Strategy and geopolitics are like Aristotelian physics: there is no vacuum.
In fact, just as Italy is leaving the fundamental Libyan area to its destiny and hence to the other powers, Turkey is inaugurating its new African and Mediterranean geopolitics.
The Treaty signed on November 27 last between Turkish President Erdogan and the Tripoli government – the only one recognized by the UN – i.e. the “Agreement for the Delimitation of Maritime Borders and for Military Cooperation”, currently enables Turkey to send regular or irregular troops to Libya, only for supporting Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA).
The immediate goal is to defend Tripoli from the offensive led by Khalifa Haftar’s army, a strategic aim to which Turkey has adhered following the GNA invitation to take part in the operations to protect Tripoli from Haftar’s army.
Meanwhile the Russian Tatneft has shown great interest in reopening Block 04, within the Ghadames Basin, with an expected investment of 15 billion in upstream extraction until 2040. This is a very important political fact.
While the politically crazy and senseless Libyan destabilization has expelled from Libya the European and Western powers that previously controlled it or wanted to recover it – as was the case with Great Britain in 2011 – the territory of Italy’s old Maghreb colony has been occupied by all the Islamic and Middle East powers, which have replaced the foolish and ineffective Europeans and Americans who only wanted to remove the “tyrant” Gaddafi without having any plan for Libya’s future.
In other words, the Russian Federation and Turkey will divide Libya between them, by referring to the two opposing camps: firstly, Tripoli’s GNA of Fayez al-Sarraj – which has strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, like Turkey’s present regime. The link with the Ikhwan, the Brotherhood of Erdogan’s Turkey, will become mush closer, considering the strong and very recent slowdown in the strategic link between the Brotherhood and Qatar, which now aims at a stable agreement with Saudi Arabia.
A new doctrinal, geopolitical and religious configuration of the Libyan and Turkish Ikhwan, which will not fail to radically change the Schmitt-style division between inimici and hostes, between friends and foes, within the geostrategy of the whole Koranic Ummah.
Hence a sort of planned instability will emerge in Libya, albeit with a very important variable: the substantial elimination from that country of any real influence of the European Union and of the main countries which have so far pulled the strings of Libyan politics and war: France, Italy and Great Britain, but with an interesting US presence on Libya’s edges.
All these countries, which have idealistically eliminated Gaddafi, will be substantially prevented from exercising real influence on their Libyan regional champions and on future Libya divided into two or, possibly, three parts.
Libya will find itself divided into at least duapezza (two parts), just to use Machiavelli’s words, when the body of Ramirro dell’Orco, an overzealous and greedy servant of the Borgias, was found.
From now on, only Russia and Turkey will have real influence in the area between Tripoli and Benghazi and in the Libyan strategic neighbouring countries, namely Chad, Mali, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt.
Instead of crying over spilt milk, Italy – which has proved to be totally incapable of defending its interests in Libya, apart from ENI, which does it very well on its own and will see its economic role expand in the future Libyan bipartition – should also rethink a new bilateral relationship with Turkey.
It is not a matter of repeating the very severe and naive mistake of assessing the various “democracies” according to idealistic and formal criteria, almost as if Italy itself were not free from very severe flaws in the mechanisms of political representation or the protection of the rule of law or of its citizens’ human rights.
Quite the reverse. Instead of having incompetent people testing the Turkish, Russian or other countries’ rate of democracy, it will be necessary to reopen the great season of business, relations and effective bilateral meetings that characterized the Italian foreign policy in the happy years of the so-called “First Republic”.
I still remember when, in the private and State industry, Italy worked with Turkey in a quasi-monopoly regime in many important sectors: large construction works, motorways (which, at the time, I managed), railways, telecommunications.
In particular, I can recall Italy’s commitment to the Kakanai dam, when Amintore Fanfani’s direct support and Giulio Andreotti’s help were essential to find the best solution for the contract.
I can also remember when a great Turkish leader, Suleiman Demirel, dedicated his invaluable time and friendship to me.
That was the Italy I knew and I contributed to create, not the irrelevant Italietta resulting from the non-existent foreign policy of some former vendor of beverages.
However, the logic that Turkey is currently following in the East-Mediterranean region is the defense of its primary interests at the center of the Mare Nostrum, where Erdogan’s Turkey is moving in the context of the new oil and gas opportunities off the Cypriot coast, in front of the Israeli and Greek coasts, in the Lebanese and Egyptian territorial waters.
The Turkish presence in Libya and the definition of the new SAR and Exclusive Economic Zone of Tripoli, with the new relocation of Turkish maritime interests, means only one thing: Italy’s total and immediate exclusion from its very strong Libyan interests, as well as from a tentative control of migrants arriving on its coasts from Libyan ports.
It is now certain that President Erdogan will apply to sub-Saharan migration the same criteria he has already applied successfully to Syrian and Middle East migration to the Balkans and later to Germany.
He will control it with an iron hand, if and when this is needed to obtain funds from the EU or from individual countries (Germany pays, in fact, with European money), or he will use sub-Saharan migration to threaten the internal and foreign equilibria of Italy, the European earthenware pot amidst cast iron ones.
Italy, however, will not even realize it. Just think of the silence that has welcomed the definition of the new Algerian SAR area, which covers many of Italy’s exclusive zones.
The main problem lies in the fact that, while the Mediterranean was an absolute priority for NATO and the European coastal countries during the Cold War, with the end of bilateral confrontation -in the minds of many dangerous amateur strategists -the Mare Nostrum has become a secondary area, where to operate with long-term destabilization, such as the famous Arab Springs, or leaving the field open to the new operators replacing the old European countries. The Russian Federation, which will get its hands on Libyan oil, together with China and Saudi Arabia, in support of Khalifa Haftar; Algeria, which now plays a direct role in the whole Libyan territory; Qatar, supporting al-Sarraj; the Emirates, on Khalifa Haftar’s side with money and arms; Egypt, which supports the General of Benghazi to protect itself from the subversion of the Brotherhood, its enemy no.1; finally, even Tunisia, which has recently agreed with Istanbul to move pro-Turkish soldiers and jihadists from the Turkish-Syrian border, through Djerba, to al-Sarraj’s most extreme defense line.
Now also Tunisia has fallen into Erdogan’s economic and strategic orbit.
Moreover, Iran’s current attempts to have stable access to the Mediterranean, another pawn in the new Great Maritime Game, enable Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Russia to rethink the Mediterranean as a point of primary interest. This is something new in their geostrategic analysis.
All this happens while Italy, France and Great Britain are losing interest in North Africa, just to look who knows where.
To the Russian Federation? Maybe. Meanwhile, however, Russia is conquering a good part of the Mediterranean, alone or jointly with other States, namely Turkey, Syria, Iran, even Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
What will Europe do when it realizes it has been encircled by Russia, which it still considered inside the old Cold War limes, which was technically wrong even at that time?
This is the long-term effect of the war in Syria, which has redistributed all the regional powers’ cards in the Middle East and hence throughout the Mediterranean.
Libya is currently an area where the United Arab Emirates can play their new role as major economic and geopolitical actors, as well as be able to defend their hegemonic role in the East Mediterranean region.
President Erdogan, however, is currently the real hegemonic leader in the Tripoli system. The Turkish goal is, first of all, to preserve the key role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tripoli, but it is obviously a project that mainly concerns the Turkish national hegemony.
Besides having a strong role in the government of Tripolitania, the Ikhwan is also present in al-Sarraj’s GNA Council of State.
Three of the old Libya Dawn militias are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. There is also the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, always connected to the Ikhwan, as well as the Misrata Brigades, i.e. Libya Shield Force, of which three katibe are currently reported to have sound relations with Haftar’s forces, the old enemy no.1. The Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room, which -as you may recall -kidnapped Prime Minister Ali Zeidan for two hours in October 2013, still operates in Libya.
The Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room was also part of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, a political and military coalition created in 2014 as a response to Haftar’s Operation Dignity.
In its turn, it had been set up to oppose Libya Dawn, the first Islamic-jihadist military organization linked to the Islamic Brotherhood.
In Tripoli, besides Libya Dawn, there were Ansar Al-Sharia, the real Qaedist unit of Tripolitania; the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, always linked to the Muslim Brotherhood; the Libya Shield Force, always tied to the Ikhwan, and finally the Raf-Allah Al-Sabhati Brigade, a fraction of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade.
It should be recalled that the Emir of the Islamic State in Libya was Usama Al-Qarami, cousin of Ismail al-Qarami, who had been the Chief of the anti-drugs Police during Gaddafi’s regime.
According to some confidential documents published on January 25, 2016 by the newspaper Al Şharqal Awsat, the Islamic State in Libya had achieved a stable alliance with both Al Jama’a al Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah bi-Libya(LIFG) – established by the Libyan Mujahideen coming from Afghanistan immediately before the democratic powers’ attack on Gaddafi – and with the Islamic Brotherhood of Libya.
In 2015 their project was to prevent the establishment of Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA), but above all,to hit directly Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt starting from Libya, destroyed by Western stupidity.
The program of the Libyan jihadists, apart from the different situations, is still the same today, i.e. to start from Libya to destabilize the whole Maghreb region.
Hence the project of Libyan Qaedist rooting, developed in December 2015, while Westerners celebrated the Shkirat Agreement – probably by playing Beethoven’s EU anthem Ode to Joy – with the subsequent agreement between the Tripoli Congress and the representatives of the Tobruk-based Parliament which remained dead letter as if it were written in the desert sand.
The matter was, in fact, for the Qaedists to unify the Al Jama’a Al Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah bi-libya(LIFG), with the network of the Muslim Brotherhood, with the result that Tripoli would pass to the LIFG and the Muslim Brotherhood, while Sirte would remain in the Islamic State’s hands.
The agreement between the jihadists was signed in the rooms of Mitiga airport, the same airport where Al-Sarraj – just appointed by the ineffective UN democracies – could not land because he knew they would kill him out in a moment, and hence arrived from the sea like a strange Venus Anadyomene.
At that juncture, according to the jihadist agreement of the time – of which the traces still remain – the LIFG-Muslim Brotherhood would have controlled Tripolitania, while the Islamic State, with the support of the Shura Council of the Benghazi Revolutionaries and the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council would have exercised their control over Cyrenaica.
During that phase, the fundamental military and political support came from the Sinai Qaedist cells and this explains the current Egyptian interest in Libya’s future.
At the time, the Qaedist idea on Libya was to convey to the particularly foolish Westerners the image of an East-West coordination of the Libyan jihad, albeit with an immediate capacity of terrorist projection in all the countries bordering on former Gaddafi’s regime.
The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as those of the Islamic State and those of LIFG have always coordinated their actions and also organized joint operations.
In March 2015 the Islamic State also permanently organized itself in the Tunisian provinces of Madanin and Tatawin, bordering on Libya, among old Roman memories and extraordinary ancient roads.
The Tunisian, Saudi, Algerian and Libyan leaders of the Islamic State have reorganized in the Tunisian South, thanks to the forces of Libya Dawn, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. These are the forces that control the crossings between Libya and Tunisia, but especially those of Ras Agadir and other points of contact with Libya in the South Tunisian desert.
It is precisely “Libya Dawn”, which currently still permits the transit of many jihadists through those areas and, above all, the smuggling of large quantities of weapons.
They are the same weapons that the EU and, above all, the most misinformed and naive of its members, namely Italy, would no longer want to pass through the sea – a supply linewhich has never been essential for the network of over 1,200 Libyan arms traffickers and for the over 22 networks smuggling arms and other items, which operate on the borders with Tunisia, Algeria, Chad and Senegal.
Nowadays, the foreign jihadists covered or not by the Muslim Brotherhood’s networks are over 8,500 in Libya.
They are not necessarily connected to Tripoli’s political system only, but also to the Sirte or Cyrenaica’s illegal networks, which are still very active.
Reverting to the history of Ikhwan, according to all the most reliable reports, it was established in Benghazi in 1949, with the decisive support of some Egyptian Muslim Brothers who had fled from a particularly harsh repression carried out by the Egyptian government.
It was Gamal Abdel El-Nasser who ridiculed the Ikhwan, telling the Egyptian TV that he had called the Head of the Brotherhood, asking him what the Islamists wanted to do immediately in Egypt.
Al Qutb, the Head of the Brotherhood, who had initially helped Nasser’s “Free Officers”, replied he wanted to force women to wear the veil.
Nasser laughed in his face and told him that even his daughter, a medical student, never wore it.
Without delay, however, as soon as he came in power in 1969, Muammar Gaddafi, staged a coup designed by the Italian intelligence Services in a hotel in Abano Terme and immediately outlawed the Brotherhood.
The Libyan Ikhwan, and especially some of its most prestigious executives, fled to the United States from 1971 onwards.
It should be recalled that the Brotherhood “boys” operated in defense of the rebellion in Tahrir Square, Cairo, also at military level and that the Ikhwan secret and confidential sites spread – in Egypt and in the rest of the world – Gene Sharp’s and the US intelligence services’ “non-violent war”.
In 2012 shortly after the end of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, who was Italy’s real strategic asset in the Maghreb region, in Libya the Muslim Brotherhood organized the Justice and Construction Party, led by Mohammad Sowan. It was an organization modeled on the criteria of the Freedom and Justice Party organized by the Ikhwan in Egypt, but in Libya the Ikhwan Party immediately became the second most elected party in the July 2012 elections, with 34 of the 200 seats available in the post-Gaddafi Parliament.
The Brotherhood Party made alliances preferably with nationalist and secularist forces, such as the National Alliance Bloc, often blackmailing, however, the Bloc’s MPs, who were very often old leaders of Gaddafi’s regime and, hence – according to the now well-known Western stupidity – could not participate in elections or run for posts for at least ten years after the end of the Colonel’s regime.
At the beginning of the crisis in the Gulf Security Council, dominated by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, precisely the Libyan leaders indicated some members of Parliament and of the various Libyan political forces connected to Qatar, especially among the MPs of the Brotherhood Party who turned out to be “terrorists” according to international terminology.
It should be recalled that “Libya Dawn” took control of Tripoli in September 2014.
That was the moment in which the Government of National Accord (GNA) organized its real power.
It was also the moment when the old Tripoli Parliament, deprived of its authority, moved to Tobruk and in May 2014 rebuilt a government that was not internationally recognized.
Having the possibility of recognizing a Libyan government supported by jihadists, Westerners did not miss that opportunity.
Nevertheless, the Brotherhood Party in Libya lost as many as nine seats in the 2014 elections and, again in 2014, it was even more closely connected with Libya Dawn, a group made up of various Islamist militias, whose primary aim was to guarantee – in Parliament, but above all in Libyan civil society – a strong presence of groups and parties linked to the Ikhwan.
Hence why does Turkey turn to Libya? Firstly, because Bashar el Assad has recently taken Maarrat an-Numan, North-East Syria, the most important city in the Idlib district on the M5 motorway, linking Damascus and Aleppo.
Furthermore, Assad has also managed to regain Saraqib, another important site, which controls both the M5 motorway and the Aleppo-Hasakah roadway.
Hence the Turkish troops no longer have the possibility of controlling or influencing the Baathist regime in Syria, which has always protected the PKK Kurds against Turkey.
Therefore, in essence, Turkey is recovering in the East what it can no longer stabilize in the West.
It is also likely that the predictable Turkish reaction against Assad, after the Syrian forces have completed the conquest of Saraqib, will have a clear support from the United States, which has every interest in strengthening Turkey against Iran and Russia.
The possible buffer for migrants from Syria and Iraq, which is a Turkish short-term project, will most likely be guaranteed by an agreement with Russia.
Russia has also already launched TurkStream, the pipeline that will transport the Russian gas to Southern Europe and will pass through Turkey, thus avoiding Ukrainian networks.
Hence this is the key factor underlying the positive relationship between the Russian Federation and Turkey – a relationship which, in all likelihood, will also be replicated in Libya.
France has already used its aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle in joint exercises with the Greek Navy, evidently to hinder the projection of Turkish power onto Libya but, in particular, also onto Cyprus, an essential area for new oil and gas extraction.
In this case, the correlation between Libya and Cyprus is immediate and essential.
During their operations, France and Greece have also identified and controlled the Turkish motorboat Bana, which docked in Tripoli and unloaded Turkish transport track laying vehicles, heavy mortars, anti-aircraft guns and troop transport trucks.
Hakan Fidan, the Head of MIT, the Turkish intelligence Services, has recently been in Tripolitania to oversee arms transfers and the organization of training camps for al-Sarraj’s forces, as well as the establishment of a liaison unit between the Tripoli forces and the Turkish army, with as many as 400 Turkish military engineers who developed a network of watchtowers and Tripoli’s new complete fortification.
This will be the new Turkish strategic equation, the link between the Cypriot Sea and the Tunisian and Libyan coasts in the Mediterranean, while Europe organizes useless commissions and conferences on peace in Libya and fails to stop the flow of weapons to the Libyan factions.
Syria: 10 years of war has left at least 350,000 dead
A decade of war in Syria has left more 350,200 people dead, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the Human Rights Council on Friday, noting that this total was an “under-count of the actual number of killings”.
These are a result of a war that spiralled out of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Based on the “rigorous work” of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), she said that the tally, which includes civilians and combatants, is based on “strict methodology” requiring the deceased’s full name, the date of death, and location of the body.
People behind the numbers
In the first official update on the death toll since 2014, Ms. Bachelet informed the Council that more than one in 13 of those who died due to conflict, was a woman – 26,727 in all – and almost one in 13 was a child – a grim total of 27,126 young lives lost.
The Governorate of Aleppo saw the greatest number of documented killings, with 51,731 named individuals.
Other heavy death tolls were recorded in Rural Damascus, 47,483; Homs, 40,986; Idlib, 33,271; Hama, 31,993; and Tartus, 31,369.
“Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights”, reminded the High Commissioner.
“We must always make victims’ stories visible, both individually and collectively, because the injustice and horror of each of these deaths should compel us to action.”
More accountability needed
Her office, OHCHR, is processing information on alleged perpetrators, recording victims civilian or combatant status and the type of weapons used, Ms. Bachelet said.
To provide a more complete picture of the scale and impact of the conflict, the UN agency has also established statistical estimation techniques to account for missing data.
The High Commissioner explained that documenting deaths complements efforts to account for missing people and that her office has been helping the families of the missing, to engage with international human rights mechanisms.
Given the vast number of those missing in Syria, Ms. Bachelet echoed her call for an independent mechanism, with a strong international mandate, to “clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people; identify human remains; and provide support to relatives”.
No end to the violence
Today, the daily lives of the Syrian people remain “scarred by unimaginable suffering”, the UN human rights chief said, adding that they have endured a decade of conflict, face deepening economic crisis and struggle with the impacts of COVID-19.
Extensive destruction of infrastructure has significantly affected the realization of essential economic and social rights, and there is still no end to the violence.
“It is incumbent upon us all to listen to the voices of Syria’s survivors and victims, and to the stories of those who have now fallen silent for ever”, the High Commissioner concluded.
Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds
The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.
It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.
The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.
Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.
Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.
Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.
There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.
The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.
This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.
The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.
Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga
The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.
Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.
Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.
By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.
The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.
Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.
This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.
The Central Asia factor
These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.
Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.
Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).
The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.
“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.
All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.
As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.
Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.
Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.
This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.
Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.
In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.
Restoring balance with the West
Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.
Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.
This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.
However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.
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