Turkey’s three areas of foreign policy uncertainty
Turkey has begun 2021 with a busy agenda in terms of foreign affairs. Its major foreign policy issues can be divided into three chapters.
One chapter is its relations with the US. The files in this chapter include Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-manufactured S-400 air defense system, its exclusion from the co-production of the F-35 super-fighters, and sanctions to be imposed on Turkey. There are also two further issues: Turkey’s demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, who it believes to be the mastermind behind the July 2016 attempted military coup, and a US judiciary procedure against Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank for its role in circumventing American sanctions on Iran. It is unclear whether President-elect Joe Biden will use these last two files to put more pressure on Turkey.
Washington and Ankara are both cooperating and confronting each other in various aspects of the Syrian crisis. Traditionally, the US government strongly supports the Kurdish cause, be it in Iraq or in Syria. As for the Kurds in Turkey, Washington distinguishes between those who do not resort to violence and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it lists as a terrorist organization.
The two countries cooperate to keep Bashar Assad outside of Syria’s constitutional process and, in Idlib, the US supports Turkey’s policy of stemming the advance of the Syrian government’s forces. To make the situation more complicated, Ankara, while receiving Washington’s support, also cooperates with Russia — at least theoretically — in implementing a deconfliction policy in the province.
During the presidential campaign, Biden used a harsh narrative against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but how he will handle the Turkey file has not yet been detailed. The only hope that Ankara may have is that, as an experienced statesman, Biden will keep in mind the cost of further pushing Turkey to Russia’s side.
The second chapter of Turkey’s foreign policy agenda for 2021 relates to its intricate relations with Russia. In Syria and Libya, these two countries are cooperating on the one hand and supporting opposite sides on the other. Turkey helped the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) against Khalifa Haftar’s forces, which were supported by the mercenaries of the Russian Wagner Group. A military balance seems to be evolving in the country after the GNA’s forces took back several cities in western Libya. If this relative stability could be consolidated, it may lead to a democratic process to reunify the country. However, no light is yet to be seen at the end of the tunnel.
Biden has used a harsh narrative against Erdogan, but how he will handle the Turkey file has not yet been detailed.
Despite this complicated background, Russia has skillfully managed a policy of driving a wedge between Turkey and NATO. It may maintain this policy in 2021 and beyond.
A new file has also been opened between Turkey and Russia because of the Azeri-Armenian conflict. Russia would prefer not to see Turkey become involved in a region that it considers its own backyard. However, it could not entirely ignore Ankara’s strong support for Azerbaijan in the military clashes of late last year. Turkey has now put its foot in the door. We will have to wait and see whether it will be able to keep it there.
The third chapter is Turkey’s problematic relations with European countries, both in terms of the EU and the Council of Europe. Turkey’s accession process to the EU is in the deep freeze.
With regards to the Council of Europe, Turkey defiantly announced in the last week of December that it would not implement the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Selahattin Demirtas, the jailed former co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP). This is in stark contravention of article 90 of the Turkish constitution, which states that: “In the case of a conflict between the international agreements and the Turkish laws, the provisions of international agreements shall prevail.” Turkey thus added a new controversy to its catalogue of litigious issues with Europe.
Also in the European file, an unresolved conflict left over from last year is energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece and Cyprus urged the EU to impose a ban on arms sales to Turkey, but the bloc’s summit at the beginning of December refused to abide by this request and instead put the ball in NATO’s court. This deferment is valid until the spring summit of the North Atlantic alliance.
There have been discordant voices saying Turkey has become a liability for the transatlantic community. The Biden administration’s assessment will be crucial on how to handle the Turkish file. No country is indispensable in the Euro-Atlantic community, but Turkey is not an insignificant player in the east-west balance.
A sound assessment is needed on where to put Turkey in its relations between the Atlantic community and Russia.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar