Qatar and Turkey: How did it go so wrong so fast?

As the Arab Spring got underway, Turkey and Qatar came together on what seemed to be the right side of history. Now, all their regional bets have all but collapsed, after both adopted a policy of unabashed support for the Muslim Brotherhood. This support, however, has impacted Turkish and Qatari interests in the Middle East general, and Syria specifically? Where did it all go wrong? And how did this policy help undermine both countries’ efforts to topple Bashar al Assad?

Today, Aaron is joined by Michael Stephens, the Director of RUSI Qatar, about Turkish and Qatari policy in the Middle East.

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Article Mentioned:

“Where Did it All Go Wrong? The Qatar-Turkey Power House Comes Up Short”

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Turkey Recognizes the ISIS Threat

Does Turkey view the Islamic State as a threat? Do Turkish government officials embrace the idea of a Kurdish-Turkish alliance against a shared enemy: The Islamic State? Do the unfolding clashes portend the end of the peace process, or do both sides have an interest in sustaining the on-going negotiations? And do the the on-going clashes resemble similar unrest in Turkey during the 1990s?

Today, Aaron speaks with Hugh Pope, a Deputy Program Director with the International Crisis Group, about the situation in Turkey.

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The Need for a New Turkish Strategy in Syria

Yesterday, I wrote a piece for Al Jazeera English about Turkey’s Syria policy. The piece is a look back at the consistency of Turkish policy-making in Syria after the decision was made to sever ties with the Assad regime in August 2011. Turkey first floated the idea of a buffer zone in November 2011. The policy had the backing of France, who was eagerly pushing for greater western involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey’s reasons for doing so at the time were twofold. First, Ankara was eager to end the war quickly. Turkey had recently begun to its efforts to organize a cohesive political opposition of Syrian exiles/defectors in Istanbul and was eager to quickly oust its erstwhile ally, Bashar al Assad. Second, Turkey wanted to ground the Syrian air force. Turkey had a number of reasons to support this policy.

First, the AKP has historic links to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and sought to position the group at the center of the nascent Syrian political opposition it was organizing in Istanbul. Ankara initially envisioned a scenario whereby Assad would quickly fall and then be replaced by the opposition it was working to organize. In turn, this new government would take over a relatively intact bureaucratic structure, and thereby would be able to ensure the maintenance of Syrian territorial integrity. Second, and relatedly, Turkey believed that it was critical for the maintenance of a strong and centralized Syrian state.

This approach was ultimately based on Ankara’s concerns about Kurdish autonomy in Syria’s northern territories. Thus, from the outset, one strand of Ankara’s Syria policy was linked to concerns about the empowerment of the PYD in the areas now known as Rojava. As the conflict dragged on, Turkey faced two inter-related problems. The gains made by the Turkish backed rebels eventually forced Assad to withdraw his forces from the Kurdish areas in mid-July 2012. Thus, on the one hand, Turkey’s policy of backing the rebels succeeded in putting pressure on the regime. Yet, on the other, that pressure led to the decision to abandon and cede territory to the Kurds Turkey was concerned about.

Enter the no-fly-zone/buffer zone proposal. The introduction of a buffer zone and a no-fly-zone would accomplish two things. First, it would create a series of safe havens in the Syrian side of the border to absorb refugees. This would help to ease the burden on Turkey and also provide an area for Syrian refugees in Turkey to return to (The policy appears to be based on the Ozal era endorsement of a safe have in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991). Second, the protection of the zone would require a no-fly-zone. That no-fly-zone would ground Assad’s air force. This would then even the playing field in other parts of the country, where Turkish backed rebels are still fighting against the regime.

Turkey has conditioned its support for the anti-ISIS coalition on the installation of a NFZ/Buffer Zone. It has done so for a number of reasons. Ankara blames Assad for ISIS. Thus, if you don’t take out Assad, ISIS will continue to have support in Syria. Second, the introduction of a NFZ would entail the targeting of the regime. This would help to bolster the rebels, while also contributing to Ankara’s end goal: regime change. Turkey therefore sees this as a critical part of what is calls its “comprehensive approach to ISIS.”

In reality, Turkey does not have an ISIS policy, nor a coherent strategy. Turkey has a set of demands. And those demands are all tied to Ankara’s idea that regime change is the answer to all that ails Syria. Take the Kurds, Ankara has a number of very good reasons to be concerned about the PYD. The group is linked to the PKK and the creation of autonomous zones in Syria does deprive Turkey of the strategic depth it obtained after Hafez al Assad decided in 1998 to boot Ocalan out of his Syrian sponsored safe haven in Kobane.

However, Rojava is now a reality. The Kurds in Syria have resisted the Turkish backed efforts to ally more closely with Massoud Barzani in Erbil, and have instead been working towards creating the facts on the ground for an autonomous region in Syria. These efforts will continue, regardless of the status of Kobane. The other two cantons, Cizre and Afrin are far stronger than Kobane and don’t appear as if they are in danger of falling any time soon.

The introduction of a NFZ would indirectly aid these two cantons. In other words, if a NFZ were established and coalition aircraft continued to hit Islamic State positions, one outcome would be the indirect strengthening of Rojava – and in theory, could provide a route for Kurds to reclaim lost territory in Kobane, and perhaps even unite the three cantons. This is why Turkey’s non-support for Kobane is short-sighted. To be clear, I am not saying Turkey should support the canton militarily. This is not a realistic policy alternative for Turkey.

However, Ankara should be more wary of its rhetoric. Erdogan’s equating of IS with the PKK is short-sighted and contributes to the narrative within Turkey’s Kurdish regions, as well as those in Syria, that Turkey supports IS against the Kurds. Instead, Ankara should opt for a middle ground. Rhetorical support for Kobane, paired with the opening of a humanitarian corridor to provide the enclave with food and medicine. That’s it. No weapons or guns. Just food, water, and medicine.

Turkey’s Syrian policy has seriously undermined its relationship with its own Kurdish population. The recent protests about Kobane are a result of this anger. Ankara has managed to keep that anger in check via the peace process and Ocalan’s calming words. Ocalan, in other words, has become a Turkish ally. Ankara has an incredible incentive to keep him on their side. The Rojava policy is risking that.

Turkey’s policy has thus far failed to account for the scores of Kurds from Turkey fighting with the YPG in Syria. These Kurds are often times brought back to Turkey for burial. The funerals are well attended, often times with Kurdish politicians in attendance. The fighters are labelled as ‘martyrs for Kurdistan’ and hailed has heroes of the resistance against IS. The AKP’s policies have resulted in these same Kurds accusing the government of supporting IS against the YPG. This is a very dangerous situation. The government’s rhetoric makes it worse.

At the very least, this has complicated the peace process. And, again, shows how Turkey’s policy is short sighted. The end state of the peace process is the granting of greater autonomy to Kurds in Turkey’s south east. The links between Turkish and Syrian Kurds were already strong. They are growing stronger via the shared sense of nationalism brought about the fighting in Rojava. Add to that the perception that the AKP supports IS, and you have the recipe for tension – and perhaps sustained clashes. The government needs to recognize this and take steps to address this potential threat.

The only way to do this is to sustain the peace process. This will require that Turkey gets comfortable with the idea of Rojava. And this means that they need to speak more forcefully about the plight of Kurds in Syria. It can’t be all about Assad anymore. He is part of the problem – perhaps the root cause of the problem as Turkey claims. But Turkey has a lot of problems in Syria. It is time to start dealing with them comprehensively, rather than linking them all to Assad and the coalition’s military campaign.

This will require a more nuanced strategy in Syria that segments the conflicts into numerous different parts. Ankara’s focus on Assad is fine. It should be thought of as the key stone holding the strategy together. However, Turkey should de-link its approach to the Kurds from this strategy and treat Rojava as extension of its on-going peace process with Ocalan. Otherwise, Turkey risks losing a lot of hard fought gains vis-a-vis its own Kurds in the near future.

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The Assault on Kobane

The clashes around Kobane between the YPG and the Islamic State have increased in recent weeks. The IS assault is threatening to topple the autonomous Kurdish canton. Today, I speak with Isabel Hunter, a Gaziantep based freelance journalist, mainly writing for The Independent, about the situation on the Turkish-Syrian border and the on-going clashes between the two groups.

*The podcast was recorded on Wednesday 1 October, before IS is reported to have taken control over the southern and eastern entrances to Kobane city.

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Turkey and the US led anti-IS coalition: Ankara is doing more than People Think

My apologies. I am traveling this week and don’t have time to write a proper post. However, I wanted to get a few thoughts on paper about Turkey’s role in the US led anti-IS air campaign in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey’s policy vis-à-vis ISIS has always been relatively clear. Ankara has not supported the group and has thought of it as a terror organization for 1.5 years. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, for example, has criticized Sayyid Qutb’s ideology and believes that his understanding of Islam is incorrect. Davutoglu, who is the architect of Turkish foreign policy, argues that Qutb’s understanding of Islam is too heavily influenced by Western political theories. These theories, he argues, are incongruent with the concept of Dar al Islam, which is a  better source of political legitimacy in the Arab/Muslim world. Thus, any suggestions that the AKP supports IS because of an overlap in religious points of view, or a shared ideology, is false. The same applies to Al Qaeda. There is no sympathy in the Turkish government for the ideology underpinning either group.

Turkey, however, did give some support to Jabhat al Nusra. Ankara did so for two reasons. First, after Turkey changed its Syria policy in August 2011, Ankara “bet the farm” on Assad falling in 6 months. After Assad was able to hold on to power, Turkey began to support a slew of rebel groups – including Nusra. Ankara felt that it was imperative to put pressure on the regime to force Assad from power. Nusra was/is an effective fighting force and worked with FSA rebel groups to battle the regime. Second, the Turkish government believes that the Assad is the root cause of extremism in Syria. Thus, if he is forced form power, the appeal of the Jihadists would decrease. In turn, Nusra would be devoid of any widespread popular support and eventually be marginalized in the “New Syria.” Turkey wanted this new Syria to be run by the Brotherhood.

These assumptions guided Ankara’s decision-making up until mid-July 2012. At this stage of the conflict, Assad pulled his forces away from the Kurdish controlled areas. This left the three Kurdish cantons, known collectively as Rojava, to the PYD – a group with links to the PKK. Turkey reacted negatively. First, Ankara threatened to intervene and “establish a buffer zone.” After backing down from this threat, Ankara tried to put the PYD under the thumb of the KDP. This also failed. This eventually prompted Ankara to reach out to members of the PYD – most notably, Salih Muslim. The two sides appeared to have reached some sort of agreement to live in quasi-harmony. Turkey, however, was not comfortable with the status quo. Ankara has kept the border gates with Rojava closed since mid-July 2012 and has only recently begun to intermittently open two border gates along the border to accommodate thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing from Kobane. (This has had a terrible effect on the Kurdish peace process, but Ill save that for another post/article. But Ill say that this policy was short sighted.)

Turkey continued its relatively lax border policy (albeit only in non-Kurdish majority areas) up until March 2014. It did so for two reasons. First, Turkey still believed that the key to resolving the conflict was forcing Assad from power. And Ankara continued to believe that the foreign fighters contributed to this goal. Second, the opening of a rebel front against the PYD in Rojava was also seen as a net benefit for Turkish security because it degrade the PYD.

In March, Ankara began to crack down on IS oil smuggling. Shortly thereafter – and in particular, after the Sotloff video – Turkey also began to crack down on the foreign fighters. Ankara argues that it should not be singled out for the foreign fighter issue because the majority of fighters are coming from European and Arab countries. They have a point. In the early days of the conflict, intelligence sharing between the EU and Turkey was far from ideal. Things have changed. According to my sources, the EU and Turkey began to cooperate on the foreign fighter issue about a year ago. The program has since ramped up. And then the US got seriously involved after Sotloff. Put it all together and you can see the evolution of Turkey’s border policy.

Turkey’s policy options got even more complicated after the IS take over in June. Ankara ignored warning from the KRG and its allies in Iraq – the Nujaifi brothers – and kept the consulate open. (A consulate they purposefully built on the “Arab” side of Mosul in 2006 to send a message to the Kurds, I might add). During the siege of Mosul, IS took 46 Turkish hostages. These hostages “tied the hands of Turkish government” and, at least according to Ankara, prevented Turkey from adopting more forceful anti-IS language. (Side note: Davutoglu thinks the term “radical Islam” is an orientalist construction used to justify US/Western intervention in the region to advance their interests. These interests, he argues, are incongruent with Turkey’s. So you are never going to hear the type of language used in Washington in Ankara. Not gonna happen.)

The hostages were released a couple of days ago in what appears to have been a prisoner swap. The details of the swap are still coming out, but Hurriyet has reported that Liwa al Tawhid – a Syrian rebel group that has close links to Turkish NGOs and the Turkish government – arranged for the release of 50 IS hostages. President Erdogan has since hinted that Turkey may adopt a more forceful anti-IS policy.

However, as I mentioned above, Ankara had already begun to take more forceful action in March. In addition to the border stuff, counter terrorism officials, working in conjunction with their counterparts in the EU and US, are working together on the recruitment of IS fighters in Turkey. The three sides are comparing notes on “IS fighter profiles” and are working together to break up recruitment networks. This is certain to continue. Turkey has paired this with efforts to crack down on oil smuggling. The Jandarma have been setting up check points along the border to check cars for smuggled oil and more people are being prevented from entering Turkey.

Now, this does not mean that Turkey supports the US anti-IS plan. They don’t. Ankara does not support the idea of a “limited” operation to “degrade and destroy” IS in a similar manner to the operations being conducted in Somalia/Yemen. Ankara argues that limited military action is insufficient. Turkey is also concerned that once the US has “degraded” IS, it will declare “mission accomplished” and pack up and leave. This will then leave Turkey with two failed states, Iraq and Syria, on their borders. Ankara is eager for the US to use airpower to topple Assad. Turkey still views him as the root of all the problems in Syria. (If you want my take on Turkey’s Iraq policy, you can read about it here).

The international community should temper their expectations. Ankara has historically been very wary of allowing US aircraft to operate from Incirlik air base (The shift began in 1980 and the renegotiation of the US-Turkish SOFA. You can also point to the 1974 US embargo after Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus as one of the roots causes of this change to Turkish policy. Ankara has a long memory and has not forgotten the Cyprus debacle in 1974.) The list of restrictions imposed on US military action during “Operation Provide Comfort” reads like an Encyclopedia (Im being felicitous, but you get the point). At some point, one has to ask: is it worth the headache of basing out of Turkey, when the Arab states are far more willing to accommodate US aircraft. This is not an AKP specific thing. This is a Turkey thing – and it dates back to well before the AKP’s election. History suggests that even if the hostage situation did not limit Turkish action, Ankara would have reacted skeptically to a US request to use Incirlik Air Force base (more on this below).

The freeing of the hostages does provide Turkey a with a bit more wiggle room in terms of its anti-IS rhetoric. Erdogan has already stepped it up a bit, telling Charlie Rose “We have to make sure we dry out this swamp.” However, Turkey still points to Assad as being the evil that led to the creation of the “swamp.” Thus, the international community needs to get used to a Turkey that does not sanction military action from NATO air bases in Turkey, and instead limits itself to anti-IS operations on the border.

Turkey was certainly late to the anti-IS party. The border policy was short-sighted and poorly thought out. But things have changed. After the August 21 chemical attack, Turkey actively supported the US plan to hit Assad and even hinted that it would allow for the strikes to be conducted from Incirlik. Thus, it is not out of the question that Turkey could change its policy.Moreover, it helps shed light on the circumstances in which Turkey would open Incirlik (However, one should keep in mind the restrictions imposed on US operations.) Thus, if the US does want to use Incirlik – and this is unclear to me – it appears that it will have to adopt regime change as its policy in Syria.

Absent this type of change, Turkey is likely to continue to confine its role in the anti-IS coalition to the activities its already doing. These activities help. One should remember that the US program to arm and train the Syrian rebels uses a CIA run office in Reyhanli. This operation is coordinated with MIT – Turkey’s intelligence agency. Turkey’s current policy is far better than their previous approach to the conflict. And Ankara would argue that the US’ approach has finally started to reflect Ankara’s preferences for the use of force. The two sides are continuing to work together to combat IS. Differences remain. But both are better off, now that they are working more closely together.

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Autonomy in Rojava

What is the current situation in Rojava? Does the border between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan exist anymore? How deep are the divisions in Kurdistan? What does the YPG think of their Peshermga cousins? What role do regional powers play in Kurdish politics? And what does this mean for the future of the Middle East?

Today, I speak with Michael Stephens, the Director of RUSI Qatar, about his recent trip to Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan about these issues.

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Turkey Turns a Blind Eye to the PKK

What is Turkey’s current policy towards the PKK? How are PKK fighters moving from Turkey to Rojava? What is the current state of the border areas near the Turkish town of Karkamis? What are the perceptions of the YPG in Turkey? And finally, is it possible to get sick of food in Gaziantep?

Today, Aaron is joined by Gaziantep based journalist Isabel Hunter to discuss these issues.

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