Wednesday 24 January, 2018 Update: Erdogan Vows to Expand Olive Branch Offensive

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed today to expand the offensive against Kurdish militia positions in northern Syria until ‘the last terrorist’ is killed. Operation Olive Branch, a Turkish offensive aimed at expelling the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia from northern Syria, commenced on Saturday. Syrian opposition forces are also taking part in the offensive. Erdogan said the offensive has been successful thus far and will continue despite growing international concern.

A NATO ally appears to be expressing the sharpest concerns. Germany, which has seen its relationship with Turkey sour in recent years, is reconsidering a deal that would see Turkey’s Leopard 2 main battle tanks upgraded by Rheinmetall. Photographs and video taken by the media in northern Syria have shown that Turkish Leopard 2s are taking part in the offensive. Berlin is facing many calls from politicians on the left and right to cancel the deal.

The United States is another ally that has seen a decline in its relationship with Turkey in recent years. The offensive underway in northwest Syria threatens to disrupt the fight against ISIS at a time when the organization is clearly on the ropes. US forces in Syria enjoy a solid working relationship with a number of Kurdish militia groups.  YPG is the US military’s main partner for operations against ISIS in Syria. It has trained and equipped a large number of YPGs combatants. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the White House and Pentagon are both concerned about the Olive Branch offensive disrupting the relationship and potentially placing Turkey and the US on a collision course. President Trump is expected to speak with Erdogan this afternoon. There is some hope that a de-escalation of the situation in northwest Syria can be reached. If that does not come about, President Trump will have to decide whether the fight against ISIS, or supporting a NATO ally takes precedence for the United States.

Monday 16 October, 2017 Update: Iraqi Forces Retake Control of Kirkuk

Members of Iraqi federal forces enter oil fields in Kirkuk, Iraq

Following the Kurdish independence referendum last month it was expected that a subsequent clash between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments would likely take place in or around Kirkuk. The Iraqi government does not consider the oil-rich city to be part of the autonomous Kurdistan region. The Kurdistan Regional Government has a different take entirely on the matter and Kurdish voters in Kirkuk were allowed to take part in the referendum.

On Monday, the confrontation materialized when Iraqi forces moved into Kirkuk and, according to Iraqi government statements, seized key objectives from Kurdish forces including K-1 Air Base, and the Baba Gurgur oil and gas field. Reports of clashes between Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga troops conflicted with official Iraqi claims about the Peshmerga withdrawing from Kirkuk without fighting.

The Kurds had controlled Kirkuk since 2014 when the Iraqi army collapsed and ISIS was seizing control of vast stretches of Iraqi territory. With Iraqi forces back in Kirkuk it would appear that Kurdish dreams of an independent state in northern Iraq are all but dead. Not that there was ever going to be a realistic chance for a Kurdish nation-state to be formed. Iraq was having none of that. Fearful that the referendum by the Kurds would be the first step towards an eventual breakup of Iraq, Baghdad has moved decisively to prevent that from happening.

The United States, close allies with the Kurds, as well as Iraq, played no role in the Kirkuk operation. There is still lingering anger over Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, refusing the US offer to preside over negotiations with Baghdad if the Kurds called off the referendum. Washington continues to sit quietly and do nothing, allowing Barzani’s political situation to deteriorate. There is some desire within the Beltway to hasten his political demise, and officially end the Barzani era in Kurdistan. From the State Department to the Pentagon and Langley, more influential voices are coming around to the notion that Kurdistan’s future will be better without Barzani in control.

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.

 

Sunday 21 August, 2016 Update: Dangerous Skies Above Syria

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The airspace over northern Syria has become crowded and tense of late. Twice in the last four days, Syrian warplanes have made rare appearances over territory held by Kurdish forces in the northeast corner of Syria prompting coalition aircraft to be scrambled. On 18 August, Syrian Su-24 Fencers conducted raids in an area where US special forces were operating. A request for assistance went out and US fighters were launched but by the time they arrived in the area, the Syrian Fencers had departed. Following the incident, the Assad regime was placed on notice by the Pentagon. Damascus was warned not to fly or conducts strikes in areas where US forces are operating.

On the next day, US F-22 Raptors were scrambled to intercept another pair of Syrian Su-24s that flew near the town of Hasakah. The Raptor pilots flew within a mile of their Syrian counterparts and attempted to hail them, but received no response. The Raptors then used other means to ‘encourage the Syrians to depart from the area.’ This effort was successful, though the details on exactly what the ‘other means’ were remains unclear.

The encounters highlight the crowded and complex conditions that exist in Syrian airspace these days. Aircraft from the US-led coalition, Russia and Syria are all operating in the same areas and at the same times in some cases. The deconfliction plan that was put in place between the US and Russian militaries to keep their aircraft separated has worked very well so far. Judging by the events of 18 and 19 August, however, it appears that the Syrian Air Force is not included in the same agreement.

If that is the case, more incidents like this can be expected in the future, adding to an already tense situation in the air above Syria.