Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Mish; Edited by AlexD
Trump spoke too soon. Turkey cracks down on “fifth column.”
The American overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime in Iraq gave rise to Sunni radicalism and allowed the Iraqi Kurds to obtain autonomy as the basis for future independence. The “Arab Spring” culminated in the civil war in Syria, where Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, the sponsors of Sunni radicalism, confronted Iran and its allies from Shia militias.
The Russian Aerospace Forces intervention were the decisive factor in the victory against the Islamists in Syria, forcing the US-led anti-terror coalition in truly fighting the “Islamic State” (IS), eventually capturing Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. However with the defeat of IS, terrorist organization banned in Russia, it created the Kurdish issue, tying in a complex knot relations between Washington, Ankara, Damascus, Tehran and Baghdad.
The armed units of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition, the core of which is made up of Kurdish fighters, eventually may become part of the Syrian Army. Riyad Darar, co-chair of the SDF, stated this on Rudaw TV. It was formed in Rumeilan in March 2016 upon the establishment by the Kurds of the federated region of Rojava in northern Syria. The formations of the SDF, which lists 50,000 fighters, providing for two years military assistance to the coalition led by the US, took Raqqa on October 17. The Kurdo-Arab confrontation comes to the fore with the elimination of the military infrastructure of IS.
Iraqi Recipe for Damascus
De facto the discussion is about the Kurds’ desire to create a Syrian Peshmerga with official funding from Damascus, replicating the Iraqi experience. It is clear that the major participants in the settlement process are against this option, especially given the recent Iraqi Kurdistan (IK) independence referendum. The summit in Sochi showed, that so far the problem is unsolvable. Moscow may positively influence Tehran and Damascus in this direction; Ankara is not ready for any compromise. Turkey is against the separation of the Syrian Kurds in the North similar to the Iraqi Kurdistan variant with the formation of legitimate armed forces.
The prospects of the Kurdish forces led by Masoud Barzani, loyal to Ankara, a branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), gaining control over this region are negligible. Their forces were driven out of northern Syria at the beginning of the conflict. Officially, they were transferred to Iraq to fight IS, but in reality, were compelled to leave out the Kurds from the Democratic Union Party (DUP). During the blossoming period of the Barzani-Erdogan “friendship”, two attempts were made to deploy KDP units to northern Syria to weaken the DUP. The last one was attempted in the summer, when Barzani went to Washington to seek permission to remove his loyal “Syrian” troops from the front in Mosul and relocate them to the North with the active air and fire support of Turkish troops.
Washington ruined Edogan’s plans to eliminate the hostile Kurdish enclave through his feud with it on the pretext that it could not weaken the frontline against IS during the high intensity period when all forces were concentrated to capture Mosul. The main reason here was the American desire to avoid the beginning of the armed struggle between the Kurds with active Turkish participation. This could have buried the USA’s plans to strengthen its influence in northern Syria through the only forces under their control in the area, the DUP. And the same thing can happen now, bearing in mind President Trump’s statement about the upcoming changes of providing support to the USA’s partners in Syria.
According to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Trump promised Erdogan to stop arming Kurdish fighters in Syria. But it was an off-hand remark by the American president, who decided to “appease” his colleague, to “stall” the settlement process initiated by Moscow, and to sell to the Turks American instead of Russian weapons. The US State Department and the Pentagon were not aware of Trump’s plan to halt arms supplies to the Kurdish People’s Self-Defense Forces (PSDF). Now there is a new round of in-house fighting to show that Trump had committed such a populist stupidity. The President’s latest statements have to be cautiously disavowed, and arms supplies to SDF forces in Syria must continue, as the US has no other alternatives in these parts of the world.
Blame it on the Islamists
The US Defense Department continues to send arms and military hardware to the Kurdish forces of the SDF, fighting IS. Pentagon spokesman Col. Robert Manning confirmed at the briefing when asked if the order to halt the arms shipments had been given. According to Manning, the Pentagon is only reviewing a possible shift of priorities in its military support provided to Kurdish partners. “We have been clear from the beginning to Turkey that the weapons provided to Kurdish forces would be limited, mission specific, and provided incrementally to achieve our objectives, which is the destruction of IS militants,” Manning said.
That is, the weapons shipments will continue. The threat of IS will write off everything. It is possible that the shipments will actually increase, as the Sunni tribal forces, established under the local self-government programme, have to be armed as well. Until any statements by the military are made to the effect that the weapons supplied to Kurdish fighters, once the active phase of the fight against IS is over, will be confiscated, no one is giving their weapons back, no one is going to take them back by force, and the Americans have no intention to do so. The budget has been spent and those weapons are now off the Pentagon’s books. Realpolitik and PR are two different things entirely. If Erdogan had hoped to set Trump and the US military against each other, those were vain hopes.
Against this background, Turkish Minister of Defence Nurettin Canikli did not rule out military operations in the Syrian Kurdish province of Afrin. It is however unlikely as neither Moscow nor Washington needs this. There is a Russian monitoring mission on the ground in Afrin and it is not in Ankara’s interests to strain its relations with the Russian military. In Sochi, Erdogan was told that the presence of PKK units in Afrin is not an issue that can be handled militarily. This explains Erdogan’s bleak look at the press conference, and his blocking the convocation of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress. The occupation of Afrin by the Americans is not needed as well because after it begins, the situation will aggravate within the SDF and the mass transfers without the permission of the US of Kurdish units of this coalition from the North to aid their tribesmen.
This creates a vacuum in the regions east of the Euphrates, which are important for the USA; with the weak structure created by the Americans of Sunni tribal militias, Assad’s forces could take them on. Moreover, such a scenario would put Washington in difficult manoeuvres between the Turks and the Kurds, as each side would demand support. So, an intervention in Afrin is unlikely to happen. Especially that it will rekindle long military actions (the Turks will not be able to solve quickly the problem because of tactical, organisational, human and technical weaknesses of it its armed forces), as well as mark the beginning of a new phase of the war with the PKK on Turkish territory and inevitably induce a new wave of terror in Turkish cities, which Erdogan does not need at all.
Arrests and More Arrests
The National Security Council of Turkey called the army operation of establishing observation posts in the de-escalation areas in Idlib a success and it was also claimed that similar observation facilities would bring about peace and stability in the northern Syrian provinces of Afrin and Aleppo, this according to the communiqué issued by the National Security Council, quoted by NTV. Erdogan chaired the Security Council meeting. The results of the meeting represent Ankara’s real possibilities in these directions. This refers to the presence of Turkish monitoring missions in Afrin and northern Aleppo. Thus far, it is the limit of possibilities for Ankara.
At the meeting of the National Security Council the battle-readiness of the Turkish armed forces was discussed. The discussion was about the infiltration of Fethullah Gulen’s FETO supporters in the power structure. It was also acknowledged that a military intervention in Afrin could not be completed quickly. The army is experiencing a serious shortage of helicopters, armoured vehicles with enhanced landmine protection, and alpine communication equipment. There are also personnel shortages. Turkey’s army and security agencies lost much of its manpower in the wake of the post-coup FETO paranoia, which cannot help but affect the armed forces’ preparedness level. Over 113,000 people were detained following the attempted coup d’état in July 2016. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu reported 47,100 suspects arrested. “Among those arrested there are 10,700 police officers, 7600 military personnel, 168 generals, 2500 judges and prosecutors, 208 government officials and 26,100 civilians,” according to Soylu.
Of the above number of detainees, more than 65,000 were released, 41,500 of them on supervised probation. The process is still ongoing. Turkish authorities have recently issued arrest warrants for 360 people, including 343 military personnel, on suspicions of complicity in the attempted coup. Operations of detentions of suspects are ongoing in Istanbul. The day before, the prosecutor’s office in Ankara issued arrest warrants for 75 former police academy students on suspicion of involvement in FETO. Turkey’s Gendarmerie has lost as many as half of its personnel, who were dismissed or detained (the Gendarmerie was the leading force against drug trafficking, and, earlier, also against Kurdish separatism) and Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, MIT, has eliminated the special branch of wireless espionage and Internet watch.
Turkey’s overseas ambassadorial intelligence units have been extensively purged resulting in paralyzed intelligence activities. Among the residency’s priorities are the tracking and surveillance of Kurdish separatism and the activities of any entities associated with Fethullah Gulen. Enver Altayli, the former chief of the MIT department for fighting right-wing organizations and communism, was arrested in August. Altayli, an ethnic Uzbek, accused of Gulenist connections, although a retired intelligence officer, worked as a CIA liaison for the Uzbek community in Turkey (in conjunction with emissaries of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU) and Central Asia. Using a network of informants within right wing and nationalist movements, Altayli procured information about the processes ongoing in those segments of the Turkish political spectrum and assessed their bearing upon the national leadership.
Altayli was arrested after Turkey intensify working contacts with Gen. Rashid Dostum, one of the leaders of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, who visited Ankara last summer. The move cut off one of the few Turkish channels that US relied upon to collect intelligence data on Central Asia and Afghanistan. Analysts believe Atayli’s arrest was in retaliation for Reza Zarrab, an entrepreneur close to Erdogan’s circle, who was arrested by the Americans earlier in 2016 who was accused of evading US sanctions on business with Iran. The subsequent detention of two local US Embassy employees and the US-Turkey visa scandal, which all fit the current pattern that sees Turkish security services going after pro-US agents of influence in the ranks of Turkey’s security and defense agencies. The two arrested local US embassy employees were responsible for intelligence gathering within Turkish government agencies and for liaison with defense and security officials.
The effort is clearly underway to drastically curb US intelligence capabilities within Turkey’s government apparatus. Apart from Erdogan’s personal enmity to the person, it is logical that the name of Gulen is implicated in the process. Gulen is a long-time CIA asset, as Russian security services found out a long time ago, when Gulen was still in the Turkish government, as they investigated US intelligence embedding in the schools of the Nurjular movement. Nurjular was subsequently banned in Russia. There is no reason to rule out similar activities through the structure of FETO inside Turkey and elsewhere. The ongoing hunt for FETO supporters in Turkey is, therefore, a drive to eliminate US intelligence “beachheads” inside Turkey’s government structures.
All this increases the Turkish President’s confidence about his hold on power and to depose him would be impossible, even on direct orders from Washington, (soon there will be no one left to carry out these orders), however, the purge has weakened the Turkish military in such a degree that it is no longer able to complete any meaningful military operation in Syria. So far, no one has mentioned the striking similarities with the 1937 Soviet Red Army purges, but the similarities are there, and the results are exactly the same. Government repression, whenever and wherever applied, has never made the institutions it targeted stronger than before.
It’s only the beginning
Recently, secret communications have intensified between the leaders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Syrian intelligence services. PKK military leader Cemil Bayik and Syria’s Head of National Intelligence Ali Mamluk held at least two rounds of talks in Damascus during the past month. M. Karso, PKK security chief, and A. Dokki, a PYD-PKK military coordinator, also met with Mamluk in the Syrian capital on November 18. According to French sources, the talks dealt with the prospects of establishing Kurdish autonomy in Rojava in northern Syria. In exchange for recognizing the Kurdish autonomy, Bayik promised to pull Kurdish forces out of all Arab regions in Syria. Simultaneously the Kurds were counting on Damascus’ assistance in persuading Moscow and Tehran in taking such a step. Allegedly, the Kurds were compelled to negotiate with Damascus when faced with Washington’s uncertain stance on the recognition of the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum.
This interpretation of the talks is doubtful. Damascus and Tehran, not Moscow, are the ones to talk to on the question of recognizing a Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. Vladimir Putin stressed the importance of having DUP Kurds on board for the Syrian National Dialogue Congress during his meeting with Assad. Moscow has its own communication channels to PKK and PYD, so Syrian government mediation is not required. Not only did the Kurds negotiate their northern Syria autonomy in Damascus; they tried to work with Syrian authorities to identify their areas of influence in northern Syria and define relations with SAA local garrisons. They would like to see government forces leave Hasakah in exchange for Kurdish forces leaving their current deployments near Aleppo and other areas. The parties furthermore discussed Kurdish involvement as an independent force in various negotiation formats. PKK ideas failed to gain Mamluk’s approval, which is why Assad had to be urgently summoned to Sochi.
At the same time, PKK leadership kept up regular ties with Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian IRGC Quds Special Forces, to secure steady supplies of arms and military equipment. Moreover, the PKK would like to maintain its presence in Sinjar. General Soleimani assured continued support for PKK leadership in mid-November. These talks were not overlooked by Turkey. The rapprochement between Tehran and PKK is a source of growing irritation for Ankara, exacerbated by Iran’s mounting influence in Iraqi Kurdistan. The rivalry between Turkey and Iran is as strong as it ever was in the region. The temporary tactical rapprochement between Ankara and Tehran in the wake of the Kurdistan referendum did not change anything.
Tehran has wrung as much as possible from Barzanis’ abortive IK independence referendum. Not only did Iran subjugate the two major Kurdish parties, KDP and PKK, but also acted as guarantor at the conclusion of the secret Baghdad-Erbil deal for the Kurds to surrender Kirkuk and took part in the operation through the Iraqi Shia militias al-Hashd al-Sha’abi that it controls. Tehran has seized the opportunity to secure al-Hashd al-Sha’abi permanent deployment in the region in violation of its deal with Erbil. The Iranians put a wager on L. Talabani, the nephew of the late KDP leader and head of the KDP security service, Parastin u Zinyari, to spearhead the insurgency to bring down the hostile Barzani clan, which is too closely associated with Washington and Ankara. Talabani met with Iranian intelligence and security minister Majid Alawi in Tehran to discuss this in early November.
The strengthening of Iran has compelled the US to take measures to create a power counterweight in Kirkuk. It was reported on November 29 that units of US armed forces involved in the coalition’s anti-ISIS operations in Iraq were deployed to the K1 military base in the Kirkuk province. One of the tasks assigned to the newly arrived troops is to “assist Iraqi security forces in maintaining constitutional law and order in a province populated by Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians.” The number of US troops was not disclosed. Iraqi government forces regained control of K1, the largest military base in the province, in mid-October. Since 2014, this base is one of the strongholds of the Kurdish paramilitary Peshmerga, essentially controlling the province.
According to Anadolu Agency, in Iraqi Kirkuk a joint operations command centre will be formed under the leadership of the US. All Kurdish units active in the region will report to the new command centre. According to the Agency, the areas populated mostly by Kurds are no longer safe since Iraqi government forces took over the region.
In reality, Iranian influence is increasing in those areas, which worries Baghdad and Washington. Hence, the decision of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to give the go-ahead for the deployment of the US military contingent in Kirkuk under the pretext of maintaining security and increasing the combat readiness of Iraqi armed forces. This means that the real problems with the Kurds lie further down the road. There will be problems for Baghdad as well.
The article is based on materials from IME expert Y. Shcheglovin.
President, Institute of the Middle East