Is Turkey’s Erdogan out to destabilize Middle East?

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From northwest Iraq to Tripoli on Libya’s African coast, Turkey is flexing its muscles – without the slightest nod to the supposedly ‘pro-Western’ and ‘pro-NATO’ orientation that Turkey’s Western apologists like to recall.

 By  Dr. Jonathan Spyer

Turkish forces are at the present time bolstering newly constructed outposts in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turks have established five new positions on mountainous terrain near the villages of Sharanish and Banka, in the Zakho area adjoining the border with Turkey, since commencing operation in the area in mid-June. Troops have been transported in by helicopter to man the new positions.

This is the latest phase in an operation that has brought the Turkish armed forces to 30 kilometers (18 miles) inside Iraqi Kurdish territory. Operation Claw-Tiger was launched on June 17, following Turkish air attacks on targets Ankara identified as associated with the PKK at a number of sites in the Kurdish Regional Government-controlled area. The areas destroyed in the airstrikes included a number of Yezidi villages in the Mount Sinjar area. A refugee camp at Makhmur was also targeted.

Elements of the 1st and 5th Commando Brigades, both elite Turkish airborne formations, are taking part in the operation on the ground. Iranian artillery shelled the Choman area of the Qandil Mountains on June 16th, in a move widely interpreted as supportive of the Turkish offensive. Iranian cooperation with Turkey derives from immediate shared interests: both countries have restive and alienated Kurdish populations living in geographically distinct areas.

Both wish to see the weakening of both the PKK and the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. The PKK originated among Turkish Kurds, but also has a franchise among Iranian Kurds (PJAK). Beyond the Kurdish issue, Iran has huge hydrocarbon reserves, while Turkey has a need for oil and gas. As a result, Turkey has been assisting Iran in avoiding US sanctions.

Turkey’s ongoing gas imports from Iran were suspended on March 31, 2020, due to a PKK operation that temporarily disabled the pipeline. Supplies are set to recommence this month. Iran and Turkey both seek the end of the US-led security structure in the region, and are similarly opposed to the various allies in the region of that structure. Hence, there is at present a great deal of common ground between the two countries.

The PKK is a pan-Kurdish organization, and the fighters in Qandil come from across the Kurdish area. The organization was formed in Turkey, however, and its top leadership remains dominated by Turkish Kurds. Despite the considerable dimensions of the current offensive, Kurdish sources do not consider that it represents the beginning of a long-awaited general Turkish attempt to destroy the PKK in Qandil.

Rather, it is seen as continuing an established pattern of ongoing Turkish operations into Kurdish controlled northern Iraq, conducted without inquiry as to the wishes of the local Kurdish authorities, and intended to establish a widening Turkish military infrastructure in the area adjoining the border.

Turkish media reports largely concur. According to a recent article in the Hurriyet newspaper, 12 permanent observation posts had already been established in the KRG controlled area in the period between 2016 and the present operation.

Hurriyet quoted Turkish security officials who depicted the PKK as seeking to establish a corridor from their forces on the Iranian border in Suleimania province, via Sinjar, to the Kurdish controlled area in northeast Syria. In this regard, it is worth noting that both PJAK and other Iranian Kurdish military groups opposed to the Iranian regime, such as the Iranian Kurdish Democratic Party (PDKI) maintain bases and positions inside KRG territory, adjoining the border with Iran.

Ankara considers the YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units), which is the main force in this area, to be a franchise of the PKK. The Turkish operation, according to Hurriyet, is intended to break this corridor from Syria to the Iranian Kurds. It should be noted that the current deployment of Turkish forces is not sufficiently deep to cut any such notional line.

The Turkish newspaper likened the current effort to previous Turkish operations in northern Syria in 2016 and 2019 which resulted in Turkish occupation of two non-contiguous blocs of territory along the Syrian Turkish border. Turkey hopes to expand the easternmost of these areas, which cuts directly into Kurdish controlled northeast Syria.

Kurdish sources, meanwhile, suggest an additional, domestic political motivation for the current operation. They note the dire state of the Turkish economy, and the consequent loss of public support indicated in a number of recent polls, for the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its main ally, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). According to this perspective, the Turkish operation is intended to rally the government’s political base through its fear of and hostility to Kurdish aspirations and to distract from socio-economic failure.

This element notwithstanding, Operation Claw Tiger fits into an arc of Turkish military assertiveness currently extending from northern Iraq, across northern Syria, going down via the Mediterranean and via Israel, and reaching Libya. Turkey also has a military presence to the south and east of this area, in Qatar, in Sudan and in Somalia. In the Mediterranean, Turkey is challenging Greece, Cyprus and Israel for the gas riches beneath the water.

Via its SADAT military private company, Ankara is deeply engaged in support of Hamas against Israel. SADAT, sometimes referred to as Erdogan’s “Revolutionary Guards,” is involved in other, similarly more murky ends of Turkey’s regional assertion. The company, founded by the Turkish President’s military advisor General Adnan Tanriverdi, took responsibility for the training of Syrian Islamist and jihadi rebels under Turkey’s flag. These forces were subsequently deployed against the Syrian Kurds in 2019-20.

They are now engaged in Libya, fighting against the Libyan National Army of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. SADAT, incidentally, is currently also involved in training Sunni Islamist forces loyal to the Government of National Accord in Libya. The Africa Intelligence website and Sharq al Awsat newspaper reported this week that the Turkish company has signed an agreement to this end with Security Side, a Libyan security company headed by one Fawzi Abu Kattaf, a Palestinian Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood supporter with close ties to Qatar.

So, what does this flurry of overt and semi-covert Turkish regional military assertion amount to? Can a common theme be established?

In Syria and Iraq, obviously, Ankara is on the face of it challenging its old PKK enemy. But there are additional layers. Erdogan was first to support the Syrian Sunni Arab insurgency. He has proved its last and most faithful ally. Western states, discouraged by the insurgency’s Islamist and jihadi nature, peeled away from it years ago. Turkey, untroubled by these loyalties because it shares them, has remained.

The enclaves in northern Syria do serve to bisect the area of Kurdish control, and in Afrin a large-scale ethnic cleansing of Kurds has taken place. But Turkey is now pouring money and forces into northwest Syria, in an effort to shore up this enclave and ensure its semi permanence. This is not only about opposing Kurdish aspirations. It is about establishing a corner of Syria intended to be forever Turkish (and Sunni Islamist). The Turkish Lira has now been introduced as the currency in these areas, to replace the devastated Syrian pound. The Turkish postal service has even opened branches in a number of towns in northwest Syria.

In Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Erdogan wants to lay claim to the cause of recovering al-Aqsa from non-Muslim custodianship. Covert military support to Hamas runs alongside active soft power efforts. These are managed by the government aid agency TIKA. Tens of millions of dollars are spent each year, via such projects as the Turkish Culture Center on Hashalshelet Street in Jerusalem’s Old City.

In the Mediterranean, the interests, of course, are related to Turkey’s need for gas supplies. But the bald assertiveness of laying claim, together with the client government in Tripoli of a massive swathe of the east Mediterranean and thus stymying plans by Israel, Greece and Cyprus to pipe gas to Europe has the additional advantage for Turkey of depicting itself as the regional dominant force.

In Libya, finally, again geo-strategic and ideological aspects coincide: Serraj is kept in place by Muslim Brotherhood associated forces. He represents a last remnant of the hoped for alliance which Erdogan had thought to lead, before the military coup in Egypt of 2013, the departure of the En Nahda party from power in Tunisia and the revival of Bashar Assad’s fortunes in Syria.

So, all the way from Zakho Province in north west Iraq, to Tripoli on Libya’s African coast, assisted by Qatari direct financial investment, Turkey is flexing its muscles. It is an independent, ambitious foreign policy, without the slightest nod to the supposedly ‘pro-Western’ and ‘pro-NATO’ orientation that Turkey’s Western apologists like to recall. It has its origin in a combination of nationalist assertiveness, tinged with Ottoman-era nostalgia, and the ambitions of MB-style Sunni political Islam. This is a potent mix, which is not required to place itself before the judgement of the Turkish voter until 2023. As of now, its main impact is an arc of destabilization, stretching across land and sea from Iraq to Libya.

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