Following their meeting in Sochi on October 23, 2019, Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyp Erdogan officially announced a ceasefire throughout Northern Syria.
The bilateral agreement reached in Sochi strengthens the role played by Bashar al-Assad in the region between the Syrian Kurdish world and the area on the border with Turkey. It also ensures the permanence of Russian forces throughout Syria and finally serves to formalize the Turkish military presence in the region and in Syrian territory. A position of the Turkish forces on the border between Syria and Turkey, for about 32 kilometres from the borderline between the two countries.
With a view to separating the Syrian Rojava (which means “East”, in Kurdish) from the Kurdish areas of Iran, Turkey and Iraq.
Russia regards this agreement as the final confirmation of the victory of the Syrian forces of Assad (and Russia) in the long Syrian war.
The Russian Federation won in Syria because it bet on the comparatively stronger horse, i.e. Assad’s regime, and also because it had a coherent and stable strategy, compared to Obama’s and Trump’s ambiguities. An additional reason was that no European country, frightened by the instability of the North American attitude, joined the United States in its actions on Syrian soil.
The agreement between Erdogan and Putin in Syria, which was born as early as the Turkish leader’s repression of the 2016 attempted coup d’état, has even created the “Astana Process” involving also Iran in a negotiation which has metaphorically “killed” the Geneva talks, where many pro-American elements were also present and active.
However, even after the knocking out of the Geneva talks, the United States was still significantly present in North-Eastern Syria, before the arrival of Turkey throughout Northern Syria.
Now the U.S. forces have largely withdrawn, precisely as a result of Turkish operations. Hence there is no possibility, however remote, that the USA can wage again a war against Assad starting from North-Eastern Syria.
That was Russia’ greatest fear.
In Syria, as early as 2015, Russia has always attached greater importance to operations in Western Syria, while the recent Turkish attack against Afrin has ensured that Turkey and Russia actually expelled the Kurds from the area – the Kurds who, after all, were the only U.S. real strategic asset.
All the Turkish projects for Northern Syria, ranging from the transfer of the Turkey-supported jihadists from Idlib eastwards to the use of the many Syrian Sunni refugees in Turkey to replace the Kurds in North-Eastern Syria, are a strategic blessing for Russia.
On the one hand, it is currently possible for Assad to directly hit Idlib alone but, on the other, we also need to consider the Turkish pressure on the Kurds towards the East, which jeopardizes the link between Turkey and the United States.
This is another excellent result for the Russian strategy in Syria. There was also the U.S. forces’ hasty relinquishment of their role in protecting the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the Kurds, which put the Kurds themselves in a position to accept the new Russian “protection”.
Russia also reaffirmed the 1998 Adana Agreement between Syria and Turkey, which envisaged the possibility for the Turkish forces to cross the border and exert strong pressure on the Kurds.
Nevertheless, what does the Russian Federation really want from the Kurds and especially from their Syrian Democratic Forces?
The agreements reached so far to organize Turkish-Russian “joint patrol units” on the Syrian border enable Russia to become the only future peace broker in Syria, while Assad’s army has moved to North-Eastern Syria, by establishing itself well away from the safe zones that Turkey has already occupied.
A “zero-sum game” for everyone, except for the United States. The European Union, as usual, is not part of the game.
Russia, however, does not want to shoulder the whole burden of territorial control of Eastern Syria, but it lacks the new proxies, i.e. the autonomous forces acting in its name and on its behalf.
At the beginning of Russia’s engagement in Syria, its aim was only to support Assad and put an end to the US obsession for the “Arab springs”, which were destabilizing as never before. However, now that there are multiple actors on Syrian territory, Putin wants to manage relations with everyone and with the utmost care, considering that his primary goal is currently not to accept a simultaneous clash with many opponents.
Other problems for the Russian strategic decision-making are to avoid the clash between Iran and Israel passing through Syria, but not only on Syrian territory, as well as to limit the Turkish, Kurdish and even Syrian expansion on Syria’s northern border – a situation that would no longer enable Russia to manage military equilibria with a minimum effort.
However, what are Turkey’s real regional aspirations?
Firstly, there is the stabilisation of Syria, and not just for the Kurdish issue. Secondly, there is the Eastern Mediterranean region and finally the Turkish positions in the Black Sea region.
The Kurdish issue, which is well clear for Turkey, is related to its awareness of having to control its East without problems: if there are opposing forces in the Turkish expansion line towards Iraq, Syria and Central Asia, the deep core of Turkey’s current foreign policy disappears.
There is also the energy issue, considering that Turkey buys most of its oil and gas from Russia and that it wants to play a decisive role in the new extractions that are being prepared in the Eastern Mediterranean region, between Cyprus, the Lebanon, Israel and Greece.
Turkey is hungry for foreign investment and this must also be taken into account when defining the Turkish strategic equation.
Turkeys’ recent purchase of the Russian S-400Triumfmissile and defence systems (NATO reporting name: SA 21 Growler) places Turkey in the position of having to rebalance its military relations with the United States but, in the Black Sea area, Turkey’s and Russia’s interests tend to conflict.
As stated above, the relationship between Russia and Turkey was born from the Turkish perception that the United States is somehow involved in the 2016 attempted coup.
Moreover, Russia wants to take Turkey out of the NATO geostrategic environment, both through the sale of weapons such as the S-400 and with the wise exacerbation of tensions between Ankara, the EU and the USA.
All potential breaks that will not occur. President Erdogan still has his own European policy in mind and has no interest in definitively abandoning the USA just now that – with President Trump – the United States is showing its desire to move away from NATO’s European axis, but certainly only to a certain extent.
Turkey is not so much interested in this axis.
With specific reference to Syria, Russia has so far shown it wants to keep the Kurds in their traditional areas, without changing the borders of Iraq, Syria and Iran.
On the contrary, Russia – which has not yet a formal relationship with the Kurdish YPG, i.e. the “self-defence force” of the Kurdish community – wants to create a sort of autonomy agreed between the Kurds’ Rojava in Syria and Bashar al-Assad’s government – a special autonomy guaranteed by a new future Syrian constitution.
It is also extremely important to note that Russia is the second economic partner of Turkey, immediately after Germany, while Turkey is only Russia’s fifth largest trading partner.
In 2018, the last year for which data is available, trade between Turkey and Russia increased by as much as 37%, while Turkish exports to Russia alone increased by as much as 47%.
Not to mention the planned renewal of the Turkish Stream Project, the natural gas transport line going from Anapa, near Krasnodar, Russia, through the Black Sea, up to Kiyikoy, on the Thracian coast of Turkey.
We should also recall the Turkish-Russian project for the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.
For the time being and also for a long time in the future, Turkey will not leave NATO.
In terms of structures, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is not even comparable to the traditional network of the Atlantic Pact.
The three factors that make full security and defence cooperation between Turkey and Russia difficult are respectively the still important presence of Turkey within NATO, the Ukrainian crisis and finally the Russian annexation of Crimea.
With specific reference to the purchase of the Russian S-400s, Turkey maintains that this stems from the particular difficulty of acquiring the new Western weapon systems, but Russia has not offered any co-production of its advanced weapons to Turkey.
If Turkey could decide quickly and well on the F-35s, the new Patriot missiles, and on some co-productions of weapons with the West, it would certainly know how to get out of the agreement with Russia for the S-400s tactfully, without even severely undermine its relations with Russia.
As to the energy trade between Turkey and the Russian Federation, the former depends on the latter for 55% of its natural gas requirements and for 12% of its oil ones.
It is not possible, however, to easily replace imports from Russia.
Moreover, Turkey exports most of its oil and gas imports from Russia to the EU. In this sector, it is second only to Nord Stream’s Germany.
Moreover, a joint financial fund has been established between Turkey and Russia to organise their bilateral relations.
Turkish leaders argue that this fund strengthens local currencies against the US dollar.
It is probably true.
The Fund, however, also serves to support Turkey’s true and traditional vocation to become the great oil hub from Russia, but also from the Middle East and the Caspian Sea to Europe.
This is the reason why Turkey entered Syria.
This is one of the necessary keys to rationally interpret the Syrian issue.
Currently Turkey’s primary strategic interest is to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas, but also to increase its clout as a necessary transit area for all energy trade from the Middle East and from the Russian Federation.
In 2003, the Blue Stream completion multiplied Russian gas exports to Turkey.
The future Turkish Stream will bring 15.75 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkey to Southern Europe within 2020.
Russia wants to build two parallel lines, at least for the first phase.
Obviously one for Turkey alone, and another one only for Europe.
In the Black Sea area, the USA has so far counterbalanced the Russian Federation only through Atlantic Alliance’s operations.
NATO’s presence in the Black Sea area is fundamental also for Turkey, which mainly fears that the Black Sea will become a “Russian lake” – just to use President Erdogan’s words.
Even before the war in Syria, Russia has been using Sevastopol for actions towards the Eastern Mediterranean region and this is certainly not good for Turkey.
Moreover, at the time, Turkey favoured NATO’s institutional rooting in the Black Sea, by means of a task force between Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy and Germany with the U.S. tactical support.
The project, however, failed.
Nevertheless, the Russian military presence in Syria, Armenia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as in the Crimean Peninsula, continues to fuel the Turkish fears of Russian encirclement.
Turkey, however, also avoided supporting the Western sanctions for the annexation of Crimea and Donbass, for obvious reasons of expediency, but it carried out a careful and subtle action against the Russian annexation of Crimea and for the protection of the local Tatar minority.
Turkey is also a direct competitor of the Russian Federation in Azerbaijan and Georgia. Here Turkey has operated in connection with the European Commission to create the Southern Gas Corridor, also operational as from 2020, which will bring resources from the Middle East and Central Asia (and especially from the Caspian Sea) to the EU countries.
Since 2015 Turkey has also been supporting Georgia’s adhesion to NATO, while preserving its special relationship with Azerbaijan – a country with which Turkey signed a Strategic and Mutual Aid Agreement in 2010. Here the issue of the structural contrast between Armenia and Azerbaijan comes to the fore.
As is well known, Russia supports Armenia, as it already did at the dawn of the Cold War.
The Russian Federation, however, also sells weapons to Azerbaijan, with a view to favouring the success of the Russia-Iran-Azerbaijan Initiative.
There is also the long-standing and unresolved problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, a low-intensity conflict that has been lasting with ups and downs since 1994.
In this case, nothing has been decided yet in the relations between Turkey and Russia.
Turkey, however, will keep on strengthening its relations with the Russian Federation.
Nevertheless, Turkey will never establish a stable strategic relationship with Russia, to the detriment of its participation in NATO as the second force after the United States.
Also in the case of Italy, we will need a broader and naturally complex vision of the international relations and the national interests of Turkey and the Russian Federation itself, which are not the strategic monoliths that many Italian decision-makers unfortunately imagine.
Post Trump Palestine
The unconditional United States’ political, financial and military support to Israel enabled the latter to occupy the Palestinian territories. The former became involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an arbiter to resolve the issue. But the foreign policy of US has always remained tilt to Israeli interests. From recognizing Israel as sovereign state in 1947 to accepting Jerusalem as capital of Israel has clearly unearthed the biased attitude of US for Israel.
Similarly, Trump also adopted the traditional stance of Washington on Palestine, i.e. outright support for Israel. Trump’s policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more aggressive but not in contradiction with his predecessors’. For instance, he brought into reality the law passed by US congress in 1995 that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shifted US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed office of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington DC in Sept 2018 and closed US consulate in East Jerusalem the area under Palestinian control. His bigotry against Palestinians unveiled more distinctly when he announced defunding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides food, education and healthcare to the refugees. Moreover during his regime in November 2018 the state department of US proclaimed that the construction of Israeli settlements in West Bank does not come under the ambit of violation of international humanitarian laws. Certainly, the belligerent policies in last four years of trump era paved the way for the colonization of Palestine by Israel and helped the latter to put unlawful restrictions on Palestinians making them deprived of all civil liberties and peace.
As per world report-2020by Human Rights Watch HRW, Palestinian citizens are restrained from all basic necessities of life such that, education, basic healthcare, clean water and electricity. The movement of people and goods to and from Gaza strip is also inhibited. According to World Health Organization WHO 34 percent of applications by Palestinians, for medical appointments outside Gaza strip, were not addressed by Israeli army. Moreover, HRW report states that the Israeli government destroyed 504 homes of Palestinians in West Bank during 2019 and facilitated 5995 housing settlements for Israelis. The country is trying at utmost to eradicate indigenous Palestinians from their home land. According to United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNOCHA, the demolitions of Palestinian homes displaced 642 people in 2019 and 472 in 2018.Moreover, the illicit attacks by Israeli side have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in the same years. According to UNOCHA on November 11, 2020, 71 innocent Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli forces while 11,453 were lethally injured in a single day. Furthermore, UN secretary general exhorted that Israeli armed forces have infringed the children’s rights during the conflict as in 2018, 56 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli armed forces.
While, other international actors criticized the Israeli annexations of the region and declared it as violation of international humanitarian laws, US supported the Israeli escalations in West Bank. The former also stopped aid support through USAID for Gaza strip where eighty percent of population depends upon aid. Such partial attitude of US has put the country outside the international consensus on the issue. Apparently, US pretend its position as arbiter but her policies accredited the colonization of Palestine by Israel.
Thus, it seems futile to expect any big change in US policies regarding Israeli-Palestinian issue during forthcoming administrations. However, the president-elect Joe Bidden may alter some of the trump’s decisions such as reopening of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington, resuming funding of UNRWA and reopening of US consulate in East Jerusalem. But his policies will not contradict the congress’ stance on the issue. As, he and his team have clearly mentioned prior to elections that they will not shift back the US embassy to Tel Aviv as it seems politically and practically insensible to them. Moreover, Blinken, the candidate for secretary of state in Joe’s upcoming regime, made it clear through his controversial statements, that the imminent president will inherit historic US position on Palestine-Israel dispute. Further, Chinese expansionism, Russian intervention in American and European affairs and Iran nuclear deal issue would remain the main concerns of foreign affairs of US during initial period of Joe Biden’s regime. He is likely to favor the status quo in Palestine and remain focused on other foreign interests. In addition to this the inclination of Arabian Gulf to develop relations with Israel will also hinder the adherence for Palestinians from the gulf countries. Subsequently, it will enable Israelis to continue seizing the Palestinian territories into Israel and leave indigenous Palestinians stateless in their own land.
Summing up, it is significant for Palestinians to continue their struggle for the homeland and seek support from other international actors to marginalize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. As well as, the peace accord of 1993 signed in between both nations, to share the holy land, should also be revoked by both countries. Both nations should try to resolve the issue on equitable grounds by negotiations so that either side could not be deprived of its interests.
An Enemy Among Us
The upcoming talks regarding the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, that are due to take place on January 25, should not disillusion us from the dangers of Turkey’s unilateral aggression on all fronts. Erdogan has made no real efforts to improve ties with the EU, except for the occasional vain promise of turning over a new leaf. Since October, he has urged the Muslim world to boycott French products, continued gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, blatantly ignored the arms embargo in Libya and has aided Azerbaijan in committing war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Despite the numerous warnings issued by the EU and the many failed attempts at resolving the crisis in the East Med diplomatically, the latest EU summit concluded with an anti-climactic promise to sanction certain Turkish officials regarding the East Med. This minimally symbolic promise could only be described as a mere slap on the wrist that will prove unsuccessful in deterring Turkey’s belligerent tendencies. Turkey’s increasingly hostile attitude, its callous use of the refugee crisis and its clear violation of international law in the East Med, Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh represent a danger to European values, identity and security.
We are witnessing before our eyes a dictator in the making who dreams of a return of the Ottoman empire and seeks to destroy the democratic and secular legacy of Atatürk. He is a fervent supporter of political islam – particularly the muslim brotherhood – and he relentlessly accuses the West of wanting to ‘relaunch the crusades’ against Islam. In fact, since 2014, Erdogan and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have continuously facilitated cross-border movement into Syria and shipped illegal arms to a number of radical jihadist groups. The Turkish government also uses SADAT Defense, an islamist paramilitary group loyal to Erdogan, to aid groups that can be considered as terrorist organizations such as Sultan Murad Division and Ahrar al-Sham in Northern Syria and use their jihadi fighters to send to Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and, most recently, Kashmir in order to bolster Turkey’s foreign policy.
Erdogan uses a mixture of islamism and nationalism to expand Turkey’s influence around the world and to consolidate power within. The two most influential factions in Turkey are the radical islamists and secular neo-nationalists, who despise each other but share a deep disdain for the west. Courtesy of neo-nationalist and former Maoist terrorist leader Dogu Perinçek, the NATO member has also enjoyed warmer ties with Russia and China over the past 5 years. As a result of these shifts in alliances and growing anti-western sentiments, Turkey is becoming increasingly at odds with the West.
Furthermore, the growing discontent at home pushes him to adopt more aggressive tactics, divisive policies and his behavior mirrors that of a panicked authoritarian leader. Erdogan is desperately looking for a conflict to distract the Turkish population from the fall of the lira, the spread and mishandling of COVID-19, and the overall declining economy that predates the pandemic. Turkey’s future will most likely be determined by the upcoming general election that is set to take place within the next three years. If Erdogan wins the next election, it will solidify his power and bring him one step closer in turning Turkey into a dictatorship. During his stay in power, he has already conducted a series of purges to weaken and silence dissidents. Turkey now has the most imprisoned journalists in the world.
Yet, the loss of Istanbul and Ankara in the last municipal election of 2019 demonstrate his declining popularity, and offer a glimmer of hope for the opposition. Political figures like the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, or the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, represent a brighter future for Turkey. Erdogan currently finds himself in a position of weakness, which represents a rare window of opportunity for the EU to strike. Unfortunately, the EU remains deeply divided on how to handle a situation that continues to deteriorate. It seems that some member states, particularly Germany, are holding on to the naive belief that Erdogan can still be reasoned with.
Our reluctance to impose the slightest sanctions against Turkey demonstrates our division and weakness, which emboldens the neo-sultan. A strong and united response from the European Union is the only way to curb Erdogan’s expansionist agenda. This should include renegotiating the migrant pact, imposing targeted sanctions against SADAT Defense and its leader Adnan Tanrıverdi, imposing an arms embargo, suspending the EU-Turkey customs union and finally suspending Turkey’s membership in NATO.
Ultimately, Erdogan’s bellicose foreign policy and his contentious nationalist-islamist rhetoric makes it impossible to consider Erdogan’s Turkey as our ally. As the EU reaches out yet another olive branch, Erdogan has his eye on the wars to come.
Is Erdogan’s Obsession with Demirtas a Personal Vendetta or a Calculated Strategy?
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Grand Chamber ruled that the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş must be immediately released. The Court ruled that his years-long detention “had pursued the ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly reacted to the ECHR’s ruling and characterized the decision as ‘hypocritical’ and accused the Court of defending a ‘terrorist.’
To many, Erdogan’s reaction to the Court’s ruling should not be a surprise,but his resentment and anger toward Demirtaş are quite shocking. So, why does Erdogan pursue a vendetta against him? Or is it a calculated political strategy? How could Demirtaş’s release affect the political landscape in Turkey? What could be the implications of releasing or not releasing him be on the US-Turkey relations during the Biden era?
Yes, the ECHR’s ruling is a significant and expected development. What is more significant is that Erdogan’s quick reaction shows his deeply rooted frustration with Demirtaş, which dates back to the pre-June 2015 elections. In March 2015,Demirtaş made a short but a spectacular speech at the Turkish Parliament when he said, “we will not make you the President.” He also said, “We are not a movement of bargaining, a party of bargaining. There has never been a dirty deal between us and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and there will never be…” His reference to ‘dirty deal’ was believed to be an offer from the AKP to HDP in exchange for support during the general election. In the June 2015 election, HDP managed to secure the electoral threshold with 13% vote for the first time in the pro-Kurdish parties’ history. Additionally, they secured 80 seats in parliament which made them the second biggest opposition party in Turkey. This was an unprecedented victory for the pro-Kurdish party and a breakthrough in Turkish political history. It is fair to say that, based on the author’s experience, Demirtaş’s rising charisma has become a liability, not only for Erdogan but also for Ocalan, PKK’s once unquestionable leader.
Erdoğan’s hateful outburst towards the call for Demirtaş’s release is more about Erdoğan’s political self-interest and concerns than his personal vendetta. Demirtaş’s release could likely have far bigger implications on the political calculations in Turkey. They would primarily impact on the future of the People’s Alliance, the coalition between the Justice and Development Party (AK) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), where AKP focuses its efforts to maintain control over the Kurdish issue. For the AKP, having an alliance with the MHP has been beneficial so far but not without major tradeoffs. These includethe MHP’s stance against the Kurdish issue and its eroding voter support nationwide.
AKP’s strategy to maintain power partly relies on its ability to create factions within the existing political parties. The pro-Kurdish parties are no exception. Strategies include consolidating Kurdish votes around AKP or dividing them to create enough division as to not let the HDP run as one single dominant Kurdish party in the next elections.
Demirtaş’s release could pose risks for AKP’s three-fold strategy: Dominate, divide and maintain the status quo. First, by arresting MPs, local politicians, mayors, and activists, AKP aimed to paralyze and dominate the Kurdish voter base. So, preventing Demirtaş’s release could serve to kill the electoral enthusiasm at the party’s voting base and prevent unity among the Kurdish constituency. Demirtaş’s potential release could give rise to his popularity, not only among the Kurdish voters but also the left-wing secularists. Such a scenario could force the AKP towards more pro-Kurdish narratives and policies that could eventually weaken the AKP-MHP coalition.
Second, dividing and deepening fractions; and creating splinter parties would mean that the HDP could not consolidate the Kurdish constituency. Although having a smaller base, an Islamist Kurdish Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par)has supported Erdogan during the 2018 Presidential election. They are a group with alleged ties with the Kurdish Hezbollah, which has committed the atrocities in Turkey in the 1990s and early 2000s.Recently, the leader of Hüda-Par expressed his disappointment with ECHR’s ruling after he paid a visit to Erdogan in the Presidential Palace. Another example is establishing the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), allegedly politically in line with Barzani’s tradition, to divide HDP votes.
Third, by cutting new deals with Öcalan again, they aim to appeal to his supporters to maintain the status quo. Just like during the local elections in 2019, AKP might take another step to re-instrumentalize Öcalan despite his failed emissary role in the last Istanbul local re-run. Öcalan called for HDP’s neutrality, which meant not supporting the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. Öcalan’s message was contradicting with HDP’s former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas’s call for support for Imamoglu. Though AKP’s strategy of revitalizing Öcalan may not produce the desired outcome for AKP, it could buy some time by diverting public attention from the victimhood of Demirtaş and HDP.
While releasing Demirtas could pose challenges for the AKP and its leader Erdogan domestically, not releasing him could prove costly. As a pragmatic leader as anyone could be, to survive politically Erdogan has made several U-turns domestically and internationally. Facing an economic crisis and continuing decline in approval ratings Erdogan could, unwillingly, comply with the Court’s ruling. This could help him have a fresh start with President-elect Biden, who called Erdogan an autocrat.
Regardless of whether he would be released or not, as a political leader, Demirtaş will dominate domestic politics in Turkey and continue to be a critical actor in the region vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue.
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