By E. Fuat Keyman*
2015 was a year full of deaths, suffering, war, conflicts, and muscle-flexing. The focus of politics was on the Middle East, particularly Syria and Iraq.
The Middle East has become all the more unstable in 2015. It saw and continues to bear the burden of great humanitarian catastrophes and a refugee crisis of biblical proportions. State order has totally collapsed in various parts of the region, while great powers continue to carry out ‘proxy wars’ in order to secure their hegemony over regional countries. ISIS, as a terrorist group and social movement, lies at the intersection of all these developments with its claim of having established an independent state of its own.
ISIS left its mark on the global agenda of 2015; and it seems it will continue to hit the headlines throughout 2016. Again, 2016 will be no different from the previous year in the sense that its primary focus will be on the Middle East while its top agenda item will be ‘the war against ISIS’ amid repeated waves of refugees flooding Europe’s borders.
The nuclear deal reached between the West and Iran in 2015 was a genuine game-changer. What this new relationship essentially means and whether the parties involved can maintain the momentum that was recently gained in mutual relations, will be better understood in the forthcoming period. 2016 will be an utterly difficult year, shaped by a large spectrum of risks, uncertainties, and an overall sense of insecurity.
Two major, inter-related crises
A year of aggravated security risks accompanied by a steep rise in uncertainty and distrust in the future awaits us. Why? Because of a multitude of grave and overlapping problems such as the ISIS issue, terrorism, the refugee crisis, proxy wars, civil wars, failed states, and economic crises. A closer look at these problems and relevant developments reveals how they eventually lead to two simultaneous crises which are inextricably intertwined with each other.
The first crisis in question directly concerns Europe. The massive influx of refugees as well as the widespread terrorist activities of ISIS essentially emanate from the collapse of state order in various parts of the Middle East, with Syria and Iraq first and foremost. The highly-exacerbated problem of Islamophobia and the consistently rising profile of extreme right political parties that feed on this problem in order to promote cultural-racist views while influencing official discourses should be considered within the framework of such a multi-faceted crisis.
The Syrian War has pushed nearly five million citizens out of the country, forcing them to take refuge in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. This number is expected to increase with the ongoing war against ISIS and Russia’s further geopolitical moves aimed at consolidating its power. Taking into account the waves of refugee resultant of war and terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and various parts of Africa, the total number of refugees flowing into Europe is indeed much greater – likely amounting to around 6-7 million people.
In addition to problems associated with wars and widespread violence, climate change – which is particularly felt in the case of Africa –, poverty, inequality, social alienation and exclusion will also continue to fuel even larger waves of refugees in the near future, thus exacerbating the already alarming situation. The number of refugees heading towards Europe may exceed 20 million in the forthcoming period according to relevant estimates.
Europe, which has been struggling with its own economic crisis, is completely paralyzed due to the recent influx of one million refugees. Yet considering the abovementioned realities, how could Europe possibly absorb 20 million refugees anyway? There is no clear answer to this crucial question. And the severity of the refugee crisis is further amplified due to its disturbing coincidence with popular discussions on whether we are drifting into a “Third World War”.
The second crisis that needs to be mentioned is directly associated with the geopolitical rivalry and power vacuum in the Middle East that are resultant of state failure and the war against ISIS. Coalition forces led by the U.S., Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia, Iran, Turkey, and European countries are the main actors in this crisis. Russia’s military deployment in Syria and Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet brought this emergent crisis into a new stage. The NATO base in the southern Turkish town of İncirlik became the main military base used by Western air forces operating in Syria.
Today, these two crises are largely interwoven and are being experienced simultaneously. Europe is completely paralyzed, sliding into further introversion. Its entire political life is at the brink of being beset by extremist right-wing ideologies that promote Islamophobia alongside racist attitudes. The threefold menace of ‘risk-uncertainty-distrust’ that will have a deep impact upon the EU’s future is already sweeping the continent.
None of the great powers, the U.S. first and foremost, are heard saying anything new concerning how to win the war against ISIS and establish region-wide stability. On the contrary, both their discourse and their strategies have apparently reached an impasse. The ‘failed state’ contagion that infected Syria and Iraq is spreading all over Africa. Pressing questions like “How will these states be rebuilt?” or “Who will govern these new states?” remain to be answered in a convincing and consistent manner amid emerging chaos.
Russia, Iran, and Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia are carrying out proxy wars throughout the region. Actors that are involved in the conflict wish to redraw the regional map. These countries are not confronted by a flood of refugees, and their sole focus is on narrow national interests alongside power politics. Having reached a strategic dead end that essentially resulted from its collective incapacity to take concrete actions in an efficient manner, the West is further paralyzed by the rise of an extreme right whose success is based on the waxing appeal of Islamophobia and xenophobia. Even this alone is enough to demonstrate the immense difficulty of resolving these crises altogether.
What should Turkey do?
To put it bluntly, Turkey unfortunately lies at the very juncture of these two intersecting crises; it is closely related with each and simultaneously affected by both. At a time when the total number of refugees it harbors has already reached 2.5 million, Turkey needs to deal with proxy wars, geopolitical intrigues, and the war against ISIS all at once.
Therefore both expectations placed on and risks pertaining to Turkey are on the rise. 2016 will be a year of heightened risks and expectations. Europe and America pin their faith upon Turkey, and are looking forward to a rapprochement with Ankara. In 2016, Turkey’s relations with the EU, the U.S., and NATO will probably go through a process of improvement.
On the other hand, it seems disputes between Turkey and Russia will persist. Likewise, it would be overly optimistic to expect Turkey’s controlled tensions with Iran to subside. Apart from these adversities, Turkey’s bilateral relations with Israel can possibly be normalized and those with Egypt mended to a considerable extent.
We should expect to live through a year during which making mistakes will be costlier than ever, while the importance of domestic stability and solidarity reaches its climax. Hopefully the general outlook of Turkey in 2016 will be shaped by democracy and a willingness to coexist in harmony domestically, as its foreign policy is successfully ‘reset’ in a constructive manner.
*Turkish version of this article was first published at Analist monthly journal’s January 2016 issue.