Over the past many months, a tectonic shift has taken place as the traditional foreign hegemonic presence in the region, the United States, increasingly saw its influence and presence evaporate.
By Kabir Taneja
There have been umpteen numbers of attempts over the past two years to orchestrate a ceasefire amidst the Syrian civil war, a conflict now raging for more than a half a decade with no end in sight and hundreds of thousands having been killed, and millions displaced.
However, over the past many months, a tectonic shift has taken place as the traditional foreign hegemonic presence in the region, the United States, increasingly saw its influence and presence evaporate. This vacuum created was filled up quickly by a cocktail of Russian military presence in Syria and regional actors such as Iran and Turkey making steadfast commitments to draw that ever-so-elusive “red line” that once the now outgoing US President Barack Obama once announced, only to never walk his talk. History will condemn the US administration, historically the most prevalent foreign power in the Middle East, as the one that stood by and watched the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons on his own people, and only reacting in platitudes.
Over the past month, the optics of the Syrian crisis have also shifted as Moscow seems to be entering a phase where it seemingly would like to scale down its associations with the conflict. For this, both Russia and regional heavyweight Turkey, orchestrated yet another ceasefire between the Assad regime and the rebels on 30 December 2016. At this point, the rebels, fighting an intense battle with the regime forces were on the cusp of losing Aleppo to the Syrian army. For them, the ceasefire meant an escape route to safety outside the city and away from the regime, which the rebel commanders took as they suffered heavy casualties. Aleppo’s freedom from the rebels was celebrated via posters of Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran backed militia Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah coming up on the bombed out, destitute structures of the city. Western analysts reacted to these imageries by labeling it as ‘the new world order.’
The ceasefire agreement, however, had a few strings attached, with the most prominent one being it did not involve ISIS or the YPG (Kurds), the latter perhaps being the cornerstone reason for Turkey’s involvement with Russia over the outcomes in Syria as the US continues to arm Kurdish rebels against ISIS. Conflicting reports also surfaced on whether the recent Al-Qaeda breakaway Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al Nusra), was also part of the arrangement. While rebel leaders said al-Sham was indeed part of the ceasefire, the Syrian regime was of a contradicting opinion.
Only months ago, both Moscow and Ankara were at odds after a Turkish Air Force F–16 shot down a Russian Sukhoi SU-24M near the Syria–Turkey border on November 2015. Today, Turkey, a member of NATO, prefers to stick by Russia’s narrative on the Syrian crisis. But this optic is what stands as of today, and could change within days, or perhaps even hours.
The ceasefire, as expected by many, is already on the tenterhooks, and the guarantors, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, already seem distant from keeping the agreement and the further peace talks taking place in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan together.
As per a release by the opposition taking part in the talks, the Assad regime broke the ceasefire agreement in the areas of Barada Valley, Eastern Ghouta, the Hamaa suburbs and Daraa. The Syrian Revolution, armed groups signatories to the Ankara agreement of 29 December 2016, blamed the ‘guarantors’ for not keeping their end of the bargain, leaving the political process on, as expected, a knife’s edge.
Turkey’s narrative in the region has been largely counterproductive, specifically when it came to dealing with ISIS. In the beginning, Turkey allowed ISIS to fester on its own soil, in a poorly sought and historically marooned policy of trying to pitch one extremist group against the others. Ankara and Istanbul as cities became hubs for ISIS recruitment as Erdogan’s administration decided to turn a blind eye in the hope that ISIS will counter Turkey’s number one security and political concerns, the Kurds and their will to construct an independent Kurdistan aided by far-left organisations such as the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane (PKK), also known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. According to a recent Turkish report from a pro-Turkish Syrian government channel, the PKK has killed more than 3,400 Turkish army and security forces in 2016 alone.
Over the past few years, Turkey allowed ISIS to conduct illicit oil trade across its borders as part of its anti-Kurd posturing, while its prominent Western allies and NATO colleagues spent resources in arming and training Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to counter ISIS’s advances, along with other rebel groups, including Shia militias. For Erdogan, showing a strong hand against the likes of the PKK, whose main influence zone is Iraqi Kurdistan, and standing against the Kurds independence movement is of critical importance that till now trumped ISIS as a premier threat.
Turkey has seen a steady escalation in attacks on its soil since 2015. Between 5 June, from an attack on a political rally in Diyarpakir that killed two people to the New Year’s eve attack on an Istanbul nightclub that killed thirty nine, Turkey has lost nearly 500 citizens in nineteen major terror strikes. Out of these, nine were linked to Kurdish militant groups, six linked to ISIS, while four remain unknown. However, the attack on 31 December 2016 in an upmarket Istanbul nightclub was perhaps the most significant, and a primer of the things to come between ISIS and Turkey, the former once living rent free in the latter’s backyard. According to another data set released by Versik Maplecroft, 685 people were killed and more than 2,000 wounded in 269 separate terrorist incidents in Turkey over the past twelve months.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for the deadly attack Sunday on a nightclub in Istanbul that left at least 39 people dead. pic.twitter.com/sYNCmjqauy
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) January 2, 2017
In November 2016, the elusive leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in an audio message released after the death of ISIS’s second in command and chief of its foreign operations, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, asked the group “to unleash the fire of their anger” on Turkish armed forces and to take the battle to Turkish soil itself. On 20 December, Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was shot dead at an art gallery in Ankara by an off-duty police officer named Mevlut Mert Atlintas while shouting ‘don’t forget Aleppo,’ in an event dramatically captured by international media. It remains unclear whether the gunman acted alone or was part of a group, as no terror organisation claimed credit for it. Both Turkey and Russia, despite the gravity of the situation, played down the assassination, calling it an attempt to disrupt the positive developments in Turkish–Russian ties. Only a few months ago, a killing of such magnitude could have had tremendous geopolitical implications; however, this time Karlov’s legacy was swiftly brushed under the carpet to maintain the larger interests at play.
Hours before the attack on Istanbul last week, ISIS media outlets released a grotesque video of them burning two captured Turkish soldiers alive. The Istanbul terror attack, which also took the lives of two Indians, was claimed by ISIS not via Amaq, one of its more prominent news agencies, but via Nashir, a pro-ISIS media outlet known to be closer to the top hierarchy of the group. This was only the second time ISIS claimed responsibility via Nashir, with the first being just days before when the group took claim of the terror strike in the southern Jordanian city of Karak that killed ten people.
A statement released by ISIS post the Istanbul attack were more direct, and backed by religious connotations of Turkey’s alliances with Christian states (reference to the US, European nations and Russia). The statements labelled Turkey as “protector of the cross” and highlighted it targeting Christians who were partying at the nightclub (majority of those killed, however, were Muslims). It further read, “It (the attack) came in revenge for the religion of Allah the Almighty and in fulfilment of the order of the Emir of the Believers (al-Baghdadi) to target the servant of the cross, Turkey.”
Erdogan’s government is now in all likeliness on the cusp of taking further unilateral military actions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria than before. However, it may face challenges on the same, as its military still remains fractured as a result of the attempted coup against Ankara in July last year. In the post-coup fallout and purge, more than 270 Turkish Air Force pilots were discharged from their duties, a critical gap that has brought down the global average of accepted norms for sustainment from a 1.25:I pilot-to-cockpit ratio down to a mere 0.8:I for Turkey’s F-16 fleet. The post-coup purges have also affected the core military and naval strengths as well. To compensate for Turkey’s lost military edge, it has reportedly been the US that has swooped in to seize the opportunity to swing a ‘wayward’ Ankara back towards western geopolitical designs by providing air-cover for Turkish ground troops moving towards the Al-Bab region near Aleppo to push-back “Sunni Muslim hardliners and Kurdish fighters” from its borders with Syria.
Turkey perhaps is in line now to see more violence on its soil in the time to come. This outcome, as it stands today, could have been avoided if Erdogan’s initial response to ISIS would not have seen the terror group as a proxy against the various pro-Kurdish militia movements emitting from both Iraq and Syria. Even as Erdogan used the issue of tacking the Kurds to cut democracy to size in Turkey and seize greater control over the country, he will look to empower himself even further on back of tackling ISIS and maintaining balance after the attempted coup. This consolidation of power and Erdogan’s temperament as a leader perhaps pushes Turkey ideologically more towards Putin’s Russia than the US, which has all but squandered away its influence on the crisis under the Obama administration.