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December 3, 2021

Turkey vs. Russia in the Mideast (IV)

Two are the big issues in the near future, issues that are bound to have an impact on the developments on the ground in Syria, but also on the regional and global situation.

Namely, the Kurdish file and the refugees file. In what concerns the Kurdish file, what has to be pointed out is that it is becoming increasingly prominent in light of the latest events. A sign of this growing visibility is also the opening in Moscow, on February 10, at President Putin’s invitation, of an official representation of the Kurdish administration in northern Syria, the first of its kind abroad (which is another explanation of the urgency with which Ankara sought to contact Moscow at the highest level in the first days of February).

According to Stanislav Inanov, a Russian analyst, the Syrian Democratic Unity Party’s (PYD) choice of Moscow as the headquarters of such an office abroad shows “that Russia believes the crises in both Syria and Iraq will not lead to a solution without Kurdish participation.” This PYD premiere – the opening of the office took place in the presence of Russian diplomacy officials, as well as representatives of other states – is the result of a rapid development in the file of the hostility recently installed between Turkey and Russia.

Apart from the fact that the Turkish air force’s shooting down of the Russian fighter-bomber in Syria on November 24 marked the start of this new episode of hostility between two great historical adversaries, it was followed, apart from mutual sanctions that experienced rapid escalation, by other mutual disagreements between Ankara and Moscow.

Among other things, what catches the attention is the fact that Turkey, for instance, was against PYD’s participation in the Geneva talks under UN aegis at the end of January, and Moscow, which supported this Kurdish presence, warned that in this way the talks as a whole would fail. Which in fact happened. What is interesting to note in what concerns the Kurdish forces in northern Syria is that both Moscow and the US have a common position of backing their actions against Daesh.

On the other hand, however, Turkey considers that PYD is a terrorist organization with links to PKK, which is acting violently on its territory, which was also the reason why it rejected its presence in Geneva, the US giving in to its ally’s insistence on this issue. So, Turkey is currently in a not at all comfortable situation in northern Syria, especially since both Russia and the US are opening military bases in the area (the Russian base in Quamishlo and the American base 40 miles away, centred on a small airport for drones and the deployment of special forces), which are seen by some analysts as being meant for lengthy presence. It is speculated that “Russian presence in the area may well deter any Turkish attempt to intervene in northern Syria against the Kurds.

It also gives them a launch-pad from which to carry out close air support for the isolated Syrian. What the Americans intend to do in the airfield in Hasakah isn’t so clear. One would wage a guess that it will be more of a forward-operating base. For some of the 200 Special Forces Washington is deploying against ISIS, for operations in both Iraq and Syria.”
The risk of armed Turkish intervention in northern Syria in this situation is extremely high, almost unavoidable.

Ankara’s fear is that a Kurdish political entity established there, supported from abroad, would deepen links with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan and will have an impact on the massive Kurdish minority in Turkey, hence an existential problem for the state’s territorial integrity. However, such a military intervention carried out by the Turkish army entails the risk of a massive spillover of the Syrian conflict to the whole region. Ankara has to profoundly think through the whole situation and act so that on one hand it would defend its own interests and, on the other, would not cause a massive deterioration of regional security and, no less, would not put its NATO allies in a tough spot based on what is called in the experts’ studies “the Sunni axis.”

The second issue is the refugees’ issue that has gained other facets too as a result of the recent Aleppo episode in Syria. The Syrian government forces’ lifting of the siege and the rebels’ possible withdrawal from the city have created a new outpouring of refugees toward Turkey, which started in early February. The presence of a massive number of refugees – the new wave from Syria is already estimated to number in the tens of thousands of people – is creating supplementary problems for Turkey and by implication to Europe and Germany in particular.

The European Union, which bore with great difficulty the shock of the refugee invasion (most of them Syrians) last year, imperatively needs Turkey’s cooperation in order to avoid the repeat of this problem in 2016. Especially since the strategy thought to be applied in order to solve this problem is still in the stage of pending approval at the next EU summit several weeks from now. Turkey holds the key to this issue. To the extent in which Ankara’s previous agreements with the EU (Chancellor A. Merkel) remain valid, then the issue will be managed accordingly, which entails both Turkey’s repression of the refugees relocated by European states, as well as the collection of the USD 3 billion placed at its disposal in order for the Turkish authorities to provide decent living conditions for the refugees. Otherwise, the EU will face a huge challenge, namely an even bigger wave of refugees than last year, a wave that will unstoppably break on the continent, deepening the contradictions already signalled in this file among the organization’s member states – the ones that agree with the quotas established and those that reject them, the latter being located mainly in the East – and question the very survival of continental integration as a process.

And this challenge will be managed at a time when Brexit is knocking on the door – the holding of the referendum being possible in the United Kingdom this summer – and when the Ukrainian file is yet unresolved at least in what concerns the implementation of the Minsk-II stipulations. Turkey’s collaboration is the more so important as one can lately notice the harshening of Russia’s tone toward Germany, particularly toward Chancellor Merkel. According to an EU source, “if you look at what’s going on in Syria, look at Aleppo, you’ll see that Russia is the only one who controls the timetable of the refugee crisis.”

What is Turkey’s current position? A recent editorial published in the “Daily Sabah” authoritative daily – significantly titled “Time for EU to make up its mind” – raises serious question marks in the outlining of the answer that was valid several days ago (namely the conformation with the agreements already reached). The editorial trenchantly states that “it is about time Europe decided how it wants to tackle the refugee crisis, with a fully collaborative effort with Turkey as a real partner or believing the transfer of a measly 3 billion Euros is enough to make their problems go away.”

Similarly, it states that the EU is failing to comprehend the complexity of such a crisis, that it is not a question of money or one to be solved by externalizing it to Turkey. This – the attitude of EU leaders – would be a serious misunderstanding of the situation the organization finds itself in, attempting the solution of transforming Turkey into a “giant refugee camp” and a “scapegoat.” Persisting in this position, the EU will determine the Turkish nation to ask its own government to: “a) reject the 3-billion-Euro fund transfer; b) reject the deal that will allow European countries to send refugees back to Turkey; c) demand from Europe to open its borders just like Turkey for a free movement of refugees.”

In the end, the editorial states that European leaders should treat the issue as if a refugee in Berlin is equal to one in Turkey and “should realize that the social upheaval they are currently facing is nothing compared to what can happen when the trickle turns to flood.”

That editorial was published on February 9. If the things it states become Ankara’s official policy then the EU – and not only the EU – will face an unprecedented challenge.

The Middle East, Europe, are facing an extremely serious crisis.

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