31 January 2014

Turkey's Risky Strategy in the Syrian Conflct

Syria continues to take up world's attention with multinational talks in Geneva. The hostile and uncompromising tone that dominates the meetings clearly demonstrates the intractable nature of the problem.

This is hardly surprising, as after millions of Syrians were displaced and many thousands killed, and the unspeakable atrocities committed, it is unlikely that Syrians could find a way to see eye-to-eye, let alone negotiate the parameters to live in the same country.

Unfortunately, as I noted before, this is a feature and not a bug.

However, the disunity and discord are not just the result of a cynical Pipelinistan map redraw. They are also caused by the fact that Syria has become the fulcrum for too many competing scenarios: every time someone pushed in one direction, there are five or six pulling the other way.

Consequently, even the Pipelineistan blueprint has become much harder to implement.

Among all these competing actors, there is one that seems to follow a dangerously complex and risky road map and that is Turkey.

The problem with Turkey is that, despite a comfortable majority in Parliament, an ineffective opposition and a very large conservative constituency, the Prime Minister feels surrounded by enemies and acts accordingly. There are many reports that the only person he really trusts is the head of the Turkish Intelligence Agency MIT, a man by the name of Hakan Fidan.

As I recently reported, some of his actions are not exactly helping Erdogan. But the two seem to have formed an interesting alliance and their strategy looks like what-if-an-intelligence-agency-was-formulating-policy.

This is clearly visible in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey and Syrian Kurds

As I explained before, Turkey dropped its "zero problem with neighbors" policy and changed its stance towards Syria overnight. And Erdogan moved from being Assad's BFF to becoming his mortal enemy within the span of a week.

Since then, Turkey has been providing shelter to hundreds and thousands of Syrian refugees. It set up (with Qatari and Saudi funds) secret military bases for the Free Syrian Army (FSA). It trained FSA fighters and allowed for their free movement between Syria and Turkey. And, of course, it opened its border to shipment of arms and equipment.

Initially, the Turkish strategy was fairly straightforward: Help the rebels in anyway you can, work with Qatar and Saudis as the Sword of Sunni Islam and benefit from the largess of Sunni countries in the short run and position yourself as a critically important player (and a major energy hub) in the medium to long run.

If Syria was partitioned into three or four smaller states in the post-Assad era, one of those was inevitably going to be a Kurdish territory along the lines of Barzani's Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq. And Turkish government has privileged relations with that entity.

But there is a problem: the leading Kurdish group in Syria PYD (and the one likely to dominate an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan) is an offshoot of the PKK.

This means that Turkey's efforts to help overthrow Assad and create a (de facto or de jure) partitioned Syria will almost certainly lead to an autonomous Kurdish region controlled by the PKK and its imprisoned leader Ocalan.

Let me make a side point here:

Most observers believe that, Turkey is afraid to lose its Kurdish region to a new state of Kurdistan. I hold the contrarian view that they know that the rise of a Kurdistan is inevitable. What they want is to have a lot of influence in that new entity and perhaps envisage some sort of regional integration, modeled after their current arrangement in Northern Iraq. If that works out, instead of losing a chunk of their territory, Turkey could gain privileged access to a larger and potentially richer autonomous entity. What they fear is that, if they get the opportunity, Ocalan and the PKK might not allow Turkey'a tutelage over a newly formed Kurdistan.

Hence the serious misgivings of MIT.

As the PYD strengthened its leadership position in Syria (despite Barzani's military and financial support to other Syrian Kurdish groups), Erdogan and the MIT began to look for ways to weaken them. They arbitrarily closed border posts to stop Kurdish fighters retreat, regroup and go back fighting while allowing ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra fighters to go in and out freely.
The Kurds, who landed control of a string of towns and villages in northeast Syria after the men of Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, left voluntarily over a year ago, insist they are the victims of a proxy war that is being orchestrated by Turkey through its Syrian rebel protégés. These allegedly include foreign fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the radical Islamist militias that have shot to global notoriety with their brutal ways. 
“The Turks have cleared mines, cut barbed wire fencing to let these armed gangs come through the Turkish border,” grumbles Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), the Syrian Kurdish group that runs the de-facto autonomous Kurdish enclave. A Syrian rebel fighting the Kurds told our correspondent that “Allah be praised, Turkey is giving us some weapons” though he added that the France and Saudi Arabia were “much more generous”.
While the government insisted that Turkey was not providing arms to Jihadis, there were numerous reports to the contrary.

What the government, or should I say, MIT was hoping to achieve was some kind of temporary defeat for the PYD, so that they could pressure Ocalan to accept a peace agreement that favors Turkey and gives it more power and access to any future Kurdish entity.

Instead, Turkey found itself under immense pressure to drop its support for the Jihadis and they were forced to back off. As soon as they began to ease off arms shipment and logistic and training support, Syrian Kurds started to achieve impressive victories.

Which might have prompted Erdogan and the MIT to move that military support underground.

Last December, a convoy of large lorries were stopped by the Turkish military for containing arms and ammunition destined for Syrian Jihadis. Two agents belonging to the MIT were part of the convoy and they refused to allow the military to seize the trucks. Within hours Ankara intervened, the local governor was sacked and the convoy was allowed to move on.

Foreign Minister Davutoglu has since been maintaining that the convoy contained humanitarian aid to Turkmen groups inside Syria. But, understandably, not many people are buying that argument, especially since more such trucks have been observed.

What is interesting is that this foreign-policy-by-intelligence-organization has seriously backfired.

The overall result of their cynical ploy was the dangerous ascendancy of al Qaeda affiliated groups. These forces are now capable of acting like regular troops and they are invading regions and taking over cities. Moreover, they are extending their influence zone into neighboring countries.

Their impressive push into Ramadi and Falluja in Iraq must have been a wake up call. They are also active in Lebanon. And Jordan is clearly worried.

There are also allegations of al Qaeda bases inside Turkey, which are denied by the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

If this is not the proof of the failure of the government-by-intelligence-agency I don't know what is.

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