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.

Turkish Domestic Politics Analysis and Forecast

The analysis of the Turkish military campaign into Syria on its first day

Turkish National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar (center) conducting the Syria campaign Syria with Chief of Staff, General Yaşar Güler (left) and Land Forces Commander, General Ümit Dündar. (Photo: Ministry)

The third Turkish military campaign into Syria in the last three years was launched as of 16:00 Turkish time (14.00 GMT), on October 9, as announced by President Tayyip Erdoğan on his Twitter account.
The operation coded as “Peace Spring” has started with Turkish F-16s taking off from the Diyarbakır airbase hitting their targets near the towns of Tel Abiad and Rasulayn in Syria, by the Turkish border. Extraordinary activity in the İncirlik base near Adana was also reported. Simultaneously, 45 km range Fırtına (Storm) howitzers took position near the towns of Akçakale and Ceylanpınar on the Turkish side and began to shell the same targets. In a statement, in the early evening hours, the Turkish Defense Ministry stated that “only terrorists and their fortifications, trenches, positions, weapons, vehicles and equipment” were being targeted, and not civilians or civilian buildings.
The ministry announced as of 22:30 that the troopers have started to cross the border into Syria as well.

Military analysis

The main target of the operation is to push the armed groups affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) away from the Turkish-Syrian border with a total length of 910 km. The PKK’s Syria branch called the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its militia force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) –under the name of Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) – have been collaborating with the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). They have been serving as mercenary ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since 2014 despite Turkey’s objections.
Turkey also wants to have a “Safe Zone”, a strip between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris with roughly 30 km deep (or 20 miles as the U.S. President Donald Trump has pronounced earlier). Turkey also wants to build towns and villages for nearly 2 million of the nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees who currently live in Turkey.
The 120 km-long-strip between Tel Abiad-Akçakale and Rasulayn-Ceylanpınar seems to be the main bridgehead for the Turkish campaign. There are mainly Arab-populated towns and villages in that region, which might mean less resistance onsite by the YPG. If the Turkish military and the newly re-branded Syria National Army (SNA) manage to hold the area it is most likely that the forces will spread to the West towards the YPG/PKK stronghold Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) and to the South to take parts of the M4 highway under control in order to severe the PKK’s logistical links in Syria and its headquarters in Iraq’s Kandil Mountains by the Iranian border. The Turkish Air Force has been bombing the PKK’s positions in Iraq near the Turkish and Syrian borders for months, as preemptive strikes meant to destroy the passage points on the ground.
The PKK positions in Manbij and Tel Rifat in West of the river Euphrates are likely targets in the operation. The clashes might be fatal since the U.S. army has been providing arms and training for tens of thousands of YPG/PKK militants for the last 5 years in Syria.

Diplomatic analysis

Turkey seems diplomatically isolated in the “Peace Spring” operation when the official statements are considered.
Several countries, from Syria to Germany and Saudi Arabia to Sweden, have condemned the operation. Head of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker has asked Turkey to stop it. Trump said that the U.S. was not supporting the Turkish operation and that he had told Erdoğan during their telephone talk on October 6 that the military campaign would be a bad idea. The U.S. Congress has threatened Turkey with “sanctions from hell” if Turkey entered Syria and actually started to take steps in that direction.
On the other hand, it was Trump who gave hidden support for the Turkish operation by saying that the U.S. would not get involved and withdrew his symbolic presence troops from the border areas. There is no time limit announced for the operation but the November 13 meeting in Washington DC announced by Trump with Erdoğan might be a threshold. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow did not approve the incursion but understood Turkey’s legitimate security concerns as long as Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty rights were respected. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also said that Turkey had known security concerns but should act proportionately.
Turkish Defense Ministry said in writing that the operation was “being conducted by respecting the territorial integrity of Syria and in the framework of the “Right of Self Defence” in Article 51 of the UN Charter”. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Damascus was informed about the campaign with a diplomatic note, talking to a number of his colleagues including Mike Pompeo for the U.S. Ambassadors of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council which is set to have an emergency meeting on the matter on October 10 were briefed about the operation in the foreign ministry.
Turkey is likely to have difficulties in the diplomacy field as well as on the ground.

Political analysis

All major political parties except the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the third biggest in the Turkish parliament have voted for permitting Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to send troops abroad on October 8. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the center-left main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said he was against the war but took the hard decision because fighting terrorism means self-defense for Turkey, also insisting that the operation should be conducted in cooperation with Bashar al-Assad’s government.
As soon as the operation was launched Erdoğan called up all party leaders other than the HDP and briefed about the campaign.
It seems Erdoğan will not have much difficulty in the domestic scene, especially if the operation will end soon and with as fewer causalities as possible.
Symbolism analysis
The operation was launched on the 21st anniversary of the expulsion of Abdullah Öcalan, the founding leader of the PKK from his headquarters in Damascus in 1998, following Turkey’s threatening (father) Hafez al-Assad with war. Öcalan was captured on February 1999 as he was forced out of the Greek Embassy in Kenya, where he was hiding as a result of a joint operation of the U.S. and Turkish intelligence services CIA and MIT.
The name Peace Spring has linguistic links with the original name of the town Kobane, which is Ayn al-Arab, meaning the Arap Spring. The Turkish-American ties got severed over the siege of the YPG held town by ISIS in 2014 when former U.S. President Barack Obama ignored his NATO ally Erdoğan’s objections and opted to cooperate with the YPG against ISIS.

Crocodile tears for “Kurds” or the “PKK”?

Not only Trump but a number of Western politicians expressed concern about the Turkish attacks “Kurds” as the “savior” of Christians from the hands of ISIS, without making any distinction about millions of Kurds living in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria having diverse political views and the PKK. Trump went as far as threatening to “devastate” the Turkish economy if “Turks” attempted to erase “Kurds”.
But there was no American reply when the SDF has asked for the closure of Syrian air space by the Americans to stop Turkish air raids; Trump said the U.S. would stay out of it. It will not be the first example if armed Kurdish movements would be abandoned after being used by the Americans against opponents in the Middle East, since the end of the WWII.

Turkish Domestic Politics Analysis and Forecast

Erdoğan got Trump’s backing: Turkish troops are heading for Syria

Turkish National Defense Ministry shared photos of maneuvering tanks near the Syrian border.

The parliament has extended on October 8 the use of military troops abroad for another year: there is no obstacle left to send Turkish soldiers into Syria to take the border zones between Euphrates and Tigris rivers to clear the region from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) affiliated militia. Another aim is to return some of 3.6 million Syrian refugees back to their home, also building new homes for them in a “Safe Zone”. The operation, titled “Fountain of Peace” aims to put in place the safe zone Turkey has talked about for years.
It’s a serious matter: this is war. It’s against the PKK but will take place on Syrian territory. Should the PKK release the ISIS militants they imprisoned, new security threats will emerge and will affect Turkey too.
Keeping in mind the words of Turkey’s founder Atatürk that any war that is not about self-defence is murder, it should be noted that no Turkish government could sit and watch what the PKK has been doing next to its border for the last five years thanks to its cooperation with the U.S., whether it be against ISIS.
The war will take place in Syrian territory but the Syrian government, already in ruins from the civil war, has no control over it. Syria’s supporter Russia, on the other hand, “understands” Turkey’s security concerns along its borders on the condition of Turkey’s respect to Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty rights; that means will not stay there forever.
It’s not a joke; it’s a war and it’s pressing.

Erdoğan got what he wanted from Trump, but…

The U.S. (or rather president Trump) managed to extend some meagre support for Turkey on this issue.
Trump’s indirect support for Turkey’s incursion into Syria against the PKK on October 6 and his open support on October 8, as he invited Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan to Washington on November 13 seem to be in line. Some of the U.S. President’s rather provocative tweets like “devastating” Turkey’s economy if they “attack the Kurds” have outrage everyone in Ankara. But as long as we consider these outbursts, not in the context of international politics, but the context of American domestic politics, the jigsaw falls into place.
The really surprising aspect of Trump’s recent speech is about the F-35 issue. It’s well known that the U.S. Secretary of Defense had started the procedure to “unwind” Turkey from the F-35 project to which they were production partners, due to Turkey’s purchase of Russia S-400 missiles. Trump, however, defined Turkey as an important NATO ally that produced the steel frame of the F-35s.
But right after that series of tweets by Trump, Republican Senator Lidnsey Graham literally shelled Turkey: “If Turkey moves into northern Syria, sanctions from hell –by congress- will follow. Wide, deep and devastating sanctions.” In order to think that such threats would deter not only Erdoğan’s Justice and development Party (AKP) government, but any other government in Turkey as the die is cast, needs poor knowledge about Turkey, if not a pure domestic political move.

The PKK, s-400s and F-35s: all in one?

There is a new, probable scenario at hand. Driving the PKK away from the Turkish borders, after the U.S. has used them as mercenaries for five years, while Turkey stays in the F-35 project and takes Patriots on top of the Russian S-400s. This is the scenario where Erdoğan reaches most of his declared targets. To get there, he perhaps gave his word to the Russian head of state Vladimir Putin (and to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani) that he’s given up on overthrowing Syria’s head of state Bashar al-Assad. He might have also made some trade promises to Trump. But in the end, diplomacy is about mutual compromise.
There is a subtext, of course. The American media, for example, was aware that it wouldn’t be easy to thrust Turkey out of the F-35 project since day one; it was already delaying and had soared in cost. Turkey’s closer relation to Russia following the purchase of the S-400s, which are superior to the U.S.’s Patriots, and Erdoğan’s further interest in the Russian Su-35s must have unsettled the U.S.
How do we understand this?

Something stirring in Washington DC

Michael Doran from the Hudson Institute, a research agency in line with the Republican Party, posted a tweet on October 7. Meanwhile, Trump’s Syria statement was wreaking havoc in Washington; Republicans and well as Democrats insisted that they shouldn’t let the Kurds down as they had fought on their side. This attitude was, in a way, a reference to the countless times where the U.S. used the Kurds for their interest in the Middle-East, only to let them down once they no longer needed them; since the end of the Second World War.
Here is, on the other hand, what Doran had to say about the issue: “We aligned under Obama not with ‘the Kurds,’ but with the PKK, the sworn enemy of the Turkish Republic, our ally. We were sowing the seeds of a Turkish-PKK war with that policy. We were also driving Turkey toward Russia”. The importance in this particular researcher making such a claim lies in the fact that Trump “retweeted” the post making this statement.
This was the message that turkey had grown weary in trying to deliver, for the last five years.

People seeing a new Israel in a possible Kurdish state?

Moreover, an October 7 “special news story” published on Newsweek contained citations from an anonymous National Security Council (NSC) authority. This unnamed officer claims to have firsthand knowledge of the October 6 phone call between Trump and Erdoğan. This officer who harshly criticized Trump’s green light for Turkey’s Syrian move said the following, according to Newsweek:
“To be honest with you, it would be better for the United States to support a Kurdish nation across Turkey, Syria and Iraq. It would be another Israel in the region.”
If anyone in Turkey had said this, they would be stamped as a conspiracy theorist. But it looks like this thesis was being seriously thought of and discussed by certain people in the White House; we’re finding it out thanks to Newsweek.
A change in Trump’s Syria policy, after he’s forced his National Security Advisor John Bolton to resign, was something expected. Bolton, who was one of the neo-con hawks of the Bush government was considered among the pro-Israel decision-makers in Washington.

Can Trump be trusted?

Trump, in his last statement, was obstructively praising “the Kurds” to whom they “gave guns and money” and advising the Turkish soldiers not to attack them unless it was for self-defence. This looks like a move to soothe the Republicans in Congress. Trump shows Congress that he hurts Turkey on purpose. He even implied that Pastor Brunson was released by Erdoğan because he wanted to, despite the court’s ruling.
Trump’s hairpin turns and outbursts that sometimes give the impression that he’s lost his mind have no end.
His claims that relieved Erdoğan weren’t made because he loves Erdoğan or Turkey very much. He sticks with his “America First” slogan, so he does what he is doing because he believes they’re in the U.S.’s interest. That’s why we must consider that he might change his mind later on. And we must consider the emphasis he put on Turkey as the U.S.’s trading partner and the target of increasing the trading volume between the countries from ﹩20 billion to ﹩100 billion.
This was the atmosphere as Turkish troops was getting prepared to get into Syria for their third and the biggest military campaign in the last three years.

Turkish Domestic Politics Analysis and Forecast

A new risk in Turkish politics: Erdoğan’s ally wants main opposition CHP leader in jail

Turkish opposition CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu says the requaest of putting him on trial by ruling AKP’s ally MHP was aiming to silence him; “do if you have the guts” he challenges them. (Photo: CHP)

It truly was an outlandish scene. Just as the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) consultative body meeting started on October 5, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan sent his recovery wishes for inpatient Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli, in the name of “all of the Welfare Party (RP)”. There was round applause, albeit not too strong. The RP as one of predecessors of the AKP had been closed down in 1998 by the Constitutional Court; Erdoğan’s was a Freudian slip.
Then, Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar, whose AKP membership status in unknown, quietly interfered from his front seat and said: “AKP, say AKP”. At first, Erdoğan didn’t notice the mistake but after a couple more warnings by Akar, he realized it and corrected himself: “all of the Justice and Development Party”; thunders of applause ensued. The family members present at the meeting seemed the most relieved by this correction, as was reflected in their facial expressions.
Where to begin? Should we question why Erdoğan’s, evidently guided by a prompter, started off the advisory board meeting by thanking MHP’s Bahçeli? What about the fact that the only person in the meeting to carefully listen and audaciously correct Erdoğan was Akar? Or should we consider Erdoğan’s Freudian slip, revealing that his master, perhaps subconsciously, is still RP’s late Necmettin Erbakan? Although he is a president with an extraordinary level of authority in his hands, Erdoğan’s inner struggle still seems to be with Erbakan.
Perhaps it’s best to start with inpatient Bahçeli. On October 4 Bahçeli said that the Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu should be strip off from his parliamentary immunity, put on trial and it’s safe to say that this was something breaking the mold.

Bahçeli and some small political tremors

MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli requesting CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu be put on trial due to his relations with the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) can be considered one of the most dangerous political developments in recent memory. Predictions of a series of “small political tremors” in Ankara that emerged following the AKP-People’s Alliance coalition’s failure at local elections have started to manifest themselves sooner than anticipated.
Bahçeli’s written statement aiming to incarcerate Kılıçdaroğlu was akin to submitting a petition directly to President Erdoğan. Before Bahçeli’s request, there was a debate whether to lower the Presidential election threshold from 50+1 to 40 per cent. This idea, which would make way for a transition to a parliamentary system, could rule out Erdoğan’s dependence on Bahçeli. Is it a coincidence that the time for Erdoğan’s advisory board meeting in Kızılcahamam was set right before Bahçeli made his move?
Bahçeli, who is perhaps one of the most talented tacticians in Turkish political history, has intervened just in time. It was as if he was asking “shall we continue, or else” to Erdoğan and the answer he was hinting at involved a conspiracy to wipe Erdoğan’s biggest political rival, KIlıçdaroğlu, off the political map.

Kılıçdaroğlu: they want to silence me

Considering Kılıçdaroğlu is a leader who has been subjected to physical assault multiple times and whom the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attempted to assassinate, Bahçeli’s outburst gets even more irritant.
Kılıçdaroğlu harshly retorted to Bahçeli’s attack on October 5 during the CHP advisory meetings in Abant: “do it if you’ve got the guts”, he said, adding that the government front was trying to silence him. He made special mention of the sale of national tank firm shares to Qatar for ﹩50 million.
The idea of putting a CHP member to prison is not a new debate for the AKP. The information that this was first discussed after CHP member Enis Berberoğlu was imprisoned and Kılıçdaroğlu started the Justice March right after on June 15, 2017, but that Erdoğan didn’t approve this criminal complaint at the time, had circulated in the political backstage in Ankara. Some MHP officials have were reportedly lobbied on the AKP echelons to erase İYİ Parti (GP) leader Meral Akşener off the political board through jurisdiction; this was brought up especially before the 2018 Presidential election.

If you can’t beat them in the poll, put them in jail: a tactic

Bahçeli’s tactics that bring political opportunism to a new low are starting to become clearer.
Bahçeli had passionately defended the 10 per cent electoral threshold to prevent HDP’s entry to parliament; he was firm in this stance until the last moment. He saw that that same threshold worked against him, putting his MHP behind HDP on election night, June 7, 2015. The confidence vote risk looming over the AKP at the time was an opportunity for Bahçeli. After the coup attempt on June 2016, though, the Presidential Government System he created with President Erdoğan rendered it all obsolete: there was no more room for a prime minister, a confidence vote at parliament or a 10 per cent electoral threshold to lean on.
Thus Bahçeli would no longer need to win an election, fight to pass the 10 per cent threshold or struggle to enter the parliament. First, he used the 2017 referendum, then the 2018 Presidential elections, and finally the coalition formed with the AKP before the 2019 municipal elections, dubbed the People’s Alliance. These moves gave him space to manoeuvre and make an impact on how the government is run. For example, he believes he has the right to publicly defend the ministers of Interior and Justice, even against criticisms that come from the AKP.
Bahçeli is conspiring to imprison the rivals he cannot beat, all while putting the burden on Erdoğan and the AKP. And by offering this dangerous deal to Erdoğan, he manages to get Erdoğan’s warrant that “the 40 per cent plan is not in question”.

A dangerous game to play, a trap for democracy

Imprisoning party leaders to get them out of the political equation was considered a byproduct of military coups until recently. Democrat Party (DP) leader Celal Bayar and Prime Minister Adnan Menderes were imprisoned following the military coup of May 27, 1960. Justice Party (AP) leader Süleyman Demirel and CHP leader Bülent Ecevit, both of whom had also served as President, were imprisoned following the coup on September 12, 1980. Among the leaders imprisoned by the September 12 regime were National Salvation Party (MSP) leader Necmettin Erbakan, alongside whom Erdoğan had entered the political scene, as well as MHP leader Alparslan Türkeş – Bahçeli had begun his career during his leadership. (Türkeş was also a member of the May 27 junta, the first military intervention to politics in Turkish democratic history, though he had objected the executions of PM Menderes, Foreign Minister Fatin Rüştü Zorlu and Finance Minister Hasan Polatkan.) One exception to this trend emerged recently. HDP ex-co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ were arrested and imprisoned in November 2016; before that, there was a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
Right now, thankfully, there is neither coup nor coup attempt at hand. But there is Bahçeli’s attempt to get main opposition CHP’s leader Kılıçdaroğlu, who was successful in his the coalition formed before the municipal elections, off the board by incarcerating him.
Bahçeli’s proposal looks like a trap that will harm not only Kılıçdaroğlu but also Erdoğan himself and pluralist democracy in Turkey – or what is now left of it. Once we take this road, anyone can find themselves fall victim to it – including those that made the way.

Turkish Domestic Politics Analysis and Forecast

Erdoğan’s pain to stay in power but drop MHP: the 40 pct debate

The end of summer recess in the Turkish Parliament: Opposition parties did not join the AKP-MHP ruling block’s the standing ovation for President Erdoğan, because he is also the chairman of the AKP.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s Syria warnings at the Parliament’s legislative year opening on October 1 were not something unexpected. It had already become clear, after the National Security Council (MGK) meeting on September 30 that he would give out a new message for the U.S. about the possibility of a Safe Zone in Syria and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). What was surprising, however, was Erdoğan’s approach to a remark made by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) member Faruk Çelik. In reference to the presidential elections, Çelik had said on September 29 that “Whoever gets 40 per cent on the first run should be elected; 50 percent +1 vote formula would tire Turkey”.
This was a possible gateway to change in the Presidential Government System, which was put in place in 2017 with the backing of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). When journalists asked about this, Erdoğan reluctantly stated that “it requires a change in the constitution”. However, “we can change this if we’re in it together, ruling party and opposition alike”, he added, as though he wanted to keep that new doorway ajar. The reporters pushed on, asking whether would AKP be the party to bring this proposal to the table at the parliament, to which Erdoğan responded simply by saying it was “the opposition’s job”. Though, the person asking this question was not from the opposition: he was an AKP member who had served in his government and recently been appointed to the Board of the public Ziraat Bank.
A reporter insisted on a clearer answer: did Erdoğan mean “we don’t need it, we’ll get 50+1 votes no matter what”? No, he didn’t mean that. He only meant that if the opposition was to bring up this issue at parliament, it would be discussed; he even was open to the opposition’s suggestions on this issue. The key point to take from this sentence is that Erdoğan is unsure about whether he’ll gather the 50+1 under any circumstance.

The local elections wound gets sorer by the day

The KONDA research and consultancy firm that had correctly forecasted that Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Ekrem İmamoğlu would outscore AKP for the İstanbul municipality by 9 per cent in the revote of June 23. KONDA’s Director Bekir Ağırdır stated in an interview with T24 in earlier hours of October 1 that the AKP had regressed to the “lowest level in its voter base”. According to Ağırdır, the recent AKP-MHP coalition (The Nation Alliance), AKP’s influence had been reduced whilst the MHP gained more force.
The daily Cumhuriyet wrote on October 2 that according to data from 6 different research companies, the AKP-MHP coalition’s votes combined had dropped to below 50 per cent.
Faruk Çelik’s statement to the local Olay newspaper in Bursa was important for two reasons. Firstly, it was made following Vice President Fuat Oktay’s evaluation of the Presidential Government System’s first year. Secondly, there is the fact that the main subjects of the AKP exploratory meetings set to take place in Kızılcahamam on October 4-6 are the repeated defeats at the March 31 and June 23 local elections; or, to put it mildly, an assessment of the election results.
The foreign diplomats I have spoken to lately say that the impression they’ve gotten since the local election failures is that Erdoğan is on a political decline. Going for the option of the early election in such a climate where economic problems come piling up as the public bears its toll with ever-increasing prices is, of course, unrealistic. On the other hand, there is an increasing impression that MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli’s recipe of joining in on the government without winning an election is starting to make the AKP feel more and more trapped.

Erdoğan targeted the opposition, but his party was hit

The first reaction to Erdoğan came from his 2018 presidential elections rival Muharrem İnce of the CHP. İnce interpreted those words as the AKP’s way of saying “we won’t be able to reach that level of votes again so if I just lower the bar a little bit, I might get re-elected”. Aytun Çıray from Good Party (GP) said that “a discussion on the constitution should be wholistic” and that “we cannot discuss it clause-by-clause”.
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, on the other hand, didn’t even bring the subject up in his address to his parliamentary group.
Whilst the CHP and GP saw the “40 per cent” talk as bait and steered clear, the AKP began discussing it. Parliamentary speaker Mustafa Şentop said that he was against changing the 50+1 formula. AKP’s Ömer Çelik stood closer to the opposition’s critiques and said that “going below 50 per cent will give off the impression that we work not for the people but the good of oursevles”. Çelik said the subject wasn’t in the AKP’s agenda; it was the idea of one of their members.
But Erdoğan’s words are still there: he said that they were open to constitutional change requests made by the opposition. Because Erdoğan has other, serious concerns.
Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan’s speeding up of their processes to detach themselves from the AKP and found their parties was not the only blow AKP suffered as a result of the local elections. It also leads to an increasing discomfort concerning the need to have the MHP by their side; this includes the Kurdish voters steering away from AKP because of their links with the MHP.
So it looks like AKP can’t do with or without MHP. Erdoğan seems to be looking for a way to preserve his rule whilst getting rid of the obligation to side with MHP.

Turkish Domestic Politics Analysis and Forecast

More journalists, academics face jail amid Judicial Refom move

Justice Minister Gül says criticism was not a crime but a prosecutor demands for 4 years jail term for journalist Yılmaz because of asking a question. (Photo: Justice Ministry)

An Istanbul prosecutor has asked for 4 years and 1 month in jail for journalist Mehmet Yılmaz on September 27. The reason was that his question On T24 news site about how ex-Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s children made their fortune was taken as an “insult”. Just a day before, scientist Bülent Şık was sentenced to 15 months in prison, accused of publishing secret documents, because he spoke out about findings of carcinogenic contaminants on agricultural produce. These are the circumstances in which the Parliament which is to kick off its new legislative year on October 1 will begin to discuss the new Judicial Reform.

When I first heard about the sentence asked against Yılmaz, what first came to my mind was the words of Minister of Justice Abdülhamit Gül. He had said, just a while ago, that “criticism should not be cause for imprisonment” in a Hürriyet interview with İpek Özbey. What Yılmaz said was not even a criticism: it was a question. But it looks like Yıldırım took it not as a question but as a criticism, and the prosecutor agreed with him.

I read the Reform draft. I’ll give credit where it’s due, there are a few positive points. These include the affirmation that criticism is not a criminal offence, as well as some increases in the penalty for crimes of sexual violence. But not much has been done to protect and improve judicial independence, freedom of expression or to increase the overall quality of our democracy.

If this draft is to be approved as it is, will the state continue to arrest and imprison journalists, academics, politicians, writers and thinkers accusing them of terrorism or of insulting statesmen? Will the ones who were already in jail remain incarcerated? Or will it all end?

Journalists, politicians in prison

Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chairs Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş have been in prison since November 4, 2016; they were accused of terrorism. Sırrı Süreyya Önder, who has served as a sort of messenger between the state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) during the dialogue process, has been in prison since December 6, 2018. Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Eren Erdem was imprisoned on June 29, 2018, and is still behind bars with the same terrorism accusation.

Social activist Osman Kavala, has been in prison, accused of conspiring the Gezi protests in 2013 on his 699th day today, on September 30, 2019.

It has recently surfaced that journalist Nazlı Ilıcak, who was imprisoned due to her alleged connection with the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, had sent a letter to the President Erdoğan a year ago (whom she used to be a staunch defendant of first and then an opponent), and had appealed for mercy, asking to be discharged due to her age (75). Ilıcak is still in prison: it’s been 1155 days, including today.

In a September 13 statement, following the discharge of 5 journalists from the oppositions daily Cumhuriyet, the Journalists’ Association of Turkey (TGC) has stated that 132 journalists and media employees are still imprisoned. The same statement also emphasized that Turkey ranks 157th in the world for freedom of the press.

Even Wikipedia is affected: access to the site has been banned for 884 days as of September 30.

We all need freedom of expression

So what is the thought process here? Is it that, if the court of appeal agrees to ban the circulation of a report that is vital for public health (including the health of the children of AKP politicians) and if Bülent Şık is imprisoned for unveiling such a report, then the information will not reach the public and therefore the carcinogenic contaminants will not affect anyone?

Does the government think that if Mehmet Yılmaz’s questions concerning the fortune of the children of former PM Yıldırımreceives a media ban and if the journalist asking the question is put in prison, then the public will stop thinking or talking about said fortune?

President Erdoğan and the AKP government need to face up to some facts. First, they need to remember that their party came to power in 2002 in spite of a mainstream media that ignored them.

Freedom of expression and the right to have your voice heard is everyone’s necessity: you never know when you might need it. Freedoms are not mere objects that you can simply cover up whenever you don’t think they should be of use. Besides, the bans may be working in the short run but they tend to backfire in the long haul.

There’s one more thing: it’s well known that one of Erdoğan’saims in the Judicial Reform is to warm up, once again, the soured relationship with the European Union (EU) and bridge an ever-widening chasm between the two parties. This legal package is unlikely to produce the desired positive effect when it comes to EU relations. What needs to be done is to improve this Judicial Reform draft and the only way to do it is by adding clauses that ensure freedom of speech and freedom of the press – that much is pretty obvious.

Turkish Domestic Politics Analysis and Forecast

Turkish opposition leader: disturbing speculations about the military

CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu calls o Presidet Erdoğan’s AKP government to draw lessons from the past and keep the Turkish military away from politics. (Photo: CHP)

Turkish opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said that there were besetting speculations regarding the Turkish Armed Forces and developments that could ruin the chain of command of the second biggest army within the Western alliance of the NATO. Claiming that no lessons have been drawn from the Gülenist [indicted as FETÖ] incident which led to the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, Kılıçdaroğlu called on President Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to keep the military out of daily politics.
Here are the statements by Kılıçdaroğlu exclusive to YetkinReport:
“There are disturbing speculations regarding the state of the military; concerns about whether it was the turn of the military in efforts of the government to turn the system into a party-state. I’m not talking about the military being subjected to the political authority: that is a must in democracies. I’m talking about dragging the military into daily politics and party preferences used in promotions and appointments in the military instead of merit. I feel uncomfortable about those speculations.”

Demirtaş as the example of politicized courts

“I had told the following in the Yenikapı rally in Istanbul right after the July 15 coup attempt: ‘Let’s keep politics away from the mosque, the barracks and the courts. If there will be politics in the mosques we’ll divide the society. If there is politics in the courtroom, we cannot find justice. If there is politics in the barracks, we cannot prevent coups.’ They [the government] let politics take over the mosques: we have observed that in the election process. They let politics into the courtroom by appointing partisan lawyers as judges or prosecutors. This has been done to such an extent that direct instructions were given to the judiciary. The typical example of that is the case of Selahattin Demirtaş [the former co-chairman of the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)]. Now, they have managed to let politics into the military as we observed in the recent retirements, appointments and promotions by the recent Supreme Military Council (YAŞ).”

AKP influence claim in military promotions

“[In the recent YAŞ] appointments and promotions have been made according to political loyalty that is according to whether they have relatives or friends who are members of the AKP, instead of eligibility. [In answer to the question “Can you give some examples?”] I don’t want to give names in order not to cause further damage to the military, but unfortunately, the situation is not pleasant at all; anyone can make the research and find [the names] out. I’m concerned that any soldier might run after a politician for promotion, soon. That would ruin the chain of command in the military. A certain officer or a petty-officer NCO who got the promotion with the influence of a politician might no longer listen to the orders of his (or her) commander. We have observed such cases in the incident of FETÖ [The illegal network within the state led by the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, who has been indicted to mastermind the 2016 coup attempt]… Bu no lessons are drawn out of it. The mistakes are repeated on purpose.”

Victims of Gülenists are being liquidated

“Moreover, it was told that the FETÖ people were cleaned from the military but now those officers who had resisted to the July 15 coup attempt, those officers who were the victims of the Ergenekon, Balyoz and similar [court case] plots are removed from the military with varying reasons. They are replaced by those with party references, having relatives or friends in the Party. AKP is doing the same as what the FETÖ structure did in the past.”
“Our military is the strongest in the Middle East and its region. But unfortunately, if the politics get into the military we will do worse harm to ourselves more than our enemies. I want to make this call on the government: keep the military of daily politics, keep the influence of the daily politics and the influence of the party away from the military. Let our army continue to be the strongest in the region and within the service of not the Party but the Constitutional democracy; the Parliament being the heart of it without any doubt.”

The meaning of Kılıçdaroğlu’s warning

The CHP leader’s call on President Erdoğan’s AKP government came at an interesting time. On one hand there are the military appointments and promotions which have been much debated in media and followed by resignations of several high-rank officers. On the other hand, news about a radical restructuring of the military under the coordination of the National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar surfaced.
When asked whether his warning had anything to do with that restructuring efforts, Kılıçdaroğlu’s answer was “No”. The CHP leader said that every modern army can upgrade itself according to the needs of the time per the military’s needs and the political decision of the governments. He said he only wanted to draw attention to the danger due to government’s tendency to make the army a part of “daily politics” and intensions to turn the Turkish system into a “party-state”.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s statements are likely to be debated publicly before the start of the new legislative year as the Parliament is scheduled to end the summer recess on October 1st.

Turkish Domestic Politics Analysis and Forecast

Putin, Erdoğan, Rouhani summit on Syria in two photos

There are two photos that I want to bring to your attention from the Astana Process meeting on Syria in Ankara on September 16 where Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were hosted by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. Please take a good look at the faces of the three leaders in those photos posted on the Turkish Presidency’s official website.
The first pose struck at the end of the press conference right after the meeting, conveys coalescence.

The second photo was taken just as the three leaders had left the meeting and were walking towards the press conference room; they were not posing.

It’s safe to say that out of the three leaders, the one who looks the most content in both photos is Rouhani.
Putin’s facial expression and body language give off the impression of someone who’s said his piece, took his share, and who is now ready to move on to his other responsibilities.
Erdoğan’s demeanor, on the other hand, is that of someone who said what he had to say, could not get all what he wanted, but who had to settle for his share.
Taking a look at the final declaration and to what Erdoğan said at the press conference, we can indeed conclude that the “eyes don’t lie”.
For example, there is one particular sentence which said that all attempts to create new realities in the field under the guise of fighting terrorism, including illegitimate self-government initiatives in Syria, were “rejected”. It’s clear that this sentence is about the American control over East of the river Euphrates, almost one-third of Syria, in cooperation with the Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); it’s also clear that this sentence represents a request made on Turkey’s part.
Another important detail in this conference was Erdoğan stating to Rouhani and Putin that Turkey will carry out its planning, which implies a military operation into Syria, if there is no Safe Zone agreement with the U.S. within two weeks. The end of September is two weeks away, which brings to mind the meeting Erdoğan says he will have with U.S. President Donald Trump in New York, on September 25. The Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TUBC) will host a dinner in New York in connexion with its $100 billion trading volume target but it looks like Erdoğan wants to clarify the PKK issue first. As Erdoğan said these, Rouhani, who had claimed that the U.S. was an illegitimate force in Syria, was quietly nodding and smirking.
Rouhani seemed especially pleased that the final declaration denounced the U.S.’s approval Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. After all, he has thousands of Revolutionary Guards in Syria for years. Russia is known to have made a few remarks on this issue before, mostly paying lip service.
On the other hand, even though Erdoğan blames the tension at Idlib and the Regime forces in Syria for the new wave of migration, the jihadist militant Hayat Tahrir al-Sham organization is still seen as a serious source of worry. Putin said in the press conference that Russia will continue giving “limited” support to the Regime forces in Syria to control the situation in Idlib and that the fight against militants related to ISIS or al-Qaeda would not disrupt the Astana-Sochi agreement.
It looks like what Erdoğan gained from this is a promise from Putin that the syrian forces will not attack the Turkish military observers in Idlib; not an ideal answer to expectations of Ankara expectations.

The sole concrete result of the trilateral summit

The most important and perhaps the only real outcome of the September 16 trilateral summit was the declaration of the creation of a committee to write the ew Syrian Constitution.
This committee is aiming to cooperate with the Syrian Bashar al-Assad regime, the Syrian opposition with the supervision of the United Nations Security Council.
In this way, Turkey, as an Astana Process guarantor, will have an indirect diplomatic tie with the Syrian regime. The Geneva Conference route is being cleared for Syria whilst the al-Assad regime is still active. Among the Astana guarantors Russia is the only UN Security Council member in this scenario. And, concerning why the Syrian Constitution hasn’t been made so far, Putin made a rather polite explanation to Erdoğan: that he had made great “effort and sacrifice” in choosing the final member of the equation. This means that the political talks on Syria were depending on Erdoğan giving that one final name.
This means that following the September 16 trilateral summit, Turkey will gradually withdraw the support it gave the “armed Syrian opposition”, also known as the Free Syrian Army.
Instead of that, the focus will shift on the constructions that will be made for the 3 million refugees who will go back to Syria from Turkey, whilst the new regime will be put in place.
By the way, Erdoğan gave yet another important information in-between the line: among the leaders Erdoğan is negotiating with for the financing of the new housing and infrastructure projects that will be put in place in Syria (hopefully by Turkish contractors), are German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. This, though, brings to mind the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi: was that call for the return of refugees a message to soften the relations? This could be yet another sign that Erdoğan is revisiting and revising the Syrian and Middle-Eastern politics he’s been applying since 8 years.
And concerning Saudi Arabia, what we understood from a question by a Russian colleague was that the attack on Saudi ARAMCO refineries by Iran-backed Yemenite militants has not been mentioned in the meeting. But Rouhani jumped on the question and he not only legitimized the attack but also appealed the people of Yemen to rise against the attacks sponsored by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Another note: The ARAMCO attack that shook the global oil market was not mentioned, but the s-400s were. Putin even made a “joke” about how they “sold the S-300s to Iran and the S-400s to Turkey”, implying he could sell new missiles to Saudi Arabia. (*)
I didn’t get a chance to ask questions; it was predetermined which journalists from which countries were to ask questions. I and some other colleagues were left unaddressed. If could, I would ask Putin and Rouhani whether they would back Turkey’s possible operation in Syria against the U.S.-backed PKK if Erdoğan couldn’t reach an agreement with Trump. And to Erdoğan, I would ask if he agreed with Putin and Rouhani’s definition of the al-Assad regime as the legitimate government of Syria and whether it should be backed.
In a way I’ve asked my questions now, haven’t I?

(*) Updated on September 19, 2019 at 07:36. Earlier, Saudi Arabia was written as Syria by mistake.

Turkish Domestic Politics Analysis and Forecast

Turkish Defence Minister at Syria border to urge U.S. for prompt joint action

Turkish National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar (left) met with top commanders on August 16 to inspect the Turkish military build up also to urge the U.S. not to delay the joint action for a safe zone. (Photo: Ministry web site)

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has paid an unscheduled visit to the built-up Turkish troops in Şanlıurfa at Syria border on August 16 with Chief of Joint Staff General Yaşar Güler and force commanders.
The obvious aim of the visit is to supervise the process of establishing a Joint Operation Centre with the U.S. forces in order to form a Safe Zone on the Syrian side of the border in response to Turkish demands against the threats of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) affiliate People’s Protection Units (YPG) presence; the militants have been used a ground force by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) since 2014 in the fight against ISIS. Also accompanied by Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) Director Hakan Fidan, Akar said following his inspection that he hoped the Operation Center would be ready by next week and Turkey was determined to eliminate threats to its security. (*) Because another aim of his presence at the border was to urge the Donald Trump Administration to take action without further delay as the Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan says Turkey was determined to get into Syria to eliminate the threat with or without the help of U.S., Turkey’s NATO partner.
Akar visit was followed by another visit to the area on August 15 by Lieutenant General Stephen Twitty, the Deputy Commander of the U.S. Forces in Europe (EUCOM), who is based in Stuttgart, Germany. After visiting the first party of U.S. troops that arrived in Şanlıurfa on August 12 for the establishment of a Joint Task Force with the Turkish military, Twitty arrived in Ankara for military-to-military talks on the operational details of the Safe Zone as reported by Turkish media. The agreement to establish a task force was agreed between Turkish and American officials in Ankara on August 7 after months-long talks, which took place under the shadow of a major problem: the American decision to “unwind” Turkey from the joint production and sale of F-35 fighter jets in retaliation of Turkey’s purchase of the Russian built S-400 air defence system.
For the last two days there have been commentaries in Turkish media about potential problems since the Safe Zone operation will be under CENTCOM command but the coordination center in Şanlıurfa is a EUCOM operation. Due to being NATO members, Turkish-American military cooperation is with the EUCOM but CENTCOM is in charge with the American operations in the Greater Middle East area. And since Turkey refused to take part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the CENTCOM has not been known to be sympathetic to Turkey and although the PKK has been designated by the U.S. Government as a terrorist organization, they are keen to work with the PKK’s Syria extension YPG, providing arms and high quality military training to them, making Turkish government furious.
But sources close to developments told YetkinReport that the coordination center will be “the mechanism for deconflicting”. A source who asked to remain anonymous said that, if there were any problems or differences of opinion that “exceed the ability” of the coordination center to solve they would be resolved by the Joint Staff”. The source “did not think” that a “CENTCOM-EUCOM friction will be a big problem” because there was a “common understanding” of the problem.
As a first step of the joint operation, Turkish UAVs have started to fly over in North East of Syria to observe the YPG positions where air space is controlled by the U.S. since August 14, as announced by the Turkish Defense Ministry.
Turkey wants a safe zone of 30-35 kilometer-deep (as it was first voiced by Trump as “20 miles”), 140 km long (which forms a small part of 913 kilometer-long border with Syria) in which there would be no active YPG militants, no heavy guns used by them, the operation would be monitored by joint patrols by Turkish and American soldiers and those Syrian citizens who migrated to Turkey from towns and villages in that zone due to the civil war would be permitted to return to their homes in time. Turkish officials who refer to the American statements underline that the ISIS threat was eliminated in the north of the country, which a major 2016 Turkish military incursion into Syria in 2016 with the cooperation of Russians contributed to. The depth of the zone is also important for the Turkish military since it covers the main East-West state road, namely M-4, connecting Iraq to Syria which is extensively used by the YPG in their transfers between the PKK headquarters in the Kandil Mountains in Iraq and their strongholds in Syria.
In the meantime the Turkish military has been carrying out a major military operation in north of Iraq against the PKK positions, in coordination with the central Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional Government for nearly two months now, where a newly built Turkish missile “Bora” with nearly 300 km range was used for the first time.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has recently said in answer to opposition parties’ questions that the government would not let any “new stalling” by Americans. President Erdoğan has recently said that the Turkish history was “full of victories in August” and was ready to set new example. Pro government media likes to bring up the Seljuk army win against Byzantines on Aug 26, 1071, Ottoman army’s win against Egyptians on Aug 24, 1517 and the Turkish army win against invading Greek armies on Aug 30, 1922. With a symbolic highlight, the Turkish operation into Syria in 2016 was launched on Aug 24; that was only 5 weeks after a defeated military coup attempt by a group in the army, indicted to be masterminded by Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist preacher living in the U.S.

(*) Updated on August 16, 18:36.

Turkish Domestic Politics Analysis and Forecast

And now, the American soldiers have set foot on Turkish soil. Is it really against the PKK in Syria?

Six American soldiers as the first group of reportedly 90 strong troops arrived at the Şanlıurfa airport, neighbouring Syria on August 13, as a part of a Joint Task Force with the Turkish military to examine the establishment of a “Safe Zone” on the Syria side of the border. Such a Safe Zone has been demanded from the American administration by the Turkish government since 2012 and is supposed to prevent the formation of a Kurdish autonomous zone next to Turkish borders by Kurdish militants collaborating with the American forces against ISIS since 2014.
The issues were among the main rifts between the two NATO members along with Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles; the American blocking of the delivery of jointly produced F-35 jets to Turkey whilst Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen continued his residence in the U.S. despite being indicted of masterminding the 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey against President Tayyip Erdoğan.
Following months-long talks between the delegations and after a statement by Erdoğan that Turkey was planning to stop the activities of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Syria “with or without the U.S.” as endorsed by the months-long military build-up along the Syrian border, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on August 7 that there was an agreement to set up a joint group to work on a safe Zone. That statement was later on seconded by the U.S. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Pompeo’s Special Syria Envoy (and former U.S. Ambassador to Ankara) James Jeffrey played an important role in the deal.
Turkey wants a 30-35 km deep and around 140 km long (the Turkish-Syrian border being 913 km) zone to be under the joint patrol of Turkish and American troops to stop any possible attack by PKK- affiliate groups to the Turkish soil; no heavy weapons would be permitted in the zone (as it was the U.S. which armed and trained the militants) and the Syrian refugees in Turkey who used to live in those towns and villages before the civil war broke in 2011 would gradually return. The depth of the zone is the most difficult part of the talks as it covers the M-4 state road in Syria from Aleppo through to the Iraqi border laid parallel to the Turkish border, as the main route to connect the PKK headquarters in Iraq’s Kandil Mountains to the Syrian areas controlled by PKK-affiliate groups protected by the U.S. At one point in the summer of 2018, when Erdoğan had signaled that Turkish troops could hit the PKK in Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump had tweeted that such a move could “devastate” the Turkish economy, causing a currency crisis in the country.
The American central Command (CENTCOM) has been using the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants as the ground force against the ISIS presence in Syria in the East of River Euphrates; thanks to their legionary fight it was possible for the CENTCOM to clear cities like Raqqa from the ISIS forces. The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and is nothing but the Syrian branch of the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. It was, after all, the CIA which helped Turkey’s intelligence agency MIT in the arrest of PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan back in 1999. The YPG is the backbone and the mass of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which is merely a PR rebranding as it was admitted by an American general, Raymond Thomas in 2017.
The Safe Zone talks are seen by both the Turkish and the American officials as a way to decrease the tension in-between and to provide some time for diplomatic maneuvering for the S-400/F-35 crisis; it could also help find ways to boost trade, as an incentive for a reconciliation.
Yet there are questions asked by Turkish parties to President Erdoğan, including his main ally in Turkish politics, Devlet Bahçeli of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP): was this deal “another delay tactic” by the U.S.? Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu responded to such questions, stating that Turkey would not let a delay this time and was determined to clear “East of Euphrates” from YPG/PKK “with or without the cooperation of the U.S.” Ankara calculates that the U.S. Administration would not sacrifice its strategic interests from Turkey to tactical interests from PKK- affiliate groups and would not get into a clash with Turkish soldiers to protect PKK-affiliate militants, as the presence of ISIS in Syria is about to diminish.
The question is whether the U.S. is really ready to stop the Kurdish state enthusiasm of the PKK and the Bashar al-Assad regime as supported by the Russian President Vladimir Putin has already called on them to “return to their flanks”, as Russia has already signaled support for a Kurdish federation in the future “new Syria”. The American efforts to divide the PKK and support the pro-American and pro-Israeli Syrian branch under the name of PYD, SDF or some other name sounds naive, as the PKK chiefs excel in distraction, including creating and dissolving brand names.
The ironical part of the story is that American soldiers have now set foot on Turkish soil with the permission of President Erdoğan. Apart from their presence, whether symbolic on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border, having American soldiers on Turkish soil to invade Iraq was the main reason of the Turkish parliament when rejecting a motion by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in 2003 as some AKP deputies had joined the opposition.
The question which remains unanswered for now is whether the American soldiers in Turkey are really there to start a joint struggle to stop the PKK from its attacks and plans of creating a Kurdish state next to Turkey or just to play with time to soothe Erdoğan who is actually looking to redefine Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and the west in general.