The IS Attack on Kobane: Open Source Analysis (Updated)

Yesterday, the Islamic State detonated four suicide car bombs in the embattled town of Kobane. One VBIED detonated just inside the Mursitpinar border gate. After the explosion, clashes broke out between the YPG and the Islamic state in the area. The YPG has since claimed that the VBIED entered from Turkey. Ankara, in turn, has denied this.

I have done a brief open source analysis of the videos and imagery and have come to a few tentative conclusions. My analysis is far from definitive, but I think it deserves consideration.

In October 2014, IS released a video inside Kobane narrated by British photojournalist John Cantlie. In it, one can clearly see the position of Turkish tanks behind the granary silos on the Turkish side of the border of Kobane.

Silos

In the Cantile video, the tanks are visible at the 2:04 minute mark.

TankandSilo

I have since asked two different people who have been to the border in recent days about the location of Turkey’s tanks. Both have told me that they are in the same position. Thus, it appears as if the Turkish military has deployed its forces on a hill on the eastern side of the town of Mursitpinar overlooking the town of Kobane.

The location of the tanks is some 160 meters (525 feet) from the silos.

tanktosilo

In this video, the YPG is seen battling an unseen enemy – presumably the Islamic State- in the Mursitpinar train station that is situated along the border with Kobane. At the 1:15 minute mark you can see the Turkish flag.

Buildingwithclashes

StationGoogleEarth

The location of the VBIED is some 15 meters (50 feet) inside the Mursitpinar border gate on the Syrian side.

VBIEDlocation

The opens source imagery thus suggest the following: Yesterday, the YPG engaged in a firefight with the Islamic State on the Turkish side of the border. My best guess is that the firefight took place on the eastern side of the mursipinar border gate, between the border entrance and the silos. IS fighters attacked from northern side and the YPG entered Turkey from the south, perhaps on the eastern side of the Mursitpinar border gate. Other imagery shows IS gunmen standing near the silos. Turkey’s HDP has since claimed that these silos were used as a base for the attacking IS. The silos provided IS with two advantages: First, they give cover to their fighters clashing with the YPG. Second, they obstruct the view of the TSK’s tanks, which are set up on the hill directly behind them.

Based on this evidence, it appears as if the train station is a sort of ‘no-mans-land’ between where Ankara has set-up its defenses and the border with Kobane. (Dare I call it a buffer zone – I am hearing reports of trenches being dug as well.) This would explain how IS could move in behind the YPG. Moreover, it would also help explain the VBIED attack. The most plausible answer – at least according to what I have seen – is that the truck carrying the explosive was driven through this  ‘no-mans-land’. I do not think that Turkey supported this, helped to facilitate this, or is secretly hoping that IS takes over Kobane. Instead, I think a VBIED slipped through their buffer zone and entered Kobane early in the morning. Another possible scenario is that it travelled directly along the train tracks. Obviously, if I am correct this would be extremely embarrassing for Turkey.

My findings remain subject to change should more imagery become available, but this is my best guess based on what I have seen.

UPDATED Conclusion

Based on the new imagery I have seen, I am prepared to say that I am moderately confident (which means: credibly sourced and plausible information, but not sufficient corroboration to warrant a higher level of confidence) that the VBIED did not drive along the train tracks to attack Kobane. The imagery in update 3 shows Kurdish trenches built at a right angle to the train tracks and the silos. A large truck could not have driven through these trenches. In addition, the location the VBIED, which is noted in my first update below, suggests that it entered on the western side of the Mursitpinar border gate. If my assessment is accurate, that suggests that the VBIED had to have entered from the Turkish side of the border.

*******

UPDATE 1

Based on info provided by tweep Kevin Kelly, I am including an updated picture of the possible VBIED detonation point.

UpdatedVBIED

 

UPDATE 2

I have seen some new imagery that calls into question my assumption about where Turkey’s tanks near Kobane are located. The image below reportedly comes from an IS video filmed yesterday. This new image suggests that Ankara has moved its tanks off of the hill overlooking the Silos pictured below.

UpdateTankLocation

Update 3

Trenches

 

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Sources of Turkish Conduct – Part 2

In part 2 of the joint Turkey Wonk & Middle East Week podcast series on Turkey’s Middle East foreign policy we cover Turkey’s foreign policy towards Syria and Iraq, from when the AKP came to power in 2002 to the current crisis. You can listen to part 1 here.

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An Evolving Challenge: Deconstructing Turkey’s Syria Policy

“This article was originally published in RUSI Newsbrief (Vol. 34, No. 6, November 2014), https://www.rusi.org/publications/newsbrief.”It appears here with the gracious permission of the editors (who are awesome) at RUSI Newsbrief. 

An Evolving Challenge: Deconstructing Turkey’s Syria Policy

As the civil war in Syria drags on and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to unleash violence across the Middle East, Turkey finds itself in a difficult position. The foreign policy of the ruling Justice and Development and Party (AKP) towards its southern neighbour has shifted markedly over the past decade. It has moved from treating Syria as an ally that opened the doors to the oil-rich Gulf to trying to salvage President Bashar Al-Assad’s government upon the outbreak of protests in 2011, to eventually severing ties altogether. Most recently, Ankara has sought to avoid a resurgence of violence by Kurdish minorities within its own borders by agreeing to provide indirect assistance to the Syrian Kurdish groups battling ISIS only a few miles over the Turkish-Syrian border. It has also attempted to use the siege of Kobane to pressure the Kurds to join forces with its favoured Syrian opposition groups.

Given the fundamental nature of these shifts in Turkey’s approach to its southern neighbour over the past decade, in combination the country’s changing domestic imperatives, what is the likely future trajectory of Turkey’s foreign policy with regard to Syria?

For much of Turkey’s recent history prior to 2002, the Turkish–Syrian relationship has been marred by suspicion and distrust, owing to Syria’s pro-Soviet orientation during the Cold War and its support during the 1980s and 1990s for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a Kurdish insurgent group that has been engaged in armed conflict with the Turkish state since 1984. The relationship began to change for the better in 1998, after Ankara threatened to use military force against the PKK in Syria, forcing former Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad to end his country’s support for PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

After its election in 2002, the AKP prioritised the Turkish–Syrian relationship, under the guidance of one particular adviser, now-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Acutely aware of Turkey’s limited ability to significantly alter the region’s political status quo, Ankara initially focused on tightening ties with President Bashar Al-Assad, despite the AKP’s rejection of the regime’s Ba’athist ideology. The AKP described this approach as being akin to the West German policy of ostpolitik during the Cold War, in reference to the latter’s decision to normalise relations with its communist neighbour, the German Democratic Republic. The geopolitically minded AKP argued that closer relations with Damascus would advance Turkish economic interests in the oil-rich Gulf, whilst also providing Ankara with a key ally on the border with the energy-rich Mediterranean.

By 2011, the AKP had successfully cultivated closer ties with Assad – a situation that led to Ankara’s initial support for the regime after protests first broke out in Syria. In response to the unrest, then-Foreign Minister Davutoglu travelled to Syria on numerous occasions, even floating a plan whereby Assad would relinquish the presidency and instead assume the office of prime minister (whilst still retaining control of the armed forces and intelligence services).

However, when Assad rejected this proposal, in August 2011, Turkey upended its longstanding policy of support, severing ties with the regime and calling on Assad to step down. Perhaps surprisingly, given the AKP’s previous aversion to sanctions as a foreign-policy instrument, Ankara also imposed financial sanctions on its neighbour, based upon the reasoning that the combination of international pressure and a growing domestic insurgency would force Assad from power within six months. It thus moved to create a government in exile, operating from Istanbul; central to this government would be its preferred political proxy, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – a group with extensive links to the AKP’s political predecessor, the Refah Party.

To hasten regime change, Turkey also opened its southern border to foreign fighters, in the belief that the flow into Syria of these fighters, along with weapons and funding for certain rebel groups, would hasten Assad’s downfall. Once he was removed from power, it argued, the government in exile could quickly move into Damascus and use a still relatively intact bureaucracy to govern the country. Once order was restored, it was assumed, support among the Syrian population for those foreign fighters that had crossed the border to join radical groups in the fight against Assad would evaporate.

This policy, and particularly the desire for a strong central state following Assad’s downfall, was closely linked to Turkey’s ‘Kurdish problem’ and the acute fear that the decentralisation of the Syrian state could lead to the empowerment of Syria’s own Kurdish minority. Damascus had proven itself a strong anti-Kurdish ally since 1998, when it withdrew its support for the PKK and, in preventing the PKK from taking refuge in a neighbouring state, it provided Ankara with much-needed protection along the Turkish-Syrian border in its ongoing battle with the PKK. The potential decentralisation of the post-Assad Syrian state thus threatened to undo these hard-earned political and military gains.

These concerns were premature, however, with Turkey’s plans for Syria suffering a setback in mid-July 2012. In addition to rebel infighting that prevented the formation of a cohesive anti-Assad force, the Syrian regime’s decision to withdraw its troops from Kurdish-majority areas enabled the PKK’s sister group in the country, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to take control of the three Kurdish cantons of Afrin, Kobane and Jazira – known collectively as Rojava – on the border with Turkey. This not only threatened to reverse the security gains that Turkey had made since the capture of Ocalan in 1999; but also, much more significantly, the PYD has gained de facto autonomy within Syria.

In an effort to limit the PYD’s progress in this regard, Turkey has pushed the group to co-operate more closely with the Syrian opposition, ostensibly as a member of the Kurdish National Council (KNC) – an umbrella organisation uniting different Kurdish groups under Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq. However, despite both the PYD and KNC signing the ‘Erbil Agreement’ of June 2012, which established the Supreme Kurdish Committee (a political structure that brought together the two Kurdish organisations with the aim of co-ordinating political control over the three cantons), talks broke down over disagreements about power-sharing and security in Rojava – thus putting an end to Ankara’s attempts to tie the PYD to a longstanding ally, under the leadership of Barzani.

However, Turkey has found other ways to coerce the PYD into acquiescing to its demands, aimed at maintaining a strong Syrian state post-Assad. For example, although it opened the rest of its southern border it has continued to keep the Rojava stretch closed. Furthermore, in early October, Salih Muslim, a high-ranking PYD official, visited Ankara for a meeting with Hakan Fidan, the director of Turkey’s intelligence organisation, to discuss co-operation in countering ISIS’s assault on the Syrian border town of Kobane. In exchange for Turkish support, Fidan is reported to have reiterated the demands first made of Muslim as long ago as 2013: the PYD must renounce its ties with the Assad regime, end Rojava’s bid for autonomy, distance itself from the PKK and integrate its forces into those of the opposition Free Syrian Army.

This stance – and the trajectory of decision-making which led to it – is revealing. First, Ankara continues to argue that the defeat of ISIS requires regime change in Syria. Second, Turkey has tied this policy to its approach to the Kurdish issue. Third, the country has consistently sought to use the dynamics of the conflict in Syria to force the PYD to make concessions. This has resulted in a relatively hands-off approach to the violence unfolding just metres over the Syrian border. Ankara has agreed to offer humanitarian assistance to refugees from Kobane, and to allow some 150 Iraqi Peshmerga fighters to travel across its territory from Iraqi Kurdistan in order to defend the Syrian border town – following the United States’ declaration of support for the PYD; however, it is not supportive of more robust intervention, unless that campaign is tied to the broader goal of toppling Assad.

This approach is risky – not least because it threatens to derail revitalised peace talks with the PKK’s Ocalan, which were initiated in March 2013 in response to the PYD’s establishment of Rojava. Indeed, the PKK, and Turkey’s Kurds more generally, are already deeply suspicious of Ankara, and believe that it is supporting ISIS in its clashes with the PYD. Against this backdrop, Ocalan and current PKK leader Cemil Bayik have threatened to return to arms (and when this happened following the previous breakdown in negotiations 2011, the result the death of some 960 Kurds and Turks).

Ankara has since sought to find a middle ground. Prime Minister Davutoglu recently met with the leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, in October, to ease tensions after the party indirectly accused the government of supporting ISIS. These efforts eventually proved successful, with the PKK, the pro-Kurdish HDP, which shares a similar political base to that of the PKK, and the AKP expressing commitment to continuing with the fragile peace talks.

Yet, on the whole, the situation remains uncertain for the AKP. The PYD has continued to pursue its ultimate goal of creating an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria, despite Turkey’s efforts to prevent it from doing so. In Kobane, the clashes with ISIS continue and although the coalition of Kurdish forces on the ground, with support from US and regional air forces, has presented ISIS from taking over the city, this has led to political stalemate. Indeed, Turkey is unlikely to achieve its end goals while the PYD continues to govern in Rojava. Moreover, the ongoing clashes in Kobane have already undermined the AKP’s talks with Abdullah Ocalan, and could thus risk returning Turkey to a state of low-level civil conflict similar to that witnessed between 2011 and 2013.

These factors underscore just how difficult the Syria situation is for Turkey. After the start of the Arab upheavals, and the outbreak of protests in Syrian in 2011, the government has largely kept a lid on Kurdish violence within its borders through its engagement in the peace process with the PKK. However, that process is now extremely fragile; and Turkey faces immense challenges in pursuing its policy of supporting regime change in Syria while containing the persistent threats along its volatile border. This situation is unlikely to ease any time soon. And with few signs of a resolution to the current crisis across the border in Syria, Ankara will have to contend with shockwaves across the region and at home for years to come.

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Sources of Turkish Conduct – Part 1

This is a joint Middle East Week and Turkey Wonk podcast about Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East. This is part one of two episodes that are based on a forthcoming book by Aaron Stein on this topic. In this first part we discussed:

  • Turkey’s policy of “Strategic Depth”
  • The motivations behind the AKP’s foreign policy strategy
  • Turkey’s role as mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their support for Hamas
  • How Turkey reacted to the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia
  • Turkey’s reaction to the uprising in Libya and their role in the current conflict
  • The ups and downs of Turkey’s foreign policy in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak

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Making Sense of Turkey’s Iraq Policy

After years of tension, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is in Baghdad today (November 20, 2014) to meet with new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. The visit is clearly part of a much broader Turkish effort to repair its relationship with Shia political parties in Iraq. Ankara’s relationship with Dawa – and Shia political groups in general – were first damaged in 2009.

As far back as 2005, the AKP began to assiduously work to organize Iraq’s Sunni opposition. At that time, the AKP hosted Tariq Al-Hashimi, the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) – the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – at a major conference in Istanbul to help convince the IIP and the three other Sunni groups to vote in favor of the constitution at the upcoming referendum. Turkey did succeed in convincing the Sunni bloc – which was really just IIP – to participate in the referendum (Notably, it was only the Turkish supported bloc that participated in the referendum. Most of Iraq’s Sunnis chose not to vote). However, Ankara has since criticized the constitution, even though it was their efforts that probably led to it getting passed.

In any case, between 2005 and 2009, the IIP was Turkey’s preferred political actor in Iraq. However, the group’s appeal remained limited, owing to the fractured nature of Iraq’s Sunni politics and the Sunni boycott of Iraq politics. Things changed for Turkey in 2009. After years of shunning the political process, Iraqi Sunnis sought to re-enter Iraqi politics. Turkey – acting in an alliance with Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia (oh how things have changed) – played an oversized role in helping to organize an umbrella organization, known as Iraqiya (Iraqiya included IIP). This decision is ultimately the reason for the failure of Ankara’s Iraq policy – and also contributed to the Turkish decision to facilitate the export of KRG oil independent of Baghdad.

The political party performed well in the 2010 election and actually won more seats than the State of Law Coalition and incumbent Prime Minister, Nuri Al-Maliki. However, the Iranian backed Maliki was able to retain his position as Prime Minister and sideline Iraq’s Sunni politicians during the ensuing negotiations to form a new government. Ankara blames Iran and the United States for standing by Nuri Al-Maliki during this period of time. This anger over American policy-making is one of many reasons for Turkey’s hesitance to fully support American decision-making in Iraq and Syria to this day.

Iraqiya collapsed in 2012; thus leaving Ankara without a powerful Sunni bloc in Baghdad. However, beginning in 2009, the AKP found common cause with the Nujaifi brothers. Osama heads the Mutahidun political party, which up until 2014, controlled 45 seats in Iraq’s parliament. However, after the most recent election, the party lost 18 seats, thus leaving it with only 27. This loss of seats book-ended a difficult time for Mutahidun  and its failure to secure more wide-spread support from Iraqi Sunnis in provinces through out Iraq. As a result, in the days and months before the IS take-over of Mosul – and its subsequent capture of 1/3 of Iraq – Turkey’s preferred political party was on the decline and its influence had waned, in favor of parties aligned with Dawa; all of which now view Turkey with suspicion for its role with Iraqi Sunnis.

The Oil Issue: Ankara and the Kurds

Massoud Barzani first approach Turkey with the idea to export Kurdish oil independent of Baghdad in 2005. Ankara reacted cautiously, choosing only to allow two small Turkish affiliated energy companies – Genel Enerji and PetOil – to begin exploratory work in Kurdistan. Turkey reasoned that a decision to export oil independent of Baghdad would contribute to the break-up of the Iraqi state and irreparably damage its relationship with Baghdad. As such, the AKP made the decision – in 2007 – to forego the export of Kurdish oil, in favor of maintaining close ties with Baghdad. However, Ankara also made clear that it would re-evaluate this decision if its relationship with Baghdad completely collapsed.

In 2009, the AKP relationship with Baghdad collapsed because of the aforementioned Turkish role in the creation of Iraqiya. The real turning point for Ankara came in 2011, after Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Tariq al-Hashimi – Ankara’s erstwhile ally and the leader of the IIP the Turkish supported party in Iraq affiliated with the MB. This sequence of events (among other things pertaining to financial compensation for interested parties) prompted Ankara to agree to export Kurdish oil independently. The agreement was helped by Atheel al Nujaifi, who won control over Mosul in 2009 on a stridently anti-Kuridsh platform, before finding common cause with Barzani (and therefore disavowing his previously anti-Kurdish agenda) shortly after his coming to power. The two Turkish allies – Barzani and Nujaifis – subsequently formed an anti-Maliki Turkish supported bloc in areas of Iraq. This further undermined Turkey’s relationship with Baghdad. However, it also portended the start of the independent sale of Kurdish oil via Turkey to international markets in 2013/2014.

The Islamic State

Things changed again in June 2014. After ignoring numerous warnings from Barzani and Nujaifi, the Turkish consulate was taken over by IS on 10 June 2014. This touched off a MIT led effort to secure the release of 46 Turkish hostages held in Mosul. These negotiations resulted in the swapping of IS prisoners – some held in Turkey, others by allied rebel groups in Syria – for the safe return of Ankara’s personnel.

Meanwhile, the IS threat to the KRG and Iraq prompted the United States to intervene in Iraq and then Syria shortly thereafter. In turn, the US has been able to put together a sizable coalition of nations to participate in air-strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In Baghdad, the US used the situation to force Maliki from power and to empower Abadi – a lawmaker from Maliki’s Dawa party. Turkey has thus far refused to participate in the airstrikes, unless its demands for regime change in Syria, a NFZ, and a buffer zone are met. Turkey’s hesitant approach to the anti-IS coalition has since damaged its relationship with the KRG and Ankara’s closest ally in Iraq – Massoud Barzani. During the siege of Erbil, Ankara failed to provide the KDP with weapons, thus leading to Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, to condemn Turkey in an interview with Rudaw.

In parallel, the PYD, which has been working to establish autonomy in the Kurdish majority areas in Syria since mid-July 2012, came under sustained attack by the IS in Kobane. The IS offensive against the canton began in June, but the PYD’s control over the main city was only threatened in late-August. The IS threat prompted the US, Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia to begin to strike IS positions outside the city – these strikes have continued up until today. Moreover, in a move that embarrassed President Erodgan, the United States air-dropped weapons and medical aid to the PYD – just hours after Erdogan said any such action would not be tolerated.

Ankara and Erbil have – to a large extent – overcome their differences in recent weeks. Both sides need one another. However, there is no denying that the PYD – which has links to the PKK – has grown in stature in recent months in both Iraq and Syria. This has forced Barzani – who has no love for the de-facto leader of the PYD, Abdullah Ocalan – to make concessions to the group that he had hitherto resisted.

Picking up the Pieces

This brief summary of Turkey’s Iraq policy demonstrates just how difficult it will be for Davutoglu to pick up the pieces of his party’s failed Iraq policy. After maintaining cordial relations with Iraqi Shia up until 2009 (Ankara even hosted Muqtada al Sadr), the decision to help create Iraqiya ultimately led to the downfall of Turkey’s position in Iraq. This decision has resulted in Turkey losing almost all of its leverage with Iraqi leaders. Turkey – which was operating from a position of strength up until 2009 – has few levers of influence with Iraq’s Shia political parties and its current Prime Minister, Haider al Abadi. Davutoglu’s visit is absolutely necessary. The AKP-Maliki tensions was untenable. However, Turkey has lost a lot of leverage and bargaining power in recent years to a country the AKP views as destabilizing – Iran. Indeed, one element of the AKP’s foreign policy that gets far too little attention is its rivalry with Iran and its unorthodox efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic. (The prevalence of Shia groups, operating under the direction of leadership of Qasem Soleimani is not a welcome sight in Ankara).

In any case, today’s visit is certainly the first step towards trying to mend the AKP relationship with Dawa and other Iraqi Shia parties. However, there is no denying that Ankara’s efforts to do so will take time and will have to overcome the self-inflicted damage of the past 4-5 years. However, this summary does allow for the asking of some tough questions.

1) Did Ankara’s decision to facilitate the independent export of Kurdish oil help or hurt Barzani?

2) What is Ankara’s future Iraq policy. The Nujaifis are in favor of the creation of a sort of ‘Sunnistan’, similar to that of the KRG. Does Ankara support this?

3) How will Davutoglu’s visit today seriously change the state of affairs with Baghdad? What is the metric of success?

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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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