“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."
Turkey has jailed two very prominent journalists for publishing video last May of a January, 2014, Turkish intelligence convoy of weapons to Syrian militants. When I say prominent, I mean prominent. They are Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul. Cumhuriyet (“Republic”) was founded in 1924 and is center-left in its orientation. So this would be like the FBI carting off Dean Baquet of the New York Times for reporting on CIA shipments of T.O.W. missiles to Salafi rebels in Syria. The journalists are charged with espionage and belonging (!) to a terrorist organization– charges fantastic on the face of it.
Meanwhile, the Syrian army is charging that Turkey has vastly increased arms shipments to rebels in Syria since last week’s shootdown of a Russian fighter jet, and is receiving smuggled gasoline and antiquities in payment.
The Turkish government has now also arrested several senior generalswho, acting on a tip, were the ones who in January 2014 ordered the search of trucks allegedly carrying arms to rebels in Syria– on which Cumhuriyet reported. Huriryet writes: “Istanbul Deputy Chief Prosecutor İrfan Fidan interrogated Ankara Gendarmerie Regional Commander Maj. Gen. İbrahim Aydın, Brig. Gen. Hamza Celepoğlu and Ret. Col. Burhanettin Cihangiroğlu on Nov. 28 and sent them to court appealing for their arrest on Nov. 29.”
“On Jan. 19, 2014, a convoy of trucks on their way to cross into Syira was stopped by gendarmerie forces upon suspicion that they were carrying military material to rebel groups fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The incident turned into a big news story when the gendarmerie forces detained the intelligence officers and confiscated the trucks.
President Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, reacted harshly over the case, accusing sympathizers of US-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen in the judiciary and the security forces of undermining the government. He said the Gulen movement was responsible for the halting of the trucks, as well as the Dec. 17-25, 2013 corruption cases that he claimed had tried to bring down the government . . .
The government says the case of the halted trucks is evidence of the Gulenists’ “anti-national” behaviour, as it claims that the trucks were carrying assistance to Turkmens fighting in Syria against both al-Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). When Dundar and Erdem published their story as fresh evidence in the case, despite courts ruling to restrict media coverage of the incident upon the government’s request, they made President Erdogan furious. Prosecutors soon opened cases against them.”
So this case has to do with the 2013-2014 campaign of the secretive religious-Right Gulen faction within the Turkish government to bring then-PM Tayyip Erdogan (now president) into disrepute. Gulenists had made damning recordings and collected documents when they were still partners with Erdogan and a constituent group inside the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan weathered the charges against him in the eyes of the public, and his party just won enough seats to rule without seeking a coalition with any other party.
That Turkey and the Gulf oil states have been supporting hard line fundamentalist Salafi groups in Syria such as the Army of Conquest (an al-Qaeda-led coalition) is an open secret. That Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) has been smuggling gasoline and kerosene from the refineries it captured, in part to Turkey, is another open secret.
So why is the AKP government waging a war on the press and its own generals to cover up this activity?
My guess is that Erdogan is having prosecutors send a signal to journalists and military men that acting on or revealing further Gulenist leaks will not be permitted. Perhaps he fears that the Gulen movement has more dirt on him than it has already brought out and just wants to forestall its becoming public. He may also be attempting to put all activities of the MiT (the Turkish CIA) out of bounds for the press and the Turkish military.
But the focus on that January, 2014, military shipment is also suspicious. Erdogan claimed that it was humanitarian aid going to the Syrian Turkmen in the north of Syria. But the inspection of the gendarmerie and the video released by Cumhuriyet demonstrate that the trucks were carrying weaponry. Cumhuriyet reported that the cargo comprised a thousand mortar shells, 50,000 bullets for machine guns and 30,000 heavy artillery shells. — Is the problem that it wasn’t going to Turkmen at all but to some group so radical that Erdogan would be embarrassed if it were known he was supplying it?
While Turkey is roiled by a war on journalists (the editor-in-chief of the conservative Muslim newspaper Zaman, which allegedly has ties to the Gulen movement, has just also been arrested, for insulting Erdogan), the arms flowing through the country are allowing the Salafi fighters to withstand the Russia air campaign south and east of Aleppo.
In a headache for President Obama, his Syrian Democratic Forces (a coalition of Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Christian militias) have been kicked out of some villages south of Aleppo by another set of American clients, the Falcons of the Mountain (Suqur al-Jabal), who are hard line religionists and hate the Kurds as secular leftists allied with christians. Al-Qaeda in Syria is also taking territory in the Aleppo area, opportunistically benefiting from Russian and regime attacks on Daesh there.
Turkey supports the Turkmen and the Army of Conquest despite the membership of al-Qaeda in the latter, against the Kurdish YPG. Russia is said to be helping the Kurds.
The US is demanding that Turkey close a 60-mile stretch of its border with Syria which is the sole remaining crossing point for Isis militants, including some of those involved in the massacre in Paris and other terrorist plots.
The complete closure of the 550-mile-long border would be a serious blow to Isis, which has brought tens of thousands of Islamist volunteers across the frontier over the past three years.
In the wake of the Isis attacks in Paris, Washington is making clear to Ankara that it will no longer accept Turkish claims that it is unable to cordon off the remaining short section of the border still used by Isis. “The game has changed. Enough is enough. The border needs to be sealed,” a senior official in President Barack Obama’s administration told The Wall Street Journal, describing the tough message that Washington has sent to the Turkish government. “This is an international threat, and it’s coming out of Syria and it’s coming through Turkish territory.”
The US estimates some 30,000 Turkish troops would be needed to close the border between Jarabulus on the Euphrates and the town of Kilis, further west in Turkey, according to the paper. US intelligence agencies say that the stretch of frontier most commonly used by Isis is between Jarabulus, where the official border crossing has been closed, and the town of Cobanbey.
It has become of crucial importance ever since the Syrian Kurdish forces known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) captured the border crossing at Tal Abyad, 60 miles north of Isis’s capital of Raqqa in June. Turkey had kept that border crossing open while Isis was in control on the southern side, but immediately closed it when the YPG seized the crossing point. The Turkish authorities are refusing to allow even the bodies of YPG fighters, who are Turkish citizens and were killed fighting Isis, to be taken back across the border into Turkey. The US move follows increasing international criticism of Turkey for what is seen as its long-term tolerance of, and possible complicity with, Isis and other extreme jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra Front, and Ahrar al-Sham. Not only have thousands of foreign fighters passed through Turkey on their way to join Isis, but crude oil from oilfields seized by Isis in north-east Syria has been transported to Turkey for sale, providing much of revenue of the self-declared Islamic State.
Last week a Turkish court jailed two prominent journalists for publishing pictures of a Turkish truck delivering ammunition to opposition fighters in Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that the weapons were destined for Turkmen paramilitaries allied to Turkey fighting in Syria, but this was denied by Turkish political leaders close to the Turkmen.
Turkey is now under heavy pressure from the US and Russia, with President Vladimir Putin directly accusing Ankara of aiding Isis and al-Qaeda. In the wake of the shooting down of a Russian aircraft by a Turkish jet, Russia is launching heavy air strikes in support of the Syrian army’s advance to control the western end of the Syrian Turkish border. The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a Russian air strike on the town of Ariha yesterday killed 18 people and wounded dozens more. Meanwhile Turkey said it had now received the body of the pilot killed when the plane was shot down and would repatriate it to Moscow.
The US demand that Turkey finally close the border west of Jarabulus could, if Turkey complies, prove more damaging to Isis than increased air strikes by the US, France and, possibly Britain. The YPG has closed half the Syrian frontier over the last year and defeated an Isis assault aimed at taking another border crossing at Kobani. Syrian Kurdish leaders say they want to advance further west from their front line on the Euphrates and link up with a Kurdish enclave at Afrin. But Turkey insists that it will resist a further YPG advance with military force. Instead, it had proposed a protected zone on the southern side of the border from which Isis would be driven by moderate Syrian opposition fighters.
The US has opposed this proposal, suspecting that the Turkish definition of moderates includes those the US is targeting as terrorists. It also appears to be a ploy to stop the YPG, heavily supported by US air power, expanding its de facto state along Turkey’s southern flank. US officials are quoted as saying that there could be “significant blowback” against Turkey by European states if it allows Isis militants to cross from Syria into Turkey and then carry out terrorist outrages in Europe.
Meanwhile in Iraq, officials said three more mass graves had been found in the northern town of Sinjar, which Kurdish forces backed by US-led air strikes recaptured from Isis earlier this month.
Baku – APA. Nov 27 Russian air strikes in northwest Syria have heavily targeted ethnic Turkmen areas, according to a Reuters data analysis that helps explain rising tensions between Moscow and Ankara in the weeks before Turkey shot down a Russian warplane.
Tuesday's incident marked the biggest clash between a NATO member and Russia in half a century, and has drawn threats of economic retaliation from the Kremlin. Turkey says the plane strayed into its airspace, which Moscow denies.
Long before that, Turkey had condemned Russia's bombing of towns and villages in the north of Syria's western Latakia province, areas it says belong to Syrian Turkmen, who are Syrians of Turkish descent.
Russian Defense Ministry data, collated by Reuters, shows the bombing raids have struck at least 17 named locations in Turkmen areas since President Vladimir Putin ordered them to begin on Sept. 30.
Russian missiles have destroyed ammunition bunkers, command points and a suicide bomb factory in towns including Salma, Ghmam and Kesladshuq to the west of Syria's Alawite mountains, according to the data, an area humanitarian groups say is ethnically Turkmen.
Salma, which has a majority Turkmen population, has been bombed on at least eight occasions and has found itself at the centre of some of the most geographically concentrated strikes.
Russian jets have hit 15 separate named targets within a 13 km (8 mile) radius of the town, which is used as a base by Turkish-backed rebels in their fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"The Russians were heavily bombing Turkmen villages before the downing of the plane," said Samir Alo, head of the Higher Council of Turkmen in Syria. "Thousands of Turkmen families have been driven to the border."
BACKGROUND ON TURKMENS: Turkmen card plays into hands of AK Party gov’t in times of crisis November 28, 2015, Saturday/ 17:00:00/ GÜLTEN ÜSTÜNTAĞ / ISTANBUL TODAY’S ZAMAN
Despite both Syrian and Iraqi Turkmens having occasionally been among Turkey's foreign policy priorities in times of crisis, experts have questioned the sincerity of the protection Turkish policy offers them since the de facto situation proves that Syrian and Iraqi Turkmens' rights have been trampled on compared to other groups in those countries.
The same experts have also concerns that Turkmens are seen as a foreign policy instrument by the Turkish government and are sometimes brought to the table for the purpose of strengthening Turkey's hands in the process of realizing its aspirations regarding Syria and Iraq as part of a broader vision for the Middle East.
After air campaigns against the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were intensified by Russia, in partnership with the Syrian regime, the Turkish government brought the dire conditions of Bayır-Bucak Turkmens, who are also suffering from the bombardments, to the international community's agenda.
Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, the Bayır-Bucak Turkmens did not occupy Turkey's domestic and foreign policy agendas until Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ground forces, supported by the Russian air force, recently targeted the rural area of Latakia that encompasses Fırınlık, Acısı and Avanlı in a mountainous region inhabited by Turkmens near the border with Turkey.
Around 1,500 Bayır-Bucak Turkmens fled across the Turkish border after Russia started to pound the area, crossing into Hatay province through Turkey's Yayladağı border gate. It is estimated that the number of the Turkmen villages in the area is around 50.
In the case of Iraq's Turkmens, who were deprived of many social, economic and cultural rights and subjected to immense cruelty and atrocities under the regime of Saddam Hussein since 1970, they finally became free of this situation after the US toppled Saddam in 2003. At those times, Turkmens were not even an issue in relations between Ankara and Baghdad.
Shortly after this, Turkmens began to face serious pressure from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) led by Massoud Barzani, particularly in Kirkuk and Telafer, which were once dominated by a Turkmen population but are now Kurdish majority. Turkmens see Kirkuk as one of their homes. With the displacement of Turkmens in Kirkuk, their percentage of the total population decreased by 35 percent, causing Turkmens to feel threatened in terms of their existence in the region.
Turkey has long been criticized for remaining indifferent to the problems of Turkmens in northern Iraq, despite its rhetoric declaring that the violations of the Turkmens' rights in Iraq are a "red line" for Turkish foreign policy that could provoke any kind of response, including a military one, if Turkmens' right are violated.
None of these threats seem to have worked because the region's Kurds already control the oil trade worth billions of dollars and the Turkmen population fell even more after the Kurds forcibly relocated them.
The goal of the rhetoric was to prevent an independent Kurdish state from emerging in northern Iraq. Despite the fact that there is no independent Kurdish state recognized internationally, a de facto state is visible there that rules the region without answering to the central Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Controversial remarks on MİT-trucks brought Turkmens to the fore
Until the beginning of 2014, Turkmens in Syria were not frequently discussed. In January 2014, gendarmes stopped three Syria-bound trucks belonging to the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) in Turkey's southern provinces of Adana and Hatay after prosecutors received tip-offs that the vehicles were illegally carrying arms to armed organizations in Syria.
Consecutive statements following the interception from senior political figures, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, with some claiming that the trucks were carrying humanitarian aid to Turkmens in Syria, revealed a serious contradiction when others confirmed weapons shipments to Syrian opposition forces fighting against the Assad regime.
It was the moment when the Turkmen card played into the hands of the Turkish government as a tool to justify its position as a country, "supporting its kin in Syria" in an effort to shake off international pressure in the face of accusations that the country has secretly extended a hand to ISIL, an organization considered to be terrorist by the West.
On Tuesday, Turkish jets downed a Russian warplane on the Turkish-Syrian border for violating Turkish airspace. This move, which provoked a harsh response from the Russian side with a series of measures being declared against Turkey, came after Russian jets bombarded Turkmen-inhabited areas.
Although at first sight the downing appears to have links to the protection of Turkmens, many agree that it will exacerbate the security conditions of the Turkmens, with Russia intensifying the air strike campaign on the region in which they live, and that the move will not stop another de facto Kurdish state from being formed in Syria's north.
Turkmens in Syria prominent element of country
The existence of Syria's Turkmens in the region dates back to the seventh century, when the Oghuz Turks, who are considered ancestors of today's Turks living in Turkey, migrated from Central Asia. The first incident marking the appearance of Syria's Turkmens as an actor in regional history was their taking part in the army of Salahuddin Ayyubi (Saladin), who defeated the Crusaders and captured the holy city of Jerusalem in 1096.
When Ottoman Sultan Yavuz Selim defeated the Mamluks in Aleppo in 1516, Turkmens automatically joined the territory of the Ottomans, until 1918, when the Ottoman Empire lost control of the lands in World War I to the Allies. After the Ottomans withdrew from the region, Turkmens immediately launched a fight for independence that resulted in failure. As per the Ankara agreement between Turkey and France in 1921, Turkmens' social and cultural rights were recognized, granting Turkey the right of guarantor state.
According to Middle East historian Erol Çalı, who spoke to Sunday's Zaman, there are nearly three 3.5 million Turkmens living in Syria and 200,000 of them live in the Bayır-Bucak area, with some of them having left the place due to the ongoing military campaign against them. Çalı emphasizes the Assad family had close ties with the Turkmens, but that this did not prevent the policy of intimidation applied against the Turkmens by the Nusayris under the leadership of Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar al-Assad, who took over the Syrian administration after the 1970 military coup.
Experts: Turkmens abandoned to their fate
Speaking to Sunday's Zaman, Serhat Erkmen, a prominent Middle East analyst at the 21st Century Turkey Institute, stressed that Turkmens both in Syria and Iraq were the subject of a change in demographic composition over a decade, as well as political divisions.
"They were pressed and attacked for years and never obtained power to defend themselves and respond to these assaults. When comparing their current situation to that of 10 years ago, no progress can be observed. Most of the lands previously inhabited by Turkmens in Syria are now partitioned by ISIL, the Assad regime forces and some Kurdish groups. It cannot be said that they have gotten enough support from Turkey."
Sedat Laçiner, an expert on the Middle East and international relations, told Sunday's Zaman regarding the discussion that Turkmens have been the losers for more than a decade in the region.
"Turkey's insufficient policies towards the region have played a key role in this picture. For a long time, Turkish governments failed to handle the issue based on ethnic politics and did not develop a policy specific to Turkmens in general. The priority was to block a Kurdish state being created or to topple Assad in Syria. Also, Turkey formed a foreign policy based on sectarian divisions by supporting Sunni Arabs in the Middle East. By not coming to terms with the great powers such as the US and Russia in Syria, no solution can be found for the Turkmens," Laçiner said.
Samet Altıntaş contributed to this report.
WHY DO THE RUSSIANS ATTACK THE TURKMEN (MCCAIN’S GUYS)? BECAUSE THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEM AND ISIS
Turkish weapons ‘heading to end in ISIS hands’: RT speaks to Cumhuriyet journalists
With a Turkish prosecutor asking a court to imprison the Cumhuriyet journalists pending trial on charges of treason, espionage and terrorist propaganda, the mood in the office was tense and many refused to talk to RT on camera, but still wanted to be heard.
In May, the outlet which is considered to be the opponent of the government, published photos of weapons it said were then transferred to Syria by Turkey's intelligence agency.
Those who sent the convoy from Turkey knew that the weapons were "heading to end [up] in ISIS hands," one of the Cumhuriyet bosses told RT's Ilya Petrenko. "There was that flag that belongs to ISIS... [it could be seen] very clearly [from] Turkish border line," the journalist said.
Turkish officials made contradictory statements after the paper blew the whistle, first saying that the arms "were going to the Free Syrian Army," then denying the delivery altogether, and then saying the "aid was destined for the Turkmen."
"When you ask [the government] who [the Turkmen] are, they tell you that those are our guys," another Cumhuriyet journalist told RT. But when the reporter "personally talked" to the fighters supported by her government in Syria, she said she didn't see how they could be different from the terrorists, saying "they were all brothers."
"[There is] no difference between ISIS and the other guys. I think there is a problem with the labels here, because all the world is focused on ISIS, but there are other jihadist groups there, and they have links with Al-Nusra or ISIS, [while] Turkey says 'we are helping that groups – not ISIS'," the Turkish journalist added.
Putin Says Russia Will Drop South Stream If EU Does not Approve it
Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian warplane was a provocative and portentous act.
That Sukhoi Su-24, which the Turks say intruded into their air space, crashed and burned — in Syria. One of the Russian pilots was executed while parachuting to safety. A Russian rescue helicopter was destroyed by rebels using a U.S. TOW missile. A Russian marine was killed.
“A stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists,” said Vladimir Putin of the first downing of a Russian warplane by a NATO nation in half a century. Putin has a point, as the Russians are bombing rebels in northwest Syria, some of which are linked to al-Qaida.
As it is impossible to believe Turkish F-16 pilots would fire missiles at a Russian plane without authorization from President Tayyip Recep Erdogan, we must ask: Why did the Turkish autocrat do it?
Why is he risking a clash with Russia?
Answer: Erdogan is probably less outraged by intrusions into his air space than by Putin’s success in securing the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, whom Erdogan detests, and by relentless Russian air strikes on Turkmen rebels seeking to overthrow Assad.
Imperiled strategic goals and ethnicity may explain Erdogan. But what does the Turkish president see down at the end of this road?
And what about us? Was the U.S. government aware Turkey might attack Russian planes? Did we give Erdogan a green light to shoot them down?
These are not insignificant questions.
For Turkey is a NATO ally. And if Russia strikes back, there is a possibility Ankara will invoke Article V of NATO and demand that we come in on their side in any fight with Russia.
And Putin was not at all cowed. Twenty-four hours after that plane went down, his planes, ships and artillery were firing on those same Turkmen rebels and their jihadist allies.
Politically, the Turkish attack on the Sukhoi Su-24 has probably aborted plans to have Russia join France and the U.S. in targeting ISIS, a diplomatic reversal of the first order.
Indeed, it now seems clear that in Syria’s civil war, Turkey is on the rebel-jihadist side, with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on the side of the Syrian regime.
But whose side are we on?
As for what strategy and solution President Obama offers, and how exactly he plans to achieve it, it remains an enigma.
Nor is this the end of the alarming news.
According to The Times of Israel, Damascus reports that, on Monday, Israel launched four strikes, killing five Syrian soldiers and eight Hezbollah fighters, and wounding others.
Should Assad or Hezbollah retaliate, this could bring Israel more openly into the Syrian civil war. And if Israel is attacked, the pressure on Washington to join her in attacking the Syrian regime and Hezbollah would become intense.
Yet, should we accede to that pressure, it could bring us into direct conflict with Russia, which is now the fighting ally of the Assad regime.
Something U.S. presidents conscientiously avoided through 45 years of Cold War — a military clash with Moscow — could become a real possibility. Does the White House see what is unfolding here?
Elsewhere, yet another Russia-NATO clash may be brewing.
In southern Ukraine, pylons supporting the power lines that deliver electricity to Crimea have been sabotaged, blown up, reportedly by nationalists, shutting off much of the electric power to the peninsula.
Repair crews have been prevented from fixing the pylons by Crimean Tatars, angry at the treatment of their kinfolk in Crimea.
In solidarity with the Tatars, Kiev has declared that trucks carrying goods to Crimea will not be allowed to cross the border.
A state of emergency has been declared in Crimea.
Russia is retaliating, saying it will not buy produce from Ukraine, and may start cutting off gas and coal as winter begins to set in.
Ukraine is as dependent upon Russia for fossil fuels as Crimea is upon Ukraine for electricity. Crimea receives 85 percent of its water and 80 percent of its electricity from Ukraine.
Moreover, Moscow’s hopes for a lifting of U.S. and EU sanctions, imposed after the annexation of Crimea, appear to be fading.
Are these events coordinated? Has the U.S. government given a go-ahead to Erdogan to shoot down Russian planes? Has Obama authorized a Ukrainian economic quarantine of Crimea?
For Vladimir Putin is not without options. The Russian Army and pro-Russian rebels in southeast Ukraine could occupy Mariupol on the Black Sea and establish a land bridge to Crimea in two weeks.
In Syria, the Russians, with 4,000 troops, could escalate far more rapidly than either us or our French allies.
As of today, Putin supports U.S.-French attacks on ISIS. But if we follow the Turks and begin aiding the rebels who are attacking the Syrian army, we could find ourselves eyeball to eyeball in a confrontation with Russia, where our NATO allies will be nowhere to be found.
Moscow (AFP) - President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia had given prior information to the United States of the flight path of the plane downed by Turkey on the Syrian border.
"The American side, which leads the coalition that Turkey belongs to, knew about the location and time of our planes' flights, and we were hit exactly there and at that time," Putin said at a joint press conference with French counterpart Francois Hollande in the Kremlin.
Ahead of the Hollande talks, Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traded barbs, with the Russian leader saying he was waiting for an apology and Erdogan ruling out any such move.
Putin on Thursday dismissed as "rubbish" Turkey's claim that it would not have shot down the jet if it had known it was Russian.
"They [our planes] have identification signs and these are well visible," Putin said. "Instead of [...] ensuring this never happens again, we are hearing unintelligible explanations and statements that there is nothing to apologise about."
Putin has also accused Turkey of buying oil from the Islamic State jihadist group, whose financing heavily relies on the sale of energy resources.
Putin said there was "no doubt" that oil from "terrorist-controlled" territory in Syria was making its way across the border into Turkey.
"We see from the sky where these vehicles [carrying oil] are going," Putin said. "They are going to Turkey day and night."
“These barrels are not only carrying oil but also the blood of our citizens because with this money terrorists buy weapons and ammunition and then organise bloody attacks," he added.
The Turkish government decision to down a Russian jet operating in the north of the Syrian province of Latakia is breathtaking in its boldness. Russia may no longer be a superpower, but it is a nuclear-armed great power. The newly elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his mentor President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey can rule without the help of any other party in parliament, and seems determined to double down on its policy of intervening in Syria.
The Davutoglu government risks substantial economic harm. Russian tourism has boosted the Turkish economy, and Russia was planning an important gas pipeline through Turkey as well as the building for Ankara of a nuclear power reactor. All those activities have just been cancelled, and tour operators in Russia are looking for other tourist markets after pressure from the Putin government. Russia is attributing the attack to an attempt by Turkish officials to protect gasoline smuggling routes from Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) to Turkey, but the geography of the shoot-down tells against this interpretation. This was near al-Qaeda territory in the northwest, not Daesh territory in the northeast, and the issue is arms smuggling, not oil smuggling.
Turkey has backed a range of Muslim fundamentalist groups in northern Syria in hopes of eventually overthrowing the Baath government of Bashar al-Assad. Turkey is also afraid of the leftist Kurds of northern Syria, which are accused of attempting to ethnically cleanse Arab and Turkmen villages that stand in the way of their establishing land bridges between the three major Kurdish cantons of northern Syria. The People’s Protection Unites (YPG) or leftist Kurdish militias have already linked two of these cantons, defeating Daesh in order to do so. The third, Afrin, is separated from Kobane by a set of Arab and Turkmen villages north of Aleppo.
But there are also Turkmen villages in the north of Idlib province west of Aleppo, and in the north of Latakia province to the west of Idlib. Turkmen populations in those provinces have organized militias and have joined rebel groups fighting the al-Assad government. Some of them have sometimes tactically allied with the Jabhat al-Nusrah, al-Qaeda in Syria, against government troops.
The Turkmen in the north of Latakia province live in an area called Turkmen Mountain near the Turkish border, including the sub-districts of Rabia and Qastal Maaf. The Turks call this area Bayirbucak. It is alleged that Turkey and the CIA are sending weapons for the rebel groups through Turkmen Mountain. Rabia is just southwest of the Idlib city of Jisr al-Shughour, which fell to al-Qaeda and its allies in late April. This city is a potential launching pad for the conquest of Latakia Province by hard line Salafi groups who are hand in hand with al-Qaeda.
Via Google Maps
One of Russia’s current strategic goals is to keep Latakia Province from falling to the rebels. Latakia contains a crucial port of the same name, as well as the Tartous naval facility leased to the Russians. Latakia is heavily Alawite, the Shiite group that is a mainstay of the al-Assad government.
Russia appears to have been attempting to cut off a smuggling route for CIA weapons such as T.O.W. anti-tank missiles through Jabal Turkmen by attacking the Turkmen militias of northern Latakia Province, in the interests of shoring up the al-Assad government there. This attack may also have been intended to panic Turkmen populations into fleeing over the border into Turkey, thus removing a power base for Turkey on the Syrian side of the border and removing a group that would aid al-Qaeda and its allies in Jisr al-Shughour to move west.
The Turkish press has been extremely exercised about this Russian campaign against the Turkmen in Rabia and Jabal Turkmen more generally, and some newspapers appear to have foreseen the attack on the Russian jet.
The centrist Milliyet wrote (BBC Monitoring trans.): “The picture has totally changed in Syria. Russian jets have hit and Al-Asad’s Hezbollah-supported troops have started an operation to expel Turkmens from Bayirbucak. Was that a calculated move? Al-Asad’s intention is to widen his sphere of influence by taking control of the Turkmen region with Russia’s support… The more Ankara says that Al-Asad will go, the stronger Al-Asad makes his position.”
The centrist, pro-government Turkish newspaper Sabah wrote on Tuesday, according to BBC Monitoring, “Now, attacks conducted by the Russia-Iran-Asad alliance against Turkmens have been added to that. The aim is clear: to draw Turkey into the war or to weaken its hand at the table. There are some other intrigues as well.”
The religious-Right Yeni Safak wrote (BBC Trans.): “Turkmen Mountain? It is Turkey’s ‘red’ line! No-one should assume that Turkey is just watching and waiting. So many things are being done behind the scenes! We will soon see them. Ankara will not be deterred by Turkey’s enemies!.. What is going on is an ‘unannounced world war’! Briefly, independent Muslim Turkey is putting up a vital fight against the Crusader-Zionist alliance!”
This paper seems to see Putin’s Russia as an Eastern Orthodox Christian power allied with Israel against Turkmen populations. (None of this is true). Its sources appear to have predicted to it Turkey’s dramatic response to the Russian campaign. The center-right Turkiye compared the Russian campaign against Jabal Turkmen as a “Second Gallipoli,” referring to Winston Churchill’s hope of taking the Gallipoli Peninsula in WW I and then marching right up to the then capital, Istanbul, thus cutting the war in the eastern Mediterranean short. The British empire was thwarted in this plan by a strong Ottoman defense and use of machine guns and artillery. Turkiye is hearkening back to WW I, when Russia attacked eastern Anatolia!
Source: Quotes package from BBC Monitoring, in Turkish 24 Nov 15
We may conclude that Russia’s targeting of Turkmen, an ethnic group that speaks a language similar to that spoken in Turkey, raised nationalist hackles in Ankara. But in addition, these Syrian Turkmen are religious, just as is the leadership of the ruling AKP in Turkey. And, further, they are a linchpin for Turkish, American and Saudi intervention in Syria, since they appear to be among the arms smugglers getting munitions to the rebels against the al-Assad government. Although the CIA maintains that these weapons only go to some 45 “vetted” groups that are not extremists, they in fact get into the hands of al-Qaeda and its allies, grouped as the Army of Conquest, as well. Russia must defeat the Army of Conquest and protect the Alawites of Latakia if it is to achieve its war aims in Syria, and appears to have decided to begin by blocking Turkmen smuggling. The Turkmen had their revenge, killing one or both of the pilots who ejected from the downed fighter jet and also taking down a Russian helicopter that attempted to rescue them. Russia and Turkey are now fighting a proxy war in Syria, and have been all this fall. As of yesterday, they are not just using proxies, but are directly in conflict with one another.
Turkey and the Turkmen are carving out a sphere of influence in northern Syria and are insisting that Russia recognize it. How severe the conflict becomes depends in part on how Russia responds to this setback for its war aims. It also depends on whether Turkish goals are more ambitious, to help the al-Qaeda-led Army of Conquest take Latakia. If Jabal Turkmen is a red line for Turkey, Latakia port is a red line for Russia. Red lines have a way of turning into hot wars.
Turkey is getting desperate. Under President Recep Tayip Erdogan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), its policies toward the conflict in Syria over the past four years have been misguided and costly. When conflict broke out in 2011, Ankara mistakenly under-estimated the strength of the Assad regime and supported hardline Islamist groups seeking its downfall. In the process, Turkey also marginalised the Kurds and alienated regional powers like Iran.
Four years on, Assad looks set to hold onto power and his regime will be a central part of a transition plan, one that foreign powers were negotiating last weekend. Turkey’s regional rival, Iran, is a key player which can no longer be ignored by the West. Not only does the pro-Assad alliance now have Russian support firmly on its side, but the international community is no longer focused on defeating the regime – instead, it is concerned with defeating jihadist groups like Isis.
The shift in focus is a significant drawback for Erdogan. Years of support for, and investment in, Islamic fundamentalist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) and Ahrar al-Sham are about to go to waste. Ankara has played a significant role in allowing Isis and other jihadists to flourish in Syria and the region. Turkey has acquiesced to jihadist groups entering Syria via Turkey as well as their use of Turkey as a transit point for smuggling arms and funds into Syria.
The Kurds in Syria, meanwhile, have established themselves as a reliable Western ally and have created, in the process, an autonomous Kurdish region that has reinvigorated Kurdish nationalism in Turkey and across the region - much to Turkey’s dismay as it continues a brutal military campaign to repress the Kurds.
In other words, Turkey has no interest in the peaceful settlement to the conflict in Syria that world powers are negotiating. As it gets desperate, Turkey will attempt to bring focus back on the Assad regime and reverse the losses it has made both in Syria and geopolitically. The decision to bring down the Russian jet is, therefore, likely to have had other political factors behind it - particularly since the jet, as far as we know, posed no immediate threat to Turkey’s national security.
Domestically, Erdogan thrives on a climate of fear and uncertainty. This worked for him in the country’s snap elections earlier this month, during which he regained the majority he lost in June after months of bombings, violence and divisive rhetoric.
Ankara’s downing of the Russian jet may provide a useful diversion as it seeks to intensify its military campaign against the Kurds, particularly in the Kurdish-dominated Mardin province, where MPs were assaulted in recent days. Two days ago, Selahattin Demirtas, head of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) who shot to international acclaim in the country’s national elections, survived an assassination attempt in Kurdish-dominated Diyarbakir.
These tactics will not be without long-term costs and will undermine the chances of peace in Syria as well as the West’s effort to defeat Isis.
The West appeased and bolstered Erdogan in Turkey in the run-up to the country’s elections, with the aim of securing a deal with Ankara on the refugee crisis. It may now regret that. Erdogan is not only likely to drive a hard bargain but he may also walk away.
He has never cared much for the EU and has only sought engagement with the West when under pressure at home. But Turkey is not an indispensable ally and should not be considered as such. Unless the West starts to seriously exert pressure, Erdogan will have little incentive to stop his damaging policies.