When Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth president of the USA in November 2016, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was among the first world leaders to congratulate him. His congratulatory phone call echoed Erdogan’s ambition to strengthen US-Turkish relations, which had gone cold over the US Syria policy under Barack Obama. On 17 May 2017, Trump hosted the Turkish president in the first official meeting between the two leaders. Before the meeting, both leaders were still in honeymoon mode, despite diplomatic tensions, such as the US decision to support Kurdish militias in Syria and the unresolved matter of the Turkish request for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. The honeymoon quickly ended as waves of diplomatic spats drastically changed the relationship.
The USA introduced sanctions on Turkey in 2018 over the detention of a US pastor, Andrew Brunson, indicating rapidly escalating tensions between two countries that had had a complicated history of diplomatic relations. While tensions calmed somewhat after Brunson’s release, Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system significantly ruptured the relationship between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies, with the crisis likely to deteriorate over other tensions pertaining to Syria. In August, Turkey’s refusal to cancel the S-400 deal saw the USA freezing the Turks out of its F-35 joint strike fighter programme. Despite this, a US delegation was sent to Ankara early August to help set up a ‘safe zone’ in north-eastern Syria. Both Turkish and US commitment to create the safe zone appears to have staved off a Turkish military campaign against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters, who are aligned to and supported by the USA. Despite making some headway in terms of Syria, Turkey’s improving relations with Russia, exemplified by the S-400 deal, and the Turkish request to extradite Gulen from the USA present ongoing sticking points in this long-standing and complicated diplomatic relationship.
History of USA-Turkey relations
The USA and Turkey have enjoyed several decades of diplomatic relations on the political, economic and military fronts. Soon after the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey established relations with the USA by signing the Economic and Technical Cooperation agreement in 1947. In 1952, Turkey was admitted as a member of NATO, forging a closer relationship with the USA on military and political-diplomatic fronts. Bilateral relations remained relatively smooth until April 1975, when the US Congress pushed to recognise the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. Turkey protested, but failed to convince US lawmakers to rescind the decision.
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into government in Turkey in 2002, US-Turkish relations were on shakier ground than ever before. During the first years of the AKP government, diplomatic relations moved from friendly, with the US president, George W Bush, hailing the AKP as a ‘powerful voice in the Muslim world’, to moderately hostile following the USA-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Souring relations led Turkey to refuse a US request to allow US forces to use Turkish territory to open a front against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Despite the NATO alliance, the two countries saw relations deteriorate, eventually taking a turn for the worse at the start of the MENA uprisings in 2011, quickly followed by the Syrian civil war. USA-Turkey hostilities escalated after July 2016, when Ankara blamed a failed coup attempt on Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the USA.
Gulen and the Gulenist split with AKP
Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish Muslim cleric and businessperson who enjoys a large support base in Turkey and previously shared a close relationship with the AKP. Gulen’s following is estimated to be between three and six million people worldwide, with charities, schools and businesses in many countries, including the USA,. Now a staunch critic of Erdogan and the AKP, Gulen had close relations with Erdogan and later with the AKP after its founding in 2001. Both men opposed the secular Kemalist forces in Turkey, and the Gulenists (or Hizmet, as they call themselves) quickly supported the AKP’s rise to power. Gulen has significant influence, that has been nurtured over decades, in the Turkish police force and judiciary, and his supporters are believed to have been behind the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations and trials. These looked into alleged plots to overthrow the AKP government and Erdogan in 2003, and resulted in mass arrests of police officers and military officers – most of whom were eventually freed in 2014. The cases were part of Gulen’s power struggle with Erdogan. In 2016, a court found that Gulenists within the judiciary had fabricated evidence, and dismissed all charges against the suspects.
The relationship between Erdogan and Gulen began to fray after the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. The ship, owned by the Turkish Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH), was part of the Freedom Flotilla that was headed to the besieged Gaza Strip in Palestine. The IHH vessel was forcefully boarded by Israeli forces, leading to the death of nine Turkish activists, including one with dual USA-Turkey citizenship. Gulen criticised Erdogan’s harsh response to Israel following the incident, signalling a growing rift between the two. Erdogan and Gulen again clashed over negotiations, on Erdogan’s instructions, between a senior Turkish intelligence official and jailed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Gulen and his supporters argued that Erdogan should not have negotiated with PKK ‘terrorists’. Gulen also disapproved of Erdogan’s chief negotiator in the matter, Hakan Fidan, who was close to Erdogan and who Gulen accused of secretly profiling his supporters in government institutions. The Gulen-Erdogan conflict reached its apex in 2013, when corruption allegations were levelled against Erdogan’s cabinet ministers and his son Bilal. Erdogan blamed the allegations on Gulen supporters in the police force and judiciary and accused Gulen of trying to form a parallel state in Turkey. He began a purge in government institutions of officials suspected to be Gulen loyalists and closed schools and charities linked to Hizmet. The impasse continued as several National Intelligence Organisation investigations were conducted against Gulen and his supporters.
Soon thereafter, Gulen’s supporters faced major crackdowns by the AKP-led government, and the relationship broke down irretrievably. This culminated in the attempted coup in 2016, with the AKP blaming the Gulenists for orchestrating. The failed July 2016 coup attempt was carried out by elements within the Turkish military that mobilised air and ground forces to seize political power. The attempted coup exacerbated an already polarised political climate in Turkey and led to the mass dismissal of members in the judiciary, public officials and journalists, all accused of having links to the Gulen movement. Gulen denied allegations that he played a part in the coup attempt, after Turkey called on the USA to extradite him to Turkey to face charges.
Since then, Gulen has remained an obstacle in USA- Turkey relations. Turkey has officially filed papers and applied diplomatic pressure for Gulen’s extradition over the attempted coup, but the USA has refused to comply, worsening diplomatic ties. Under Obama, the USA referred the extradition issue to the Treaty on Extradition and Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters of 1980, which both countries signed. The treaty required Turkey to submit compelling supporting evidence for Gulen to be extradited and tried in Turkey for the alleged crimes. In August 2016, Erdogan said Turkey had sent about seven boxes of evidence to show Gulen was implicated in activities to undermine the state. Despite Turkey’s efforts, the USA has not acceded to their demands, with US officials insisting there was insufficient evidence supporting Turkish claims. After a serious diplomatic row over the release of a US pastor in 2018, Trump told Erdogan he would look into the issue of Gulen’s extradition, but has since remained mum in spite of ongoing Turkish requests.
US pastor Andrew Brunson
Erdogan’s diplomatic efforts to convince the USA to extradite Gulen continued under the Trump administration. In the 2018 case of US pastor Andrew Brunson, Turkey sought to exchange Brunson for Gulen, despite Trump’s calls to release the detained pastor. Brunson had been imprisoned by Turkey on terrorism charges relating to the July 2016 attempted coup. Turkey accused Brunson of having links with both the PKK and the Gulen movement, but he denied all accusations and called for the USA to intervene on his behalf. In late 2018, Trump called on Ankara to release Brunson, and when Turkey refused, the USA applied economic sanctions on Turkey, sending its economy into chaos. Soon thereafter, in October 2018, a Turkish court ordered the Brunson’s release in what was perceived to be Ankara’s attempt to rescue its economy. Despite Turkey releasing Brunson, the USA refused to engage Ankara on the issue of Gulen’s extradition, even after numerous appeals by Erdogan. Diplomatic relations between the two countries had already suffered immensely amidst contradictory positions regarding YPG fighters in Syria.
Syrian civil war and Kurdish fighters
After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Obama’s policy sat uncomfortably with the Turks and this strained ties in 2012, when the USA turned down an appeal for military intervention in Syria after Syria’s violation of Obama’s self-proclaimed ‘red-line’. Turbulent diplomatic relations between Ankara and Washington took a further dive when Obama rejected Erdogan’s proposal for humanitarian intervention and the introduction of a no-fly zone in northern Syria to protect fleeing refugees. The rejection of efforts to alleviate the Syrian crisis became a cocktail of tensions when Obama announced that the Kurdish YPG in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were America’s best option to defeat the Islamic State group (IS). US support for Kurdish fighters in the Syrian conflict, which continues to this day, has seen the two NATO allies on opposite sides of the fence. Turkey sees the YPG as an affiliate of the PKK, which has waged an insurgency against Turkey since 1984 and has been declared a terrorist organisation by both the USA and Turkey. Thus, US support to the YPG is seen as an affront by Turkey, which has launched several attacks against YPG fighters in Syria and PKK in neighbouring Iraq.
Since the start of the Syrian war, Turkey launched two cross-border campaigns into Syria. Both focused on Turkey’s fight against the YPG from areas inside Syria bordering Turkey. Starting with Operation Euphrates Shield along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in August 2016, Ankara launched a military campaign aimed at clearing out IS and YPG fighters from Syrian areas bordering Turkey. The campaign took the border town of Jarablus on the Euphrates river and an area stretching 100 kilometres from the border, moving south to Al-Bab village. Turkey’s operations angered the USA, which had already begun supporting Kurdish fighters against IS. In January 2018, Turkey announced it would undertake a military campaign, Operation Olive Branch, in Syria’s Afrin province against the YPG, after receiving permission to use Syrian airspace from Russia. Although the operation again angered the USA, they did not intervene, despite calls from YPG fighters who felt that their allies were abandoning them under Turkish bombardment. Following this escalation, talks between the USA and Turkey quickly followed and the two sides agreed on a roadmap, including the creation of a buffer zone between YPG fighters in Manbij, northern Syria, and Turkish troops.
Despite agreements for military patrols in Afrin and Manbij, Turkey still presses for US implementation of a roadmap, already agreed to in June 2018, to disarm the YPG once the fight against IS has been completed. Recognising US hesitancy, Turkey’s strategy appears to be to pressure the USA to coordinate ‘safe-zones’ in northern Syria, which would become Turkish areas of control to maintain security. This strategy was already visible in Afrin, where Turkey transferred its allied fighters to operate as a security force, and where Turkey financially invested in rebuilding houses, schools, and hospitals. This strategy seems to be Turkey’s new export to northeastern Syria via a recent cooperation agreement with the USA to establish a safe-zone in Syrian areas bordering Turkey along the eastern Euphrates.
Recent talks between US and Turkish officials appear to have yielded some mutual gains for Ankara and Washington, although the lack of agreement on details quickly casts a shadow over the possibility of a way forward. Following the August talks, the USA has averted a Turkish attack against the YPG east of the Euphrates in northern Syria. The announcement of the agreement implies that Washington will acquiesce to some of Ankara’s demands.
Despite disagreement on intricate details, both the USA and Turkey have taken steps to set up joint coordination centres in Urfa and Ankara. This coordination will see the establishment of a peace corridor stretching from the Turkish border with Syria into areas of northeastern Syria, although there is disagreement about the size of the corridor. Turkish drones have been spotted in Syrian areas along the east Euphrates since the arrival of a US delegation in southern Turkey on 13 August. Although no timeline has been set for the coordination, a recent statement by the head of the YPG-led SDF, Mazloum Kobani, welcoming the deal for a buffer zone in northeastern Syria shows that Turkey might make gains in this process. The YPG’s acceptance of the safe zone deal between Turkey and the USA is largely due to the YPG’s concern that it might lose areas under its control if a military clash with Turkey were to erupt.
Playing the ball to Turkey is a US strategy to avoid losing allied forces on the ground ahead of their troop withdrawal from northern Syria that was announced by Trump earlier this year. There is a general fear that a Turkish military campaign against the YPG might allow an IS resurgence, eradicating US gains in eliminating the group from large parts of Syria. Although a safe zone is intended to be a corridor of safety in conditions of war, the USA-Turkey safe zone in northeastern Syria will have adverse effects, as seen in Afrin, where the operation saw a major displacement of civilians and numerous causalities. The northeastern Syria operation too is likely to lead to the displacement of people already suffering under dire humanitarian conditions caused by the eight-year-long Syrian conflict.
S-400 deal with Moscow
A more recent, and, arguably, more serious, dispute between Ankara and Washington is over the former’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system in 2018. The USA opposes the purchase, stating that the S-400 clashes with the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme used by NATO allies. Further, the USA fears that F-35 technology could be accessed by Moscow through the S-400, a claim Erdogan denies. In July, Turkey received its first shipment of S-400 parts from Russia, with the rest of the shipment expected to continue until 2020. After months of Washington threatening to apply sanctions on Ankara should the S-400 deal go through, the USA responded by kicking Turkey off the F-35 programme, despite Turkey manufacturing certain parts used in its production. Turkey’s removal from the programme will have severe economic consequences for the country, as Turkish F-35 personnel have been forced to leave the USA and return home. Further, the projected losses for Turkey amounts to $9 billion that it would have gained for supplying materials.
Turkey has dismissed the US threat of sanctions, despite previous sanctions over the Brunson row in 2018. The S-400 deal continues to fuel tensions between the USA and Turkey, and Trump has not ruled out the possibility of applying further sanctions. The 2017 Sanctions Act mandates the USA to apply upto twelve different types of sanctions to any state involved in a large arms deal with Russia. If applied, the sanctions would have a detriment on the already-troubled Turkish economy. The Turkish Lira plummeted in the last two years, losing 40 per cent of its value, after the 2018 sanctions. Further US sanctions could cripple the Turkish economy, threatening Erdogan and the AKP’s hold on power, especially after they suffered massive electoral losses in the 2019 local elections. It seems Erdogan is gambling on Trump’s hesitance to apply new rounds of sanctions on Turkey, despite the looming possibility.
The USA and Turkey continue to be neither friends nor foes after years of protracted diplomatic rifts and alliances. The two states remain NATO members, despite Turkey’s recent ousting from the F-35 programme used by all NATO members. Further, Turkish requests for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen have cast a shadow over the already complicated diplomatic relations between the countries. Recent cooperation for the creation of a safe-zone in northeastern Syria by both countries has managed a temporary peace between the Turkish military campaign and US-Kurdish allies in Syria. The lack of agreement over specific details regarding the safe zone, however, threatens this cooperation, and could see an escalation of already-heightened tensions. Despite this cooperation in northern Syria, Ankara and Washington disagree over the Russian S-400 missile defence system. Trump warned he could slap sanctions on Turkey if it went ahead with the S-400 deal with Moscow. Turkey called Trump’s bluff and received the first equipment shipment from Russia in July and the second shipment in August. If Trump forges ahead with the sanctions, the already strained Turkish economy would suffer, leaving Erdogan with the option of not assembling the S-400, despite receiving its parts, if he wants to salvage relations with Washington.
Afro-Middle East Centre researcher Ebrahim Deen, joins us via Skype to discuss the shifting political sands between Washington, Riyadh and Ankara
Turkey’s local election concluded with the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) incurring heavy losses in major cities, and the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) making significant gains. The poll, which will result in the election of new mayors, mukhtars and local assembly members, saw the AKP losing the capital, Ankara; the commercial hub and largest city, Istanbul; and a major city, Izmir. Although the AKP and its alliance still won around fifty per cent of the votes overall, losing major cities is an indicator of voters’ waning confidence in the AKP and its leader (and Turkey’s president) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and punishing the party with its biggest losses since attaining power in 2002.
Erdogan based the AKP’s campaign on national security, side-lining local economic grievances that caused many voters concern about their future. The depreciation of the Turkish Lira against the dollar in 2018 saw inflation increase to twenty-five per cent in October 2018 and resulted in rising unemployment. Although the AKP lodged a complaint with the Supreme Electoral Council, challenging the results in Istanbul and thirty-eight other districts, Erdogan seems to have accepted these election as a learning moment, and has vowed to fix the economy to regain voter confidence ahead of the 2023 national elections. Nevertheless, the current loss signifies the mood of an electorate which finds itself disconnected from the AKP that it once embraced, and is seeking refuge in the opposition. The elections were also seen as a referendum on Erdogan’s rule, after the country moved from a parliamentary to a presidential system in 2018, extending his powers significantly.
Election outcomes reflect a disgruntled electorate
Table 1: Turkish local election results
National security over economic issues
Elections results show that these elections have been challenging for Erdogan. They are the first elections since he was elected in 2018 as the country’s first executive president after a controversial referendum in 2017 that changed the electoral system from parliamentary to presidential. Under the new system, Erdogan can rule the country almost by decree, and many people fear that the country is in the grip of dictatorial tendencies from the president. Since his election, the AKP has focused on positioning the country internationally in a region that is plagued by political instability and insecurity. This continued to be the case as the AKP and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party(MHP), campaigned for the election under the banner of the People’s Alliance.
The Alliance’s campaign focused on national security and terrorism, taking swipes at some candidates by accusing them of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and of being western agents. Erdogan further blamed the deterioration of the Turkish Lira on foreign powers trying to destroy Turkey. Erdogan’s rhetoric on national security and terrorism meant that he avoided speaking about the country’s economic issues, whereas his opponents focused on the economic problems, blaming them on his government, which they accused of corruption and maladministration. The CHP capitalised on the discontent of the electorate amid inflation increasing from less than ten per cent in March 2014 to a peak of twenty-five per cent in October 2018.
Turkey’s economic difficulties were exacerbated by its international diplomatic problems, specifically its complicated relationship with the USA. In August 2018, the USA imposed sanctions on Turkey over the detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson, who Turkey charged with aiding the 2016 attempted coup. Although Turkey eventually released Brunson – after a series of bilateral diplomatic talks, the Turkish Lira failed to strengthen amid huge government debt created by massive spending and borrowing. In January 2019, the US president, Donald Trump, threatened to destroy the Turkish economy again if Turkey attacked US-supported Kurdish forces in Syria. The Turkish Lira suffered again, but managed to remain steady after Erdogan cut down on his rhetoric threatening the US proxies in Syria. Nevertheless, relations between the USA and Turkey remain fragile, especially after the latter halted the sale of fighter jets to Turkey because of Ankara’s intention to purchase the Russian S-400 defence system. The decision saw the Turkish Lira fall by three per cent to 5.6590 against the dollar. Many issues remain unresolved between the two countries, including the future of Kurdish forces in Syria, which Ankara sees as the extension of the PKK.
Suppression of Kurdish candidates
Another factor that contributed to the CHP victory was Erdogan’s suppression of Kurdish candidates contesting the election. Before announcing the election, Erdogan removed and replacedmayors in predominantly Kurdish areas with AKP leaders close to him. Soon after the outcomes of the current election were announced, Erdogan threatenedto again replace Kurdish mayors with trusted ones linked to the AKP. Some Kurdish politicians, such as former co-chair of the Kurdish-majority People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, were forced to campaign from prison, while many others linked to the HDP had been charged with terrorism and links to the PKK. Due to this and other factors, the HDP did not field candidates in many areas, including Istanbul, thus losing their voters to the CHP. Further, the HDP did not enjoy much media coverage during its campaign, with over ninety per cent media coveragegiven to the AKP.
Loss of traditional AKP voters
The AKP did not lose only Kurdish voters but also voters in areas where Erdogan had traditionally enjoyed widespread support, such as the Mediterranean region. Adana and Antalya were bothlost to CHP. In the resort city of Antalya, the AKP won forty-six percentof the vote against the CHP’s fifty per cent. This further frustrated Erdogan, who had hoped to tap into nationalist rhetoric for his traditional supporters in the Mediterranean areas. The loss ofMersin and Hatayto the CHP has almost kicked the AKP out of theAegean and Mediterranean region. It lost many strategic areas in these elections despite the political odds being stacked in its favour. Erdogan’s repeated accusations against opposition candidates of terrorism, his jailing of journalists and closing downof independent media, and his suppression of Kurdish politicians still failed to secure the AKP a victory in the country’s major cities. Ankara fell to the CHP’s fifty-nine per cent win,fifty-eight per cent of Izmir’s voters put their cross next to CHP candidates’ names, and in Istanbul, which is politically important for Erdogan, the CHP won by 48.8 per cent.
Istanbul, the contested jewel in the crown
These major losses led the AKP officially to object to the electoral outcomes, claiming irregularities. The objections reflect Istanbul’s political and personal significance for Erdogan, whose career début was in Istanbul when he was elected mayor in 1994. After the AKP suffered a painful defeat in Ankara, Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council ceased the counting of ballots in Istanbul with around ninety-nine per cent counted. The state-run Anadolu news agency stopped reporting on the vote tallies shortly thereafter. The AKP candidate for Istanbul, Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister, claimed victory over CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu even though the CHP led by around 5 000 votes. The electoral board declared Imamoglu the winner even though the results remain ‘unofficial’ until the objections are dealt with. The indications are that the electoral council will keep the results likely the same despite the AKP objections. Indications are that the electoral council will likely maintain the results in Istanbul, despite AKP claim’s of the involvement of ‘organised crime’ in some Istanbul districts. Despite ongoing recounts in many Istanbul districts, the electoral council is not expected chamge its original result, despite AKP objections.
Together with the overall results and the AKP’s loss of major cities, the Turkish local elections reflect the mood of a discontented electorate. The opposition has been re-energised, and provided with a morale boost to enable it to build support against the AKP and Erdogan ahead of the 2023 general elections. The loss has been a wake-up call to the AKP, which has vowed to work harder to regain lost support. The rhetoric to rebuild AKP support may also be a sign that Erdogan will not take steps to undermine the municipal elections’ outcome by exercising his presidential powers. Turkey’s rampant economic woes, exacerbated by local and foreign challenges that contributed to the AKP defeat might see Erdogan make certain concessions to stabilise the economy using presidential decrees that could undermine democratic processes. With the overall results remaining the same even after the review of the objections, it remains to be seen whether Erdogan will concede defeat in Istanbul. What is more important is what he does going forward, with Turkey mired in a suffering economy and a disgruntled electorate.
The deal between Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, regarding Syria’s Idlib province, announced on 17 September, sought to avert a campaign by the Syrian army similar to that in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Dara’a. It followed Erdogan’s appeal to Iran and Russia – his partners in the Astana process – as well as to the USA and Europe to save the three million civilians trapped in the northwestern Syrian province from a fate similar to the one that befell the 400 000 citizens of Eastern Ghouta in March 2018, when Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad launched a brutal bombardment of the area. The September agreement included the establishment of a demilitarised zone twenty kilometres into Idlib from the Turkish border. Turkey insisted that this was necessary to avoid a spillover of clashes on its border, to secure its border by preventing activities of the militant Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and to prevent an influx of refugees across the border into Turkey.
In terms of the agreement, Turkey was allowed a month – until 15 October – to persuade ‘radical’ rebel groups to leave the demilitarised zone, and ‘moderate’ groups to hand over their heavy weapons. The ‘radical’ groups referred to were – mainly – al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS – formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and an HTS breakaway (comprising mainly foreign nationals), Huras al-Din, while the ‘moderate’ groups were mostly Turkish-supported organisations. Most of the latter had no choice but to comply; they surrendered their weapons and coalesced into the National Liberation Front (NLF), which began playing the role of a police force centred around Turkey’s observation posts in Idlib. HTS and Huras al-Din did not officially announce their acceptance of the deal, with Huras al-Din emphasising its determination to maintain control over all its weapons and continuing its battle against the Syrian government. However, a week before the 15 October deadline, HTS surrendered its heavy weapons and commenced policing operations with the NLF. Early November, just weeks after the 15 October deadline, Huras al-Din joined HTS and participated in NLF patrols.
The Syrian regime, however, does not feel itself fully bound by the Russia-Turkey deal, and has carried out numerous attacks against various rebel groups in and outside the delineated zone, in violation of the agreement. It insists that all heavy weapons have not been surrendered, and that the deal was only temporary, arguing that the deal’s purpose was to avert bloodshed while preparing the ground for the regime to take over control. Russia agrees on the temporary nature of the agreement; Turkey does not. The arrangement for the province resembles the strategy employed in Afrin,Manbij and the area north of theEuphrates River, where Turkey maintains troops and proxies, ostensibly to prevent activities of the YPG (which it regards as a terrorist group), and to protect its borders from jihadists and refugees fleeing Syrian bombardment. In general, Idlib is regarded as a significant threat by the three states that are part of the Astana process – Turkey, Russia and Iran, even if they do not agree on a strategy to counter it. Despite these opposing interests and strategies, however, the Idlib deal represents a victory of sorts – even if only temporary – for Turkey on the diplomatic and military fronts.
Idlib – the last rebel outpost
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The mountainous Idlib province is in the northwest of Syria, to the west of which are the cities of Tartous, which is home to a Russian naval base, and Latakia, with its large Alawi population that forms the bedrock of support for Asad’s ruling Ba'athist Party. To Idlib’s east is Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest commercial hub before successive battles between rebels groups (including the Islamic State group) and the regime in 2016. To the south is the city of Hama, which experienced large population transfers carried out by the regime in 2016 and 2017. The north of the province forms the border with Turkey, making it a strategic transit route for refugees fleeing the civil war and militants of various stripes entering Syria. The government lost the province to HTS in 2015 after a series of fierce battles, making Idlib one of the regime’s biggest losses. The loss meant that Damascus also lost control of the strategic M4 and M5 highways. The former links Aleppo and Latakia to oil rich Deir Ez Zor and Raqqa, while the latter is a major trade route to Turkey and Europe.
With its 18 000 fighters, HTS controls around sixty per cent of the province, while the rest of the territory is shared between groups that were evacuated under Russian-brokered deals from various parts of the country. They include the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham. HTS has often clashed with these other groups, but it also collaborated with Turkey since 2017, and it coordinated with Turkey in March in the establishment of observation posts in Idlib as part of thede-escalation zones declared by the Astana process that included Turkey, Iran and Russia.
Despite some coordination with Turkey, HTS continues publicly to denounce Turkey; its leader,Muhammed al-Joulani, emphasised that HTS will not take orders from Turkey regarding the fight against the Asad regime. In reality, however, HTS rejects the Turkey-Russia deal publicly but complies with it silently. The group has also, under Turkey’s direction, been trying to contain its splinter group that comprises mainly foreign fighters, Huras al-Din. Huras al-Din feels marginalised by HTS’s coordination with Turkey, and fears for the safety and future of its foreign fighters if HTS officially dissolves and joins the NLF. This is a distinct possibility, as recent events signal that HTS is considering the possibility of defeat, and might ultimately dissolve the fighting force as part of a deal with Turkey. The group is aware that it will not be able to withstand sustained bombardment by the regime, backed by Iranian militias and Russian airpower. Thus, the group has been silently complying with the Sochi deal, even though it has not formally joined the NLF, which is composed of fourteen rebel groups, including a large contingent of FSA fighters.
Astana de-escalation zones
The Astana deal was reached in May 2017 in Kazakhstan’s capital by the three key foreign players in the Syrian conflict: Russia, Iran, and Turkey. It sought to implement four de-escalation zones in Syria to pave the way for a political process that would end the Syrian civil war, with the three players acting guarantors of the zones.
Under the agreement, Idlib was earmarked for the first implementation of a de-escalation zone. Turkey was to be the guarantor and monitor of Idlib. Twelve observation posts were initially set up by Turkish troops, but Turkey then set its sights on the neighbouring Afrin province, where it targeted the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, whose main component is the YPG. After lengthy negotiations between the three Astana partners, Turkey moved into Afrin with a nod from Russia for Turkish planes to use Syrian airspace.
Control over Idlib is critical for the Asad regime and its allies (Iran and Russia) to declare victory in the conflict which has been raging since 2011. It would give the regime decisive control over all Syrian territory. Their strategy was to deal with Idlib after defeating the opposition in the south – in Dara'a and Quneitra, where the government took back control of territory lost to rebels, and subsequently transferred rebel groups and many civilians to other rebel-controlled areas. Iran was denied a share of the victory in the south because of a Russian agreement with Israel that Iranian forces would leave the south; a number of militias aligned to it, however, did fight with Syrian forces. Iran thus had been anticipating the Idlib campaign when it could fight alongside Syrian troops against the many opposition groups sent there from other parts of the country as a consequence of ceasefire deals. While Iran was looking forward to a battle in Idlib that would finally end all military opposition, Turkey was attempting to prevent a bloodbath and to protect groups allied to it. These opposing interests had already been demonstrated when Iran decried Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin in January 2018. Iran also opposed Turkey’s plea to avert a military campaign in Idlib when the three partners met in Tehran on 7 September 2018.
After a war of words with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, Erdogan bypassed Iran, and flew to the Russian island of Sochi to meet Putin, to craft a deal that would protect the northwestern province from a fate similar to that of Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo, where continued rebel fighting resulted in largescale massacres. On 17 September, Erdogan and Putin announced the Idlib deal, undermining Iranian and Syrian ambitions of a fullscale attack on the province. Since the 15 October deadline for demilitarisation of the 20km zone in Idlib, Iranian militias and the Syrian army have continued to shell rebel positions inside the zone, vowing to retake the province from rebel control, in violation of the Turkish-Russian deal.
The Sochi deal mirrors a strategy that Turkey has employed since the start of the war: deploying Turkish troops inside Syrian territory to occupy and clear out areas along its borders of rebels not aligned to it or aligned to the SDF. Starting with the 2016 Operation Euphrates Shield north of the Euphrates River, Turkey deployed forces along its border within Syria to attack and eliminate IS and the YPG. Although Turkey announced an end to the operation in March 2017, full disengagement did not occur, and it maintains a military presence in those areas. Following the Astana agreement in May 2017, Turkey and Iran continued to butt heads over Turkey’s request to be allowed to enter the Afrin province that was under YPG control. In January 2018, Russia allowed Turkey to use air power and, subsequently, to launch Operation Olive Branch against the YPG. Although Turkey claimed the operation was temporary, its troops and proxies continue to control the province. Turkey hopes for a similar outcome in Idlib, especially after seeing a similar result in Manbij, where it negotiated a roadmap with the USA to clear out the YPG by holding joint patrols with the United States.
The Syrian regime regards the agreement as a short-term plan, and is intent on retaking all Syrian territory. Although Russia has stalled Syrian forces for a while, it is unclear for how long it will continue doing so. With this in mind, Turkey is looking for additional support and recently called on France and Germany to assist. Convening a special summit on Idlib in Istanbul, Erdogan hosted Germany, France, and Russia on 27 October 2018 to effectively obtain commitment to the Sochi deal. Noticeable absentees at the meeting were the USA and Iran. For Erdogan, the summit was an attempt to garner European support over and above Russian support.
The Sochi agreement might have been announced as temporary, and viewed as such by Iran and the Syrian government. However, Turkey has no intention of leaving Idlib soon. It seeks to effect in Idlib the same strategy that it employed west of the Euphrates river, in Afrin and Manbij, where it deployed troops and militia groups acting as its proxies. Turkey’s policy of muscular engagement demonstrates its commitment to maintain its interests and security by permanently controlling areas along its border directly or through proxies. As violations of the deal continue from the Asad regime and its Iranian backers, Turkey seems to have managed to get (at least temporarily) what it wants in northern Syria, thanks to Russia. For Turkey, long-term control is a more durable solution against its enemies in Syria, even if it means disregarding Syrian sovereignty.
By Hassan Aourid
Until last Saturday, I was hopeful that the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul was not more than a case of censure that might result in his transfer home to face trial or might silence him. But revelations on Saturday night and Sunday indicated an abrupt and dramatic change that might amount to an assassination. This would turn his disappearance into a rerun of the disappearance and murder of left-wing Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965, coincidentally in the same month as the disappearnace of Khashoggi. Ben Barka’s assassination brought the Moroccan establishment to its knees, tainting its image. It also forced the opposition to radicalise, and threatened reconciliation efforts. Similarly, the Khashoggi case could transform into a burden too weighty for Saudi Arabia to bear.
Nothing is certain, but should Khashoggi’s assassination be confirmed, Saudi Arabia and the entire Middle East region will have taken a dangerous turn. Such a development will also have implications for Saudi Arabia’s future and its relations with Turkey, scuppering the idea of a ‘Sunni NATO’ and adversely affecting Saudi relations with the West – including the USA, particularly following President Trump’s recent pronouncements on bilateral relations. The West cannot remain silent and prioritise its interests over its values if Khashoggi is found to have been murdered.
I made Khashoggi’s acquaintance in May at a conference on security and political arrangements for the Middle East and North Africa convened by the Afro-Middle East Centre and Al Sharq Forum in Istanbul. The gathering gathered a galaxy of intellectuals and pundits from the Arab and Islamic world alongside international observers from the rest of the globe. Khashoggi was among the participants and was a keynote speaker at the closing session.
Speaking polished English in a calm tone, he provided a sensible assessment of the situation across the Arab world, from countries that embraced change and defended it inside and outside the Arab world to those that are openly inimical to change or ask to be left alone after facing adversity and seeing their nations torn apart. The kernel of his presentation was his defence of the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia and what he regarded as the risks that Iran’s nuclear programme and expansionist designs pose to the region.
It was no secret that Khashoggi was opposed to Saudi Arabia’s new policies, or, rather, new developments in his country led him to keep his distance from decision makers after having been an astute defender of his country, and it policies and institutions.
The new policies and new methods for conducting public affairs in Saudi Arabia have forced him into self-exile and a liberal opposition to the situation in his country. He was not loathe to air his views, whether on television channels, forums or meetings, or in the columns of The Washington Post, which were characterised by depth and audacity. I was a regular reader of his articles to understand what was happening in the Saudi kingdom.
Two months ago, I read one of his Washington Post articles where he referred to David Kirkpatrick’s book on the critical situation in the Arab world. I subsequently bought and reviewed the book.
Khashoggi wanted to prevent liberal and reformist movements from being left to the mercy of authoritarian regimes by encouraging them to align with with the dynamics of their societies. To put it differently, he wanted to have them recognise Islamic views regardless of differences since they were a reflection of a societal reality and an internal dynamic. Turning them into an enemy might hamper their evolution and drive them into withdrawal and, eventually, extremism. It was a principled position, which he articulated without neglecting the core principles underpinning modernist thought, including the emancipation of women, the introduction of legal standards for political action, balance among branches of government, and democratisation. This vision is bothersome for regimes that unilaterally decide the fate of adversaries and dissidents by pitting one movement against the other. It is also troublesome for regimes focused on dealing with the present to the detriment of the strategic, regimes that refuse to abide by standards, or account for their actions.
Particularly striking and central, to Khashoggi’s credit, was his defence of his country’s strategic interests, a reflection of his maturity and credibility. Some dissidents are driven by their impetuosity to confuse views, persons and regimes with the strategic interests of their countries, losing their credibility in the process. They might find themselves in an ephemeral media bubble and descend into oblivion as soon as it bursts. Khashoggi did not fall in this category, and he thus kept his credibility intact. He stands for something new that observers of Saudi Arabia’s affairs tend to overlook: liberal views which want to be immersed in global trends and universal experience. He was not the first to voice or embrace these tendencies, but he became one of its voices and mouthpieces. His mysterious disappearance signals a dramatic shift; the confirmation of his murder will worsen matters. Yet his forced disappearance will not kill his ideas. When an individual is silenced, the ideas he embraced or was made to embrace by the social dynamics in his country or region will not wither and die. On the contrary, they become more dangerous when they haunt people who were made victims, martyrs and ultimately icons. Khashoggi is now an idea that poses a greater danger to the current establishment in Saudi Arabia.
The tragic disappearance of a person whose sole weapon was his pen brings to mind an incident that changed the course of the Middle East when the henchmen of the Ottoman caliph, then the embodiment of Islamic unity, executed Arab nationalists in May 1916 in Damascus. When Emir Faisal bin Hussein, a leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans and later king of the Arab Kingdom of Syria, heard the news, he sprang to his feet in a fit of rage, removed his headdress, and shouted a line that has become famous and marked a break with a system that was hitherto seen as the custodian of Islam: “Death has never been so appealing, oh Arabs!” The rest of the story is history. The smallest spark can ignite the largest fire.