The Turkish Gambit

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The Turkish Gambit

Ankara’s actions are spreading the zone of instability

This article originally appeared at Vpk-news.ru, translated from Russian by Carpatho-Russian exclusively for SouthFront

The author must apologize to his readers for the title of the article, reproducing the name of a popular domestic film [SF: The Turkish Gambit is a 2005 Russian historical spy film]. But in Turkey it reflects the current situation as well as possible.

It seems that in October 2015 an early parliamentary race awaits the country – it turned out to be impossible to form a government from the results of the last elections. Disagreements between winning parties are too great. Nationalists are not ready to form a bloc with Kurds, even where their interests coincide, against their common opponent President Erdogan. Operations of the Turkish army against groups of Kurdistan Workers’ Party and other Kurdish nationalist organizations in Syria and Iraq finally buried not only the possibility of any oppositional alliance, but also the chances, no matter how small, for coordinated activities against the Justice and Development Party, which has been ruling the country throughout the entire recent period of its history.

Erdogan’s pipes are burning

In addition to all this, it puts off the continuation of negotiations of Ankara with Moscow on the “Turk Stream” gas pipeline, which only the possible autumn visit of the Russian president is capable of moving off dead center. Taking into account that the host has stronger positions in these negotiations than Russia, who early on showed interest in the success of the design – which in relations with the East is not recommended to anyone to do — the negotiations promise to be complex, and will almost certainly end in favor of Turkey. As is known according to the previous joint designs, including the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, the chances of “pressuring” Turkish negotiators are very weak. Especially since Ankara now has other domestic- and foreign-policy priorities.

“Washington’s Intervention in the Syrian civil war endangers the nuclear deal with Iran, which is the main foreign policy achievement of the current American administration”

Despite discord within the opposition, the Justice and Development Party has obviously weakened and its leader, President R.T. Erdogan, is fighting to maintain its monopoly on power, just as is necessary to an authoritarian leader in a country with a developed parliamentary system and strong opposition. Including in his own party, where he extremely sharply criticizes possible applicants for higher posts, including ex-president A. Gül. It is not excluded that the maneuvers, called to destabilize an internal political situation, by recommencing the conflict with the Kurds, will cost Ankara dearly and ultimately be narrowed, and will not broaden the degree of control over the situation from the side of PSR and Erdogan personally. The situation is not new – headstrong decisions of the Turkish leader periodically lead to such results, which demonstrates the entire course of the civil war in Syria.

The rupture, at Erdogan’s initiative, of a long-term truce with the Kurdish political-militarized groups which are based in Syria and Iraq by an attack of the Turkish Air Force on positions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party near Kirkuk aggravated the situation throughout the country, and in southeastern villajets resulted in not only large-scale attacks on Turkish security officers, but also acts of terrorism on pipelines. Reservedly optimistic comments of the top management on the situation which has developed there may be assigned exclusively to the category of promotion and propaganda. Kurds blew up the strategic oil pipeline near Kirkuk through which 400,000 barrels of oil a day were exported to Turkey, and the gas pipeline in Agra province through which Iranian gas arrived. As the serial blastings of pipelines are mortally dangerous to positioning the country as the main European-Asian hub for trade in hydrocarbons, they torpedo the interest of potential investors.

Continuation of the Turkish-Kurdish war buries the idea of laying pipelines on the territory of Turkey for delivery to Europe of hydrocarbons from near-Caspian states (including Iran) and Central Asia. All of them, from Brussels’ “Nabucco” obsession to the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline designed at a new stage to replace it, must transit through Turkey. The trans-Black Sea underwater Georgia-to-Balkans pipeline is not worth even being considered: technically its construction is possible, but the cost of the design and operational hazards are limitless. Moreover, the stability of operation of the operational Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline in case of continuation of attacks of Kurdish fighters on the power supply system of Turkey can also appear in doubt. In the Middle East there are enough pipelines standing to repeat the same, and in current conditions would be much more expensive errors.

The Turkish Gambit

Collage by Evgeny Satanovsky

It must be noted that counteractions of the Kurds have not yet touched the tourist sector, although the situation in the area of safety is strained and in close proximity to resort zones. Kurds fighting against Turkey, unlike Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia, do not consider foreign tourists to be legitimate targets of attacks. Otherwise they can forget about construction of their own state – and this is in any case their main task in the historical perspective. However it is impossible to exclude random victims among foreigners in the conditions of massive bombings of police stations and attacks on security officers in the large cities and rural areas. In particular, in Bodruma one of the firefights took place near a hotel.

Suicide bombers and allies

The author must associate with the point of view of the analysts figuring out the extremely strange act of terrorism in Turkish Suruc, officially assigned to the “Islamic State”, and victims of which were local Kurds. Many contradictions have arisen with determining the identity of the bomber. IS did not accept responsibility for this terror act, which is unrepresentative for the resonant and successful terrorist attacks of its fighters. Also, it is not clear that the murderer belonged to IS. Unfounded statements of politicians convince very few people. For RPK and its Kurdish allies, violation of the truce with Ankara would not make sense. Demonstrative elimination by the Kurds of Turkish security officers after the terror act in Suruc sets this within the version about provocation of intelligence services, punishment for which the Turkish curators of the suicide bomber incurred from the hands of Kurds. At the same time, without a massed ground operation, on which Erdogan cannot decide because of internal political hazards, it is impossible to speak about serious impairment of the RPK in frontier Syrian regions.

Experts of IBV (Y.B. Shcheglovin, S. S. Balmasov, etc.), analyzing the situation in Turkey, note that at the moment it is difficult to say how Erdogan can gather points in the electoral field, if he maintains his thesis about the terrorist danger from RPK. Statements that Turkey is waging war in Syria and Iraq with the “Islamic State” have an obviously propagandistic character. Having struck the Kurds from the back during the critical moment when they were attacking IS positions, Ankara saved the Islamists from a serious defeat. In addition, the decline in rates of development of the country affects the mood of the electorate in a manner not favorable for the PSR. The war is seriously undermining the Turkish economy: losses from pipeline explosions are hundreds of millions of dollars. The uncertainty of the ruling elite is shown also by its attempts to decrease the influence of its competitor, in the form of the Kurdish Party of Democracy of the People (PDN), by initiating legal proceedings regarding their leader S. Demirtash.

However Erdogan’s decision to conduct strikes by the Turkish Air Force on Kurds was caused, it did not improve its relations with Baghdad (with Damascus they are currently absent for obvious reasons) and Cairo. The Egyptian president severely condemned Turkey, recalling about its joint activities with Qatar (as well as in Libya and Syria) to support the jihadists in Sinai and in Gaza. One must note that the sharp criticism from Erdogan of the actions of General as-Sisi during the overthrow by the Egyptian military of the “Muslim Brotherhood” government and of President M. Mursi, who is close to the Turkish PSR in the religious and ideological realm, as well as Cairo’s fight against terrorists (including HAMAS fighters) could not help but evoke a counter response of the Arab Republic of Egypt.

The actions of Turkey also caused strain with its allies in NATO, first of all Germany. In this country live millions-strong Turkish and Kurdish diasporas. The possibility of conflicts between Turks and Kurds in the streets of German cities is not the most pleasant news for Chancellor A. Merkel. All the more because of exclusive parties and movements, whose positions will strengthen in this case – right and far right, for which not just the conservative segment of voters, but also German centrists, will inevitably begin to vote. The extremely negative relationship to assimilation of the Turkish community there, expressed more than once earlier by Erdogan including during his visits to Germany, as well as his appeals to maintain its national features at the expense of the interests of Berlin, not to mention the requirements for loyalty of German Turks to Ankara, spoiled the relations of the president with the German elite. It is easy to imagine its reaction to the next problem which he has created for Germany.

Attacks of Turkish forces on Kurds are likewise not improving relations with the USA, despite the positive responses of American experts to Ankara’s permission, obtained by Washington, to use the Incirlik air force base. The base for them for Erdogan in any case is not so much everything developed over decades by his predecessors, as it is the reasonable suspicions that President B. Obama supports his former ally, F. Gülen, who has been transformed into a dangerous enemy. Living in the USA , this leader of Islamic “Jamaat”, which in today’s Turkey is referred to exclusively as a “parallel state”, initiated a corruption scandal of national scale during Erdogan’s presidential campaign, using high-ranking supporters in the national law-enforcement system. According to the Turkish leader, Gülen operated by direction of the American management, interested in his removal from power. Erdogan does not forgive such things, seeing that he became president and still is for now.

By agreement on leasing the Incirlik base, the Americans agreed not to use it to organize “support of Kurdish groups in Syria”. Since the basic military force which counters IS within the Syrian territory adjacent to Turkey, are the Kurdish formations of the Party of Democratic Union (PDS), which is close to RPK, it is helping not the fight against the “Islamic State”, but IS itself. This confirms the opinion of experts supposing Turkey to be IS’s secret ally. Washington and Ankara agreed also about creation of a zone free of IS along the extent of 110 kilometers from the Euphrates River to the province of Aleppo. In this, neither the Turks nor other members of NATO intend to involve their own ground forces to execute this plan, and taking into account the state of the relations with Kurds, it is not clear who will execute this “on the ground”.

It must be noted that the USA has refused to discuss the idea of a “no-fly zone” over this region that Turkey has insisted on. At the same time the Turkish Air Force struck a blow on PDS positions around Jarablus where Kurds were attacking IS positions (officially Ankara denies this fact). Turkish tanks shelled PDS positions in other regions, including in the province of Aleppo. Despite this, Kurds successfully dislodged IS supporters from Serrin, and later with the support of Syrian aircraft from Haseka, which seriously disturbed IS supply routes in Syria. Here, the PDS offensive was supported by American aircraft, which contradicted the Turkish-American agreement. It is not known, to what extent this was an initiative of the USA Air Force regional command, and whether these activities were agreed with Washington. Taking into account the traditionally “warm” relations of the American military with the State Department, no investigation is likely.

What to expect from Turkomans

The mass media has paid considerable attention to the statement of the US administration that the American air forces will cover from the air the secular opposition groups that have been trained with the assistance of Washington, regarding this as readiness to strike Assad’s armies. But nothing testifies to the readiness of the United States to interfere with the Syrian civil war immediately – rather, to the contrary. All the more that this means direct conflict not so much with Damascus as with Tehran, and this endangers the nuclear deal with Iran, which is the main foreign policy achievement of the current American administration. In this regard, it is essential that at the present stage there be Turkish secular opposition groups prepared.

The Turkish Gambit

In this American program, widely advertised and financed as sufficient to prepare the declared number of several thousand participants, called up to create battle-ready oppositional divisions which could replace the Syrian Free Army (SSA), of which some groups partially left for the Islamists, partially went over to Assad’s army, and the remainder were destroyed (including other oppositionists) — there were assembled 54 ethnic Turkomans (having in mind the Iraqi and Syrian Turkmens – the VPK). Which says with what efficiency taxpayer money is spent for protection of American interests in Syria. The Turks most categorically forbade the Americans to train the Kurds. The name of this group, now passing through training, “Division 30”, contrasts with its small number.

Its representative, Nadeem al-Hasan, who arrived in Syria to establish a mode of “constructive interaction” with other insurgent groups, was immediately kidnapped by fighters of the pro-Saudi “Jabhat an-Nusra”, which is becoming more active in Latakia province. This is clear evidence that the temporary truce of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey in the war against Assad — the result of which had been the termination of the internecine fight of the jihadist structures supervised by them and the agreed allocation of fronts that led to the fall of Idlib and Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq – has ended. Judging overall, pro-American groups cannot become a part of an existing insurgent movement. Islamists from the pro-Saudi and pro-Qatar groups treat them with hostility. This brings into question any cooperation between the USA and Turkey concerning opposition to Assad as such. Washington is not ready to be under Ankara’s thumb, supporting Islamists whom Turkey protects. That in turn demonstratively sabotages American designs.

Taking into account the actions of Ankara, which put a brake on the Kurds approaching the capital of IS, Raqqa, as well as those of Washington, which is maintaining relations both with Turkey and with the Kurds, the activity in Syria of British intelligence services working in close contact with the American ones is of interest. The transfer of the main components of IS to the Raqqa region allowed the Syrian army to begin an approach to Palmyra, having reduced the danger of an attack of Islamists on Homs. This became possible due to the fact that the Druzes, some dozens of whom were killed by Salafites for refusal to join them and replace their faith, came over to the side of Damascus. It is thus characteristic that British MI-6 has used all its efforts to reanimate pre-war contacts in the Druze community of Syria to convince it to break off relations with Bashar Assad’s regime. This activity is conducted through the Druze community of London. According to expert opinion, in conditions where a war has acquired a religious character, this is doomed to failure. Druzes have stood in the relatively recent past, along with the Alawites, before the threat of genocide and can well imagine the consequences of European experiments.

Aggravation of the situation in the border regions of Syria and Iraq has activated one more large community of the region, the Turkomans, traditionally supported by Ankara. Successes of fighters of the “Islamic State” have led to reanimating the idea of creating Turkoman autonomy in Iraq. Similar processes may begin in Syria. Even according to underestimated official data, Turkomans were considered as the third largest after Arabs and Kurds as an ethnic group of Iraq, numbering up to three million people (about 40 percent of them being Shiites). In Syria their number before the war was about 10 percent of the population (up to 2.5 million people). In this regard, being descendants of military settlers, set up to control the Arab and Kurdish tribes and the Persian border zone for the Ottoman Porte, Turkomans traditionally are at enmity with Arabs and Kurds.

The Turkomans actively opposed official Damascus; the representative of this community heads the union of moderate opposition, NKORS. In Iraq, Turkey supports the “Iraqi Turkoman front”, which opposes control over Kirkuk by Kurdish authorities and supports autonomy of the Turkomans (on census of 1957 they were two thirds of the population of Kirkuk). Cooperation in the oil and gas export realm between Ankara and Kurdish Erbil, established by R.T. Erdogan and M. Barzani, forced Turkey to distance itself from support of the Turkomans in their fight against Kurds for Kirkuk. But the approach of IS groups to Iraq Kurdistan has put local Turkomans facing genocide. In this regard, they did not receive help either from Baghdad or from Kurdish authorities.

When IS detachments occupied the Tell-Afar region with a Turkoman population in Nineveh province, 200,000 people left, fleeing to Sinjar. In turn, refugees from Sinjar, which was quickly occupied by the jihadists, tried to find safety in the territory of the Kurds, but for several days were stopped by Kurdish Peshmerga formations in the control zone between Nineveh and Erbil. As a result a considerable number of Turkomans perished. Islamists annihilated Turkoman Shiites. Baghdad’s Shiite militias pursued Turkoman Sunnis. The Kurdish authorities pursued a policy of ethnic cleansings of Turkomans in Kirkuk and adjacent regions. Numerous abductions by jihadists of women Turkomans, violently converted to Salafite Islam, were noted.

As a result, in May – July Turkomans created a Shiite brigade numbering 4,000 fighters and a Sunni brigade of 1,500, which entered into the “Hashd al-Shaabi” coalition. This is not the the most significant armed force in the region, but it can achieve particular successes with the support of Turkey and with establishment of relations with the Americans. However, what finally will be the fate of the Turkomans in the region is not yet clear.

Evgeny Satanovsky, president of Institute of the Middle East

Published in issue No. 30 (596), August 12, 2015

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