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Why Turkey Cannot Go to War with Syria?
|by K. Gajendra Singh|
Having spent ten years in Turkey (1969-93 & 1992-98) and kept a watch on Turkey since 1967, I have been dismayed by the events in and around Turkey in the last decade, some engineered by the Turks themselves, others beyond their control like the US led 2003 illegal invasion of Iraq, which fortuitously it did not join, thanks to strong peoples opposition and a non-committal Military. The military, a well-organized and disciplined force and till now secular and stake holder in the country having helped Kemal Ataturk create it out of the ashes of the ruins of the defeated Ottoman Empire after WWI, when the victorious and rapacious Europeans led by the British wanted to reduce the present state to one fourth of its current territory.
The autonomous military establishment has been fiddled with and weakened perhaps even as a war machine in the wake of arrest of many serving and retired senior officers including respected generals on not too believable charges by special courts, the kind which Ataturk used in 1930s against London conspiracies against the new republic after the British forces moved into Iraqi Kurdistan oil areas of Kirkuk after the ceasefire. Turkey has still hopes of recovering that area.
In spite of late President Turgot Ozal itching to get into the war into Iraq in 1991, the Turkish military opposed it and military chief even resigned on this question. Turkey has little experience of a real full scale war since WWI, and the War of independence against encroaching European forces from all sides, wherein Ataturk and the military made its reputation.
A Turkish brigade fought valiantly in the 1950s Korean War, to help entry into NATO. Since then a police action against the militia in Cyprus in 1974 has nothing to write home about. Yes it has fought a war of attrition against Kurdish rebellion in SE Turkey since 1984, in which 45,000 Turks mostly Kurds but including 5000 soldiers have lost their lives.
Syria was the base for the Kurdish PKK under the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan, now imprisoned in a prison near Istanbul. He was expelled from Syria in 1999 when following the collapse of USSR, Damascus sans its ally USSR was forced to send out Ocalan under threat of military attack from Turkey. Now Syria has full support of Russia, Iran and indirectly of China and Shia ruled Baghdad and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
After the expulsion of Ocalan and the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, relations between Ankara and Damascus improved beyond recognition, but the revolt of the Arab masses against US supported dictators in the Middle East and Washington and Riyadh concern to divert the movements away from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and Riyadh’s massive financial aid and support has made a mincemeat of FM Davutoglu’s foreign policy of Zero friction with neighbors not helped by PM Erdogan’s hot headedness and love for applause of Arabs (for speaking out against Israel), now Sunni leaders if not the masses on its stand first on Libya and now Syria ... But it is not gonna be anything like that. Turkey has got itself into a real mess in its foreign policy, with no friend around in neighborhood.
Turkey should also remember that it’s not happy population of Kurds is around 20% looking at Kurds in autonomous north Iraq, lording over oil revenues (while Turkey has little) and about 15% Alevis, Shias like those of Iran and ruling minority Alawite dominated leadership in Damascus. Turkey’s border province of Hatay –Antakya (old Antioch) has a sizable Alevi population, and was awarded to Turkey after allegedly a rigged referendum by the West, which hoped that Ankara would join the Allies in WWII, in which it remained neutral as wisely advised by Ataturk to his successors before his death in 1938. Damascus then ruled by Sunnis did not object much but it has not given up hope. Whenever the author crossed over to Syria while posted in Jordan (1989-92), he found the Syrian border officers very friendly and hospitable but also noticed that Hatay was shown inside Syria in its maps.
The Middle East is a tapestry of religions, beliefs, nationalities, ethnicities and languages which the Ottoman Sultans with their Turkestan’s imperial and catholic outlook kept together by allowing them called Millets freedom in their beliefs, education, language and customs. It is estimated that the population of those who migrated from central Asia to Turkey is no more than 15%. The rest are local population who were Islamized and Turkified over centuries. Kurds, an Indo-Iranian people are indigenous, while the Turks entered what was known as Anatolia/Asia Minor in early 11th century when it was Byzantine empire and Istanbul was known as Constantinople.
As perceptive diplomats have known, big powers can make deal at the cost of smaller nations, while still maintaining an adversial posture.
Read below what Pepe has to say in his inimitable style. (Published with permission)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
He knew he was in trouble when the Pentagon leaked that the Turkish Phantom RF-4E shot down last week by Syrian anti-aircraft artillery happened off the Syrian coastline, directly contradicting Erdogan's account, who claimed it happened in international air space.
And it got worse; Moscow, via Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, offered "objective radar data" as proof.
There was not much to do except change the subject. That's when Ankara introduced a de facto buffer zone of four miles (6.4km) along the Syrian-Turkish border - now enforced by F-16s taking off from NATO's Incirlik base at regular intervals.
Ankara also dispatched tanks, missile batteries and heavy artillery to the 500 mile (800km) border, right after Erdogan effectively branded Syria "a hostile state".
What next? Shock and awe? Hold your (neo-Ottoman) horses.
Lord Balfour, I presume?
The immediate future of Syria was designed in Geneva recently, in one more of those absurdist “international community" plays when the US, Britain, France, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council's Qatar and Kuwait sat down to devise a “peaceful solution" for the Syrian drama, even though most of them are reportedly weaponising the opposition to Damascus.
One would be excused to believe it was all back to the Balfour Declaration days, when foreign powers would decide the fate of a country without the merest consultation of its people, who, by the way, never asked them to do it on their behalf.
Anyway, in a nutshell: there won’t be a NATO war on Syria - at least for now. Beyond the fact that Lavrov routinely eats US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for breakfast, Russia wins- for now.
Predictably, Moscow won’t force regime change on Assad; it fears the follow-up to be the absolute collapse of Syrian state machinery, with cataclysmic consequences. Washington’s position boils down to accepting a very weak, but not necessarily out, Assad.
The problem is the interpretation of "mutual consent", on which a "transitional government" in Syria would be based - the vague formulation that emerged in Geneva. For the Obama administration, this means Assad has to go. For Moscow- and, crucially, for Beijing - this means the transition must include Assad.
Expect major fireworks dancing around the interpretation. Because a case can be made that the new “no-fly zone" over Libya - turned by NATO into a 30,000-sortie bombing campaign - will become Syria's "transitional government”, based on "mutual consent".
One thing is certain: nothing happens before the US presidential election in November. This means that for the next five months or so Moscow will be trying to extract some sort of “transitional government" from the bickering Syrian players. Afterwards, all bets are off. A Washington under Mitt Romney may well order NATO to attack in early 2013.
A case can be made that a Putin-Obama or US-Russia deal may have been reached even before Geneva.
Russia has eased up on NATO in Afghanistan. Then there was the highly choreographed move of the US offering a formal apology and Pakistan duly accepting it - thus reopening NATO's supply routes to Afghanistan.
It's crucial to keep in mind that Pakistan is an observer and inevitable future full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) - run by China and Russia, both BRICS members highly interested in seeing the US and NATO out of Afghanistan for good.
The "price" paid by Washington is, of course, to go easy on Damascus - at least for now. There is not much Erdogan can do about it; he really was not in the loop.
Keep the division of labour intact
So here's the perverse essence of Geneva: the (foreign) players agreed to disagree - and to hell with Syrian civilians caught in the civil war crossfire.
In the absence of a NATO attack, the question is how the Assad system may be able to contain or win what is, by all practical purposes, a foreign-sponsored civil war.
Yes, because the division labour will remain intact. Turkey will keep offering the logistical base for mercenaries coming from "liberated" Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon. The House of Saud will keep coming up with the cash to weaponise them. And Washington, London and Paris will keep fine-tuning the tactics in what remains the long, simmering foreplay for a NATO attack on Damascus.
Even though the armed Syrian opposition does not control anything remotely significant inside Syria, expect the mercenaries reportedly weaponised by the House of Saud and Qatar to become even more ruthless. Expect the not-exactly-Free Syrian Army to keep mounting operations for months, if not years. A key point is whether enough supply lines will remain in place - if not from Jordan, certainly from Turkey and Lebanon.
Damascus may not have the power to strike the top Western actors in this drama. But it can certainly wreak havoc among the supporting actors - as in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Turkey.
Jordan, the weak link, a wobbly regime at best, has already closed off supply lines. Hezbollah sooner or later will do something about the Lebanese routes. Erdogan sooner or later will have to get real about what was decided in Geneva.
Moreover, one can't forget that Saudi Arabia would be willing to fight only to the last dead American; it won’t risk Saudis to fight Syrians.
As for red alerts about Saudi troops getting closer to southern Syria through Jordan, that's a joke. The House of Saud military couldn't even defeat the ragtag Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen.
A final juicy point. The Russian naval base at Tartus -approximately a mere 55 miles (90km) away from where the Panthom RF-4E was shot down - now has its radar on 24/7. And it takes just a single Russian warship anchored in Syrian waters to send the message; if anyone comes up with funny ideas, just look at what happened to Georgia in 2008.
Time to shuffle those cards
Erdogan has very few cards left to play, if any. Assad, in an interview with Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper, regretted"100 per cent" the downing of the RF-4E, and argued, "the plane was flying in an area previously used by Israel's air force".
The fact remains that impulsive Erdogan got an apology from wily Assad. By contrast, after the Mavi Marmara disaster, Erdogan didn't even get an unpeeled banana from Israel.
The real suicidal scenario would be for Erdogan to order another F4-style provocation and then declare war on Damascus on behalf of the not-exactly-Free Syrian Army. It won't happen. Damascus has already proved it is deploying a decent air defense network.
Every self-respecting military analyst knows that war on Syria will be light years away from previous “piece of cake" Iraq and Libya operations. NATO commanders, for all their ineptitude, know they could easily collect full armories of bloody noses.
As for the Turkish military, their supreme obsession is the Kurds in Anatolia, not Assad. They do receive some US military assistance. But what they really crave is an army of US drones to be unleashed over Anatolia.
Turkey routinely crosses into Northern Iraq targeting Kurdish PKK guerrillas accused of killing Turkish security forces. Now, guerrillas based in Turkey are reportedly crossing the border into Syria and killing Syrian security forces, and even civilians. It would be too much to force Ankara to admit its hypocrisy.
Erdogan, anyway, should proceed with extreme caution. His rough tactics are isolating him; more than two-thirds of Turkish public opinion is against an attack on Syria.
It's come to the point that Turkish magazine Radikal asked their readers whether Turkey should be a model for the new Middle East. Turkey used to be "the sick man of Europe"; now Turkey is "becoming the lonely man of the Middle East", says the article.
It's a gas, gas, gas
Most of all, Erdogan simply cannot afford to antagonize Russia. There are at least 100,000 Russians in Syria - doing everything from building dams to advising on the operation of those defense systems.
And then there's the inescapable Pipelineistan angle. Turkey happens to be Gazprom's second-largest customer. Erdogan can't afford to antagonize Gazprom. The whole Turkish energy security architecture depends on gas from Russia - and Iran. Crucially, one year ago a $10bn Pipelineistan deal was clinched between Iran, Iraq and Syria for a natural gas pipeline from Iran's giant South Pars field to Iraq, Syria and further on towards Turkey and eventually connecting to Europe.
During the past 12 months, with Syria plunging into civil war, key players stopped talking about it. Not anymore. Any self-respecting analyst in Brussels admits that the EU's supreme paranoia is to be a hostage of Gazprom. The Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline would be essential to diversify Europe's energy supplies away from Russia.
For the US and the EU, this is the real game, and if it takes two or more years of Assad in power, so be it. And it must be done in a way that does not fully antagonize Russia. That’s where reassurances in Geneva to Russia keeping its interests intact in a post-Assad Syria come in.
No eyebrows should be raised. This is how ultra-hardcore geopolitics is played behind closed doors. It remains to be seen whether Erdogan will get the message.
Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).
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