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In retrospect: Turkish Foreign Policy in 2018

The three most important issues addressed by Turkish foreign policy in 2018 were Syria, Iran, and Jerusalem. And the most significant of those was Syria.

The year began with the launch of Operation Olive Branch on January 20. The cross-border operation — a joint effort by Turkish armed forces, and allied Syrian Arab and Turkmen militias — was part of the Turkish military’s offensive in the majority-Kurdish Afrin district of northwest Syria, and an attempt to eradicate the presence of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — and ISIS.

Operation Olive Branch was clear proof that Ankara would not tolerate the presence of Kurdish entities it considers terrorists in northern Syria, despite the concerns of the US.

Soon after the successful completion of Operation Olive Branch — in a much shorter time than expected — Turkey became involved in several projects in the cities liberated from ISIS and PKK control. Those projects included the restoration and construction of schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure, and the training of police forces. People who had fled were able to return to their homes once the area was free of terrorist control.

Understanding Turkey’s national security concerns, Russia — which had close links to the YPG — gave the green light to Turkey’s operation, which made the Kurdish terrorists furious. It was clear that Moscow didn’t wanted to jeopardize its close relations with Ankara, which were based on cooperation in the Astana peace process, and energy security.

Another important development in Syria was the Russian-Turkish deal on Syria's northern Idlib province. At a meeting in Sochi on September 17, the two countries agreed to a diplomatic solution by creating a buffer zone there.

Turkey’s active role in these attempts to find a comprehensive solution to the Syrian issue have strengthened its hands in three ways: With its military operations, Turkey eliminated some of its security concerns by preventing the YPG from expanding its area of influence. Secondly, it paved the way for Syrians to return to their homeland and engage in a new life, while the Idlib deal potentially saved tens of thousands of lives, and certainly helped many to avoid becoming refugees. Finally, it further bolstered its relations with Russia and Iran — two very significant actors in Syrian war.

Turkey’s hosting of the Quartet Summit in Istanbul on October 27 — with the participation of Germany, France and Russia — was also a crucial move in broadening consensus on the Geneva process, and included two European countries that are gravely concerned about the flow of refugees into Europe.

It is clear that Turkey played a prominent role in the global arena to help resolve the Syrian crisis, and made significant contributions to slowing illegal immigration.

America’s recently announced decision to withdraw its troops from Syria will have a major impact on Turkish foreign policy in 2019. US President Donald Trump made the announcement just a few days after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his decision seems likely to strengthen Turkey’s hand. The announcement coincided with Turkey’s declaration that it was preparing to launch an offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Those forces have fought alongside the US against ISIS for the past few years. As American troops prepare to withdraw, Syrian opposition forces have also declared that they are ready to join Turkey’s operation to eliminate the YPG.

Turkey is set to end the year with important talks with both the US and Russia. Ankara announced that US military officials will visit Turkey later this week to discuss the withdrawal of American forces from Syria, while a committee of Turkish officials — including the ministers of foreign affairs and defense, and the head of Turkish intelligence — will visit Russia on December 29 to discuss the latest developments in Syria.

It is likely, too, that further Turkish-American meetings will take place in 2019. On January 8, a Turkish delegation headed by deputy foreign minister Sedat Önal will be in Washington for a meeting of the Syrian joint working group.

There is a well-known saying: “If not backed by the capability and credibility to execute threats, deterrence is merely a dangerous bluff.” 2018 has shown that Turkey’s combination of hard and soft power in its Syrian policy proved successful and paved the way for Ankara to increase its influence in future talks in regards to Syria.

It will be fascinating to see how Turkey’s diplomatic and military gains from 2018 will play out in the year to come. We can only hope that they will help provide a peaceful solution to the years-long Syrian tragedy.