Turkey and the Yemen Coalition: My Brief Thoughts

I have a more comprehensive piece coming out next week on Turkish policy-making vis-a-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia. Below are my brief thoughts on the topic, including the speculation that Ankara is now part of a “Sunni-Axis” against Iran. I think that analysis is far too simplistic and fails to capture key schisms in the Turkish-Saudi relationship, particularly over Iran.



Turkey has a number of conflicting interests in the Middle East. There is no doubt Ankara has a strong affinity towards religiously conservative political movements. These movements are all Sunni. However, Ankara has a strong commercial interest in retaining ties with Iran – and therefore has assiduously worked to compartmentalize its relationship with the Islamic Republic. So, on the one hand, Turkey is engaged in a proxy war against Iran in Syria. Yet, on the other, it is reliant upon Iran for 20% of its yearly natural gas consumptions. If one wanted to be flippant, one could say Turkey’s “oil-for-gold” sanctions circumvention helped to sustain the very Assad/Iranian led war that it is trying to win. Ankara has historically kept Iran inside the tent so to speak during times of tension. The two sides support different actors in Kurdistan, for example, but work together to prevent the region’s independence. In this regard, the relationship is symbiotic. Iran needs Turkey to keep pressure on Barzani, whereas Iran retains links to Talabani. Davutoglu, in Strategic Depth, acknowledges an Iranian sphere of influence in Iraq. It is in the Shia south and east of the country, whereas Turkey’s natural zone is Kurdistan and Ninewa, extending through Aleppo in Syria. All of this is to say that Davutoglu never rejected an Iranian role in Iraq, albeit while acknowledging that they compete for influence in certain spots.

One concern for Ankara is that Iran’s influence has grown so much, whereas Turkey’s remains limited through out Iraq. The balance is off, so to speak, and Turkey would like to see Iran’s role rolled-back, but recognizes it can’t be defeated. In many ways this is structural: Iran has direct control over its proxies, whereas Turkey’s control is tangential and limited to unpopular politicians, like Osama al Nujaifi – one of three ceremonial VP’s in Iraq’s central government. However, one has to remember, that things were a lot worse back in the late 1990s/early 2000s. It was so bad that Turkish warplanes bombed the Iranian side of the border at one point whilst attacking the PKK in the Turkish-Iraqi-Iranian border regions. Iran was also accused of working through Kurdish hizbullah to assassinate key Turkish secularists.

Saudi Arabia

The Yemen intervention stems from a rapprochement over the Muslim Brotherhood. King Salman recognized that the fitna was undermine Saudi foreign policy, and critically that he needed al Islah as a coalition of counter balancing forces towards the Houthis, which have the support of Ali Saleh. This gave the two sides the breathing room needed to cooperate – at least rhetorically – on what is a Saudi led fight in Yemen. It has to be noted that Sudan has committed more to the fight than Ankara in terms of military assets. The key area of convergence is actually in Syria, where Turkey has received Saudi support for its work with Ahrar al Sham and other Islamist rebels. That is a change in Saudi policy.

Nuclear Deal

As for the nuclear deal, Turkey’s policy differs considerably from that of Saudi Arabia. Turkey has always supported a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Turkey has also steadfastly defended Iran’s right to enrich, so long that country meets its nonproliferation/IAEA commitments. Ankara’s reasons for doing so are threefold: First, Ankara has a tremendous economic interest in the lifting of sanctions. In fact, the major issue for these two countries before sanctions were significantly tightened was Iran’s closed economy and the barriers to entry for Turkish private industry to the 80 million person Iranian market. Second, Ankara ultimately views the Iranian nuclear program as something that can be deterred through IAEA inspections and the NATO security guarantee. Third, Turkey sees any limitations on the notional right to enrich as an encroachment on the basic bargain in the NPT – and thus jealously guards its understanding of Article IV. Iran, in this case, is simply a proxy for a broader argument about what the peaceful use clause means.

The Future

Turkey has always pursued a policy of compartmentalization with Iran, whereby it can fight a proxy war, whilst at the same looking to expand trade to $30 billion per year. I expect this continue. The rhetoric, therefore, should be viewed within the natural limits of Turkish-Iranian relations. Ankara can’t break with Iran and therefore can’t adopt Saudi Arabia’s policies carte blanche. Turkey will need to balance its approach to both countries, as it seeks to navigate through the chaos that is the Middle East.

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Nuclear Chain Nonsense

The sky is falling!

The United States is about to knock over the first domino and start the nuclear proliferation chain reaction in the Middle East. With the region at war, the argument goes, the American attempt to negotiate with Iran over its previous nuclear weapons work (and current nuclear infrastructure) is painfully naïve, and portends a future of nuclear-armed states. This new nuclear future, we are led to believe, will begin in Saudi Arabia; be followed by a Turkish nuclear weapons program; include a Hashemite bomb in Jordan; and end with Cairo dusting off those Nasser era plans for nuclear weapons (Hey, with Sisi going full Nasser on us, perhaps he may approach China about purchasing a weapon.)

One problem with this argument: It is at odds with all that we know about nonproliferation decision-making and, at least in the case of Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt, is near impossible, given their choices about nuclear financing. The region is a mess. A total mess. But proliferation is – thank god – not something that should dominate the debate. In fact it misses the point entirely. Folks concerned with nuclear issues in the Middle East should certainly keep an eye on proliferation concerns, but should focus on a more serious issue: nuclear safety.

From the little we know about Saudi Arabia’s current nuclear plans, the Kingdom has pursued a rather benign approach to nuclear energy. After threatening to “go nuclear” for years, the Saudis chose to sign a MOU with South Korea’s KEPCO. Just next door, KEPCO is putting the finishing touches on the first of four reactors at the Barakh power plant. KEPCO has a great reputation for finishing projects on time, but is not really known to be the Korean peninsula’s equivalent of the AQ Khan network. Does South Korea have a pristine nonproliferation record? No. Has it exported enrichment or reprocessing technology to a customer? No. Will Saudi proliferate using a KEPCO APR1400. Hell no.

There is an elephant in the room. Pakistan, the argument goes, has reserved some warheads for Saudi Arabia’s defense. The Kingdom subsidized the Pakistani nuclear weapons program and therefore could try to collect on its investment. There is simply no way to account for this, other than look to history for some examples. The aforementioned Nasser asked a few countries for nukes during the 1960s. They said no. The Saudi case may indeed be different, owing to the Kingdom’s alleged investment in the program. My colleague and friend Philipp Bleek tackled this issue a few months ago, arguing:

History suggests that while some states have trumpeted their potential desire for nuclear weapons—think Germany in the early years of the Cold War, or Japan more recently—they tend not to be those that later went on to actually acquire them. And for good reason: calling attention to proliferation intentions is counterproductive if one is intent on actually proliferating. Instead, states tend to draw attention to their potential proliferation in the service of another goal: rallying others to address the security concerns that are motivating potential proliferation, and especially securing protection from powerful allies. At least one state, though, trumpeted its potential proliferation while actually pursuing nuclear weapons, and the case is an instructive one for analyzing Riyadh’s recent nuclear saber rattling.

 Again, the Kingdom chose KEPCO.

Turning to Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan – or as I have dubbed them, the Rosatom three. These three countries don’t have the cash to pay for a nuclear power plant. Or, if they do, they don’t want to pay ~$20 billion up front for their 70 year investment. To pay for their reactor, all three rely on a financing scheme known as Build, Operate, Own (BOO). Turgut Ozal came up with this idea in 1983 to help Turkey develop, after the country switched from import industrial substitution to export oriented capitalism. The BOO model was meant to attract private investment to what Ozal dubbed Turkey’s most trust-worthy sector: state-owned energy utilities.

This model is the reason why Turkey failed to procure a reactor between 1983 and 2010; more specifically, Ankara failed to give the vendor a treasury guarantee. It still doesn’t, arguing that the power purchasing arrangement with the electrical utility is good enough. Enter Rosatom. The Russian state-owned nuclear firm is not a private entity and receives ample funding from the Kremlin. Rosatom’s reactors are one of Russia’s few high-technology exports and the industry helps to employ Russia’s legions of Cold War era – and current – nuclear experts. The Kremlin, in turn, has also sought to use the company, as a tool of foreign policy, in much the same way Gazprom has become an arm of the Russian MFA.

For these reasons, Rosatom has embraced the BOO model – despite ample evidence that the financing for such a project makes little sense for the nuclear vendor. Under the terms of the BOO model, the vendor agrees to pay for the cost of construction and operate the plant in perpetuity, in exchange for the host-country to purchase a fixed amount of electricity at a set rate. For Turkey, that rate is 12.35 US cents per kilowatt-hour for 70% of the power produced at reactors one and two, and 30% of the power at the same price from reactors three and four.

After an agreed upon time – usually 15 years – the vendor is expected to have recouped its investment. In turn, Rosatom will then collect a percentage of the profit the Turkish state will make from the continued sale of Russian nuclear energy for the lifetime of the nuclear plant (70 years). This financing model puts pressure on Rosatom to finish the project on time, or otherwise risk extending the time in which it will recoup its initial outlay of expense – keeping in mind that the Kremlin is footing the bill for a $20 billion dollar investment. The Turkish reactor is now 4 years delayed.

Jordan and Egypt have announced that they too will pursue the BOO financing model. The good news: This model makes it all but impossible for the Rosatom three to proliferate. The reactor – a VVER-1200, or VVER-1000 – will be Russian owned and operated. The spent fuel pond will be Russian owned and operated. The fuel, Russian supplied. You get the point. So, if the Rosatom three wanted to proliferate, they would have to steal spent VVER LWR fuel from a Russian owned spent fuel pond and then reprocess it in facilities that don’t exist. They would have to do this without getting caught. Good luck.

The bad news: The BOO model is a regulatory nightmare. To ensure that Rostaom does not cut corners to hasten construction, the Rosatom three need strong, independent nuclear regulators. The regulator must also be empowered to influence the behavior of the operator. How will this work with a foreign owned and operated plant? Is Rosatom beholden to Turkey, or Moscow. At a bare minimum, you need a strong regulator and clear guidelines. The evidence is not encouraging: Turkey’s regulator is weak and beholden to the Prime Ministry for all its funds. Egypt’s is geriatric. And Jordan has no nuclear history. Not good.

If you add Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Bushehr, you can start to see a “nuclearized” region with little nuclear expertise – and nuclear regulations that are very much in their infancy. Is this the end of the world? No. There is stil time to work through these upcoming challenges. However, the regulatory issues are real and the international community has an incentive in ensuring that the region “gets this right.” Focusing on the long disproven idea of nuclear proliferation chains is not helpful and actually distracts from the issue we all should be focusing on: nuclear safety in a region (mostly) using creative financing techniques to “go nuclear.”

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A Look Behind the Curtain: The AKP’s Public Spat

Wow. It has been a busy week.

Turkish politics were turned upside down last week when AKP founder Bulent Arinc called out current Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, about his rhetoric surrounding the peace process. Arinc’s intervention prompted Erdogan ally, the Mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, to get involved and stand up for the Tall Man. A fight ensued. The fight ended on Sunday with an Erdogan victory; the Presidential system he has been advocating for overtly since 2011 is the center piece of the AKP’s electoral manifesto. How did we get here? What is going on with the peace process? What in the world is going on in Turkish politics? Where do the Kurds and the MHP fit in?

Tune in today for a conversation about this very busy two weeks in Turkish politics with Noah Blaser, an independent journalist in Istanbul and a Turkey Wonk regular.

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Erdogan’s Gordian Knot

The PKK-AKP peace process has been put on ice.

For political reasons, neither party can be seen as being too accommodating in these final ten weeks before Turkey’s June 2015 national election. The upcoming election is, in my opinion, the most important election in Turkey’s recent history. There are numerous interrelated issues driving the current political debate. The first dates back to 2007, when the AKP introduced significant electoral reforms, including a constitutional amendment (later approved in a referendum) for a directly elected president. The Grand National Assembly had hitherto selected the President, but after the Turkish military’s comically stupid intervention into Turkish politics, the AKP seized the initiative to make reforms. The party’s subsequent actions suggest that the change was never meant to be in isolation; it was always intended to be a short-term stop gap before the party could undertake a more sweeping change: the move to an executive presidency. The biggest proponent of this change was – and remains – Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The AKP was not unanimously in favor of this change. This disagreement resulted in a key turning point for the party: the start of an Erdogan led purge of “AKP liberals” in 2008, which resulted in a behind the scene clash (that played out in 2011) between Erdogan and former President Gul about a key element of intra-party politics in Turkey: control over the party list. In anticipation of his move to the presidency, Erdogan wanted to maintain control over the list. The job is traditionally reserved for the Prime Minister. Gul, in contrast, reportedly wanted to keep the system the way it was, owing to his expected move to the Prime Minister. Things did not work in Gul’s favor and he eventually opted to “retire” rather than act as a subservient Prime Minister to an ever more powerful Erdogan.

The party remained divided over the Presidential system, but nevertheless fell into line behind the “Tall Man,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as he led the charge to win more than 330 seats in the June 2011 election. If successful, the AKP would have been able to unilaterally rewrite the constitution, without any input/support from opposition parties (this draft would then be voted on in a national referendum). The party nearly succeeded, winning 327 votes in June 2011. In many ways, the party dodged a bullet. Erdogan is the most powerful man in Turkey. Full stop. But he had yet to convince his own caucus, who would need to vote en masse in favor of his preferred presidential system, on the need for a new more powerful executive.

Enter the Kurdish issue. By this time, the AKP’s earlier efforts to reach a peace agreement with the PKK had stalled, owing to MIT led negotiations leaking. No one knows who leaked the audio tapes, but there is some speculation that the Gulen movement, which is against the peace talks (owing to their preference for assimilation through religious education of Kurds), leaked the tapes. The collapse of this first round touched off fresh violence, similar in scope to the recent clashes in Cizre, rather than the horrible levels of violence during the 1990s. To put it in perspective, between 2009 and 2012, the International Crisis Group reports that over 900 people were killed. 2012 was a particularly bloody year – and came against the backdrop of a very worrying development for Turkish policymakers in Syria: The withdrawal of Syrian troops from the Kurdish border regions and the PYD’s creation of an autonomous entity, Rojava.

In the span of less than a year (dating from the start of the Syrian civil war), the AKP lost its “strategic depth” (I’m referring to the military use of the term, not Davutoglu’s) in Syria. With its back against the wall, both in terms of Turkey’s problems in Northern Syria (a war I think Ankara has lost, but that is for another post) and a rising body count back home, the AKP backed into renewed negotiations with the PKK.

The issue is ultimately tied to three factors. In exchange for greater autonomy, the AKP has demanded the PKK disarm. The PKK, by contrast, has said they will disarm once the constitution is changed to include guaranteed freedoms for the Kurds. The obvious compromise, of course, centered on Kurdish support for an AKP drafted constitution. This constitution would include more explicit rights for the Kurds, but also include Erdogan’s key demand of an executive presidency. The negotiations have been hamstrung ever since by disagreements over sequencing and issues related to autonomy for the Kurds and amnesty for PKK fighters.

The AKP had thought it had finalized a roadmap to disarmament in April 2015, but the letter penned by the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was rejected by the PKK military command in Kandil. Furthermore, the Kurdish political movement, now represented by two political parties, the HDP and the DBP, decided to run under the banner of a united HDP for the June 2015 election. The Kurds had hitherto relied on a loophole to overcome Turkey’s 10% election threshold. Kurdish candidates would run as independents and form a united caucus once in parliament. This time around, HDP leader Selahtin Demirtas, who secured 9.8% of the vote in the June 2014 presidential election, is leading a united HDP, which means that he needs to get over 10% of the vote.

If the HDP does not pass the threshold, the votes for the party will be distributed to the second highest vote getter in the region, which will surely be the AKP. The HDP’s decision resulted in speculation that the party had revived the grand bargain. The HDP would “throw the election” in return for an ironclad guarantee that the AKP – which would get over 330 votes because of the electoral math – would then rewrite the constitution (Many people, including myself, argued against this. But nevertheless there was a lot of speculation that there was a backroom deal).

Against this backdrop, Turkey’s hitherto successful economy began to sputter, owing primarily to improved US economic data and the growing likelihood that the US Federal Reserve will raise interest rates. This has resulted in the Lira losing value; indirectly raising concerns about an economic crisis amongst many Turks. (Mind you, these fears are unwarranted, but recent history has resulted in Turks associating Lira weakness with impending economic collapse.)

The economy has certainly run out of steam, which has deprived the AKP of its key political selling point: bank on us for more money in your wallet. Add to this the corruption scandal from December 2013. The AKP has launched a full on offense against the Gulen movement. In my opinion, they are losing the war; not because they aren’t the superior force, but because the resulting damage to Turkey’s reputation has touched off a very salient debate in Turkey about autocracy. The majority of AKP supporters brush off any notion of Erdogan being autocratic. However, for the 50% that don’t vote for the party, Erdogan is now viewed as a corrupt tyrant, leading Turkey down a path of dictatorship. The truth is in the middle, of course.

The AKP used to feed off of this polarization. Well, now it seems to be hurting them. The peace process has exposed the AKP to attacks from its most vulnerable flank: the nationalist right. And here is where Syria becomes important again. The PYD has – with direct US air support – succeeded in carving out a statelet. The defense of Kobane has also united Kurds behind a single cause: the defeat of ISIS. The AKP, by contrast, is believed to have supported the Islamic State, first when the group was still operating under the banner of Jabhat al Nusra, and then during the siege of Kobane, when the AKP was late to provide (very limited) support. The anger spilled over in October, when Kurds rioted, and the ensuing clashed resulted in some 45 deaths (most of which were Kurd-on-Kurd).

The AKP, by contrast, claims that it has done more for Syria than any other country. With regards to Kobane, the party points to its opening of the border to accept 200,000 refugees and AFAD’s subsequent building of 35,000 person refugee camp in Suruc. The refugees, however, have shunned the camp, in favor of Kurdish operated camps. These camps receive no support from the central government, are run by Kurdish controlled municipalities, and are patrolled by the PKK.

This is the new status quo in the southeast. This has opened the door for further far right skepticism about the peace process from (and greater HDP/DBP rhetoric aimed against the AKP’s Syria policy). Opinion poll after opinion poll now show that the AKP has lost votes, whereas the nationalist right MHP has gained votes. As of now, the AKP is expected to lose seats. The HDP, by contrast, remains the party of liberals, mostly because half the country hates the AKP and Erdogan. The party is flirting with the 10% threshold; raising the possibility of an MHP vote gain, an AKP seat loss, and an HDP that passes the threshold. All of this means one thing: a coalition government.

For Erdogan, this means that the executive presidency is over. Dead. Kaput. Up until this point, the AKP had been running on its tried and true formula: Economy and Democracy. The economic argument had been a slam dunk, before the aforementioned slow down. The democracy argument was a bit more nuanced. The AKP had made the peace process the center piece of its “we are more democratic” messaging; consistently pointing to the negotiations with the PKK as proof of the party’s liberal bona fides. The HDP’s holding firm to its principles – perhaps best symbolized by Demirtas’ most recent statement to his caucus in parliament, where he gave a 30 second speech saying “No we wont support an executive presidency” left little doubt about the party’s political future – has undermined this message and made the AKP look weak. In reality, the HDP had no choice but to oppose the AKP before the June election. In order to get 10%, the party has to disassociate with the AKP, owing to the aforementioned level of discomfort half of the country has about Erdogan.

Added to this is a rather uncomfortable reality: The Presidential system is not popular, even among AKP voters. Undeterred Erdogan now speaks twice a day every day about the virtues of his rule and the need to transition to a presidential system. It’s not working.

Moreover, it has ignited a debate within the AKP that never really went away: the merits of the presidential system. A minority of MPs are indirectly signaling their support for the status quo via their support for Ahmet Davutoglu – who has come to represent the Prime Ministerial system (to be clear, those who have publicly expressed their wariness about the situation are “third-termers,” which means that AKP party rules prevent them from running again for election in June). This faction remains hamstrung, however, by Davutoglu’s relative weakness. Davutoglu is an academic turned Foreign Minister, who is now trying to learn on the job in a politically charged atmosphere. He isn’t doing too well. Just this week, Erdogan outflanked him on numerous occasions. After all but announcing the final touches had been put on a key PKK demand for peace – the formation of a 16 person body to monitor the talks – Erdogan jumped into the fray, telling sympathetic media that he was opposed to the idea.

He had already ruffled feathers the week before when he said, on two different occasions, that Turkey did not have a “Kurdish Problem.” This kerfuffle resulted in Bulent Arinc – one of the three original founders of the AKP (the other being the “retired” Gul) – to chastise Erdogan for his unhelpful rhetoric. He did so politely, but there was not mistaking what he meant: the peace process is overseen by the Prime Minister, not the President. Butt out.

Arinc has a history of challenging Erdogan, but in this instance, it touched off a debate with the mayor Ankara, Melih Gokcek. The resulting verbal war of words continues, with both men accusing the other of being too close to the Gulen movement. Arinc has also hinted at what everyone in Turkey already knows: Gokcek is corrupt. Davutoglu has largely been silent on this issue, choosing to weakly say that it will be handled via the AKP’s intra-party disciplinary committee. Moreover, in a deft political move, Erdogan loyalist, Yalcin Akdogan (who also happens to be the point person on the peace talks), announced that all of the AKP supports the Presidential system. Davutoglu has conspicuously avoided the subject and done little to tamp down the rampant speculation that he is against the system. Akdogan’s comments will surely result in Davutoglu being asked about it in his next press conference.

Will the academic turned politician take the bait and lay his cards on the table? Probably not – there are ways to avoid this with standard talking point. But avoiding a direct answer is an answer in an of itself – and will certainly result in more speculation about an intra-party split about Erdogan and his presidential system.

Against this already complicated backdrop, the Turkish military has noticeably ramped up its operations in the southeast, after announcing that it was rooting out PKK “hideouts” in Mardin, and then responding to PKK mortar fire in Hakkari.

The events suggest that the party remains divided over messaging now that it is being challenged. On the one side, Erdogan has tacked to the nationalist right, in order to reverse the expected losses to the MHP. The Davutoglu led Prime Ministry appears more amenable to muddling through, without a clear plan to address these electoral challenges. The fight has since become a representation of the internal disagreement about the country’s future political system. There does, however, appear to be a point of consensus: the need to insert a bit more “stick” into the negotiations with the HDP/PKK.

More broadly, however, there are signs of even more trouble. Erdogan is in a unique bind. On the one hand, he needs to tack right on the Kurdish issue. He also needs the HDP to fail in its quest to pass the threshold. This would ensure 330 and allow for him to push the caucus to support his presidential system. However, he does not want violence. This means that he needs to keep the peace process alive. And this means that he needs a viable negotiating partner. If the HDP does not pass the threshold, the issue of political legitimacy will come into play.

Added to this is increased Kurdish expectations. The HDP’s sister party, the Demokratic Bolgeler Partisi, has literally changed its name to match the post-Rojava Kurdish expectations. They are now known as the Democratic Region’s Party, in a nod to Ocalan’s concept of democratic autonomy. Hence, if the party does not pass the threshold, it would surprise few serious Turkey analysts to see the DBP set up an autonomous parliament in Diyarbakir, thus forcing the government to either deal with it, or go back to war. For this reason – and the related developments in Syria – I think the Kurdish position is strong, compared to a weakening AKP.

This is where Erdogan’s electioneering may be the most harmful. At some point, these parties will need to come back to the table to work out these very complicated issues. Words matter. Erdogan’s words matter most. And Davutoglu appears powerless to firmly say what he wants to say: stick with the Prime Ministerial system and let me handle the peace process. And here is where this is most tragic: This all links back to the ambitions for an executive presidency, rather than a consensus driven approach to resolve the Kurdish issue and strike a lasting peace accord.

Moving forward, the key polls numbers to watch are the MHP and HDP figures. The HDP holds the keys to Erdogan’s future, but that future may require resorting to short term tactics that may undermine the potential for peace. Moreover, it speaks to a set of broader questions: Will an AKP-MHP coalition kill the peace process? Did Kandil’s rejection of the Ocalan letter prompt Erdogan to go back to the “stick led” approach vis-à-vis the Kurds? Will Davutoglu actually say what he thinks? No one knows. But one thing is clear: Turkey’s politics have changed considerably since June 2014.

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The Kurdish War against ISIS

After threatening Erbil in August, Islamic State militants have steadily lost territory to the Kurdish Peshmerga. Backed by US airpower and Iranian military support, Kurdish forces have regained control over territory lost to ISIS, control much of Kirkuk, and are battling ISIS militants near Sinjar and Hawija.

In today’s Turkey Wonk podcast, Aaron speaks with Fazel Hawrmy, a Kurdistan based journalist, about the Peshmerga’s multiple offensives, the battle for Sinjar city, and the forthcoming battle for the control of Hawija. In doing so, the discussion touches on the role of Turkey, the new sense of Pan-Kurdish nationalism after the battle for Kobane, and concludes with a plea for more tourists to visit Kurdistan.


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The Battle for Nineveh: The Turkish-Nujaifi Partnership

After the Islamic State’s rapid advance, tensions in Nineveh, an area of strategic importance for Turkish leaders, are on the rise. Turkey’s influence in Nineveh stems primarily from its relationship with three political parties: The Iraqi Islamic Party, Muttahidoon, whose leader, Osama al Nujaifi, is also one of Iraq’s three ceremonial vice-presidents, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Turkey also has its share of detractors in Nineveh, including: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party, and a slew of Shia militias.

In this episode of the Turkey Wonk Podcast, Aaron speaks with Kirk Sowell, the principal of Uticensis Risk Services and publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, about the situation in Nineveh, the PYD-PKK relationship with displaced Yazidis, Turkey’s potential role in the region to support the forthcoming Mosul operation, and Ankara’s relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi.


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Turkey’s (Not So New) Plan to Take on the Islamic State

Over the past couple of weeks, Turkey has announced some seemingly major changes to its approach to the war against the Islamic State. These recent news items include:

  • An agreement with the United States to train and equip Syrian rebels
  • Yalcin Akdogan and Sirri Sureyya Onder read a letter drafted in consultation with Abdullah Ocalan. The letter included an outline for future disarmament talks with the PKK. The letter was presumably altered (as was the venue chosen for its reading), after the PKK’s military leadership in Kandil vetoed the original text.
  • Bulent Arinc told the AKP allied A Haber that Turkey was preparing for a major anti-IS offensive in March
  • Turkey evacuated its personnel from the Suleyman Shah tomb; relocating the Tomb 180 meters inside Syrian territory, opposite the small border town of Esmeler (coordinates:  36°52’45.64″N  38° 6’21.08″E)
  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, where he met with the King alone for just 35 minutes, per Asli Aydintasbas in Milliyet today.
  • Ahmet Davutoglu travelled to the United States, where he will talk to a US think tank and UN officials – presumably about Syria.
  • Atheel al Nujaifi, the Turkish allied governor of Iraq’s Nineveh announced that Ankara would have a role in the planned offensive to retake the city from the Islamic State. Yeni Safak followed up with a report that Turkey is considering committing ground forces to support the offensive, before a more sober report indicated that this option was “unlikely.”
  • Ismet Yilmaz, Turkey’s defense minister, is visiting Baghdad, purportedly to gain support for this proposal. Perhaps to grease the wheels, two Turkish transport planes arrived in Baghdad with ammunition and light weapons for the Iraqi Security Forces  sleeping bags, tents, and medicine.
  • Harakat Hazm fell to Jabhat al Nusra in Idlib
  • Reuters reported that Qatar – presumably with Turkish support – is in deep discussion with Jabhat al Nusra to disassociate itself from Al Qaeda.
  • A shia militia led offensive kicked off to retake the town of Tikrit.

Turkey has been busy. But what should one make of all of this? The issues are all linked and therefore should be considered as one broad strand of Turkish policy. Ankara’s handling of the Syrian civil war has been comically bad. To borrow a line from Robert Ford:

International partners, Ford said, have to ditch the current “nonsensical” framework in which regional powerhouses each fund client groups in an uncoordinated tangle that he said would be comical if the results weren’t so tragic.

Turkey has broadly followed an independent policy in Syria. On the one hand, Ankara has worked with Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al Nusra. Yet, one the other, it has also worked with the US; supplying weapons (American made TOW missiles, presumably supplied by Saudi Arabia) through a joint operations center to US and Saudi preferred Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF).

The US has, at times, sought to take advantage of Ankara’s relationship with certain Salafi groups. Ankara has – at times –  played ball; going as far as to put pressure on Ahrar al Sham and Nusra to distance itself from certain rebel umbrella groups. To quote Charles Lister:

In May 2014, for example, the Islamic Front released a ‘Revolutionary Covenant’, which served as a ‘common framework’ of principles to which its component groups subscribed. The document did not include a reference to an Islamic State as being the ideal form of governance in a post-Assad Syria. Instead, according to Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution, ‘If rumors are to be believed, the Islamic Front, and particularly Ahrar al-Sham, had recently been forced into a corner by its backer/s … [to] “publicly distance yourself from Al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra) or lose your plentiful support”’.Moreover, after coming under pressure from Qatar – and presumably Turkey – eighteen rebel factions, including Ahrar Al-Sham joined the Revolutionary Command Council in August As such, the group appeared to be publicly distancing itself from Al-Nusra.

Hazm and Nusra began to clash over the summer. This placed Turkey in the rather odd situation of having given support to two groups battling one another in areas along its border. Now that Nusra has overrun Hazm and taken control of the supplied TOWs, the situation has grown more complicated. As such, it stands to reason that one key area of discussion between Saudi Arabia and Turkey during Erdogan’s recent visit hinged on how to “pick up the pieces” from this failed arming attempt.

Enter the recent news about Qatar. According to Reuters:

Leaders of Syria’s Nusra Front are considering cutting their links with al Qaeda to form a new entity backed by some Gulf states trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad, sources said. Sources within and close to Nusra said that Qatar, which enjoys good relations with the group, is encouraging the group to go ahead with the move, which would give Nusra a boost in funding … intelligence officials from Gulf states including Qatar have met the leader of Nusra, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, several times in the past few months to encourage him to abandon al Qaeda and to discuss what support they could provide, the sources said…One of the goals of the new entity would be to fight Islamic State, Nusra’s main competitor in Syria. IS is led by Iraqi jihadi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who helped create Nusra before falling out with Golani.

Golani, I presume is in Northern Syria, which means that Turkey must have been consulted about these Qatari-Nusra negotiations. This would suggest the following: There remains some considerable interest in Turkey and Qatar in working with Nusra, owing to the conception that both countries can “moderate” the Al Qaeda affiliate and make it “more Syrian nationalist” than “transnational Jihadi” in outlook. The Turkish-Qatar approach is not all the surprising – and in fact is a continuation of policy – but the wildcard is now Saudi Arabia’s policy. The Kingdom has its own complicated Syria/ Al Qaeda policy. It will be important to watch for any major changes in the next weeks and months with regards to Saudi Arabia’s approach to a group it is deeply uncomfortable with.

The Qatari emphasis on leveraging Nusra to fight IS fits with Ankara’s recent approach to the group. After evacuating the Suleyman Shah Tomb, Turkey has indicated that it is prepared to do more to fight the Islamic State. Ankara has been quietly telling the US government that it is prepared to send troops into Syria, in an operation that I would presume would look a lot like their major offensives in Iraqi Kurdistan during the 1990s. The operation, they say, would penetrate as far as Aleppo. Turkey has conditioned this on the US imposing an “air-exclusion-zone” over the northern part of the country. (For what it is worth, I fail to see how this is a serious policy option before the June 2015 election.)

Flash back to Qatar: One of the state reasons for the Nusra outreach is, according to Reuters:

The Nusra Front is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and has been sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. But for Qatar at least, rebranding Nusra would remove legal obstacles to supporting it.

The second leg of Turkey’s planned anti-IS offensive hinges on its training of Sunni forces in Nineveh. In the New York Times’ story on the Shia led offensive in Tikrit today, US commanders expressed their frustration at the inability to mobilize Sunni forces to support the anti-IS ground war.

The Americans’ discomfort has grown as Mr. Abadi’s government has been unable to mobilize significant Sunni forces to join the fight, something that American officials consider crucial to breaking the Islamic State’s hold on many heavily Sunni areas.

Turkey has a very close relationship with Atheel Nujaifi and his brother, Osama. Both men are the vanguards of the creation of an autonomous Sunni region in Iraq, similar to that of Iraqi Kurdistan. From Kirk Sowell:

The Nujayfis pushed autonomy during last year’s Sunni Arab protest movement, then again as part of their electoral campaign for the parliamentary elections held on April 30, and are continuing to press it as an immediate solution to the current security crisis — not something to be achieved down the road. During the campaign, their rhetoric and that of their political bloc, called Mutahidun (“Uniters”), has converged with the nationalist wing of the insurgency, describing government policies as “genocide” against Sunni Arabs and all military operations as a war against Sunnis. The Mutahidun-aligned Baghdad television channel has been running pro-insurgency coverage, routinely referring to insurgent fighters as “revolutionaries.” While the Nujayfis have repeatedly declared IS an enemy, they have been explicit that in order to take back Mosul they would have to work with the JRTN and other non-jihadist insurgents, whom they tend to describe as just local people with legitimate grievances.

The JRTN refers to the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order – some of which are fighting with IS. This nuanced approach to the Islamic State is similar to that of the approach taken by Turkey up until very recently. More from Sowell:

Almost as soon as he was forced out of Mosul on June 10, Uthil began talking publicly about armed “popular committees” that would take the city back from IS, then made his first direct appeal for the formation of an armed force under Nujayfi leadership on July 25. On Aug. 2, Osama announced that the Nujayfi family, in the name of the people of Mosul, was backing a group called the “Mosul Battalions,” which he described as local force formed to fight IS. In an Aug. 5 interview with Nineveh Tomorrow, Uthil detailed how the forces would work — there would be a provincial military force like the Peshmerga, more heavily armed than the police but less than the army, under the command of the governor. Another separate wing would be the Mosul Battalions, formed from locals to fight IS.The Nujayfis’ agenda faces two major problems. First, no conceivable government in Baghdad will support this. While some degree of decentralization finds support along the Shiite political spectrum, such a large degree of autonomy will be impossible for any potential Iraqi leader to stomach. Shiite opposition to funding the Kurdish region with its own independence security services has grown strong, and it is even more so for a Sunni region. This opposition, which had already calcified when Sunnis in Salah al-Din and Diyala tried to form autonomous governments in late 2011, is much hardened by the Nujayfis’ close political ties to the nationalist wing of the insurgency.

Arinc’s policy statement, therefore, appears linked to this still-born Nujaifi led initiative to train these “popular committees” to give a “Sunni face” to the coming Mosul operation. Ibrahim Kalin, for example, has supported the repealing of the de-baathifcation law, writing:

The de-Baathification policy was another colossal mistake whereby not only the Sunni members of the Saddam era Iraq were isolated and penalized but also and more importantly the basic structures of the Iraqi state were destroyed.

Ismet Yilmaz appears to have been dispatched to negotiate Turkey’s role for training these tribes. This will be exceedingly difficult, owing to Dawa’s outright rejection of the Nujaifi plan. And here is where Turkey will run into more problems: Mutahidun only controls 27 seats in the parliament, compared to 181 seats for Shia parties. (To be fair, a second Turkish ally, Ayad Allawi controls another 21 seats. Bottom line: Sunnis are weak, compared to Shia Islamist dominance.)

However, there does appear to be some American pressure behind the scenes to put a “Sunni face” on the Mosul op. This leads me to believe that there will indeed be some sort of token agreement, but make no mistake about it: Ankara’s training and arming of what will be Sunni majority tribes will not make the situation better – if it happens at all. In fact, I fail to understand why Turkey would do this: It will only deepen the already palpable notion that Turkey is a sectarian actor, pursuing a MB oriented foreign policy.

All of this is to say that Turkey’s very active last couple of days should not be viewed in isolation, but rather an extension of its efforts in Syria and Iraq over the past couple of years. The situation is incredibly complicated. Turkey has stumbled at numerous instances and has found itself in a rather uncomfortable position on numerous occasions, as evidenced by the Nusra-SRF/Hazm episode. Turkey still, however, remains beholden to the United States to implement its preferred strategy: the no-fly-zone option in Syria. As for Iraq, Ankara shows no signs of decreasing its alliance with the Nujaifis, despite recent efforts to tighten ties with Prime Minister Abadi.

All of this points to tough times ahead for Turkish foreign policy. Moreover, it paints a rather unflattering picture of the planned operation in Iraq. Turkey remains largely relegated to the Sunni movement. This movement remains weak and divided, compared to Iran’ influence, which is palpable and definitelvly anti-Islamic State. Bottom line: Turkey does view itself as being in competition with Iran in Iraq and the region. And it is losing. Thus, to link this back to the Saudi meeting, I do think there is an Iran component to what is going on, although I have to say, I think it is secondary to all that is going on.

Someone should ask Ahmet Davutoglu this week what he thinks about all this.

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