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Posts Tagged ‘Syrian Kurds’

I attended the Valdai Club conference on Russia in the Middle East that took place in Moscow February 19-20, 2018.  During the opening session on the first day, representatives from the governments of Russia, Iran, and Syria all denounced American policy toward the conflict in Syria.  By contrast, they portrayed Russia and Iran as fighting together against terrorism while U.S. actions were seen as supporting it.

Yet while speakers from Russia, Iran and Syria had the same view of the U.S., there was an important difference among them with regard to Turkey.  Bouthaina Shaaban, an advisor to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, bitterly denounced Turkey’s recent intervention in Afrin in northwestern Syria.  She described Ankara’s actions as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty and accused Turkey of facilitating the infiltration of mercenaries across the Syrian-Turkish border.  She also accused Turkey of not implementing the Astana agreement between Russia, Iran, and Turkey on establishing de-escalation zones in Syria.

The view of Turkey’s role in Syria expressed by both Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, though, was quite different.  Both of them portrayed Turkey as a partner in Syria.  Lavrov pointed out that American support for Syrian Kurdish forces has alienated Turkey.  Ankara fears that the more powerful the Syrian Kurds grow, the more powerful that separatist Kurds in Turkey will also become.  For his part, Zarif described Turkey’s anxiety about American support for Syrian Kurdish forces as “understandable.”

Yet despite these more positive views expressed by the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers of Turkey’s policy toward Syria at the Valdai conference, Moscow and Tehran are widely reported to be apprehensive about Turkey’s intervention in Syria.  There have even been reports that Russian forces in Syria have helped transport Kurdish fighters opposing the Turkish incursion to the battlefield.

But if Moscow and Tehran actually share Damascus’s anxiety about Turkish policy toward Syria (even if not to the same degree), why would Lavrov and Zarif downplay their differences with Ankara about it at this conference?

One possibility is that whatever their discomfort with Turkey’s military action in Afrin, Moscow and Tehran may see the opportunity to promote a wider rift between Turkey and the U.S. as simply too tempting to forego.  Since U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds (whom Washington sees as allies against both ISIS and Iranian-backed forces in Syria) is promoting Turkish hostility toward Washington, neither Moscow and Tehran wants to discourage this dynamic by directly confronting Turkish policy in Syria.  And to achieve this “greater good,” Moscow and Tehran are quite willing to ignore Damascus’s denunciation of Turkey’s intervention.

Yet Moscow’s policy may have yet another layer of complexity, as the session on the Kurds on the second day of the conference made clear.  While not directly opposing Turkey’s intervention against them, Moscow appears to be competing with the U.S. for influence with the Syrian Kurds by arguing that they would be better protected from Turkey through allying with the Damascus regime.  This, they argue, would afford Syrian Kurds better protection than relying only on U.S. support, which they see Washington as unwilling to sustain in the long run.

But can Russia really hope to get closer to Ankara by exploiting Turkish-American differences over the Syrian Kurds while at the same time luring the Syrian Kurds away from Washington through offering them a “better” means for resisting Turkey?  These aims seem to be quite contradictory.  But as contradictory as these two aims may be, it is America’s Syria policy that may have encouraged Russian hopes of achieving them.  This is because the U.S. has supported the Syrian Kurds enough to alienate Turkey but not enough to protect them from it, thus giving Moscow the opportunity to simultaneously exploit both Turkish and Syrian Kurdish unhappiness with American policy.

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Iran’s Mehr News Agency published an interview with me today. The interview was conducted by e-mail in English, but the article appeared in Farsi. I am posting here the English-language e-mail interview:

Mehr:  After the coup, President Erdogan announced Turkey would change its foreign policy.  Do you believe that Turkey’s foreign policy will change?

Katz:  President Erdogan seemed to be in the process of changing Turkish foreign policy before the coup attempt anyway, but he has accelerated this change since then.  The main outlines of this policy seem to be a move away from America and Europe and toward Russia and, to a certain extent, Iran.  Although Erdogan is still calling for the departure of Bashar Assad from Damascus, he is clearly de-emphasizing this goal and prioritizing the weakening of the Syrian Kurds instead.  Still, a Turkish “move toward Russia” does not mean an alliance with Russia—with which Turkey has long had many differences, including over the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute.  These differences will not disappear.

Mehr:  Ben Ali Yildirim , the Turkish Prime Minister  said, Russia can if necessary, have the use of Incirlik base. Will these statements damage Turkey’s relations with NATO?

Katz:  Such statements will indeed damage Turkey’s relations with NATO.  I think that it would be very difficult for NATO and Russian forces to share the same air base.  This statement may be more intended to motivate America and Europe to adopt policies that please Ankara rather than to signal an actual invitation to Russia. Even if there is a wider breakdown in Turkey’s relations with the West and U.S. forces end up leaving Incirlik, it is not clear that Turkey would really want forces from Russia to replace them.

Mehr:  Now that relations between Tehran and Turkey have improved after the military coup [attempt], can it be helpful in solving the Syrian crisis?

Katz:  Turkish-Iranian relations have generally been good, except with regard to Syria.  To the extent that Erdogan is no longer actively seeking the departure of Assad from Syria, the prospects for Iranian-Turkish cooperation will increase.  They appear to have common interests with regard to the Kurds also.  And to the extent that Erdogan now realizes that Sunni jihadists such as ISIS are actually a threat to Turkey, this may provide an additional common interest for Turkey to cooperate with Iran as well as Russia on.  Yet even if Turkish policy on Syria is moving closer to Iran’s and Russia’s, it is not clear that this will help resolve the Syrian crisis.  There are, after all, real differences between the Assad regime and its domestic opponents.  Further, these opponents seem quite likely to continue fighting—especially since there are other countries that continue to support them.

Mehr:  Fethullah Gülen’s extradition—would the US now give him over to Turkey?  And if not, what will be the consequences for relations between Turkey and the US?

Katz:  It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will ever extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey.  Ankara does not seem to have the sort of hard evidence needed to convince the American courts that Gulen was behind the coup attempt.  I, for one, do not think he was, and that Ankara is merely using the coup attempt (which appears to have been based within the Turkish security services) to label all Erdogan’s opponents (real and imagined) as “Gulenists” in order to get rid of them.

And this could have serious consequences for U.S.-Turkish relations.  Erdogan has made clear that he really wants Gulen extradited.  The U.S. will not accede to this.  Erdogan may then decide to take drastic action, such as withdraw Turkey from NATO.  Perhaps Erdogan wants to do this anyway, and is merely using the Gulen case as a pretext for arousing popular indignation within Turkey against the U.S. (where there is widespread belief that America and Europe actually supported the coup attempt). 

The U.S. does not want to see Turkey leave NATO, but would be unable to stop it.  Russia, of course, would be quite happy to see any country withdraw from NATO.  Still, a Turkey led by Erdogan that is outside of NATO may not pursue a quiet foreign policy, but attempt to assert itself as a regional great power instead.  Turkey’s neighbors (including Iran) may find Ankara much more difficult to deal with if its policies are not constrained by being a member of NATO.

 

 

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