Turkish foreign policy in 2020 and prospects for 2021
“It’s never a dull moment,” is the saying when it comes to describing the domestic and external political landscape of Turkey. And 2020 has certainly not been an exception to this description.
The first days of 2020 were busy with Libya. On Jan. 2, the Turkish Parliament authorized the government to send troops to Libya upon the call by the Government of National Accord (GNA) to defend Tripoli against General Khalifa Haftar. Since then, Turkey has been an active actor in the Libyan conflict and played an important role in the resumption of inter-Libyan dialogue.
The Turkish penetration into the Libyan theater angered the strong pro-Haftar alliance, whose sole aim was to establish an authoritarian regime under their control to secure control of the vast oil reserves in the North African country. There are also countries that acknowledged the fact that the protection of the Tripoli government prevented the country’s disintegration and created a balance between the two rival parties, thereby helping nudge forward a political process.
Turkey has recently extended the stay of its troops in Libya for another 18 months, conveying the message that it won’t pull out of the war-torn country. On the contrary, Turkey’s actions throughout 2021 will be focused on creating conditions to make its military, economic and political presence a permanent one.
Heavy clashes in Idlib
The second big incident of 2020 was the heavy clashes between Turkey and Russia-backed Syrian regime forces in Idlib. In February, clashes almost ignited a war between Turkey and Syria after the latter (with Russia’s support) attacked a Turkish military convoy, killing dozens of Turkish troops. In return, Turkey almost destroyed the Syrian army contingent in the area.
The clashes ended after Turkey and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding on March 5 that paved the way for a Turkish-Russian joint patrol mission on the strategically important M4 highway. The ceasefire is still holding in Idlib, while Turkey has relocated some of its observation posts in the areas south of the M4 highway.
The Turkish-Russian success in jointly controlling the situation, even in the most difficult times and conflicts, has proven itself throughout the year not only in Syria but also in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.
In northeastern Syria, the agreements Turkey made with both the United States and Russia also still hold, although there is a visible increase in operations by the Turkish army against the YPG.
Turkey used its soft power
The COVID-19 pandemic, unquestionably the most important event of 2020, reverberated through international relations as well. Humanity, which staggered under COVID-19 in the early days of the epidemic and failed to cooperate in procuring basic health equipment, began to deliver a more effective response in the later stages.
Turkey has benefited from the pandemic process by strengthening its image as a humanitarian assistance country. It provided health equipment to more than 150 countries and international organizations and gained a worldwide reputation.
The second half 2020 amid crises
Turkish diplomacy, however, had to struggle with serious crises in the second half of the year. The tipping point in the monthslong rows between Turkey and each of Greece, France and the European Union was the eastern Mediterranean.
Despite six months of sound, fury and more than a little stress, neither Ankara nor Brussels could afford to make a decision to sever relations. Turkey has reiterated that it sees its future in Europe, while the bloc has again emphasized its willingness to stick with the positive agenda as it only imposed very light sanctions on Turkey despite pressure from Greece, France and Greek Cyprus.
2021 seems to be the year for Turkey to restore ties with Greece, France and the European Union in general. Turkey’s decision to limit the seismic works of the Oruç Reis to the Gulf of Antalya is a clear message to this end. To the extent Greece can refrain from provocative moves in the Aegean and Mediterranean, no unwanted escalation is likely to preoccupy Turkish and EU diplomacy.
US imposes targeted sanctions
Except for December, ties between Turkey and the United States were pretty calm in 2020 due to the latter’s presidential elections. After losing elections to the Democrat Party’s Joe Biden, the outgoing Trump administration has imposed five of 12 sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on Turkey over its purchase of S-400 air defense systems from Russia.
The scope of the sanctions was limited to targeting Turkey’s Defense Industry Presidency, sparing the Turkish economy and financial institutions. Although Washington stressed that it had no intention of undermining the capacity of the Turkish Armed Forces, experts suggest that sanctions may damage the Turkish defense industry in the medium and long term. That makes resolving the S-400 dispute between Turkey and the United States a priority to avoid future risks on the bilateral ties.
The course of Ankara-Washington ties in a broader sense warrants further attention following Biden’s inauguration in just over three weeks’ time. Recent statements issued by the Turkish leadership clearly outline Ankara’s will to open a new page in ties with Washington despite Biden’s well-known views on the current government here.
In light of these developments in the last period of 2020, it would be no surprise to see Turkish diplomacy converge more with trans-Atlantic policies in 2021. Naturally, however, that will necessitate some fine-tuning in the country’s ties with Russia.