Turkish troubles


It’s not without a small amount of schadenfreude that I read this article about Turkish trevails:

Throughout his political career, Erdogan has boldly zigzagged between his Islamist and pragmatic selves. But he has now been enslaved by a nation that is pressing him for more confrontation with Turkey’s enemies. They include basically the entire non-Muslim world, plus Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Muslim Kurds, and all the Shia in the Middle East.

The context is the Turkish position on the Middle East’s strategic triangle of Status Quo Bloc, Resistance Bloc and Sunni Islamist continuum. Erdogan has always chafed against the status quo, because the status quo relegates Turkey to outsider, and favours the Arab states.

Under Erdogan, Turkey dallied with Iran in the Resistance Bloc, but that didn’t sit comfortably, either. Iran is not Turkish, not Sunni and, as leader of the Resistance Bloc, would, again, relegate Turkey to second fiddle. Turkey, imagined Erdogan, was destined for greater things.

Erdogan saw an opportunity in 2011 and leapt into the unknown, but the gamble backfired. It is for this reason that Turkey is now largely friendless. The opportunity was the emergence of the ‘Arab Spring’. What Turkey saw was the overthrow of the Status Quo Egyptian government, and its replacement with a Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government. Likewise, it saw the disintegration of Syria (member of the Resistance Bloc) and the rise of a myriad of Sunni Islamist militias. It also saw Hamas (a member of the Resistance Bloc) leave Syria (and thereby effectively leave the Resistance Bloc) because Syria was killing so many Sunni Arabs, in order for Hamas to identify with Sunni Islamists.

Turkey saw the emergence of a Sunni Islamist Bloc (as did, it must be admitted, this author), and thought it could become its leader. It threw itself behind the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government, and threw itself against Syria, all the while maintaining the rage against Israel. Had the Sunni Islamist Bloc successfully emerged, it would have been a good gamble. But the Bloc didn’t stick.

Having over-reached, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government was overthrown by a popularly-backed coup (Egypt is now once again a Status Quo dictatorship). The Syrian civil war dragged on, with no decisive victory by a Sunni Islamist militia (indeed, the most successful militia in Syria internationally gave Islamists a bad (well, worse) name. And Hamas, having seen its allies in Egypt fall, has slowly retreated back into the folds of the Resistance Bloc.

Turkey has been left out on that limb all alone.


Ehud Ya’ari is one of the few ‘must-read’ Middle East analysts. He writes well, with authority but without emotion, and he’s usually spot on. He’s written an article in Foreign Affairs about Iranian plans for the Levant, and ended it with concrete proposals for US policy:

In responding to Iran’s plan to secure influence in the Levant, the Trump administration should work with its regional counterparts to thwart Iran’s attempt to build these two corridors. Turkey, a NATO ally, should be encouraged to resist Iran’s efforts to dominate, through the corridors, the main trade routes serving large amounts of Turkish exports to the Arab world. The Kurds, both in Iraq and in Syria, should be provided military equipment to face the Shiite militias. Jordan should assist the Sunnis of western Iraq, as well as the Shamar Bedouin federation of the Syrian desert, which has traditional ties with the Saudis, in organizing their own forces. The United States should back Israel’s effort to prevent the Iranians from securing a foothold on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. But above all, the United States should continue talking with Russia and insist that sooner rather than later, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will have to go.

Turkish democracy votes to end itself


This blog has long been concerned about the trajectory of Turkish domestic and foreign policy. A substantial post in October 2014 provides background. In short, Turkey is a key member of the Sunni Islamist continuum. In 2011 and 2012, it saw what it thought (and, admittedly, what this author thought) was the emergence of a Sunni Islamist Bloc, to compete with the Status Quo Bloc and Resistance Bloc (background here). However, with only one principality (i.e. Turkey) run by a member of the nascent bloc, Turkey has been left dangling, strategically.

But that hadn’t stopped Turkish President Erdogan’s ongoing policy of increasing autocracy. His rise to being a president with unprecedented powers over the executive and judiciary while sidelining, oppressing and arresting opponents is at once a masterclass in politics and a valuable lesson, (which we didn’t learn in Russia and Hungary), and given the populist politics in much of the West.

Two recent articles describe his rise, though neither mention his purposeful undermining of a ceasefire with Kurds in 2015, so as to earn populist support among ethnic Turks and, with it, a clear election victory.

The articles are here and here.

An Example of the Continuum 


Here’s an article by a Turkish writer about the efforts of Hezb u-Tarir to re-establish the Caliphate. As the article points out early on, establishing the Caliphate—which is the goal of Islamic State, for instance—isn’t a goal limited to violent Islamist groups. Rather, it is the goal of all the groups on what this blog labels the Sunni Islamist Continuum. Hezb u-Tarir is a little further along the Continuum than the Muslim Brotherhood, but not as far along as Hamas, which isn’t as violent as al-Qaeda or Islamic State.

Backing a strong horse


To paraphrase Osama bin Laden, it feels as if Turkey and Egypt are backing the strong horse in softening their opposition to Syrian President Assad (and Russia). This New York Times article has the details. 

For those without the time or inclination, the article essentially says that in the face of a strong and apparently determined Russian intervention in Syria, and a weak Obama Middle  East policy, Turkey and Egypt are softening their opposition to Syria, whereas once they were both staunch opponents.

What the article doesn’t say is that the Turkish and Egyptian leaders—both strongmen with decreasing democratic credentials—are fickle, compared to the much more strategic vision of the Saudi leadership, which is maintaining its opposition to Assad, because of Assad’s principle backer, Iran.

That fickleness is interestng, because both might come back to the American fold, should the latter start showing some spine (and results). And, come 20 January, that might happen. 

And that, to me, is the reason the Syrian and Russian onslaught in Aleppo has ramped up so significantly in the last few weeks; both want tangible and irreversible gains in the key city before Trump takes power. What this indicates is that Russia is actually apprehensive of a Trump presidency (well, aren’t we all?!). Many of the naysayers have stated that Trump and Putin will get along famously (or that Trump will let Putin do what he wants in the Middle East and Europe—which is ironic, since that’s what Putin has been doing during the Obama Administration!) 

I’m no fan of Trump, but the Russian actions in Syria show that they’re worried. I bet they’ll be a significant calming of the Aleppo situation or or immediately before 20 January.

If you don’t know where you’re going…


…it’s easy to get there. Theres’s more evidence that the US doesn’t have a strategic vision for the Middle East – it’s talking with Turkey about Raqqa’s future

Rather than having a strategic view, the US sees every problem in isolation, and so looks for options or a partner to deal with that specific problem, with little or no thought as to how that will affect the big picture (or why those options or partners are presenting themselves as possibilities).

Some have argued that the US’s strategic vision is to balance Iran (i.e. the Resistance Bloc) with the Saudis (i.e. the Status Quo Bloc), thereby letting them fight it out and reducing the US’s footprint in the Middle East. But if that were the case, then there would be no reason to bring Turkey into the mix. Turkey is part of the Sunni Islamist continuum (it would like the Sunni Islamists to form a bloc, and has been frustrated in these efforts). The Sunni Islamist continuum is at odds with both the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs.

By allowing Turkey in the room regarding Raqqa, the US is showing it either has little understanding of the region’s strategic situation, or no strategic vision (or both).

Islamic State terrorism in context


As always, Jonathan Spyer has captured the essence of what is going on in the Levant, and applied it to the regional context. 
He notes that the recent international terrorist attacks by Islamic State are directly attributable to the group losing land. He writes that even when the caliphate is defeated, it won’t go away. 

More importantly, Spyer notes that salafi-jihadi groups like jubhat a-nusra are religiously/politically identical to Islamic State – they want the same end result. But some of these groups are massively funded by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and control large amounts of Syria. In short, we shouldn’t expect peace to reign once the Raqqa falls. 

The one difference I have with Spyer is that I tend to include all Sunni Islamist groups in the same category – a continuum from nominally peaceful Islamist groups likes the Muslim Brotherhood and hezb u-tahrir, right through to Islsmic State. I look at these groups’ ultimate objective, not whether or not they are currently holding weapons. Spyer makes a more technical distinction between salafi groups and political Islamic groups. 

Where is Erdogan taking Turkey?


A fascinating look at the trajectory of Turkey under Erdogan. Well worth the read – it argues that Erdogan’s misreading of history is confusing his path.

Counter-revolutions aim to rewind the political order back to the past, and this is what Erdogan is doing in Turkey. Erdogan’s counter-revolution is focused on making Islam the centerpiece of Turkish politics and sees the country’s foreign policy role as being primarily anti-Western. This, Erdogan thinks, is how he will bring the Ottomans back. The irony is that while trying to revive the pre-Ataturk Ottoman Empire, Erdogan is actually trying to revive the caricature of the Ottomans that he was taught by the Kemalists.

Could it be?!

It looks like the US under Obama is actually making a smart move on the Middle East. Recent advances against Islamic State by the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ are heavily backed by US firepower. 

The SDF is essentially a Kurdish front group, and Turkey has been warning anyone who’ll listen against helping Syrian Kurds. This has prevented the US and others from meaningfully backing the Kurds, despite their consistently proving they can tick Western boxes by being capable fighters and not extremists – about the only group in Syria to fill both those categories. 

But the Turks are a toothless tiger, and, with their earlier help to Islamic State, have arguably done more to worsen the situation in Syria than any other country (with the notable exception of Iran). (Though I note they have absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees.) Their bluff should have been have been called years ago. It appears it has been now. 

Here’s a good article from the Washington Post.

Talking Turkey

Turkey is the successor to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of what is now called the Middle East for about 400 years. The Ottoman Empire was also the Islamic Caliphate. However, in the wake of the Ottoman’s dramatic loss of land in the First World War, leaving it with what is today Turkey, the Empire was abolished, leaving a republic in its wake. The republic’s founder, Ataturk, made the country entirely secular, and abolished the Caliphate in 1924. So dramatically did Turkey want to shake off its religious, Middle Eastern background, that its leaders adopted (and encouraged Turks to adopt) Western-style dress. It no longer used Arabic script in its writing, but adopted Latin script to transliterate Turkish. It looked to Europe, not the Middle East for partnerships, joining NATO and wanting to join the EU. The latter quest was never going to be successful, because of Turkey’s shaky democratic traditions (three coups between 1960 and 1980), its human rights record (for instance, it ranks 154 of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index) and, though it isn’t spoken of in polite circles, the fact that Turkey is Muslim and Europe is not.

In 2002, Turks elected an Islamist government, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, ‘Justice and Development Party’), which began a very slow, very careful and very clever process of creeping Islamisation throughout the country. Although it would be wrong to say it turned its back on Europe, the Turks pretty much gave up on ever becoming an EU member and returned their focus to the Middle East.

In pursuing its Middle East policy, the AKP Government dallied with one of the Middle East’s two main blocs, the Resistance Bloc (for a backgrounder on these blocs, see ‘What is the Big Picture?’). This wasn’t because it agreed with Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, but because Turkey’s interests were aligned with Iran—it wanted to change the status quo in the Middle East, it didn’t like Israel, it didn’t like the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and it didn’t want Kurds, which are present in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, to seek independence as a result of that invasion. I’ll be writing more on the Kurds further down.

Eventually, however, Turkey tired of the Resistance Bloc. What tipped the scales was a confluence of events in 2011 and 2012. In mid-2011, Syria’s President (dictator) Assad (a paid-up member of the Resistance Bloc) rejected Turkish attempts to moderate Syrian behaviour in the first few months of the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s leaders clearly took this as a personal slight (evidence of immaturity in policy making!) and shifted Turkey from believing it had the ability to help engender a peaceful resolution to making its regional priority the removal of the Assad Government.

Previous to that, popular protests had resulted in the removal of the Egyptian President (dictator) Mubarak in February 2011 and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government headed by Morsi in June that year. In January 2012, hamas’s chief left Damascus and, in doing so, left the Resistance Bloc. Turkey saw in these changes the emergence of a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc to challenge the dichotomous dominance of the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc.

Turkey bet heavily on the success of the Sunni Islamist Bloc, with strong support for the Brotherhood in Egypt and hamas in Gaza. It also turned a blind eye to people and weapons entering Syria from Turkey, to fight with jabhat a-nusra (al-qaeda’s Syrian franchise), the Islamic State and other nasty groups.

But hamas’s position hasn’t improved (it has actually worsened). The Muslim Brotherhood over-reached in Egypt, attempting to impose Islamist policies too quickly, and were booted out after mass protests brought the military back to power in July 2012.

The Sunni Islamist Bloc appears to be dissolving before it could properly solidify, and by acting so dramatically against the interests of both the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs (and losing), Turkey has significantly hurt its interests in the region.

Turkey’s short-sighted policy on Syria has hurt it. It sought to become a champion for Sunni rights (and thus popular among Sunni Arabs) when it became so adamantly against the Syrian Government. However, Islamist militias (like Islamic State) that Turkey unofficially helped, have been killing Sunnis as willy-nilly as the Syrian Government. And Arabs in the Middle East know this.

The recent actions of Islamic State in closing in on the town of Ayn al-Arab (commonly called Kobani) have presented Turkey with another opportunity to lose. Turkey, which is deeply nationalist, has a large population of Kurds, which are also nationalist (Like Turks, Kurds are mostly Sunni. And like Turks, Persians and Jews, they are a separate ethnicity to the Middle East’s majority ethnic group, Arabs). Turkey has been in conflict with the PKK (Partiya Karker Kurdistana, ‘Kurdistan Workers Party’) for decades. The PKK is the dominant Kurdish group in Turkey, and is aligned with the dominant Kurdish group in Syria, the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, ‘Democratic Union Party’).

After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the PYD declared autonomy in three areas of Syria, one of which is Ayn al-Arab. Islamic State is now closing in on this area, threatening to massacre everyone in it. Turkey, despite being in NATO, and despite its troops sitting idly by watching the spectacle from just across the border, has been doing nothing to stop this. It does not want a successful Kurdish enclave bordering Turkey—least of all one run by PKK allies. What it really wants is for the PYD to come begging Turkey to intervene, after which Turkey would likely invade the area to set up a safe haven, but thereby remove the PYD’s autonomy.

To ensure the PYD didn’t succeed, Turkey was not allowing any Kurds from Turkey enter Ayn al-Arab to fight with their brethren. This policy has been risking the delicate peace talks that Turkey and the PKK have been undertaking for the past couple of years. Certainly, if Islamic State succeeds in overcoming the enclave and committing a massacre, that peace process will be ruined. It would also significantly damage Turkey’s reputation in the West, given that Turkey is officially in the coalition meant to ‘degrade and destroy’ Islamic State.

But now, a day after Turkey lost (to New Zealand!) its bid to win a seat on the UN Security Council, Turkish President Erdogan received a phone call from US President Obama, who clearly put the hard word on him. Turkey has now said that it will allow Kurds from Iraq to enter Ayn al-Arab to fight with their brethren. (The dominant Kurdish group in Iraq are rivals to the PKK and PYD (even to the point of closing the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and a Syrian Kurdish enclave on the Iraq–Syria border!), and are quite friendly with Turkey, mostly because they are rivals with the PKK). At the same time, the US dropped supplies, including arms, into the Ayn al-Arab enclave. So while ensuring it’s Iraqi Kurds, not Turkish Kurds, entering Ayn al-Arab is a win, of sorts, for Turkey, the reality is, it is now looking increasingly like Kurdish autonomy in Syria will survive for a little while longer. Turkey will not be able to establish its safe haven, and its policy of sitting by and doing nothing has helped poison Turkish–Kurdish relations even more, and made Turkey look terrible in the eyes of the West.

Strategically and tactically, the AKP Government in Turkey, in power since 2002, has taken the country out on a limb, leaving it dangling with fewer and fewer friends and no good options.