Qandil amplifies pressure
As Qandil, the US, the Middle East and Iran tax Turkish foreign policy, what can be done?
After another busy week of compelling international affairs, Emeritus Professor Ilter Turan evaluates the possible outcomes. It seems that both the Turkish and US governments are making attempts to mend their relationship. But each time there is some progress toward an improvement, something else comes up that sours it again. This time there was a revelation that the US watched ISIL forces leave Raqqa in agreement with the People’s Protection Units (YPG)-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. It appears that the US did not get involved but gave their tacit consent by withholding bombardment and other measures they could have taken. It does seem that the Americans are not quite as sincere about their fight against ISIL as they claim. They seem to think that the presence of ISIL would somehow give them justification to continue their presence in Syria. Of course, for a country that does this, to come and blame others for having cooperated with ISIL or not being hard enough on ISIL sounds less than credible. This issue is going to plague the relationship for weeks ahead. Other developments are also complicating the relationship. For example, the Turkish government has taken the unusual step of asking for the whereabouts of Reza Zarrab who is in custody for illegal dealings with Iran during the embargo. This is rather an unusual step because our government does not usually take an interest in the fate of Turkish nationals being tried in US courts. There appears to be a special reason why the government is so interested in Zarrab’s fate. I don’t know what that reason might be. Actually, this brings us to the question of the goal of the US’ policy in the Middle East. The US has been trying to shape its strategy in the region, basically against Iran. In this endeavor, it has been cooperating with the Saudis but now, much to many people’s surprise, something that has been happening behind the scenes has also come to light. The Saudis and the Israelis are also going to work together to arrest Iranian influence. This past week we had a new interesting development in that the Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Hariri was almost summoned to Saudi Arabia and then announced that he was resigning. The reason for this resignation was presumably the Hezbollah whose activities violated Lebanese neutrality in Middle Eastern conflicts. That may well be true, but the conditions under which Hariri went to Saudi Arabia, the conditions under which he was kept and spoke are still a mystery. Many people feel that Hariri was under significant pressure from the Saudis to speak and do things in a particular way. We still don’t know if he is going to be resigning because he has not formally submitted his resignation but announced his intention to do so. He has not gone back to Lebanon and instead went to France. I fear that the Americans and the Israelis will unite with the Saudis to drive Hezbollah out of Lebanon, a feat most difficult to achieve, particularly in light of the fact that the US is not willing to send in its own military but wants others to do the job for it. I am not sure that Israel would be willing to do this all by itself. It would probably try to get more American commitment and more Saudi support. But it seems that we are going into an increasingly stressful period in the region where a big conflict between Iran and US-Israel-Saudi Arabia is going to mark the beginning of rather difficult developments that may include significant use of armed force. I am sure you have noticed that, in response, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia are going to come together in Sochi. I think they want to counter the American plans that are highly likely to destabilize the region. Recently, the Minister of Interior announced that Turkey would go into the Qandil Mountains and stay there. I have a feeling that the minister may not have had enough time to study the question. This is a range of high mountains. From a military perspective, the area is particularly difficult to hold onto because there are no major settlements, only small villages and few roads. Furthermore, one third of the Qandil area is in Iran, necessitating that any military action must be planned with the consent or cooperation of Iran. Any intervention on Qandil would necessitate the commitment of significant armed force in the area. Whether the investment of a large force to Qandil would bring a significant return is open to question. Yet this opens Turkey to other risks since Qandil is not the only front where Turkey has to be on guard. It is already engaged in Idlib and it may be necessary to develop a presence in Afrin. Spreading your military force so thinly on multiple fronts would not be prudent since that would expose you to the danger of not having a sufficient defense on any front. I hope that the minister’s remarks are intended to show Turley’s determination to fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rather than the revelation of a plan to invade the Qandil Mountains. With regard to Iran, in contrast with the US and Europe, Turkey is a neighbor. Turkey gets its natural gas from Iran. Iran reaches the West through Turkey. Historically the two societies have had competitive but non-conflictual relations. At this point, it does not seem wise to join a US-Israel-Saudi led anti-Iran camp from which even Europe shies away. Turkey should not act entirely in harmony with US policy. Turkey has no significant problems with Iran and enjoys some mutually beneficial relations. Furthermore, Iran’s cooperation is indispensable for achieving peace in the Middle East. While I suspect there will be increasing pressure on the Turkish government by the US and Saudi Arabia to join the coalition against Iran, I think Turkey will probably resist. Turkey will derive no benefit from engaging in a highly conflictual relationship with Iran.