Opportunities and risks
It’s that time of year: What will be Turkey’s most pressing issues in 2019?
In many ways, 2018 was the year of geopolitical repositioning for Turkey. Many of the pieces on the foreign policy board - from Syria to Iran to relations with the U.S. – shifted positions and are now aligned for what may prove to be a decisive moment in 2019. This week, we look at how the geopolitical landscape has developed and how things could play out next year. Will it be a year in which Turkey’s ambitions are fulfilled or a year of heartbreak?
►What are some of the key issues Turkey will face in 2019?
The immediate concern is the rapidity with which American forces are planning to withdraw from Syria which, in turn, will determine the rapidity with which Turkey will have to move against the YPG in the country’s northeast. The Turkish military appears to have prepared itself for going into Syria but that still doesn’t tell us much about the extent of its pending involvement, both geographically and timewise. The particular area in question is quite extensive. On top of that, we don’t know the extent to which YPG fighters will have American weapons or what kind of local support they will be able to muster to resist Turkish troops. It is an unpredictable environment that may, in the end, demand a major portion of Turkey’s attention and put a heavy demand on its resources in 2019, if not beyond.
This brings into question whether the Turkish government will negotiate some kind of an arrangement with the Assad government. That will also affect the outcome of the Astana process, that is, whether a new constitution and a plan for transition emerges out of it. It will also mean making sure that the forces that have cooperated with Turkey, plus the refugees in Turkey, will be given fair treatment after the conclusion of hostilities. From this perspective 2019 appears to be a critical year in which Turkey and Syria may and, in fact, need to reach some kind of negotiated settlement. This is going to be painful because it calls for a revision of Turkey’s policy in the region.
Beyond Syria, Turkey still has issues with its relations with Russia, the European Union and the United States. Beginning with the U.S., we don’t know how the American government will behave regarding the embargo against Iran for which Turkey has been granted a number of exemptions. I would expect a proclivity on the part of the American government to narrow these exceptions down in 2019. In two ways, this goes against Turkey’s interests: First, it affects negatively Turkey’s economic relationship with Iran. Second, it runs counter to Turkey’s view that it has to cooperate with Iran in order to establish some kind of stability and peace in the region.
On top of that, we still don’t know what will happen to Turkey’s order of S400 missiles from Russia which the U.S. wants canceled. 2019 will be critical because those missiles are to be delivered toward the end of the year, leaving Turkey little time to decide whether or not to complete the purchase. My own judgment is that Turkey may simply go ahead and buy the missiles but not render them operational.
Then there is the case of Gülen, who is still in the U.S. I would expect that the issue will continue to nag the relationship but I do not anticipate any conclusive developments. It may be that the American government will conduct investigations etc. but his extradition to Turkey seems to be unlikely in view of the fact that this is not just an administrative but also a judicial decision.
We also have to pay attention to Turkey’s relations with the EU. In one highly contested topic, Turkey has moved toward meeting the requirements for the lifting of visa requirements. There are still a few but rather significant impediments but Turkey has promised to address them, in this way making 2019 a critical year regarding the visa question. I sense that the governments of the more economically prosperous countries of the EU are coming to the realization that they are or will soon be short of labor in some important areas. In these countries, there has already been some signs of softening on the question of importing labor. But this is a different question than a comprehensive lifting of visa requirements. Many Turks expect that the EU, which has been generous to a number of other countries in lifting visa requirements should also do the same for Turkey.
►So foreign policy looks extremely complicated next year. But with so much happening domestically as well - local elections, the economy, etc. – can Turkey stay focused on its foreign policy challenges?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Even when you are occupied with domestic considerations, the external world does not disappear and you have to address it. This is rendered somewhat more difficult by the personalization of foreign policy in Turkey, where the foreign ministry has little say in how policies are developed and implemented. Therefore, while it is imperative that the country remain focused on external developments, whether it will is open to question.
►It really comes down to whether President Erdoğan can remain focused.
Exactly. And since it appears that the municipal election races are going to be close, the president will probably have to devote a significant amount of time to the campaign. One consolation is that the elections are not very far off, so if the country can manage about three months of muddling through, the government might then find enough time to give priority to considerations of foreign policy. That would be the optimistic view.
►One could argue that developments in 2018 were good for Turkey. It got its way in Idlib; it seems to be getting its way in northeastern Syria. But at the same time, these developments have put pressure on Turkey to deliver results, especially in Syria. Will 2019 prove to be a year Turkey’s ambitions are humbled?
As you suggest, what seems to be working in Turkey’s favor is at the same time introducing new challenges. Turkey wanted the Americans out of Syria; but then their withdrawal will mean that Turkey will be intervening in a huge geographical area for an undetermined length of time. And this may happen at a period during which economic conditions may render it necessary for Turkey to seek some sort of relationship with the International Monetary Fund. Put together, these developments would point to a pending painful experience for Turkey. To conclude, 2019 will be a unique year: a year of possibilities but also a year of risks.