Turkey’s political isolation continues to grow
The year 2019 was full of important events for Turkey. In domestic politics, the transition to the presidential system of governance settled down gradually, with difficulties and pitfalls occurring from time to time. The objections to the system as a whole continue among the opposition parties, who promise to go back to the parliamentary system as soon as possible.
Turkey’s economy turned out to be quite resilient to the shocks that many economists had insistently forecast. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political pressure on the governor of the central bank to reduce interest rates has had fewer negative effects than expected, at least so far. But the economists still believe that the pressure on interest rates will explode sooner or later.
The judiciary continued to remain under political pressure, with many court verdicts being tainted by politics. Turkish courts have applied the verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights only on a selective basis.
The government’s obsession with digging a canal in Istanbul to link the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea — adding a second seaway to the existing natural link, the Bosporus — continued unabated in 2019. Civil society opposes the digging of the canal. The government claims that the project is necessary to alleviate the maritime traffic in the Bosporus, while the opponents of the project claim that its main purpose is to provide an opportunity for real estate developers and pro-government construction companies to make money. A thorough and full-fledged debate on the subject did not take place.
In terms of foreign policy, Turkey’s isolation in the international arena continued to grow.
Washington’s threats to impose sanctions because of Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system dominated the US-Turkey agenda for most of the year. Turkey’s insistence on carrying out a military operation to the east of the Euphrates in northeast Syria added to the problems. Toward the end of the year, however, this pressure somehow reduced, probably because of US President Donald Trump’s feelings in favor of his Turkish counterpart Erdogan.
At one stage, Turkey threatened to veto the NATO program to deploy more forces in the Baltic to protect that region from the Russian threat, but it backed down after being persuaded by its allies.
The judiciary continued to remain under political pressure, with many court verdicts being tainted by politics.
In Syria, Erdogan was planning to create a 440 kilometer-long and 30- to 40-kilometer-wide safe zone to the east of the Euphrates, which was to be under the exclusive control of the Turkish army. This project has materialized, but on a reduced scale. Turkey now controls a strip of land 250 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide. Furthermore, this tiny strip will not be controlled exclusively by the Turkish army, but by joint Turkish-Russian patrols.
The Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have withdrawn from the border area, but they have now deployed in a safer place, where they will be less exposed to threats from the Turkish army. They have moved further south to help protect Syria’s oil wells. Therefore, Turkey’s military operation resulted in better security for the YPG fighters and guaranteed them a stable income.
In the east of the Mediterranean Sea, Turkey took a belated step to delineate the boundaries of its maritime jurisdiction. It took this step after other coastal countries completed the partition of the entire area, locking Turkey into its territorial waters despite the fact it has the longest coastline in the region. Turkey did this by putting into practice a thesis that it supported in all UN Law of the Sea conferences. This consists of claiming that Turkey’s maritime jurisdiction extends as far as Libya’s continental shelf, disconnecting Greece’s area of control from those of Egypt, Israel and Cyprus.
In Libya, Turkey has traditionally supported the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli, so the prevailing conditions helped the two countries sign a cooperation agreement. As a result, Libya is likely to become another imbroglio where Turkey is going to get bogged down. However, for several reasons the chances of success are less in Libya than they were in Syria. The weak link in this chain is that Russia, which is supporting Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s forces, is not working with Turkey in this conflict.
As if these challenges were not enough, there is now a massive new refugee flow toward the Turkish border in Idlib, and the international community does not seem to be eager to come to Turkey’s rescue.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and a founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar