The Syrian National Dialogue Congress held in Russia’s Sochi on January 28-29 was aimed to boost the process for building a peaceful future for Syrian people in a war-devastated country and to define the country’s political compass for the next years. The Congress, sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey, gathered over 1,500 participants from various groups of Syrian society, including representatives from political parties, opposition groups and ethnic and confessional communities.
While the Congress itself did not aim to achieve the immediate political reconciliation over Syria, its main focus was to revive Geneva talks. According to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the forum was expected to “create conditions for staging fruitful Geneva process”.
Besides, the Congress was some kind of alert to boycotting countries and their procrastination to reinforce the 2254 UN Security Council Resolution for Peace Process in Syria, adopted in 2015. According to the resolution, the future of Syria should be determined by its people. However, the country has experienced forced intervention and external interference that prevented it from paving ways for a peaceful future ever since.
Ironically it may seem, the so-called peace process for Syria that has been joined by many countries pursuing different strategies including diametrically opposite approaches of Russia and the United States, became a fruitful soil for radically oriented groups that eroded the country’s sovereignty. The delay in reinforcing the 2254 UN Security Resolution by international community can lead to further monetization of Syria’s natural resources by terrorist organizations and cause major security threats for the entire international community.
Perhaps, the most important result of the Sochi Congress has been an agreement of all participants to consolidate their efforts in stabilizing the Syria’s future and to secure the territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic. The concerns of the Syrian opposition claiming the Sochi Congress would, on the contrary, hazard the international peace process could not be more baseless since the Congress was supported by the UN, the main sponsor of the Geneva talks.
Russian-Turkish relations have experienced such rocky times in the last couple of years that it would have been almost impossible to predict the further development of the partnership in the foreseeable future. Yet, since the beginning of 2017 the relationship between the two countries have started to warm up as both leaders, Putin and Erdogan have managed to find some important touch points to strengthen the sustainable economic ties with strategic political cooperation.
The recovery of the diplomatic relations has been gained much due to the Turkey’s collaboration with Russia and Iran over Syria and their further fight against terrorism and the ISIS in the region. The successful development of the Astana process led by Russia, Turkey and Iran and the perspectives of hosting the National Dialogue Congress in Russia’s Sochi have raised a wave of anxiety in Washington as the United States were counting much on Ankara’s support in pursuing its military plans in Syria. Provided that Turkey’s decision to join Russia and Iran and its engagement in the Astana process met some serious controversies and tensions with the United States and the European Union one cannot help but ask the question if Turkey is shifting away from NATO toward the East.
The facts speak for themselves: since the beginning of 2017 Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayip Erdogan have held eight face-to-face meetings not to mention multiple visits of Russian and Turkish diplomatic representatives and military officers in both ways.
Apart from the cooperation over Syria and the joint fight against terrorism, the renewal of business, trade and economic relations as well as the prospective cooperation in the energy sector might launch a new era of partnership for both Russia and Turkey not only at the international or at federal levels but also at the regional levels as well.
On December, 13-14, Husseyin Dirioz, Ambassador of the Turkish Republic to Russia visited the city of Yekaterinburg, situated in the Urals and known as the country’s industrial hub. During his meeting with the local government authorities Mr. Dirioz expressed the intention to strengthen the mutual collaboration in such industries as machine building, oil and gas, construction and development, pharmacy and chemical sector as well as in the spheres of tourism, science and education.
However, a closer partnership with Russia is pulling Ankara in quite a confusing situation in which Turkey will have to make bigger efforts to keep the balance with the U.S. and the EU. While the European Union continues to remain the major region for Turkish exports Ankara still benefits from holding the NATO membership on some political and military matters. Given that, the United States will likely to start manipulating Turkey’s vulnerable position and take the target the Turkey’s most sensitive issues. For instance, Washington has reportedly been encouraging Syrian Kurds for military interventions to the territories on the East bank and further overtaking the key Syrian natural resources fields. The move, explained by the United States as an effort to create a Syrian Kurdish autonomy, has been highly criticized by Ankara as a driving force for the U.S. that will enable Washington to take control over Ankara and Damask.
But despite both leaders Recep Tayip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin look at the mutual partnership through the prism of their domestic interests which sometimes causes some structural controversies in such questions as pursuing policies towards the U.S. and the E.U, the possibility of a fast development of Turkey-Russia cooperation into a strategic partnership is very high. What’s bringing together Turkey and Russia today is perhaps the common mistrust of the Western policies. The emotional statements by U.S President Donald Trump such as announcement of Jerusalem as an Israel’s capital, the U.S. support of Syrian Kurds (that directly crosses the Ankara policy towards the Kurds) consolidate the strategic collaboration between Moscow and Ankara against “moody” President Trump and unfold incredible opportunities for expansion of economic and trade relations between Turkey and Russia. Moreover, with Turkey’s recognition of the Crimea as a Russian territory Moscow will open the “green corridor” for Turkish companies that will also let Turkey pursue its policy towards the Crimean-Tatar community in the peninsula.
As the historical experience proves, the strong partnerships are created by those countries who have manage to resolve the most controversial and unwanted situations between each other. The common historical background, strong cultural and ethnic ties and the geographic proximity can become a solid ground for Russia and Turkey to build a strong alliance.
Attaching the word “Islamic” as a prefix to the negative connotations such as terrorism, extremism, radicalism that are targeting humanity, culture, peace and prosperity causes reaction and disquiets. The presentations that started with such titles at domestic and international scientific meetings becomes contentious, and those who use these negative connotations, usually starting with “Islam”, say they do not mean the religion of Islam, but they use it simply because terrorist characterize themselves so.
A similar phrase that many of us have not yet paid enough attention is “Political Islam”. In a similar sense, the use of “jihad” or “jihadist” at every opportunity is also part of a program that wittingly tries to connect Islam, the religion of peace, with terror. The fact that a terrorist introduces himself with the religion of hundreds of millions of people and says that he acts according to his/her faith is directly related to the aim of the intelligence agency that establish and support that particular terrorist network. The first question to be asked after any terrorist attack is, “What is the aim?” If the EU does not want new refugees, the shortest way is a terrorist attack where civilian people are targeted. At the beginning of the incident, breaking it down on the people connected with the refugees actually reveals the true owners of the attack. As a matter of fact, in recent years it has been seen that the ways of planners of most social terror victims have somehow converged with leading intelligence agencies. In this context, it is necessary to scrutinize the concept of “Political Islam” concept.
In Turgut Özal International Economy and Politics Congress held in Malatya, local and foreign participants made important presentations. Indeed, the program, headed by the Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, Prof. Dr. Ahmet Karadağ, was more successful than other in many respects. Turgut Ozal’s stastesmanship in staying neutral in the Iran-Iraq War, not falling into the trap of the West during 1980s, was recalled in terms of faulty policies in the Syrian civil war. In 1980, it was important that even the administration that came into force by a coup under the pretext of protecting secularism could have acted prudently without coming to the game. An important part of the presentations were about Syrian refugees. The problem will be one of the hottest topic for social sciences in the next decades.
During the event, I asked a professor from Yarmouk University, Jordan on his study area. The answer was “political Islam.” I pushed him further to know what it means as if I didn’t know anything about. He explained that, especially since the 1960s, Muslim countries are increasingly becoming more conservative and more interested in religious issues, which have gained more importance in politics, and as a result of this, such a concept has become a subject of academic research.
I said that through the examples or actions that they gave me, they are much more practiced by Christians and Jews, and that in this case there should be studies of “political Judaism” or “political Christianity”. He admits that he never thinks about this way.
Many countries in the world, especially Asian and African countries, were the colonies of the western countries for few centuries. Since the World War II, these countries won their independence gradually. Political, economic and social structures in these countries were formed by taking the western-examples. Furthermore, Western countries, former colonialists were generally active in the processes of building these structures. Along with the developments in the field of education in particular, the new generation has fallen into identity crisis. The colonial era of assimilation, denial, de-identity, self-cultivation, and the raising of a generations that bears enmity to its own society and culture was successful to some extent, but it was also the main source of post-independence reactions.
The Islamic world, which has been destroyed by terrorist attacks organized by the weapons of the former colonialists and plots of their intelligence organizations, is looking for way outs from the current hysteria in the international politics, the economic and social and cultural spaces. Unity, solidarity, brotherhood, support oriented rhetoric and politics among Muslim countries are generally voiced loudly but practiced loosely, if ever they are practiced.
The European Union, for example, is a constitutional claim that advocates law, especially human rights, advocates freedom of belief and opinion. However, the organization that started with six countries in its establishment, yet has reached 28 nations, has 12 stars in its emblem representing the twelve apostles. The same emblem is also used for the Organization of South American States, which are Christian countries. Is not enough to enough to take the concept of “political Christianity” into consideration after the recent summit of the European Union under the presidency of the Pope? In a similar sense, even though a substantial part of the population of these countries is non-Christian, in the majority of these countries primary school students do their lessons in the church on certain days of the week. Yet, they never regarded as a Political Christianity or as such. However, when Muslim countries add religious subjects into curricular, they become a matters of “political Islam”.
Religious principles, symbols, practices come to our attention at every opportunity in important institutions that lead the world economy. The State of Israel and its actions are another example. Since the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, all the domestic and foreign policies of this country have included Zionism rules, Chief Rabbinate of Israel’s instructions, yet, the very concept of “Political Judaism” is hardly ever come to discussion. To me, one of the reasons why Trump is condemned is that he somehow reveals that the founders of ISIL were the US administration! He also said that his country’s intelligence was responsible for the coup attempt of July 15th. However, against such facts, some academicians prefer to be blind, deaf, and dumb.
In this process of the scientific imperialism, “political Islam”, which westerners fabricate with medieval fanaticism and crusader spirit, must be questioned again and again. Those academics, who want to find a place for themselves by wandering it around their mouth like a stinking rotten chewing gum, need to wake up as soon as possible. Those researchers who cannot evaluate the interests of the intelligence organizations with the ones who want to use Islam as their political target, or apply terrorism through the order of conscience and contemplation, are either very unfamiliar with the issues or incapable of making prudent judgement. Of course, there is nothing to say for non-Muslims who do not make their faith a means of hatred and hostility. However, the religion that must be included in the “Political” as a title at the beginning is definitely not Muslim.
This Saturday 27th of May sees Kell Brook defend his IBF Welterweight title against the undefeated prospect Errol spence Jr. The hotly anticipated bout, which will take place in Bramall Lane, Sheffield, England is expected to attract one of the biggest crowds for a fight this year.
Following the results of the weigh-in, it is clear that these fighters mean business. With a mere few hours to go until the fight takes place, it will be interesting to see who comes out Victorious, will the belt change hands or will the special one retain his title?
For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out new the War on the Rocks membership.
After months of halting and costly progress, the Turkish military and allied Syrian rebels are in a good position to take the Syrian city of al-Bab from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). With the capture of al-Bab, Turkey will have accomplished the clearly defined goals of its “Operation Euphrates Shield” intervention in northern Aleppo governorate: driving ISIL from the Turkish border and blocking hostile Kurdish forces from linking their territory to Turkey’s south.
But after al-Bab, Euphrates Shield has nowhere to go, and, if Turkey’s gains are to be sustainable, its forces may be unable to leave. With Euphrates Shield, Turkey may have thrown itself into a Syrian quagmire. It has no clear exit strategy and only a poor set of options for escalation. Turkey seems committed to an indefinite but precarious occupation of a piece of northern Aleppo governorate that, perversely, may further weaken Syria’s political and territorial integrity and strengthen Turkey’s adversaries.
Where to After al-Bab?
The Turkish government has not announced a plan to govern the territory it now controls in Syria or to transfer power to a civilian authority capable of administering services in war-torn Syria. Instead, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently signaled his intention to expand the operation to target the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s’ Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish-led militia that has waged an insurgent campaign in southeast Turkey since 1984. The YPG also acts as the backbone of the SDF, the United States’ closest partner in the Syrian conflict. This proposal, it seems, is part of a Turkish effort to create a 5,000-square kilometer “safe zone” free of the Islamic State and the YPG. This zone would include both Manbij and Afrin, two well-defended YPG and SDF-controlled areas along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Turkey’s actions after al-Bab falls could have considerable implications for the ongoing American-backed SDF offensive north of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s administrative hub in Syria. A Turkish offensive against Manbij, for example, would force the YPG to move forces from the outskirts of Raqqa, perhaps delaying a planned offensive against the city. The Turkish military could expand its operations after al-Bab, but its potential adversaries are prepared to defend against a Turkish-backed assault. The defenses are similar to those that have slowed Turkey’s operations around al-Bab, risking another set of bloody battles for Syrian cities without any coherent mechanism to govern and then withdraw from territory taken.
The risks of a prolonged Turkish occupation are considerable. Turkey’s difficulties around al-Bab have also allowed for the Syrian Arab Army and allied militias, backed by Russian airstrikes, to push east from Aleppo City. The Syrian Arab Army and its allies are now in control of the high ground overlooking the main road connecting al-Bab with Raqqa, effectively blocking any Turkish offensive toward Raqqa. At the time of writing, the Turkish and Syrian armies appear to be pushing to take the same city, Tadif, although Russia may have succeeded in brokering a ceasefire along the dividing line between northern Tadif and the southern entrance to al-Bab.
The division of territory has temporarily calmed tensions around the city, but the reality is that Turkish forces and a coalition of loosely aligned proxy militias now share a frontline with the Syrian regime, embedded Russian advisers, and Alawite militias. These two fractious coalitions are now within mortar range of one another, a state of affairs that is inherently destabilizing.
Further still, the regime’s advance south of al-Bab limits Turkey’s options and all but rules out any potential Turkish plan to expand Operation Euphrates Shield to push south toward Raqqa. Ankara had previously touted this proposal to U.S. officials and to the international media as an alternative to a SDF-led offensive for the ISIL-held city. Now, Turkish forces could only do this if they were willing to fight through the Russian-backed regime positions to the south of al-Bab and then come back into contact with ISIL on the outskirts of Raqqa. As this would trigger open war with the Syrian regime, it seems like an unlikely path for Turkey. Instead, Turkish forces could still seek to expand operations around Tel Rifaat or Manbij, two cities Turkey has occasionally pledged to target as part of Euphrates Shield.
The Tel Rifaat Offensive: Turkish Options and Limitations
In the northwest of Syria, the YPG holds the Afrin canton, a mountainous and largely Kurdish area abutting the Turkish-held territory in Syria. One option, often floated by Syrian rebels and the Turkish government, is an assault on the YPG in Afrin to capture Tel Rifaat, an Arab-majority town near the western border.
Tel Rifaat has been under YPG control since February 2016, when the group captured it from rebels with the support of the Russian and Syrian air forces. The Syrian rebels are therefore motivated and willing to fight the YPG in this area. The Turkish military and its rebel allies have clashed with YPG in the past around Tel Rifaat. On October 22, 2016, Free Syrian Army factions, backed by Turkish air and artillery strikes, began their assault on the town, but were pushed back. Three days later, Turkish-backed rebels lost two villages southeast of Tel Rifaat to a YPG counterattack.
Unlike the rebels of Operation Euphrates Shield, who have been constantly fighting ISIL since March 2016, the YPG in Afrin is well-rested and has largely not been involved in the grueling back-and-forth civil war. Turkish-backed rebels have a manpower deficit. They are heavily dependent on poorly trained fighters recruited from Syrian refugee populations in Turkey, local fighters from northern Aleppo, and some rebels who moved from Idlib. While these manpower sources would be appropriate for administering a smaller sized territory, they have been significantly depleted by the recent internecine conflict in Idlib and years of battle with ISIL and the Syrian regime. This manpower deficit would complicate any attack on Tel Rifaat. With over 175 kilometers of militarized frontline to defend, Syrian rebels would have to mass their forces in one area for an offensive without leaving other frontlines dangerously undefended from an Islamic State counter attack, SDF forces outside of Manbij, or regime forces south of al Bab. The Afrin YPG has a much shorter frontline to defend, so they can bring more forces to bear if needed.
The YPG has been expecting a rebel offensive to retake Tel Rifaat ever since it captured the town in early 2016. The YPG and its SDF allies have spent over a year building up defensive fortifications, such as earthen berms, checkpoints, and trenches. Afrin now has some of the most extensive defensive fortifications seen in northern Syria, similar to those ISIL employed to great effect to slow the Turkish-backed offensive on the al-Bab’s western entrances.
Tel Rifaat’s extensive defensive network, consisting of a web of walls and fortified towns, would impose costs on advancing Turkish forces, risking a prolonged campaign to take the city. With the Afrin YPG, Russia, and the Syrian regime in a tacit alliance, Turkey and its rebel allies may end up facing off with YPG ground forces backed up by two air forces if they attack and risk escalation with Russia or the Syrian regime. Russia and the regime have already demonstrated a commitment to use force in the area, even when Syrian troops are within mortar range of Turkish soldiers. A Russian airstrike killed 3 Turkish soldiers in February, while a second strike, attributed at various times to Russian, regime, or Iranian air assets, also killed Turkish soldiers operating near al-Bab in late November 2016.
Consolidating the Eastern Flank: Options for Manbij
South of al-Bab, the Syrian regime, backed by Russian airstrikes, have advanced to within 1.5 kilometers of the city. Regime forces now share a 10 kilometer-long frontline with Turkish-backed forces on the city’s southwestern outskirts. This Syrian move threatens to link its frontline just south of Tadif with SDF-held positions west of Manbij, potentially creating an alternative route to link SDF-held territory with Afrin, south of al-Bab. This would undermine the intended goal of Euphrates Shield of preventing the formation of a contiguous Kurdish region in Syria. The Syrian regime could use this as a point of leverage with the YPG in future peace negotiations, and Russia is working to facilitate this course of action with various Kurdish and regime interlocutors.
To prevent this, Turkey could choose to launch an offensive against SDF territory to the east of rebel-held northern Aleppo governorate. The end goal of such an operation would be to take Manbij, a city that the SDF, backed by U.S. airstrikes and special operations forces, captured from ISIL after a nearly three month-long battle and siege in summer of 2016.
Turkey has fought the SDF in this area before. At the start of Euphrates Shield, the Turkish and rebel forces rapidly pushed the YPG and their SDF allies back north of the Sajur River in a surprise offensive. With the Sajur River forming a natural boundary between the Manbij YPG and the Euphrates Shield forces, an American-backed ceasefire was put in place and has worked to minimize violence along the tense front line.
Some three months later, the situation has changed significantly. The YPG and SDF have dug in and fortified their positions, so Turkish armor and rebel infantry will not be able to rapidly advance as they did at the start of the operation. Political considerations also play a role in making a large-scale Turkish operation against the YPG in this area unlikely. Unlike the Afrin YPG, who cooperate extensively with the Syrian regime and Russia, the YPG and SDF in this region have a close working relationship with the United States and shared goals of pushing ISIL out of northern Syria.
To the east of the Euphrates River and Manbij, the YPG and its Arab allies in the SDF are preparing for an operation targeting Raqqa. American support in the form of arms, air support, and embedded special operations forces will be key to the capture of the city, but the operation is expected to rely heavily on local Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces.
A Turkish-led attack on Manbij would slow the Raqqa operation, as YPG forces would likely move from Raqqa to defend the frontlines in Manbij. Turkish President Erdogan has sought to offer an alternative option for taking Raqqa that would involve Euphrates Shield forces, rather than the Kurdish YPG and Arab SDF. However, the Turkish military and its allied rebels have struggled to capture al-Bab, a city with a pre-war population of only 63,000. Raqqa is nearly four times larger and sits some 180 kilometers south of the current Turkish-held frontline. An offensive against it would require more troops and more complicated and exposed logistical chain, independent of the capabilities of the local partners.
Turkey has one other option: It could invade Tel Abyad, an SDF-held town. Turkey will retain this option indefinitely, but actually pursuing it would entangle Turkish military forces on third front in Syria’s multi-sided civil war. Moreover, taking territory from Kurdish forces in Tel Abyad would likely boomerang back into Turkey, resulting in cross-border YPG attacks against various Turkish targets along the border.
Boxed In: So, Now What?
The Turkish government has repeatedly stated that it does not intend to stay in Syria in the long term. However, a premature withdrawal may leave the Euphrates Shield rebels weak and ill-equipped to deal with threats from the YPG or the Syrian regime, both of whom have clashed with the rebels in the past.
Prior to the Turkish intervention, the rebels that now constitute Euphrates Shield struggled to defend territory against ISIL attacks. They were nearly wiped out in an ISIL offensive on the city of Marea in the 2016. The Turkish forces will have to reorganize the rebel forces, currently split into dozens of factions, into a force that can independently defend its territory.
Turkey faces a similar problem as other professional militaries that work with local partners to take territory on the battlefield. Tensions between Islamist rebels and less conservative Free Syrian Army factions have often resulted in tit-for-tat kidnappings. Increasingly, internecine warfare breaks out over control of trade revenues and smuggling in Turkish-held territory in Syria. Some Turkish citizens, members of Turkish nationalist groups, have joined the rebel fray in Syria, creating tensions between the conservative and often Arabized Syrian Turkmen and the less religious nationalist Turkish volunteers. The Turkish military presence in Syria has suppressed these tensions for the most part, but they are likely to return once the Turkish military withdraws.
In addition to reorganizing the rebels into an independent and effective fighting force, Turkey faces the challenge of supporting the creation of a unified governing structure across the northern Aleppo governorate rebel territory. Currently governance in the area is split between a mishmash of disconnected and often conflicting sharia courts, civilian-led city councils, rebel militias, and Turkish forces, all operating with little overarching framework. Turkey will have to turn its attention to building institutions to govern the northern Aleppo territory, a slow and complex process with no clear timeframe. Turkey will therefore have to consolidate control over territory taken, regardless of the military choices it makes, either near Tel Rifaat or Manbij.
The consolidation of Turkish-backed governing bodies, while necessary to create the conditions to withdraw, may also contribute to an outcome Ankara has worked to prevent: the decentralization and devolution of the Syrian state, as regional institutions are strengthened at the expense of the central government. This outcome would also help to strengthen the case for empowered local regions, which would benefit the Syrian Kurds’ political aspirations. That said, the decentralization of the Syrian state may now be inevitable regardless of Turkish action.
Turkey will soon achieve its narrowly defined military objective: the defeat of ISIL in al-Bab to ensure that Kurdish-held territory along the Turkish-Syrian border will not be connected. Yet the challenges will persist as Turkey moves to a different phase of operations: state-building. This will create another set of issues to deal with that guarantee Turkish presence in Syria for the foreseeable future.
A special thanks to SyrianCivilWarMap.com for providing maps for this article.
Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East
Rao Komar (@RaoKomar747) is an Austin based journalist and Middle East/Eurasia analyst.
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