For Turkey, a friendship with Russia is allowing Ankara to make gains in Syria that its alliance with the United States was unable to offer, writes Turkey expert David Barchard.
THIS COMING WEEK, it will be exactly 13 months since Russia moved militarily into Syria.
At the time, Russia’s brilliant, if ruthless, move on the strategic chessboard infuriated Turkey. It seemed to block the way for the military incursion campaign that Ankara still dreamt of to dislodge President Bashar al-Assad and replace him with a Sunni-led united Syria. Russia, too, seems to have believed at the start of this year that it would face the united opposition of Turkey and Saudi Arabia in Syria.
But as things have turned out, Russia’s entry into Syria eventually unblocked the three-year stalemate for Turkey – after it had done a volte-face of its own and President Erdogan reached an understanding with President Vladimir Putin in June.
That deal was probably inspired by a Turkish need to restore normal economic relations with Russia, but it swiftly turned out to be a winning compromise for it in Syria as well.
Striking the Kurds
At the present, though Russia is securely entrenched in the western areas of the country ruled by Assad and unlikely ever to be dislodged, Turkey, with Putin’s approval, now has tanks and soldiers in the north of the country. The long-frustrated Turkish dream of a “safe zone” for refugees running 55 miles (90km) westward from Jarabulus now seems to be realizable.
More importantly, Turkey is also able to simultaneously tackle the two threats it sees on its southern borders: the autonomous Syrian Kurdish enclaves and the Islamic State (I.S.) militant group.
Borrowing the tactics of the U.S.-led coalition against I.S., its planes bomb the Syrian Kurds while its local allies in the Free Syrian Army fight them on the ground, pressing on Tel Rifaat and Marea, and the outlying Kurdish enclave of Afrin, and also Manbij, the town recently captured from I.S. by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Each major move by Turkey seems to be preceded by a direct telephone conversation between the two presidents, indicating that, though each has probably told the other the general outlines of the new order that they intend to create in Syria, they still need to be sure of the other’s specific acquiescence.
A year ago, Putin probably would not have relished the idea of a Turkish-backed Sunni zone in much of Syria – and his ally Bashar al-Assad must detest it.
But, if I.S.’s hold on northeastern Syria does crumble under the Turkey-backed onslaught on it, some sort of stable authority is likely to emerge in place of the present fragmentation as Turkey and its allies consolidate their hold in the north and Turkey acts as its guarantor.
More importantly, Putin knows that cooperation with Turkey is beginning to glue it into a long-term partnership with Russian interests. It is not simply that Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and NATO are tense and mutually suspicious, and steadily deteriorating.
The arrival of Russia in Syria could be its biggest strategic breakthrough since the distant times when it arrived on the Black Sea in 1774. It transforms the strategic balance in the Eastern Mediterranean region, effectively encircling Turkey and pruning its strategic importance to its Western allies.
This might have started alarm bells ringing in Ankara under many earlier governments but today, the eyes of government strategists and commentators in the Turkish capital are almost exclusively focused on eliminating opponents of its Sunni allies in both Syria and Iraq and then building those groups up in the medium term into stable frontline political entities working closely with Turkey.
Having been frustrated from gaining this prize for so long and paid such a huge cost, it is understandable that Ankara is determined not to miss it now.
So what we are seeing in Syria seems like a drift toward the emergence of two zones of influence: a Russian-backed littoral state under Assad, claiming to be the sole government of the country, and a “Free Syria” backed by Turkey.
This might sound a bit like Cold War Germany, but perhaps a better parallel, and a more Middle Eastern one, is the division of Iran into Russian and British zones of influence before World War I.
This depends, of course, on the four-months-old Russian-Turkish understanding continuing. Not all Russian observers are confident that it will. The red line it seems Turkish forces must not cross is al-Bab, the strategic town currently occupied by I.S. 35 miles (55km) to the north of Aleppo. Turkey struck this week at Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces close to al-Bab, frustrating possible Kurdish moves to gain the upper hand there.
Some of Erdogan’s supporters, particularly the Turkish affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservatives, have been urging him ever since August to move on al-Bab, and speeches he has given suggest he is warm toward the idea. “They tell us not to go to al-Bab, but we are obliged to go down there,” he said in a speech at Bursa on 22 October.
Deal on Aleppo
If – and it is a big “if” because such a move looks dangerous in military terms – Turkish allies and perhaps even its troops do move toward Aleppo, Turkey’s relations with Russia will come under serious strain. Putin needs to find some sort of deal over the city, giving Turkey’s public the impression of at least a token gain.
Turkey has, however, shown willingness to respect Russian sensitivities in Aleppo by agreeing to remove al-Nusra Front militants from the town in a telephone conversation between Erdogan and Putin. The partnership with Russia looks like a way for Turkey to achieve a slightly scaled-down version of its long-term policy aims in Syria, something the U.S. could not provide.
On 23 October, Erdogan told the Russian TV channel Rossiya-1: “I need the support of my respected and valuable friend Putin in the joint struggle against terrorism in this region. We are ready to take every step necessary to cooperate with Russia in this area.” Russian-Turkish friendship is new but it may be more than a short-lived marriage of convenience.
This article was originally published by Middle East Eye and is reprinted here with permission
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report September 9, 2016, 8:05 AM (IDT)
The fledgling “initiatives” reverberating this week in Washington, Moscow, Ankara, Jerusalem and the G20 summit were nothing but distractions from the quiet deals struck by two lead players, Russia and Turkey to seize control of the region’s affairs. Recep Tayyip Erdogan knew nothing would come of his offer on the G20 sidelines to US President Barack Obama to team up for a joint operation to evict ISIS from Raqqa. And, although Moscow was keen on hosting the first handshake in almost a decade between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), neither were known to be ready for the last step toward a meeting.
But the game-changing events to watch out for took place in Hangzhou without fanfare – namely, the Obama-Putin talks and the far more fruitful encounter between Putin and Erdogan.
According to DEBKAfile’s intelligence and Mid East sources, Putin virtually shut the door on further cooperation with the United States in Syria. He highhandedly informed Obama that he now holds all the high cards for controlling the Syrian conflict, whereas Washington was just about out of the game.
Putin picked up the last cards, our sources disclose, in a secret deal with Erdogan for Russian-Turkish collaboration in charting the next steps in the Middle East.
The G20 therefore, instead of promoting new US-Russian understanding, gave the impetus to a new Russian-Turkish partnership.
Erdogan raked in instant winnings: Before he left China, he had pocketed Putin’s nod to grab a nice, 4,000-sq.km slice of northern Syria, as a “security zone” under the control of the Turkish army and air force, with Russian non-interference guaranteed.
This Turkish zone would include the Syrian towns of Jarablus, Manjib, Azaz and Al-Bab.
Ankara would reciprocate by withdrawing its support from the pro-US and pro-Saudi rebel groups fighting the Assad army and its allies in the area north of Aleppo.
Turkey’s concession gave Putin a selling-point to buy the Syrian ruler assent to Erdogan’s project. Ankara’s selling-point to the West was that the planned security zone would provide a safe haven for Syrian refugees and draw off some of the outflow perturbing Europe.
It now turns out that, just as the Americans sold the Syrian Kurds down the river to Turkey (when Vice President Joe Biden last month ordered them to withdraw from their lands to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River or lose US support), so too are the Turks now dropping the Syrian rebels they supported in the mud by re-branding them as “terrorists.”
The head of this NATO nation has moreover gone behind America’s back for a deal with the Russian ruler on how to proceed with the next steps of the Syrian conflict.
Therefore, when US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva Thursday and Friday, Sept. 8-9, for their sixth and seventh abortive sit-downs on the Syrian issue, there was not much left for them to discuss, aside from continuing to coordinate their air traffic over Syria and the eastern Mediterranean.
Washington and Moscow are alike fearful of an accidental collision in the sky in the current inflammable state of relations between the two powers.
As a gesture of warning, a Russian SU-25 fighter jet Tuesday, Sept 6, intercepted a US Navy P8 plane flying on an international route over the Black Sea. When the Russian jet came as close as 12 feet, the US pilots sent out emergency signals – in vain, because the Russian plane’s transponder was switched off. The American plane ended up changing course.
Amid these anomalies, Moscow pressed ahead with preparations to set up a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as the Russian Foreign Ministry announced Thursday.
Putin is keen to succeed where the Obama administration failed. John Kerry abandoned his last effort at peacemaking as a flop two years ago. But it is hard to see Netanyahu or Abu Mazen rushing to play along with the Russian leader’s plan to demean the US president in the last months of his tenure – especially when no one can tell who will win the November 8 presidential election – Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – or what policies either will pursue.
All the region’s actors will no doubt be watching closely to see how Turkey’s “Russian track” plays out and how long the inveterate opportunists can hang together.
Erdogan is one giant step closer to doing what he has always wanted to do
Much has been made of the Islamic State’s claim to the caliphate. But the Islamic State is fast losing ground in Syria and Iraq, and without a territorial claim, its claim to the caliphate is a shaky one. According to some sources, ISIS has already been preparing its followers for the fall of the caliphate.
Meanwhile, an Islamist power with a much better claim to the caliphate has been gathering strength. Whether the failed coup in Turkey was the real thing or whether it was staged, as some have claimed, President Erdogan’s hold over the Turkish nation has been immeasurably strengthened. As a result, he is now one giant step closer to doing what, some say, he has always wanted to do—namely, to re-establish the caliphate.
The last time the Muslim world had a caliphate, it was centered in Constantinople. The Turkish sultan (who was also the caliph) was the head of the Ottoman Empire—an empire that controlled far more territory than ISIS does or is ever likely to. Then in 1923, following the disarray left by the First World War, a secular government under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk came to power in Turkey and abolished the caliphate soon after.
To many in the Muslim world, this was a world-changing catastrophe. It flew in the face of Muhammad’s intention that mosque and state should be united, and it undermined the case for Islamic law. Moreover, the overthrow of the caliphate affected not just Turkey, but all of the Muslim world. In the late 1920s in Egypt, Hasan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood with the intention of reversing what Ataturk had done. The Brotherhood came close to doing this–at least in Egypt—in 2012 with the election of Mohamed Morsi as president. But Morsi showed his hand too early and was soon deposed by the military under General El-Sisi.
In Turkey, also, it was the military that acted as the guardian of the secular state. And so it remained until the election of President Recep Erdogan in 2002. Even then, Erdogan moved slowly in his efforts to re-Islamize Turkey. He gradually removed top military officers and replaced them with his own men; and he did the same with the police, the judiciary, and other key institutions.
By 2012, some twenty percent of the country’s generals were estimated to be behind bars. Then, with this month’s failed coup, Erdogan moved quickly to arrest some 3,000 members of the military and 3,000 members of the judiciary. In addition, his regime sacked 9,000 workers attached to the Interior Ministry. Within a week of the attempted coup, some 50,000 soldiers, police, judges, civil servants, and teachers had been suspended or arrested.
Erdogan’s power is now nearly absolute—not unlike the absolute power of a sultan. According to some, this has been his goal all along. One indication is that Erdogan has built himself a thousand-room presidential palacethat is attended by guards dressed in Ottoman-era uniforms.
If Erdogan does try to establish a caliphate, where does that leave ISIS? Would they go quietly into the dark night of oblivion? Or would they find a place in the new caliphate?
As you may have noticed, alliances in the Middle East are constantly shifting. It’s not inconceivable that ISIS would someday pledge allegiance to a neo-Ottoman caliphate—although such an event might have to be preceded by the demise of their current caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The truth is, Erdogan has been something of a friend and benefactor of ISIS. As Caroline Glick observed in the Jerusalem Post:
Erdogan has turned a blind eye to al-Qaida. And he has permitted ISIS to use Turkey as its logistical base, economic headquarters, and recruitment center. Earlier this year, the State Department claimed that all of the 25,000 foreign recruits to ISIS have entered Syria through Turkey.
Turkey is also the gateway between Syria and Europe. It is through Turkey that the bulk of Muslim migrants flow into Europe. This gives Erdogan enormous leverage over the future of Europe—a continent which is already reeling from a flood of migrants and refugees. How is the leverage applied? In March, the European Union reached a deal with Turkey that would in essence turn Turkey into a buffer zone against further immigration. Here’s how Foreign Affairs summarized the bargain:
Turkey has agreed to act as a giant refugee holding center, keeping the millions of migrants fleeing conflict in the Middle East from reaching Europe and accepting those sent back from Greece. In exchange, the EU will pay Turkey three billion euros on top of the three billion pledged last November to help care for the refugees. It will also speed up the approval of visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens and revive stalled negotiations over Turkey’s accession to the EU.
So Turkey will keep the Syrian migrants out of Europe as long as Turkish citizens are allowed almost unlimited access to Europe through visa-free travel. The net result is that the Islamization of Europe will continue. And, of course, there’s nothing to stop Turkey from opening up the refugee floodgate whenever it sees fit. Turkey’s control of Mid-East migration gives it the upper hand in its dealings with Europe.
The other part of the bargain is the revival of negotiations to admit Turkey to the EU. If Turkey is ever successful in that endeavor, it would spell game-over for Europe. If Erdogan wants to re-establish the caliphate, and if he is so keen on union with Europe, it is likely that he envisions Europe as part of the future caliphate. This is something that the Ottoman sultans dreamed of, but were never able to accomplish. But Erdogan might be able to pull it off. There is now a very large contingent of Turks in Germany who seem to bear more allegiance to him than to Germany. And all over Europe there exists a fifth column of active and potential Islamists ready to be activated. As for the other four columns, it’s worth keeping in mind that Turkey has the second largest army in NATO (the U.S. has the largest). And with many of the generals who coordinated with NATO now in jail, Turkey’s loyalty to NATO is very much in question.
There is one other factor to consider. During and after the coup attempt, Erdogan shut down Incirlik Air Base, which is home to 1,500 American soldiers as well as other NATO troops. The Turkish government cut off the base’s electricity supply, temporarily suspended flights, and arrested the base commander, General Ercan Van. The base reportedly houses 50 nuclear warheads. The bombs are controlled by the U.S. forces in Turkey, but could they by means sudden or gradual fall under the control of Turkey? And if they did, would the U.S. dare to do anything about it?
By many accounts, Erdogan is a true believer who, in his own way, is every bit as fanatical as the ayatollahs in Iran. The man who built a thousand-room palace for himself might well believe that a restored caliphate should possess all the weapons that befit a great world power. With Erdogan’s latest consolidation of power, an already dangerous world just became a lot more dangerous.
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