About the author  ⁄ Diliman Abdulkader

There have been 25 dead journalists accounted for in Turkey since 1992; seven under Erdogan’s regime. Since the 2016 coup in Turkey, 189 media outlets have been shut down and more than 319 journalists have been arrested, the most of any country – even surpassing China.

In recent weeks, Turkey requested that the international police agency Interpol issue a “red notice” warrant to arrest exiled journalists Can Dundar and Ilhan Tanir. Erdogan’s abuse of Interpol to arrest his critics has received pushback from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said, “We must not misuse international organizations like Interpol for such purposes.”

If hunting them down weren’t enough, once journalists are in Turkish custody they are subject to more suffering. Turkish journalist Cevheri Guven stated that he was forced to sign his confession and was subject to mistreatment and torture. Another tactic is abduction. To date, 14 journalists have disappeared.

So why has the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi ignited like wildfire among the mainstream media? Why are we focused on one journalist and not all? Why just one country, Saudi Arabia, and nhot Turkey’s horrendous human rights record? If Saudi Arabia is guilty, then Turkey is beyond guilty. If this is truly about Jamal Khashoggi, then Turkey should be put under the same, if not greater, scrutiny until the cases of all 25 dead journalists have been solved and the perpetrators have been arrested – not just for Khashoggi. But this is not about human rights, nor is it about a journalist. Erdogan as usual is banking on a specific issue because he sees an opportunity to gain leverage.

Erdogan’s first motive is an attempt to shift the focus from his own troubled state to that of Saudi Arabia. If we discuss objectively a bad track record, then let’s have a look at Erdogan’s Turkey as of August 29, 2018: 170,372 state officials, teachers, bureaucrats and academics have been dismissed; 142,874 have been detained; 81,417 have been arrested; 3,003 schools, dormitories and universities have been shut down; 6,021 academic have lost their jobs; 4,463 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed – all since July 2016. This excludes the number of deaths and arrests in Erdogan’s war against the minority Kurds which number more than 20% of the country’s population in the southeast.

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. It does not claim to be a democracy nor does it want to be one, despite gradual changes by the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. However, Turkey claims to be a democratic state, a secular modern state, a European Union candidate, a NATO member and a US ally. But let’s not forget that Turkey has deep ties with Russia, evaded Iran sanctions, threatened US soldiers and top officials at Incirlik Air Base, still holds Americans hostage, has close ties with Hamas – a US-designated terrorist organization – and aided Islamic State while spreading Muslim Brotherhood ideology in the Middle East. So, what makes Erdogan’s Turkey better than Saudi Arabia?

If shifting the focus off Turkey is not enough, Erdogan desires closer ties with the United States and is bitter towards the Trump administration’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Erdogan believes as a NATO partner, Turkey should be priority for the US, not Saudi Arabia, despite ruining the relationship on his own. Most importantly, Iran has been quiet throughout the Khashoggi case. Erdogan is attempting to steer the US from taking punitive measures against Iran by weakening Saudi Arabia.

It seems Erdogan is fighting Iran’s battle against the kingdom. Iran is deviously doing what it does best, patiently wait to strike. Meanwhile, Erdogan will also likely demand more leverage in Syria, especially against US allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces. Erdogan’s mission throughout the Syrian conflict has been to disintegrate the partnership between the Kurds and Americans. But he has miserably failed and this is just another stab at it. Of course, Erdogan will attempt to receive some sort of financial aid either from Saudi Arabia or the US for keeping his silence. This is another form of hostage diplomacy – blackmail, actually – with which he is well acquainted.

Erdogan is self-appointed as the protector of the Jamal Khashoggi case, but he should not be taken seriously. His attempt to reconstruct the image of Turkey and himself should be approached with the utmost hesitancy. Erdogan is not to be trusted.

Originally published: https://www.jpost.com//Opinion/Khashoggi-who-put-Erdogan-in-charge-571008

Photo: WPA Pool/Getty Images

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Russia

It is clear that since Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet in 2015 which flew over Turkish airspace for just under 12 seconds, Vladimir Putin has acted strategically to gradually pull Turkey under his sphere of influence, and Erdogan has taken the bait. Putin has fed Erdogan bits of Syria, like the once stable Kurdish enclave, Afrin. Putin has sold Erdogan the S-400 surface to air missiles, a weapons system incompatible with the NATO security bloc systems. The S-400 is set to be delivered July 2019. Erdogan is also interested in jointly producing the S-500 missile with Russia, “besides [the S-400s], I have made a proposal to Russia for the joint production of the S-500s.” This move will further force Turkey to dependent on Russia, a move Putin is hoping for only to establish a permanent rift between NATO partners.

Iran

Turkish president, Erdogan helped Iran evade US sanctions for violating the Nuclear Deal, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from 2010 to 2015, allowing the regime in Tehran access to international markets. The witness, Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian Gold trader told jurors in New York that Erdogan had personally authorized a transaction on behalf of Iran. The banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, responsible for taking part in the trading scheme between Turkey and Iran was sentenced to 32 months in prison in Manhattan. Erdogan stated that “if Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal.” The Atilla v US case continues to prove that Turkey is damaging US strategy against the Iranian regime and is constantly aiding our enemies.

Incirlik Base

Incirlik Air Base in Turkey has been a strategic point of access for the United States into the Middle East. However, the base has been a thorn on our back, Turkey has constantly attempted to use it against the United States to get its way. Most recently, a group of Turkish lawyers, close to Erdogan’s circle has filed an arrest warrant of US officers based at Incirlik. Reported by Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) reported that lawyers filed a 60 page complaint of names which include top US officials asking for their detention. Included in the names is the commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) Gen. Joseph Votel. Clearly US men and women in uniform are not safe in Turkey, anti-American sentiments continue to surge thanks to Erdogan. The United states should look for alternatives and end our dependency on the airbase, in 2017 Germany made the decision to do so, redeploying its troops to a Jordanian airbase. A heavy US presence in Iraqi Kurdistan would be welcomed by Kurds, and would thwart Iranian influence in the region, disrupting their land bridge to the Mediterranean.

US Hostages

Since the failed coup of 2016, Erdogan has purged Turkish dissidents and foreigners inside the country. As Dr. Aykan Erdemir, former Turkish parliamentarian and current scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) brilliantly characterized it, Erdogan is using “hostage diplomacy” to gain leverage over the United States. Most famously imprisoned and now on house arrest is American Pastor, Andrew Brunson, who has worked in Turkey for over 20 years, and is accused of having ties to the Kurdish armed group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Islamic scholar, Fetullah Gulen, which Erdogan blames for the coup. Vice President Mike Pence avowed, “to president Erdogan and the Turkish government, on behalf of the president of the United States of America, release pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences. If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.” The Trump administration did sanction two top Turkish officials in addition to doubling tariffs on steel and aluminum against Turkey, but Erdogan seems determined to ignore US pressure. Turkey responded by imposing its own sanctions on two US officials. Another hostage is Turkish-American, Serkan Golge, a physicist who worked for NASA’s Mars Program.

Hamas

Hamas has been on the foreign terror list by the United States since 1997, yet Turkey’s Erdogan openly embraces the violent organization. In 2017, Erdogan reiterated his support saying “Hamas is not a terrorist organization.” Erdogan’s hypocrisy of fighting terrorists while aiding and abetting a recognized terrorist organization reflects the path of his neo Ottoman Islamic ideology. Hamas is clearly a threat not only to Israel but as well as the Palestinian people, and Erdogan is banking on the tension in Gaza. His desire to be the custodian of Jerusalem and to become the savior of the Palestinians through the creation of an “army of Islam” to destroy Israel is something the US must wake up to before it is too late.

Islamic State (IS)

Countless reports have been published on linking Turkey to either directly assisting the Islamic State or turning a blind eye. Turkey’s main goal, as it is today, is to weaken the Kurds in Syria at all costs even if it means allowing the brutal terrorist organization to roam free within Turkey and across its borders. In 2014, Turkish forces watched on top of a hill as Kurds were besieged in a small Syrian border town, in Kobane. In addition, Turkey has profited from illicit oil deals with the Islamic State, the deals were not limited to Turkey and IS but Erdogan’s family and the terror organization as well. In 2014, former Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu stated that “ISIS is not a terrorist organization. It’s a group of people bound together with discontent and anger.” In a report titled ISIS in Turkey published in May 2018,  it stated that “had Turkey not been so tolerant of ISIS activities within its borders, including recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters, ISIS would not be as powerful as it is today.” Moreover, Turkey continues to undermine US operations in Syria against IS as it targets the Kurds organized under the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF.

Originally published: https://securitystudies.org/6-challenges-for-us-turkish-relations/

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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Russia

It is clear that since Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet in 2015 which flew over Turkish airspace for just under 12 seconds, Vladimir Putin has acted strategically to gradually pull Turkey under his sphere of influence, and Erdogan has taken the bait. Putin has fed Erdogan bits of Syria, like the once stable Kurdish enclave, Afrin. Putin has sold Erdogan the S-400 surface to air missiles, a weapons system incompatible with the NATO security bloc systems. The S-400 is set to be delivered July 2019. Erdogan is also interested in jointly producing the S-500 missile with Russia, “besides [the S-400s], I have made a proposal to Russia for the joint production of the S-500s.” This move will further force Turkey to dependent on Russia, a move Putin is hoping for only to establish a permanent rift between NATO partners.

Iran

Turkish president, Erdogan helped Iran evade US sanctions for violating the Nuclear Deal, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from 2010 to 2015, allowing the regime in Tehran access to international markets. The witness, Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian Gold trader told jurors in New York that Erdogan had personally authorized a transaction on behalf of Iran. The banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, responsible for taking part in the trading scheme between Turkey and Iran was sentenced to 32 months in prison in Manhattan. Erdogan stated that “if Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal.” The Atilla v US case continues to prove that Turkey is damaging US strategy against the Iranian regime and is constantly aiding our enemies.

Incirlik Base

Incirlik Air Base in Turkey has been a strategic point of access for the United States into the Middle East. However, the base has been a thorn on our back, Turkey has constantly attempted to use it against the United States to get its way. Most recently, a group of Turkish lawyers, close to Erdogan’s circle has filed an arrest warrant of US officers based at Incirlik. Reported by Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) reported that lawyers filed a 60 page complaint of names which include top US officials asking for their detention. Included in the names is the commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) Gen. Joseph Votel. Clearly US men and women in uniform are not safe in Turkey, anti-American sentiments continue to surge thanks to Erdogan. The United states should look for alternatives and end our dependency on the airbase, in 2017 Germany made the decision to do so, redeploying its troops to a Jordanian airbase. A heavy US presence in Iraqi Kurdistan would be welcomed by Kurds, and would thwart Iranian influence in the region, disrupting their land bridge to the Mediterranean.

US Hostages

Since the failed coup of 2016, Erdogan has purged Turkish dissidents and foreigners inside the country. As Dr. Aykan Erdemir, former Turkish parliamentarian and current scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) brilliantly characterized it, Erdogan is using “hostage diplomacy” to gain leverage over the United States. Most famously imprisoned and now on house arrest is American Pastor, Andrew Brunson, who has worked in Turkey for over 20 years, and is accused of having ties to the Kurdish armed group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Islamic scholar, Fetullah Gulen, which Erdogan blames for the coup. Vice President Mike Pence avowed, “to president Erdogan and the Turkish government, on behalf of the president of the United States of America, release pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences. If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.” The Trump administration did sanction two top Turkish officials in addition to doubling tariffs on steel and aluminum against Turkey, but Erdogan seems determined to ignore US pressure. Turkey responded by imposing its own sanctions on two US officials. Another hostage is Turkish-American, Serkan Golge, a physicist who worked for NASA’s Mars Program.

Hamas

Hamas has been on the foreign terror list by the United States since 1997, yet Turkey’s Erdogan openly embraces the violent organization. In 2017, Erdogan reiterated his support saying “Hamas is not a terrorist organization.” Erdogan’s hypocrisy of fighting terrorists while aiding and abetting a recognized terrorist organization reflects the path of his neo Ottoman Islamic ideology. Hamas is clearly a threat not only to Israel but as well as the Palestinian people, and Erdogan is banking on the tension in Gaza. His desire to be the custodian of Jerusalem and to become the savior of the Palestinians through the creation of an “army of Islam” to destroy Israel is something the US must wake up to before it is too late.

Islamic State (IS)

Countless reports have been published on linking Turkey to either directly assisting the Islamic State or turning a blind eye. Turkey’s main goal, as it is today, is to weaken the Kurds in Syria at all costs even if it means allowing the brutal terrorist organization to roam free within Turkey and across its borders. In 2014, Turkish forces watched on top of a hill as Kurds were besieged in a small Syrian border town, in Kobane. In addition, Turkey has profited from illicit oil deals with the Islamic State, the deals were not limited to Turkey and IS but Erdogan’s family and the terror organization as well. In 2014, former Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu stated that “ISIS is not a terrorist organization. It’s a group of people bound together with discontent and anger.” In a report titled ISIS in Turkey published in May 2018,  it stated that “had Turkey not been so tolerant of ISIS activities within its borders, including recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters, ISIS would not be as powerful as it is today.” Moreover, Turkey continues to undermine US operations in Syria against IS as it targets the Kurds organized under the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF.

Originally published: https://securitystudies.org/6-challenges-for-us-turkish-relations/

Photo: Twitter

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“I am not used to receiving lectures about morality from a leader who bombs Kurdish villagers in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, who helps Iran get around international sanctions,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments on the US relocating its embassy to Jerusalem.

Are these genuine comments from the Israeli side? Many Kurds feel bitter at Israel, rightly so despite many common interests. The Kurdish sentiment is legitimate. They feel the Israeli government only speaks out when it benefits its own national interests and does not really care about the Kurdish cause. Whatever the motive may be for the Israeli government to speak up, it is certainly time to alter its policy toward Turkey, as Ankara is gradually adjusting its policy toward the Jewish state.

Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric against Israel went as far as comparing the Jewish State’s response to recent Gaza protests to that of Nazi Germany.

“There is no difference at all between the persecution inflicted on the Jews in Europe 75 years ago and the brutality faced by our brothers in Gaza.”

He further added, “the children of people who were tortured in concentration camps in every way during World War II unfortunately today resort to methods against innocent Palestinians that are in no way inferior to those of the Nazis.”

But do these words mean anything to the governments on both sides? Economic ties say otherwise.

Turkey was in fact the first Muslim country to recognize Israel as an independent state in 1948. What followed was a series of gradual economic agreements, which still dominate the relationship between the two states today. Economist Hatice Karahan said Turkish exports to Israel have continued to grow over the last several years. They were at about $2.5 billion in 2016, and in the first 10 months of 2017, Turkish exports to Israel went up another 14%. Turkey’s state air carrier, Turkish Airlines, is also the second most popular airline out of Tel Aviv after El Al, Joseph Dana reported in an opinion piece written for The National.

Due to the lack of hydrocarbon resources in Turkey, the Turkish government has heavily relied on Iraqi Kurdistan for its supplies, and of course is working with Israel to build a pipeline through Cypriot waters. From 1995 to 2015, Turkey’s exports to Israel was on average 4.26 times of its share in the world export, as described in the International Journal of Commerce and Management. Furthermore, chairman of the Turkish Exporters Assembly Mehmet Buyukeksi called for a tripling of trade volume between the two countries in the next five years. This is after in 2017, Turkish exports to Israel increased by 20% and Israeli exports to Turkey rose by 45%, and trade volume was set to grow to $10b. from $3.9b., wrote Sharon Udasin.

Israel was the only country to recognize the Kurdish independence referendum held in September 2017, which failed miserably due to the lack of strategy on the Kurdish side and the absence of hard support from the international community.

It seems Israeli support for the Kurds does not have teeth similar to Turkish support for Palestinians. The Palestinians are surrounded by 22 Arab states that all call for an independent Palestinian state in addition to Turkey and Iran. The Kurds on the other hand are left to find partners anywhere they can to push ahead with their aspirations for self-determination, even if it means resorting to Israel’s tiptoeing statements.

If the Israeli government is firm about supporting the Kurds, and truly envisions the Kurdish people as a common ally with common interests in a Middle East rapidly shifting toward Islamist authoritarian governments, it must act quickly.

This can be done by supporting the Kurds in Iraq, dominated by Iranian influence, and in Syria, a fractured state that continues to be dictated by President Bashar Assad and his brutal allies, which include Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and holds over 3 million Kurds who have been the only successful force fighting Islamic State while facing a military campaign from Erdogan’s army.

The more than 20 million Kurds living under the Islamist Erdogan regime in Turkey, and the 12 million Kurds being governed by the dangerous Iranian regime for nearly four decades, are key to Israel’s security in the region. But if Israel continues to accommodate Erdogan’s regime through trade ties, then it may risk losing Kurdish support too.

Originally published at: https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Israel-Turkey-and-the-Kurdish-question-559446

Photo: Al Jazeera

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Kurds have a saying, ‘no friends but the mountains.’ This stems from a sense of betrayal by the international community since the end of World War I and a promise that saw no traction in creating an independent state called Kurdistan. In the 21st century the Kurds once again fear they will be given the cold shoulder in Iraq and Syria, this time by the United States.

The US has developed a historical relationship with the Kurds in Iraq, following the first Gulf War. Under President George Bush, the US set up a no-fly zone which allowed the Kurds a space to govern themselves protecting them from Saddam Hussein. Soon after, in 1992 the Kurds established the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which set the stage for self-determination, from the Kurdish perspective at least. Fast forward to the 2003 Iraq War, the KRG became the most important and reliable ally of the US inside Iraq. Let’s not forget that not one American life was lost in the Kurdistan Region during the entirety of the war.

On September 25, 2017 the Kurdish government decided to make a unilateral decision and pushed forward a referendum calling for independence. As warned prior to holding the vote, the entire international community, and the US included took a hard stance against the Kurdish decision. Perhaps the Kurdish decision stemmed from the idea that the US and the rest of the world would finally reward them with a state after successfully disintegrating the Islamic State (IS) while the Iraqi army collapsed. But this hope was short lived and what followed was a disaster. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRCG) general Qassim Soleimani visited Sulaimania province to warn the Kurds against calling for independence. Iranian backed Shiite militias, specifically the Popular Mobilization force (PMU) overran Kurdish held oil rich Kirkuk, a disputed territory under the Iraqi constitution. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened military action. Iraqi Prime Minster Haidar Abadi warned of consequences, and he kept to his word.

With all this, in the eyes of the Kurdish regional government, the US was nowhere to be found. The Kurds found themselves isolated and alone.

In Syria, the Kurds in the northeast sense betrayal is looming, again from the United States. Prior to the rise of IS, the Kurds in Syria played a defensive role as Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad pounded his opponents. The Kurds neither took the side of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) (which today is fractured, unreliable and fighting Turkey’s war against the Kurds), or the Assad regime. The Kurds were simply protecting their historical territories in the north of the country. As IS rose and declared Raqqa to be its capital, the tides turned against the Kurds. IS saw all as its enemy, including the secular and “atheist” Kurds. Despite the push from the terror organization, the Kurds successfully organized fighters both men (People’s Protection Unit YPG) and women (Women’s Protection Unit YPJ). In alliance with the United States which later established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military force made up of the YPG, YPJ and Arab populations of north Syria. The SDF swiftly brought IS to its knees, liberated Raqqa and the rest of its territories east of the Euphrates River with less than 5% territory remaining.

Today there are about 2,200 US troops in northern Syria aligned with the SDF. The US plays many pivotal roles with its presence, which include but not limited to training and equipping the SDF, continue the fight against IS, prevent Russia, Iran and Assad forces from crossing the Euphrates river, help in reconstruction efforts in liberated areas and to patrol the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent Turkey from triggering a war against the Kurds, in what President Erdogan views as terrorists. However, President Donald Trump is adamant about withdrawing from Syria, a move if implemented, would be parallel to President Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.

A hasty US withdrawal from Syria would leave a giant gap for Russia, Iran and Turkey to fill and would ultimately leave the Kurds abandoned forcing them to make amends with Assad. This would undermine all progress made by US forces with the SDF and would further legitimize Assad’s dictatorship over all of Syria. The withdrawal is unnecessary as the Americans are welcomed by Syrians east of the Euphrates.

In Iraq, the United States risks losing the Kurds to Russia and Iran following the independence referendum due to lack of reliable US backing. US presence in the Kurdistan Region is critical as Iraq finds itself deeper in Iranian regimes sphere of influence.

The Kurds have proven to be reliable, honest partners time and time again both on the battle field and in the political arena. It is long overdue for the United States to distance itself from the status quo policy of keeping failed states of Iraq and Syrian intact. The US must implement a policy in the interest of our Kurdish partners so that we don’t lose them to the dangerous regimes in the unforgivable neighborhood that is the Middle East.

Originally published at: https://securitystudies.org/guest-opinion-america-cannot-afford-lose-kurds/

Photo: James Gordon

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As expected, Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the Turkish presidency and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained a majority in the parliament by aligning with the ultra-nationalist, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the path Erdogan has taken his country since the failed coup of 2016. Turkish society is very much polarized among Turks themselves and between Turks and the Kurdish minority. In his victory speech, Erdogan cried “one state, one country, one flag, one nation” while holding up four fingers echoing his words. This is a direct message to the 20 million-strong Kurdish population inside Turkey, who have been historically oppressed. Erdogan’s rhetoric is clear, Turkey is a state for Turks and no other nation, anyone else thinking otherwise will be dealt with in the harshest terms and will be labeled a terrorist.

Turkey’s shift from being a model state for the rest of the Middle East has slowly pivoted first towards Islamism, then fascism, and now a full-fledged dictatorship. This proves Erdogan’s commitment to his claim that democracy to him is really “like a train, you get off once you have reached your destination.”

It is unlikely that Erdogan will change for the better. He will now hold full executive powersuntil 2023 and likely after until the 100th anniversary of the founding of modern Turkey. The balancing prime minister’s position will be abolished. Erdogan will have control over the country’s banking and judicial system. No institution is beyond his reach including the media. Turkey under Erdogan is now the world’s number one jailer of journalists, surpassing China.

Erdogan’s win is a blow to democracy, one that the western world had an opportunity to prevent but failed to prevent. Erdogan was emboldened to call for early elections by his multiple military campaigns against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, by his invasion of Afrin against the US-allied Kurdish Peoples Protection Unit (YPG), and by getting away with his recent threat to attack Manbij, where US forces are positioned.

Why has Erdogan been able to get away with so much with such little consequence?

European Union states no longer have leverage against Erdogan. Before, the EU had the weight to shove Turkey in the right direction and if it failed to do so, then EU accession talks were suspended. Today, Erdogan would still like to join the EU, however it is not a priority. In other words, if it happens it happens. Erdogan has something better than EU accession, a leverage that can swing any state within the economic bloc to its favor, namely 3.5 million Syrian refugees. During the height of the refugee crisis in 2016, Erdogan threatened “You [EU] started asking what you would do if Turkey would open the gates. Look at me — if you go further, those border gates will be open. You should know that.” This week he repeated his threat, “in the past we have stopped people at the gates to Europe, in Edirne we stopped their buses. This happens once or twice and then we’ll open the gates and wish them a safe journey.” In response, the EU offered Erdogan 3 billion euros to prevent the “flooding” of refugees. EU’s response to Erdogan’s threat is preposterous and only encourages Erdogan’s aggressive tactics.

Unfortunately, many US politicians still have a naive understanding of Turkey, treating it as if it is the same country from the 90s when relations were at its peak. US foreign policy has failed to adapt to Erdogan’s gradual shift away from genuine democracy. Erdogan has strong relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and together they have signed a deal to contradict NATO defense systems and have gone ahead with the S-400 missile transaction set to be delivered July 2019. Erdogan is even open to the idea of jointly producing the S-500 with Russia, another missile system incompatible with NATO technology. Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal is to create a rift between NATO partners and Erdogan has taken the bait.

Meanwhile the US Defense Department is keen on selling Turkey US technology such as the F-35 striker jets, a dangerous move that Russia will surely take advantage of. Not to mention Erdogan’s constant threat to NATO ally Greece and its neighbor Cyprus, which still occupies since 1974. The US is tied to Turkey through NATO, but until there is a mechanism of phasing out partners in the security bloc, the US must overlook this barrier and protect its partners like the Kurds, allies in the region and national security interests in Syria, which Erdogan is moving against.

If the United States continues to accommodate Erdogan and his aggressive behavior, then we shouldn’t be surprised where Turkey will end up within the next 5-years. Erdogan managed to invade a neighboring country, force out indigenous populations in Syria, attack his own dissidents all with somewhat limited powers. The US must adapt quickly to Erdogan’s election win, his dream of reviving the old expansionist Ottoman map no longer seems so impossible if he thinks he has the greenlight from major powers.

Originally published at: https://securitystudies.org/guest-opinion-erdogan-winner-now/

Photo: Reuters

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Bashar al-Assad’s regime might soon be targeting northeastern Syria. This oil rich region is primarily composed of Kurds, and is secured predominantly by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The Kurds control over 28 percent of Syria and are backed by the United States.

In an interview last month with RT, Assad highlighted his intentions for the northern Kurdish held territory: “The only problem left in Syria is the SDF. We’re going to deal with it by two options. The first one, we started opening doors for negotiations. Because the majority of them are Syrians, supposedly they like their country, they don’t like to be puppets to any foreigner.”

He added, “we have one option, to live with each other as Syrians. If not, we’re going to resort to liberating those areas by force.”

If Assad decides to resort to forceful tactics, it is unclear whether he will receive backing. It is unlikely that Russia will allow a full military campaign. This move would not only be costly, but lengthy as well, and may risk weakening the advances made by the regime.

Furthermore, an assault on the Kurds could give a basis for the U.S. to move beyond the Euphrates river and into regime territory, forcing Russia into a position it does not want – direct confrontation with the U.S.

Assad is also aware that the Kurds are highly organized and battle hardened, unlike other groups he’s been able to easily defeat within weeks, like in eastern Ghouta. In addition, opening up a new front line along the Euphrates valley could cost billions and will surely prolong the 7-year civil war. In 2016, Assad said that the war had cost $200 billion, but acknowledged that only stability will allow Syria to recover, saying “economic issues can be settled immediately, when the situation stabilizes in Syria.”

Iran has also been protecting the regime since 2011, and is also unlikely to move beyond its current position as they are facing immense pressure from the international community to leave Syria. The Iranian regime has banked on the destruction of Syria since 2011 and has been able to expand, institutionalize its presence, and even threaten neighboring Israel. Most recently, Israel is reported to have convinced the Russians to move Iran away from its northern border, although this was later denied by Assad.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to Europe in order to gain significant support to pressure Iran to leave Syria. He visited Germany, France and the United Kingdom and said his goal for the trip “was to a large extent, achieved.”

So, if Russia is not willing to move against the U.S.-backed Kurds, and Iran is facing pressure from Israel and the international Coalition to leave Syria altogether, this only means that Assad is bluffing and his threat towards the Kurds is nothing more than the same authoritarian rhetoric he’s been spewing for the last seven years.

Ultimately what matters for Assad is to remain president of Syria. He may be able to succeed if he agrees to give the Kurds greater autonomy, similar to that of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It is critical to recognize that the Kurds have the upper hand here: Assad is only portraying resilience, when in reality he is eager for negotiations only to normalize his rule.

In response to Assad’s threat, the governing body of the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Council sent a delegation to Damascus to pave the way for talks with the regime. Assad’s threat was really a reaching out to the Kurds, and the SDC is embracing the opportunity.

Despite being the most reliable and successful force against the Islamic State, Syrian Kurds are perceived as secondary actors, and are often isolated and excluded from major peace talks including the U.N. sponsored talks in Geneva. Despite this, they have strategically negotiated with Russia, Assad, the U.S., and at one point even Turkey, who the Kurds assisted in moving an Ottoman tomb that was under threat inside Syria.

The Kurds in Syria have approached the situation pragmatically, which has helped them succeed.

There is still much uncertainty on whether the negotiations will have a positive outcome, but one thing is definite – Assad will not have the same control over Syria as he did pre-civil war.

The areas liberated by the Kurds in Deir Ezzor province hold large reserves of oil and gas, which is the primary source of revenue for the region. In 2017, the SDF captured the country’s largest oil field, al-Omar, from Islamic State. Al Omar produced 75,000 barrels per day in 2011 and brought in billions in revenue for the regime.

The SDC has the opportunity to negotiate not only territory but access to the Euphrates river via the Tabqa dam, or Euphrates dam, which is the main source for fresh water for the region, and was previously a major ISIS command center for its nearby capital, Raqqa. Prior to its liberation, a U.S. Central Command statement called the Tabqa dam “a key element of northern Syria’s economy, agricultural and way of life,” and warned that its destruction by ISIS “could lead to a severe humanitarian crisis.”

However, the tip-toeing policy of the U.S. towards the Kurds could be a source of concern. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned during the recent Turkish incursion into Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish region, that the reason for Turkey’s actions in Syria was because “Washington carries out open, and discreet delivery of arms to Syria for transfer to those groups that cooperate with them, especially to the SDF.”

U.S. President Donald Trump also threatened to withdraw from Syria, a move that would hinder the progress made in the war-torn country against ISIS, and would leave a vacuum for Iran and Russia to fill. This would leave the Kurds alone once again. The unpredictable policy of the U.S. towards the Kurds could play into Assad’s hands by giving him the power to claim that the Kurds are unwise to trust the Americans.

The Kurds realize that sooner or later the U.S. will give in to the demands of its NATO ally Turkey. A recent example of this was Manbij, a town near Afrin where U.S. and French forces are positioned along with top SDF military advisors. The town is secured by the Manbij Military Council, a force made up of local Arabs. Turkey demands that the SDF move east of the Euphrates river or they will attack. As expected, the U.S. gave into Turkish pressure and forced the withdrawal of SDF advisors from Manbij under a Turkey-U.S. deal.

Therefore, the Kurds have refined their alliances based on short term gains that will allow them to create a long-term presence, even if it means negotiating with a dictator like Bashar al-Assad.

Originally published at: https://thedefensepost.com/2018/06/21/assad-bluff-syria-kurds-opinion/

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Iraq, already ravaged by decades of ethnic and sectarian warfare, has quietly suffered a water shortage over the past decade.

Including the Kurdistan region, Iraq relies on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers for 98 percent for its drinking, irrigation and sanitation supplies. The majority of the country also lives along the two historic rivers, which originate in Turkey. Turkey has built 22 dams and 19 hydropower plants through its Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP) in the region where the majority of its Kurdish population live.

Lacking hydrocarbon resources within Turkey, the government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has realized water is the ultimate weapon, not oil.

This all began as a national project by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, aiming to better “integrate eastern Anatolia into the rest of Turkey and generate economic development through the construction of irrigation projects.”

However, what we are witnessing is a devastating effect on Iraq’s population. Ankara attempted to increase the number projects in the southeast to provide a better quality of life for the impoverished people there who are suffering from the Turkish war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But “the government’s securitization of the Kurdish issue has created grounds for mistrust, prompting some to wonder whether Turkey is looking to its own grand political objectives – securing electricity supplies, boosting agricultural exports, assimilating the Kurdish population, etc. – rather than truly looking after its constituents’ needs, as it claims,” Ilektra Tsakalidou, an analyst on European energy security at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, wrote in 2013.

Turkey's Ilisu dam
Turkey’s Ilisu dam. Image: dsi.gov.tr

Mismanagement by the central Iraqi government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region administration surely plays a role, but the root of the water shortage lies in Turkey. According to Iraq’s Minister of Water Resources, Hassan al-Janabi, water levels have dropped by 40 percent over the past few years, largely due to storage facilities in Turkey.

GAP has failed to bring stability to not only Turkey’s own Kurdish population but also towards its Kurdish and Arab neighbors too.

The most recent controversial project is Turkey’s Ilisu Dam, named after Ilisu village. The project began in 2006. Ilisu dam also threatens Hasankeyf, a historic city more than 12,000 years old which sits along the Tigris River.

Hasankeyf
The historic Historic central Mosque in Hasankeyf, a town Image: Poyraz 72/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0

Hasankeyf is considered to be one of the oldest inhabited settlement in the world. It is currently home to about 78,000 residents, and is on the brink of becoming a sunken treasure due to the Ilisu Dam. The destruction of the ancient town according to Turkey’s top constitutional court is at the “discretion of the state.”

When complete, the dam will increase the level of the Tigris at Hasankeyf by 60 metres, submerging 80 percent of the town as well as nearby villages.

The construction of the dam has also reduced water flow to southern Iraq’s marshlands, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2016. During Saddam Hussein’s rule the government drained the same marshlands to drive out Shiite rebels sheltering among the local population.

Iraq marshlan Arabs in a mashoof
Marsh Arabs poling a traditional mashoof in the marshlands of southern Iraq. Image: Hassan Janali, US Army Corps of Engineers

Turkey’s recent actions have resulted in a similar outcome but one affecting the entire country. The marshes produce food and provide water for animals of local farmers. However, Ilisu Dam has the potential to reduce the water flow into Iraq by 56 percent, and is likely to affect neighboring Iran too.

It is highly unlikely that Iraq has the strength and ability to push back against Turkey. Like Iran, Turkey has undermined Iraqi sovereign territory. Ankara has built nearly 20 military bases in northern Iraq. Turkey has been working with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Masoud Barzani, to target and eliminate its longtime enemy, the PKK, which is headquartered in Qandil mountain.

As Ahmed al Jabouri, the Iraqi foreign relations parliamentary committee member has stated, the “water shortage in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers is the most dangerous historic problem that Iraq is confronting [because of] the dams Turkey is constructing.”

Turkey has taken advantage of the ongoing chaos in Iraq, instability which allows the Turkish government to maneuver as it wishes without being confronted by either the Kurdish Peshmerga or the Iraqi security forces.

Iraq has yet to recover from the 2003 war, let alone the fight against Islamic State. Demanding that Turkey behaves in an amenable manner is far beyond Baghdad’s reach, unless it convinces the United States to act against its NATO partner.

Most recently, Iraqi prime minister Haidar al Abadi stated, “Ankara deliberately chose the timing [of the completion of Ilisu dam] to exploit the issue for political and electoral purposes.” Nevertheless, the worst-case scenario would be another armed conflict, this time by the Popular Mobilization Units, factions of which are linked to Iran, against Turkish armed forces in Iraq, which would push Ankara to further reduce the water flow.

Iraqi cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose Sairoon bloc won the recent Iraqi elections, has declared, “we give the government a few days to look into the issue of water and electricity or to allow us to regain our rights.” Sadr, known as a nationalist, may be forced to take matters into his own hands. One option could be to prevent oil from flowing from Kirkuk to Turkey.

As long as Baghdad is fractured, and is undermined by Iranian influence, Turkey will use its control over water to take advantage of Iraq’s weakened state.

This will allow Turkey to push back against Iran – its regional rival – while also fighting its nemesis, the PKK. Tehran has thrown its weight around, and gained influence over the Shiite-led government in Baghdad by dominating the military and political sectors since 2003. The Iranian presence increased after the Obama administration scaled down the number of U.S. forces in 2011.

Iraq has become a breeding ground for regional powers to bolster their influence beyond their borders. But in the end, as Fadel Al Zubi, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, has said, “the one that pays the price is always the country where the river ends – in this case Iraq.”

Originally published at: https://thedefensepost.com/2018/06/07/turkey-water-war-iraq-kurdistan-opinion/

Photo: dsi.gov.tr

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Iraq just held its first elections since the defeat of the so called Islamic State. The victory over the terror group was led by Prime Minister Haider al Abadi as he affirmed, “our forces fully control the Iraqi-Syrian border, and thus we can announce the end of the war against Daesh.” This was in December 2017, five months before the elections took place. Prime Minister Abadi had the full backing of the United States, and was commonly known as “our guy in Baghdad.” For Abadi, the US did all it could to strengthen his position, the current administration even went as far as supporting Abadi during the Kurdish independence referendum held in September 2017 and ignored Kurdish calls to stop the Iranian funded, legalized Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) incursion into Kirkuk, just a week after President Donald Trump designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. The US was willing to do anything to keep another Maliki type figure from regaining power in Iraq. US strategy was clear, keep Iraq physically united, keep the Kurds tied to Baghdad, and ultimately weaken Iranian influence.

However, the US missed a key component of Iraqi politics, its devious foe, Muqtada al Sadr. Al Sadr is a Shiite but is also heavily nationalistic and has challenged both Iran and the US. Al Sadr has been accused numerous times by the Pentagon for American deaths during the height of the 2003 war. The Mahdi Army, led by Al Sadr, was the first Shiite militia to target US forces in Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein. At one point, the Pentagon stated, “the Mahdi Army had replaced al Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence.” Muqtada al Sadr himself will not hold the prime ministerial position but will have the ability to appoint one which align with his views.

Al Sadr’s Sairoon (The Marchers) bloc, in alliance with Iraq’s Communist Party and a handful of other parties, composed of both Sunnis and Shiites including a Kurdish faction, was victorious. Iranian backed Fatah Alliance came in second while Abadi’s Al Nasr, despite his victory against the Islamic State and retaining control of the Kurds, established a weak third and Maliki came in fourth. Turnout for the election was at an all-time low, 44.52% compared to 60% in 2014. So, what does this mean for the US?

Although Al Sadr continues his anti-American rhetoric, he is still not Iran. He has transformed himself from a former Iranian ally to nothing short of an Arab nationalist. He has met with Sunni heads of states, including the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in July 2017. If anyone can push Iranian influence out of Iraq, it is al Sadr. This may be enough for the United States’ long term policy in Iraq. But there is one catch, al Sadr demands for the total withdrawal of all US troops in Iraq, now numbering at a little over 5,000. For American policy, the hope still lies with Abadi, a possible coalition with al Sadr may convince him to allow the presence of a small footprint to continue the training of Iraqi forces and play a strategic role against Iran’s continued expansion into Iraq and beyond.

The Fatah Alliance, a pro-Iranian coalition, is backed by the PMF and Iranian General Qassim Soleimani, commander of the IRGC who surprisingly lost to Al Sadr. Iraqi’s seem unsatisfied with a strong Iranian presence within their state, and feel they’ve lost their country to the neighboring Shiite theocracy. Nonetheless, Soleimani is dedicated to pressuring the fractured lists in uniting with Iran, strengthening Tehran while undermining Baghdad. The loss comes shortly after the US withdrew from the infamous Iran nuclear deal and recent successful Israeli attacks against IRGC bases in Syria, further isolating the Islamic regime.

The alternative path for the United States in Iraq is to pivot back towards the Kurds in the north. After a feeling of betrayal among the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government and those who voted for the independence referendum, the Kurds are always willing to accept US support. The Kurdish house has been in disorder dating back to the 2017 referendum, and the recent elections proved no different. Mass accusations of election fraud, system hacking, threats, and gun fights in party headquarters quickly ensued. The main faction, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) align closer with al Sadr. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is deeply influenced by Iran, as are the rest of the Kurdish groups including New Generation, Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ), Change Movement, and the two small Islamic parties. The alternative path may not have a solid foothold in Baghdad, with only 58 seats but can be reconstructed that the KRG are playmakers once again as they were prior to the referendum. If the US does not strengthen the KRG, Kurds will likely shift towards either Iran or al Sadr.

Despite the United States having major setbacks due to the conflict, it remains a key player. The US invested heavily in Abadi while crippling the Kurds, only to keep a failed state intact. The unpredictability of Muqtada al Sadr may force Abadi on the sidelines to further isolate the United States. Iran, however, suffered the most and will continue to undermine the Iraqi security forces by bolstering the PMF. We may also find Iran resorting to sectarianism to delegitimatize Al Sadr’s unity coalition in the near future.

Originally published: https://securitystudies.org/guest-opinion-iraqi-elections-loss-us-even-bigger-loss-iran/

Photo: Middle East Eye

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The United States under President Trump is contemplating whether to strike the Assad regime after its usage of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb Douma this past week.

The first and obvious option for the president is to follow up on the promise he made when he tweeted “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” on April 11th.

The United States has the backing of a strong and willing coalition to push forward a military option which includes France, the United Kingdom and even Saudi Arabia. Other leaders, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated, “Germany will not take part in military action, but we see and support that everything is done to send a signal that his use of chemical weapons is not acceptable.” Germany’s participation in a possible strike may come in other means. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated “we are not looking to be present in Syria.” Turkey’s response is a contradictory one: Prime Minister Binali Yildirim responded to the US-Russian spat as “street fighting” and continued on to say “They are fighting like street bullies. But who is paying the price? It’s civilians.” Turkey has very little credibility when it comes to protecting civilians, especially in Syria. The Turkish state just completed its illegal and aggressive air and ground campaign in northwest Syria in the predominately Kurdish canton of Afrin, which to date has a consequence of nothing short of a humanitarian crisis, Turkification process and ethnic cleansing.

From the time the President publicized his intentions to strike Syria, Assad forces vacated possible areas of targets such as airports, military air bases and outposts. Iranian proxies under the IRGC mainly Hezbollah have also dispersed critical zones that the US may see as fair game. Russian reactions to the president’s tweet were clear, “smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, not towards the lawful government.” However, the West does not see the Assad regime as the lawful or legitimate government.

The second option President Trump has at his disposal is the diplomatic leverage the US can use towards Russia due to the pressure of a possible military strike- Russia’s commitment in Syria is deeply rooted in its military presence along the Mediterranean, not with the Assad regime. The United States can guarantee to Russia it can maintain its bases without US interference, and in return the Trump administration can demand the full ousting of the Assad regime and the removal of all Iranian proxies inside Syria including IRGC and Hezbollah.

A full-blown US strike on Syria can devastate the Assad regime, especially as he is close enough to declare victory in the seven-year civil war. A banishment of the regime from Syria is a swap Russia can tolerate because it simply does not have the appetite to be driven into a whole new war against the United States. The removal of Iranian proxies and their military bases will prove to the extent Russia truly controls Syria, if at all. With Assad and its Iranian allies out of the picture, Israel too will feel more secure and less reluctant to convince President Trump to strike.

Photo: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Originally Published: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/US-options-on-Syria-to-strike-or-not-549742

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