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War against Jihadists or against Turkey: balance of forces and interests around Syria

The war in Syria has been raging for more than four years already. That local civil turbulence has spiraled into regional confrontation which is now threatening the civilized world. The term “Syrian crisis” that came in general use in 2011 no longer reflects what is going on in the territory of that country, but is still used by force of habit from time to time. There is a bloody trap, “war of all against all,” a real social and political chaos and humanitarian disaster. And, indeed, the war “in Syria” is not so much about Syria as about external actors whose interests have clashed on that small piece of land. 

Turkey

One of the first external actors to interfere with the Syrian conflict openly and actively was Turkey. It still can be called the key party to the conflict.  Ankara has always considered Syria as an area of its prior interests. The present territory of Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire several centuries ago. Since the middle of the 19th century, it had been invaded by Arabs, French, then again by Turks and so on. And only by 1950s it gained independence actually due to a series of incidents. Emerging on the ruins of once great state, independent Syria could not but cause phantom pains to Turkey –the successor of the Ottoman Empire. A series of factors, including the existence of Turkic speaking minorities in Syria and Kurds so hated by the incumbent regime in Turkey, did not let Turkey “relieve those pains.”  Syria, as a pleasant region, has always been on the foreign policy agenda of Turkey. In the middle of 20th century and at the end of it, at the instigation of the military, Turks were engaged in their domestic problems – regular coups and disturbances – and had no time to think of gathering the neighbor lands. Everything has changed when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has come to power.

Erdoğan is a charismatic leader, a good speaker and populist, who feeds his audience with tales about the erstwhile power of the Ottoman Empire that must be revived. To that end, Turkey created and has been successfully using what is called “secular Islamic democracy” of European model. It is presented to people as synthesis of religious traditions (Islam) and modern successful capitalistic state. This positive brand image was sustained by progressive economic growth rates, development of tourism, infrastructures, government support to small and private businesses, foreign investments etc. Simultaneously, the Turkish president has been waging a consistent policy of soft Islamization of the country, using the religious factor as additional staple to make his supporters rally round the flag. In addition, many observers of the last years see growing Pan-Turkism and Pan-Ottomanism in Turkey’s foreign policy.  They see evident expansionist political, ideological and even military elements.

That easy plan worked for a while: many looked up to Erdogan, as he was gaining dividends in the foreign policy, propelling the country to the top of the moderate Islamic world and promoting the West’s interests in the region, as well as fighting with his traditional rival – Iran - for the areas of influence…He did everything to have achievements in the foreign policy and that emphasis was not mere chance. Permanent active efforts in the foreign policy let it push the domestic problems into the background. Turkey has many quite painful domestic problems: Kurds, historical responsibility for the genocide of at once three nations (Armenians, Greek, and Assyrians), irremovability of power, weakening of secular image of the country, corruption and patronage claims, suspicions of ties with criminal world. Erdoğan avoids answering to these and other burning questions.

It is important to understand that this mechanism requires permanent external stimulation. Turkey is in a permanent force-majeure situation which Erdogan “has to” settle down (in addition to all the above problems).  The Syrian crisis that broke out in the height of the “Arab spring” in the Middle East has at least successfully fit into that strategy – the same way as a year before (in 2010) when Turkey accidentally entered a dispute with Israel over Mavi Marmara, the same way as in 2009 when it was going to normalize the relations with Armenia etc. In 2011, the role of force-majeure fell to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s old friend – president of Syria Bashar al-Assad. The first staked on speedy death of the other and simply “threw” him.  Erdoğan went for broke and took a radical, anti-Assad position. Yet, his stake did not work.

Turkey’s calculation was simple: “Arab spring” passed through Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and another two dozens of countries and reached Syria; Bashar al-Assad will not able to keep power long and either will yield to the “opposition” (terrorists) soon or will be killed, which will be a very good opportunity to get a grip of oil wells, transit ways; in addition, it is a chance to settle the everlasting problem of the Syrian Kurds (up to 10% of total population of Syria) that attempt to create their own state… After all, lands are never useless.  However, something went wrong and Bashar al-Assad has been fighting the so-called Syrian “opposition” -  it is generally cutthroats who are called with various names: “Free Syrian Army,” “Jabhat al-Nusra,” “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” - for already 4 years with varying degrees of success with the help of allies and without them.

Erdoğan had a choice: he could go on a painful concession to the Syrian authorities or insist on his line and ramp up the Syrian conflict. The Turkish president chose the second and opened his border for the Syrian militants to achieve his goal at any price. He opened transit for them, ensured their treatment in his territory, permitted them to organize gatherings and meetings, closed eyes on the large flows of people harrying to “Jihad” in Syria. It was with a helping hand from Erdoğan that the “Arab spring” has grown into what we see now.

Where there is war there is dirty business built on human bones. It has been proved that Turkey buys oil from ISIL mixed with the semi-legal Kurdish oil from Iraq. By various assessments, ISIL’s oil for up to one billion dollars is supplied to Turkey every year through several routes (for instance, Khachpasa settlement on Turkey-Syria border or border crossing Ibrahim Khalil on Turkey-Iraq border). The key re-exporter is BMZ Group that belongs to Erdoğan’s son Bilal. On the other side of the border, the president’s son is supported by Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak whose company has a license for pumping “Kurdish” but in fact mixed oil.

Oil is not the only thing that makes the Syrian chaos beneficial for Turkey: here are jewelry, artefacts, uncontrolled arms market, black/illegal surgery… In other words, the Syrian crisis is such a valuable source of material resources and, power that Turkey even dared to shot down the Russian Su-24 warplane to maintain its control over it.  Suffice it to recall that Erdoğan officially announced that Turkey will not apologize for that incident.

Obviously, in Syria the fight is not against Jihadists represented by ISIL, but against Turkey that is protecting itself, its money and market. Strange as it may seem, on the other side of the barricades, the orders are given by President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and not the former prisoner Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

USA

USA’s stand on the Syrian problem like on any other issue cannot be described as a stand as such. America is turning from a state into a conglomerate of transnational mega-corporations and the population.  The political interests of that country are intended to reflect the interests of the mega-corporations and financial centers forming it, which is not always possible. This is what makes the foreign policy line of America contradictory and uncertain nearly concerning every issue. For instance, while President Barack Obama was criticizing Assad and drawing “red lines” for him, Vice President Biden accused Turkey of supporting Syrian terrorists and laundering their money. In less than six months, Obama suddenly changed his mind and become “kinder” to the Syrian leader, while Biden decided to apologize to Erdogan and backed out of his stand.

Nevertheless, USA’s role in the Syrian crisis is evident: unleashing. It was at the instigation of USA and its NATO partners from the European Union that the then prime minister of Turkey Erdogan so furiously attacked Bashar al-Assad blaming him for all deadly sins and urging his to disappear from the political map of the world.  Under speeches on “Syrian people” and “its freedom of choice” Americans have been justifying a true terror and massacres committed by that “pro-Western opposition” for years. In response to the numerous questions of U.S. journalists, Jen Psaki professionally talked nonsense.

Yet the U.S. stand has changed dramatically since the beginning of 2015. At first, the comments on the Syrian issue have become softer. They just began speaking about “the triumph of good over evil.”  Afterwards, U.S. said ISIL is that evil, led an international coalition and started bombing that evil. However, they bombed ISIL inefficiently, inertly and had no idea what to do next.

On the other hand, U.S. goes easy on Turkey’s actions in Syria. The above accusations by Joe Biden were the first signs. Since then, U.S. has been hinting Turkey that it is informed of its “deeds” in Syria. Quite lately, U.S. Finance Ministry representative Adam Szubin said at Chatham House: “There is no question that better security, closing the Turkish border to flows is a key component [of fight against ISIL] right now and we are looking to the Turks to do more in that respect."

Furthermore, the White House’s stand on Turkey downing Russian Su-24 warplane was a true surprise. Instead of anticipated support to its NATO ally, Washington quite pragmatically suggested Ankara to settle the problem with Russia “in a bilateral format” hinting that NATO will hardly help Turkey in that issue. From the viewpoint of Turkey it was nothing but “buck-passing,”  but U.S. appears to be little embarrassed over it.

At present, U.S. keeps a low profile and has certainly abandoned the Syrian crisis. The reasons are two: the manageable Syrian chaos “suddenly” got out of control and it is not clear what it will come to; presidential election in the United States  is around the corner and in such periods Washington’s political activity traditionally dies out.  Actually, Washington’s current status of a passive participant will continue at least until the presidential election of 2016.

Russia

Russia’s interference with the Syrian conflict was unexpected for many. Why should Russia involve into an ethnic-confessional conflict that started with a civil war and spiraled into a large-scale regional confrontation with direct interesant – Turkey? There are many reasons…

First, Russia was asked to do it by those who had the right to ask – Damascus government.  Russia unlike Turkey has consistently recognized Syria as a friendly state and partner in the Middle East and hurried to help it. Furthermore, Russia has a naval base in Tartus, Syria (720th Logistics Support Point of Russia’s Navy). Russia could not just stay aside and look at how the country where it has a military base is being torn to pieces by bearded Jihadists on Toyotas. Second, terrorism is everywhere and it is spreading. Considering that there are many natives of Russia and former Soviet countries among the militants, they are most likely to return to their countries after the operation in Syria. It is necessary not to wait until they come and it is necessary prevent such scenario. In other words, Russia is getting “vaccinated against” terrorism.

Third, Russia’s interference with the war was demonstration of capabilities, decisiveness and military exercises in the most realistic circumstances.

Meantime, the reasons that made Russia interfere are interwoven with the ones that should make it be extremely cautious. The current position of Russia has a number of vulnerable points which by an unlucky train of events may have unpredictable consequences. Actually, Russia operates on the same arena with the forces of the so-called U.S.-led “coalition” i.e. NATO forces. Moreover, these two actors operate separately. While the targets and goal of U.S. are not clear, obscure and resemble the Hollywood-like “fight against evil,” Russia’s goals are quite clear and real – to help Bashar al-Assad fight ISIL.  Meantime, ISIL is backed by no one but Turkey with its NATO patron – USA. The latter in turn says its natural allies are the Syrian Kurds that together with governmental troops oust the ISIL with mixed results. At the same time, Turks that are involved in the anti-ISIL coalition bomb the Kurdish rebels and publicly ask the foreign minister of Russia to find out how it has happened that the ally bombs the ally of its ally.

In such indescribable chaos, no one knows who fights who. Russia is trying to bring light to the situation, but its plane is shot down by at least “non-hostile” forces for occurring in the wrong sky for a couple of seconds. With such direct and absurd explanations Turkey openly hinted that Russia’s operation in Syria has damaged its interests there and that Ankara will not put up with it. Although Russia took response measures, there are no guarantees that such provocations will not happen in future too.

Turkish factor is not the only threat to Russia’s Aerospace Force in Syria. In that war of “all against all,” any of the sides can turn from a passive ally into an active rival in a moment. There is a risk of turning face to face with NATO troops in the battle field and the consequences of it will disastrous on a global scale.

Iran

Since the first days of the Syrian crisis, Iran with both words and deeds has supported Assad’s regime in Syria. Iran is a Shiite theocracy, Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite (branch of Shia Islam) and the religious factor is extremely important for Tehran in international affairs too. Syria is a vital transit territory for Iran,  a bridge linking it to the Lebanese Hezbollah. In exchange for it, Iran is always ready to support its ally. During the last 35 years, the Iranian-Syrian strategic partnership has not failed. The present-day politics shows that neither Damascus nor Tehran has forgotten that devotion.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Iran has provided official loans for $10 billion to Syria. It is anyone’s guess how much it provided through unofficial channels.  By some unconfirmed but very urgent reports of Western and regional mass media, in 2012-2013, Iran deployed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria to consult and assist Assad’s government troops.

Iran’s support is unconditional. Even U.S. President Obama has admitted that the Syrian conflict cannot be settlement without Iran. He made such statement at the height of P5+1 talks on the Iranian nuclear deal this summer after which Iran began overcoming the West’s sanctions.  These two events give an evident result: in a short-term outlook Tehran may at least continue supporting Assad’s rear and increase that support in a mid-term outlook without fearing a sharp response from overseas.

Israel

This country is the most passive participants in the conflict. It is an observer that has faced a dilemma. Yet others will make a choice on its behalf.

Theoretically, the Syrian crisis has four possible options of resolution. The incumbent Syrian regime like the one of its ‘senior brother’ – Iranian ayatollahs - is not welcome in Israel. While Israeli missiles were striking the Syrian territory and Israel was denying it, Assad declared that the Islamists fighting against him are backed by the Zionist regime. The neighbors are not happy with such “warm” relationships and want changes. The first opinion of the resolution  - Assad’s victory and relative restoration of the pre-crisis situation in the region. Israel does not like this option but the alternatives fear it even more.

The next opinion: ISIL achieves its goal and becomes a de facto (or maybe even de jure) state. In such case, on the Israeli border, Assad will be replaced with uncontrollable and unpredictable psychopaths that eat human hearts, make five-year-old kids kill hostages etc. In such situation, Israel would prefer the first option.

The third opinion implies Syria’s final collapse and turning into something like Somalia with gangs that kill each other all day long, shell, blast, and cry “Allah Akbar” endlessly. It is similar to the second opinion, with the only difference that there is still no stabilizing element.

The last of the possible solutions to the Syria epopee is deployment of UN peacekeepers and speedy stabilization of the situation.  It seems a not bad option, but it has one big problem: after withdrawal of peacekeepers, the option No.4 will turn into either No.2 or No.3, and Israel understands this perfectly. 

Actually, Assad is an inevitable but the lesser of the evils for Israel. Besides, there is Turkey and personally Recep Erdogan that backs ISIL. Israel has not forgotten the incident with Mavi Marmara and knows well who Assad has faced. Israel has no reason to involve into the crisis either directly or indirectly. However, it is closely following that process from time to time striking the most suspicious targets. 

European Union

In Brussels everything is clear: Europeans do not want ISIL to exist. Eventually, EU policy of active support to U.S. stand (Assad must leave) has boomeranged. Terror attacks, endless flows of refugees, growing Islamophobia, and as a consequence, growing domestic tensions, public splitting into supporters and opponents of Muslims, threats of disturbances, shocks and mass killings – ISIL has become a true nightmare for Europe. And it is not clear how to fight against it. Europeans have no single position on it, as European bureaucratic machine develops consensus decisions too long. Nevertheless, after a series of terror attacks in France, a wave of detentions of terrorist-extremists of all types throughout Europe, and the soaring social and political discontent, one can anticipate rather a tough anti-ISIL stand, which in the given situation can be interpreted as solidarity with Russia. 

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