2017: Another Year of Turmoil


December 20, 2017

The following is from my summing-up of the year 2016 (*):

“The 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 change in public discourse, but many already speculate on major changes to US foreign policy…”

What Federal Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on relations with the US at the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum on December 5, 2017 is particularly revealing in this respect:

“… The United States’ current withdrawal under Trump from its role as a reliable guarantor of western-influenced multilateralism is accelerating the transformation of the global order and has an immediate impact on German and European interests.

“Since George Marshall’s famous 12-minute speech some 70 years ago, Europe had been an American project in the United States’ clearly understood interests. However, the current US Administration now perceives Europe in a very distanced way, regarding previous partners as competitors and sometimes even as at the very least economic opponents.

“In the US Administration’s new way of seeing things, Europe is thus one region among many others – a point of view that has an impact on society. In addition, US society is changing rapidly. In the foreseeable future, the majority of Americans will not be of European descent – they will have Latin American, Asian or African roots. That is why the United States’ relations with Europe will not be the same as before, even after Donald Trump is no longer president.”

Mr. Gabriel’s remarks are particularly revealing that the policies of the Trump White House are perceived even by America’s allies as the beginning of a fundamental and lasting shift in Washington’s world outlook. Thus, “global realignment” remains a current topic.

Throughout the year, the US, China and Russia continued to engage in competition as global powers. Regardless of the good atmospherics of President Trump’s meetings with his Chinese and Russian counterparts, the recently published US National Security Strategy 2017 refers to “three main sets of challengers, the revisionist powers of China and Russia, the rogue states of Iran and North Korea, and transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups”.

Actually, with no record of external interventions and no erraticism, China appears more like an element of stability than a power ready and willing to use of force to advance its interests. Peking has avoided rhetoric and emphasized quiet diplomacy also in the case of North Korea. However, contrary to President Trump’s expectations, China may not be able to “easily solve the problem”.

President Obama had allowed Secretary Kerry much diplomatic visibility whereas President Trump White House has left Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Minister Lavrov in the shadows giving President Putin the center stage. In 2018, continuing White House and EU disarray may offer Mr. Putin new opportunities beyond Syria.

Through its military intervention and its political follow-up, the Astana process, Russia has become the leading actor in the Syrian conflict. President Putin has also engaged in an effort to build/rebuild relationships with regional countries. However, Syria’s political transition may prove just as difficult as gaining superiority on the battlefield.

September 24, 2017 elections in Germany gave Chancellor Merkel a bitter victory and her attempts at forming a coalition have yielded no fruit so far, perhaps marking the start of a post-Merkel era with important implications for the EU. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party has joined the coalition government. Its leader Heinz-Christian Strache is now vice-chancellor and the party controls foreign, interior and defense ministries. Together with democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary, this doesn’t bode well for Europe.

In 2017, international attention shifted away from the Ukraine conflict. Moreover, the government of Ukraine could not make substantial progress in overcoming its internal challenges. Secretary Tillerson has recently said: “It serves no purpose for Ukraine to fight for its body in Donbas if it loses its soul to corruption. Anti-corruption institutions must be supported, resourced, and defended.”

According to the Medecins Sans Frontieres, at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the month after violence broke out in Myanmar in August. And, there is no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi either acquiesced in or approved this horrendous operation of ethnic cleansing, perhaps genocide. Mr. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has been pressing for criminal investigation into the atrocities and does not rule out the latter. Military operations in Rakhine state will remain a stain on Myanmar. The question is whether or not the UN would look the other way.

On December 7, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced its mission to oust Daesh terrorists from Syria had been “accomplished” with the country “completely liberated” from the extremist group. Two days later, PM Abadi said that Iraqi forces were fully in control of the Iraqi-Syrian border, and thus Iraq could announce the end of the war against Daesh. However, “mission accomplished” can be a risky judgement and the fact that the battle against the group took three-and-a-half years doesn’t allow for much comfort. Daesh has only been defeated on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria but it will go underground, continue to cause trouble and raise the flag elsewhere unless Muslim countries are able to confront its jihadist ideology.

As if the Middle East did not have enough troubles, President Trump’s decision to “recognize the reality” of Jerusalem being the capital of Israel has led to more unrest and some speculation as to what it meant. Actually, President Trump’s decision, when read together with “The “Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995” which refers to a “divided”, “reunited”, “united”, “unified” city which should remain “undivided”, leaves no need for elucidation. He has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital but wouldn’t mind the Israelis and Palestinians agreeing on some other arrangement.

On December 11, in comments to the press with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, after a disappointing meeting with EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Mr. Netanyahu defended Mr. Trump’s decision. “It doesn’t obviate peace, it makes peace possible, because recognizing reality is the substance of peace, the foundation of peace.” he said. President Putin must have been delighted, probably thinking more of Crimea than Jerusalem.

As expected, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)  held emergency meetings and issued statements. However, both organizations have been of no consequence in stopping the carnage in the Middle East and enjoy little credibility. It remains to be seen in the light of Iran-Saudi Arabia feud, Arab divisions and the Israeli-Saudi rapprochement, whether the question of Jerusalem will unite Islamic countries. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir recently told France24, that he believed the Trump administration still intended to propose a peace plan and that such a plan envisioned a two-state solution, according to information shared by US officials.

US National Security Strategy 2017 has put Tehran and Pyongyang in the same basket despite the Iran nuclear deal. This represents a foreign policy contradiction. And, efforts to form an anti-Iran regional bloc can lead to additional risks for the Middle East.

As for Turkey, there is little to be said. The country remains extremely polarized. Unpredictability and never-ending political tensions have made people pessimistic. Our democratic standards and the value of the Turkish Lira are falling concurrently. Inflation is rising. Leaders across the political spectrum engage in rhetoric rather than addressing underlying problems and offering enlightened solutions. Government’s first priority is to stay in power no matter what. The program of the new Austrian government says that will not agree to Turkey joining the EU and would “seek allies in achieving a definitive break in membership talks, in favor of an EU-Turkey neighborhood concept”. Why bother, the accession process is dead anyway.

In 2017, our foreign and security policies remained in disarray. Few countries and leaders escaped the wrath of Turkey’s foreign policy. We are at war with the West, have no friends in the region other than Qatar and we seem to be dependent on Russia’s goodwill in Syria. Five years ago, the Turkish government was President Assad’s number one adversary. Today, it has aligned itself with Moscow and Tehran, his principal supporters, trying to safeguard Syria’s territorial integrity which it previously undermined.

In response to Turkey’s request, NATO Foreign Ministers had decided on 4 December 2012 that NATO would augment Turkey’s air defense capabilities in order to defend the population and territory of Turkey against threats posed by missiles from across its border with Syria. Thus, as of 2013 five Allies contributed missile batteries to augment Turkey’s air defense. Germany, the Netherlands, and the US have withdrawn because the security risk has gone down.  However, Spain still provides one Patriot missile battery and Italy ASTER SAMP/T air defense systems under NATO command and plugged into NATO’s air defense system. Now, we are buying SS-400 missile systems from Russia. What will happen to the NATO units when the SS-400s arrive? Would they be shown the door or would they bid farewell themselves? Since nobody has a clue as to what kind of threat assessment has led to the purchase of SS-400s, in which way and to what extent the Russian systems are going to bolster Turkey’s air defense including the much touted transfer of technology, remain questions. One can only assume that Turkey is still paying for the downing of the Russian Su-24, the murder of Ambassador Karlov, securing Russia’s support in Syria and reviving bilateral economic cooperation.

Turkey’s traditional foreign policy stood on pillars. Our relations with the United States and the European Union constituted the first two. A third one was our relations with our neighbors and the region. Prominently among those was Russia. Since the world is in a constant process of transformation Turkey was also searching for new pillars to add to the existing ones. Relations with China, India and other emerging powers offered new prospects.  Since they did not constitute alternatives, strengthening each and every one of these pillars was the dictate of Turkey’s interests.

Ankara’s current foreign policy, now a captive of domestic politics, is not sustainable. It will only further isolate Turkey. Ankara needs to understand that this policy has led us to a dead-end and restoring relations with traditional friends and allies is long overdue. But, everything starts with returning to the democratic path.


(*) 2016: A Year of Turmoil, December 29, 2016.

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