The Telegraph – What does Turkey’s involvement in air strikes mean for Kurds, Isil, Syria and Nato?


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f16The original version of this article can be found on The Telegraph

In the space of a few days after a terror attack in the Turkish town of Suruc which killed 32 people, Ankara launched air strikes against Kurdish guerilla group, the PKK, in northern Iraq as well as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) positions in Syria.

Prior to this, Turkey had finally agreed to America’s long request for access to its Incirlik air base in the country to launch jets and drones against Isil. Ankara’s change of heart on how it dealt with Isil and attacking PKK means that the crisis in Syria has changed significantly.

What that means next for the different groups involved or concern about the Syrian civil war is what the Telegraph and King’s College London academics explain.


What do Turkish air strikes mean for Isil?

Jill Russell, department of war studies:

QuoteWar would not have endured in human history if managing its politics were easy. Nowhere is this difficulty more relevant and trying than in the diplomacy among allies. Turkey’s move to a more integrated position within the air campaign against Isil is complex and contradictory, creating problems as well as benefits. This must be accepted given its contested position in these events, geographically, culturally, politically, and strategically.

Turkey’s active presence in the constellation of global and local forces arrayed against the renegade ‘Caliphate’ tightens the noose around their strategic neck. Despite dire predictions this time last year when Isil unleashed their campaign in Iraq last summer, their imminent victory across the Iraq and Syria was oversold. Instead, brick by brick the necessary political and strategic opposition them has been built, and the addition of Turkey has every potential to strengthen the effort.

Isil’s defeat is probable, but it will not lack for challenges. The management of the relationships within the coalition will not avoid disagreements and discord. At times the parties may even seem to work at cross purposes to each other as well as the common goal without necessarily weakening the group’s resolve. As Turkey signals its committed stand against Isil, the rewards from which loom above even the fraught politics, the group’s demise is brought into sharper focus.



Francesco F. Milan, teaching fellow, department of defence studies:

QuoteAn increase in the number, reach, and tempo of air strikes against Isil will undoubtedly benefit Syrian Kurds, which effectively represent the ‘boots on the ground’ component in the fight against the extremist group.

Through their guerrilla units (known by the acronym YPG) and their parent political party (PYD), Syrian Kurds have managed to establish themselves as one of the principal actors in Syria’s civil war, and even more so in the conflict with Isil.

While the United States have developed a working relation with both the YPG and the PYD, Turkey has not. Wary of the possibility of a politically autonomous Kurdish presence along its border, Ankara’s government has been adamant in pointing out how the two formations should be considered PKK offshoots, and, as such, treated as threats to Turkey’s own national security. In fact, as soon as Turkish air strikes started, YPG units have claimed to have been targeted along with Isil militias; the Turkish government, however, has claimed that YPG units currently remain ‘outside the scope of the current military effort’.

Perhaps more importantly, Turkey’s air strikes already had fundamental domestic repercussions. As previously mentioned, the combination of attacks against Turkish security forces carried out by the PKK and the consequent air strikes that hit the organisation’s safe haven on the Qandil mountains have effectively compromised any remaining hope for a rapprochement between the current government and the Kurdish minority.

After years of negotiations with the PKK, the two sides had eventually agreed on a ceasefire in 2013. Despite the lack of progress in the negotiations, the ceasefire held until last week. Now that clashes have restarted, the Kurdish question is likely to be raised once more in terms of security, overshadowing the electoral success that the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the first pro-Kurdish party to overcome the national 10 per cent electoral threshold, obtained in the general elections held last month.



Richard Spencer, Middle East Editor:

QuoteTurkey’s air strikes against Isil and the Kurds raise the possibility of Ankara’s direct involvement in the Syrian war for the first time.Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made overthrowing the regime of president Bashar al-Assad a priority, but has refused to intervene in the war directly without American backing, which has not been forthcoming. Instead, Turkey has backed a number of rebel groups, allowing them to be supplies through Turkish territory.

However, by guaranteeing a “safe zone” to be overseen by its favoured rebel groups, Turkey has put its reputation on the line. If this zone is successfully formed thanks to air attacks by its own fighter jets and those of the United States, it will have to be protected – including, if necessary, from the Assad regime’s jets and barrel bombs.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, acknowledged this in an interview with Hurriyet newspaper, saying: “An important point was the air cover for the Free Syrian Army [FSA] and other moderate elements fighting against Isil. “If we are not going to send land units to the ground, and we will not, then those forces acting as ground forces cooperating with us should be protected.”

Turkey’s main concern is to prevent a unitary Syrian autonomous enclave emerging stretching from Afrin in the west to the Iraqi border in the east, cutting it off from the Syrian interior.

That concern will only have been exacerbated by Mr Assad’s tacit admission in a speech on Sunday that Syria was effectively divided into enclaves. As Mr Assad defends his core area while giving up on the north, Turkey will have to intervene to ensure its interests are met – otherwise other players, including the Kurds and Isil, will be allowed a free hand.



Francesco F. Milan:

Quote Turkey’s decision to grant use of the Incirlik airbase for United States-led air strikes against Isil militias means air operations into Syria and Iraq will now benefit from Incirlik’s proximity to Syria, as it sits less than 124 miles away from the Turkish-Syrian border. Besides allowing for more agile and far-reaching air operations in Syria and Iraq, the decision also ends a diplomatic tug-of-war that lasted for over a year: since the beginning of the US-led campaign, in June 2014, Turkey made access to the airbase conditional upon Nato’s commitment to the establishment of a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, in order to hinder military efforts carried out by Mr Assad’s regime.

The recent agreement does not seem to include a plan for the creation of a full-fledged no-fly zone, but there has been mention of a possible plan for the creation of a safe haven within Syria, to be located along parts of the Turkish-Syrian border currently controlled by Isil militias. Still, it seems this idea might be a ‘work in progress’ at best, as Mr Davutoglu recently confirmed Turkey is not planning to commit ground troops for deployment in Syria, and other Nato members do not seem willing to get involved.

More importantly, it seems the Turkish government might have more to its strategy than currently meets the eye. Turkish air strikes against Isil have immediately been followed by a series of retaliatory operations against PKK militias located on the Qandil mountains of Northern Iraq, after a car bomb killed two Turkish soldiers on Sunday. The events effectively ended a two year-long ceasefire between the two sides; as violence further escalated, Turkey called for a Nato meeting on the basis of the Treaty’s Article 4, which can be invoked when a member state believes its territorial integrity or security might be threatened.

The Telegraph – What does Erdogan’s setback at the elections mean for Turkey’s role on the global stage?


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TurThe original version of this article can be found on The Telegraph

The results of Turkey’s elections are nothing short of striking. For the first time in more than 12 years, the Turkish president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a major electoral setback.

It is no longer able to single-handedly rule the country since its first success in the 2002 elections, only a year after it was founded by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, former president Abdullah Gül and others.

Since 2002, the share of votes cast for the AKP has grown from 34.2 per cent in that year to 49.8 per cent in 2011. In Sunday’s elections the party failed to go beyond 40 per cent of votes, falling some twenty seats short of being able to form its own working parliamentary majority.

Perhaps even more striking is the success of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its leader Selahattin Demirtaş, which obtained 13 percent of votes. The party’s progressive electoral agenda managed to bring together Turkey’s Kurdish minority and a large nationwide share of those voters who oppose AKP’s increasingly authoritarian political approach.

Successfully passing Turkey’s electoral threshold of 10 per cent means that for the first time, a pro-Kurdish party has won political representation in the National Assembly.

On the opposite ideological extreme, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also increased its share of votes, and with 16 per cent of preferences the party might be a fundamental actor in this post-electoral phase.

It remains to be seen whether AKP will take the lead as a minority government, attempt to form an equally fragile coalition government, or it will leave the incumbency to the other parties. There is a chance the Republican People’s Party (CHP) as well as HDP and MHP will try to cooperate and find an almost impossible compromise under the watchful eye of President Erdogan.

While an AKP-MHP alliance seems to be one of the more likely options on the table, this will be uncharted territory for AKP.

The Kurdish issue and Syria

One of the main outcomes of Sunday’s elections is that HDP’s clout in the Turkish parliament will move Turkey’s Kurdish issue higher up in the country’s political agenda. This, in turn, might give a new impulse to the negotiations between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who is currently committed to a ceasefire after a three decade-long conflict in south-east Turkey.

An all-round stronger parliamentary opposition might bring about a more incisive debate over Turkey’s role in Syria. A report by Cumhuriyet newspaper appeared to confirm long-standing allegations about the government’s direct involvement in arming Syrian rebels via the MIT, Turkey’s intelligence agency. This triggered President Erdoğan’s reaction, who accused the journalists behind the report of working to tarnish Turkey’s international reputation and filed a criminal complaint against the newspaper’s editor-in-chief.

On the other hand, a potential coalition government that includes the ultra-nationalist party would definitely compromise the dialogue with the PKK, and might not lead to a less active role in Syria: while the MHP aspires to nurture relations with Turkic peoples across the globe, it is particularly concerned with the status of Syria’s Turkmen minority, and might push for increased support and assistance for Turkmen fighters in the Syrian conflict.

Perhaps paradoxically, Turkey’s already limited willingness to be involved in actively contrasting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) might be even further reduced. Despite MHP’s own firm stance against ISIL, support for Kurdish Syrian fighters woul be out of question, as the party sees them as an extension of the PKK, and claims their ultimate goal is the formation of a Kurdish state that would include the Southeast of Turkey.

Initiatives such as the one that took place last October, when the AKP government eventually agreed to allow Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga to transit through Turkey in order to reinforce Kurdish defences in Kobani, which was under ISIL’s siege, would not receive MHP’s green light.

Turkey and the EU

The EU described Sunday’s elections as a “clear sign of strength of Turkish democracy”, and as an opportunity to “further strengthening the EU-Turkey relationship and to advance in broadening EU-Turkey cooperation”.

Yet, over the past decade, Turkey’s bid to become a member of the EU has made minimal progress towards meeting the requirements for accession, due to a number of long-standing political divergences – the main one being the dispute over Cyprus, and Turkey’s refusal to formally recognise the country, which is itself a member of the EU.

Should the new government include the MHP, there would be no margins for progress.

Over the years, AKP has pushed Turkey further away from hopes of accession, and towards becoming a more Erdogan-centric and compromise-averse system.

If there is a coalition with the AKP, the smaller party will dictate the extent to which the party will follow a more moderate political approach. Whatever the outcome, the EU will closely monitor how HDP’s human rights-centred political agenda will be received in this new phase of Turkish politics.

Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoints (The Aspen Institute) – Turkey’s Domestic Tug of War: Fragmented Politics and the Security Sector


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mitpatchThe original version of this analysis can be found on Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoint

Recent events have revealed the extent to which the alliance between Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Gülen movement (a vast, faith-based community that supported Erdoğan’s AKP party since it was founded) has become strained. Over the last decade, the AKP and the movement mutually benefited from the alliance: Gülen followers offered a formidable and loyal constituency for the ruling party, while the AKP’s consent proved fundamental in allowing members of the community to gain prominence within key national institutions (primarily in the judiciary and in the National Police). However, the anti-corruption operations that have shaken the Turkish government since mid-December seem to have marked the end of the AKP-Gülen ticket, and point towards the beginning of an all-out political war between the two.

Only days after prosecutors approved the operation that led to the arrest of several prominent figures, including the sons of three (now former) AKP ministers, Erdoğan gave dispositions to dismiss a number of officers involved in the investigation (including Huseyin Capkin, Police Chief of the Istanbul Province) claiming the corruption case was nothing more than a political plot against the AKP. The following weeks have brought a salvo of reassignments, sackings and suspensions within the National Police, along with a strongly contested parliamentary bill that aims at bringing the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK – until today an independent disciplinary authority overseeing Turkey’s judiciary sector) under direct ministerial control.

Long forgotten seem to be the days of the Gezi Park protests that started in May 2013, during which Erdoğan hardly missed a chance to laud the professionalism and the integrity of Turkey’s police forces. Back then, just a few months ago, the police was indeed pivotal in projecting Erdoğan’s power and relentless political will into the streets of Turkey, where millions protested against his increasingly authoritarian style. But now the political dynamics have clearly shifted, as pro-AKP media retaliate by accusing the National Police of having robbed the government of several hundred millions of Turkish liras earmarked for its pension fund, and  AKP representatives label policemen following the corruption case as “criminals”. The politically-driven re-shuffle within police ranks apparently paid off, as the new police chief of Istanbul Province has allegedly decided not to follow up on a prosecutor’s order for a new wave of arrests, calling off the police operation that was under preparation.

If the National Police is thus viewed by the AKP as a potential adversary for its lack of political support, Erdoğan knows he can still count on the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Turkey’s intelligence services. Over the last few years, MIT has seen its mandate significantly expanded, and its main representative, Hakan Fidan, has worked in very close cooperation with Erdoğan ever since his promotion to chief of the agency in 2010. MIT’s first groundbreaking operation was uncovered by the press in 2011, when a leaked recording revealed that intelligence top officers had held a series of meetings with senior leaders of the terrorist group Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) to discuss an agreement that could have ended thirty years of violence. At the time, the move was so unexpected that even the Turkish military claimed the operation caught them off guard. In fact, the revelation triggered an attempted prosecution of Mr. Fidan and other MIT members who were at the meetings, on the basis that any form of dialogue with a terrorist organization had to be considered a crime in itself. Prosecutors allegedly cooperated with members of the police intelligence, raising doubts over whether the case was nothing more than a turf war between police intelligence. Upon MIT members’ refusal to testify, prosecutors issued an arrest warrant, further fueling the suspicion that the case was running on political, rather than judicial, motivations. At that point, PM Erdoğan took the matter into his own hands and put together an ad-hoc law that instituted a special authorization, to be seeked by prosecutors who wanted to trial MIT officers, that the Prime Minister could grant upon discretion.

If Erdoğan’s intervention momentarily solved the problem, frictions between police and MIT remained. A blame-game between police intelligence and MIT got the attention of the Turkish media in the aftermath of the Reyhanli bombing, when, in May 2013, two car bombs killed more than 50 people in the Hatay province, on the Turkish-Syrian border. In that instance, both the local police chief and the local MIT chief were dismissed. More recently, a new police-MIT clash erupted in the midst of AKP’s corruption scandal, with an episode raising the suspipcion that elements of the intelligence services have been carrying weapons to Syria. AKP ministers offered vague and contradictory statements on the issue, but whether the government is using MIT to send weapons to Syrian rebels remains to be confirmed: this, in any case, seems to be the smoking gun that pro-Gülen media are looking for in order to further discredit Erdoğan’s government. In the meantime, they focused on a leaked recording, that appeared on the web in mid-January 2014, in which MIT operatives allegedly instructed Omer Guney, currently under arrest for the assassination of three PKK members in Paris in January 2013, on how to carry out the murder and evade undetected.

Not even the Turkish military, once the sole guardians of Turkey’s national security, has remained immune from the tug-of-war between Erdoğan and Gülen. Hundreds of military officers, found guilty of coup-plotting, have been imprisoned over the last five years. After a strongly contested trial which the AKP and Gülenists staunchly defended, therefore, what remains of the military’s top brass is the more moderate and politically docile fraction. But now that the fight between Erdoğan and the Gülen movement has become an all-out war, AKP representatives seem to have surrendered to the temptation of setting the military against the Gülenists, by hinting at the possibility that there might be a retrial for those generals who are behind bars. After all, one of Erdoğan’s top advisers has claimed, everybody knows that the trial was a set up. In fact, the gravity of Turkey’s current political crisis seems to be epitomized by the fact that the idea of a retrial has been endorsed by Erdoğan himself. The increased politicization of the security sector might bring short-term advantages to the AKP; long-term consequences, however, will be detrimental for Turkey as a whole.


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