A Middle East Reset?

Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment, 7 August 2015

So, it is becoming clearer what is afoot between Washington and Moscow: It has been plain for some time (since Mr Kerry’s visit to Sochi) that the graph of US-Russian diplomacy had not only stopped trending downwards; but rather was shooting up, in terms of its pace of exchanges (which reportedly largely have been centred on Syria).  What was not so clear, was the substance of all this activity. 

Now, however, a few of the pieces are falling into place:  What is being mooted appears to represent a far-reaching initiative to re-orientate the security landscape of the region, but more particularly, that of Turkey and Saudi Arabia - in the context of ISIS.  If it is successful, it would allow President Obama to say finally that he has a credible policy towards defeating ISIS, and perhaps even, lay the groundwork for a regional solution to the Syrian conflict.  For Putin, it could re-set Russia’s relationship the Washington (in the wake of Russian help with securing the Iranian accord) back into a diplomatic channel, rather than on the path of militarised escalation (Ukraine).

What is not so clear, is whether President Erdogan’s apparent U-turn on ISIS (under huge American pressure), is genuine, or whether he is laying down the obscurantist ‘smoke’ of a re-set on ISIS (which will appease the West), in order to cover his real intentions. In that, by simultaneously sinking the ‘peace process’ with the PKK; by attacking it and by arresting its supporters in Turkey; by aerial attacking its Syrian and Iraqi affiliate, the YPG -- it seems rather that Erdogan’s main objective is to polarise Turkish politics, and to inflame Turkish nationalist sentiment against both the PKK and (and ISIS in the wake of a suicide attack that killed 31 young Turkish activists, and which the government claimed was perpetrated by ISIS, resulting in a sharp backlash by some sections of the public).

The suspicion must be that Erdogan is trying to use whipped-up nationalist fervour to rally support to the AKP, and so to win a clear majority for the AKP in snap elections (under the Turkish constitution – if the present interim government fails to form a coalition within a specified time limit, fresh parliamentary elections must be called).  Whether a re-run election will indeed result in the AKP gaining a clear majority over its rivals is a moot point; but already the head of the MH party and a vice-head of the AKP are calling for the HDP to be banned from running in any fresh election. (The HDP is a Kurdish party which won 12% of the votes in the recent parliamentary elections. The call for the ban stems from the killing of two policemen by the PKK in south eastern Turkey whom the latter claimed were working with ISIS.

What is not so clear either, is whether this grand regional ‘re-set’ will ultimately ‘save’ Saudi’s Mohammad bin Salman from his rush to wars (four in all), in order to demonstrate Saudi leadership of the Sunni world, and whose failures might well cost him (and the family) their political futures.

But first, some background and context: In an earlier weekly (see here), we pointed out how the Syrian Kurdish YPG had, with the fall of Tal Abayad (a border town on the Syrian-Turkish frontier, formerly held by ISIS), allowed the Kurds to ‘control’ a strip of land all the way from Tal Abayad to the far west of Syria’s extent (where it abuts Kurdish Iraq). Were the Kurds then to close the gap of a hundred or so kilometres to the next Kurdish ‘canton’ to the far east of Syria’s northern border, then the entire border areas of Syria would be controlled by forces hostile to ISIS. Potentially this would sever Turkey’s logistical supply lines to both al-Qae’da (An-Nusra) and ISIS. But more than that, such a land mass could be understood as a new Kurdish ‘autonomy’ – and one that would, in part, be contiguous with Turkey’s own Kurdish areas.  We suggested at the time that even the thought of such an ‘autonomy’ would drive Erdogan nuts.

And this is what the new ‘no-fly zone’ of some 90 kms in length along the Syrian frontier and having some 40 kms of depth is all about.  Ostensibly, it is about creating an ‘ISIS-free’ zone; but in reality it is all about Turkey preventing the YPG from creating a continuous corridor from west Syria (adjacent to Kurdish areas of Iraq) potentially to the Mediterranean.  It is clear that Turkish planes and artillery are targeting the YPG more than ISIS, just as the "crack down on ISIS" in Turkey (593 arrests) — of which possible ISIS members accounted for a total of 32 of the 593 arrested — is targeted more on the PKK.

Why then did Washington agree to this ‘no-fly zone’, having adamantly opposed one for so long?  Well firstly, because Turkey has been obliged to concede to the Americans the use of Incirlik air base in souther Turkey – a longstanding objective for the Pentagon, as a platform for their air sorties against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  But the true reason is that Turkey had – at least ostensibly - to go on the offensive against ISIS in the ‘no-fly zone’. This stems from events in May: To the US Special Forces raid on ISIS’ head of oil smuggling – Abu Sayyaf, ISIS’ so-called ‘oil minister’. “One senior western official familiar with the intelligence gathered at the slain leader’s compound said that direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking ISIS members was now “undeniable”. “There are hundreds of flash drives and documents that were seized there,” the official told the Observer . “They are being analysed at the moment, but the links are already so clear that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara.”

In short, the US had found the ‘smoking gun’ of Turkey’s long suspected deep relationship with ISIS.  A large delegation of US officials visited Ankara on 7 July to tell Erdogan that he had no choice now: he had been caught, and must act against ISIS.

In so doing - in genuinely confronting ISIS - Erdogan would be taking a huge risk: Turkey now stands in relation to ISIS, as Pakistan stood in relation to radicalised Sunni Islam in the 1980s.  In Pakistan, the Islamists pushed back hard, and Pakistan has had to face chronic instability ever since.  So will Erdogan do it?  Or, will he pull his punches, and try to play a double game with ISIS (maintaining the links, and try to persuade ISIS to accept that he is obliged to make a show of ‘cracking down’ – in order to fend off possible ISIS retaliation)?

Similarly, for Mohammad bin Salman, the choice is not easy: It is clear that he is in need of a ladder down from the Yemeni tree, up which he is stuck (and for that, he needs the help of Moscow, who have good contacts with all the key actors in Yemen).  But, he is, as it were, up an even more dangerous tree: In trying to show leadership in a new generation, action-man style, he has allowed associates to couch the conflict with Iran and its allies precisely in terms of ‘a jihad’ and has steered a course of leaning towards the more conservative Wahhabi religious leadership (possibly in the expectation that they will insist on civil obedience towards ‘legitimate authority’).  But in invoking a religious war against Iran and ‘its proxies’, he risks opening the Pandora’s box of Wahhabi radicalism internally, as well as externally.

The solution for him seems to be to oppose ISIS rhetorically, whilst openly allying the Kingdom with al-Qae’da forces in Yemen (and other Sunni Islamist forces elsewhere). In short, he seems ready to yield up the ISIS ‘card’, whilst keeping the other Sunni cards (al-Qae’da – and other Muslim Brotherhood movements) available as tools - on the spurious basis that al-Qae’da and its ilk now have metamorphosed into ‘nationalist’ forces, who now pose little risk to the West.  But here is the rub: In invoking Wahhabi ‘jihad’ against Iran, he creates precisely the religious synergy that can widen the ISIS constituency within Saudi Arabia: for both ISIS and the now energised Saudi Wahhabi constituency are of the same substance.

This constitutes the straw from which President Putin is trying to make bricks.  No doubt the Americans have told him that they had found the ‘smoking gun’ of Turkey’s collusion with ISIS (and learned of their ‘shock' at its extent), and Putin will have known of the US intention to coerce Erdogan to sever his ties to ISIS.  Equally, Putin is likely to have heard from Mohammad bin Salman that he takes ISIS to be a real threat to the al-Saud.

It seems that Putin effectively saw the opportunity – jointly with the US – to re-set the Sunni world (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan) into a more effective force against ISIS.  In brief, Moscow is trying to recast Sunni Islam as a counterforce to ISIS, surely a heavy ‘lift’ politically for Russia.) If the Turkish supply lines could be cut, and funding from the Saudi world squeezed, ISIS would be weakened – and perhaps even the conditions for a Syrian ‘grand bargain’ might become apparent.  

All this, of course, is speculative; but as the Lebanese daily, As Safir, has reported, work is now under way. The Syrian FM was invited to Moscow to hear the public announcement of the new security framework (and shortly after, the Syrian government indicated its readiness to participate).  Delegates from the  new coalition already are meeting in Moscow.  Iran, for now is not a part of this Sunni re-configuration, but the other pole to the fight against ISIS (Iran, the Iraqi militia, Hizbullah and the Houthis) is already co-ordinating closely with Moscow.

So far, so good – but at first sight the cost of this new coalition would appear to be that Washington has thrown the Kurds under the Turkish bus. The 159 Turkish air force sorties against a reported 400 PKK targets in Iraq last week drew no criticism from Washington; but rather an unrepentent affirmation of Ankara’s ‘right’ to attack the PKK. We may recall too, that in this condonement of the Turkish attacks, the latter are being conducted against forces that have been the most effective in fighting ISIS in Iraq, and who are the allies of the YPG, with whom the US military are in close co-ordination.

The US has been working closely with the YPG Syrian Kurds (since the time that Kobani was under siege from ISIS).  There can be no doubt that YPG’s severing of ISIS supply lines in Syria has been welcomed, and assisted by the Pentagon.  But perhaps this Syrian Kurdish calculus works in an opposite direction in Washington to that of the PKK in Iraq: In response to the Turkish shelling and air attacks, the leader of the Syrian Kurds offered (formally) to reconcile with the Syrian government (in practice the Syrian Kurds had never really been alienated from Assad).  Maybe Washington then is not too unhappy with this outcome? In any event, were the Syrian Kurds fully to throw their support behind the Syrian army, this could mark a significant shift in the balance of forces in Syria.

All in all, complicated politics, with much that can go wrong at any point of the equation. Will Turkey and Saudi really ‘re-set’?  One must watch Erdogan’s actions very closely.  Pakistan tried to ‘double-date’ with the US and with the Mujahidin forces, but the latter used the Pakistani leadership, as much as Pakistan succeeded in ‘using’ the Mujahidin. No doubts the Russians and Americans will be watching closely.