Exclusive: The Mideast chaos gets more and more complicated as Washington’s hawks encourage Turkey to invade Syria but worry about a possible clash between Turkey and Iraq, a maelstrom of violence that could spin out of control, writes Joe Lauria.
By Joe Lauria
As Turkey mobilizes fresh troops on the Iraqi border, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has warned that Turkey’s invasion of his country will mean war. “Turkey and its forces will be damaged and we warn them again, if their troops enter Iraq we will fight them and we will look at them and treat them as the enemy,” he said.
Turkey has threatened to take part in the U.S.-led military operation to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city now occupied by Islamic State militants. Turkey already has illegally deployed troops inside Iraq but the broader invasion deeper into Iraqi territory from an attack on Mosul would represent a more direct challenge to Iraqi sovereignty.
“If we engage in war with them, the Turks will pay a heavy price, they will be damaged,” al-Abadi vowed to reporters in Baghdad last Tuesday. “We warn Turkey if they want to enter Iraq, they will end up becoming fragmented,” because Turkey is “not a country to able to fight outside their borders.” Turkey invaded Cyprus 50 years ago, he said. “but Iraq is not Cyprus.”
The silence to this dangerous situation from Washington is deafening. As corporate media depends on official U.S. sources, it too is silent on this new crisis. But there are substantive questions that are whispered amid the silence:
Are the hawks in Washington exploiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s neo-Ottoman dreams of capturing former imperial Turkish territory in Iraq (and Syria) to covertly achieve U.S. objectives? Could this plan go horribly wrong if two of their major regional allies go to war?
Since American officials rarely explain fully what they are up to in the Middle East, beyond slogans like “Fighting ISIS” and “The War on Terror”, understanding U.S. policy in the region is reduced to educated guesses based on official and leaked statements and assessments of complex developments on the ground.
For instance, U.S. officials are backing Syrian Kurds, not Turkey, in the operation launched Sunday to take Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria. Less than two weeks earlier, Erdogan proclaimed that during its invasion of Syria, Turkey “will go towards Raqqa.” In the last debate, Hillary Clinton said the U.S.-led operation to liberate Mosul should continue to Raqqa. Now it has. But the devil is in the details.
Events on the ground suggest Washington has two policies: one public and the other hidden. (Just as Clinton has advocated, more generally, for in one of her paid speeches.)
Publicly the U.S. opposes Turkish military intervention in Raqqa and Mosul, while privately it is effectively riding Erdogan’s outsized ambitions to let Turkish NATO troops create Hillary Clinton’s desired “safe zone” for rebel forces fighting to overthrow the Syrian government. This “safe zone” is on territory taken mostly from Islamic State that could eventually stretch from northeast Syria into western Iraq.
Yet, there is abundant evidence that Turkey has supported Islamic State from its incarnation as one of the jihadist forces seeking to overthrow Syria’s secular government of Bashar al-Assad. If Erdogan is now fighting the terrorist group, it may well be because he wants something like the Caliphate for himself and for Turkey, which abolished it in 1924. And that just might fit into U.S. plans, which President Obama has already altered to accommodate Clinton’s desires.
“The goal here is to take back Mosul,” Clinton said at the last debate, as if already speaking as the U.S. President, “and then continue to press into Syria to begin to take back and move on Raqqa.”
A Sunnistan Corridor
A safe area in eastern Syria stretching to western Iraq could implement the so-called Plan B: dividing Syria to weaken it, while also creating a “Sunnistan” corridor for a gas pipeline from Qatar through the Iraq/Syria border area to Turkey and on to Europe.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected a Qatar pipeline through Syrian territory in 2009, a move that some analysts think spurred the Gulf-backed insurgency to overthrow him. However, settling for Plan B, a partition of Syria, would be an admission that Plan A, “regime change,” had failed.
There might also be another crucial task for Turkey on behalf of Washington’s hawks in both Syria and Iraq. Erdogan may well target his move into Iraq on the area of the Shia Turkmen around Tal Afar. The Shia-led Iraqi government wants to get that area under central government control to possibly open a corridor from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, a corridor Clinton has vowed to close in accordance with a longstanding Israeli goal. Turkey could also cut this passage in northern Syria.
Is the U.S. allowing Turkish troops to create these facts on the ground? It’s impossible to know for sure because of the lack of transparency coming out of Washington. But in this scenario, Erdogan would get to control Syrian Kurdish areas and possibly parts of Iraq, satisfying his neo-Ottoman fantasies, while Clinton would get her “safe zone” protected by NATO troops (from Turkey), but without deploying U.S. soldiers on the ground.
Erdogan’s Dreams of Ottoman Glory
After Russia’s September 2015 intervention in the Syrian war seriously turned back the jihadists’ advances, their principal backers, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, became so alarmed that in February they demanded that the U.S. allow them to invade Syria. It was a momentous decision for Obama. Would he risk war with Russia to save another “regime change” project?
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter “welcomed” the Saudi-Turk plan to launch an invasion by air from Turkey’s Incirlik NATO air base, and by land through the wastelands of Jordan or western Iraq. The Saudis staged a 350,000–man invasion war game in the desert. In the end, Obama stood for reason and stopped it.
But in July, an attempted coup against Erdogan was crushed, allowing him to seize the opportunity to eliminate almost all opposition to his nearly complete one-man rule. By late August, Erdogan was ready to make his move with no one left in Turkey to oppose him.
On Aug. 24, with U.S. air cover, Turkey invaded Syria. This time Obama did not stop him. Washington clearly approved as its planes protected Turkish tanks and infantry rolling across the border. Vice President Joe Biden was in Ankara a day before the invasion.
The pretext was to fight Islamic State, but it became clear immediately that Turkey’s main target is the Syrian Kurds, one of Islamic State’s toughest foes on the ground. The U.S. protested, but Washington surely knew what Turkey’s intentions were.
The date of Aug. 24, 2016, was significant because exactly 500 years to the day earlier, on Aug. 24,1516, the Ottomans left Turkey to begin their empire by invading their first country, Syria. This was hardly a coincidence when one considers Erdogan’s history. He spurred a violent police crackdown in Istanbul’s Ghezi Park in 2013 on demonstrators against his plan to build a replica of an Ottoman barracks in the park. In April, Erdogan named a new bridge over the Bosphorus after Osman, founder of the Ottoman Empire.
Turkish-backed rebels took the Syrian town of Dabiq from Islamic State on Oct. 16. It was victory there in 1516 that established the Ottoman Empire.
The Safe Area
Hillary Clinton has been pushing for a no-fly zone and a safe area in Syria since she ran the State Department. She has called for both as recently as the last presidential debate, despite the inherent dangers of confronting Russia.The safe area is supposed to shelter internally displaced Syrians to prevent them from becoming refugees. But it could also be used as a staging ground to train and quip jihadists intent on “regime change,” a strategy that was employed in Libya in 2011. A safe area would need ground troops to protect it. Clinton says there will be no U.S. ground troops in Syria.
Turkey has also been clamoring for a safe area on the ground for the past few years. Erdogan called for it (as well as a no-fly zone in northern Syria) as recently as last September in his address to the U.N. General Assembly.
The hawks appear to have bested Obama this time. He has not stood in the way of Clinton’s hawkish allies in his administration letting Erdogan pursue his neo-Ottoman dreams (even when that has meant killing U.S.-backed Kurds) in exchange for Turkish NATO forces establishing a safe area without U.S. ground troops. Turkey and its rebel forces already control about 490 square miles in northern Syria.
In early October, Erdogan also began his war of words with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi about 1,000 Turkish troops based at Bashiqa, inside Iraq around 10 kilometers from Mosul. Iraq has been insisting the troops leave the country for months.
With the operation to liberate Iraq’s second-largest city about to begin last month, it was clear to me that Erdogan would threaten to take Mosul, based on a World War I-era Ottoman claim.
On Oct. 30, 1918, Britain and the Ottomans signed an armistice, but three days later British Lt. Gen. Sir William Marshall invaded Mosul and captured it on Nov. 15. Arguing that they were double-crossed, Turkey continued to claim Mosul despite it being given to British-controlled Baghdad in the Treaties of Serves (1920) and Lausanne (1923).
A 1926 League of Nations commission sided with Britain, and Turkey reluctantly agreed to its border with Iraq. But revanchists like Erdogan still don’t buy it. “We did not voluntarily accept the borders of our country,” Erdogan said on Oct. 27.
He then made no secret of his plans to enter Mosul. “You are not on my level,” Erdogan told al-Abadi. “Know your place! Your screaming and shouting is of no importance to us. You should know that we will do what we want to do.”
Al-Abadi insists that only the Iraqi Army and federal police are allowed inside Mosul. Even the Kurdish peshmerga have agreed to stay out. But Erdogan continues to claim Mosul and even called for ethnic cleansing of Shia from the city, which had a pre-Islamic State population of around 2 million people.
After American silence, al-Abadi threatened to fly to Washington to demand the U.S. stop Erdogan. Officially the U.S. has told Turkey to stand down. But it is not clear how much control Washington has over Ankara in this matter, or where exactly Erdogan’s plans fit into the hawks’ agenda.
Such complexities and cross-currents have been the problem whenever the U.S. allows surrogates to think they are pursuing their own agendas in the service of America’s larger one. One only has to think of the U.S. alliances with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Ankara on Sunday meeting Erdogan. It might well have been a tense meeting with the volatile Turkish leader, who said on Sunday that Turkey is charting an independent course from the West, adding, “I don’t care if Europe calls me a dictator.”
The trick for U.S. officials who see Erdogan’s military interventions as helpful is that they must let him think he is acting independently without him undercutting American interests. After Sunday’s meeting, the two sides said the U.S., its Syrian allies and Turkey would jointly control Raqqa after Islamic State is ousted.
“The coalition and Turkey will work together on the long-term plan for seizing, holding and governing Raqqa,” Dunford said after his meeting with Turkish Army Gen. Hulusi Akar, according to Department of Defense News. In the scant U.S. news coverage of the plan, it passed with little or no notice that Raqqa is part of the territory of the Syrian nation.
However, a touchy question for Washington is whether the U.S. can keep the tension in check between al-Abadi’s insistence on Iraqi sovereignty and Erdogan’s inner Sultan to prevent the two from going to war and then somehow turn their ambitions toward Washington’s Mideast goals.
That won’t be easy if the U.S. intends for Turkey to take territory in northern Iraq. A war between the two U.S. allies would threaten Washington’s aims in the region, whatever they may really be.
Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.