2020 has been a challenging year for Ankara, in both the domestic and foreign spheres. In addition to the foreign policy issues inherited from 2019, the coronavirus, devastating earthquakes, currency crises, and difficulties in the economy have dominated the agenda throughout the year. In the domestic realm, issues related to the reopening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque, the debate on the Istanbul Convention regarding violence against women, strict restrictions on social media, and talks over new political alliances occupied the chatter Turkish streets.
Yet, Turkish foreign policy was immune to domestic and global challenges. While approaching the end of this year, it is worth taking a closer look at what has happened in the Turkish foreign sphere in the shadow of the global pandemic. Which incidents have tested Turkey’s limits? How has Ankara teetered on the edge with the EU and the US?
During the first half of the year, Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the issue of Turkey’s Russian-built S-400 missile defense systems were the topics that made Turkish policymakers busy. Almost every day, there was a new development in the Eastern Mediterranean that caused tension to escalate between the two warring parties, and Turkey was one of the main actors. Also, the diplomatic dispute over Varosha put a further strain on relations between Greece and Turkey. The EU leaders have now agreed to impose sanctions on Turkey due to gas drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, but they have postponed further decisions.
While in the second half of the year, Turkey became part of a hot conflict in the Caucasia. Besides the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria, and Libya, Turkey was involved in the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, throwing its support to Baku. The tension that started in late-September between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region soon turned into a conflict. The Turkish public have watched developments from this conflict with great interest.
Throughout the year, Libya and Syria were the areas that brought the military dimension of Turkey’s foreign policy agenda back to the surface. Nowhere has Ankara’s securitized foreign policy gained more attention than this. The share of military tools and methods in the conduct of Turkish foreign policy have gradually expanded this year when compared to previous years. Turkey’s foreign policy discussions have reached a point where policy concepts and military terminology have increasingly intertwined. This led the country’s opposition to criticize the government for having a “lack of vision” in conducting the country’s foreign affairs.
Turkey has had to face severe problems and has taken foreign policy steps that prioritize its own interests in the face of difficult actors such as the US and Russia. On Dec. 14, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey over its acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. The sanctions come at a delicate moment in the fraught relations between Ankara and Washington as Joe Biden gears up to take office on Jan. 20, replacing Republican Donald Trump.
This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Turkey hoped to open a new chapter in its relations with the EU and the US in the new year. “We do not view our versatile political, economic, and military ties as an alternative to our well-established relations with the US. We also hope that the EU gets rid of the strategic blindness that moves Turkey away (from the bloc).” He added that “artificial agendas” have tested Turkey’s ties with the EU and the US in 2020, but he hopes that things would improve.
A brief prediction of the Turkish foreign policy for 2021 is that Ankara is likely to enter into tight negotiations with the two actors; namely the US and the EU. Although several reports have been published over a possible rapprochement between Turkey and Israel or with other regional countries that Ankara has frosty relations with, it is yet not clear that such reconciliation might happen since there is no open statement from Ankara.
However, we can see an open call when it comes to the US and the EU as the stakes are high. Needless to say, new administrations come to power with the promise of solving problems, not to complicate them. So, causing further problems with Turkey would not be the Biden administration’s first agenda, particularly when Ankara calls to open a new page in relations.
The negotiations with the EU are likely to focus on the common concern over the refugee issue, but also the democratization and human rights issues in Turkey. The S-400 air defense system will not be the sole item in the Turkish-US talks, but also over issues related to Russia, China, and the Middle East. If a new page is to open between Ankara and Washington, it is going to happen in the shadow of the US competition between Russia and China, two actors that will follow the process in Turkish-American relations closely and also try to influence the course of the negotiations.
For 2021, let’s hope that diplomacy, rather than military means, will be the effective tools in Turkey’s foreign policymaking, and dialogue, rather than threats of sanctions, will be the dominant rhetoric of the EU and the US toward Ankara.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view