2015 was a difficult year for Turkey. The civil war in Syria continued to spill over in the form of an ever-growing number of refugees, as the number of Syrian refugees, seeking asylum in Turkey, increased from 1.5 to 2.5 million. The nation also witnessed a series of bomb attacks, perpetrated by the Islamic State (IS) – which, in turn, had an adverse impact on tourism in Turkey. The collapse of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) also culminated in violent clashes between the PKK and Turkish security forces, destroying a number of Kurdish-populated towns in southeastern Turkey. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a splinter faction of the PKK, increased the strain of violence on the nation with its dual attacks on Ankara in February and March 2016. Meanwhile, as IS maintained its hold on swathes of territory in Iraq, and thereby disrupted the country’s trade, Turkey’s economic relations, with both the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) headquartered in Erbil, became complicated.
The Syrian conflict has also set Russia and Turkey at odds against each other, as the two sides champion rivalling factions. Relations were already tense, when Turkey shot down a Russian jet on 24 November, which had briefly strayed into Turkish airspace near the Syrian border. In retaliation, the Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed into effect a series of sanctions that are now ‘economically bleeding’ Turkey. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as well as its intervention in Ukraine, had already drained away considerable energy from the markets in the post-Soviet space, and, needless to say, the falling oil prices as well as the European Union’s sanctions on Russia had also slowed down the Russian economy and devalued Ankara’s economic relationship with Moscow. In this sense, these sanctions were the final blow to a structure that had already started to crumble.
As this article will discuss, this growing instability in Turkey’s neighborhood is undermining the country’s foreign trade and tourism industry, creating growing challenges for Turkey’s economy and politics. In the course of the last two decades, Turkey has become deeply integrated into the global economy. As a result, foreign trade now corresponds to almost 50% of the nation’s GDP (a significant leap from 9% in 1975). This is why a drop of 8.74% in Turkey’s overall trade volume is worrying. In a similar pattern, Turkey’s overall revenue from tourism also dropped down to 31 billion dollars in 2015 from 34 billion dollars the previous year. Turkish businesses have also become personae non gratae in Russia, Libya and Egypt, damaging the nation’s economic interests in what used to be close economic partners. As Turkey’s economy is not based on oil or gas sales, it needs to export its goods and services to sustain a lively economy and maintain low levels of unemployment and political dissatisfaction.
Hence, this article will argue that these developments are compelling Turkey to re-energize its relations with the European Union. Indeed, stronger relations with the EU may compensate for the economic losses that have resulted from the chaos in Turkey’s neighbourhood; furthermore, they are likely to encourage Turkey to push through democratic reforms – similar to the ones that were implemented when EU-Turkey relations were warm. This assumes special importance in light of the leadership’s slide towards authoritarianism, which is producing adverse effects on the business climate in the country. With a strengthened economy and democracy, Turkey will not only be an asset to the EU economy, but will also be in a position to cooperate with the EU in facing the mounting challenges in the region.
Relations with Russia
The most glaring shift in Turkey’s trade portfolio is the collapse of exports to Russia. Russia’s economic woes, triggered by the European Union’s sanctions for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the falling oil prices, are partly to blame. To be sure, trade with Russia had been suffering long before the shooting down of the Russian warplane. For instance, exports to Russia fell by almost 40% to 3 billion dollars in 2015; yet, they had already fallen by 11% between 2012 and 2014. The series of sanctions Putin introduced in the incident’s aftermath is likely to aggravate this trend. Already in January 2016, when the sanctions went into effect, the value of Ankara’s exports to Moscow dropped down to 108 million dollars – a drop of 65% compared to January 2015 and the lowest figure recorded in bilateral trade since the start of the decade. It is estimated that, unless the tensions subside, the sanctions will cost Turkey roughly 15 billion dollars in 2016.
If one examines the wide spectrum of areas these sanctions cover, it is easy to sympathize with growing public concerns in Turkey. To start with, Russia has banned imports of fresh fruit, vegetables, poultry, salt and cloves from Turkey. On top of this, several Turkish businessmen have been detained; and local Turkish-owned companies face newer sets of restrictions against employing Turkish workers – which is likely to increase unemployment levels in Turkey. Also, approximately 300 Turkish companies are now excluded from tenders, leading building contractors to lose their largest market, and being cut off from these tenders will have severe repercussions on Turkey’s economy: between 1972 and the first six months of 2015, 1,921 projects – or in other words, close to 20% of the projects undertaken by Turkish contractors – took place in Russia, contributing a revenue of 61 billion dollars to Turkey’s economy. Of course, Russia is not the only market where Turkish companies are contracted; however, its leading status in this context cannot be disputed. For example, Turkmenistan takes second place in the list of countries, where Turkish companies have been most active; yet, contractors in Turkmenistan only completed 963 projects with an overall value of 47 billion dollars within the same timeframe – certainly a substantial source of income, but not significant enough to replace the Russian market. There are also fears that Russia may well interfere with Turkey’s business relations with Central Asian countries.
This growing instability in Turkey’s neighborhood is undermining the country’s foreign trade and tourism industry, creating growing challenges for Turkey’s economy and politics
The feud with Russia is also hurting the tourism industry. The income Turkey received from its tourism industry peaked in 2014 at 34 billion dollars, but fell 8.3% to 31 billion dollars in 2015, with its sharpest drop registered in December 2015, immediately following the November incident. The overall number of Russian tourists had already decreased from 3.5 million in 2014 to 2.8 million in 2015 – and these roughly 3 million Russians are expected to seek other destinations in 2016. Based on current hotel reservations and flight bookings no Russian tourists are expected to spend their summer vacations in Turkey. Officials expect a loss of revenue of around 12 billion dollars over the course of this year. This is a striking demonstration of Russia’s capacity to bleed Turkey economically when relations hit a rough patch.
With a strengthened economy and democracy, Turkey will not only be an asset to the EU economy, but will also be in a position to cooperate with the EU in facing the mounting challenges in the region
There are various other factors that constitute economic challenges for Turkey’s tourist industry. Since January 2016, Turkey has been the victim of four bomb attacks. The fact that tourists prevail as the main targets of these attacks will significantly lower the numbers: indeed, two of the four attacks in Turkey took place in tourist hotspots in Istanbul – the Sultanahmet Square on 12 January and the main thoroughfare Istiklal Avenue on 19 March. The German Foreign Office has already issued a warning to its Turkey-bound travelers after this assault – what the press branded as “the deadliest attack on Germans in 13 years.” According to the inventory of the German Travel Association, the number of bookings to Turkey has already declined by 40%. On a related note, fewer tourists not only means a loss of revenue for the treasury, but also a loss of employment for Turkish nationals. Many hoteliers have already announced their unwillingness to keep their hotels in operation in the summer.According to the Turkish Hoteliers Federation (TUROFED), 15,000 workers in Antalya have already lost their jobs; if no precautions are taken, roughly half a million employees may be released from their positions this year. What all this means is that Turkey will effectively not be able to tap into one of its significant sources of income in the forthcoming year.
Another casualty in this respect are the Turkish trucks. Turkey’s Road Transport Agreement with Russia expired on 1 February – which, as expected, Putin refused to renew. Under the terms of the agreement, both sides had approved 13,500 documents for transporting goods either into or via Russia. Russia requested a modification to the agreement, which would have reduced the number to 3,000 – a request which Turkey defined as unpalatable. Now that the agreement has elapsed, Turkish trucks have not retained the right to travel across Russian territory, and the same applies to Russian trucks that traverse Turkey. This, however, does not impact Russia on the same scale, since Russia mainly exports gas – which, of course, does not need to be carried via trucks.
One option is now to use either Moldavian or Belarussian trucks, increasing the cost of transport. There is also the option of using Roll-on/Roll-off ferries (Ro-Ro) via Azerbaijan; given the volume of Turkey’s exports transiting Central Asia and the capacity of Azerbaijan’s ferries, however, this is not likely to remedy the situation at hand. In fact, only a month after these new regulations went into force, the International Transportation Association reported that exports via road-travel to Russia had virtually come to a standstill.
Many are worried that the situation could become worse, since Putin has not yet played his strongest trump card: energy and oil. Turkey imports 95% of its oil and natural gas and buys almost three quarters of its oil and gas from Russia, the loss of which would send Turkey searching for more expensive sources of energy. The most nightmarish effect of the sanctions, however, has been the cancellation of the Turkish Stream Pipeline Project. It was designed to deliver more than 60 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Europe via Ukraine and thereby turn Turkey into a key player in the energy league. The Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Mehmet Simsek, estimated that the loss of this project would cost Turkey 9 billion dollars overall, and other calculations stand at around 20 billion dollars – undoubtedly a development that will deal a shattering blow to Turkey’s economic well-being.
Central Asia – Another Region Lost?
Moscow’s sanctions are also spreading to Russia’s sphere of influence – a region with which Turkey has maintained lucrative relations, with the exception of Armenia. As discussed above, Turkish truckers no longer hold transit permits to Russia, which curtails Turkey’s trade with Central Asia; currently, it transports its exports through the Caspian Sea and Azerbaijan, which waived the obligation of carrying transit documents for Turkish trucks. Yet, this arrangement does not have the capacity to sustain the volume of Turkey’s exports to this market. It is also not certain whether Azerbaijan can afford this generosity for long As its currency continues to lose value due to declining oil prices, it is not unlikely that Azerbaijan will want to charge for transit permits. Furthermore, it does not portend well that Armenia and Azerbaijan have ended their ceasefire over Nagorno-Karabakh. If violence flares up again, Turkey may not be able to benefit from the Georgia-Azerbaijan route. Russia is also improving its relations with Armenia and Georgia. With the former, it signed an agreement to expand military cooperation; and with the latter, it is gearing up to abolish the visa regime. Furthermore, since some leading Central Asian countries are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), it is likely that Putin will push for an increase in customs tariffs – precipitating a sharper decline in Turkish exports to the region.
Growing Isolation in the Middle East
It is not only in Moscow’s sphere of influence that Turkey is not wanted.A foreign policy, predicated on an agenda that misjudged, or blatantly disregarded, the realities on the ground, pushed Turkey into considerable isolation in the Arab world. Not only has Ankara withdrawn a number of diplomatic missions, but Turkish businessmen have also become personae non-gratae across the region – and in return, Turkey seems to have squandered away its credentials as a reliable partner.
As Turkey’s formerly most important trading partner in the Arab world, Egypt is a striking case in point. Relations between Ankara and Cairo soured following the military coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood (Ankara’s choice for leadership across the region) and installed General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, whom Erdogan refused to recognize as Egypt’s legitimate ruler. In retribution, Sisi refused to sign into law the special accord that had facilitated the transport of Turkish goods on Roll-on/Roll-off ferries (Ro-Ro ferries) between Egyptian ports and the Turkish port of Iskenderun, when the previous agreement elapsed on 20 April, 2015. The end of this agreement not only marked the end of the discounts, facilities and privileges that Cairo had granted Turkish vehicles when crossing the Suez Canal; it also cancelled out the routes that connected Turkish exporters with markets in the Gulf region – which had become an alternative to routes through Syria after the country was plunged into chaos.
In this context, Libya also merits attention – foremost for having benefitted significantly from Turkish investors. Yet, the regime collapse and the accompanying civil war have jeopardized the future of lucrative relations. When Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani’s Tobruk-based government was elected by the Representatives Assembly in June 2014, Erdogan denied them legitimacy and supported, instead, the Islamist-leaning and Muslim Brotherhood-dominated National General Congress, led by Omar al-Hasi in Tripoli. This development, in and of itself, had already turned Turkish companies into unwanted elements in Libya. Yet, al-Thani only made the decision to expel them on 22 February, 2015 following the execution of 21 Egyptian Copts by IS; he accused Ankara of cooperating with and arming the Islamists and called for all Turkish nationals to leave the country. The loss of Libya as both a trading partner and a project site was felt most acutely amongst Turkish businessmen, who were instructed to either exit Libya by June 2015 or “face the consequences.” As a result, the anti-Turkish factions destroyed 1.2 billion dollars’ worth of machinery and furthermore, in their rush to exit, Turkish companies could not claim the money owed to them – which amounted to 4.5 million dollars at the time. Before their expulsion, Turkish contractors in Libya had completed more than 565 projects with a total value of 29 billion dollars, and operated some 180 companies across the country.
Volatile Markets: Iran, Syria and Iraq
Iran represents a different case: despite major differences in both countries’ foreign policies, Ankara and Tehran have managed to put aside their disagreements and focus on their trade potential. In the course of the past few years, Iran and Turkey’s foreign policies have conflicted over multiple points: the leaderships had different views on the fate of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; their attitudes towards the region have clashed; and Turkey was alarmed by Tehran’s growing leverage over Lebanon and Yemen. In spite of these political differences, however, both sides have explored new avenues for economic cooperation.
The ‘preferential trade agreement,’ signed between Ankara and Tehran, took effect in January, 2015: its most ambitious aim was reciprocally to cut tariffs on a range of products, and thereby increase the volume of bilateral trade up to 35 billion dollars. Based on the final figures, however, the results did not meet this goal. The overall trade volume in 2015 not only did not reach the targets set at the beginning of the year, but even fell short of the figure recorded in 2014: trade between the nations fell from 14 billion in 2014 to 10 billion in 2015, a decline of almost 30%. What is important, however, is that this prompted another push to re-energize trade relations. Indeed, on the heels of the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Tehran on 4-5 March, 2016 and the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s trip two weeks later, the two sides announced their intention to triple trade, even surpassing the previous goal of 35 billion dollars. Hampered by the Russian embargo, it is crucial for Turkey that the latest deal with Iran yields a tangible outcome. Now that the removal of sanctions has transformed Iran into a new centre of gravity for international business and a focus of attention for the world’s largest economies, if Turkey does not act strategically, other exporters are likely to exploit this market. An expansion of trade with Iran will also depend on factors beyond Turkey’s control: for instance, it is yet to be seen whether Iran’s reformist President Hassan Rouhani’s agenda, which includes an objective to have Iran plugged into the global economy, trumps over the resistance of Iranian conservatives.
The most nightmarish effect of the sanctions, however, has been the cancellation of the Turkish Stream Pipeline Project. It was designed to deliver more than 60 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Europe via Ukraine and thereby turn Turkey into a key player in the energy league
The situation in Syria and Iraq has also undermined Turkey’s economic relations with both countries. The war in Syria, as well as the fight against the Islamic State (IS), is beyond Turkey’s control; nonetheless, Turkey’s involvement in Syria worked to the detriment of its economy. Turkey has set a matchless example through its humanitarian aid to the refugees, yet, this spending on disaster and emergency management has run up a substantial bill. Prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Turkey’s ‘humanitarian spending’ totaled just 395 million dollars. In the first year of the war, this figure increased to 1.5 billion dollars,and five years into the war, Turkey has now spent over 10 billion dollars. At the same time, it should be noted that the costs are somewhat offset by the presence of international aid agencies and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), which generate economic dynamism by employing locally and purchasing Turkish goods and services while on location.
The values of these transactions, however, are glossed over by the tremendous drop in Turkey’s exports to both countries: while exports to Syria were valued at 1.9 and 1.6 billion dollars in 2010 and 2011, respectively, this figure dropped to 500 million dollars in 2012, with the spread of violence in Syria. The trends after 2012, however, are striking. The available data shows that trade with Syria picked up thereafter, as Turkish and international assistance flowed into parts of Syria controlled by the opposition. Indeed, exports to Syria were once again valued at over 1 billion dollars in 2013, and then increased up to 1.8 billion dollars a year after, before dropping down by a small margin to 1.5 billion dollars in 2015. The volume further increased after the Turkish Ministry of Customs and Trade announced that Turkey would allow uncontrolled cash inflows through its borders. This new legislation stated that merchants would no longer have to declare capital at border crossings. Bearing in mind that these figures do not include income from illegal channels of trade, including the oil-trade with IS, the real value of trade with Syria may well be even higher.
Now that the removal of sanctions has transformed Iran into a new centre of gravity for international business and a focus of attention for the world’s largest economies, if Turkey does not act strategically, other exporters are likely to exploit this market
Unlike its trade with Syria, Turkey’s trade with Iraq has proven resilient against the detrimental effects of war. Exports to Iraq increased from 8.3 billion dollars in 2011 to 10.9 billion in 2012, and then to almost 12 billion dollars in 2013, before dropping slightly to 10.9 billion in 2014 and then to 8.5 billion in 2015. Although exports to Iraq in February 2016 declined a further 5.8% compared to a year ago, Iraq still ranked among Turkey’s top five export partners. Undoubtedly, the business and investment climate in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq has played an important role in this regard, setting the circumstances for significant economic cooperation. In logistical terms, Turkish nationals are allowed to enter the KRG without a visa for brief stays. It is also easier to obtain short or long-term residency permits, enabling companies to send a higher number of workers and establish a stronger presence. According to available data, while 25 new companies entered the KRG in 2012, around 1,500 companies were operationally active a year later.
Given the chaos in the neighbourhood, this figure is coming down. On top of the rising threat from IS, around 2 million people have been internally displaced in the region, all of whom now depend on the KRG for financial assistance, thereby exhausting the region’s resources. Baghdad’s reluctance to support the region’s budgetary needs – and, as per their agreement, to disperse the 17% of the federal budget earmarked for the KRG – has further taxed the region’s revenues, and, as a result, the KRG has been unable to pay off its debts. The collapse in global oil prices has brought additional strain on the KRG’s ability to finance developmental projects. The fact that the lifting of sanctions on Iran is expected to push down oil prices further implies that the KRG will not be able to rely on oil sales for a swift upturn.  If Russia were to expand its sanctions into the oil industry, Turkey will have to search for ways to decrease its dependence on Moscow – and in this regard, the KRG floats to the surface as the most viable alternative. Yet, unless Erbil arrives at a compromise with Baghdad and secures a way out of its current economic situation, Turkey may lose another provider.
Return to the EU?
Against the backdrop described above, trade relations with the EU are still strong. The EU’s share in Turkey’s overall exports in the first two months of 2016 stood at 50.2% – surpassing the value of Turkey’s trade with any other regional groupings by a large margin (its second largest export market was the Middle East, whose share in Turkey’s overall exports stood at 19%). Although Turkey’s exports to the EU decreased by 7% between 2014 and 2015, the EU’s share in Turkey’s overall exports increased from 43% in 2014 to 44% in 2015 – which is a striking reminder of the EU’s value to a country whose web of export partners is shrinking.
Yet it is not evident that the EU markets will be able to compensate for the loss of export markets in Turkey’s neighbourhood. Still battling with the after-effects of the financial meltdown of 2008, the EU continues to face problems in expanding its economy. This pace is further slowed down by both the sanctions on Russia and the tepid growth of the world economy. Nevertheless, the recent developments have been promising – and may reconstruct EU-Turkey economic relations in a way that will be palatable to both sides. After numerous rounds of negotiations, the EU and Turkey finally reached an agreement in March 2016 to control the flow of Syrian refugees and irregular migrants of other ethnicities. The deal has many critics: many are concerned that the rights of refugees will not be respected, while some object to the clause on visa liberalization and re-energizing the EU accession process that has been promised to Turkey. Nevertheless, the silver-lining is that officials in both Ankara and Brussels have manifested an interest in closer cooperation, and both sides recognize that they have a stake in making the deal work if the Schengen regime is to be kept in existence. The Schengen agreement stipulates that the Member States maintain open borders – which allows for goods and people to travel without restrictions. In the latter months of 2015, the massive influx of migrants led a number of EU countries to introduce temporary border controls, generating dire consequences for trade flows within the EU and complicating the flow of Turkish exports into the bloc.
Undoubtedly, the business and investment climate in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq has played an important role in this regard, setting the circumstances for significant economic cooperation
Clearly, there are many obstacles to overcome, however, the migration deal should be seen as an opportunity to improve EU-Turkey relations, when both sides need each other. If the deal is indeed ratified and Turkish nationals are granted visa liberalization, and the Customs Union is upgraded, economic relations between the two sides could expand significantly. However, the domestic political situation in Turkey and the rising authoritarianism in the country are likely to strain relations between the two sides. In its most recent report on Turkey, the European Parliament already took a very critical view of the situation in Turkey, making it clear that, unless visible improvements are made, visa liberalization may not be forthcoming.
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 Ali Dağlar,“Yurda istenilen miktarda nakit girişi artık serbest,” Hürriyet, 1 May, 2015, www.hurriyet.com.tr/yurda-istenilen-miktarda-nakit-girisi-artik-serbest-28882410.
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 Christina Bache Fidan, “Turkish Business in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,” Turkish Policy Quarterly, Winter 2016, http://turkishpolicy.com/files/articlepdf/turkish-business-in-the-kurdistan-region-of-iraq_en_9254.pdf.
 Amberin Zaman, “Is the KRG heading for bankruptcy,” Al-Monitor, 20 January, 2016, ww.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/01/turkey-iraq-kurds-cash-crisis-derail-battle-against-isis.html.
 Liz Alderman and James Kenter. “Europe’s Border Checks Become Economic Choke Points,” The New York Times, 1 March, 2015, www.nytimes.com/2016/03/02/business/international/europes-new-border-controls-exact-a-cost.html?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone&_r=1. Also see: Vincent Aussiloux and Boris Le Hir, “The Economic Cost of Rolling Back Schengen,” France Strategie, 2016, www.strategie.gouv.fr/sites/strategie.gouv.fr/files/atoms/files/the_economic_cost_of_rolling_back_schengen.pdf;and Michael Böhmer, et al, “Departure from the Schengen Agreement: Macroeconomic impacts on Germany and the countries from the European Union,” Bertelsmann Stiftung GED Study, 2016, www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/fileadmin/files/BSt/Publikationen/GrauePublikationen/NW_Departure_from_Schengen.pdf.
 European Parliament, “European Parliament resolution 14 April 2016 on the 2015 report on Turkey,” 14 April, 2016, www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//NONSGML+TA+P8-TA-2016-0133+0+DOC+PDF+V0//EN.