28 October 2015

Turkey's Elections and Opinion Polls

On 1 November, that is this coming Sunday, Turkey will be holding a re-run of the June elections.

Opinion polls generally indicate that the same hung Parliament will return. I already posted my views on that outcome.

This post is about the percentages and the results of various opinion polling firms.

Below is a confusing table summarizing the current predictions of leading companies. You do not need to pay attention to it. I will explain its relevance in a minute.

Poll Date
Sample Size
24–25 October
21–24 October
17–21 October
16–20 October
(Published 21 October)
16–20 October
13–19 October
17–18 October
10–16 October
12–16 October
12–17 October
10–15 October

A Turkish social scientist studied 88 recent polls [link in Turkish] to determine the standard deviation for each political party. Since standard deviation is a measure of how dispersed the data are, he was trying to see how far off poll results were and their overall distribution.

The findings are startling. The standard deviation for AKP is between 4 and 12 percent. An overwhelming majority of polling firms predicted much bigger AKP majorities.

Similarly, the results were quite skewed for HDP. Except it was the other way around. Most polling companies predicted dismal showings.

What is interesting is the fact that for CHP and MHP the standard deviation was 1 and 2 percent (a standard deviation of 0 would indicate a perfect distance from the mean value).

In other words, since their methodology was accurate and reliable for two of the parties, it is hard to blame technical error.

Why am I talking about this?

Well, for the first time in Turkish history, a Kurdish polling firm (out of Erbil, no less) conducted an opinion poll on Turkish elections. That is the company on the third row, Kurd-Tek.

Notice the AKP and HDP results?

Theirs is the only prediction placing AKP below 40 percent mark. And it is one of the only two putting HDP above 14 percent.

If, on 1 November, AKP stays below 40 percent and HDP above 14 percent, there will be many polling firms with a lot of 'splaning' to do.

21 October 2015

Canadian Elections: How to Deal With Wedge Issues

A couple of days ago Canada's Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau won a convincing majority in Canadian elections.

I rejoiced.

You see, even if I don't live there, Canada is to me what Israel is supposed to be to Jews, a beacon of hope. A place I can go to when chaos reigns supreme elsewhere. A safe haven.

Just as successive Likud governments changed Israel for the worse, Stephen Harpen had set out to do the same to Canada. And I felt the dismay of Jews in diaspora.

BBC called his plan "the Americanisation of Canada" but it was more GOPisation of Canada.

A week before the elections, Foreign Policy ran an article entitled "How Canada's Election Will Decide the Fate of the World." It may sound like a joke or a huge exaggeration as Canada is not a powerful country but the author was dead serious.

His point was that while Canada's contribution to global greenhouse gases is minuscule (3 percent), it has always enjoyed a moral leadership on such issues. And its stance matters because of that.

The outgoing Prime Minister turned his back on that role and moved Canada to the camp of global warming deniers and greenhouse gas refuseniks. In fact, Canada was on course to miss its 2020 emission targets by 20 percent.

The sad part is that, the whole thing was not the result of a firmly held belief. It was more a knee-jerk reaction (in line with American conservatives) to do the wrong thing just to annoy progressives.

Now that Harper has been unceremoniously kicked out of the office, the Paris Summit in December might have a different outcome. With the other climate "villain" Tony Abbott out of the picture even Aussies might have a change of heart and support the new Canadian position.

But to me the reason why these elections should decide the fate of the world is the fact that by electing Trudeau, Canadians rejected the fear and wedge-issue politics that seem to be working everywhere else. It was the first time in recent history a politician took a stand and announced his position on every wedge-issue without any Clintonian triangulation and the voters rewarded him for it.

And we are talking of the mother of all wedge-issues, "them Muslim folks." Harper made the fear of Islamist terrorism and the divisive issue of Islamic garb the center piece of his campaign.

For instance, he declared that women wearing a burqa or a niqab cannot take the citizenship oath or work for the government. He even named (and continually ridiculed) the sole woman who wanted to wear a niqab during the oath ceremony.

Initially, the polls ordered by the Conservative Party gave the impression that a niqab ban would gain traction, especially among the "old-stock" Canadians as Harper called them. But when you look at the election results you realize that either the polls were biased or people changed their minds after a brief reflection.

If change of attitude took place, the media played a big role in that. They interviewed the handful of Canadian women who wore a niqab to report back that they did not conform to the submissive Muslim woman stereotype. They seem to have decided on their own and most often against the wishes of their husband or father.

And the Canadian public understood the distinction, realized that Harper was simply using a polarizing identity politics to win elections and they refused to go along.

Similarly, when the Conservative government began to pick and choose Syrian refugees, giving priority to non-Muslims, Canadians did not react  initially. But when a short time before the elections, it became public knowledge that the government's refugee policy was to actively discourage Sunni and Shia Muslims from seeking asylum, people didn't like the vision of Canada this approach entailed.

Consequently, when they sided with Justin Trudeau they did it with the clear knowledge that he would reverse this policy and open Canada to those people in need, regardless of their religion.

And that he would tax the wealthy, run a deficit for three years to invest in infrastructure, re-examine the Keystone project, investigate the murder and disappearance of first nation women and legalize marijuana.

Even a self-professed socialist Bernie Saunders would blanch upon hearing such a list. Yet Canadians liked what they saw and voted for the list. And did it by the millions.

The Liberals went from having 36 seats to a majority of 184. Whereas Harper's Conservatives dropped from 156 to 99.

In short, the reason I am so pleased with these election results is because when faced with these wedge issues unlike Americans, Europeans and Middle Easterners, Canadians bravely chose the right side of each proposition, the side of hope, humanity, equality, non-discrimination and respect for the planet.

When people ask me who Canadians are, I simply tell them that they are just decent people who strives to do the right thing.

And I am sure I don't have to tell you what a rare and precious thing this is.

20 October 2015

Is Turkey About to Become an Ungovernable Country?

Recently, I professed to be baffled by what is known as Erdogan's gamble.

You see, Erdogan's gamble was said to polarize the country to a breaking point and wage war against the pro-Kurdish HDP in order to win the so-called "repeat elections." They will be held on November 1st. This strategy was supposed to bring back stray voters to the fold and suppress the Kurdish vote below the 10 percent threshold.

Mind you, I am not disputing that this is what he is doing. But it did not make much sense to me then and after the Ankara bombing which killed at least 106 people and injured hundreds more, I find it even more puzzling.

For one thing, the Kurdish vote is not going back to AKP. And why should it? After the DiyarbakirSuruc and Ankara incidents and governments attacks on Kurdish targets, Turkey's Kurds are seething with rage and continue to rally around HDP.

On the other side of the equation, the anticipated massive shift from MHP to AKP did not materialize.

The table below shows the final tally in June:

And this table presents the recent opinion poll results as published by various firms:

As you can see, the figures are within the statistical margin of error of the June results.

As for the discrepancies, in June, Konda had the best prediction ratio [link in Turkish]. And they are likely to have the most accurate results here.

If participation remains high, which seems to be the critical element, I expect the Ankara bombing to negatively affect the AKP vote. One Twitter user summarized the popular view by noting that either the government did it or it failed to prevent it. Either way AKP gets the blame.

Incidentally, AKP's internal polling (leaked to a magazine) seems to indicate that they are trailing in the 18-24 and 25-35 age groups and they are only able to get a small portion of the first time voters. Below are the first time voter distribution [link in Turkish] by party. You can see that while HDP got 13 percent of the national vote, nearly double that number, that is, 25 percent of new voters cast their ballot for them. The ratio for AKP is the other way around.

HDP               %25 (13)

MHP              %24 (17)

CHP                %25 (25)

AKP               %22 (41)

Moreover, in May, AKP's positive rating was only 39 percent, down from 56 percent a year before.

Consequently, barring unforeseen changes in the next three weeks and low turnout, AKP will almost certainly be unable to form the next government by itself.

Which puts Erdogan, who wants to be the top dog at any cost, in a bind.

What could he do?

There are a number of alternatives.

Postponing Elections

The first and the most obvious one is to postpone elections citing increased violence and instability. Many Turkish pundits have been advancing this as the most likely scenario.

It is a distinct possibility. It is rumored that Erdogan's senior advisers conduct daily opinion polls to see where the wind is blowing. If his party's support stayed around the 40 percent mark or dipped below he might be tempted to go that route.

But I don't see the upside of this option when Turkey is going through what the BBC called a perfect storm:
The West's vital ally in the Middle East is now facing a perfect storm: Deep political polarisation, the bubble of economic success on the brink of bursting, a resumption of violence with the PKK, the threat from Islamic State, and two million Syrian refugees and counting. 
Postponing elections for, say, six months, will certainly make each of these problems much worse. There is a consensus that the economy is about to go belly up. You know from this humble soapbox that Russia has just changed the terms of the Syrian crisis. The threat from ISIS is real. And the Syrian refugees question is an open sore with very serious economic, political and sociological ramifications.

As you can surmise, none of these issues can be effectively addressed in a short period of time. Postponing elections for six months might actually bring a bigger defeat down the line.

And I have to assume that his advisers know this.

Electoral Fraud and Voter Suppression

Another option Erdogan has is to hold the November elections on time and hope that, with a few judicious extralegal tweaks here and there, results could be brought closer to the 44 percent mark that he needs. You know, the old electrocuted cat trick.

In case you think that suggesting electoral fraud is a bit of an exaggeration on my part, I can tell you that it is not my supposition: reportedly, it is a widely held belief by both the supporters and opponents of AKP.
The public believes that the AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will do “something” to win the election. 
This is a common view among both the AKP supporters and its opponents. A friend of mine who supports the AKP says: “Given that he is repeating the election, I believe that President Erdoğan will rely on a different strategy to win the election.” AKP supporters raise similar arguments, but opponents stress that they may resort to election fraud to fashion a victory.
It is not as outlandish as it sounds. During the June elections, AKP lost 18 districts by very small margins, in some instances several hundred votes separating the eventual winner from the rest. In Turkey's cynical political discourse, suggesting that this could be fixed with a stray ballot box or two does not raise eyebrows.

However, in June, an NGO called  Vote and Beyond came out of nowhere, organized tens of thousands of people as observers and made such skulduggery very difficult.

As for voter suppression, it might have been possible a few years ago especially in Kurdish areas. But after the heavy handed tactics displayed in Cizre, a predominantly Kurdish town literally invaded by the Turkish army, such attempts might no longer work.

But with entrenched voter preferences and only a couple of million votes in play, Erdogan is likely to pull all the stops in the swing districts. My guess is that AKP lieutenants will focus on these districts and will work very hard to Get Out The Vote for their supporters and will do everything possible to discourage others.

There is a third possibility which I previously raised without knowing pertinent facts. It turns out there were some credible evidence to support my guessing game.

Getting Rid of Demirtas

A couple of months ago, Demirtas went public with the government's not-so-secret plans to ban HDP before elections. He was trying to force the issue and push the government to disclose its plan. Islamists are particularly sensitive to party banning, as they had been on the receiving end of it too many times in the past.

Since then many such reports surfaced in pro-government papers and media outlets. One of Erdogan's top advisers, Burhan Kuzu, a constitutional scholar, is known to push hard for this. But so far Erdogan resisted the temptation.

A more sinister possibility is to terminate Demirtas with extreme prejudice. In the aftermath of Ankara bombing, HDP released their early August application to the Ministry of Interior regarding an ISIS strike team targeting Demirtas.
"The confirmed information received by our side reveals that a team affiliated to ISIS has entered into Turkey to conduct an assassination against our Co-President Mr. Selahattin Demirtaş. As we have no detailed information about the description of the persons in question, your immediate attention to this matter is kindly requested and appreciated."
I have no idea whether this will come to pass but I can tell you that if it happens serious Kuridsh upheaval and chaos will ensue. In that scenario, nationalistic Turkish voters might flock to AKP as the party of stability.

I suspect Demirtas and HDP are keenly aware of this possibility and it might one of the reasons they cancelled all campaign rallies after the Ankara incident.

An Ungovernable Country?

In late September, the venerable Financial Times intoned that Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan, with his power grab and electoral gamble, made Turkey ungovernable.

Turkish pundits have been saying the same thing for some time.

A recent Op Ed in Asia Times took it further and claimed that Turkey is about to become the next failed state in the Middle East.

While this last claim is a good example of breathless hyperbole, the situation does not look very promising.

The problem stems from a basic contradiction.

1) Erdogan is not willing to accept a coalition government.

He is afraid, and I believe correctly, that a coalition government, even led by AKP might investigate him, look into his huge personal wealth and his many illegal or extralegal acts in the last 13 years. Ironically, as he transformed his political position into a personal one, he became a massive liability. And AKP leaders would like to get rid of him. In fact, in an eventual AKP-CHP coalition, I am sure Davutoglu would personally green-light such an inquiry.

2) The electorate is not willing o give the majorities Erdogan wants.

This is not because voters have a supra-societal rationale, it is just that given the polarized political climate, their preferences are practically immutable. When change occurs, as noted above, it favors HDP, which  polls above average among young people and new voters. Again Erdogan's success in turning AKP into his party works against him: People blame him personally for the current violence and deteriorating economy. The fact that he has just sent his son Bilal to settle in Italy amid rumors of him depositing billions of dollars to neighboring Swtzerland did not help things:  AKP's internal polling indicates that only 7 percent of AKP voters believed [link in Turkish] that the corruption allegations were false.

The question is then, what happens if the electorate sends another hung Parliament to Ankara?

Most observers seem to believe that such results would be followed by sectarian violence.
Whatever the result of the elections, the fallout from the Ankara attack will be hard to contain, especially as the fight between the PKK and the state threatens to spill over into sectarian conflict. “Whether this crisis will unfold in an outright disaster for the country’s political and economic stability,” Mr Piccoli said, “is now a matter of when rather than if.”
In fact, Twitter phenom Fuat Avni went as far as claiming that Erdogan will order, among other terrible acts, the downing of a Russian fighter jet to trigger a serious international conflict.

I think whether Turkey will become "ungovernable" and face sectarian violence depends on the steps to be taken after the upcoming elections.

Post Elections Blues

If the elections return the same Parliament, I see three possibilities.

The first one is Erdogan pushing for a AKP - MHP coalition. This is the most likely outcome. As I keep repeating these two parties believe in what is known as Turkish-Islamic synthesis, with one emphasizing nationalism the other religiosity. But the equation is composed of the same elements. They are natural partners.

If that comes to pass, Erdogan will have asked and received assurances about his past dealings. MHP will only provide those if it is given serious national security and law and order portfolios. In other words, they will want Ministry of the Interior so that they can go about "fighting" the PKK. Which is cover for oppressing Kurds and punishing them for asking basic rights.

In that scenario, Turkey will become ungovernable very quickly.

The Kurds will rise up and any efforts to suppress them violently will lead to a situation that can be accurately described as a civil war. PKK will join the foray and take the fight to the cities.

The second possibility is a reluctant AKP - CHP coalition. I personally cannot see Erdogan accepting this arrangement. It might happen if CHP accepts only junior portfolios like family, sport etc and AKP maintains full control of Defense, Interior, Justice, External Affairs.

Personally, I have a hard time envisaging a situation which would lead Erdogan to accept any coalition with CHP. With HDP providing parliamentary support, there is no telling what they might do. If I were him I would try to avoid this at all cost.

The third possibility is a palace coup inside AKP with many MPs forming a new party under the leadership of someone like Abdullah Gul, the former President who rebranded himself in the last five years into a respected elder statesman.

It might happen but with every passing month its likelihood is rapidly diminishing.

In all these speculations, there is one point usually overlooked by most analysts and that is the violent trump cards Erdogan holds.

Poujadist Shopkeepers and ISIS Sturmtruppen

There are 18 million people who voted for Erdogan and AKP (out of 46 million voters). An overwhelming majority of these people are willing to forgive and forget anything and everything and continue to support Erdogan because they benefited enormously from his reign.

Not only did they prosper, gobbling up the lion's share in the growing national income, they saw their previously disdained conservative lifestyle become the mainstream vision of the country. They literally believe they own the place now.

They have way too much to lose to accept a drastic change in status quo.

And Erdogan knows this.

Last year, in a speech that would make Pierre Poujade and Benito Mussolini proud, he told shopkeepers and small business owners that they can act as police officers when they see fit. Since then they have been beating up May Day demonstrators, Syrian immigrants or even Korean tourist they mistook for Chinese to avenge Uighurs.

And of course there is ISIS. They have a few thousand returning militants and a large pool of supporters from which they have been recruiting.

For instance, the suicide bomber in Suruc hailed from Adiyaman a southeastern city with the dubious distinction of having largest number of ISIS supporters. Many Turkish ISIS Jihadis in Syria come from Adiyaman. They have recruitment centers in Ankara and Istanbul as well.

And they seem quite happy to blow themselves up for no clear reason.

Add to that mix the PKK and Kurds with a blocked path to political representation and you can see that post election period is fraught with terrible scenarios, each worse than the next.

The worst will be a hung Parliament and an AKP-MHP coalition.

Then, the "failed state" prediction will no longer seem like hyperbole.

10 October 2015

Who Was Behind the Bombing Incident in Ankara?

I don't know.

All I know is that, so far, 86 100 96 people died and close to 200 300 hundred injured and probably, by tomorrow, some of them would move to the death toll column.

I doubt that anyone else other than the organizers have a clear idea.

But there are some clues.

The planned demonstration was about peace and national dialogue, which in Turkey's incredibly fragmented and nuanced semiotics means that the participants were liberals, social democrats and people positively predisposed towards the Kurdish claims and the party that represents them, HDP.

In other words, PKK is highly unlikely to be behind this attack. They would gain nothing by attacking the segments that support the peace process. Plus, PKK has never fielded a suicide bomber. It is not their modus operandi.

The other suspect that the government is likely to turn to is the colossally stupid Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front or DHKP-C. Even though they were involved in a couple of suicide bombings previously, it would be hard for them to justify this one, as these people had nothing to do with the enemies they claim to fight.

That leaves two possibilities. The obvious candidate is ISIS. They have an army of zombie suicide bombers. And while it is not obvious why they would want to blow up these people, they certainly do not consider them friends or allies.

There is, however, one issue. And this one is relevant for the previous suicide bombing in Suruc a couple of months ago. ISIS claims its attacks. Not only that, it makes glorious videos about them. It interminably tweets about their exploits. It films its martyrs in Technicolor and puts them up on the Internet. It releases feature length movies about them.

ISIS has never claimed Suruc and it hasn't claimed this one.

That leaves one possibility.
Bulent Tekdemir, who was at the rally, told the BBC that the police used tear gas "as soon as the bomb went off", and "would not let ambulances through". 
A local resident said that angry people tried to attack police cars after the blast. The HDP tweeted that police "attacked" people carrying the injured away.
Which means that someone is trying to win these elections at all cost.

It is a crying shame.


It now looks like there were two suicide bombers.

Predictably, government sources are insinuating that the suicide bombers were ISIS idiots. Some pro-government papers are floating Arabic names as possible perpetrators. The problem with that theory is that, as I said in the main post, if they were, we would hear about them by now in a loud and clear manner.

Besides the police reaction in the aftermath of the bombing, there are two more pieces of evidence that point away from ISIS and foreign killers. A Turkish opposition daily, Cumhuriyet reported that a bearded man with a portable loud speaker kept telling HDP members to gather where one of the bombers eventually pulled the pin. He was speaking in Turkish.

This also suggests that HDP was the main target and I have no idea why ISIS would have a problem with them. PKK? Maybe, because of Kobani siege. But HDP is a political party with nothing to do with ISIS.

Secondly, the police, who normally search everyone in political rallies, did not conduct any searches. The Minister of Interior said that they were planning to do it at the main rally site. I don't have to tell you that this makes very little sense, as it would have been impossible to search thousands of people who were gathered in a big area. You do it at the gates on the way to the main arena.

One other thing. No police officers died or seriously wounded. While this might be just a fortunate coincidence, and good for them, it could fuel likely speculations that they knew where the attack was going to take place and studiously avoided that area.

09 October 2015

Putin's Complex Strategy

A good friend of mine told me that my post on Putin doubling down on energy was way off the mark.

I was touched. Slamming this blog is my friends' way of telling me that they read the stuff.

"If we were to believe your stupid pipeline theories" he said, "Putin propping up Assad would mean helping Iran to get its natural gas to Europe through Syria. Have you forgotten the Shia pipeline?"

On the face of it, he seems to have a point.

If, as I claimed, Putin's aim was to stop the Qatar natural gas pipeline from reaching Europe, keeping Assad in power is tantamount to permitting the so called Islamic Pipeline (or the  Shia Pipeline) project to go through. As you know, that undertaking was dubbed the Shia pipeline as it was supposed to link Iranian natural gas to Europe through Iraq and Syria (and then Italy or Spain through the Mediterranean Sea).

True that.

But, Putin's game plan is a little more complicated than that.

Sunni vs Shia Pipeline

I suspect his premise is that there is no way to stop a natural gas pipeline from reaching Europe. Either North Dome side (Qatar) or South Pars side (Iran) will find a way to get it to Europe and therefore compete with Russia in that market.

But the two sides are nor equal.

Qatar has already financed a band of murderous thugs to establish an oppressive Salafist state over a huge swath of territory in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been very successful in attracting misguided second generation Muslims from all over the world to become the citizens subjects of a modern-day Caliphate and to swell the ranks of its terrorist army. Besides a feared army, with a little help from Saddam's former officers, they built a state apparatus and a reasonably functioning administrative structure.

They are now ready for Qatar's Sunni gas pipeline to Europe.

From an economic vantage point, Qatar has gazillions of dollars for a large pipeline network and it has already invested in very sophisticated extraction, storage and liquefaction equipment. The cost of the pipeline is chump change to them. Once the dust settles, they can build it quickly.

If you look at the Shia side of the equation, the picture is pretty dismal. The only decent fighting Shia force in the region is the Hezbollah. They may be a formidable force but they are puny compared to the ISIS battalions. And they are not as well equipped nor as ruthless. There is also Assad's dwindling army but they are barely capable of defending a small region and without serious outside help they would have folded a long time ago.

Economically, Iran's oil and gas infrastructure is outdated and in dire need of an overhaul. But they are unable to do that as the sanctions left their economy in shambles. Estimates to bring their current infrastructure to modern standards range from $100 billion to $200 billion. But I suspect the real figure is much higher.

From Putin's perspective this means that, even if the sanctions were lifted today and Iran somehow managed to borrow this amount, it would still take several years for them to ramp up their production.
Tehran has raised the stakes by declaring that it is ready to sell gas to Europe. While Russian analysts concede that this will eventually be a threat to Russia, they believe Iran will need up to a decade to prepare.
Putin also knows that Russia can not put back Syria together. Actually, no one can. After years of unspeakable atrocities there is no way the Alewites, Sunni and Kurds can cohabitate in the same country.  As I stated over two years ago, this is a feature not a bug. So the partition is permanent.

With ISIS controlling more than half of Syria and with Assad barely hanging on, Russia had one play and that was to establish a strong military presence there. He did it quickly and brilliantly.

The move gives Putin many advantages.

Calling the Shots

The first one is to disrupt Qatar's natural gas pipeline plans by destabilizing ISIS and preventing it from establishing a permanent structure. The beauty of it is that, Russia does not even have to invoke any pretext, fighting against ISIS' black-clad merry beheaders is good enough reason in most settings.

Secondly, being in Syria is useful for putting regional powers in check. As I mentioned recently, both Turkey and Israel are seriously miffed about Russian presence and the limitations this imposes on their actions. But they are unable to do much about it. In one fell swoop, Russia has become a resident Middle Eastern super power.

Thirdly, having several large military bases in Assad's future and admittedly smaller Alewiteistan will turn Russia into the protector of the Islamic pipeline. No Russia, no Islamic pipeline.

I can't think of a better motivator for Iran to play ball with Russia.

And this is not a crude Mafia-type protection scheme. Putin has been working hard to convince Iran that Russia was on their side and could be an invaluable ally in their confrontation with the Sunni front. In that vein, Russia worked relentlessly to get a nuclear deal signed and to bring Iran in from the cold.
Russia was an enigmatic player in the Iran negotiations. Its negotiators surprised many Western colleagues with their tireless work and co-operation despite Moscow’s escalating stand-off with the West over Ukraine.
They did so even when everyone assumed they had so much to lose if Iran was back in energy markets:
Their devotion was all the more surprising given some Western officials believe Russia now stands to lose on all fronts from the resulting deal: as Tehran emerges from crippling sanctions, it may now drive oil prices lower and drop its partners in Moscow for new friends in the West.
Moreover, even before the nuclear deal was final, Russia, as this year's host of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit, announced that Iran was set to become a full member of SCO once the sanctions were lifted.

This is a big deal. The other regional power, Turkey, was never accorded more than observer status, despite repeated pleas from from its President.

In short, my friend's facetious disagreement notwithstanding, Russia's military build up in Syria was definitely part of Putin's strategy of doubling down on energy.

And it makes him the master of either pipeline. One might never be built because of Russia and the other might only be functional for as long as Russia allows it.

In that sense, if it all works out, Russia will have achieved what the US wanted to do when Bush and the neo-cons came up with their bogus excuse to invade Iraq, namely controlling a good chunk of the oil and gas distribution in the Middle East.

There is more.

Challenging NATO

On 6 October, the Commander of US Navy forces in Europe, Admiral Mark Ferguson gave a -what Foreign Policy called- "sobering talk" to the Atlantic Council (video link) explaining how Putin's policy of arming of outposts from the far North to Kaliningrad to Crimea and to Syria has created a serious problem for NATO.
Ferguson delivered a sobering talk, flagging the continued “snap exercises” by Russian ground forces and “large numbers of ships get[ing] underway with little or no notice,” as particular areas of concern for his command. Any future conflict with Moscow will likely be “very focused and happen rapidly on the flanks,” he said, with no time for the West “to build up and then execute.”
What he is saying that Putin changed current engagement rules by quickly building up military positions in many outposts that can strike. And NATO is scrambling to catch up.

The best example I can give you is the recent Russian jet incursions into Turkish airspace. They lasted a few seconds but they were not accidental or random. They tested Turkey's responses and its willingness to retaliate.

Turkey huffed and puffed. So did NATO. But there was never any doubt that Turkey would not escalate this into a serious crisis.
Turkey will not compromise on border security, but does not want Russian incursions into its airspace to escalate into a crisis with Nato, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said.
With its actions on the ground Russia is conveying the message that it is now a regional super power. And there is little NATO or Sunni powers can do about it.

To reinforce this message, Russia took two other unexpected and perhaps more worrisome actions.

On October 7, the Russian navy struck targets deep in ISIS territory with its own cruise missiles. Apparently, this took the US analysts by surprised as they did not expect these missiles to have this kind of range.

For non-analysts like us this was remarkable for another reason. Take a look at the map. Do you see which countries these missiles have overflown?

Iran, Iraq, Syria.

Interestingly, when unnamed Pentagon officials claimed that some of these 27 cruise missiles actually crashed in Iran, Iranian officials were as quick and vehement as their Russian counterparts in denouncing these reports.
[C]onservative Iranian media described the reports of missiles landing in Iran as "psychological operations by the US against Moscow".

"Since Russia began its operations in Syria, Western media and officials have launched an all-out assault against Moscow," the Fars News Agency, thought to have close affiliations with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, said.
The second incident was Russian fighter jets shadowing American Predator drones on at least three separate occasions.
U.S. officials tell Fox News the drone encounters took place over ISIS-controlled Syria, including its de facto headquarters in Raqqa, as well as along the Turkish-Syrian border near Korbani. Another occurred in the northwest, near the highly contested city of Aleppo.

“The first time it happened, we thought the Russians got lucky. Then it happened two more times,” said one official.
Tellingly, this came about after John Kerry announced that the US was considering a no-fly zone in Syria, something Turkey has long wanted and the West has always resisted.

My guess is that the drone incident was Putin's response to Kerry's bluff. Instead of stating that Russia would not accept such an arrangement, its fighter jets indicated that a no-fly zone could easily lead to undesirable "accidents."

So today Kerry backtracked and told "his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in a phone call that the two countries must move forward with technical talks on avoiding accidents in Syria."

In that regard, I would not take Erdogan's recent threats about buying natural gas elsewhere very seriously. Not only would Turkey not be able to switch suppliers that easily, as Russia provides 28-30 bcm of its 50 bcm annual consumption, its other major source of gas is Iran.

Which underscores the brilliance of Putin's strategy.


Speaking of Erdogan's gas threat:
Russian gas giant Gazprom said Wednesday its TurkStream pipeline project with Turkey would be delayed as tensions between Moscow and Ankara peak over Russia's intervention in the Syrian conflict.

"Given that there is no intergovernmental agreement, the timeframe will be postponed," Russian news agencies quoted Gazprom deputy CEO Alexander Medvedev as saying, referring to a deadline next year for building the first of four pipelines.
That is a "chin flick" if I ever saw one.

I stand corrected.

This is the chin flick.
Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said on Thursday that an additional 3 bcm supply of gas to Turkey had been declined.