Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoints – Turkey and NATO: What Lies Ahead?


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

In recent years, Turkish military forces have contributed to a number of NATO-led missions and operations. In 2009, the Turkish Navy deployed one of its frigates as a part of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2, within Operation Allied Protector, an anti-piracy operation carried out around the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa. Another frigate is currently operating within Operation Ocean Shield, NATO’s principal ongoing anti-piracy effort.

Turkey’s main contribution to NATO’s recent security commitments, however, came from its participation in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO’s mission in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014, as well as from its current contribution to Resolute Support, the Alliance’s current engagement in the country. During the ISAF years, Turkey took command of the mission twice (between 2002 and 2003, as well as in 2005), established two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the Wardak and Jowzjan provinces, and had a prominent role in the training of the Afghan National Police.

Still, Ankara’s approach towards Afghanistan’s security diverged significantly from that of other ISAF partners. Turkey was in fact the only NATO member whose PRTs were civilian-led: the staff of TIKA, the Turkish agency for international cooperation, carried out all PRT-related activities, except for guaranteeing their own security – a task that fell to Turkish troop remits. However, due to Ankara’s unwillingness to take on a combat role, Turkey refused to participate in kinetic security operations for the whole duration of ISAF: within Turkish provinces, these had to be carried out by units provided by other NATO countries.

While the experience in Afghanistan highlighted a degree of political and strategic divergence between Turkey and other NATO members, concurrent and subsequent geopolitical crises have effectively exacerbated this trend. That there might be, at times, diverging political visions among NATO member states is beyond obvious. However, the reason that makes Turkey stand out is how deeply at odds it is with the rest of the Alliance in regards to recent crises, especially those in Syria and Libya.

As far as the transition in the post-Gheddafi era is concerned, Turkey’s position has been elusive at best. Ankara did not support the intervention in Libya in 2011, and as the ongoing civil war progressed over the past few years, Turkey has been repeatedly accused of supporting Libya Dawn, the constellation of militia groups and political movements that support the Tripoli government and the New General National Congress, which is currently led by the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Tripoli government is the main political rival of the so-called Tobruk government, which enjoys international recognition as Lybia’s legitimate government.

In February 2015, Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni directly accused Turkey of providing weapons to Libya Dawn, and in May tensions further escalated after a Turkish ship was attacked by Libyan military forces while it was in international waters off the coast of Tobruk. While Turkey has always denied its involvement in supporting the Tripoli government,  Greek authorities seized a Libya-bound Turkish ship in September carrying a shipment of weapons, raising further suspicion about Turkey’s activities (and its divergence from those of other NATO members) in Libya.

The frailty of the alignment between Turkey and NATO is even more visible in the context of Syria. During the early stages of the conflict, cooperation mechanisms within NATO worked fairly well. This was especially evident when Ankara called a treaty-based Article 4 NATO consultation after Syrian air defence downed a Turkish reconnaissance jet in July 2012, obtaining the deployment of six NATO batteries of Patriot surface-to-air missiles along the Turkish-Syrian border.

The emergence of ISIS, however, has raised doubts over Turkey’s willingness to move away from being a security “consumer” towards becoming a “provider” of security together with its NATO allies. Since the outset of US operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in June 2014, and until July 2015, US jet fighters were denied access to Turkey’s Incirlik air base, which is strategically located near the Syrian border and therefore is an ideal infrastructure to launch air strikes in Syria. It was only after ISIS staged a major terrorist attack in Suruc in July 2015 that the government decided to open the air base to US forces.

In fact, this occurred after another Article 4 NATO consultation, convened by Turkey in the aftermath of the ISIS attack in order to brief its allies on the measures the country was taking against terrorism – an attempt to gain support for Ankara’s own revamped military initiative against the PKK and to establish a no-fly zone over Northern Syria, a longtime ambition of Turkey. Despite NATO’s strong condemnation of the terrorist attacks, Turkey’s initiative failed to fully convince its allies, who did not make any further commitment. If, on the one hand, Turkey has refused to take any major responsibility in carrying out air strikes against ISIS, on the other it has started an intense air campaign against PKK hideouts located in Turkey and Iraq, against the backdrop of domestic and international criticism for its faltering commitment in tackling the emergence of ISIS.

It is self-evident that Turkey’s national priorities are progressively diverging from those of other NATO members. While the country’s geographical location has always been a key element in determining Turkey’s exceptionalism within NATO, it seems that the need to establish an autonomous geopolitical footprint is the main driver behind Ankara’s consistent unwillingness to toe the line when it comes to coordinating with and communicating within the Alliance.

A member of NATO since 1952, today Turkey proudly showcases the Alliance’s second largest military, with a force of almost 700,000. The country’s approach to regional security, however, has raised doubts over the extent to which NATO’s and Turkey’s long-term priorities might be ultimately aligned, and relations between the two sides are likely to become increasingly strained. The result of the latest election only strengthens these concerns.

Defence in Depth – Securitising Turkey’s November Elections


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DiDThe original version of this article can be found on Defence in Depth

On Sunday November 1st, Turkey will hold the second general election this year. This comes after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to find an agreement with opposing parties to form a coalition government, having previously fallen short of obtaining enough votes to secure its own parliamentary majority in the June 2015 elections.

The AKP has been ruling the country since 2002, progressively expanding and consolidating both its electoral pool and the political power of its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Over the past decade, the party managed to increase its votes from 34%, obtained while running for its first general election in 2002, to a solid 49.8% in the 2011 elections. The June 2015 elections however, interrupted this trend.

Erdogan’s rule has become more controversial and uncompromising towards both opposition parties and Turkey’s civil society (with the Gezi Park protests being one of the main events for grass-roots opposition). But make no mistake – it has been the discontent registered among AKP’s own supporters that has dragged the party down to about 41% of votes last June. AKP’s main electoral ambition is now to increase its number of parliamentary seats to re-gain a majority of its own.

As the turnout remained virtually constant over the years, a share of AKP voters appears to have moved towards either the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) or the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The two parties, which hold irreconcilable political views, both fared well in June’s elections. The former, which flatly refutes any attempt at expanding the recognition of the Kurdish minority in Turkey, increased its votes by 3%. The latter on the other hand, truly imposed itself as the elections’ moral winner. For the first time in Turkey’s history, a pro-Kurdish party has managed to obtain enough votes to overcome the steep 10% electoral threshold, claiming 13% of the votes.

Through its success, the HDP succesfully demonstrated there is a new kid on the block in Turkish politics, and that the Kurdish minority, together with parts of the country’s socialist and liberal electorate, supports the HDP’s willingness to address the lack of rights and recognition of the country’s Kurdish minority through political dialogue. The party’s approach stands against the backdrop of a longstanding war between the PKK (a Kurdish organization labeled as a terrorist group by Turkey, the EU, and the US) and the Turkish state: since its inception in the early 1980s, and throughout different phases and various degrees of intensity, the conflict has claimed more than 40,000 lives. The conflict has deeply polarised Turkey’s society, and the MHP represents the spearhead of the hardliners’ front, pushing for a purely military solution that disregards any political claim by the Kurdish minority.

Over the past few years, the AKP’s own position with regards to the Kurdish issue has been ambivalent at best, with attempted openings and negotiations with the PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. While projecting a sense of purpose, the initiatives never led to any long-lasting resolution, highlighting Erdogan’s lack of willingness to truly commit to the dialogue between the two sides.

This was best portrayed by events which occurred during the Fall of 2014: on the one hand, Turkey and the PKK were respecting the ceasefire that had been in force until that point, whilst on the other hand the Turkish government ostensibly dragged its feet when it was called to allow Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to transit through Turkey, in order to support Syrian Kurdish forces that were pinned down by ISIS in Kobane.

While the AKP government’s inaction contributed to alienate the party’s Kurdish electorate, the fact that it eventually gave in to mounting domestic and international criticism, and provided logistical support to the Peshmerga also alienated its nationalist fringes, who felt that the government had become too tolerant when it came to the Kurds. There were obviously other factors at play, but the AKP’s conduct during these events played a fundamental role in eroding parts of its electoral base.

Today, faced with the impossibility of forming a single-party government, and pressured by the emergence of a strong and proactive pro-Kurdish party, Erdogan has opted to turn November’s election into a matter of national security. The main goal is to win back part of the nationalist voters, while delegitimising the opposition – and the pro-Kurdish HDP in primis. Through this strategy, Erdogan aims to rally the electorate around the flag, while using every opportunity to stress how the country needs to unite around the AKP, its strongest party, as it navigates through the current phase of insecurity and political paralysis.

Furthermore, since June’s elections, Turkey has experienced multiple instances of terrorist attacks and violence. In July, a suicide bomber linked to ISIS killed more than 30 members of an association who had gathered in the Turkish district of Suruc to reach Kobane, in order to carry out assistance projects for its Kurdish population. As the victims were mostly of Kurdish origin, the PKK accused the government of failing to protect the minority, and launched a series of retaliatory attacks against members of the Turkish security forces, effectively ending the ceasefire.

Since then, Turkish security forces have revamped their campaign against PKK’s safe haven in Northern Iraq, as well as their operations on Turkish soil; more than 100 members of the security forces have lost their lives since July, and President Erdogan is once again presenting himself as the only force that can keep the country from splintering. Last month, another terrorist attack, carried out by two suicide bombers affiliated with ISIS, hit a pacifist rally in Ankara, killing more than 100 people – many of which were Kurds.

During his electoral rallies as well as in his TV interviews, President Erdogan has consistently tried to deflect criticism by arguing that the current chaos originates from the June 2015 election results, and more specifically from the electorate’s failure to give him a stronger mandate. What is more important, however, is that Erdogan’s nationalist appeal seems to have already reclaimed some votes: the most recent available polls put the AKP at about 43.3% of votes (an increase of almost 3% from June), which might be just enough for his party to have a parliamentary majority. Appealing to Turkey’s nationalist sentiments seems to be just about the only option Erdogan has available in order to obtain a working parliamentary majority, and securitising the upcoming elections seems to be the safest bet in order to truly appeal to its nationalist voters – the swing-voters who the AKP can legitimately hope to bring in line with their party.

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.


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