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Rumors about the “death” of Russian-Turkish alliance in Syria greatly exaggerated

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The breakthrough in trade and other economic relations between Russia and Turkey has quite naturally spread to the realm of politics, best reflected in the two countries’ coordinated actions in Syria. This is all the more surprising, since only recently military-technical cooperation between Moscow and Ankara was absolutely unthinkable. Wary of this trend, members of the Western antiterrorist coalition fighting ISIL (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) have been working hard to “tear off” Turkey from Russia, with mass media spearheading this effort.

According to the authors of one such publication recently carried by The Financial Times, and aptly titled “Idlib: Russia and Turkey are preparing for the final battle in Syria, such “battles” have already happened recently, and what is coming up now is a “Russian-Turkish Armageddon.”

“What happens in Idlib could determine the fate of  [Putin’s and Erdogan’s] marriage of convenience, one that has muddled its way through the war, but is now stretched to breaking point.”

The article claims that in Idlib the Russian-Turkish alliance is now breaking down as Ankara is trying to figure out if it could be better off cooperating with Washington, rather than with Moscow. The whole tonality of the article leaves no doubt as to which of the two options is the best way to go.

Indeed, Moscow and Ankara do not see entirely eye to eye on what Syria should look like after the war is over, with the main sticking point being the situation in Idlib and in the northeastern regions of the country controlled by the Kurdish militia.

While Russia is holding out for the earliest possible rout of the terrorists, mainly from the  Hayat Tahrir-al-Sham group, massed inside the Idlib Demilitarized Zone (IDZ), Turkey is generally happy about the existing status quo.

Firstly, even though mainly squeezed out by Hayat Tahrir-al-Sham to Turkish-controlled areas in Syria, some of Ankara’s proxies still remain in the IDZ. Secondly, Ankara fears that active hostilities could set off a new wave of refugees in addition to what Turkey has already taken in, that could fuel social unrest in the country. And, finally, practice shows that no police filters can reveal all the radicals among the incoming refugees, who could blame Ankara for “failing to protect them,” with dire consequences for both.

After negotiating with his Russian and Iranian colleagues in September 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to ensure the creation of a buffer zone around the perimeter of the IDZ, to achieve the withdrawal of heavy armament from it before October 10, and of terrorist units – before October 15. Moreover, the Aleppo-Damascus road was to open before the end of 2018. Many Turkish experts still argued that these commitments were obviously impossible to meet. Time has proved them right.

After meeting with President Erdogan in January, President Putin was fully understanding about Ankara’s failure.

”Our Turkish colleagues are doing everything possible to implement the agreement. Of course, there are problems there, but we have agreed with our Turkish colleagues on what needs to be done in the near future,” Putin said. He also told a news conference that he had discussed with the Turkish leader “what additional steps Russia and Turkey could take to ensure stability in the Idlib region.”

A month later, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that a military operation against terrorists was necessary, but it was not yet clear whether “Turkey or some other countries” would carry it out. Does this mean that Ankara has at least given a nod to such an operation? Well, this is quite possible, since Idlib is almost completely “lost” for Turkey’s proxy, and, by extension, for Turkey itself.  It also looks like the issue of creating “security zones” for potential refugees is now getting off the ground.

All this gave the well-known Turkish journalist Fehim Taştekin a reason to believe that Russia wants to “resolve the Idlib problem” not in spite of Turkey, but with it.

On March 9, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, announced the start of joint patrols of the Idlib Demilitarized Zone with the Russian military. Moscow did not confirm the information, nor did it deny it either. On March 13, Russian warplanes pounded terrorist arsenals in a series of airstrikes, which Moscow said had been coordinated with the Turkish military. Turkey denied that any such coordination had actually taken place, apparently to avoid the terrorists’ wrath. A couple of weeks later, the very same Hulusi Akar said that Turkish and Russian military were setting up a “single coordination center in Idlib.”

Overall, stuttering as it may be, Russian-Turkish cooperation in Idlib remains on track, and no signs of a close “battle” are anywhere in sight.

Another loose end waiting to be tied up is the “Kurdish issue.” Russia believes that territories currently under the control of Kurdish units should be part of a unified Syria, while Ankara’s main concern is the possible emergence of a Kurdish state on its border (here the interests of Moscow and Ankara coincide). Turkey also wants to eliminate the likelihood of any threat coming from the Syrian Kurds’ main political party – the Democratic Union – which in Turkey is considered an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, i.e. a terrorist organization. Here, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted, “We [Russia and Turkey] do not have a shared view on exactly who among the Kurds are to be considered as terrorists. Turkey has a special position. We understand their concern, but we still need to sift out ashes from cinders and see which of the Kurdish units are extremists and pose a security threat to the Turkish Republic.”

President Erdogan dismissed this statement as “incorrect.”

It hasn’t been long since Ankara planned to bring the Kurdish-populated regions of Syria under its control. “Times they are a-changing” though, and Turkey is changing with them. It is now speaking about the need to create a buffer zone (a “security zone” where refugees can stay) along its entire border with Syria, and, of course, on the Syrian side of that border.

Russia is ready to discuss the creation of temporary buffer zones, but, according to Sergei Lavrov, “taking into account the position of Damascus,” while simultaneously showing “maximum possible consideration for Turkey’s interests.”

During the trilateral Russian-Turkish-Iranian summit, President Vladimir Putin suggested that in its relations with Syria Ankara be governed by the terms of the 1988 Adana Agreement, whereby Syria recognized the Kurdistan Workers’ Party as a terrorist organization and banned its activities on its territory. This allowed the Turkish security forces, in their pursuit of PKK units, to stray into Syrian territory to a depth of 5 kilometers. The problem, however, is that Ankara does not officially recognize the Assad government, even though it maintains “low level” contacts with Damascus. Still, President Erdogan’s admission that “we view our future within the framework of the 1998 Adana Agreement,”  speaks for itself.

Meanwhile, more and more people in Turkey now realize the need to restore ties with Syria. According to Mehmet Ali Güller, the respected columnist for the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, “the sooner the Ankara-Damascus dialogue … reaches the highest level, the closer the achievement of a political settlement will be.”

That being said, relations between Russia and Turkey are still short of being ideal, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Turkey having twice been postponed by Ankara. The discussion of the Syrian issue was initially scheduled for March 12, then for March 18. Moreover, almost each time President Erdogan is due to meet his Russian and Iranian counterparts, he invariably mentions his close, partnership relations with Washington. This can be regarded as an attempt to “play both sides of the fence,” and a reflection of Ankara’s much-declared multi-vector foreign policy.

The ideology of Pan-Turkism, which was so popular during the 1990s, has since been put on the back burner as the Turkish political establishment is pursuing a three-pronged foreign policy combining the Islamic, Atlantic and Eurasian tracks. Turkey’s geopolitical position at the junction of different civilizations inevitably determines the country’s final choice as being existential, rather than political.

As for the Islamic vector, it leads nowhere, since neither Iran nor the Arab countries will ever recognize Turkey’s leadership, and Ankara will not agree to anything less.

A move towards embracing “Western democracies” would negate all previous activities of the Turkish leadership and the entire ideology of the Justice and Development Party, which has been governing the country for almost 17 years now. Moreover, Europe has already made it clear that the EU’s doors are closed for Turkey, and President Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton recently failed to give a direct answer when asked whether Turkey is a friend or enemy of the United States.

“Well, you know they’re still a NATO ally; we’re trying to work with them, but they’ve got a very bad relationship with our close friends in Israel. That’s something we need to look out on,” Bolton said, adding that disagreements “with respect to the conflict in Syria” were another issue.

This certainly does not sit well with Turkey’s political elite, which makes rumors about the “death” of the Russian-Turkish alliance look greatly exaggerated. Just as Fehim Taştekinput it, “the Astana project lives on, because Turkish-Russian interaction continues on the ground.”

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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