Turkey’s longest year

By Fatih Resul Kilinc

A failed coup attempt, unremittent terrorist attacks, military operations, a faltering economy, constitution change debates, ever-lasting ethnic tensions… No country has experienced a more dizzying and unquiet year than Turkey.

Turkish soldier clashes with an anti-coup citizen at Istanbul’s Taskim Square during the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Source: MIddle East Monitor

The year 2016 was perhaps the longest year in the history of the Republic, with so many events shaking the axis of Turkish foreign policy.

The year started with dim prospects for Turkey. Laden with problems such as the collapse of the Kurdish peace process, the intensified pressure on free press, an ever more unstable Syria, and the refugee crisis: the end of 2015 projected a bad omen that the coming year was not going to be a pleasing one.

The country suffered most from terror attacks this year. To many, this came as little surprise, with the turmoil in Syria spilling over onto Turkish soil, irrespective of Turkey’s involvement in the conflict. However, in 2016 the conflict spread further into Turkey than ever before: cities have been the target of terrorist attacks claimed by either the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), ISIS, or groups affiliated with them.

The attacks in total left more than 400 dead and thousands wounded. Unfortunately, the country is set to face similar attacks in 2017 given that the conflict in Syria continues and Turkey’s intelligence agencies have been gutted by the mass expulsions of personnel from the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) thought to have links with FETÖ, the name given to the organisation led by Fethullah Gülen and believed to be behind the July coup attempt.

To end the bloodbath at home, President Erdoğan has entered a bloodbath abroad. On the August 24, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched its Euphrates Shield Operation in Syria. The undeclared purpose of the operation was to undermine the ambitious plans of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) to connect the Afrin and Kobane cantons, who have been striving to create an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria.

The operation also entailed diminishing the activities of ISIS operations adjacent to Turkish borders. However, TSK efforts have done little to secure Turkish soil from steadily increasing terrorist attacks. Since August 2016, the country has been the target of several bloody attacks and has lost at least 40 soldiers during the course of its engagement is Syria.

Turkey’s ambitions in Syria were hampered by Washington’s brazen support of the YPG. Since the outset of the Syrian civil war, the two countries have clearly had different visions and priorities. The US time and again found the YPG to be an effective force for combatting ISIS in the region. Turkey, on the other hand, makes no distinction between the two groups, seeing them collectively as the biggest threat to national security. Already frayed, the alliance between Washington and Ankara has only degenerated in 2016, with the ongoing contention over the YPG intensifying the existing differences between the two countries into the New Year with Trump’s forthcoming wildcard presidency. By the end of the year, Erdoğan had reached the point of accusing the US-led coalition of supporting all terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, including the YPG (which Turkey lists as a terrorist organisation but the US does not) and ISIS. Strong public reactions to such virulent statements show how weary Turkey has become in 2016 regarding the unfulfilled promises of the US-led coalition.

The coup attempt on July 15, 2016 was yet another litmus test for Turkey-US relations. Insufficient appeasement from US officials regarding the coup attempt and reluctance to extradite Fethullah Gülen marked a new rock bottom in US-Turkey relations, unseen for decades.

The US now starts the New Year with a new president. Expectations are high for opening a “new era” in US-Turkey relations under the Trump administration. But the new era may be fleeting and could quickly turn into a nightmare for Turkey. President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Michael T. Flynn as national security advisor – a man whose statements could be read as approbation of the coup attempt – and soon-t0-be CIA director Mike Pompeo, who deems Turkey an authoritarian Islamist state, have the collective wizardry to hit Turkey’s high expectations of US friendship hard.

The coup attempt and its aftermath had cataclysmic repercussions not only in relations with the US but also with the European Union. Turkey has attracted the ire of the EU for eroding democracy and freedoms in the country. Their newly reinvigorated relations of March 2016, thanks to the refugee deal aimed at lowering the refugee influx into the EU on the condition that visa restrictions for the Turkish citizens be lifted, could not survive Turkey’s tumultuous year.

The increasingly repressive tone of the government with its never-ending state of emergencies and curfews (both before and since the failed coup) led the European Parliament in November 2016 to a resolution which calls for a freezing of accession talks with Turkey. True, the resolution is non-binding, but it reveals the general disposition of the EU. Erdoğan immediately lashed out at the European Parliament’s decision, threatening to open up Turkey’s borders to refugees.

The coming year might be even harder to manage for both parties. Turkey is not returning to the level of democracy the EU wants to see anytime soon. But Erdoğan is demanding the EU make a decision as soon as possible as to whether Turkey will be part of the EU’s future. The wilting relations with the West and the military coup attempt mostly benefited Russia. The bleak picture of Russian-Turkish relations in 2015 became an optimistic one in 2016, but not with ease.

Irreconcilable differences in Syria between Turkey and Russia made themselves evident when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter-jet in 2015 on account of an incursion into Turkish air space.

The consequences of the dissention with Russia in Syria were devastating, so much so that the Turkish economy is suffering enduring consequences as a result of the embargos imposed by an infuriated Putin. Tourist charter flights were halted; the number of Russian tourists visiting Turkey dropped by 87 percent, and Turkey’s exports to Russia by 60.5 percent.

Fences were partly mended when Erdoğan visited St. Petersburg in August 2016, but with little impact on the economy so far. Nevertheless, the aborted coup functioned as a catalyst for improving ties. Erdoğan managed to convince his Russian counterpart that the fighter-jet was downed by soldiers linked to FETÖ members.

Even the assassination of Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, in December by an off-duty police officer in Ankara did not stir the expected mayhem. The assassin was quickly branded a FETÖ member whose aim was to destabilise Russian-Turkish relations at a crucial point in the Syrian conflict. After a bumpy year, Turkey and Russia, alongside Iran, have spearheaded efforts to shape the future of the country. Despite their differences, Ankara and Moscow will be ardent in fostering their cordial relations into 2017.

The sudden and forced resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu champion of the Strategic Depth doctrine, earlier in the year brought a fresh foreign policy orientation for Turkey not only towards Moscow: “increasing the number of friends and decreasing the number of enemies.” As part of this shift in foreign policy, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım initiated rapprochement between Turkey and Israel after a six-year long standoff over the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. Yes, the reconciliation has lessened Turkey’s precious loneliness in the Middle East, but full-fledged normalization seems very unlikely so long as Erdoğan and Netanyahu — two notorious hardliners — remain in office.

To the surprise of many, Iran was one of the first countries to reach out to the Turkish President after the failed putsch. Iran knew well that instability in Turkey would have far-reaching consequences for the region, particularly if the coup had succeeded. The ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran over the Syrian crisis in December 2016 may positively impact Turkish-Iranian relations, softening the regional tone of pure power politics.

The Republic’s longest year is now behind it, but it’s hardly over. 2017 has arrived with even thornier challenges for Turkey. The coup attempt shook the entire bureaucracy; and restructuring it might take a while. The state of the intelligence apparatus, weakened by post-coup purges, indicates that terrorist attacks will continue to loom over Turkey for a while. An issue brutally encapsulated by the shocking New Year’s Eve massacre in Istanbul.

Terrorism will be the most crucial determinant for Turkey in bolstering or straining ties with other countries in 2017. To this end, the Turkish government expects an active involvement from the US-led coalition in Syria under the Trump administration. The new president is yet another closed box for Turkey. Similarly, the EU’s attitude towards Kurdish insurgent groups will be crucial in determining Turkey’s relations with the EU. If expectations are not met, Turkey might busy itself by making alliances with countries that oppose the activities of the Kurdish insurgency in Syria and Turkey. The optimal candidate being Russia.

Turkey has incrementally yet unyieldingly marched away from the Western line under the Erdoğan administration in 2016. Preparing a road map for Turkey in 2017 will be an arduous task, as the axis of Turkish foreign policy is shifting fast.

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