil war. It can be expected that Assad would like Ankara to reach a deadlock in its relations with the United States and Russia and be seen internationally as an occupying power in Syria.

Turkey must therefore agree with Washington and act in coordination with Moscow before and after its possible operations against the Kurdish-held town of Manbij and areas the east of the Euphrates. But this appears nearly impossible in the medium term when issues are likely to arise such as Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, possible new U.S. prosecutions in the Reza Zarrab case, Michael Flynn’s work with Turkey, further Iran sanctions and an economic crisis in Turkey. 

Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader charged in New York with evading U.S. sanctions on Iran with the help of Turkish officials, pleaded guilty to seven charges in 2017. Zarrab's plea appears to confirm that Turkey worked intentionally to undercut sanctions on Iran and helped Iran's nuclear programme, which accelerated tensions between the two NATO allies. 

Flynn, a former U.S. national security advisor, also raises another concern for Turkey, since he is under investigation by the U.S. prosecutors for illegal lobbying for Turkey directed by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin, an associate of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

On Turkey's to-do-list are also reaching a resolution in Idlib, ensuring the United States turns its back on the PYD/ YPG, limiting Russia's relationship with the Syrian Kurds, avoiding any situation in which the Turkish military presence in Syria becomes questionable, preventing an autonomy agreement between Damascus and the PYD/YPG, and keeping Assad's plans for revenge and Iranian influence under control.

In the end, the burning question is why Turkey wants to send the Turkish army to Syria in the name of eliminating the PYD/YPG instead of finding a way to engage in direct dialogue with Damascus. 

Turkey accepted Syria's territorial integrity during the Astana peace talks so would have to give back all the land it controls in Syria one day. A committee to draw up a new constitution for Syria is now being created, so it is clear that the way for Turkey to win diplomatically at the negotiation table is not by exhausting itself with new military actions.

One of the realities Ankara does not want to see, hear or talk about is Russia's very dominant position in Turkey’s region after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. That had led to a dramatic increase of Russia’s military presence in the Black Sea and its full control of the Sea of Azov. Of course, it is impossible for Turkey to reverse this power imbalance, but it is incomprehensible that Ankara is enabling Russia's Middle East ambitions with arms and gas deals.

Wholesaler in Middle East, retailer in Europe

The brutal murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 was a significant development that led to further turmoil in the Middle East. The case strengthened Turkey’s hand in negotiations with the United States and created the possibility of a rapprochement between Riyadh and Moscow. It is hard to guess how this issue might affect cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia on Syria policy, but when better diplomatic relations between the leading Gulf and Arab countries with Damascus are considered, murder of Khashoggi could accelerate the split between Riyadh and Ankara.

In 2018 Turkey limited its relationship with the European Union to bilateral relations within a transactional framework. It continued to be a buffer zone for the Middle Eastern refugees on for the EU. While arguing that issues such as Brexit and the yellow vests movement in France will eventually spell the end of the EU, Turkey still applied to European countries for help with its economic problems. Germany and the Netherlands, lambasted by Erdoğan during his 2017 constitutional referendum campaign, will be the first places where Ankara will seek help before applying to the International Money Fund. 

Turkish foreign policy in 2018 was a year of incomplete tasks in which its leaders behaved like an unsuccessful student trying to postpone exams, a year in which the Achilles' heel of the country became more exposed. If Turkey does not learn to prioritise solving domestic issues rather than attempting to expand its influence abroad, there is no reason to believe 2019 will be any different from 2018.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.