Yaşar Yakış
Dec 29 2017

Turkey becomes more isolated in 2017

Very few years in Turkey’s recent history were as eventful as 2017 in the field of its international relations.

The biggest item on the agenda was its relations with the United States. Washington insistently refused to cooperate with Turkey in its fight against Islamic State and preferred to work with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the biggest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Through this cooperation, the United States supplied the YPG more than 3,500 trailer-loads of weapons and ammunition, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that is listed by the United States as a terrorist organisation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan convened an extraordinary summit of the Islamic Cooperation Organization on Dec. 13 to debate U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Erdoğan followed up the resolution adopted at the summit to raise the issue, first in the UN Security Council, then in the UN General Assembly. In both bodies the United States suffered defeats; the resolution inviting the Washington step back was adopted by the Security Council by 14 votes to 1 and by the General Assembly by 126 votes to nine. It would be optimistic to expect Washington to remain indifferent to Turkey’s efforts.

No progress has so far been achieved for the extradition of an Islamic preacher Fetullah Gülen, who is seen by the Turkish government as the person who instigated an abortive military coup last year.

Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles exacerbates its poor relations with the United States, as well as with the European-Atlantic community as a whole.  

Turkey’s relations with the European Union meanwhile went from bad to worse. The rise of xenophobia and right-wing political parties in Europe made Turkey’s accession process all the more difficult. Austria has announced that it will start persuasion tours in the EU to explain why Turkey’s accession process has to be blocked. It is unclear whether the accession process will be resumed even if Turkey improves its poor human rights record.

Dutch authorities also prevented a Turkish minister addressing Turkish citizens gathered at the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam.

Relations with Russia started to warm up after Turkey apologised to Russia for shooting down a Russian jet fighter in 2015. The two countries are now genuinely cooperating especially in Syria. Economic sanctions imposed by Russia on Turkey because of the jet fighter incident are being lifted one after the other, but a full return to the pre-crisis era may take some more time. Turkey’s Syria policy converges from time to time with Russia’s but, as a whole, divergences are likely to persist on broader issues.

Turkey’s relations with Iraq have the potential to improve because of a commonality of interests on the oil and the Kurdish issues, but scars from the high-handed rhetoric of Turkish leaders in the recent past may take some time for Iraqi rulers to put to one side.

Turkey took sides unnecessarily in an intra-Arab conflict between Qatar and other Gulf countries while it could have stayed equidistant to both. Arab countries consider intra-Arab disputes a family feud, therefore they may forgive each other when the dispute is over, but Turkey’s attitude is less likely to be forgotten. The situation was further complicated by a re-tweet by the United Arab Emirates foreign minister accusing Ottoman officials of stealing artefacts from the holy city of Medina in 1919. Turkey’s priorities are far from being identical to the major Gulf country, Saudi Arabia, therefore a strategic alliance is difficult to establish. Furthermore, on the Jerusalem issue, the Gulf countries may cooperate more closely with the United States than with Turkey. Turkey will be the loser if it does not find a way to improve its relations with them.

Turkey’s relations with Israel took too long to normalise after the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident of 2010. Short after a modus vivendi was agreed between the two countries, Trump’s decision to move the embassy shattered the painstaking efforts to improve relations. It is now uncertain how relations will unfold, because Erdoğan seems to be resolved to follow up his decision to upgrade the Turkish consulate in east Jerusalem to the ambassadorial level. One can only hope that the crisis triggered by Trump’s decision facilitates the Two-State solution of the Palestinian question.

Turkey’s relations with Iran followed its fluctuating trajectory as they have for centuries. The two countries are cooperating in Syria by necessity of the Kurdish factor. Their interests in Syria in the longer term though are not convergent. However, Turkey and Iran will probably maintain their relations in the foreseeable future in the format of “not quite enemies, but less than friends”.

Turkey’s Syria policy was ill conceived since the beginning and it is reaping the whirlwind it has sowed five years ago. The only window of opportunity for forced cooperation between Ankara and Damascus may be on preventing the Kurds from establishing an uninterrupted Kurdish belt in the north of Syria. Apart from this, Turkey may face insurmountable hurdles in its efforts to make Syria forget the harm that Turkey inflicted on it.

As a whole, Turkey’s isolation in the international community continued in 2017. Russia emerged as the main game-maker in Syria and Iran emerged a major actor in the region.