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Turkey’s “strange war” in Syria and Iraq

Turkish Air Forces bombing Kurds instead of ISIL militants. Photo: rusnovosti.ru

It is hard to call Turkey’s military involvement in Syria and Iraq a totally independent decision of the Turkish authorities. Ankara’s step followed by missile and bombing attacks, as well as shell attacks at the positions of the Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party fighters in Iraq was triggered by a number of factors, with some of them determined by the instigating actions of the United States.          

Over the past few months, the U.S. Administration has been unsuccessfully trying to put the Turkish government on the “right track” and involve its NATO ally in an anti-jihadist operation in the Middle East. The right moment emerged in May-July 2015. But first and foremost, it should be stressed that Washington laid down an important condition concerning the starting dates of the Turkish army's “nemesis operation”. The operation could be launched only after the comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program was signed in Vienna, though the Turkish troops had been on high alert long before July 14.

The May-July period embraced a series of events, which were critically important for understanding the situation in the US-Turkish relations on Syria. Before May, Turkey refused the US moves, mentioning the upcoming general elections among other reasons.  Washington, in turn, assured that the US was interested in the Turkish army’s involvement only in the air component of the anti-IS operation. Turkey’s land incursion into Syria was fraught with a series of big problems for the United States and NATO. Washington evasively called them “logistic-type difficulties.” The United States’ call for Turkey’s involvement in the air force operation only was a response to the Turks’ demand to create a so-called “security zone” in the north of Syria.

The goal of the Americans, who always try to set themselves specific military and political tasks, was to come into possession of the Turkish Incirlik air base.  The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) needed the base in the Middle East to conduct an operation that would be more efficient in military terms and less expensive in economic terms. Adana (Turkey), near which Incirlik is deployed, is less than a 450km run from the capital of the “caliphate” in Raqqa (Syria). Now the US striking aviation has to pass much longer distances, very often over 2,000km, to drop the ammunition and safely return to the bases near the Persian Gulf.

Ankara was reluctant to grant Washington's request for the Incirlik base but the US found the key to the “Turkish lock”. The finding, as often happens, was quite interesting. On May 16, the US Delta Force (Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta) conducted a raid into eastern Syria against the IS militants. The raid resulted in collection of several terabytes of IS-related information in various data storage devices. The financial documents, particularly, the jihadists’ book records on their oil trade with the Turkish customers were of special value. Earlier the western media outlets mentioned the name of IS “oil minister” Abu Sayyaf, who controlled all the oil and money flows from and to Turkey. So, the US commandos received the current information about those flows of oil and dollars, as well as the data archive on the background of the IS oil and arms smuggling to and from Turkey. The figures Americans learned conveyed the suggestion that the authorities of Turkey – a partner country within NATO - were not only privy to the oil smuggling but probably had direct complicity in generation of tremendous profits. At the height of the IS oil mining capacities in Iraq and Syria, the oil entering Turkey daily (!) amounted to USD1-4 million (1).

The terabytes of the IS data collected by the US services provided in-depth insight into the internal schemes of administrative, financial and personal ties of the militant group, according to the New York Times. One can confidently suppose that the experts in Washington gave a high priority to exploration of the jihadists' ties with their partners in Turkey, especially, to collection of the Turkish high-ranking officials’ profiles. The White House mounted a crucial attack because it had such a “political bomb” and well-documented cases of the Turkish special services’ supply of arms to the IS militants bypassing the CIA, which controls all the US operations in Syria. General John Allen, Barack Obama's Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, as well as other high-ranking officials, including CENTCOM, hurried to Ankara. They possessed the evidence demonstrating that Turks were conducting a “double game” and obtaining fabulous profits from the oil trade with the “commercial structures” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization.

Taken aback, Ankara found the nerve to impose a reciprocal condition on Washington – the decision on Incirlik would be taken some time after the parliamentary election results in Turkey were summed up. The US perceived that condition with understanding, especially as the White House was going to bring the nuclear deal with Iran to logical conclusion and only after that to focus on final opening of the “Turkish lock”, as it has been mentioned above. The authorities of Turkey were allowed to hold the parliamentary elections on June 7 in non-combat conditions and to overcome the following disappointment of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party with the unsatisfactory voting results. But closer to the outcome of the story, Turkey felt an impelling need for a strong impulse of public opinion inside the country. The stand on military non-intervention could not be U-turned within a day without rhyme or reason.

Before the act of terrorism in the near-border town of Suruç, Turkey, the local pro-governmental media outlets launched relevant information activity. Yeni Safak  - a newspaper close to Erdogan – explicitly wrote about the Turkish generalship’s plans to create an extensive “security zone” (110km long and 33km deep) near the town of Jarabulus, Syria. The media also featured other details of the upcoming Turkish incursion into Syria. The press broke forth into revelations days and even hours before the act of terrorism in Suruç. The act of terrorism was preceded by numerous statements of the Turkish republic’s dignitaries about the inadmissibility of creating any spots of state self-consciousness of the local Kurds in northern Syria. In this light, one can also mention the series of meetings held by the National Security Council of Turkey and its army command.

The terrorist attack was made in the manner Ankara could only “dream” of. An IS-recruited Kurd (the suicide bomber was initially believed to be a woman) attacked his compatriots in Suruç, which is a few kilometers away from the Syrian border. It’s no wonder that such “turn of events” made the domestic political opponents of the Turkish authorities suspect the local special services of being privy to the finishing touch in draining the public opinion onto the needed track. The Kurdish voice of the Turkish opposition did not keep silence when the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) paved the way for the trucks with man-portable air defense systems and anti-armor systems heading for Syria. The weapons found themselves in the hands of not only the “moderate” Syrian opposition fighters. Following the June 7 elections, the Kurds turned into a system political factor with an 80-mandate parliamentary group that might vote, for instance, for immediate release of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The Erdogan government had to do something with it and under the guise of the anti-IS operation in Syria it launched intensive military actions against the most combat-effective part of the Turkish Kurds. Now the Turkish army is striking far more blows against the PKK in northern Iraq as compared to the Syrian theater of the “anti-jihadist” operation. The Turkish media outlets report that as of August 1 the air strikes of the Turkish air forces claimed nearly 260 Kurdish fighters' lives. The reports on liquidation of IS militants are simply missing very often.

Disproportion is felt not only in the Turkish servicemen's actions. Over the past few days, the country's internal security forces have been conducting a large-scale “elimination” of unreliable elements. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç confesses that over 1,300 suspects of being privy to extremist activities have been detained. 847 are suspected of “supporting the PKK” and only 137 have been arrested on suspicion of IS complicity. But the act of terrorism was organized in Suruç by the IS, not the PKK. Why have the authorities made the Turkish Kurds the key target then?!

 As a result, the PKK has already announced its withdrawal from the peace process with the Turkish authorities, and the latter pointed out that the previous ceasefire agreements with the Kurds were invalid. So, the imposition of the starting dates of the anti-IS and anti-PKK military actions was of a certain service to Erdogan and his team. The Turkish authorities cannot subject the legitimate pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) to brutal reprisals the way they do it with the PKK, which is declared a terrorist organization. But pulling the pride down the “arrogant” Kurds, who entered the Parliament to Erdogan's dismay, is quite in the style of the incumbent Turkish authorities. The Turkish Prosecutor General's Office has already initiated an investigation against HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş on the basis of last year's evidence.  Demirtaş is suspected of “incitement to the armed clashes” that took place in October 2014.

Obviously, the Turkish authorities are also preparing other “surprises” for the HDP, which can easily be predicted given the fact that Turkey is actually under martial law and expects new acts of terrorism in its territory. Nothing can be ruled out now. The pro-Kurdish party may even face charges with unconstitutional activities and may further be dissolved as a political entity.    

The United States and Turkey have found benefits in the current situation and they keep searching for new military and political dividends. It should be noted that over the past two or three months the US gained tangible advantages not only in the matter of persuading Ankara to “cede” the Incirlik air base. A nice piece of geopolitical jack is at stake and the US can win it if it keeps inflicting a serious damage to the Turkey-Iran relations, for instance.

One can understand that Ankara has started making it clear for Washington that it will enter in a real war with the IS only provided that Americans refuse to support the Arab country's Kurds and focus on supporting the “moderate” militants from among the local anti-Assad forces. No clear reply has come from the White House, but everything suggests that the US will have to put up with this condition of the Turkish partner. Actually, the United States has no other alternative, especially as the Americans can get tangible geopolitical dividends from such a deal with Turkey. The dividends imply first of all sowing serious discord in the Turkey-Iran relations.

Iran was extremely sensitive to any direct involvement of Turkey in Syria's affairs throughout the period of the civil war in that Arab country. Teheran had regularly warned Ankara against military intervention in the conflict. The first days following the Turkish government's decision to respond to the act of terrorism in Suruç with anti-IS air strikes in northern provinces of Syria and the joint (with the US) plans on “security zone” in the Syrian territory were no exception.

Hassan Firouzabadi, Chief of the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, qualified Turkey's steps against the Kurdish forces as a “strategic mistake”. The Iranian general pointed out that by attacking the positions of the Kurdish self-defense detachments the Turkish servicemen denuded their own borders for the IS. The prominent Iranian “hawk”, whose voice conspicuously features the Iranian security task forces, blamed Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar for supporting the Islamic radicals fighting against Iran's ally forces in Syria and Iraq.  Firouzabadi thinks that such a policy will sooner or later threaten the security of the specified Arab states. This can be qualified as the Iranian top army command's harsh statement about the unacceptability of Ankara's military operation beyond the Turkish borders.

It is obvious who will benefit from the situation. It is the US with its long-term geopolitical goal to keep the Iranian-Turkish and Iranian-Arabian relations tense all the time.    

It is hard to predict what Turkey will eventually benefit from this. In the short run, the Erdogan government seeks to start a sluggish process of anti-IS military operations in Syria and to gradually intensify the strikes against the PKK in Iraq. In the meantime, measures will be taken to considerably weaken the domestic political rivals' positions. The bomb attacks on the PKK are also cautionary “shots” at the pro-Kurdish HDP, whose management has been secured against nothing since Turkey unleashed the two-front war.       

To all appearances, NATO's Middle East member will hold snap elections and the Turkish authorities may time the elections to the G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, on November 15-16. Turkey's foreign partners, its allies within NATO should vividly illustrate their interest in the political stability of the Turkish state. The scenario of Kurdish demolition of Turkey from within seems apocalyptic to the Euro-Atlantic circles, therefore, the US and Europe can turn a blind eye to many things. In any case whatsoever, Ankara will be expecting much support from the West within the next three months.

(1) According to the Al Jazeera TV channel, the Islamic State extracted up to 10,000 barrels per day from the oil fields around Mosul. The oil was almost completely transported to Raqqa, Syria, and then carried to Gaziantep, Turkey.

EADaily Analysis

Permalink: eadaily.com/en/news/2015/08/03/turkeys-strange-war-in-syria-and-iraq
Published on August 3rd, 2015 12:01 AM
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