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Turkey’s Regional Interests

Sept. 1, 2017

Turkey knows it needs to balance both friend and foe – Kamran Bokhari and Xander Snyder talk about what considerations it must make. Sign up here for free updates on topics like this.

Xander Snyder: Hi and welcome to the Geopolitical Futures podcast. I’m Xander Snyder and I am joined today by senior analyst Kamran Bokhari. How’s it going Kamran?

Kamran Bokhari: Hi Xander. I am well, how are you?

XS: Doing great. Today, we’re going to talk about Turkey. But as you may be aware, you can’t really just talk about Turkey without talking about all the other major actors in the region: Iran, Russia and of course what’s going on in Syria.

So in the last week, we’ve seen a lot of reports come out of the northwest region of Syria, which sits just on the southern border of Turkey, and this northwest region is held by essentially Kurdish forces, so the YPG. And there’s been a lot of news about one city called Afrin which sits fairly close to where a number of soldiers have set up control of the territory that they took in a campaign that started late last year, Operations Euphrates Shield.

And we’ve seen a lot of rhetoric coming out of Turkey about needing to march on Afrin to take control of this Kurdish held territory. We’ve seen reports of Russian forces being stationed near Afrin and near Tell Rifaat which is also in this northwestern corridor of Syria and yet Turkey has made no moves yet.

So we’re still kind of in the process of trying to understand what exactly they would want in that territory and what the beginning of an offensive would look like. But there’s a lot going on in that region. What about some of the other countries that border Turkey, Kamran? What have we seen recently?

KB: So Xander, you point to an important dynamic from a number of perspectives. Afrin is a place where the Turks want to be able to isolate that area. They call it the Afrin Canton, it is held or at least the upper hands from what we can tell is held by the Syrian Kurds, the PYB and the YPG, its militia.

From the Turkish point of view, the Kurds in Afrin should not have geographic, a continuous geographic corridor with the larger part of the Syrian Kurdish territory which is the northwest of Syria. The places which are in the Hasakah province and from where the Kurds backed by the United States are fighting ISIS.

So the Kurdish interest right now is to keep these two territories apart. Ideally, isolate Afrin from the larger Kurdish enclave to the northeast in Syria. So I think from the Kurdish point of view, that’s their stated goal. Now can they do that? I think that if they decided to deploy forces, yes they can.

But they haven’t made that political decision. The reason is because if the Turks jump in to that, there’s no going back. And that’s a major undertaking that given the current domestic situation, given the way that the Turks are dealing with the United States as well as Russia at the same time, trying to balance that relationship. I think that the Turks do not want to if you will jump into something that they will not be able to manage just yet.

And so, I think that what is even further constraining them is the move or the reported move by the Russians to deploy forces in Afrin. The Russian interest is that if the Turks establish a foothold in that area, then they have another place from which they can undermine the Syrian regime which is an ally of the Russians. So I think that Iran and Russia are on the same page though Iran doesn’t necessarily have the forces in there to be able to deploy to that region. So I think that it’s a wait and see right now given that there are so many unknowns from the Turkish point of view.

XS: From a Turkish perspective, this campaign that they initiated last October, the Euphrates Shield, can be seen as somewhat of a success. While I think originally they intended to march on Ma’an beach which is in the northeastern part of Syria that the Kurds hold territory, they were ultimately pushed back or well deterred from moving on as the U.S. stationed some forces there. Now in this northwest area, the U.S. has basically not come out and supported the Kurds because there’s no pocket of ISIS in that part of Syria to fight against.

So the official position of the U.S. is ok well this isn’t exactly what we’re concerned about. And Turkey was effective at least in driving a wedge between these two territories. Now the question kind of remains to be seen whether or not this wedge is sufficient to serve their interests or they really need to move on Afrin and take a greater either territorial control of this northwest pocket or at least exert some sort or impose some sort of restrictions and control the supply routes that would go in and out of this territory.

Now you mentioned Iran Kamran, how is Turkey looking at Iran now generally and in the context of the Syrian conflict?

KB: So it’s a complicated situation Xander, the Iranians on one hand have been having some sort of unprecedented meetings with the Turks. And what prompted that was the Iraqi Kurds holding their referendum on the 25th of this month. That has really alarmed the Iranians, the Iranians don’t want them to do that. Interestingly, the Turks don’t seem that alarmed. In fact, Turkish behavior has been that ok, Iraqi Kurds shouldn’t been doing this right now because given the chaos in the region, this would just add to it. But it’s not something that they are, at least they’ve not publicly expressed a strong opposition to. It almost seems like Ankara can manage a referendum towards independence on the part of the Iraqi Kurds.

So the Iranians and the Turks seem to be not on the same page, in so far as Iraq is concerned and the Iraqi Kurds are concerned. We already know that when it comes to Syria, the Turks and the Iranians are on the opposite sides. Clearly, the Iranians do not want to see the Assad regime fall. The Turks while they don’t have the capability to do much to undermine the Syrian regime, definitely want to see it fall and replaced with forces that are ideally from the Turkish point of view, allied to Ankara. So there’s a big divide over here and I think that in the end when it comes to Syria and Iraq, the two sides have very divergent views.

Switching back to Iraq for a moment, I think that the relationship that the Turks have with the Kurdistan regional government because the KRG as it’s known by its acronym is dependent on Turkey to export its hydrocarbons particularly oil. It’s landlocked, you know a future state if and when that happens will be dependent upon Turkey. Turkey likes that dependency because A: that allows the Turks to manage their own Kurdish separatism which for the most part, the KRG has aligned with Turkey against fellow Turkish Kurds particularly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, which the KRG allows Turkish military assets to come in and take action against them and from time to time.

So from the Turkish point of view, A: they’ve got KRG dependent on them for their well-being, B: KRG is helping them against the PKK and C: the Turks who need some sort of foothold in Iraq which is largely dominated by the Iranians is an added benefit. So I think that the Iranians are trying to say look you don’t want Kurdish separatism, we don’t want Kurdish separatism so it’s in our joint interest to oppose this referendum and make sure that the Iraqi Kurds are kept in check. The Turks respond and say yes but it’s not that simple and in fact you know this referendum may actually work for us. So we see a divergence in Iranian and Turkish interests.

XS: Yeah I think it’s interesting how Turkey has been very cautious to avoid drawing a red line that could tie its actions to the decisions of Iran at least if in its eyes it wants to maintain some degree of credibility. Because the language it used was a KRG referendum would not be a Casus belli necessarily. So they’ve given themselves enough room to maneuver with that particular statement.

It really is kind of like acronym soup trying to follow all of these different competing interests in Syria but I think to your point sometimes it’s forgotten that even within the Kurds there are different divisions and factions that can potentially play against one another. And to the extent that Turkey or really any other actor in Syria right now can take advantage of those divisions, I am sure they will.

Now of course the other big player in Syria is Russia. And Turkey, formerly the Ottoman Empire, and Russia have really at least for the last couple hundred years really been historical antagonists and yet we see some indications that at least right now they’re finding perhaps some overlapping interests in the short term. It seems like Russia is either in Tal Abyad to potentially block Turkey’s advance or they are reaching some sort of agreement with Turkey in trading some territory in Afrin for some control in Idlib which is a little further south. Taken from a higher level, how is Russia’s historical antagonism right now playing into this particular conflict?

KB: So I think Xander, as I understand it Russia knows that it’s in a strategically weak position given that you know it’s overall strategic outlook isn’t positive moving forward. And a lot of it has to do with its economy which is weakening. It already has suffered a major reversal in the Ukraine.

And so, Russia knows that if it loses influence in that sort of northern rim of the Black Sea region then that’s more opportunity down the line for Turkey to expand into those areas. It is part of our model at GPF that we expect Turkey not just to expand in the Middle East in the future, but also to its north in the areas of the Caucasus. And you know, you mentioned the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman Empire held a lot of that territory up there along the northern rim of the Black Sea.

So Russia knows that it’s going to be facing a Turkey down the road. So it’s in the Russian interest to create as much problem as is possible for the Turks on their Southern flank so they’re preoccupied. And even if Russia is facing a lot of problems in the Black Sea basin region, the Turks cannot come in and aggravate those problems that the Russians are already facing.

So how does Russia do that? Well it supports the Syrian Kurds, it makes sure that the Syrian regime is intact and able to counter any Turkish move to come in. So I think that is the Russian game and Iran and Russia for now seem to be on the same page.

From the Iranian point of view, if the Turks are happy with Iraqi Kurds gaining you know independence, autonomy or some sort of self-rule, then the way for the Iranians to counter that is to empower or at least have a tactical alignment with the Syrian Kurds, whom the Turks see as their enemies because the Syrian Kurds and the Turkish Kurds have a close relationship as far as Ankara is concerned. So the PKK is a terrorist organization as far as the Turks are concerned and they look at the YPG also as a terrorist organization, almost a cousin of the PKK. So that’s sort of the strategic picture at this point.

XS: So we’ve talked about the regional powers immediately surrounding Syria right? Turkey, Russia and Iran. What about that other major player that sits you know almost on the other side of the world, the United States. Where are they playing into all of this? It seems like really the focus for the U.S. remains on a defeat for ISIS such that they can then get out of the region as much as they can and kind of not have to deal with it. Do you think that’s how the U.S. is looking at it right now, Kamran?

KB: So there are two things that the United States is looking at when it comes to Turkey. There is the immediate term, which is as you have rightly pointed out Xander is the defeat or the degradation of ISIS as a force. And ideally Washington wants Ankara to take a lead role in that. That hasn’t happened because the priority for Ankara are the Syrian Kurds, is Kurdish separatism and not ISIS’s jihadism at this point. And from the Turkish point of view, it’s also about geography, the Kurds are you know in an area that’s right on the border of Turkey whereas ISIS is south of the Kurdish areas in Syria.

So there’s that disconnect that the United States and the Turks have not been able to get together. That said there’s been an interesting visit by Defense Secretary General James Mattis to Turkey, this was last week. We’re not really sure what became of that but because there’s so much silence and there’s a hint from the Turkish media that there was some form of meeting of minds so to speak. It seems like the large disagreement that the Americans and the Turks had may be possibly be on its way to some form of understanding. It’s not really clear what that means but there seems to be some shift in that hardline U.S. versus Turkey view of the war in Syria. So that’s one thing.

And I think that the United States does not have to necessarily work with the Kurds to defeat ISIS as long as Turkey is willing to step up. In many ways, the United States has nobody else right now to fight ISIS so they’re going along with the Syrian Kurds. At the same time, the Syrian Kurds are a useful tool for the Trump administration and before it the Obama administration, to sort of have leverage against Turkey saying if you don’t work with us, we’ll go with the Kurds. Sort of a way to shape Turkish behavior or at least try to.

Long term, the United States also needs Turkey to be able to play a role in American efforts to counter Russia, to weaken Russia. And the United States just like the United States does not want to have to have a heavy footprint in Syria, it doesn’t want to have a heavy footprint in the Caucasus and in the Ukraine and in those areas north of Turkey. Again, it’s natural for the Turks to get involved.

So I think long term, the Americans say if we can reach an understanding on Syria, then we will be able to down the road when Russia is weakening, we can have Turkey, it’s in our interest to have Turkey play a role in managing the Black Sea basin as well. So, I think we need to separate between the short term which is ISIS and the long term which is Russia when it comes to American interests in that region.

XS: Yeah I mean if you look at a map of the Caucasus, you can really begin to understand how that has been a flashpoint for so much conflict between Turkey and formerly the Ottoman Empire and Russia. As Russia became more powerful and began to claim the inheritance of the Roman Empire and Constantinople and representation of the Orthodox Christians. They were able to begin challenging a lot of Orthodox Christians who had lived under the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years relatively peacefully and then all of the sudden you know you had that issue of well whose side are you really on? Which often is a spark of some of these transnational conflicts that you see.

But the visit by James Mattis was interesting. There were some reports that came before and then after that kind of hinted at what you just mentioned, the idea that there might’ve been some sort of accord between the U.S. and Turkey even if not official and even if we’re not entirely privy to it. But immediately before Mattis’ visit, there were reports that the U.S. had sent some anti-aircraft weapons to the YPG and it’s been fairly public that the U.S. has been supporting the YPG and then directly supporting them publicly since May.

But the question with this particular story was, why anti-air guns? If the U.S. is purportedly focused on fighting ISIS, ISIS doesn’t have aircraft. So what are the anti-aircraft weapons for? And that was a concern that Erdogan expressed prior to Mattis’ visit. And one of the announcements that we saw following Mattis’ visit, was Mattis promising to help Turkey in his fight against the PKK, against specifically not the YPG or the KRG but the PKK and that the U.S. would promise to deliver to Turkey the locations of all of these different heavier weapons that they distributed to this area. So something was agreed upon and we’re still trying to figure out exactly what that is. But it’s very much reading between the lines right now.

KB: You’re right. I mean the problem that we have is a lack of intelligence on this and when there’s a lack of intelligence, it’s safe to assume that those involved are holding their cards very close to their chest and that is an indication most of the time that some major development is about to take place. It’s not necessary that that happens but you know if people are withholding information, then there’s a reason for that and they don’t want some spoiler effect to some form of an accord.

I think that we need to use our concept of constraints to try to understand why the United States would give anti-aircraft batteries to the YPG, the Syrian Kurds. Something that they know will really anger Turkey. I think that here it’s useful to point out that the imperative of the Syrian Kurds to go and fight ISIS, a large part of that is to buy American protection against Turkey.

And I think that the United States in exchange for the YPG fighting against ISIS had to demonstrate to the Syrian Kurds that they are willing to and they’re going to fulfill their end of the bargain which is help the Syrian Kurds protect them from Turkish air assault. Because as you rightly pointed out, there’s no need for anti-aircraft batteries in the fight against ISIS and there’s no other power that is going to do airstrikes against them.

The only other people flying aircraft in Syria are Russians and the Russians are actually aligned with the YPG in this sort of complex game. There’s no indication that there’s a threat from Russian aircraft bombarding YPG positions. Perhaps you know Syrian regime may do that or have an interest but I really doubt that given that they are heavily dependent on the Russians.

So that leaves Turkey as the only potential player to go in and use aircraft to bombard the YPG if it felt the need to do that. So that’s sort of my read on that particular delivery of those weapons. Now obviously, if there’s going to be a meeting of minds between Turkey and the United States, then the Turks want to have assurances that that kind of weapon does not exist in the hands of the Kurds.

XS: Yeah so if it wasn’t already a complex enough situation to follow, it seems to just be getting more complex every day. I think something that an interesting longer-term trend to have observed over the last several years is that while the war started off regionally, it is now being increasingly or primarily determined by outside major powers. Iran, Turkey, Russia and the United States. So once again, we see a major flash point of the region have its fate decided by outsiders to a degree. I mean regional outsiders but still not the state formerly known as Syria and Iraq themselves.

So we’ll continue following developments in Syria and with Turkey, they both play, Turkey especially plays a major part of our long-term forecast so check out articles coming up for more information on that. And thanks for taking the time chatting today Kamran, it was an interesting conversation.

KB: It’s always a pleasure speaking with you Xander. Hopefully our listeners will benefit from this conversation.

XS: Cheers.

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