Forecasts for 2020 in Turkey’s foreign policy

A media tradition at the beginning of every year requires one to make an assessment of the major events of the last 12 months and likely issues of the next. Turkey experienced an already heavy foreign policy agenda in 2019, and 2020 does not augur any better. 

Syrian refugees fleeing fighting in Syria’s Idlib province towards the Turkish border are likely to keep Turkey busy for the major part of the year. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will host his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Jan. 8 for the inauguration of the TurkStream gas pipeline that runs from Novorossiysk in Russia to Kıyıköy in Turkey, near the border with Bulgaria. The tense situation in Idlib will definitely be discussed during this encounter, but the Turkish and Russian positions are so different that an outcome that would meet Turkey’s expectation is unlikely. 

Most of the refugees are kept for the time being on the Syrian side of the border and Turkey does its best to extend humanitarian assistance to them. This is what Turkey should have done for 10 years, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. It could contribute to the establishment of refugee camps on the Syrian side of the border in cooperation with the international community. This would have spared more than $40 billion spent by Turkey on refugees and Turkey would not have become a highway for jihadist-Salafist terrorists. 

The second major issue that is likely to dominate Turkey’s foreign policy in 2020 will be its military assistance to the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the Libyan capital Tripoli. Depending on the attitude of the major players in Libya – namely Turkey, Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy and the United States - Turkey’s decision to send troops to Libya may dominate the agenda of the international community for much of 2020 and perhaps for many years to come. The Libyan war may become as acrimonious as the Syrian crisis, if not more so. Libya’s oil reserves may become a more attractive bone of contention among these actors. Proxy wars conducted with foreign legions may lead to geater destruction for the Libyan people. 

The Turkish government was planning to seek parliamentary approval to send troops to Libya on Jan. 8, but because of General Khalifa Haftar’s growing threat to the Tripoli government, it thought that the matter had become urgent and called an extraordinary session of the parliament and obtained its approval on Jan. 2. This is probably to prevent other developments that would make Turkey’s task in Libya more difficult.

Turkey’s military presence in Libya is likely to face bigger challenges than in Syria, because Syria was, after all, just across the border. In Libya the supply lines are long and more difficult to protect. Turkey’s situation as a neighbouring country to Syria has to be compared to that of Egypt as a neighbouring country to Libya. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has already made clear his country’s position on the subject by saying that the Libyan crisis should be solved in a comprehensive and integrated manner. 

The third major foreign policy issue for Ankara in 2020 will be the attitude of the U.S. Congress towards Turkey. The pressure may continue after the United States lost hope that Turkey might step back from deploying Russian S-400 air defence systems. Several sanctions have already been approved in both chambers of the U.S. congress. One cannot foretell what U.S. President Donald Trump – embattled in the impeachment process - could do to help his good friend Erdoğan. 

Nonetheless, there is a growing awareness in the U.S. administration that Erdoğan has turned out to be a tougher nut to crack than many had expected. Either because of this awareness or because of instructions from the White House, the administration is using a more conciliatory narrative in its relations with Turkey and emphasises that relations with Turkey have many facets that are important for U.S. and NATO interests. 

These are the predictable major issues for 2020, but Turkey’s extremely dynamic foreign policy agenda could well throw up other problems during the year. 

© Ahval English

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