Turkey’s “obsession” with removing the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria — as an unnamed US official has described — rather than making the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) a priority, has nothing to do with Turkey’s national interests but is about sectarian solidarity with Sunni groups and reviving the hope of taking up a leadership role in the region, according to analysts.
US President Barack Obama’s administration is working on forming a strong coalition against the threat of ISIL in the region. Addressing top military leaders from more than 20 countries on Tuesday, Obama said about 60 countries have committed to join the campaign against the terrorist ISIL organization. The US administration has been pressing hard to obtain expanded access to İncirlik Air Base in Adana province, which is in close proximity to ISIL targets inside both Syria and Iraq. So far, Turkey has accepted the role of training the moderate Syrian opposition inside Turkey, but negotiations over basing rights for military operations against ISIL are still ongoing, with a military team from the US in Ankara.
US officials have made it clear that their immediate priority is defeating ISIL. In the last few months, the extremist group has advanced swiftly in Iraq and Syria and it has beheaded two American journalists and other Westerners, which has prompted a stronger reaction from the West. In the meantime, Kurdish forces in the town of Kobani are in a fierce fight against ISIL, and the US-led coalition is providing support with military air strikes in the region.
Turkey insists on making the removal of the Assad regime in Syria a priority, saying the regime is first and foremost responsible for creating an atmosphere that is fertile for radical groups such as ISIL to emerge.
A diplomat from a European Union member country in Ankara who wished to remain anonymous told Sunday’s Zaman that for many Westerners it’s difficult to understand what Turkey is trying to achieve in the Middle East. “The foreign policy of Turkey in the region is un-understandable for many in the EU, [especially] when you look at Turkey’s relations with Hamas or opening its arms wide to the members of an organization such as the Muslim Brotherhood or insisting [on] the removal of the Assad regime. It makes it difficult for us to perceive one of our closest allies,” said the diplomat.
According to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Adana deputy Faruk Loğoğlu, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are both incensed with Assad because back in 2011, Assad rejected their demands to redesign Syrian domestic politics and incorporate the Muslim Brotherhood into his government. Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Loğoğlu said that after that point, “brother Assad” all of a sudden became “arch-enemy” Assad.
“This dramatic shift in the AKP’s [Justice and Development Party (AK Party)] Syrian policy and the fixation with Assad thus has no rational basis. It has nothing to do with Turkey’s national interests, nor is it a reflection of concern for the welfare of Syrian citizens,” said Loğoğlu.
According to Loğoğlu, the AK Party’s “blind obsession” with Assad stems partly from Assad’s rejection of AK Party’s stance of acting like a “big brother” and has a lot to do with the fact that he belongs to the ruling Alawite minority. “The AKP’s Syrian policy is a victim of its sectarian Sunni approach, which continues to dominate its domestic and foreign policies. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are thus largely responsible for the initiation, continuation and intensification of the civil war in Syria. They helped turn that country into a hotbed of radical terrorist organizations, including ISIL, by supporting them simply because they were fighting against Assad,” said Loğoğlu.
He stressed that this policy has endangered Turkey’s security and hurt its economy while generating huge socioeconomic problems, with close to 2 million refugees who have fled across the border because of the Syrian civil war. “It also threatens the territorial integrity of Syria and may engulf the entire region into a protracted sectarian war. The best move for the AKP is to work for peace and stability in the region rather than acting like a party in inter- and intra-Arab conflicts,” said Loğoğlu.
An expert who closely follows the relationship between the US and Turkey told Sunday’s Zaman that since the start of the crisis in Syria in 2011, Turkey’s position has not changed. Since then, Turkey has consistently been trying to remove Assad from power. When then-Prime Minister Erdoğan visited Washington to meet with US President Barack Obama in May 2013, Erdoğan’s insistence of support from the US to topple Assad caused serious fallout. The Obama administration clearly does not want to be dragged into a war with the Assad regime, which finds support from Russia and Iran.
The expert, who wished to remain anonymous, has questioned the reasons behind Turkey’s insistence on removing Assad as well. “It’s obvious that the backbone of Turkey’s Middle East policies depends on the removal of Assad regime. Turkey seems to be ready to pay the price of having tense relations with the US and damaging the settlement process with Kurds. The removal of Assad is a precondition for joining the campaign against ISIL, as well. The question is: Why?” he asked.
Answering his own question, he said: “If Assad wins and remains in power, it will be a big blow to Turkish foreign policy. At this point, Ankara does not want to admit the failure of its policies. Assad remaining in power and his tacit collaboration with the West means the collapse of the most important element in Turkey’s Middle East policies. But it is clear now that costs are going to increase. Refugees are increasing [in number] and there are problems with Kurds. There is a tension with the US and it seems that it will increase in the near future.”
Another reason behind Erdoğan’s insistence on removing Assad, according to the expert, is Erdoğan’s personality. He doesn’t want to take a step back and admit mistakes.
Erdoğan has further implied “sectarian solidarity,” maintained the source speaking to Sunday’s Zaman. “He is playing the savior of Sunni brothers who are fleeing from a Shiite regime. In his address to the refugees in Gaziantep recently, Erdoğan used the term “ansar,” the expert noted.
“Ansar” is an Islamic term that refers to “helpers” and denotes the Medinans that helped Prophet Muhammad on his arrival to Medina and waged war for the cause of Islam. Speaking to Syrian refugees, Erdoğan said “We are your ansar,” which refers to solidarity based on religion, according to the expert. He also claimed that Erdoğan’s “hospitality” applies to ISIL militants who share the same religious sect as Sunni Turks.
The expert said the US has decided to eliminate ISIL and noted that Turkey apparently does not view ISIL as the focus in the campaign, as Erdoğan is trying to “revive a collapsed foreign policy objective” — removing Assad from power.
“What Turkey is trying to achieve is joining the campaign with a no-fly zone and a safe zone, and [it is trying to] be a leading country setting the agenda. It is a ‘double down’ in gambling,” said the expert, using a gambling term that explains a situation where it is possible to double the gain or significantly increase the risk of serious loss. “Turkey has neither given up its priority of removing Assad from power nor does it see ISIL as a priority,” said the expert.
Erdogan’s double game against Sunni Sufis, Kurds, Shias and Christians through ISIS Salafi terrorists
During the 1944 Warsaw uprising, Stalin ordered the advancing Red Army to stop at the outskirts of the city while the Nazis, for 63 days, annihilated the non-Communist Polish partisans. Only then did Stalin take Warsaw.
No one can match Stalin for merciless cynicism, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is offering a determined echo by ordering Turkish tanks massed on the Syrian border, within sight of the besieged Syrian town of Kobani, to sit and do nothing.
For almost a month, Kobani Kurds have been trying to hold off Islamic State fighters. Outgunned, outmanned, and surrounded on three sides, the defending Kurds have begged Turkey to allow weapons and reinforcements through the border. Erdogan has refused even that, let alone intervening directly. Infuriated Kurds have launched demonstrations throughout Turkey protesting Erdogan’s deadly callousness. At least 21 demonstrators have been killed.
Because Turkey has its own Kurdish problem — battling a Kurdish insurgency on and off for decades — Erdogan appears to prefer letting the Islamic State destroy the Kurdish enclave on the Syrian side of the border rather than lift a finger to save it. Perhaps later he will move in to occupy the rubble.
Moreover, Erdogan entertains a larger vision: making Turkey the hegemonic power over the Sunni Arabs, as in Ottoman times. The Islamic State is too radical and uncontrollable to be an ally in that mission. But it is Sunni. And it fights Shiites, Alawites, and Kurds. Erdogan’s main regional adversary is the Shiite-dominated rule of Syria’s Bashar Assad. Erdogan demands that the U.S. take the fight to Assad before Turkey will join the fight against the Islamic State.
It took Vice President Biden to accidentally blurt out the truth when he accused our alleged allies in the region of playing a double game — supporting the jihadists in Syria and Iraq, then joining the U.S.-led coalition against them. His abject apologies to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey notwithstanding, Biden was right.
The vaunted coalition that President Obama touts remains mostly fictional. Yes, it puts a Sunni face on the war. Which is important for show. But everyone knows that in real terms the operation remains almost exclusively American.
As designed, the outer limit of its objective is to roll back the Islamic State in Iraq and contain it in Syria. It is doing neither. Despite State Department happy talk about advances in Iraq, our side is suffering serious reverses near Baghdad and throughout Anbar province, which is reportedly near collapse. Baghdad itself is ripe for infiltration for a Tet-like offensive aimed at demoralizing both Iraq and the U.S.
As for Syria, what is Obama doing? First, he gives the enemy twelve days of warning about impending air attacks. We end up hitting empty buildings and evacuated training camps.
Next, we impose rules of engagement so rigid that we can’t make tactical adjustments. Our most reliable, friendly, battle-hardened “boots on the ground” in the region are the Kurds. So what have we done to relieve Kobani? About twenty airstrikes in a little more than ten days, says CENTCOM.
That’s barely two a day. On the day after the Islamic State entered Kobani, we launched five airstrikes. Result? We hit three vehicles, one artillery piece, and one military “unit.” And damaged a tank. This, against perhaps 9,000 heavily armed Islamic State fighters. If this were not so tragic, it would be farcical.
No one is asking for U.S. ground troops. But even as an air campaign, this is astonishingly unserious. As former E.U. ambassador to Turkey Marc Pierini told the Wall Street Journal, “It [the siege] could have been meaningfully acted upon two weeks ago or so” — when Islamic State reinforcements were streaming in the open toward Kobani. “Now it is almost too late.”
Obama has committed the U.S. to war on the Islamic State. To then allow within a month an allied enclave to be overrun — and perhaps annihilated — would be a major blow.
Guerrilla war is a test of wills. Obama’s actual objectives — rollback in Iraq, containment in Syria — are not unreasonable. But they require commitment and determination. In other words, will. You can’t just make one speech declaring war, then disappear and go fundraising.
The indecisiveness and ambivalence so devastatingly described by both of Obama’s previous secretaries of defense, Leon Panetta and Bob Gates, are already beginning to characterize the Syria campaign.
The Iraqis can see it. The Kurds can feel it. The jihadists are counting on it.
As Syria’s bloody civil war enters its third year, fighting has reached the country’s Kurdish-dominated northeast, a region until recently almost untouched by the conflict. The Kurdish PYD party and its YPG militia, which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in neighboring Turkey, took over control of much of Hassakeh province from the Assad regime in the summer of 2012, and with it control of Syria’s precious oilfields.
But the PYD’s hopes of staying neutral in the conflict and building an autonomous Kurdish state were dashed when clashes broke out with Syrian rebel forces in the strategic border city of Ras al-Ayn. That encounter quickly escalated into an all-out war between the Kurds and a powerful alliance of jihadist groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliates ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
In September of 2013, VICE crossed the border into Syria’s Kurdish region to document the YPG’s counteroffensive against the jihadists, who had struck deep into rural Hassakeh in an attempt to surround and capture Ras al-Ayn. With unparalleled access to the Kurdish and Syrian Christian fighters on the frontlines, we found ourselves witnessing a bitter and almost unreported conflict within the Syrian war, where the Assad regime is a neutral spectator in a life or death struggle between jihadist-led rebels and Kurdish nationalists, pitting village against village and neighbor against neighbor.