26 July 2015

Will Erdogan Push Turkey Into Syrian Quagmire?

This is not a hypothetical question.

And after the recent massacre in Suruc, a small town in Southern Turkey, where 32 people were killed by an ISIS suicide bomber, it is actually a tangible possibility.

You see, the last election results put Turkey's combative President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a serious bind.

His electoral defeat was primarily due to the rise of a pro-Kurdish party (HDP).

Ironically, HDP won a bigger percentage than expected thanks to Erdogan's increasingly hostile attitude towards Kurds and his borderline genocidal rhetoric during the Kobani siege.

However, this open animosity towards Kurds was not just a stupid or visceral reaction on his part. Basically, events forced his hands and from where he stood, he must have felt he had no other choice.

It is a complicated setup worthy of John Nash and his equilibrium. Or if you prefer the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Allow me to explain the many twists and turns behind this story.

Most pundits claim that Erdogan abruptly changed his position on Kurds and went from major reformer to implacable enemy because he was worried that an independent Kurdistan in Syria might set a persuasive example for Turkey's Kurds to seek the same.

To me that makes no sense. If Erdogan was really concerned about the pull factor of an independent Kurdistan, why did he help Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq claim a de facto independence. And why did it have KRG's back against the Iraqi goverment in Baghdad?

Isn't KRG is a much more potent model for Kurdish independence?

Moreover, why would Erdogan promote economic development of KRG which would make the model even more enticing? And most importantly, if he was so afraid of Kurdish independence why would Erdogan pass an extensive rights package for Turkey's Kurds and negotiate a settlement with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned head of PKK?

The stark reality is that, three years ago, to the nationalists' chagrin, Erdogan was ready to make peace with Turkey's Kurds.

So what happened?

To understand what happened, I always go back to the point in time where Erdogan moved from being Assad's BFF to his most determined enemy, which is July 2011 when the so-called Shiite pipeline was signed.

The pipeline was to connect Iran's South Pars natural gas fields to the Mediterranean (and eventually to Europe) though Iraq and Syria (hence the nickname). Crucially, the proposed pipeline bypassed Turkey. The agreement also blocked the competing Qatari pipeline that was supposed to go through Syria and Turkey to reach Europe.

Erdogan's rhetoric sharpened in the few months before the signing of the agreement and by September he sent his then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu to Damascus to deliver an ultimatum to Bashar.

Although we are talking hundreds (maybe thousands) of billions of dollars and Euros, there is more to this than money.

Since Qatar and Iran both exploit the South Pars fields from opposite ends (North Dome in Qatar), the side with a pipeline would have a huge advantage over its rival. Earlier this year, despite crippling sanctions, Iran announced that it finally managed to produce more natural gas than Qatar from that shared field.

Imagine what would have happened if sanctions were lifted and Iran could revamp its production facilities and pumped its natural gas directly to its customers.

In other words, one pipeline would favor the Shia powers of the region and the other would help the Sunni countries. This is a perfect example of economic interests overlapping with ideological predispositions.

The Sunni-Shia war that is being waged in multiple theaters in the region is also contemporaneous with that fateful decision.

Each side believes that it should become the dominant strand of Islam. This not idle talk. As the Saudis and their $200 billions showed, if you spend enough money you can change a religion in less than forty years regardless of what its edicts are.

Besides the Sunni-Shia rivalry, the Qatar pipeline was problematic for Russia. Gazprom has a virtual natural gas monopoly in Europe and the proposed pipeline would have allowed a major competitor to enter the same market, effectively reducing Russia's leverage and dominant position. Which explains why Russia leaned on Syria at the time and has been supporting al Assad since then.

In any event, this is why Qatar gave ISIS billions of dollars in seed money and unleashed them upon hapless Iraqis and Syria.

And of course, this is why Turkish government stood behind them, providing them with truckloads of arms and ammunition, intelligence and logistical support, free and swift healthcare and most importantly, safe passage to Syria to gun fodder idiots from all over the world.

This is also (and especially) why ISIS has been the first terrorist organization in history interested in creating and governing a country. I called their Caliphate unifying large swaths of Iraq and Syria, Pipelineistan.

Incidentally, this is why Raqqa has become the capital of Pipelineistan, as you will see in the next map below.

All of which brings us to the Kurds.

To put it simply and perhaps a tad simplistically, they are in the way.

This is why Syrian Kurds (and not Iraqi Kurds) are a problem for Erdogan. This is why he refused to lift a finger for Kobani and rejoiced its seemingly imminent fall.

And this is why when he says Turkey needs a buffer zone in Syria he means an area ethnically cleansed of Kurds.

But therein lies another dark tale.

Border Blues

On 19 September 2012, Turkey, rather curiously, decided that Tell Abyad, a key frontier crossing on the Syrian side, should be looked after by a coalition of Islamist forces which consisted of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Burkan al-Firat and Liwa al-Tawhid Brigades.
That decision had two objectives:
- To distance Syrian regime forces from the border and to create a buffer zone for the opposition forces to operate freely. 
- To hinder the Kurds' autonomy movement in the Syrian areas Kurds control and to sever the link between the Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Jazeera in what the Kurds call Rojava (Western Kurdistan).
This is the map of the area. You will notice that Tell Abyad is right in the middle of Kurdish region (Kobani to the West and Qamishli to the East).

And it is directly linked to Raqqa, the formal capital of ISIS.

Of the twin stated Turkish objectives of creating a buffer zone and hindering Kurdish movements, the latter was (correctly) understood by the forerunners of ISIS as a license to conduct a large scale ethnic cleansing:
[T]he operation to cleanse the area of Kurds began on July 19, 2013, with warning calls from mosque minarets for the Kurds to leave Tell Abyad or be punished. Of 25,000 people in Tell Abyad, which was Arabized by the Baath regime in 1963, about 12,000 were Kurds. 
Kurds who lived in the Tell Abyad town center and in 18 villages in its vicinity had to emigrate to the Kobani and Jazeera areas as well as to Turkey and Iraq. Those who didn’t paid a high price. Every single Kurdish house was raided until Aug. 5, 2013. Seventy adult males were killed, and about 400 women and children were abducted. It is not known what happened to them.
In January 2015, ISIS, having eliminated rival Islamist groups, took over Tell Abyad.

After the crossing was entrusted to Islamist groups it became a very busy hub. In fact, last month Obama noted that "thousands of foreign fighters [are] flowing into, first, Syria, and then, oftentimes, ultimately into Iraq" and criticized the Turkish authorities for not doing enough to stop the flow.

As we know, it is a feature not a bug.

But recently, the reversal of that ethnic cleansing became an actual possibility, throwing up another crisis.

In Search of a Casus Belli

After the Syrian Kurdish forces defeated ISIS in Kobani, they decided to retake Tell Abyad. This would allow them to open up a corridor along the Turkish border to Northern Iraq and get all their supplies from KRG bypassing the often prickly Turkish border officials. It would also cut off a critical supply route for ISIS.

And, as a bonus, it would make Raqqa fairly vulnerable.

The Kurdish offensive began in early June and it was assisted by American air power.

During the fortnight operation, Erdogan grew increasingly angry and began hinting that Turkey might have to intervene to stop the Kurdish advances. He appeared like a man who was quite publicly looking for an excuse to do so. At first, he stated that
“The West, which is hitting Arabs and Turkmens of Tell Abyad from the air, is sadly settling the PYD [Democratic Union Party] and PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] terror organizations in their places.”
When this was not well received, he closed the border crossing so that he could use the human misery of the civilians running away from the armed conflict to accuse PYD of ethnic cleansing. The problem was,
when he triggered a cacophony by saying, “There is a feeling that Arabs and Turkmens are targeted at Tell Abyad,” the Kurdish YPG and its Free Syrian Army ally Burkan al-Firat had not yet entered Tell Abyad.
Incidentally, according to Kurdish sources, the border was opened briefly to allow some ISIS militants to escape.

There is a picture of one of the handful of ISIS fighters who were arrested (when journalists were there) and his smirk conveys perfectly the Faustian deal Erdogan made with them.

When Tell Abyad was taken over by PYD on 15 June, civilians slowly returned to their homes. Which prompted Erdogan to put forward another justification for intervention, namely the security threat posed by PYD and its armed forces YPG.

Since the threat was totally fictitious and YPG never had any border issues with Turkey, this didn't get any traction either.

That forced him to advance a third justification for intervention.

He ominously declared that Turkey would never allow the formation of a Kurdish state in its Southern border.
Erdogan upped the ante June 27 and said Turkey would not allow any attempts to establish a Kurdish entity in northern Syria. “We will never allow a state to be established in northern Syria and in the south of our country. No matter what the cost, we will continue our struggle in this regard,” Erdogan said.
And third time being the charm, he directed his Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to ask the Turkish army prepare plans to intervene and create a buffer zone, code for removing Kurds from the area.

Domestic Obstacles

Besides long-term Pipelineistan ideas, Erdogan has a short term domestic agenda as well.

Since he lost his Parliamentary majority during the last elections, he has been itching to call early elections. I am sure he believes that a successful incursion into Syria and a confrontation with Syrian Kurds might bring the nationalists back to the fold.

And give him at least the 18 MPs he is missing for a simple majority.

In fact, to ensure the nationalists' support, he has been attacking HDP and its charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtas by accusing him of having strong ties to PKK which is reviled by a large majority of Turks.

He was also hoping that, feeling overshadowed by HDP, the PKK, or at least some factions within it, might be tempted to break the ceasefire and give him the ammunition he needs to go after them. The day after he Suruc massacre PKK did just that and killed two police officers in the same city.

That, in turn, gave Erdogan the pretext he needed to bomb both ISIS and PKK positions in Syria and Iraq respectively.

So in principle, all Erdogan has to do right now is to invade a small pocket in Syria, ostensibly to create a Kurdish-free buffer zone and call general elections once the coalition talks end up in failure.

However, there are two problems with this plan. And this is why I invoked John Nash and the Prisoner's  Dilemma at the outset.

The first was the unexpected resistance of the Turkish army to the idea of a Syrian incursion:
According to reports in Ankara, TSK’s response to the government instructions was total surprise when the Chief of General Staff Necdet Ozel asked for a written order from the government. When Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reminded the TSK that there is already parliamentary authority for such a cross-border operation, the military command asked for “a written order specifically about this case.” Davutoglu is reported to have penned a specific order even while discussions were going on. It is, however, understood that to activate a plan that would require intervention in a hot combat zone, a simple signature won’t be enough.
Among other things, the army objected to the fact that this was a caretaker government and with a new parliamentary majority in place such momentous decisions should be left to the new government.

While the army is staunchly nationalistic and perceives everything related to Kurds as a major security threat, understandably, the generals did not feel very comfortable to move around in the local Pottery Barn franchise. They knew breakage would be extensive and the final bill prohibitive.

They also knew that, such a move would mean a return to Turkey's decades long civil war with PKK, a war the army did not win. This time around, with ISIS one of the likely players, the body count could be incomparably higher.

The second problem is the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

You see, even though I once described him as a dorky academic with the charisma of lawn furniture, he is a supremely ambitious man.

He is well aware that if early elections were called, Erdogan would replace him with a more pliable Prime Minister so that he could exercise presidential powers in a cabinet-centric system.

On the other hand, a coalition government dominated by AKP would ensure his tenure as both AKP leader and PM and keep Erdogan locked in his gilded presidential palace as a figurehead.

Crucially, Davutoglu has the support of the majority of Members of Parliaments.

You see, because of self-imposed term limits, most of the AKP MPs are newcomers. If they remain MP for at least two years, they will get full pension benefits. If they are gone in six months, they will get nothing. So, the incentive to form a coalition government is very high.

In fact, I suspect it was Davutoglu who ordered those strikes against ISIS.

Adding PKK targets might be a way to mollify Erdogan but bombing ISIS persistently is an effective method of destroying Erdogan's Pipelinistan pipe dreams and his alliance with the Sunni thugs.

There is one thing I did not mention.

There are probably several thousands ISIS militants who returned to Turkey after a brief killing fields stint.

You bomb them and they will strike back.

And there are something like 22 million Kurds.

Do the math.

Or the arithmetic, as the case might be.

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