November 23, 2014

Turkey: Playing with Fire

Yohannan Chemarapally

FOR the government of Turkey, regime change in Damascus seems to be still the top priority despite the US and its regional allies giving more importance to the fight against the resurgent Sunni extremist groups in the region. The Turkish parliament voted in the first week of October to rubber stamp the government’s decision to allow the deployment of the country’s troops inside Syria and Iraq, if the need arises. The government in Ankara is also demanding the introduction of a “no fly zone” over parts of Syria. Both the Syrian and Iraqi governments have reacted strongly to what they view as Turkey’s latest provocative move in the region. The Syrian government was quick to issue a statement characterising the proposed Turkish move as “aggression” against a member state of the United Nations. Nuri al Malki, who is now a deputy prime minister of Iraq, warned Turkey against sending its troops into Iraq, saying that it would be a breach of the country’s sovereignty. The statement came immediately after the newly appointed Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutogulu said that Ankara would do whatever is needed to prevent the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ayn al Arab, situated near its border from falling into the hands of the Islamic State fighters (IS). Half of Kobane is now under the control of the IS, despite massive fire power by the US being used against them. 160,000 people, mainly Syrian Kurds have fled from the town and surrounding villages. The black flags of the IS have been fluttering in the eastern part of the city since the middle of October. Davutogulu had said that only Turkey had the wherewithal to turn the military tide against the resurgent Islamists. “No other country has the capacity to affect the developments in Syria and Iraq”, he said. Earlier, the Turkish prime minister had told the media that mere air power was not sufficient to rout the IS. He said that at some point “ground forces will be essential” inside Syria. Ankara has indicated that it wants to create a “safe haven” on the border with Syria for the so called moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamic Front (IF). The top priority of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) still continues to be regime change in Damascus. Interestingly, the FSA leadership has refused to endorse US military action against the IS stating that the overthrow of the secular government in Damascus should continue to be the main objective. The FSA has ceased to be a serious fighting force for the last two years. It has virtually subcontracted the fighting to jihadist groups like the Nusra Front. According to the reports, the Turkish army is not keen on directly confronting the IS or the Syrian Kurds. Till the second week of October, Turkish forces massed near the town of Kobane have preferred to wait and watch as the IS makes steady gains. Turkey had refused to sign the joint communiqué issued in September by Ten Arab States expressing a “shared commitment to stand united against the threat posed by all terrorism”. The IS and the Syrian Kurds who control parts of northern Syria have been battling each other for the last several months. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party of Syria is a close ally of the separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. When the foreign sponsored armed uprising in Syria started four years ago, the government in Damascus in a tactical move granted autonomy to the Syrian Kurds. The Kurds then became informal allies of Damascus in the fight against the terror groups. The Turkish government considers both these groups as its enemies. IS TARGETING IRAQ'S OIL Turkey on the other hand had struck up a close economic and political relationship with the Kurdish government in Northern Iraq. The Turkish government had reversed course after the American occupation of Iraq in 2003 and given up its objection to an emergence of an independent Kurdish state in that country. Turkish companies invested heavily in northern Iraq. Much of the oil produced there was routed through Turkey. The country exports goods worth $12 billion through northern Iraq. Previously Turkish exports were routed through Syria. That route has been closed for the last four years and now with the advances being made by the IS, the Iraqi route for Turkish exports to the region has been closed, at least temporarily. The IS is now targeting northern Iraq’s lucrative oil infrastructure. They were on the verge of capturing Irbil, the capital of Kurd controlled northern Iraq. It was only the initial intervention by the PKK and later on by American war planes that saved the Kurdish government in northern Iraq. The intervention of the PKK has alarmed the government in Ankara. The PKK has been branded a “terrorist” organisation by Turkey as well as its NATO patron, the US. The last thing Ankara wants is an alliance between the Turkish Kurds and the Kurds in northern Iraq. After the military reverses they suffered, the Iraqi Kurds have blamed the Turkish government for initially arming and supporting jihadist groups like the IS. Ankara has so far not joined the US led “coalition of the willing” in the targeting of the IS in Iraq and Syria. Turkish officials said that targeting only the IS and other extremist groups would only strengthen the PKK and other Kurd separatists in the region. Just before the US aerial bombardments started, Turkey had negotiated the release of 49 of its citizens held hostage by the IS in Mosul. The Turkish President, Reccep Erdogan has hinted that the deal involves a prisoner exchange. According to reports, more than a hundred IS fighters, including two Europeans, detained by the Turkish authorities have reportedly been released as a quid pro quo. Immediately after the announcement by the Turkish PM about his plans for ordering the army into the two neighbouring countries, the American Vice President, Joseph Biden, in a moment of remarkable candor, put much of the blame for the rise of the IS and other jihadist groups on the government in Ankara. Speaking to students at Harvard University, Biden said that America’s allies in the region were the “largest problem in Syria”. He said that countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE “were so determined to take down Assad” that they started “a proxy Sunni Shia war” by funneling in “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons” to any group, including jihadist groups like the al Nusra, which were fighting against the secular government in Damascus. Biden stated that the US could not stop its close allies from doing this. “The outcome of such policies are now visible”, the American vice president said. Biden claimed that his “old friend” Erdogan had admitted to sending in “too may people” across the border into Syria. “It took a while for Turkey, a Sunni nation, to figure out that the ISIL was a direct and immediate threat to their well being”, Biden said in his lecture. He went on to add that the other allies of the US in the region have now finally stopped the funding of the jihadi groups. The former American ambassador to Turkey, Francis Riccardione, had also said earlier that Ankara had supported radical Islamist groups like the Nusra Front. It was an open secret that arms and fighters were being channeled into Syria through Turkey but the Obama administration did absolutely nothing to stop it. The IS, which was till last year an al Qaeda affiliate, and till last year confined to central Iraq, found sanctuary in the areas that had gone out of the control of the Syrian government. It was only later that the IS fell out with the al Nusra Front, the other al Qaeda franchise in Syria. Biden glossed over the role played by the US and its western allies in encouraging and abetting the jihadist forces. American intelligence agents were on the ground providing logistical support to the same groups whom they are now trying to obliterate. The NYT reported that the US government is paying the salaries of more than 10,000 fighters in northern Syria. The US Congress recently approved an additional $500 million in funding for the Syrian rebels. Another recent report revealed that a significant percentage of the ammunition used by the IS is of American origin. Much of the ammunition could have been directly supplied to the IS by America’s allies in the region. The rest of it may have been captured from the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Pesh Merga army of Northern Iraq. As has been widely reported, the real fighting is being done by the IS and the al Nusra on behalf of the so called moderate groups. And for that matter, it is the Syrian army that has been valiantly fighting the extremists who at one time were literally knocking on the gates of Damascus, fueled by the funds, arms and training provided by the West and the few countries who now band themselves as the “coalition of the willing”. It was only when the IS launched its attack against the autonomous pro-American region in Northern Iraq that the Obama administration sprung into action and created the “coalition of the willing” comprising of the very states responsible for the creation of the IS and the Nusra Front. OBAMA ADMINISTRATION STILL NOT LEARN ITS LESSONS The Obama administration has evidently still not learn its lessons. Washington is now training Syrians on Saudi Arabian soil to fight both the secular government in Damascus and the IS. Once they return to Syria, these Syrian fighters are more likely to team up with the IS and other jihadi groups with whom they share the same Salafi world view. President Barack Obama in his speech to the UN general assembly claimed that the US “is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime”. President Erdogan has denied having expressed regret for Turkey’s policies on Syria to the American vice president. The Turkish prime minister said that Biden’s remarks were “unacceptable”. Biden’s spokesperson said that the American vice president has “apologised for any implication that Turkey or other allies and partners in the region had intentionally supplied or facilitated the growth of ISIL or other extremists in the region”. He has sent in apologies to the UAE and Saudi Arabia too for his recent remarks. Qatar too will be demanding one. As a NYT editorial writer put it—“Biden apologises for telling the truth”. Turkey’s dubious track record of covertly supporting radical Islamist groups is being compared to Pakistan’s role of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been paying a big price domestically as the local offshoots of the Taliban have turned against the government with suicide bombings and terror attacks occurring every other day. In the first week of September, the most radical wing of the Pakistani Taliban announced that it had affiliated itself to the IS. The origin of the terror blowback in Pakistan can in fact be traced to the support provided to the mujahideen groups in Afghanistan when Gen. Zia ul-Huq was in power. That effort of course had the blessings of Washington. In Turkey too, the West looked the other way, when fighters and arms being routed through Turkey to Syria. The West continued to pretend that it was the Free Syrian Army that was fighting the government in Damascus. The IS and the Nusra Front have been engaged in a major recruiting drive in the major cities in Turkey. It is estimated that around 10 percent of the IS fighters are Turks. Shiite places of worship, as is happening in Pakistan, have been targeted for arson attacks inside Turkey. The Alevis, who constitute around 20 percent of Turkey’s population, are considered as apostates by hard line Sunni groups like the IS. The IS has been blamed for the twin bombings in Rehanli, a Turkish town near the Syrian border, in May last year. That incident claimed the lives of more than 50 people. The fire from Syria and Iraq could fatally singe Turkey's secular political edifice.