2018 is likely to present new, complex and complicated foreign policy challenges for Turkey. This does not only relate to the Middle East, where Turkey claims to “build order,” but it also pertains to its relations with the West where it is supposed to be a part of the order.
The Middle East is back to its long-standing and structural conflict between Palestine and Israel. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital came at a time when the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was finally producing a reasonably favorable environment for peace and stability in the region. In such an environment, one would have expected to address the pending problems in a less confrontational approach. Trump’s decision, unfortunately, has revived conflict and portrayed a more unstable future.
The extraordinary summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul on Dec. 13 underlined and supported the understanding of the Palestinian Authority that the United States can no longer be considered as an honest broker in the peace process.
Russia, on the other hand, has declared that it is now beginning to gradually reduce its military presence in Syria and is planning to focus more on the peace process in Geneva. To facilitate this vision, Russia continues to keep its intention to convene a “Congress of the Peoples of Syria” and insists that such a meeting should not exclude actors who have contributed to defeating ISIL, who Russia believes also have the right to a place in the discussions on building Syria’s peaceful future.
Under these circumstances, can Turkey assume the role of being an honest broker in the region? Such a possibility is challenged by U.S. National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster when he accused Turkey of being identified, together with Qatar, as one of the countries who support the advance of radical Islamist ideology. Turkey’s reduced diplomatic relations with Egypt and its cooling relations with Saudi Arabia, a country which recently increased its efforts to disengage itself from radical ideologies, do not strengthen Turkey’s role in the region as an impartial actor either.
In Syria, Turkey has probably moved from a robust anti-Bashar al-Assad policy to a stance admitting his inevitable presence in Syria’s transition. Turkey’s stance vis-à-vis the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), as a potential actor to play a role in Syria’s political unity and territorial integrity, still needs a similar transformation. If Turkey fails to do that, it will be unable to seize the opportunity to become a facilitator of peace and stability in the Middle East’s dynamics.
The role that Turkey can play in the Middle East is an integral part of its sustainable reliability in the West, too. Turkey’s perception in the West, however, is more likely to be affected by its adherence to common values. NATO members, for example, still fail to find a reasonably acceptable explanation to Turkey’s preference of Russian S-400s in order to enhance its missile defense system. Turkey’s participation in the EUROSAM project is only a positive step forward but it does not reduce the risk of duality in Turkey’s national defense. This, for many allies, is incomprehensible.
Relations with the European Union are also likely to be seen from the viewfinder of the rule of law and respect to fundamental rights and freedoms as well as democratization of the society. This is particularly important because only Turkey can carry such values and help them to be internalized among the societies in its own neighborhood. Turkey’s bid for membership to the EU and Turkey’s accession negotiations help Turkey on this path and therefore should not be interrupted. This is necessary not only for the integration of Turkey into the EU but is also important for reconciliation between the West and the East.
All these make Turkey an important catalyzer between Europe and the Middle East. Turkey has been unable to perform in compliance with such expectations in 2017. Let us hope that wisdom will prevail in 2018.