Turkey’s Perilous New Year

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2016 was a horrendous year for Turkey, one marked by terrorist attacks and political instability. Turks were fervently hoping that 2017 would bring peace and security to their rattled homeland. Unfortunately, it does not appear that will be the case. Little more than an hour past midnight on 1 January, a single gunman stormed into Reina, a crowded nightclub in Istanbul, and opened fire with an assault rifle type of weapon. 39 people were killed and 70 wounded in the attack. A manhunt is still underway for the gunman, though his identity is expected to be revealed very soon. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. In a released statement ISIS said the following:  “In continuation of the blessed operations that Islamic State is conducting against the protector of the cross, Turkey, a heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday.”

Turkey is in a state of emergency right now, facing security threats from multiple directions. This is the third major terrorist attack in the past month. ISIS has been responsible for many of the attacks, though Kurdish militant groups have been active on the terror front too. Turkey’s deepening involvement in the Syrian conflict has produced a third avenue of danger for the nation. In December, an off-duty police officer, apparently acting independently, assassinated the Russian ambassador at an art museum in Ankara. The motive of the attack was revenge for Russia’s part in the fall of Aleppo and an attempt to disrupt relations between Ankara and Moscow.

The attack did not change Turkey’s involvement in Syria or damage its relations with Russia. Shortly after the assassination, a ceasefire agreement was announced in Syria. One that Turkey and Russia will play a major role in.

The almost constant stream of terrorist attacks has degraded what little political stability remains in Turkey. The purges and crackdown initiated by President Erdogan have strengthened the hand of the government immensely while damaging the freedoms of many Turks. To counter significant backlash for this, Erdogan has promised increased security and a wider war against terrorism. The Turkish moves in Syria are a part of this effort and should there be a coordinated effort on the part of the United States and Russia against ISIS in the near future, Turkey will play a major role in it.

Sadly, none of this is keeping Turkish citizens at home very safe. Erdogan stated, accurately I believe, that these attacks are an effort to destroy morale and create chaos but they will only bring the country together. To reach that goal, Erdogan needs to formulate a more cohesive strategy for contending with terrorism on the domestic front. It is also quite essential for him to acknowledge the reality that his efforts since the coup attempt in July have made his nation less safe.

The factors which have fused together to lock the Middle East in destabilization are all active in Turkey at the moment: terrorism, the migrant crisis, and now the rise of authoritarianism. Erdogan should be scrutinizing the events in the region since the Arab Spring in order to ensure that he learns from the mistakes made by his counterparts in Cairo and elsewhere. Time will tell whether or not he does.

 

Thursday 29 December, 2016 Update: Syrian Ceasefire Deal Signed

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According to the Russian and Turkish governments, the Syrian government and opposition rebels have agreed to the ground rules for a ceasefire in the conflict. Both sides have also agreed to peace talks that could potentially bring an end to the almost six year long civil war. The truce does not include ISIS or a host of other terrorist groups now operating inside of Syria. Efforts against ISIS will continue, and a joint US-Russian effort against Islamic Militants is expected to begin sometime after the inauguration of Donald Trump in late January. Turkey and Russia will be the guarantors of the ceasefire, effectively cutting out the United States and other nations that oppose Assad from having influence over what postwar Syria will look like. The US played no part in the negotiations which led to the ceasefire. Turkey itself is staunchly opposed to Bashir al-Assad remaining in power. However, for the time being it appears that Ankara is willing to live with him remaining in Damascus.

The fall of eastern Aleppo made it clear to opposition rebels that their political and military options were now severely limited. The rebels no longer had a strong presence in any of Syria’s largest cities, and the incoming US president will not be resupplying them or supporting their efforts to remove al-Assad any further. Faced with these new realities, the rebels became more pragmatic and sat down with the Syrian government to compromise.

Whether the truce holds and leads to more formal peace talks remains to be seen. Quite honestly, ceasefires in Syria seem to have a history of being made simply to be broken. But this time around, a ceasefire benefits all parties involved, at least for the moment.

Monday 19 December, 2016 Update: Gunman Assassinates Russian Ambassador In Turkey

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An off-duty Turkish police officer assassinated Russia’s ambassador to Turkey today at the Cagdas Sanat Merkezi art museum in the Turkish capital of Ankara. The attack was captured by television cameras. Ambassador Andrey Karlov was giving a speech to mark the opening of an art exhibit. The gunman, identified as Turkish police officer Melvut Mert Altintas also wounded three others in the attack on Karlov. Altintas was killed in a shootout with Turkish police officers afterwards.

As Altintas opened fire he shouted, “Don’t forget Aleppo.” In a video of the incident now making rounds on social media, he is also heard saying, “Allahu akbar (God is greatest). Do not forget Aleppo! Do not forget Syria! Do not forget Aleppo! Do not forget Syria!”

The long-term implications are not clear right now, but Russian and Turkish officials seem to be downplaying the chances of this assassination leading to a new rupture in Turk-Russian relations, which have been mending since the Turkish shoot down of a Russian aircraft last year. Vladimir Putin called this an act of terror and laid the blame squarely at the feet of terrorists. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a speech given Monday night, stated that the attack was likely an attempt to disrupt the normalization of relations between Russia and Turkey and that neither nation would be seduced by the provocation.

The attack also comes after a week of protests by Turks against Russia’s support for the Syrian government. The fall of Aleppo, and Russia’s part in the effort resulted in angry protests and may have served as the catalyst for Altinta’s action.

Even though Russia and Turkey are treading carefully, and holding back from making any provocative statements, that could change rather quickly. The situation is very fluid and what comes about in the next 36 hours will tell us a lot about how far the implications of this assassination will stretch.

 

*Author’s Note- I’m aware of today’s Berlin incident, however, time is at a premium right now. I will be discussing that situation tomorrow.*

Sunday 20 November, 2016 Update: Obama & Putin Chat At APEC

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On the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru this weekend, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin had what will probably be the final in-person discussion between the two before Obama leaves office on January 20, 2017. The talk was only four minutes long and predictably Aleppo was a major talking point. The Syrian government unleashed a massive air and artillery bombardment of rebel-held sections of the city last week in preparation for ground attacks by regime forces, which began on Friday. Civilian casualties from the bombings have been high with 240 confirmed deaths as of this morning. Yesterday, a family of six was killed by a barrel bomb reportedly laced with chlorine gas. Hospitals in the rebel-controlled section of Aleppo were also targeted. Over the past few days five have been struck and damaged severely. Airstrikes on Friday also knocked the last functioning hospital in the eastern part of the city out of commission. There are now no operational medical centers in eastern Aleppo.

On the meeting, a White House official released the following statement:  “On Syria, the president noted the need for Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov to continue pursuing initiatives, together with the broader international community, to diminish the violence and alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.”

The offensive against Aleppo has been strictly a Syrian-only operation. Russian forces have not taken part in the strikes or effort on the ground. Moscow has stated that it is concentrating its military efforts in a neighboring province.

The situation in Ukraine was another topic touched on. Obama urged Putin to keep the Minsk agreements from collapsing and reminded him of the West’s commitment to maintaining the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine. Following a brief flare up of tensions and fighting in August, the situation in Ukraine has been relatively calm ever since. While Russia is moving quickly to bring about a favorable conclusion to the situation in Syria there are no indications that a similar move is expected with regards to Ukraine. Putin appears satisfied to let the situation remain in limbo until it will be possible to broach the subject with the Trump administration in 2017.

Sunday 13 November, 2016 Update: Russia Preparing For Final Aleppo Offensive

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While people here in the United States recover from the raucous election season and start coming to terms with the reality that Donald J. Trump will be the 45th President of the United States, the Russian military is preparing for the final assault on Aleppo. It was widely anticipated that no major effort would be made by Syrian and Russian forces until after the US election had concluded. Now, as expected, that offensive is likely just days away from beginning.

In the Eastern Mediterranean the Russian battlegroup spearheaded by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, and the nuclear powered battlecruiser Pytor Velikiy has arrived off of Syria and is preparing to begin combat operations. Aircraft from the carrier have begun conducting reconnaissance flights in the Aleppo area. Interaction flights around Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia have been underway for the past four days as aircrews from the Kuznetsov work to familiarize themselves with air operations over Syrian airspace.

At the same time, activity has been increasing at Engels Air Base, outside of Saratov, Russia. Engels is home to Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 strategic bombers. This morning TASS reported that those bombers are being readied for imminent strikes on targets in Syria. The crews have been placed on ‘combat readiness,’ while the aircraft and munitions are being prepared for the upcoming sorties. TASS has also reported that the bombers are being armed with cruise missiles.

This is the period of opportunity which I mentioned in previous the previous post. Between now and 20 January, 2017 Russia will have an opening to expand operations in Syria without having to concern itself with inciting a decisive response from the United States. With the transition period underway in Washington, the Obama administration is not in a position to take major action in Syria and run the risk of worsening the situation for the incoming Trump administration. Vladimir Putin also needs to be cautious. He has a free hand in Syria, but taking similar action in Ukraine or Eastern Europe would invite a strong US and Western response, transition period or not.