Changing US-Mideast Relations — Turkey’s Hot and Cold Running Erdoğan

By Jay Holmes

During the past twelve years, US-Turkey relations have been in a state of flux. Statements from Ankara and Washington D.C. to the Western media have been almost habitually optimistic, but the reality beneath the rhetoric has proven problematic for both nations. For the West, the rise to power of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan and his pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party has introduced complications in the previously stable US-Turkey relationship.

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Image by Govt. of Chile, wikimedia commons.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Image by Govt. of Chile, wikimedia commons.

 

As compared to earlier Turkish leaders, such as Abdullah Gül, the outspoken Erdoğan has demonstrated less finesse when dealing with Western leaders. In his three terms as Prime Minister and now as the President of Turkey, Erdoğan has represented himself as an agent for change. Precisely what sort of change Erdoğan represents is not so easy to identify.

Erdoğan is a case study in contradictions.

Turkey has been moving toward economic integration with the European Community for over a decade, and Erdoğan openly supports this. He’s counting on European markets to provide the cash that will satisfy the “development” aspect of his Justice and Development Party platform. Yet, in spite of his desperate need to bring Turkey into the European Community, he simultaneously sees himself as leading Turkey into a leadership position among Islamic nations.

These two positions are not realistically or mutually sustainable. The values, standards, and laws that are central to European Community membership are not compatible with the values, standards, and laws of most Islamic nations.

One of Erdoğan’s dilemmas is his relationship with Iran.

Iran, unlike Turkey, is a Shia nation with a radical Shia theocracy. Therefore, it might seem a simple choice for Erdoğan to openly oppose Iran and Iranian ambitions in Syria and Iraq. However, Iran is Turkey’s second largest export customer. Iran also provides Turkey with about 35% of its oil supplies. Instead of being at odds, these two countries have fostered closer relations in recent years.

The rise of a democratic reform movement in Syria followed by the birth of the ISIS cancer presents Turkey with obvious security risks. It also presents Turkey with a golden opportunity to assume a leadership role in the fight against ISIS at a time when Turkey so desperately wants membership in the European Community.

In light of this golden opportunity, one might envision coalition air attacks being conducted from Turkish air bases, which are ideally located near the Syrian border. One might even expect the Turkish Air Force to take part in those raids. However, one would be quite mistaken. While Erdoğan has loudly demanded and received prompt NATO protection in the past, he refused to allow US and European air forces to conduct raids against ISIS from Turkish bases. For apparent diplomatic reasons, the US and its allies have downplayed their frustration with Turkey over this and several other issues concerning ISIS.

Another contradiction in Turkish policies is Erdoğan’s changing relationship with the Kurds. While most Kurds see themselves as being one people in need of an independent homeland, Turkey views them as three distinct groups.

The first group is the Kurds within Turkey. In order to enter the European Union, Turkey has been under pressure from Europe to improve its stance on human rights. Erdoğan and many Turks see the Kurds within Turkey as enemies of Turkish culture and a challenge to Turkish nationalism. In order to gain entry to the European Community, Turkey has changed some of the laws that discriminated against Kurdish Turks, but Turkey’s relationship with other Kurds remains more complex.

The second group of Kurds resides to the east of Turkey in Iraq. From Erdoğan’s point of view, they are “our dear Kurdish friends to the east.” The central feature of those particular Kurds that makes them dear to Erdoğan is the oil reserves in their region. Perhaps I oversimplify. It’s not just the oil. There’s gas, as well.

 

Kurdish refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey, Nov. 19, 2014 Image by Voice of America, public domain.

Kurdish refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey, Nov. 19, 2014
Image by Voice of America, public domain.

 

The third group of Kurds is in Syria. Many of these Kurds previously resided in Turkey, but they escaped to Syria to avoid oppression by the Turkish government. While practicing to pretend to love Kurds in Iraq, Erdoğan is hosting 200,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees in Turkey. These Kurds have no oil and no gas to sell to Turkey, and so to Erdoğan, they are only a problem.

Removing ISIS from Syria would be a simple solution to the refugee problem. However, when ISIS attacked Kobani, Syria, on the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey refused to allow the US and other coalition members to supply the Kurdish resistance fighters in Kobani through Turkey. In Erdoğan’s mind, Kurdish control of part of Syria represents a threat to Turkey. Erdoğan fears that the Kurds will one day do to Turkey what Turkey has done to the Kurds.

The US grew tired of negotiating with Erdoğan and resorted to airdropping supplies to the Kurdish fighters. In spite of Erdoğan’s opposition to US assistance to the Kurds, the Kurdish resistance fighters were able to drive ISIS from Kobani.

 

Kurdish YPG fighting in Kobane, Feb. 4, 2015. Image by Voice of America, wikimedia commons.

Kurdish YPG fighting in Kobani, Feb. 4, 2015.
Image by Voice of America, wikimedia commons.

 

One particularly nasty rumor that surfaced during the battle of Kobani is that members of the Turkish army supplied ISIS with ammunition during the battle. Another serious allegation against Turkey is that it may have been supporting ISIS affiliated rebels in Libya.

Turkey denies those allegations, but they cannot deny that a Turkish-born ISIS commander, Emrah Çaçan , is being treated in a Turkish hospital after being wounded in Kobani. At the same time, Turkey is prosecuting a Kurdish-Turkish medical student named Esra Yakar for providing volunteer medical treatment in Kobani.

Esra left school to volunteer as a physician in Kobani. She was badly wounded there, and with the promise of better treatment, she was taken to a hospital in Turkey. Her Turkish doctor requested that she receive advanced care by eye specialists, but he was ignored. She then lost the use of her right eye. After she was finally transferred to a hospital in Ankara, Esra Yakar was ordered out of her hospital bed by police, arrested, and thrown in jail. Though she was released a few days later, she is still awaiting a trail date on April 30. Apparently, Erdoğan and his government consider anyone that gives medical treatment to Kurdish fighters to be criminals, yet they are happy to give medical care to a well-known terrorist.

To be clear, not everyone in Turkey supports Erdoğan’s pro-ISIS behavior.

The medical community in Turkey is outraged by what was done to Esra Yakar and has lodged complaints and petitions on her behalf. Unfortunately, the opposition in Turkey counts for less each day since Erdoğan’s government has stifled the press and used the police and intelligence services to crush any opposition to his rule.

So why is Erdoğan so willing to defy his Western “allies”? Why would the European Community seriously consider Turkey’s application when Turkey has so clearly rejected all of the European Community’s shared values?

In large measure, the answer is oil and gas.

Turkey is serving as a major conduit for oil from Russia, Central Asia, and Iraq. Turkey must import most of the oil and gas that it consumes, and if the Justice and Development Party is to deliver on its “development” promises, it needs even more oil and gas to do so.

 

Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline -- only one of many through Turkey. Image by Amirki, wikimedia commons.

Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline–only one of many through Turkey.
Image by Amirki, wikimedia commons.

 

Although Turkey has none of its own gas and oil to sell to Europe, it collects lucrative fees on each barrel of oil or cubic yard of gas that flows through its pipelines or transfers through Turkish ports. At a time when Russia’s trans-Ukraine oil and gas pipelines are under threat because of its invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Europe will likely remain quiet about whatever Erdoğan does as long as he keeps allowing that oil and gas to keep flowing across Turkey.

And what will the US do?

For the moment, the US administration has decided to keep pretending that Erdoğan is an ally to the US and NATO. Elections in Turkey are scheduled to take place in June. Whether or not the throttled opposition can manage a victory remains to be seen.

The US will not be interested in harming European allies by slowing the transit of oil and gas across Turkey to European markets. My guess is that, if Erdoğan and his party remain in power, the US will begin to disregard Turkish interests while continuing to pretend that Turkey is an ally.

If the Justice and Development Party loses the next elections in Turkey, Turkey will likely end up with a more secular-leaning government, and it will abandon its fantasies of friendship with Iran and ISIS.

Until that happens, we cannot expect any real improvement in US-Turkey relations.

 

 

ISIS–Who Are the Players, and Where Do They Stand?

By Jay Holmes

This week, ISIS remains a major news item. For the sake of continuity, we will continue referring to them as ISIS, but be aware that, in recent weeks, they have acquired more aliases than the average Brooklyn mob goon.

 

ISIS logo public domain, wikimedia commons

ISIS logo
public domain, wikimedia commons

 

Since their defeat at the hands of the lightly armed but well organized Kurds of northern Iraq, ISIS has focused on training, recruiting, and re-establishing their local dominance in Syria. Even if ISIS were forced to retreat from all of Iraq, that would be of secondary importance to them as compared to maintaining their strongholds in Syria.

Where does Iraq stand?

The success of the Iraqi Kurds, with assistance from U.S. air support, was no surprise to anyone who knows or has studied the Kurds. It remains to be seen how well the Iraqi National Army will capitalize on the U.S. and allied airstrikes to recapture ISIS-held areas in their country. With Maliki no longer in charge in Iraq, and with so many Shia Iraqis rediscovering their long forgotten love of U.S. firepower, the ISIS offensive in Iraq is stalled for the moment.

If the new Iraqi government can deliver a closer approximation of “functioning government” than Maliki did, then Iraq should be able to eventually push ISIS forces out of their country. However, no amount of U.S. or anti-ISIS coalition airstrikes will push ISIS out of Iraq completely unless Iraqis take some responsibility for saving themselves by fielding a credible army and establishing and maintaining a functioning administration.

 

F/A-18E Super Hornet on Deck of U.S.S. George H.W. Bush image by U.S. Navy, public domain

F/A-18E Super Hornet on Deck of U.S.S. George H.W. Bush
image by U.S. Navy, public domain

 

More recently, the U.A.E., Jordon, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar joined in coordinated airstrikes against ISIS bases and assets in their Syrian strongholds. Aircraft from Belgium and Denmark also joined in strikes in Iraq. Simultaneously, the U.S. stepped up aid to non-ISIS anti-Assad rebels in Syria. The trick is—and long has been—to assist the legitimate indigenous freedom fighters of Syria without accidentally funding and equipping ISIS or any “Ali come lately” ISIS wannabes.

What does ISIS mean to the Gulf States?

Fortunately, the Gulf States are now exercising more discretion in how they fund and arm anti-Assad groups in Syria. For most Gulf Sates, enemies of the Shia Iranians are their natural friends. In the case of ISIS, the supposed “friends” have become an even greater danger to their former benefactors in the Gulf than the danger presented by the Shia theocracy in Iran.

Even if all outside financing of ISIS were halted, and it pretty well has been, ISIS would not be bankrupt. For the last few months, they have skillfully built a strong economy based on violent tax collection, bank robbery, and oil sales. Note that the recent coalition airstrikes against ISIS included oil refineries as priority targets. Destroying ISIS oil export operations has the added advantage of making the Gulf States happy to participate in the air campaign. Anything that drives up oil prices is good news for the Gulf States.

 

Map of coalition airstrikes on Syrian oil refineries September 24, 2014 image by Department of Defense, public domain

Map of coalition airstrikes on Syrian oil refineries
September 24, 2014
image by Department of Defense, public domain

 

How do the airstrikes benefit the coalition members?

While ISIS bases are being destroyed, ISIS is less able to plan and conduct effective terrorist strikes against its enemies. In the ISIS reality, its enemies, real or imagined, can be roughly defined as the non-ISIS segment of the human population. If nothing else, we can appreciate that ISIS is consistent and predictable. If it lives, and it is not ISIS, they want it dead.

Where is France in all of this?

During the last week, France made a moderate effort at conducting independent airstrikes against ISIS. It is not in the nature of French politicians to place their troops, ships, or planes under foreign control, so French efforts might remain independent and somewhat uncoordinated with US-led airstrikes. It’s possible that the French Air Force and Navy are quietly receiving refueling support, reconnaissance, and intelligence from U.S. forces. If that is so, it’s best that it happen quietly so that French voters can view French airstrikes as being a strictly French affair. Call it “Operation Les Belles Artes” if you like. As long as the bombs drop on suitable ISIS targets, it doesn’t much matter who dropped them or which national anthem they were humming at the time.

What are our allies in the U.K. doing?

Having settled the critical question of Scottish secession, the U.K. government turned some attention back toward ISIS. David Cameron called for the U.K. to join in airstrikes against the group, and it has done so to a minimal degree.

How is Syria’s largest neighbor, Turkey, reacting to the “ISIS crisis”?

The Turkish position is somewhat complex. Turkish President Recep Erdogan can see both potential opportunities and potential disasters in the ISIS crisis, and Erdogan is highly skilled at envisioning potential disasters.

The potential benefit of ISIS to Turkey comes from the fact that ISIS hates Iran. The group has destabilized the already-pretty-unstable pro-Iranian Iraqi government.

 

Map of U.S. airstrike areas in Iraq image by JhonsJoe, CC3.0

Map of airstrike areas in Iraq
image by JhonsJoe, CC3.0

 

One of the potential disasters is already manifesting itself in the form of hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Turkey. Some of those refugees are Syrian Kurds, and Erdogan’s secret target number of Kurds in Turkey is zero. Rather than having more Kurds moving into Turkey, Erdogan would prefer to get rid of the independence-minded Kurds that are already there. And yet, these refugees are close cousins of the Iraqi Kurds that are willing to export oil to and through Turkey.

ISIS captured over forty Turkish diplomats during its summer blitzkrieg in Iraq. On most days in the ISIS universe, Turks are “filthy western lapdogs.” Yet, rather than staging the usual “ISIS entertainment hour” publicly broadcasted beheadings of their Turkish prisoners, ISIS released them. Why? Western observers are asking what deal Erdogan might have made with the devil to secure the safe return of his diplomats. My suspicion is that any deal was likely brokered through Erdogan’s friends in Qatar and might have involved oil. However, in truth, Turkey needs ISIS to be defeated nearly as urgently as Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria do.

The view from my kitchen window here in the U.S. is different from the view from Turkey. I cannot see ISIS from my house. Erdogan, on the other hand, sees ISIS standing right past his border crossings with Syria. He needs the Sunni fundamentalists vanquished far more than we do, but when we decide that ISIS has been suppressed enough for our liking, we will stop bombing them, and they will still be across the border from Turkey.

Given the basic ISIS tenet that everyone outside of their direct control is their mortal enemy, it’s likely that any deals that Erdogan might have made with the devil will be null and void once the bombs stop falling on ISIS heads. As he so often does, Erdogan missed the easy play. ISIS will never be a friend to Turkey. In the long run, Erdogan further damaged Turkey’s relationship with its supposed NATO allies without obtaining any long-term benefit for his country.

 

U.S. Marines constructing Kurdish refugee camp image by Department of Defense, public domain

U.S. Marines constructing Kurdish refugee camp
image by Department of Defense, public domain

 

What is the Syrian point of view?

The Assad regime is grateful for the tactical windfall being delivered by its distant enemies against the closer and more immediately threatening ISIS forces in Syria and Lebanon. However, Assad and his gang cannot express any happiness with the U.S. or its allies. From the Syrian point of view, while ISIS is a threat to the Assad regime, once ISIS is substantially defeated, the Assad gang would be the next obvious target.

So what can we see in the crystal ball?

My best guess is that Gulf States will remain willing to cooperate just long enough to save themselves from ISIS. As the casualties mount for ISIS, the ISIS leaders will try to understand why their We Will Kill You All publicity campaign has failed them. If their current gangster-in-chief and/or enough of his closest pals are killed, ISIS might transform itself into a more publicity-friendly criminal enterprise and survive under some new name with a slightly less visible agenda of hate and destruction. When the dust from the bombs settles, the region will still be a hellish mess, but we in the West might succeed in avoiding or blunting major terrorist strikes by ISIS. If we can do so without investing more ground forces in the region, then we can declare a victory before moving on to the next “catastrophe du jour.”