2016: A Year of Turmoil

December 29, 2016

I had started my summing-up for the year 2015 with the following:
“Arab Spring turmoil has continued to dominate world’s agenda with the war in Syria, ISIL terrorism and the refugee problem as top items. The confrontation over Ukraine has somewhat receded confirming predictions of a frozen conflict. The only good news in 2015 were the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The rising cost of its involvement in Syria aside, this puts Tehran on top of the very short list of winners in 2015…” (*)
In 2016, there were hardly any good news except the belated breakthrough in US-Cuba relations. By contrast, populism and polarization were on the rise. Brexit, adding to differences over the refugee issue, threw the EU into greater disarray. World’s double-standards became more visible. Those who spoke of human rights violations, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria remained mute on the loss of innocent lives in Yemen. The world moved closer to a civilizational clash.
Throughout the year, the US, China and Russia continued to engage in competition as global powers. Peking remained determined not to get involved in Middle East conflicts other than voting on the same pattern with Moscow in the UN Security Council. Despite references to growing Chinese muscle-flexing and aggressiveness, Peking with no record of external interventions, appears more like an element of stability than a power ready and willing to use of force to advance its interests.
Ukraine conflict has led many analysts to frequently mention President Putin’s unpredictable tactics and actions if not policies. With Mr. Trump in the White House, world’s aggregate unpredictability will probably go up. Surely, one may understand a gradual shift of emphasis, setting of new priorities and a gradual change in public discourse, but many already speculate on major changes to US foreign policy. These range from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to the Iran nuclear deal. And, although many had criticized President Obama’s failure to enforce his redline in as matter of credibility, only a few have so far mentioned the credibility question that would be created by backing off from international commitments. The Iran nuclear deal, for example, is a UN-endorsed multilateral agreement. Even if it were a bilateral one, attempts to reverse or change it, before the ink on it is dry, will not be well-received.
Looking at the crystal ball some have predicted that Chancellor Merkel could be the biggest loser of 2017. Regardless, I believe that she was the statesperson of 2016.
During the past year, broad Middle East continued to remaine hostage to sectarianism, proxy wars, absence of trust and the evil of Daesh with Aleppo and Mosul symbolizing region’s immense human suffering. Acts of terror and violence continued unabated. On a single day, on December 11, 2016, Germany’s Federal Foreign Office issued four statements condemning acts of terrorism: the suicide attacks in İstanbul, the suicide attack in Yemen, the bombing in Mogadishu and the attack on a church in Cairo. And, that was not the end of it.
ISIL’s atrocities and terrorist attacks in the West have taken cultural fault lines to alarming depths. This is supposed to be the “festive season”, yet anxiety overshadows joy. Although some continue to voice concern about a resurgent Russia, violent extremism is now seen as the greatest threat. If presidents Putin and Trump are willing for a reset in Russia-US relations this would energize them.
As for Turkey, 2016 was another lost year characterized by a horrific coup attempt, an erratic foreign policy plagued by the Syrian conflict, economic downturn, loss of life in endless terrorist attacks, a general state of lawlessness, and a shift towards a central Asian political model. Relations with neighbors remain problematic. Ankara has steadily moved away not only from the West but also Western values. Reconciliation with Russia still has a long way to go, particularly after the dastardly murder of Ambassador Andrei Karlov.
However, one cannot but observe that there is a policy change on Syria, under Russian radar control, as reflected in the “Joint Statement” issued by the Foreign Ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey in Moscow on December 20, 2016. Turkey’s undertaking a commitment to fully respect the “sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic as multi-ethnic, multi-religious, non-sectarian, democratic and secular state” is an improvement over years of anti-Assad bravado and propping up of dubious groups. Secularism is the key to resolving Middle East’s sectarian wars and Russia was absolutely right to have it in the Statement.
On December 23, three days after the Moscow trilateral meeting, President Putin held his annual news conference. His remarks on Syria included the following:
“… The next step, while we are at it, should be an agreement on a ceasefire throughout Syria, immediately followed by practical talks on political reconciliation. We suggested Astana, Kazakhstan, as a neutral territory, and the President of Turkey agreed. The President of Iran also agreed as did President Assad. President Nazarbayev has kindly agreed to provide this venue. I very much hope that we will manage to put it on a practical footing…”
Three days after that, during a visit to St. Petersburg, Kazakh President Nazarbayev said:
“Kazakhstan is ready to host all sides for talks in Astana…”
The reference to President Assad by Mr. Putin, readiness of President Nazarbayev to welcome “all sides” in Astana and unconfirmed reports on agreement on a wider ceasefire in Syria give the impression that the meeting scheduled take place in the Kazakh capital may be different in form and substance from the one in Moscow, bringing to mind the possibility of a meeting of four and some opposition groups or some other new year surprise.
Broader foreign policy implications for Turkey of this new trilateral process remain to be seen.
Only five months after 9/11, on February 12-13, 2002 Turkey had organized the first European Union – Organization of Islamic Cooperation (EU-OIC) Forum in Istanbul to promote understanding and harmony among civilizations. Most of the participants were represented by their foreign ministers. They had thanked the Government of Turkey for organizing the Forum which they had called “an event of great political significance”. The final days of December 2004 were a time of achievement and confidence because Turkey had secured the launching of the EU accession process, a development applauded by the peoples of the Middle East. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party is still in power. Yet, as the curtain falls on the year 2016, there is no optimism, no direction, no friends and nothing to celebrate except the word “secular” in the Moscow Statement.
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(*) 2015 in Retrospect, December 28, 2015.

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