Author: Irina Khalturina BAKU
The main political newsmakers of 2016 were the war in Syria and the associated diplomatic battles on various international platforms, the Russian-Turkish relations, the internal political situation in Turkey, the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, and the US presidential elections. The battle for access to resources and the most profitable transit routes continued in new-old configurations with no predictable end. The Middle East remains a major pain point on the map demonstrating instability and the consequences far beyond the limits.
The Syrian war
The passing year has not brought peace to Syria, which in March 2016 marked the fifth anniversary of the bloody conflict. If at the beginning of 2016, after Russia and the US signed a draft cease-fire agreement, there were hopes that the situation in this Middle Eastern country would start to improve then by the end of the year, the number of victims among civilians did not leave room for illusions. Moscow and Washington have been unable to agree on definitions of a terrorist and opposition fighters opposing forces of Bashar al-Assad. While the United States was busy, perhaps, with the most difficult and unpredictable presidential elections in its history, Russia, on the contrary, became more actively involved in the Syrian conflict. The Russian military remained a major force in Syria with more than 30 thousand missions completed and over 62 thousand military installations hit. This is despite Moscow’s announcement of the withdrawal of its military units from Syria, and Putin’s statement that the Russian military “fulfilled its mission and helped the Syrian army to change radically the situation in the fight against international terrorism”.
The Kremlin has focused on strategically important Aleppo to strengthen Assad’s position on the eve of possible negotiations, allowing the IS to regain control over Palmyra freed in March. On December 13, the Syrian government announced full control over Aleppo, and the mediation of Turkey, Russia and Iran has contributed to the launch of evacuation of civilians and militants from the city. While the Russian media aired footage of jubilant Syrians celebrating the liberation of the city and receiving the Russian humanitarian assistance, the West was broadcasting news about numerous civilian casualties.
By the end of this year, the negotiations on the future of Syria has gradually shifted from the Western capitals to Moscow. On December 20, the heads of Foreign Ministries of Iran, Russia, and Turkey met for the first time in this format. According to Sergei Lavrov, “the most effective format is the one that you are witnessing today. This is not an attempt to cast a shadow on the attempts of our partners; this is just statement of a fact”. In response to this statement, the US State Department’s spokesman John Kirby said that the US was still the leader in the Syrian settlement, and it was necessary that Russia, Turkey and Iran not only consolidate the outcome of negotiations on paper but also to implement it in practice. Meanwhile, Moscow, Tehran and Ankara adopted the Moscow Declaration, which expresses their willingness to become guarantors between the Syrian authorities and the opposition. They also invited all the other countries with influence on the situation to do the same. It is clear that the province of Idlib and the city of al-Bab located 35 km northeast of Aleppo and currently controlled by the IS but interesting for both the Syrian Kurds and the Turkish army will become the epicenter of events in 2017.
The tactical alliance
If in 2016 Russia and Turkey became archenemies because of the incident with the downed Russian bomber Su-24, then in the summer, to the surprise of many, the relationship between the two countries began to improve rapidly. Shortly after Recep Tayyip Erdogan's apology letter to Vladimir Putin, in which he called Russia “a friend and a strategic partner”, the Turkish President has made a visit to Russia. Ankara signed the agreement on the construction of natural gas pipeline the Turkish Stream important for Moscow, and the Kremlin has agreed to resume the travels of Russian tourists to Turkey. According to most observers, the establishment of trust between Putin and Erdogan has helped support the legitimate government of Turkey during the attempted military coup. The efforts of mediator countries, especially Azerbaijan, which has traditionally had friendly relations with both countries (Turkey and Russia) was a significant contribution to the Russian-Turkish reconciliation.
However, the Russian-Turkish relations had to undergo a new stress test at the end of 2016. On December 19, right in front of TV cameras, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was assassinated in the Modern Art Gallery in Ankara. A police officer, Mevlüt Mert Altintas (22), shot the high-ranking diplomat in the back as he was speaking at the opening of the exhibition. Swinging his pistol over the ambassador's body, the killer was shouting “Allah Akbar! Remember Aleppo, remember Syria! As long as our brothers are in danger, you are not protected! We die for Aleppo, you'll die here!”
The situation in Syria has put Russia and Turkey in a quarrel and re-connected both countries. Russia, which supports Assad, and Ankara, which launched the Operation Euphrates Shield on the territory of the SAR on August 24, need each other. Turkey is in a particularly difficult situation. The incessant carnage in neighboring Syria is becoming a large factor of instability in the country. Firstly, it is the infiltration of terrorists into Turkey. This is evidenced by numerous attacks that in addition to political risks hurt the economy of Turkey, which needs security at least because of the importance of tourism sector for the Turkish budget. Secondly, the civil war in Syria may well lead to the disintegration of the country into several parts. In this case, one of the main contenders to become independent are Kurds, whose possible state of Rozhava located along the Syrian-Turkish border with access to Iraqi Kurdistan means a serious threat to Turkey. Having failed to receive a proper understanding from the West on this issue, Turkey has decided to set a tactical alliance with Russia that does understand Turkey as far as the anti-Assad and pro-American Kurdish rebels are concerned. Therefore, even though Ambassador Karlov was ironically or by someone's malicious intent shot in the back on the Turkish territory (which is an obvious act of omission of local police and intelligence services), Mr. Putin did not mention the murder of ambassador as a “stab in the back”, as was the situation with the Su-24. The incident with the Russian ambassador, who was directly involved in the Russian-Turkish talks over Aleppo, has not impeded the Moscow meeting. On the contrary, Moscow and Ankara pledged to continue working together without succumbing to “a provocation aimed at disrupting the normalization of Russian-Turkish relations and the failure of peace process in Syria.”
The restless Turkey
The internal situation in Turkey in 2016 has often been the focus of world media. The country has gone through a series of bloody terrorist attacks during March-December, the most resonant of which were explosions and gunfire in Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. On July 15, Turkey was face to face with an attempt of a military coup with the use of aircraft and tanks stopped after Erdogan's supporters took to the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. Hundreds of people became the victims of revolt. Immediately after the suppression of the coup, the government launched a cleaning campaign in a variety of areas - from the army and police to justice and education systems. Hundreds of military personnel were arrested, including generals and admirals. Ankara named a Muslim preacher, Fethullah Gülen, residing in the US for many years and having influence on the army command, as the organizer of the coup. The Turkish authorities are trying to achieve the extradition of the preacher. Incidentally, Mr. Erdogan stated that the Gülen movement (FETÖ) was the organization behind the assassination of the Russian ambassador.
The withdrawal of the Foggy Albion
The advocates of the UK’s departure from the EU won 51.9% of votes after the referendum held in the UK on June 23. As a result, a new word has officially entered the Oxford Dictionary: Brexit (Britain and Exit). This led to a series of political consequences. First of all, Prime Minister David Cameron, who was initially against the country's withdrawal from the EU, has changed his mind and resigned. His post was taken by the leader of the Conservative Party, Theresa May (59), who is the second woman to head the British Government. According to May, her main task is to ensure painless departure from the EU at extremely favorable conditions for the United Kingdom. It is quite understandable, since there was a complete confusion in the world of business and politics immediately after the referendum. The British pound has depreciated, Scotland and Northern Ireland have warned about the possibility of withdrawal from the Kingdom, the future of EU was under question.
The outcome of the “Great Migration”
The migrants represent a real threat to the unity within the EU. As a consequence, we can see the growth in popularity of the extreme right who are discontent with “strangers” in the EU. The migrants carried out a series of bloody terrorist attacks in Europe during 2016 and are considered just troublemakers. The terrorists have clearly changed tactics - moving from attacks on vehicles and airports to the attacks on the streets in public places during holidays, like the iconic symbol of European culture – the Bastille Day, the Christmas. It all started a year ago when, during the New Year celebrations, the migrant youth committed massive sexual assaults on local women in Cologne, Hamburg and Stuttgart. Major terrorist attacks in Europe took place in Brussels on March 22 - the explosions at the airport and the Malbek underground station, killing 35 people of different nationalities. On July 14, during the celebrations of the Bastille Day, a terrorist of Tunisian decent drove the truck on people in Nice killing 84 and wounding 330 people. In summer of the same year, smaller attacks took place in France and Germany. Two migrants armed with a knife cut the throat of a 86-year-old priest in the Catholic church in the northern France. A worker with an axe wounded several passengers in the train in the German city of Würzburg. Nine people were shot at the Olympia shopping mall in Munich. Yet another worker blew himself up near one of the restaurants in the town of Ansbach. A sinister act similar to the terrorist attack in Nice happened on the evening of December 19, where the truck hit a crowd of visitors at the Christmas Fair in Berlin: 12 people died and 48 were wounded. The German authorities have long avoided the term “terrorist act” as it plays against Angela Merkel, who agreed to deport hundreds of thousands of refugees from the country, and yet does not want to part with the post of Chancellor. But if the German “Iron Lady” can still be re-elected, the results of elections in a number of other key European countries like France and the Netherlands can bring a lot of surprises in the coming year. The head of the far-right party National Front, Marine Le Pen, is standing against migrants and promises to organize a referendum on the departure of France from the EU if she is elected the president of the Republic. So, we may soon witness Frexit. In the meantime, one thing is obvious: due to internal problems in the EU, the member-states are clearly losing strength and credibility on the international arena.
On November 8, the US held the elections of the 45th President, which was won by the candidate of the Republican Party, billionaire Donald Trump. He won the battle for the White House contrary to all forecasts and ahead of his strong opponent, Hillary Clinton, and beating a negative attitude on the part of many fellow party members, experts, journalists, public figures and celebrities. Even the suspicions on his too warm relations with the Kremlin did not hurt Mr. Trump. His radical statements about Mexican migrants, Muslims and women did not stop him from becoming the president in a society where tolerance is elevated to the rank of religion. He already took back some of his most radical promises and statements but nevertheless he has somehow managed to puzzle the American establishment and the world community. For example, Mr. Trump is not sitting in the presidential chair yet but he has already guarded antipathies of China by constantly emphasizing the reasons why Beijing is the main competitor of Washington, and taking a congratulatory call from the “president of Taiwan”. However, by far the most controversial decision of the new US president was the appointment of Rex Tillerson as the new Secretary of State. In addition, Mr. Tillerson is the head of the oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil. He is also known as having the Russian Order of Friendship and keeping warm relations with Mr. Putin and the CEO of Rosneft, Mr. Sechin. The analysts are wondering whether Mr. Trump turns in the direction of Moscow by ruling out Russia from the list of major military threats. In general, many experts consider the selection of people to the main office in the US astounding - the world's strongest power, in fact, will manage the business without political experience.
The return of Realpolitik
In one year, the world can change more than it changed in a decade. The events of the passing twelve months form a mosaic of new realities increasingly marked by anti-globalization sentiment and the triumphant return of the idea of Realpolitik, where current theories of sociology can be safely discarded and the hackers are able to influence the election of the president of the most powerful country in the world. However, perhaps the main result of the passing year was a clear sense that the ordinary people around the globe have many questions to their elites. Therefore, those politicians who understand the reasons of dissatisfaction of the masses are /will be able to come power. Unfortunately, 2016 was also marked with an increase of terrorist threats around the world. The international community once again has demonstrated the lamentable inability to negotiate to resolve the most pressing military and humanitarian crises. The Syrian tragedy, which killed thousands of people, is yet another shameful page in the modern history of humanity and opens the first page of the calendar in 2017.