It is generally known that the modern world has a great interest in the East Asia region, were some of the greatest super powers in terms of economy, strength, population, and military capabilities, are focused. For instance, Japan is a technological and economic giant, and at the same time it is a close ally to the United States since the end of World War II. It may not be a nuclear power, but no analyst can seriously underestimate the ability of the country’s Self-Defense Forces. Across the Chinese Sea, lies the greatest power of Asia; the People’s Republic of China. It can be seen as equal to the unique superpower of the International System, the United States. Economically and commercially powerful, it keeps a nuclear arsenal and armed forces that are constantly evolving technologically, although they are not as powerful as the US respectively.
Other states in the region with economic power and large populations, but with apparently inferior military capabilities, are India, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines. In addition to this, Russia should not be underestimated. Even North Korea’s isolated regime with an unpredictable leadership constitutes an unstable (or even failed) state. The United States maintains compelling forces in the region on a permanent basis (US Navy’s 7th Fleet). The excessive US presence provides security to its allies from the expansionism ambition of Beijing. As a result, East Asia hosts a colossal financial, commercial, technological, and industrial center of the planet.
Furthermore, the Chinese Sea is of strategic importance for the world’s trade and consequently, the global economy. It is the bridge between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, as this is the fundamental trade route for sea merchandise and energy. This commercial route is indispensable for the States we mentioned above as well as the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa and Europe. The concentration of an extended number of States, with their unique interests and cross-purposes in a relatively limited geographical area, renders the concept of a fragile balance of power. The contemporary International System of States is characterized by the hegemonic competition between USA and China, which until the present day, is mainly manifested in the China Sea. The scenario which follows is hypothetical, however it is not absurd. It anticipates a sequence of events that escalate as other States try to ensure their interests. The outcome of such a conflict is highly unpredictable, thus is perilous for global peace and stability.
The Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) are conducting their annual large-scale aeronautical exercises across the Japanese archipelago near the Beijing-disputed Senkaku / Diao Islands, with the participation of allied forces from Australia, US, South Korea, and Great Britain. The presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with warships, Air Force, and Coast Guard vessels for the monitoring of the Japanese forces is a given. Simultaneously, at a close range to the area of the exercises are operating naval units of the Russian Pacific Fleet, as well as warships belonging to the North Korean Navy (KPN) and Taiwan. Finally, observers of the large aeronautical exercise are from India, France, Brazil, Canada, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
The accident drives to an unexpected escalation
During the first two days of the exercise nothing noticeable happened. However, during the third day of the exercise, a small Chinese Coast Guard vessel executed dangerous maneuvers near a Japanese Naval Destroyer. These precarious maneuvers combined with adverse weather conditions caused a major maritime accident. More specifically, the two vessels collided, resulting in the instantaneous sinking of the lighter Chinese ship along with all of its crew members. From this moment, a dramatic escalation began as their respective Governments were informed of the incident. What is crucial in this similar circumstance is the interpretation that will be given by each respective party involved. Tokyo and Beijing were definitely in the forefront, as those actors are directly involved in the accident.
Just two hours after the collision, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a vicious statement against Japan as it blamed the latter for an uninvited and highly aggressive move that cost lives of Chinese sailors. China claimed to reserve the right to respond appropriately to the Japanese challenge. As expected, the Japanese responded to the Chinese provocative statement by issuing an even harsher one to Beijing, as it has accused Beijing of intentional violation of Japanese territorial waters, harassment of Japanese self-defense forces, and violation of the Law of the Sea. The Japanese demarche ended with the affirmation that the country’s armed forces were determined to defend Japan and its interests against any possible threat. Foreign Ministry Offices and diplomatic services of both countries monitored closely with great nervousness the potential announcements of war from both sides.
However, this nervousness escalated over time. Analysts from every corner of the planet were seeking for valid and quick information. Kremlin spokesman, in a public statement, plead for restraint, but blatantly sided with Beijing. They urged Japan to compensate Beijing. This apparently after a conversation between the Chinese and Russian President’s. Several analysts claimed that Russia’s stance reflected the dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands, located close to the Kamchatka Peninsula, which Stalin annexed from Japan after the end of WW II. The Japanese government has not accepted the Russian occupation over the Islands ever since then. Tokyo did not formally respond to the Russian objections, as the majority of analysts might expect, but instead it was the White House spokesman, who in turn called for restraint and emphasized that the US government, having the 7th Fleet in the region, was ready to provide any assistance to its allies, including Japan.
It was commonly known that Washington was committed to the Japanese protection over any external threat. Consequently, the United States could not back down from this obligation as it would be perceived as a weakness by its competitors. The European Union was embarrassed by the developments. While the French President called for an immediate convergence of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis in the China Sea. After all, the permanent seats of the UNSC were held by the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom, almost all the states which were directly or indirectly involved in this confrontation.
Notwithstanding, the Chinese side had a different perspective on the issue. For the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) leadership, it was just implausible to shrink back on such an affair, especially since the news of the incident had been spreading rapidly around the world. A significant number of Western analysts regarded that Chinese authorities spread the news deliberately in order to apply pressure on the Japanese side. Simultaneously, the country’s government put military units on alert, especially in the navy, the air force as well as its strategic missile forces. People around the World watched of the breaking news of the gigantic Chinese military mobilization. Public opinion in China was offended by the Japanese challenge while hostility between the two nations resurrected as protestors outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing demanded an immediate response from China even if it entailed a full scale war. On the other hand, the Japanese public opinion was watching the developments with self-discipline, but a vivid minority demanded a fearless response to the Chinese threats. The Chinese government’s announcement left no room for misinterpretation. For the country, the Japanese movement was undoubtedly offensive. To make matters worse, the Chinese unhesitatingly rejected the French President’s suggestion regarding the convergence of the UNSA, as they considered the issue to be bilateral and demanded reparation from Japan. The announcement was so belligerent that it was essentially considered as a Chinese ultimatum to Japan which no one expected it to be accepted.
This was the time when a war in the China Sea was suddenly a serious possibility rather than just a scenario. Without warning, two Chinese warships fired missiles at a Japanese frigate, destroying it almost completely. At the same time, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that it was stopping all diplomatic relations with Tokyo until Japan officially apologized for the accident and agrees to compensate. All the military forces which deployed in the area during the exercise were ordered to be on high alert. An US destroyer rushed to aid the burning Japanese frigate only to be fired upon by the Chinese as well. An uncontrollable escalation was just around the corner. All US warships in the area were ordered to respond immediately to the Chinese fire. The Chinese side apparently did not expect such a dynamic and immediate response on behalf of the United States. As so, the Chinese did not return fire on the American Naval War ships. This inaction by the Chinese navy resulted in the irreparable damage of three warships and hundreds of deaths of its sailors. Eventually, the Chinese Air Force did not show the same inaction shown by the Chinese fleet. A critical strategic advantage was the proximity to the area of operations and the fact that, Chinese pilots, did not have to encounter with the Japanese air force and not with the advanced US Air Force in great numbers. The result was devastating for the allied force.
The General Staff of the belligerent sides as well as the intelligence agencies and embassies were in red alert. Information coming from the area of operations was cataclysmic and often contradictory. For the Japanese side, this was the result of the Chinese Cyber and Secret Services asymmetric warfare against the allied surveillance and communication systems. The situation could easily be described as total chaos. Military units were be deployed in strategic positions while the 7th US Fleet was ready to assist its close ally in full strength. The balance of power was shifting at the expense of Beijing, a fact that the Chinese side realized in time. The country’s military Chief of Staff held a press conference in which he announced that the Chinese Strategic Forces were prepared to strike hard against the Japanese islands with nuclear weapons in the event of allied ships striking the Chinese fleet. This threat of nuclear escalation, by a direct nuclear strike, was reminiscent of 1962 and the almost nuclear war between the two super powers during the Cold War era.
The Chinese statement shocked the world’s public opinion. No one could be certain about the Chinese intentions. Governments, International Organizations, NGO’s and multinational corporations were more than restless. No official reaction came from any party involved, not even from the UN for a long period of time. Of course, away from the spotlight was intense behind the scenes conferences and meetingsto de-escalation the situation. The initiative was taken by the UN Secretary General, who, using secret diplomacy, was struggling to prevent a nuclear war. The stakes were high as it was assumed that the US Strategic Command was in high alert and ready to retaliate if there was a possible Chinese nuclear strike against Japan. This of course would have resulted with unpredictable consequences for the entire planet. Those hours were truly dramatic.
Twelve hours after the Chinese’s initial announcement and threat international observers noticed that some of the naval forces of both sides withdrew to their bases. The same happened for the naval forces of Russia, North Korea, Taiwan, as well as the other’s participants of the naval drill. Progressively military forces were evacuating the Chinese Sea. De- escalation was a reality and the news spread rapidly around the world causing a deep feeling of relief to everyone. It was clear that no one desired a nuclear war. At the same time, at UN Headquarters in NYC, the Secretary-General informed the World’s public opinion about an agreement regarding a round of negotiations in Zurich, Switzerland, between the Chinese President and the Japanese Prime Minister which has been scheduled in the forthcoming weeks. An hour later the Japanese Foreign Office confirmed the agreement as well as the Chinese side. US State Department spokesman confirmed that the situation in the region was heading to detente. Eventually peace had returned but for how long until the next crisis was another matter of discussion.
This scenario is hypothetical, as the title admits. However, our intention is not to sound as if we are warlike but instead to give an example of how easily tensions can rise due to an accident. The assembly of great military strength in a relative small area, like the China Sea, has the dynamic to cause a maritime or an air accident/disaster, as has happened in the past, with unpredictable consequences for the region, the global economy and eventually the entire planet. The hegemonic competition between China and USA is rather easy to be escalated from a current trade war to a full scale military conflict unless the two sides show self-restrain. The Asia-Pacific region is of high importance to the global economy and trade. The rise of China consists of a threat to the global interests of the United States and its hegemonic position but also intensifies the security dilemma of the others states in the region which seek to enforce their military capabilities. This course of events will drive eventually to an arms race in the region which is a reality as military spending in 2019 is at the highest level since 1988. On the other hand, the US presence in the region is considered from Beijing as an effort to place obstacles to the Chinese dominance. A possible destabilization of this region could be proved catastrophic to our modern world. This is a scenario which utterly must be avoided.
A Glimpse at China’s Nuclear Build-Up
The People’s Republic of China is now the second largest military spender after the United States, and the country has proven that it has the technical capability to develop revolutionary outer space technology, which is often related to military purposes. Nevertheless, China’s armed forces continue to lag behind when it comes to nuclear military technology, as Beijing only has 270 to 350 nuclear warheads, slightly more than the French armed forces.
Thus, China is investing in innovative research on civilian thorium nuclear facilities to become a leader in civilian nuclear, while it is reportedly not investing as much in the military nuclear sector.
This article explores the latest developments concerning “Made in China” nuclear weapons to explain why China’s armed forces are rather sluggish to increase the number of warheads due to the parallel development of other components of the military (e.g. nuclear submarines).
A brief history of Chinese nuclear weapons
China’s first nuclear weapons experiment took place in 1964, followed by its first hydrogen bomb test in 1967. Further development continued well until 1996, when China signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
In order to do so, China started building uranium enrichment plants in Baotou and Lanzhou as early as 1958, followed by a plutonium facility in Jiuquan and the Lop Nur nuclear test site in 1960. It is no secret the Soviet Union assisted in the early stages of the Chinese programme by sending advisers to the fissile material production facilities, having even agreed to provide a prototype bomb, missiles and related technology in October 1957.
In 1958, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told Mao that he planned to discuss arms control with the United States and Great Britain, while Beijing was adamantly opposed to Khrushchev’s policy of “peaceful coexistence” after the fall of Stalin. Although Soviet officials assured the Chinese leadership that the country will remain under the Soviet nuclear umbrella, the disagreements widened the emerging Sino-Soviet rift. In June 1959, the two nations formally terminated their military and technological cooperation agreement, and all Soviet assistance to China’s nuclear programme was abruptly terminated by July 1960, with all Soviet technicians withdrawn from the programme.
This brief history of nuclear weapons in China tells us a lot about the current reason for Chinese weak nuclear capabilities, which had to be developed without the support of the USSR since the 1960s. Moreover, the desire for nuclear capabilities is closely related to the conflict with Taiwan and, as such, Beijing does not need to radically increase its capabilities since the island remains a non-nuclear territory to this day. Furthermore, increasing capabilities would worry the United States and Russia, the other two major nuclear powers—and Beijing had no interest in doing so, especially during the Cold War.
China’s nuclear posture and policy
The Chinese approach is focusing on quality over quantity, which explains the low number of warheads to this day. As of today, most nuclear warheads built during the Cold War can be intercepted by anti-missile systems in NATO and Russia as they are relying on outdated technology, which explains Russia’s desire to build the hypersonic glide vehicle such as the “Avangard”.
The same is true for China. As the U.S. strengthens its missile defenses capabilities, China is likely to further modify its nuclear posture to first ensure the credibility of its retaliatory strike force, including deploying hypersonic glide vehicles rather than increasing the number of warheads.
Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has maintained a “low alert level” for its nuclear forces and keeps most of its warheads in a central storage facility in the Qinling Mountain Range, although some are kept in smaller regional storage facilities around the country. Although there are rumors that China has coupled warheads to some of its missiles to increase their availability, we have not seen official sources confirming this. In fact, the latest Pentagon report explicitly states that “China almost certainly retains the majority of its peacetime nuclear force—with separate launchers, missiles, and warheads”.
Both the United States and Russia operate early warning systems to detect nuclear attacks and launch their missiles quickly, and a Chinese early warning system could also potentially be designed to enable a future missile defense system to intercept incoming missiles. The latest Pentagon report indicates that China is developing an HQ-19 mid-course missile defense system that could intercept Intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBMs) and possibly intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs), although this would take many more years to develop. In addition, the Chinese government has a long-standing policy of not using nuclear weapons first and not using nuclear capabilities against non-nuclear countries or nuclear-weapon-free zones.
Military nuclear capabilities on land, air and sea
China has continued to field the DF-26, a dual-capable mobile IRBM, and is replacing the older DF-31A road-mobile ICBM launchers with the more maneuverable DF-31AG launcher. It is also in the early stages of commissioning the new DF-41, a road-mobile ICBM that would be capable of carrying multiple independent target re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) like the old DF-5B based on a liquid fuel silo.
At sea, China is adding two more ballistic missile submarines and developing a new type. Additionally, China has recently reassigned a nuclear mission to its bombers and is developing an air-launched ballistic missile to have a nuclear capability.
It is estimated that China has produced a stockpile of about 350 nuclear warheads, of which about 272 are intended to be launched by more than 240 operational land-based ballistic missiles, 48 sea-based ballistic missiles and 20 nuclear gravity bombs assigned to bombers. The remaining 78 warheads are expected to arm additional land- and sea-based missiles that are being installed.
The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, supervised by General Zhou Yaning (commander) and General Wang Jiasheng (political commissar), is in charge of the ground nuclear forces. Since the Cold War, China is continuing the gradual modernization of its nuclear-capable ground missile force, and it is estimated that the PLA rocket force has about 240 land-based missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Of these, about 150 can strike parts of the United States (Hawaii). The number of ICBMs that can strike the continental United States is smaller: about 90 missiles with some 130 warheads.
These capabilities are easily explained by the fact that land-based missiles have a greater range than sea- and air-based ones, at least until China upgrades its sea-based systems. Thus, land-based missiles increase range and allow targeting of distant nuclear counterparts—the United States, France and the United Kingdom—while ensuring capabilities against the other four nearby nuclear powers: Russia, North Korea, India and Pakistan. It is likely that land-based capabilities will remain a major component until submarine capabilities are expanded. Once submarines are as advanced as those of other nations, then—like the United States, Russia, France and the United Kingdom—China is likely to focus more and more on submarines rather than land-based capabilities.
China has introduced six Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which are based at the Longposan naval base near Yulin on Hainan Island (only four of them are currently operational). The two newest SSBNs, which were handed over to the PLA Navy in April 2020, are said to be variants of the original Type 094 design, known as Type 094A. These boats have a more prominent hump, which has led to a speculation that they could carry up to 16 JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (CSS-N-14), instead of the usual 12. However, satellite images confirm that the new submarines are equipped with 12 launch tubes each.
Each JL-2 is equipped with a single warhead and, possibly, penetration assistance. The JL-2, which is a modified version of the DF-31, is supposed to have a range of about 7,200 km, although U.S. estimates of the range have varied over the years. Such a range would be sufficient to target Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, as well as Russia and India, from waters near China.
Unlike the land-based approach, the nuclear submarine can move around the world, have an unknown destination and a changing position, and it can retaliate up to several months after a nuclear conflict has ended. As such, submarines are now the main component of the French and British nuclear forces, and are vital to the U.S. and Russia. However, this requires advanced technology, which China does not yet have (nor do India and Pakistan). Therefore, the People’s Liberation Army is upgrading its submarine capabilities and technology, which should lead to increased relevance of submarines for nuclear operations in the long term. China’s new-generation Type 096 SSBNs will carry an extended-range SLBM, the JL-3, which, according to unofficial sources, could have a range of over 9,000 km. Chinese media describe the JL-3 as an SLBM “equivalent or similar to the French M51,” pointing out that its diameter has been increased compared to the JL-2 and that it incorporates a carbon-fiber casing, giving it an increased range.
China developed several types of nuclear bombs and used aircraft to carry at least 12 of the nuclear weapons it detonated as part of its nuclear test programme between 1965 and 1979. However, the PLA Air Force’s nuclear mission remained dormant until the 2000s, presumably because its older bomb-equipped aircraft were unlikely to be relevant in a nuclear conflict.
Countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan and India, are not focusing on long-range bombers, as they are easier to track, they move slowly and they are no major asset compared to submarines and land-based missiles. In this respect, only two nuclear powers—the United States and Russia—are investing in bombers. China wishes to become the third nuclear power and has therefore developed the H-6 bomber, which is technologically advanced enough to compete with its American counterparts Northrop Grumman B-2 “Spirit”, Rockwell B-1 “Lancer” and Boeing B-52 as well as the Russian Tupolev Tu-22M, Tupolev Tu-95 and Tupolev Tu-160. The Chinese H-6 should be complementary to the Xian H-20, as the bomber world is rapidly evolving with the introduction of the new American Northrop Grumman B-21 “Raider” and the Russian Tupolev PAK DA.
In conclusion, China is most certainly on its way to becoming the third largest nuclear power with growing capabilities to rival Washington and Moscow. In order to do so, it will need to increase its nuclear submarine capabilities to catch up with France and the United Kingdom, as well as the continued development of the H-20 bomber project to compete with the United States and Russia. Beijing has surely decided to invest in quality rather than quantity, preferring to slowly and precisely increase the number of warheads when it will first have the ability to defeat anti-missile systems.
Interestingly, China’s military nuclear approach is more about catching up with the other nuclear powers, in contrast to the civilian nuclear sector where the country is more innovative, as evidenced by the two thorium nuclear reactors under construction in the Gobi Desert (China plans to bring thorium reactors into commercial operation by 2030). Thus, China could become the leader in civil thorium nuclear power before it closes the gap as a military nuclear power.
From our partner RIAC
Developments on Korean Peninsula risk accelerating regional arms race
A week full of missile tests; this is the current environment on the Korean Peninsula. On Wednesday, North Korea fired two rounds of ballistic missiles into the East Sea while South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just a few hours later. Wednesday’s tests follow a week of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the consequences of which can be felt beyond the two Koreas.
North Korea ramps up tensions
According to North Korean state-run media reports, the reclusive state carried out a series of successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend while referring to the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance”. Calling the weapon ‘strategic’ may imply a nuclear-capable system. Although North Korea is banned from using ballistic technologies due to U.N. Security Council resolutions, these same rules do not apply to cruise missiles.
Despite the tests, Washington maintained its position to resume dialogue with the North and “to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization,” US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim said on Tuesday. Still, the US Indo-Pacific Command did acknowledge the cruise missile launches and said the tests highlight the “DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community.”
China reacted to the test by calling for restraint by all relevant parties and for a ‘dual track’ approach to be followed involving “phased and synchronized actions to continuously advance the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.”
North Korea then upped tensions further by conducting yet another missile launch on Wednesday. This test marked the first time the DPRK launched a missile off a train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which they referred to as the “Railway Mobile Missile Regiment”. According to Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the missiles were believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The location of the landings don’t seem to be a coincidence as earlier that day North Korean state media had criticized Japan’s newly unveiled defense budget, referring to the country as a “war criminal state”.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strongly condemned the latest tests, calling North Korea’s behavior “outrageous” and a “threat” to “the peace and security of our country and the region”. The US State Department also called the tests “a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” while emphasizing the Biden administration’s commitment to trilateral diplomacy and cooperation with Japan and South Korea.
What’s more, North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, according to a report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month. The report stated that “The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern” while adding that “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”
In July, North Korea warned of a “major security crisis” in protest against the combined summertime military exercise between South Korea and the United States. This increase in rapid missile testing seems to be the result of North Korea’s dissatisfaction with both Seoul and Washington’s actions over the last few months.
South Korea joins in on the missile testing
Although the international community is used to hearing about North Korean missile tests over the years, what is much less common is to hear about a missile test conducted by the South. Hours after the North fired its missiles, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong—the sister of leader Kim Jong Un— was quick to respond to the tests the same day, warning of the “complete destruction of inter-Korean ties” and criticized Seoul’s “illogical, antiquated and foolish attitude”, according to North Korean state media.
Through the test, South Korea became the first country without nuclear weapons to launch an SLBM. Besides the SLBM, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that the ROK military had also developed other new missiles, including a supersonic cruise missile to be deployed in the near future, and a new ballistic missile that has “overwhelming counterattack capability” by firing a larger warhead. Indeed, South Korea’s arms industry has grown exponentially over the last two deacades and continuous to expand rapidly. According to he SIPRI arms transfer database, South Korea rose from the 31st ranked arms exporting country in 2000 to number six in 2020.
Besides South Korea, Japan is also beefing up its military capabilities. Last month, Japan’s Defense Ministry sought a record $50 billion annual budget that would entail the largest percentage jump in spending in eight years. China was quick to criticize the move, accusing Japan of “trying to find excuses to justify their decision to increase military spending,” On the other hand, Japan blames China for “unilaterally changing the regional status quo,” affecting “the security of the Taiwan Straits, but also Japan’s security.”
The missile tests conducted by both Koreas this week further exacerbates the security situation in the region, negatively impacting far beyond the peninsula alone. The recent developments also don’t bode well for improving inter-Korean relations or US-DPRK ties. Diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea have been stalemated ever since the 2019 Hanoi Summit fell apart. So far, Biden has only verbally expressed interest in resuming talks, but is unlikely to do so unless North Korea makes concrete commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
Inter-Korean relations are also unlikely to improve in the near future, given the time constraints. South Korea’s President Moon has roughly six months left in office, and it is unlikely significant diplomatic progress can be made in this timeframe.
HTS enters Turkey’s plot against the Kurds
Ever since Turkey entered the 2017 Astana agreement with Russia and Iran Ankara has been relentless in its efforts to sell the international community the idea of absolute necessity of Turkish military presence in North-East Syria to support the moderate opposition and deter the Assad government.
The Astana meetings that followed the initial agreement indeed resulted in making Turkey responsible for the state of the Syrian opposition in Idlib and Aleppo provinces but – and there is always a but when it comes to the decade-long Syrian conflict – Ankara’s mission was never defined as ‘support’ of the opposition. Instead, Turkey volunteered to perform an arduous task of separating moderate Syrian armed groups from those who were considered radical and posed a potential security threat on both regional and global levels. This process, dubbed ‘delimitation of the Syrian opposition,’ is hardly any closer to completion now than before raising the question of the extent of Ankara’s ability – and intention – to fulfill its pledge.
Turkey’s insistence on supporting the moderate opposition conveniently combines with the recent attempts of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is de-facto dominant power in the Idlib de-escalation zone, to recast the image of the group. Although HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the UN and a number of global powers al-Joulani made a number of high-profile media appearances to promote the group’s vision of the future of Syria and confirm that its ambitions are confined to national scale only.
Talking to the Turkish version of The Independent al-Joulani spoke against any foreign military presence in Syria, making no special mention of the Turkish army. Meanwhile in Idlib, a position of the Turkish military located next to those of HTS is a common, even natural occurrence. This co-existence of regular armed forces and radical terrorists is not affected neither by hard evidence of HTS involvement in committing war crimes, nor even by the fact that HTS is listed as a terror group by Turkey’s authorities.
In his interview to The Independent al-Joulani has also touched upon the position of the Syrian Kurds, another key axis of Turkey’s policy in Syria. Commenting on the current developments in Afghanistan the HTS leader suggested that the aftermath of the US surprise withdrawal from Kabul will also have an impact on the Kurds or, as he put it ‘the US-backed enemies of the Syrian revolution.’ He also accused the Kurds of conducting attacks in living quarters in the areas of the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” operations carried out by the Turkish military in Northern Syria.
HTS has never been in direct confrontation with the Kurds. However, al-Joulani’s words highlighted his open hostility towards the Kurdish administration, that, as the HTS leader purports, is only able to control a huge swath of Syria and maintain relative stability thanks to the US support. This Kurdish dream will crumble as soon as the last US plane takes off from the Syrian soil, according to al-Joulani.
Does this opinion reflects Turkey’s intention to put an end to the ‘Kurdish threat’ should the US withdraw from Syria? The events in the Afghanistan provide enough evidence to conclude that it’s entirely possible. Indeed, such concerns have been expressed in a number of articles authored by both local and international analysts.
The bottom line
Turkey’s regional policies and HTS leader’s statements confirm that Ankara seeks to transform HTS into a bully of sorts. The group’s primary task would be to exercise pressure on other armed units to facilitate the delimitation process orchestrated by the Turkish authorities. As the US grip over the region gradually loosens and HTS control over Syria’s north-west tightens thanks to its efforts to achieve international recognition with the tacit support of Turkey, the Kurds are facing an uncertain future. Moreover, close coordination between Turkey and HTS harbors negative consequences not only for the Kurds but rather for all of Syria.
To prevent this, the international community must intervene and deny HTS the opportunity to position itself as a part of the moderate opposition and gain the right to establish legitimate administrative bodies. Otherwise Syria will face law-twisting terrorists running their own statelet with all the support that Turkey is able to provide as a prominent regional power.
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