Insight Turkey’s 5th Annual Conference Concentrates on U.S.-Turkey Relations, Turkey’s Economic Development, Syrian Conflict, and the Kurdish Question Post-November 2015 Elections.
The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. hosted Insight Turkey’s 5th Annual Conference, “Turkish Foreign Policy After Elections,” on January 6, 2016. With over two hundred attendees, multiple panel discussions, and a keynote address by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek, the conference reflected on the country’s evolving political, economic, and social dynamics, as well as the U.S.-Turkey partnership.
The first panel highlighted Turkey’s efforts to secure its Syrian border, the deepening rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the rise of sectarian violence, and how all of these aspects impact the U.S.-Turkey relationship and U.S. policy toward the region.
“Turkey is facing multiple structural complexities regarding its border with Syria,” said Murat Yesiltas of the SETA Foundation. “The length of Turkey’s border with Syria, Turkey’s ‘open door policy’ for Syrian refugees, and the lack of a single dedicated institution capable of focusing on border security are some of those complexities.”
In addition to the Syrian civil war on its southern border, Turkey is also now experiencing increased tensions with another neighbor, Iran.
“Trust between Turkey and Iran has diminished as a result of the two countries’ different policies on Assad’s role in Syria,” said Trita Parsi from the National Iranian American Council.
While Turkey would like to play a constructive role in mitigating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is nearly impossible for any nation to be simultaneously trusted by both countries. Turkey’s role in alleviating the tensions between the two countries also weighs heavily on U.S.-Turkey relations.
“Two allies converge in interests in some areas and diverge in others,” said Cedric Leighton from Cedric Leighton Associates. “Each country perceives different aspects of the instability in Iraq and Syria as their primary security risk. Both countries want to see ISIS eliminated, but questions remain about what Syria and Iraq will look like in the future.”
Participants in the second panel discussed the complex relationship between the Turkish state and Kurds.
“There are three options for addressing Kurdish grievances within Turkey,” said Etyen Mahcupyan of PODEM. “These are the existence of Kurds as equal citizens of Turkey, decentralization of majority Kurdish areas of the country, or full territorial rights for Kurds.” Mahcupyan also pointed out the AKP-PKK peace process as the only time that both entities have worked simultaneously toward one of these goals.
According to Burhanettin Duran of the SETA Foundation, the Syrian conflict and the chaos it has created have greatly impacted both the PKK’s strategy and Turkey’s counter-strategy. “In the current situation in Syria, the PKK has tried to maximize its benefits,” said Mr. Duran. “This is why the U.S. needs to understand Turkey’s security concerns regarding renewed PKK violence and the links between the PKK and the Kurdish groups in northern Syria.”
Denise Natali of National Defense University added that there is an increasing mobilization of Kurds in the Middle East through nationalism, and Turkey’s PKK problem is spreading across Iraq and Syria.
“Furthermore, because of the deteriorating stability of its neighbors, Turkey can no longer rely on its neighbors as partners capable of assisting its anti-PKK efforts,” said Ms. Natali. “It is also impossible to separate the PKK from Kurdish political organizations, and this reality manifested itself in the loss of votes experienced by the HDP in the November 1, 2015 elections.”
The conference continued with Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek’s keynote address. Mr. Şimşek emphasized the robust relationship between the United States and Turkey, though shared trade and investment is lower than he would like.
Focusing on Turkey’s economic outlook, Mr. Şimşek said that Turkey will need to re-evaluate its long-term economic strategy. “There are three anchors that will be crucial to improving Turkey’s economic and overall stance globally: the European Union accession process; structural transformation; and sectoral transformation,” said Şimşek. He provided many examples of upcoming legislation reform in Turkey to address these three facets of Turkish policy.
The last panel examined the U.S.-Turkey relationship in detail, and panelists offered their views on how the relationship will evolve in the future.
Joshua Walker of the German Marshall Fund pointed out that Turkey’s internal and regional stability is the single largest issue in the U.S.-Turkey relationship and it will be dominated by the Syrian conflict for the foreseeable future.
Regarding the nature of the relationship between two countries, Robert Wexler from the S. Daniel Abraham Center for the Middle East Peace said that the future of U.S. policies will be judged in relation to ISIS’s role in the region.
“Two countries come together for ad-hoc partnerships rather than developing a long-term deep relationship,” said Kilic Kanat of the SETA foundation at Washington DC, as he built upon Mr. Wexler’s point.
Mr. Walker agreed with Mr. Kanat’s point, adding that the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey never lives up to its potential. “Turkey is neither appreciated nor understood in the U.S.,” said Mr. Walker. This is particularly true as the U.S. continues to question how best to engage with Turkey, a partner with which its priorities sometimes do not align.