Turkey gets preview of US action plan in Syria

M.K. Bhadrakumar February 24, 2017 5:05 AM (UTC+8)
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Sometimes in inter-state relationships, it becomes necessary to pick up a quarrel with another country at a certain point in time. Turkey may have done just that to Iran. The spat makes a mockery of the “trilateral alliance” between Russia, Turkey and Iran that Moscow has been promoting at the Astana talks on Syria. With an eye on the new US administration, Turkey is steadily restoring the ‘status quo ante’ in its Syria policies.

The US and Turkey have been holding a series of top-level meetings through the past fortnight since President Donald Trump made his first phone call with Turkish President Recep Erdogan on February 7. The American visitors to Ankara have since included CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and US senator who heads the Armed Services Committee, John McCain.

Erdogan’s sudden outburst against Iran occurred on February 14 in the first leg of a regional tour of Gulf States – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It had an air of deliberateness. Erdogan said, “Some people want both Iraq and Syria to be divided. There are some that are working hard to divide Iraq. There is a secretariat struggle, a Persian nationalism at work there. This Persian nationalism is trying to divide the country. We need to block this effort.”

Tehran instantly hit back by accusing Turkey of supporting terrorist organizations “to destabilize neighboring countries.”  Last weekend at the Munich Security Conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu took the gloves off, accusing Tehran over “sectarian policies” and accusing that “Iran wants Syria and Iraq to make Shia.”

Which of course drew forth a sharp rejoinder from Tehran that its patience has limits and the Foreign Ministry summoning the Turkish ambassador.

The forthcoming Syrian peace talks, which Russia fostered jealously, are in peril, leave alone the trilateral mechanism created at the Astana talks to monitor the ceasefire in Syria.

Turkey won’t care, as it begins harmonizing with Saudi Arabia and Qatar once again over the Syrian problem. (During Erdogan’s recent tour, Turkey and Saudi Arabia signed a defence agreement.)

The Russian strategy so far dexterously sidestepped the great contradiction of keeping both Turkey and Iran, the two archetypal rivals in the Middle East historically, as its partners in Syria. But Moscow understands that Erdogan’s revisionism can only be on the basis of a newfound confidence after his intense consultations with the Trump administration.

Indeed, Ankara and Washington are edging toward an understanding regarding the Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen who lives in exile in Pennsylvania with the US, which has been Erdogan’s pre-condition for full-bodied Turkish-American cooperation. Trump administration may act to curb Gulen’s activities while Erdogan won’t press for his outright extradition.

However, Erdogan is stringing Moscow along, given the uncertainties of US military support for Syrian Kurds. This is a non-negotiable issue for Turkey, which considers the Syrian Kurdish militia to be a “terrorist” group.

Of course, while Moscow keeps a brave face on its alliance with Erdogan, it is also resuscitating its old bonds with Kurdish groups. Moscow hosted a meeting of Kurdish groups drawn from the region on February 15.

More importantly, Russia must be doubting already Trump’s earlier pledge to partner with Russian President Vladimir Putin to fight the Islamic State.

The point is, Moscow is still awaiting follow-up by the American side, but in the meanwhile is witnessing intense consultations going on between the US and its regional allies aimed at reviving the old axis in Syria.

What is at stake here is nothing short of the future of Russian-American engagement over Syria in the Trump era.

The American visitors to the Gulf region in the past fortnight include Mike Pompeo, John McCain and Defence Secretary James Mattis. Pompeo conferred on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, deputy premier and minister of interior, the CIA’s George Tenet Medal for his exceptional contribution in the fight against terrorism.

Turkey and the US are actively discussing at the moment the modalities and logistics of a Turkish military operation aimed at liberating Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of the Islamic State. The Turkish Prime Minister Binaldi Yildirim discussed the Raqqa operation with the US Vice-President Mike Pence in the weekend at the Munich Security Conference.

It will be a major military operation with tanks, armored vehicles and artillery. Turkey seeks US Special Forces participation, which will also serve the purpose of deterring Russian intervention, apart from weakening the Syrian Kurds’ drive to create an entity in northern Syria.

Without doubt, the capture of Raqqa will be a hugely symbolic event for Trump. On the contrary, Moscow and Tehran (and the Syrian government forces) cannot afford to be reduced to mere onlookers and are sure to insert themselves at some stage into the developing situation around Raqqa.

The Turkish military has already reached the northern Syrian town of al-Bab. All protagonists would know that in politico-military terms, al-Bab is the gate that opens the road to Raqqa, and Raqqa is the key to what happens next in Damascus.

Put differently, Raqqa’s control determines how much of Syria will be under control of the Syrian regime – plainly put, what is going to happen to Syria’s future.

In this fateful scenario, the resilience of the Russian-Iranian alliance will come under a severe test in the coming days and weeks. Equally, US-Russia relations are poised to enter a totally unexpected start in the Trump era, fraught with the risk of rivalry and friction over Syria.

Suffice to say, Erdogan’s move to provoke a spat with Iran and break up the trilateral format over Syria (with Moscow and Tehran) emanates out of a quiet confidence that the Trump administration is indeed viewing Ankara as a “strategic partner and a NATO ally” (as Trump had told him).

Erdogan anticipates a US invitation to Turkey to revert to its traditional role in delimiting Russian influence in the southern tiers of the Caucasus and the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean.

Just another week remains in the timeline given by the Trump administration to the Pentagon to prepare a comprehensive plan to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But Turkey is acting as if it has had a preview of the Pentagon plan already.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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