05 July 2017 15:11

Associate Dr Hakan Güneş: Red lines will turn pink in Syria

‘Turkey is calling the development of an ethnic political formation a red line, just like in Iraq, this red line will turn pink’


Serpil İLGÜN

Syria, scene of a power play, proxy wars, establishing dominance in the region and trials of new weapons since the beginning of the war in 2011, witnessed another week of regional and global actors staking their claims. The US downed a war plane belonging to the regime on 19 June over Tabqa; the city that provides trade links to Aleppo in Syria, Mosul and Baghdad in Iraq and liberated from ISIS by Syrian Democratic Forces in May. This was followed by Iran hitting ISIS targets in Deir ez-Zor, situated between Iran, Raqqa and Iraq, with mid-range rockets launched from Kermanshah.

On the other hand, the Qatar crises, preceded by Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, took on another dimension, especially after declarations from the US front. Following Trump’s acceptance of his role in the crisis, statements by US Foreign Affairs department that “Saudi Arabia and its allies need to give convincing reasons for their embargo on Qatar” were met with cries of audacity. The 13 point demands by Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the closure of a Turkish base, were rejected by Qatar.

We discussed the developments in Iraq and the Gulf with Associate Professor, Dr Hakan Güneş of the International Relations Department, Political Sciences Faculty of Istanbul University. The 13 point demands were not discussed in our interview as they were put forward after our interview. 

Let’s start with the downing of the plane by the US and the rocket attacks by Iran on Deir ez-Zor…It was claimed recently that the end of the war in Syria was fast approaching. How should we read these developments?

The war continues with all its violence and chaos.  It seems the chaos will deepen and two developments will open a new round this autumn. Liberation of Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS, the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and the completion of the full-scale Turkish military base in Qatar will be compounded. As we enter autumn, it will become clearer whether Trump will be impeached; it is still an unknown. These do not point to the end of the war in autumn, there is at least a year to go on the military front; it may take two years in Syria. It may be shortened to a year if some kind of agreement could be reached, but then again, we are faced with the question of the possibility of a new front.

Against whom is this new front?
A risk of war that could be called an Arab-Kurdish or a Shiite-Kurdish war. Barzani seems intent on this.

Let’s start with Syria. What is the importance of dispersing of ISIS from Raqqa and the approaching end of operations for regional and global forces?
It is important in terms of who will control which region. There is a bitter struggle in this context. There are also the US attacks on Iran and factions supported by Iran. Such bitter struggles were seen on which side Aleppo will stay on. Forces that would not be supported by the West, under ordinary conditions, received such support just to make sure that Aleppo does not fall into the hands of the regime. A similar situation for Raqqa exists now. More than one actor has more than one calculation here; Iran, the regime, Russia all have different expectations. They all have overlapping and differing aims.

What are Iran’s calculations?
It is important for Iran that the Shiite area it has established in Iraq meets in a corridor with the Arab area in Syria. They have managed to open a small corridor last month for the first time. It is not a priority for the regime but oil is important and Raqqa represents an important area. It is also important that the Kurds or the US-sympathising Arab-Sunni jihadist sections do not control this area. This is understandable as Raqqa is not a Kurdish but an Arabic area. As such, there is rising struggle to keep an open corridor between Iran and Beirut. So, why is the regime not focusing on Idlib near the Turkish border, where Al Nusra is but gives priority to this area? Because the regime wants to save the whole area but does not want to lose the upper hand to Syrian Democratic Forces. On the other hand, both sides are smart enough not to escalate it to a conflict. In the last five years, they made determined efforts to not fight under usual circumstances. 

Could the downing of the Syrian plane and the following bitter statements lead to a break in this consensus?
No, it is too early for that. It is, however, an important reason to break that consensus. We are talking about a regime that is yet to secure the outer neighbourhoods of Damascus. The support provided by Iran, Palestinian left Arab groups, secular nationalist Arab groups, the air support provided by Russia, etc. are all welcome but can only achieve so much. We need to acknowledge that the Arab Alevite mobilisation at the centre but this group suffered great losses in the last six years. Hence, there is the possibility of escalation to a conflict but a creation of a new Kurdish front would not be sensible for the regime; especially when fighting on so many fronts and without establishing military control nationally and international recognition. The regime knows this. Neither does the Kurdish movement want to bring down Damascus, they want to enlarge their area of influence, to protect the Rojava revolution within reasonable borders. Kurds have gone as far as Raqqa despite a reluctance to do so. The US wants to limit both Iran and the regime in this area. Hence, we are faced with Raqqa as a problematic autonomous issue.

You talked of the “reluctance of PYD-YPG”. Why a party to the operation?
Firstly, it is not a strategic concern for them. They will not say no either, as it is an increase in the population, a strengthening of their hand in the forthcoming discussions on borders and it provides a certain - if temporary - economic source. And most importantly, it will be PYD that plants its flag in the castle of the biggest international trouble of the last quarter-century; this image is an important motivator for the PYD.

And the position of Turkey?
We can see that the US has not opened up -nor is willing to- a position for Turkey in the coalition against ISIS. The new central issue is this; we have been talking about the Qatar-Turkey-Saudi axis for the last six years but cannot do so anymore. This was clear 5-6 months before the Qatar crisis. We could see that this axis was greatly weakened but their common policy of weakening Iran, Assad, etc. enabled them to continue their cooperation.


The support provided to PYD despite Turkish efforts; not having a key role in the coalition against ISIS; the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement following the Qatar crisis, etc.; all these are interpreted as factors that will force Turkey to change its policy on Syria and stand closer to Iran and Damascus. Do you think Ankara will update its Syria policy? 
We must stress that we cannot understand what Ankara is trying to do. We should not deem too important the rapprochement that looks like a Turkey-Qatar-Iran axis. The initial US support of Saudis on the Qatar issue and the subsequent backtracking of “let’s not be too harsh” showed us that both the Turkey and Qatar and the Syrian axis carry a level of utility. It is clear that the Syria axis is slightly more valued. In regards to Turkey, perhaps the Kurdish issue is not a point of discussion. Evidently, Turkey is not seen as an equal on the Kurdish issues outside its border in Syria and Iraq.

How should we see Trump’s acceptance of his role in the Qatar crisis and the subsequent US statements? Did the agreement to sell war planes to Qatar influence this turnaround? 
Prior to the agreement on the sale of war planes, a Qatar-US joint military exercise took place three days after the crisis. Hence, the US first gave diplomatic support to Saudis but this was quickly followed by the Secretary of State Tillerson’s statement that “we could not hastily label the Ikhwan as terrorists as they are in power in Turkey and Jordan.” This was a sign of softening rather that a veiled threat. 

How do you see the Turkish move to build a base in Qatar, the transfer of military personal to which has already started?
It does not look like a smart move. It is clear that this is a move that complicates the situation, diverts human resources to the wrong areas and it is arguable that it will contribute to a solution.

What is the reason for this support to Qatar? Some say it is due to the indispensable economic support received from Qatar. What is your opinion?
We do not doubt that Qatar will provide some more financial support following this political move but this will not be at a level that will greatly enhance main indicators of the Turkish economy. We should also not overlook that Merkel also made a statement supporting Qatar. This is because Qatar’s investments are very international in character; this has also contributed to the softening of the crisis. 

Has the crisis softened?
It seems to be. We need to underline something here; the never-ending references to the red lines of Turkey. What are they? The formation of a political formation that could threaten its own borders. 

You mean the Kurds achieving a recognised status?
Yes. This red line turned pink in Iraq, the same will possibly happen in Syria but it will take time. The most important parameter that determines the course of Turkish foreign policy is the Kurdish issue. Next, comes ideological links such as the Ikhwan and Islamist motifs. When you look at Syria, the Ikhwan overtakes the Kurdish issue. There is a practical balance and it doesn’t make some other moves even though they are available. It doesn’t take steps internally because there is the consolidation of leadership issue. The same situation is true for the Saudis and that should not be overlooked.

Its internal population of Shiites?
Yes. Approximately 20-25% of the population of Saudi Arabia are Shiites and they live in an area that is the heart of its economy. Saudi Arabia is greatly concerned about this; it is the source of a big paranoia and a big red line. They are in a deadly struggle and take it very seriously; so much so that they try to discipline Qatar, their ally in the war in Yemen, and follow a firm line that probably will lead to confronting Oman and any other county that tries to follow an independent political line. So, the crisis seems to have softened for now. The focus has now shifted to the triangle of Damascus, Palmira and Daraa in Syria. The way to reduce the risk of the internal Shiite region we mentioned earlier is to establish a Saudi-Sunni area within Syria; we see that the US is providing serious support in this. If we look at airborne attacks of the US-led coalition in the country we can see that they are mainly carried out in this area instead of Raqqa; targeting the militias rather than the regime. The militias in question are the left-wing Palestinians, pro-Lebanon Hezbollah supporters and local defence forces. This, in the widest sense, is hitting the Syrian army because they do not want them to enter this area, they follow a policy compatible with Saudis. We need to open a parenthesis at this point; Turkey is dragged into a trap. And these aren’t any secret ones but blatantly open traps of America et al. 

What kind of a trap?
We are talking about the Middle East where the whole region is nuclearised; investing heavily in arms; looking to solve their differences with military tools rather than diplomacy; and where they divert resources to conduct too many military operations in other countries. Let’s look at two important players; Saudi Arabia and Iran. These two are in armed conflict in at least 10 countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and regions of the Gulf, the Arab Peninsula, Northern Africa and even the rest of Africa. Turkey is trying to become a part of this equation. Until five years ago, Turkey was in a more privileged position than both the Saudis and Iran but as an economic actor; integrated with the West, a candidate to enter the EU, with a relatively educated and young workforce; a country that won tenders and invested in the regions we mentioned when others were stockpiling arms. This is a method of expansion and - whether we like it or not -Turkey had an advanced status in this area. They have now dragged Turkey into a new adventure by replacing this power with “strategic depth”. Furthermore, whichever Islamist academic or columnist you listen to, they agree with this analysis but then praise the steps that drag us into this trap and continue to label those that think differently as traitors; an attitude that defies logical thinking. It is beyond comprehension as there is no discernible solution. Currently, politics Trump is pursuing in the US escalates this.

Would this change if Trump is impeached?
No, because this is the policy of the pro-Clinton wing and the US establishment. Their differences surface on issues of relations with Russia, priority for China and internal policies. We should expect no changes on this matter. We are living through one of the ugliest forms of imperialism. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are now praising this trap and becoming a part of it, in the belief that they are a regional power. 


Is there a link between the Northern Kurdish Iraqi Government’s decision to go to an independence referendum on 25 September and the increasing influence of PYD in the region?
They lead to results that influence each other but there is no direct link. They took this decision based more on ISIS overtaking Mosul and the Peshmerga becoming a very important part of the coalition against ISIS; that territorial preparations and requirements are met following the latest operations, Iraqi Kurdish region planting their flag in Kirkuk and gaining strong positions on the outskirts of Mosul; that the international conjecture is as close to feasible as possible. This is their century-old dream, plan and programme. It is clear that they have support from some international forces. Especially some countries of the region aren’t best pleased but I cannot see any strong protests.

Is this true also for Turkey and hence for Erdoğan?
Erdoğan’s statements are somewhat measured. Or else, newspapers would have run the same headlines, Barzani’s plane would have been reverted and the diplomatic mission in Ankara would have been closed down, etc. None of this materialised. Tehran is doing the same; there is statement aimed at national populations but neither Ankara nor Tehran showed a big reaction. The referendum will not immediately be followed by passport controls, visas etc. That will take a long time. It is evident that Talabani will act with Barzani as Kirkuk is an important area and under his control. One of the key issues here is how the PKK will act. I think that even though they will not show mass participation, they will not stand against it. Looking at global precedents, there are minor skirmishes during determining of the borders but most likely will not lead to a big conflict. This is so because the Iraqi Kurdish Area, just like the Syrian Kurdish Area is gradually seen as secular regimes of the region, compatible with the West. They have strategic importance in that sense. It seems that they are lucky in terms of the international conjecture and receiving support.


The discussions on cooperation with imperialism, discussed for a long time among left circles, widened with the PYD/YPG involvement in the Raqqa operation. How do you see the claims that YPG is deepening its relations with and increasingly influenced by the US?
Claims of concurring with the US aimed at PYD/YPG is too clichéd. The picture we observe regarding PYD’s position in the six-year Syrian civil war and more specifically its relationship with imperialism is this; YPG is a part of the Kurdish movements that exist in four Middle Eastern countries. The political formation of Syrian Kurds develops in communication and interaction with other Kurdish movements in the region. Let’s look at its alliances; the Kurdish movement, of which YPG is a component, followed a politics of stability with Iran for the last six years, without over simplifying, they ended armed struggle in Iran and are not fighting forces supported by Iran. Secondly; Since Russia entered the region, they avoided conflict with the Syrian regime and are engaged in a stable alliance. Thirdly; Since the US started taking the ISIS issue seriously and revived partial cooperation with Russia, they maintained a measured relationship with Russia. Fourthly; they kept the doors open to Turkey for possible cooperation. We can see a political and military force that can enter into cooperation, consensus, competition and, if necessary, the war in line with its own aims. If we look from a wider perspective, we can place its relationship with the US within this framework. 

To focus solely on collaboration with the US will not help us understand YPG policies. These aren’t processes that were decided in secret rooms in Tel Aviv or Washington; they relate to concrete situations, linked to the livelihood, security and political representation of the people of the region; they take the form of cooperation or conflict around very clear features. It is a fact that their relationship with the US became closer recently but they aren’t entering into conflict with Iran – despite evident provocations – to counter-balance this. We also know that, according to information from both parties obtained by Fehim Taştekin, it is the YPG pushing channels of communication with the Syrian regime. They haven’t closed channels of communication with Turkey either. I believe that YPG is a big player that follows such a wide-reaching policy. I believe that definition of this approach, through imperialist notions that are simplified and stripped of context, are not true reflections of the situation. From what we can see, the political line followed by the YPG in the region is extremely democratic, ecologist, woman centred and yes, despite being an armed force, involves a certain programme of conciliation and peace.

What is your take on the US Defence Secretary sending Turkey an inventory of the arms and equipment given to YPG and claiming that “arms provided to YPG will be returned”?
The US statement is scandalous in terms of government-level relations. “We are keeping an inventory of everything we give to YPG and here it is. But we will take them back!”. It is a very peculiar and scandalous stance in terms of bilateral relations.


The retreat of ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa are presented in an air of “ISIS becoming history”. Is this true, will ISIS be finished? 
Even if  ISIS is finished, Salafi jihadism resurfaces in different countries under different names. Most groups supported by the Saudis follow the same line, for example. The principal difference is whether they attack Western targets or not. It is not easy to kill off the ISIS network as it has a unique global existence, it has a capacity to mobilise across borders.

And there is individual ISIS sympathy…
Exactly. As long as the West continues with the Middle Eastern policy mentioned before, it will continue to suffer attacks at home and homes in the East will continue to burn because there is no real struggle against Salafi jihadism. It is clear that this is an ideology that should be illegal, condemned and put on trial in international courts; just like the apartheid regime in South Africa and Nazism. Hence, ISIS will not end because neither the regional countries nor the West is fighting for the extinction of Salafi jihadism. There is a struggle to discipline this organisation rather than to eradicate it, namely to change it from a movement that targets the West. This ideology still has the opportunity to exist through utilising all new technologies; it could very well develop and spread in other forms. I have no hope of this really changing quickly.


Can we have your opinion on the humanitarian drama in Yemen? The war zone created by the coalition of forces is a platform for cholera now, as well as famine and lack of medication. According to a statement by the WHO, 205 thousand people have lost their lives to cholera since 27 April. While we saw, Turkey send tonnes of foodstuff, medication, etc. to Qatar after the embargo, we do not see the same interest and support for Yemen. What is the reason for a Muslim country, Yemen, not being favoured by AKP?
The Yemeni people are in a horrific state, they are currently in a much worse situation than the Syrians. Yemen is distant to Turkey; Ankara doesn’t have much of a hold or any special relations with any groups there. We also know since 2011that Turkey’s foreign policies are guided by Sunni sentiments. This shows that Turkey is part of the coalition of the Saudis and Qatar that condemn people of Yemen to famine, poverty and death. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are slaughtering the Yemenis along with the Emirates. So, let's underline it again; in Yemen, they are cooperating with the embargoed Qatar and they will continue to do so.