Turkey ends 2017 with positive news on foreign policy

Turkey ends 2017 with positive news on foreign policy

Most of 2017 was difficult and troubled for Turkish diplomacy, with crises and tensions on multiple fronts - from the United States to Europe and the Middle East.

In the first half of the year, Turkey’s ties with prominent European countries were seriously damaged after Germany and the Netherlands banned Turkish politicians from campaigning ahead of the April referendum on shifting the country to an executive presidential system. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan likened the measures taken by the German and Dutch governments to “Nazi” policies, amid reports describing him as a “dictator” in the Western media.

Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. also severely deteriorated in 2017, despite a change in the White House. Ties particularly worsened after the arrest of a Turkish national working as a local employee at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul on terror charges. Both countries restricted visa proceedings against each other’s citizens in October following the arrest.

However, in the last few weeks there have been signs of the normalization of Turkey’s relationship with the aforementioned countries as well as others.

The latest and most important happened on Dec. 28, when Turkey and the U.S. announced that they will resume normal visa proceedings in a bid to end a nearly three-month crisis, which had created inconvenience for ordinary citizens on both sides. Although there are differences in the narratives of the two sides about how this crisis was brought to an end, both sides seem committed to continuing a policy of engagement in order to not further damage bilateral ties.

Turkish Foreign Ministers Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been dealing with this issue since the beginning of the crisis in October and their latest efforts have obviously finally yielded positive results.

Despite this development, Turkey-U.S. ties are still very fragile because of multiple contentious issues. In the first days of 2018, the jury’s verdict on former Turkish banker Mehmet Atilla is expected to be announced, deciding whether he is innocent or guilty of charges that he helped Iran evade U.S. sanctions. The verdict will also be crucial in terms of whether Turkish state lender Halkbank will face financial sanctions from the U.S. administration.

Ankara’s demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen will continue to be a focal point on the course of bilateral relations with Washington. Likewise, the U.S.’s continued support to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) will continue to potentially create fresh rows between the two countries.

Nevertheless, there are also ongoing efforts to increase the level of mutual understanding between the two capitals in a bid to avoid a major and irreversible collapse. More backtrack diplomacy will be needed in 2018 in order to not derail the political partnership between the two allies and not negatively affect ongoing anti-terror and security cooperation.


New page with the EU?

The last quarter of 2017 also saw Turkish and European diplomats halting a further deterioration in ties, taking tentative steps to return to normalcy. A recent interview given by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was a kind of summary of the current state of Turkey’s ties with European countries and the EU in general.

Erdoğan described current leaders of prominent European countries as “old friends” of his and said Turkey wants better ties with them, directly naming Germany and the Netherlands.

But on both fronts many difficulties remain. The continued arrest of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel, still jailed without an indictment, remains a major issue. The fact that Dutch Ambassador to Turkey Cornelis Van Rij has not been able to return to his office since the crisis broke out in March also stands as a problem that needs to be resolved.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently underlined the need for the establishment of good ties with Ankara. The Turkish government says the Netherlands should obviously take steps to issue an apology to Family and Social Policies Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya for the treatment she was subject to by the Dutch police back in March.

On the EU front, the ball is obviously on Turkey’s court. The government should genuinely indicate its intention to return to democratic reforms by lifting the state of emergency and ending the crackdown on dissident politicians, journalists and academics. The EU’s progress report this spring will be crucially important in signaling the course of Ankara-Brussels ties.


Peace in Syria?

Another positive course can be observed in the Syrian theater, where the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has almost come to an end and a fragile ceasefire between the regime and the opposition has provided grounds for a prospected political settlement.

The process carried out by Russia, Turkey and Iran - first in Astana and then in Sochi - throughout 2017 has become the main avenue for international efforts to end the turmoil in Syria. Russia will host a major conference at the end of January 2018 with plans to make a political normalization possible. Still, there are two contentious areas: The role of Bashar al-Assad in this process and the al-Nusra presence in Idlib province near the Turkish border.

One other achievement of Turkish diplomacy, in close coordination with Iraq and Iran, was the stopping of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) bid to declare independence from Iraq after a controversial referendum in late September. These three regional powers were able to come together to avoid a major political earthquake that could have further shaken the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Jerusalem initiative yielded an historic result at the U.N. earlier this month, with 128 countries denouncing U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. Ankara was crucial in mobilizing the Islamic world to this end, strengthening its image and position among Muslims to this end.

To cut a long story short, the final days of 2017 have injected fresh hopes for a normalization of Turkey’s foreign policy, perhaps heralding better ties with key international figures after some tough years.

Still, it should not be forgotten that the main reason for Turkey’s deteriorated diplomatic standing is because the government has long been reluctant to separate domestic and external issues. If it continues to make the same calculations, 2018 could easily turn out to be another year of crises for Turkish foreign policy.

Serkan Demirtaş,