Reflections on 2020 Flashpoints for Turkish Foreign Policy and Turkish-US Relations

As we enter 2020, we can project the following as likely flashpoints and areas of concern for Turkish Foreign Policy and Turkish-US Relations. It appears that 2020 will present very serious challenges to Turkey in the region and the world, including the possibility of deterioration in Turkish-US Relations.

Assoc. Prof. Mark Meirowitz

Political Reflection Magazine – Issue 22

US Congressional Actions Have Heightened and Will Heighten Tensions between Turkey and the US: Sanctions/Armenia/S-400; F-35/Cyprus

As for the Russian S-400 air and missile defence system, the NDAA provides that it is the sense of Congress that Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 adversely affects the national security of Turkey, the US and NATO, and prohibits the use of funds to “transfer, facilitate the transfer, or authorise the transfer of, any F–35 aircraft or related support equipment or parts to Turkey”. The NDAA does allow a waiver of this prohibition on the US providing the F-35 to Turkey, provided that Turkey gives up the S-400 system and provides credible assurance that it won’t take the S-400 (or any other equipment that would compromise the F-35) in the future. The NDAA leaves open the possibility of a deal to provide Turkey with the US Patriot system as a substitute for the S-400, by stating that it is the sense of Congress that “the United States offer of the Patriot air and missile defence system to Turkey constituted a viable alternative to Turkey’s acquisition of the S–400 air and missile defence system”.Year End 2019 House and Senate actions regarding sanctions and affirming the Armenian Genocide, as well as the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), resulted in ramping up the antipathy between NATO allies Turkey and the US.  As for the House and Senate actions on sanctions against Turkey for acquiring the Russian S-400 system, such actions did not result in final legislation being passed into law because the Senate did not pass the sanctions bill approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before year end. The upcoming second session of the 116th Congress in 2020 could produce sanctions legislation, depending on Turkey’s actions and the state of Turkish-US relations. The House also passed a resolution at the end of 2019, by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, affirming the Armenian Genocide. The Senate followed suit by passing a unanimous Armenia resolution (President Trump tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent the passage of the Senate Armenia resolution by asking various Senators to block unanimous passage; this strategy ultimately failed, and the resolution passed). The fact that the House resolutions on sanctions against Turkey, and regarding Armenia, were passed on Turkish Republic Day was likely intended to send a message of Congressional disapproval of Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 system, and of Turkey’s actions in Syria.

In addition, the NDAA, by terminating the long-standing boycott on arms sales to the Republic of Cyprus, will undoubtedly make a resolution of the dispute between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) infinitely more difficult. I note that the NDAA does provide that the US continues to support United Nations-facilitated efforts to find a comprehensive solution to the division of Cyprus. At the end of the day, however, there will not be a solution to the Cyprus conflict until the Republic of Cyprus and Greece agree to allow the people of the TRNC to share in the benefits of living on the island of Cyprus, including with respect to the exploitation of resources in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and unless the boycott on the TRNC is terminated. Allowing arms sales to the Republic of Cyprus will be a further fly in the ointment to make settling this complicated issue much more difficult.

In response to Congressional actions, Turkey has threatened to close the Incirlik airbase and the Kurecik radar base if the US imposes sanctions on Turkey. This would be disastrous. Incirlik was closed from 1975 to 1978 as a result of the US arms embargo against Turkey following Turkey’s incursion into Northern Cyprus in 1974. After Congress lifted the arms embargo in 1978, Incirlik opened to the US again. The Incirlik base has been essential to the coalition battle against ISIS and remains a pivotal US defence asset in the region.

Turkey/Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean

Turkey, motivated by its increasing isolation, entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the UN-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), regarding the delimitation of maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean. Turkey’s Foreign Minister stated that “this means protecting Turkey’s rights deriving from international law” and that accords could be reached with regional players provided that there would be “fair sharing” of resources.  Turkey also entered into an MOU with Libya promising military support to the Libyan GNA. Turkish intervention in Libya could result in Turkey becoming bogged down in Libya, as Turkey has been in Syria. The problem for Turkey is that the opposition forces of General Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) are supported by Russia. In Libya, as well as in Syria, Turkey has found Russia to be the main player it needs to placate in order to realise its foreign policy goals.

As a result of Turkey’s agreements with Libya, and due to Turkey’s vastly expanded claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey will find itself even more isolated from Egypt, Greece and Israel which have banded together with the Republic of Cyprus in an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (excluding Turkey) and are planning an Eastern Mediterranean pipeline from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe. As reported in the press, “the pipeline will run across the Mediterranean from Israel’s Levantine Basin offshore gas reserves, to the Greek Island of Crete and the Greek mainland, and to Italy” ( From Turkey’s point of view, it needed to take a preemptive or proactive action to protect its strategic interests. Tension and conflict appear to be inevitable. Turkish ships, in December 2019, chased away an Israeli research ship from the Cyprus exclusive economic zone. In the past, Turkey sent military and drilling ships to search for energy resources in the area. This clearly will be a zone of conflict in 2020.

A comprehensive solution to the Cyprus issue would help to avoid further conflict. However, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus have not been willing to work out an amicable agreement with Turkey and the TRNC on the outstanding issues, including the fair sharing of resources. Perhaps the parties should submit the maritime dispute to a neutral tribunal for resolution.

Also, should the opposition forces of General Haftar prevail in Libya, the maritime accord between Libya and Turkey could be fully unwound. Military intervention in Libya is a very risky proposition for Turkey.

Istanbul Canal Project

This issue has the potential of being a Pandora’s Box which will cause conflict in the region. At present, the Montreux Convention governs the passage of commercial and military vessels through the Bosporus Straits. Under Montreux, “merchant vessels enjoy freedom of passage through the Turkish straits while passages of vessels of war are subject to some restrictions, which vary depending on whether or not these vessels belong to Black Sea riparian states. Vessels of war belonging to non-riparian states are subject to specific limits…Combat ships of non-Black Sea countries” are limited as to tonnage and the amount of time such ships can remain in the Black Sea. The plan is for the canal to connect the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara, which eventually runs into the Mediterranean (Reuters) in order to reduce the congestion in the Bosporus and help avoid accidents. The question is whether the Montreux Convention would cover the Canal. Furthermore, one commentator stated that “Kanal Istanbul would possibly open the door to US warships in the Black Sea. That is the fear in Moscow” (Sinan Ulgen, Carnegie Europe, as quoted in Reuters). Russia will want to prevent warships from entering the canal. Interestingly, this is also of interest to China. According to Admiral Cem Gürdeniz, founding director of the Koç University Maritime Forum, “two fundamentally different visions are in play. China and Russia, two land powers, are keen to limit the rights of passage of ships in their territorial waters and by extension do not want to change the status of the Montreux Convention. On the other hand, maritime powers such as the US, UK and NATO advocate strongly for freedom of navigation”. Said Admiral Gürdeniz, “[f]rom a political standpoint, it is important for Russia not to leave the Black sea to the maritime powers”. (Helene Franchineau, “How Istanbul’s man-made canal project could trigger an arms race in the Black Sea – and why China is watching closely”, SCMP.COM, 6/3/18). Once again, Turkey is being challenged by Russia in terms of Turkey’s plans for the Istanbul Canal project.


Syrian regime forces supported by Russia have caused a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib. Turkey is now ensconced in Syria. Further, Turkey has been unable to convince US decision-makers, the US Congress and the American media about the connection between the YPG and the PYD with the PKK, although this connection has previously been affirmed by high-level US officials. Although Turkey appears to have achieved its short-term goals to secure a safe zone in Syria, and to prevent the creation of a YPG/PYD statelet in Northern Syria, the future is unclear. How long will Turkey have to remain in Syria? Will Turkey be able to repatriate Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey back to Syria within the safe zone? What is the future of Syria and can a solution be found to the Syrian crisis? What is the future status of the Syrian Kurds? All of the above questions remain imponderable. It would seem that the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, has prevailed in the overall conflict.  The presence of Iranian elements in Syria further complicates an impossible crisis. Related to this is how the refugee crisis will affect Europe. Turkey has indicated that it can no longer “bear the brunt of the” Syrian conflict in light of the new waves of refugees as a result of the crisis in Idlib” (DW.COM). Turkey already has taken in over 3.5 million Syrian refugees.

Turkey’s Naval Aspirations

Turkey has aspirations to build its naval capacity, by recently launching the Piri Reis submarine which will be the first of a fleet of submarines (one submarine is planned to be launched each year, commencing in 2020), and by commissioning an assault ship, the Anadolu, to begin operations in 2021. However, a commentator has opined that Turkey, having been expelled by the US from the F-35 program, may not be able to find an alternative to the F-35 stealth fighter which can operate from an assault ship. The Su-35 fighter offered by Russia cannot operate from an assault ship and Chinese fighters J-20 and FC-31 are not capable of operating from an assault ship. (David Axe, “Why Turkey’s New ‘Aircraft Carrier’ (Loaded with F-35s) Might Be Doomed”, National, 9/30/19). By keeping the Russian S-400, and being terminated from the F-35 program, Turkey has placed itself in a position where its future military plans are in doubt. Turkey can presumably solve this problem by working out a deal with the US for the Patriots and give up the S-400 so Turkey can again possibly be eligible to acquire the F-35 stealth fighter as originally planned.

Overview –Status at New Year 2020

One commentator has described Turkey as a “real regional actor and a global actor…” which will “continue at full speed in its quest for further autonomy and diversification of its relations with global powers. While taking proactive steps to protect its national security against regional threats, Turkey will continue to play a constructive role in global politics” (Muhittin Ataman,, “Turkey in 2020: Regional power and global actor”, 1/1/20).

In essence, to achieve its goals, Turkey will have to choose between Russia and the United States. The more Turkey relies on Russia (having acquired the Russian S-400 system, already being heavily reliant on Russia for energy resources, and having Russia build Turkey’s Akkuyu nuclear power plant), the more Turkey becomes alienated from the United States. Further, keeping the Russian S-400, rather than finding an alternative with the US Patriot system, will increase the likelihood of US sanctions, which could then precipitate the US being booted by Turkey from Incirlik and Kurecik. This would be a vicious cycle which can only result in tremendous problems for Turkey and also for the US. Turkey, while understandably needing to protect its strategic and security interests, must avoid burning bridges with its major NATO ally, the United States. President Trump (and the NATO Secretary-General) have avoided sanctions on Turkey, but continued friction on issues such as the S-400 could cause a rift in relations with the US, which would be an utter catastrophe. In the meeting President Trump set up with President Erdoğan in the oval office to which President Trump invited five Senators, the Senators were very vocal in their opposition to Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 (making it clear that the S-400 was incompatible with the F-35), and they also expressed disapproval of Turkey’s Syria policy vis-à-vis the Kurds.

Final Thoughts

Needless to say, 2020 will likely be a difficult year for Turkish Foreign Policy and Turkish-US Relations. It is hoped that Turkey will make decisions which will both satisfy Turkey’s strategic interests, but also strengthen ties with the United States, where Turkey’s long-range interests lie. Turkey must avoid becoming entangled with, and dependent on, Russia. At the same time, it is also hoped that US Congressional leaders will be very circumspect, act prudently and avoid precipitating a crisis in relations between Turkey and the United States, and allow the President some leeway in pursuing foreign affairs objectives with Turkey. Sanctions can only lead to reciprocal actions, which will not yield positive results. Given the impeachment by the House of Representatives of President Trump and his likely acquittal in the Senate trial in early 2020, as well as the upcoming November 2020 presidential election, the main focus in 2020 will be on the Presidential election rather than on foreign policy issues such as those concerning Turkey. Hopefully, Turkish-US relations can improve markedly. The person who is elected President in November 2020 will have a great deal of influence on the future course of Turkish-US Relations.

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