Terrorism and counter-terrorism: Turkey and neighbors

The Turkish role in the U.S. operation on Baghdadi

US President Trump as he was announcing ISIS leader Baghdadi’s death in Syria..

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s suicide during the U.S. military operation to catch him in Syria on October 26 has closed a bloody page not only in the Syria civil war but also in the international struggle against terrorism. The elimination of one of the most brutal terrorist leaders in modern times was carried out by the American commandos, as it was announced on October 27 by U.S. President Donald Trump. As Moscow said, if it was really Baghdadi who killed himself, it is a victory for Trump.
It was a surprise for many circles in the West that Trump also thanked Turkey, as well as Russia, Syria, Iraq and the Syrian Kurds for their cooperation. Throughout the day, there was this social media campaign implying that Baghdadi was stopped by the Americans, thanks to the intelligence supplied by the YPG/PKK and that otherwise, he would make his way to Turkey. Revealing that Turkish airspace was also used by eight U.S. helicopters carrying out the operation, Trump said that Turks knew where they were heading to and the cooperation was “terrific”.
The Turkish Defence Ministry said U.S. counterparts contacted them on the night of October 26; the requests, reportedly, were met “within the spirit of Alliance and strategic partnership” and the Turkish troops in the area were warned. News reports are stating that the Turkish troops in Syria’s Idlib area withdrew towards the Turkish border before the U.S. operation. President Tayyip Erdoğan said that “Having paid the dearest price in the fight against Daesh, PKK/YPG, and other terrorist organizations, Turkey welcomes this development”.

The Turkish role: was Incirlik used?

Trump underlined in his statements that neither Russia nor Turkey and others were given any details about the secret operation; they did not ask either.
Following Trump’s words about the Turkish contribution, the questions focused on whether Turkey’s strategic Incirlik airbase, which is open for anti-ISIS coalition operations since 2015 and which is close to the operation area, was used at all in the U.S. commando operation. A high-ranking security source, who asked not to be named, told YetkinReport that Incirlik was not used in the operation but that the air space was coordinated between the Turkish and U.S. militaries.
Military experts say that the Turkish air space might also be used for U.S. planes and helicopters patrolling in the area for search-and-rescue operations, just in case.
A military analyst told YetkinReport that Americans might have missed Baghdadi during an August 31 raid in certain areas of Syria’s Idlib province, and not let Russia or Turkey know. And they might have chosen to cooperate this time, because of the failure of that operation.

The doubt raised by “General Mazloum”

The suspicions speculated about Turkey in especially Western social media throughout the day on October 27, right until Trump mentioned Turkey as cooperator, was partly fueled by “General Mazloum” of the YPG forces (or the SDF) in Syria. Mazloum said that the Baghdadi operation was made possible with the intelligence cooperation between YPG and the U.S. That is amid unconfirmed claims about the involvement of the YPG facilities in Kobane in the Baghdadi operation.
In Ankara, government circles believe that the role of YPG and Mazloum Abdi, (aka. Şahin Cilo, aka. Ferhad Abdi Şahin) was amplified on purpose in order to promote YPG’s declining profile in Syria and his profile as an alternative for armed Kurdish movements from within the PKK. As a result of a military campaign into Syria launched on October 9 against the possibility of the YPG (or PKK) threats across the border, Erdoğan reached a deal with the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on October 16, and then with Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 22, to push the YPG 30 km away from its borders.
That was followed by Trump praises for Mazloum and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu having a video conference with him as counterparts, which upset Ankara. When the reasons are asked to the American sources the answer is that they now want to use the YPG as a ground force to protect oil fields from getting into ISIS, or Iranian hands. When it is asked to Russians the answer is that they want to avoid engagement with the YPG and want to convince them to get away from the Turkish border. An alternative scenario in both American and Russian minds could be to convince Mazloum to split from the PKK and set his new Kurdish party in Syria; a highly complicated matter.

Turkey and the ISIS problem

Turkey’s problem with the U.S. over the YPG has started when the former U.S. President Barack Obama picked them as the ground force against ISIS despite Erdoğan’s objections. The U.S. had then started to provide arms, money and military training, which infuriated Turkey further.
Turkey, on the other hand, failed to perceive the ISIS threat with all its dimensions, especially at the beginning, in 2013-2014, taking it as just another Islamist rebel organization like the Moslem Brotherhood. The picture started to change in June 2014 when ISIS militants raided Turkey’s Mosul consulate in Iraq and captured 49 people there, including the Consul General. Turkey opened its bases for the use of the anti-ISIS coalition in June 2015, after Obama picked the YPG as his partner against ISIS. In October 2015 ISIS carried out Turkey’s biggest terror attack in Ankara killing 103 and wounding 500 with two suicide bombers. In 2016 ISIS killed 42 people in Istanbul’s Atatürk airport and 39 people in Istanbul’s Reina club on that new years’ night. In 2016, Turkey carried out its first incursion into Iraq against ISIS strongholds as Jarablus, Dabiq and al-Bab. The second, in early 2018, was against the YPG in Afrin.
The Baghdadi operation lifted another obstacle off of the political solution in Syria, which is the possibility of the establishment of a Kurdish state from within its territories. The operation took place a few days before the talks on a new constitution for Syria on October 30 in Geneva. That created new opportunities for all sides to focus on political solutions rather than proxy wars and a chance to not repeat the former mistakes.

Terrorism and counter-terrorism: Turkey and neighbors

Turkey achieves Syria goals through the military campaign and persistent diplomacy

U.S. VP Pence (L) had intensive talks with Turkish President Erdoğan about Syria in Ankara on October 17. (Photo: Presidency)

Following a total of 4 hours and 20 minutes of talks carried out in Turkish Presidency in Ankara on October 16, Turkey agreed to suspend its military campaign into Syria on the condition that the U.S. will withdraw the YPG militia out of a 20 miles (32 km) depth and some 440 km long “Safe Zone” in Syria along the Turkish border in 120 hours, or five days. According to consecutive statements made by the U.S. Vice president Mike Pence and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu separately, if Americans will be able to clear the area from YPG, an affiliate of the outlawed PKK, together with the weapons provided by the U.S. to fight against ISIS and all military facilities, Turkey will stop the military campaign and the sanctions on Turkey imposed by the U.S. will be lifted.
The United Nations has welcomed the agreement.
Turkey has been asking for a safe zone in Syria, along the Turkish border against the YPG/PKK since the former U.S. President Barack Obama had picked them as their ground force against ISIS in 2014, despite Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s objections and offering NATO ally Turkey’s cooperation. Erdoğan’s spokesman and top Security and Foreign Policy advisor İbrahim Kalın said on October 15 that Turkey had launched the military campaign on October 9 to establish the safe zone by its own power because the talks with the U.S. have been going on for nearly a year and did not bear any result. If the deal possible works, at the end of the 5-day suspension Turkish military will assume control over the safe zone to return nearly one-million of some 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country, who had originally migrated from that area. That is supposed to be valid until a political solution is reached for Syria, through the Geneva Conference. Pence said Turkey has to work out solutions for the control of the Syrian territory with Russia which supports Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime.

A Russian delegation was also there

Erdoğan’s top aidee Kalın (2nd Left) talking to Russian Envoy Lavrentyev(2nd Right) on October 17 right before the meetings with Americans. (Photo: Presidency

It is not a coincidence that a Russian delegation was in Turkish Presidency on the same day that Pence and his delegation were there for crucial talks.
As Jim Jeffrey the American Special Envoy for Syria and U.S. Ambassador to Ankara David Satterfield were waiting to be received by Erdoğan, as members of Pence’s delegation, Russia’s Special Envoy Aleksandr Lavrentyev and Ankara Ambassador Akelsey Erkhov were carrying out talks on Syria with Kalın and team in another room of the Presidential compound.
Erdoğan had had a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin a day before agreeing to meet him in Sochi next week. Russia already revealed that Turkish and Syrian delegations from defence and foreign ministries and intelligence were in “real time” contact thanks to their facilitation. Agencies reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif agreed on the phone on October 17 that they should help the Ankara-Damascus dialogue as well as the dialogue between Damascus and Syrian Kurds, for the sake of long-term stability in North-East Syria.
The first response of Damascus to the Turkish-American deal was that they do not want a “Kurdistan in Syria”.

Trump’s scandalous letter to Erdoğan

VP Pence arrived in Ankara together with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien under the heavy psychological atmosphere of a letter written by Trump to Erdoğan on October 9 asking him to negotiate with the head of the YPG instead of venturing a military operation. His remarks as “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” in the letter (apparently given by himself to Democrats) had triggered outrage against Trump in Turkish public opinion. Erdoğan was also criticized by the opposition for not strongly responding to Trump instantly.
When asked in the press conference, Çavuşoğlu said that Erdoğan would not get down to the level of language used by Trump and the American public opinion have already found it inappropriate. But Trump tweeted once again following the deal and said that “tough” love brought result. Showing Trump’s attitude, only minutes ago, he had thanked Erdoğan for his leadership.

“Spoiling many plots with one move”

Erdoğan seems to take Trump’s provoking and humiliating words on the chin but Turkey achieved, a great deal of Syria goals, and to be frank, thanks to its military campaign, perhaps a bit more than its persistent diplomacy.
In a surprising move, Turkish centre-left opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) gave its cautious blessing to the deal. CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu told YetkinReport that “At least the clashes are suspended, no one will die”. CHP Deputy Chairman Ünal Çeviköz considered the outcome of the talks as “positive for Turkey”, with a reservation that the next five days should be watched carefully.
Another outcome of the 5-day deal for Turkey was that an American President went on the record that the “PKK was probably more dangerous than ISIS”; something that Erdoğan would not say, considering all terrorist organizations as equally dangerous.
The deal, if the promises are kept, could be regarded as an important step towards the Geneva Talks for the “new Syria”.
“We spoiled several plots regarding our region with one move”, Kalın said proudly, implying the operation “Peace Spring” into Syria.

Terrorism and counter-terrorism: Turkey and neighbors, The Middle East Political and Economic Affairs

Reactions to Turkey’s Syria campaign: the U.S., Russia, the E.U. and the Muslim states

NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg was in Turkey on October 11 to discuss the Syria campaign with President Erdoğan (center) and Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu. (Archive photo: Presidency)

The United Nations Security Council had an emergency meeting on October 10 to take a stance against Turkey’s military campaign into Syria, launched on October 9. There were expectations of harsh reprimand and even sanctions. That didn’t happen: there wasn’t any denouncement. Furthermore, the U.S. and Russia made a move that they seldom choose to do: they vetoed the condemnation of Turkey. We’ll get to the reasons further on in this article.
After the vote, Turkey’s UN Permanent Representative Feridun Sinirlioğlu wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who had already asked for the de-escalation of the Turkish military operation and avoid hitting civilian targets. In the letter, Sinirlioğlu assured the secretary general that the “Peace Spring” operation is being run in a “proportionate, measured and responsible” manner, stressing that “All precautions are taken to avoid collateral damage to the civilian population.” Turkish National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and President Tayyip Erdoğan had already said similar sentences but, that letter stands for an official pledge made on Turkey’s part within the framework of international law.
A few interesting developments behind the scenes in the UN, in New York, followed this letter. For example, Permanent Representatives of six European Union (EU) countries issued a joint statement denouncing Turkey. These countries are Germany, France, Britain, Poland, Belgium and Estonia. Britain and France are permanent members of the Security Council with veto power. Germany and Poland are nonpermanent members. Indonesia and Kuwait, as two Muslim states, which are also nonpermanent members, seem like they did not object to the denouncement of Turkey.

NATO steps in

Turkey is a member of the Western defence alliance NATO. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General, arrived in Istanbul on October 11 to meet with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and President Tayyip Erdoğan.
The press conference with Çavuşoğlu was a bit tense. Stoltenberg stated that the the NATO understood Turkey’s “legitimate concerns” but that there was no consensus over Turkey’s military operation in Syria. Stoltenberg added that Turkey had to ensure that the gains we have made in the fight against ISIS are not jeopardized, as it was the common target.
Çavuşoğlu stated that acknowledging Ankara’s legitimate concerns was not enough. Turkey, naturally, wanted to hear “loud and clear” that the alliance was in full solidarity with the operation. This was odd considering Norway had stopped selling weapons to Turkey upon the operation’s announcement. According to Çavuşoğlu, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) –as the Syria branch or the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK)- was using tactics such as burning tires in the streets in order to give the false impression as if Turkish military was shelling cities and some allies have been falling into this “black propaganda”. That was an interesting example to give.
In conclusion, what continues to tailgate Turkey in this process is not only military difficulties but also diplomatic ones.
However, statements issued by the U.S., by Russia and by E.U. countries following the vote, as well as the recent developments, help us track down the respective positions all of these countries took concerning this operation directed against the PKK’s Syria activities next to its borders, carried under the protection of the U.S. until a few days ago.

What does the U.S. say?

On this issue, we have a couple of pointers. There are President Trump’s tweets that seem to shift in tone and message overnight that reflects the White House’s position, and there are the statements issued by the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Mike Pompeo’s mention of “Turkey’s legitimate security concerns”, for example, following his talk with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, is not to be missed.
Trump wants to make use of this situation to prevent Turkey from getting even closer with Russia and to create grounds for new trade connections. On the other hand, with impulsive words that don’t even affect the exchange rates, such as “I’ll devastate you if you kill the Kurds” he keeps Congress lobbies sweet at the expense of offending Ankara.
It’s possible to summarize the U.S.’s current attitude in the following way: 1- It doesn’t approve of Turkey’s operation on Syrian ground. 2- It doesn’t give military backing to Turkey in this context and, for example, doesn’t share air intelligence. 3- However, it also doesn’t stand in Turkey’s way, doesn’t set up a no-fly zone despite calls from the YPG and takes back about 50 of its soldiers that could sway the American flag. 4- It keeps the objection out of politics and within a “humanitarian” framework, such as the demand to leave the cilia Kurds and Christians unharmed. 5- In that framework the U.S. claims it will be Turkey’s responsibility if the jailed ISIS militants were free again.
This means that Trump wants to say “you had all that military training and money in return” and part ways with the YGP/PKK, that Barack Obama had chosen as allies in 2014 against ISIS despite turkey2s objections, and close the Syria chapter despite Israel’s objections. That’s why Trump expects Erdoğan’s Peace Spring operation to move against ISIS in a way that would justify Trump’s position against his American opponents, perhaps before November 13 where he said he invited Erdoğan to the White House.

What does Russia say?

Considering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Oct 11 statement, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statements right before the operation and just after it began, and the UN’s Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebezia’s statement following his vote to veto any denouncement of Turkey, we could sum up Russia’s position in six points: 1- Russia doesn’t approve of an operation of Syrian territory. 2- It finds Turkey’s concerns about the PKK legitimate. 3- It holds the U.S.’s collaboration with the PKK responsible for Turkey’s current operation in Syria. 4- Within that same framework, it holds the U.S. responsible for carrying out “demographic engineering” by replacing the Arab population with a Kurdish population in the East of Syria. 5- ISIS is a shared concern with Russia. 6- It suggests Ankara rekindles communication with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus.
That last point especially is a hidden reference to the Adana Protocol mentioned during the Astana meeting son September 16 between Erdoğan, Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The Adana Protocol which Erdoğan showed as a legal justification among the U.N. Chapter 51 on self-defense for the Peace Spring operation upon his return from Serbia. This protocol was signed, between Turkey and Syria on October 19, 1998, following the expulsion of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan from Syria upon Turkey’s threatening with war. The protocol suggests a joint struggle against terrorism by forming a joint committee, hinting a potential cooperation between Ankara and Damascus.

What does the EU say?

Some EU countries’ appeal to Turkey to end the operation, following the UN Security Council vote, points out to a certain pressure building up within EU capitals. Those capitals, on one hand, worry about yet another wave of migration for domestic policy reasons. On the other hand, they worry about their ISIS member citizens currently under PKK arrest by the YPG/PKK could be released and decide to return home. Finally, since the PKK has been well organized in European countries, particularly in Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK, they worry about the PKK’s possible acts of terror in their own countries.
Yet the EU failed to unite in denouncing Turkey’s decision: Victor Urban, who doesn’t want to see a single new Muslim immigrant in Hungary, and who considered the possibility that, should the operation be successful, the Syrians would return home, has vetoed the reprimand. But EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s claim, “if Turkey is asking us for money for the Safe Zone we can’t give it”, infuriated Ankara. Erdoğan harshly retaliated on October 10, saying “we don’t want your money but we can send your 3.6 million refugees”.
The EU countries’ position can be summed up as follows: 1- Turkey must stop the operation. 2- It must continue preventing immigrants from entering the EU. 3- It must not ask us for help in ensuring the immigrants can go back to Syria. 4- It must prevent the return of EU citizens who are members of ISIS.
These positions show that the EU cares about Turkey’s concerns even less than the U.S. or Russia say they do. The EU’s position looks ambivalent, unclear and far from being result-oriented.

What do the Muslim states say?

Frankly speaking, Erdoğan hasn’t had half the support he might have gotten from the U.S. or Russia from Muslim countries, except for Pakistan and Azerbaijan. The disappointment materialized in his speech directed at Justice and Development Party (AKP) provincial heads on October 10, where he said harsh, accusing words about Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Turkey had declared three days of national mourning following the death of Saudi King Abdullah in 2015.
The Arab League unanimously reprimanded Turkey; among these countries was Palestine, to which Turkey had made all kinds of help. Moreover, Qatar, which has been the greatest friend of Erdoğan’s AKP government, is a member of the Arab League as well. When Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates had made a blockade against Qatar n 2017, Turkey has sent troops in support; in 2019, Turkey trusted Qatar so much that it sold them tank shares.
The Arab League, which is scheduled to meet once more on October 13 to discuss the Peace Spring operation, don’t share the concerns of the other aforementioned countries; it looks like, even more so than being anti-Erdoğan, and anti-Turkey stance is coming into sight.
It’s also worth mentioning that Iran, which was one of the three countries in the Astana meetings alongside Turkey and Russia, is among the countries harshly criticizing Turkey’s Peace Spring operation.