2015 in Retrospect

December 28, 2015

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.

Throughout the year, the US, China and Russia have continued to engage in competition as global powers. Yet, all three appear reconciled with the impossibility of making decisive interventions in the immediate periphery of the other two as shown by the Ukraine conflict. This is also true for South China Sea disputes. Competition is about expanding own and restricting others’ spheres of influence. Peking has continued with its policy of minimum direct involvement in Middle East conflicts but seems watchful of ISIL’s extending outreach to Asia. The EU, a major global economic power, remains divided and ineffective as major foreign policy actor. More often than not, it is the individual capabilities of its members, prominently among them Germany, rather than its own weight as a bloc that matters. EU’s lack of foresight on Arab Spring developments has come to haunt it in the form of a refugee problem with no easy solutions. The “deal” with Turkey only showed how desperate the EU is to stem the flow of migrants.

In the broad Middle East, 2015 has been a year of divisions, proxy wars, obliquity, duplicity, misinformation and absence of trust. Despite a general commitment to fight terrorism, even determining who is a terrorist has become an issue. This had always been a problem but contradictions were seldom so obvious.

Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov have often said that their countries can make a difference for the world when they cooperate and that is true. This, however, has proved extremely difficult in Syria. The future of President Assad, a major point of discord, gives the impression of being a cover for wider strategic competition. Because, insofar as Syria is concerned the fundamental question is whether the people of Syria would be able to put a five-year carnage behind and bridge their sectarian divide. And, even without President Assad, country’s fragmentation remains a possibility.

The adoption by the UN Security Council of Resolutions 2253 and 2254 on suppressing the financing of terrorism and political transition in Syria was a positive step. However, this can at best inspire guarded optimism in view of conflicting agendas within the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) let alone the immense accumulation of hate between the warring parties.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria has been seen as an effort to reaffirm the country’s status as a global power, an endeavor to maintain Russia’s presence in the Middle East and an attempt to prop up the Assad regime. There is some truth in all of that. But there is also some truth in Moscow’s argument that the four thousand fighters from Russia in ISIL’s ranks present a threat to Russia’s security. Regardless, Russian intervention has been a game changer. It has, if nothing else, energized others to focus on a political solution and raise the stakes for ISIL.

President Obama’s reluctance to send US ground forces to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIL is totally justified in the light of the experience gained from the invasion of Iraq. However, Washington could have done more to gather an Arab ground force to take on ISIL. Such a force could bring together troops from countries like Egypt, Jordan and Iraq to strike the right balance. The decision by the 26th Arab League summit held in Sharm el-Sheikh in March 2015, to establish a unified Arab force to address regional security challenges could have been a useful lead-in. The project for a “Saudi-led coalition against terrorism” started off on the wrong foot without proper groundwork and its composition only reflects the region’s sectarian divide. Riyadh’s priority need to be peace in Yemen.

Failure to combat ISIL sooner than later has enabled it to gain an aura of invincibility and draw more recruits to its ranks. References to the “65-nation coalition”, “coalition airstrikes”, “aircraft carriers deployed in eastern Mediterranean” have created the image that it is standing up against a united world whereas the world has been anything but united. And, ISIL has created the false impression that it is waging the battle on its own because for diverse reasons its sources of support have never been fully revealed.

Fighting ISIL militarily in Iraq, Syria and beyond as it continues to expand its outreach remains a challenge. But the greater part of that challenge, particularly for Muslim countries, is fighting its ideology and this is not just about saying repeatedly that ISIL is a terrorist organization which does not represent the true values of Islam. It is about saying what those values actually are and making sure that younger generations are properly educated about them through enlightened education. This requires cultural awareness, political courage and commitment, none of which exist in abundance. The Muslim world is engaged in a sectarian war but secularism remains anathema to many including those who are supposed to lead.

The ISIL problem should also compel the West to do some soul searching about its Middle East record. This does not have to go all the way back to the Crusades. Looking at the political and military interventions of the last century would suffice. The West will of course mourn the victims of ISIL’S terrorist attacks but it also needs to show empathy with the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who lost their lives in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Those who call for “carpet bombing of ISIL targets” in Iraq and Syria are either exploiting fear for narrow political purposes or do not have any understanding of the immediate and long-term consequences of what they are proposing. This will result in heavy civilian casualties, create even greater resentment and President Obama is absolutely right to resist them.

In 2015 Turkey’s foreign policy has continued its downward spiral. Relations with regional countries remain at an all-time low. Relations with the West are characterized by distrust. The downing of the Su-24 bomber was not only a blow to the decades-long cooperation with Russia; it also damaged Turkey’s status as a regional player, particularly with regard to the Syrian conflict. Following the “incident”, the government sought NATO assurances only to get advice on de-escalation of tensions with Moscow. This was followed by news regarding the restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel; a less defiant attitude on Turkish troop deployments in Iraq; and, an improved effort to control the border with Syria. While these developments make good sense on their own, they also give the impression that the “incident” left the Turkish government with no other option.

Ankara’s unsettled relations with Baghdad has led to criticism from the Arab League. In the past, Turkey had consistently supported Iraq’s territorial integrity and done her best to maintain good relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government. Now, our relations with Baghdad are strained. By contrast, our relations with the Masoud Barzani appear to have peaked but the Turkish public opinion is totally in the dark as to what this portends for the future. Hopefully, this is not the groundwork for another ill-conceived “grand design”.

It is unthinkable for the government not to see its string of foreign policy mistakes and feel compelled to “do something” if not change course dramatically. Yet, hubris remains an obstacle. Turkey can at least try to avoid further mistakes. For example, she can refrain from joining the Sunni coalition the Saudis are trying to put together. Because for Ankara, promoting regional stability through soft power has always been a better option than becoming a party to conflicts. Surely, to revert to such a course Turkey will first need to recuperate her lost soft power which is a huge task in itself starting with putting our troubled house in order. Sadly, the government is more likely to continue keeping the country on edge, enjoying what it describes as “precious loneliness” and doing everything possible to contradict its policy of “zero problems with neighbors” ostentatiously announced six years ago. How we all wish Turkey to rank higher in next year’s World Happiness Report…

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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