Turkey has had a remarkably eventful year, which will affect its trajectory for a long time to come. Amid the gloom, Turkey remains resilient and there are many reasons to be optimistic.
- Turkey’s worsening conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and bombings by Islamist and Kurdish militants made for a dark year, impacting the economy.
- July’s attempted coup, subsequent purges and ongoing state of emergency have deeply affected Turkey and its relations with other countries.
- Turkey’s incursion into Syria has embroiled the country further into that country’s brutal conflict and brought spill over affects such as the recent assassination of the Russian ambassador.
- The imprisonment of politicians and journalists, as well as issues over visa exemption, led to a deterioration in Turkey-EU relations, amid a broader pivot on Turkey’s part away from exclusive ties with the West.
- Proposed changes to the constitution to give Turkey an executive president, radically altering the country’s political system, are coming closer to becoming a reality.
- The dramatic events of the past year have contributed to a downturn in the Turkish economy; but ongoing investment in infrastructure and the pursuit of new trade ties promise a bright future for Turkey.
This year saw a series of deadly bombings hit Turkish cities, while at the same time the conflict in Turkey’s south east raged, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of combatants and civilians alike. Bombings by Hawks of Kurdistan Freedom (TAK) and Islamic State (IS) hit western Turkish cities, while towns in Turkey’s south east such as Nusaybin and Cizre saw mass devastation. International Crisis Group documented at least 100 civilian deaths in the Kurdish conflict between January and July of 2016. Turkey’s economy has suffered as a consequence, particularly from attacks to western cities which have caused tourist numbers to plummet. Through its operations in Syria and domestically, Turkish security forces are working to crack down on IS. Turkish security forces have managed to disrupt PKK operations and there has been speculation of a potential return to peace talks in spring of next year.
July’s dramatic attempted coup shook Turkey and made headlines around the world. It has had huge consequences on the country, with hundreds of thousands of civil servants, police, members of the judiciary and others purged for suspected connections to the Gulenist movement, believed to be behind the coup attempt. The state of emergency in place since the coup gives the president sweeping powers and critics have warned on backsliding on the rule of law and democracy. It has provided the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with an upsurge in popularity and saw a rare moment of consensus within the country’s otherwise polarised political scene. The coup saw tens of thousands of Turkish citizens heed their president’s call to take to the streets to defend their democracy and saw the president himself narrowly evade death at least twice.
The attempted coup has also affected Turkey’s relations with its neighbours, over concern about US or other countries’ involvement. The anti-US sentiment has accelerated Turkey’s dabbling with a more multi-polar approach to international relations. The purges and perceived damage to the rule of law contributed to Turkey dropping an investment grade and Turkey saw a further downturn in its economy. In addition, the purging of so many members of the civil service has damaged Turkey’s institutional capacity. It is also worth remembering that this was the first unsuccessful attempted coup in modern Turkish history. Turkey has not had a successful coup since at least 1997, breaking a cycle of (arguably – depending on definitions and interpretations) at least one coup a decade, each overthrowing democratically elected governments. The AKP has consistently overseen relatively free and fair elections.
See Ceftus’ briefing on the need for civil service reform in Turkey and the danger of reliance on interest groups for support.
See Ceftus’ analysis on how AKP politicians and pundits view the country’s politics following the coup.
See Ceftus’ briefing on Turkey increasingly dabbling with changing its international alignment to recognise a more multi-polar world as well as the Ceftus white paper on the interaction between Turkey’s energy security and its foreign policy calculations.
Turkey began its Euphrates Shield Operation in Northern Syria in August 2016. Turkey is concerned particularly by the strength of Kurdish forces in Syria but also by IS. By establishing a security zone within Syria, Turkey is hoping to prevent the movement of weapons and fighters across its southern border. At the time of writing, dozens of Turkish soldiers had been killed in the operation and at least two captured soldiers are believed to have been murdered by IS. Moreover, Turkey’s involvement has embedded it further in complicated regional conflict dynamics.
Turkey’s interests in both Syria and Iraq, in the Mosul region, have led to potential dangerous confrontations with Russia and Iran. With Russia, Turkey appears to have reached a deal to demarcate spheres of influence within Syria. Turkey appears to have averted a potential escalation with Iran, for the time being, through an end-of-year agreement to not divide up Syria, effectively allowing Bashar al-Assad to remain in power. US-Turkey relations under President Trump will impact how the country engages with Russia and Iran in particular. The conflict has already seen spill over with the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey and increased tensions felt by Turkey’s Alevi minority. With many factions and interests at play in the conflict, we will be closely watching events throughout 2017.
See Ceftus’ briefing on Turkey’s incursion into Syria, which discusses Turkey’s likely deal with Russia.
See Ceftus’ briefing on Turkey’s interests in Mosul and the possibility for escalation.
Dozens of MPs of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been arrested since November of 2016, amid accusations that the party, which has at the very least organic ties to the PKK, promotes terrorism. At the same time, many news outlets have been shut down over the last months, accused of supporting the PKK or the Gulenist movement, presumed to have been behind July’s attempted coup. This year Turkey became the country with the most imprisoned journalists in the world. Amid this, relations between Turkey and the EU have suffered. The EU parliament passed a non-binding proposal calling for a freeze to Turkey’s accession talks over Turkey’s imprisonment of journalists and politicians. Turkey for its part threatened to put an end to its refugee readmission agreement with the EU if the EU did not fulfil its end of the agreement and exempt Turkish citizens from tourist visas to Europe, something which had been promised for June of this year. While many joint EU-Turkey ventures remain intact, this comes as Turkey continues to work to diversify its alliances.
See Ceftus’ briefing on the future of the Turkey-EU refugee readmission agreement and how Turkey-EU cooperation is increasingly fraught, as well as this Ceftus analysis on Turkey-EU relations following the vote to call to freeze accession negotiations.
Turkey’s President Erdogan has long sought to introduce an executive presidency to the country. His ambition has taken big strides towards becoming reality recently following his acquisition of support for his plans from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The proposed plans have been criticised by some as being anti-democratic. However, proponents say that a strong presidency is what Turkey needs in the midst of so many challenges. Erdogan’s semi-alliance with the MHP may have affected the direction of domestic and international policy. If the changes are introduced, Turkey’s political system will be radically altered.
See Ceftus’ briefing on the proposed changes to the Turkish constitution to introduce the presidential system.
See Ceftus’ briefing on the semi-alliance between the MHP and the government, and its support for the presidential system.
These dramatic events of the past year contributed to a downturn in Turkey’s economy. The lira dropped to its lowest level to the dollar in ten years and inflation appears to be on the rise. However, this past year has also seen the completion of numerous large scale infrastructure projects, sure to drive growth in Turkey. The Avrasya car tunnel and the third Bosphorus bridge have doubled the car routes connecting Istanbul’s Asian and European parts. Work on Istanbul’s third airport, planned to be largest in the world, is underway, which the government hopes will turn Istanbul into an international transit hub. Gas pipelines and railways are planned to turn Turkey into a transit hub connecting Asia and Europe.
This year has seen death and sadness visit Turkey. We have seen worrying political polarisation, division and politicians arrested. We have also seen resilience, hope and determination. The people of Turkey resisted an attack on their democracy, with hundreds laying down their lives. The government has withstood crises, both security and economic. Turkey has two of the world’s messiest and most geopolitically-charged conflicts raging on its doorstep, five of its neighbours are engaged in domestic conflicts, and it hosts more refugees than any other country in the world. Despite these challenges, Turkey stands strong and sovereign.
29 December 2016
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