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Turkey Trapped in the Syrian Crisis

For some ten years now, Turkey’s regonal policies have been characterised by U-turns and changes of heart. Henceforth, Ankara is bogged down in the Syrian crisis, caught between Kurdish demands and the terrorist attacks of ISIS.

On December 19, 2016, on the eve of the opening of the summit meeting between Turkey, Russia, and Iran on the Syrian question, a Turkish police officer shot dead the Russian ambassador to Ankara, Andreï Karlov. The body riddled with nine bullets lying at his feet, the assassin screamed jihadi and nationalist slogans pertaining to Aleppo in Turkish and badly accented Arabic. This assassination will no doubt play an important role in the ongoing recomposition of alliances, while that tripartite meeting confirmed Russia’s predominance in the Near East, its capacity to impose its will on the other contenders for the role of regional leader. As for Iran, it emerged as the one stable Shiite power, at the same time bent on defending its national interest, in particular with its slow, surreptitious policy of support for the Alawites. Turkey, on the other hand, against its will and for the umpteenth time, has had to modify its foreign policy, floundering about in the Near-East quagmire which it really doesn’t understand.

Never in its history has Turkey’s foreign policy known such an uncertain and dangerous period. Dangerous for the country and for its population paralysed like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car, constantly exposed to the propaganda of government-controlled media. Dangerous for the whole region as well, and even for all of Europe. This situation is certainly imputable to the chaos that prevails in the Near East, but also to the pathological inconsistencies of Turkish policies, both domestic and foreign. It’s not so much that the Turks have made the wrong choices and taken the wrong decisions—common enough in matters of foreign policy—but rather that they have made no clear choices at all, conveying the impression of a failed State which its traditional interlocutor partners and conjectural allies can no longer trust.

Today, in its efforts to be rid of its former Western allies, Ankara’s diplomacy involves numerous overtures towards the Gulf countries, in particular Qatar, with an eye not only to strengthening its military position in the Near East, but also to attracting Arab investments in order to make up for the capital flight caused by Western investors’ fears about political instability, ethnic and religious violence or indeed the security of their movable assets and landed property. In December 2014, and a year later in December 2015, the two countries signed agreements to provide for the installation of a Turkish military base in Qatar. Since the “Arab Spring,” both are intent to impose their policies, the former through its army and Sunni rhetoric, the latter through its petrodollars and interventionist foreign policy.

Lost illusions

To see things a little more clearly, we have to go back in time. In 1998, which was before The Justice and Development Party (AKP) had come to power in Turkey and while Bashar’s father, Hafez Al-Assad, was still alive, Turko-Syrian relations were greatly improved when Damascus deported Abdulla Öcalan, historic leader of the Turkish Kurds. When the AKP came to power in 2002, it inaugurated a proactive and innovative policy in the Near East, chiefly promoted by Ahmet Davutoglu, initially as a special adviser on foreign affairs of the Prime Minister of the day, Recep Tayyep Erdogan, then, after 2009, as the latter’s foreign minister (and briefly prime minister between 2014 and 2016). Not only were visas abolished between the two countries and many commercial agreements signed, but also Recep Tayyep Erdogan established a warm personal relationship with Bashar Al-Assad and his family, even spending his holidays with them.

In 2011, Ankara did a complete strategic turnabout and began spouting identity rhetoric hostile to the Assad regime. Indeed, with the Arab Spring, the Turkish Islamists began to dream: they saw the Muslim Brotherhood taking over every government in the Near East, forming a network whose regional or even worldwide leader would be Erdogan himself. A kind of politico-religious Caliphate, a utopia that could be imagined only by totally ignoring the internal and external dynamics of the region. This dream soon sank without a trace in the troubled waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. In Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood and the AKP’s sister party were voted out of office. Libya became ISIS’s backyard. And in Egypt, the military coup finished Erdogan’s fantasies. There remained only Syria, governed by Baathists whose Alawite religion made them sensitive to Sunni identity rhetoric. Thus, totally ignoring the interests of the other major powers in the region, such as Iran and Russia, Ankara plunged into the quagmire, supporting at first the Syrian opposition, and then ISIS for a time, which had the advantage of giving Turkey access to those enticing shipments of crude oil from the wells controlled by the jihadists1.

The reasons for the Russian intervention in Syria

At the same time, after 2011 but especially after the failed coup of July 2016, the regime has been swept deeper and deeper into a spiral of violence and authoritarianism, distancing itself from the European Union in a search for new alliances to the East. The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO)2, dominated by China and Russia, seemed a good alternative. Indeed, the Russians had filled the vacuum left in Syria by American and European diplomacy. They had done so for two main reasons, one short-term and the other structural.

Firstly, the Russian intervention addresses an immediate concern. ISIS has recruited many Chechen fighters3 and for Moscow this provides a wonderful opportunity to exterminate them “legitimately” without causing indignation in the West. Thus, several Russian fighter jets have carried out strikes against former Turkmen villages in northern Syria, abandoned by their inhabitants and now Chechen strongholds. One of these planes, a Sukhoi Su24M, was shot down by two Turkish F-16s on November 24, 2015, on the pretext it had violated the Turkish airspace. This incident put a severe strain on the Russo-Turkish relations, making the Turkish administration, which did not have a clue about the politics of the region, suddenly aware that Moscow was to be reckoned with in Syria.

But Russian activism in the Near East cannot be explained solely by a will to kill off Chechen militants who have joined ISIS. Moscow has only one military base providing access to the Mediterranean, located at Tartus in Syria, 100 kilometres to the west of Homs. The fall of the Bath regime or a loss of control over that coastal zone would be unacceptable to the Kremlin.

Misguided diplomacy

Thus Ankara found it had bitten off more than it could chew in Syria: hoping for the fall of Bashar Al-Assad, on the one hand, while trying to prevent a Kurdish victory in northern Syria and, under pressure from Russia and the West, helping to hold back ISIS, is by definition quite impossible.

There are at present three emerging forces inside Syria:

1° Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. For nearly six years, it was considered by Ankara to be its best ally, until suddenly the Turks began heaping opprobrium on Bashar for four years, with the goal of “going to pray in the mosque of Umayyad”4. In 2016, Ankara became resigned to seeing the Bath regime survive and agreed to resume relations with Damascus. As usual, Erdogan had changed the pronunciation of his former ally’s name once he had become his enemy. During his earlier honeymoon with Damascus, the president, and consequently his whole cabinet and all the media under his control had called him “Esad.” When he became The Enemy, his name was changed to “Essed”. Today it is “Esad” again.

2 ° ISIS; at first Ankara supported it both actively and passively (ISIS militants were cared for in Turkish hospitals). Following the unsigned terrorist attacks in Turkey, and because of pressures from the West, Turkey has had to involve itself in the war against the “Islamic State,”which the president, and consequently the rest of the country, never call anything but “Daesh,” thereby avoiding the defamatory association with “Islam.”

3 ° The Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” (YPG): the Kurds are at the top of Ankara’s hate list. The precarious deal with Russia consists precisely in accepting the legitimacy of Bashar’s regime in exchange for bombing the Kurds and preventing them at all costs from creating an autonomous region in northern Syria. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is considered close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). After five years of negotiations, the latter is again at war with the State following the victory of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP)5 in the June 2016 election. Erdogan, mysteriously enough, pronounces half the acronym YPG in Turkish and the rest in English: “Ye (Turkish)-Pi-Dji (English)”, possibly to stress the fact that the USA supports the Kurds.

Inextricable trap

If Ankara seems to be trapped inextricably, both in Syria and at home, it is on account of an inconsistency rarely observed among policy makers. Since June 2015, when the election threatened to cause the AKP’s power to crumble (and was consequently cancelled), there have been all in all 34 terrorist attacks, causing 600 deaths, among them 400 civilians. These attacks are at times attributed to the PKK, at others to the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK)6, at still others to ISIS or Hizmet, the Gülen movement, the AKP’s major ally until June 2016.

Thus the assassination of the Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov on December 19 in the heart of Ankara is blamed on the gülenists. But the fact remains that the assassin (killed on the spot, although eyewitnesses say he could have been captured alive) was a full-fledged policeman, and therefore a member of the Turkish state apparatus. For the moment, Russia and Turkey are keeping a low profile on this affair because of their common interests in Syria, but there is little doubt that it will have consequences before long and once again the cost will be borne by the Turkish people, victims of sudden switches in AKP diplomacy and of a galvanising but totally irrational identity rhetoric.

1This unrefined petroleum was trucked into Turkey for two years. Satellite photos of the traffic were published by the Russians to put pressure on Ankara. In exchange for oil, the Turkish regime seems to have provided logistic and military aid to the Syrian opposition—ISIS included. For publishing proof of this, the personnel of the daily Cumhuriyet suffered prison terms and exile, and there was even an attempt to murder its editor, Can Dündar, exiled in Germany. Besides which, the close ties between Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, Minister of Energy until December 2016, and PowerTrans, a company carrying ISIS oil into Turkey, were revealed by Wikileaks in November 2016 via Berat’s Box, a site which is inaccessible in Turkey. We must not forget that for a long time, ISIS did not sign its terrorist attacks in Turkey and the then Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, had the gall to describe the terrorist organisation as “a few angry young Sunnites.”

2Editor’s note: Intergovernmental Asian regional organisation created in 2001. Its founding members are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, later joined by India and Pakistan.

3According to a report by the Soufan Group, during the summer of 2016 there were believed to be 30,000 foreign fighters in the ranks of ISIS, among them some 3,000 Russians (and nearly 2,500 Turks).

4In other words, the Turkish occupation of Damascus, from a declaration made by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2012.

5Actually, the HDP (Halkların Demokratik Partisi) is a coalition led by the Kurdish political movement but which has united under a common banner democrats, liberals, ecologists and representatives of the civil society. Today, the HDP is constantly criminalized by the power structure and hundreds of its elected officials, both local and national, and including its two co-presidents, are behind bars.

6Teyrêbazên Azadiya Kurdistan. Some say this is a sub-branch of the PKK, created in order to carry out terrorist attacks in urban zones. Others believe it is a dissident group which considers the PKK not tough enough and too restricted to Kurdistan. Still others suspect a link between the TAK and the Turkish secret service who use it to inflame relations between Kurds and Turks and keep the AKP in power by exploiting the momentum of identity conflicts.