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The rise and fall of Turkey’s Erdogan 23 juillet 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Asia Times Online (Hong Kong) July 23, 2012

By M K Bhadrakumar *

Israel’s emergence from the woodwork can signal only one thing: the Syrian crisis is moving towards the decisive phase. The lights have been switched on in the operation theatre and the carving of Syria is beginning. What is going to follow won’t be a pretty sight at all since the patient is not under anesthesia, and the chief surgeon prefers to lead from behind while sidekicks do the dirty job.

So far, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have done the maximum they could to destabilize Syria and remove the regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad. But Bashar is still holding out. Israeli expertise is now needed to complete the unfinished business.

Someone is needed to plunge a sharp knife deep into Bashar’s back. Jordan’s king can’t do the job; he measures up only to Bashar’s knees. The Saudi and Qatari sheikhs with their ponderous, flabby body are not used to physical activity; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization prefers to be left alone, having burnt its fingers in Libya with a bloody operation that borders on war crime. That leaves Turkey.

In principle, Turkey has the muscle power, but intervention in Syria is fraught with risks and one of the enduring legacies of Kemal Ataturk is that Turkey avoids taking risks. Besides, Turkey’s military is not quite in top form.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also unable to carry the majority opinion within Turkey in favor of a war in Syria, and he is navigating a tricky path himself, trying to amend his country’s constitution and make himself a real sultan – as if French President Francois Hollande were to combine the jobs of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Socialist Party chief Martine Aubry.

Obviously, Erdogan can’t risk his career. Besides, there are imponderables – a potential backlash from the Alawite minority within Turkey (which resents the surge of Salafism under Erdogan’s watch) and the perennial danger of walking into a trap set up by militant Kurds.

Al-Jazeera interviewed a leader of the Alawite sect in Turkey last week who expressed concern over the increasingly sectarian tone of Syria’s internal strife inspired by Salafist Sunnis. They fear a Salafist surge within Turkey. The Alawites in Turkey see Assad « trying to hold together a tolerant, pluralist Syria ».

Contingency plans

But all that is becoming irrelevant. The New York Times reported on Friday, quoting American officials in Washington, that US President Barack Obama is « increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down the [Syrian] government ».

It further reported that the CIA operatives who are based in southern Turkey « for several weeks » will continue with their mission to create violence against the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, the US and Turkey will also be working on putting together a post-Assad « provisional government » in Syria.

Accordingly, the leaders of Syria’s proscribed Muslim Brotherhood held a four-day conclave in Istanbul and announced plans on Friday to create an « Islamic party ». « We are ready for the post-Assad era, we have plans for the economy, the courts, politics », the Brotherhood’s spokesman announced.

The New York Times said Washington is in close contact with Ankara and Tel Aviv to discuss « a broad range of contingency plans » over « how to manage a Syrian government collapse ».

The emergent operational plan is that while Ankara steps up the covert operations inside Syria (bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar), Israel will cross the border into Syria from the south and attack Bashar’s military and degrade its capacity to resist the Turkish threat.

Turkey has stepped up the psywar, projecting through the media that the Syrian regime is already tottering. Turkish commentators are spreading the word. Murat Yetkin of the establishment daily Hurriyet quoted a Turkish official as saying,

Our people [Turkish intelligence] in the field are observing that the urban majority, which has preferred to remain neutral so far, has begun to support the opposition groups. We think the Syrian people have begun to perceive that the administration is breaking up.

But such riveting stories also reflect the Turkish establishment’s worry that the Syrian regime is still not showing signs of capitulation despite all the hits it took from the « rebels ».

Mission to Moscow

Erdogan’s best hope is that the Turkish intelligence could orchestrate some sort of « palace coup » in Damascus in the coming days or weeks. What suits Ankara will be to have Bashar replaced by a transitional structure that retains elements of the existing Baathist state structure, which could facilitate an orderly transfer of power to a new administration – that is to say, ideally, a transition not different from what followed in Egypt once Hosni Mubarak exited.

But Erdogan is unsure whether Turkey can swing an Egypt-like coup in Damascus. His dash to Moscow last Wednesday aimed at sounding out Moscow if a new and stable transitional structure could be put together in Damascus through some kind of international cooperation. (Obama lent his weight to Erdogan’s mission by telephoning Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to discuss Syria.)

But curiously, just before Erdogan went into his scheduled meeting with Putin in the Kremlin, a massive terrorist attack took place in Damascus, killing the the Syrian defense minister and its intelligence chief. In the event, Moscow politely heard him out and assured Erdogan it would make a clinical separation between Russia’s long-term strategic ties with Turkey and the Syrian issue. At any rate, the Russian stance remained unchanged, as evident from its veto at the United Security Council a week later.

Clearly, Moscow sees that the end game is underway in Syria. In an interview with the Russia Today on Friday, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, spoke in exceptionally strong terms about what is happening. He said the Western strategy is to « whip us tensions in and around Syria at every opportunity ».

Churkin said derisively, « There is much more geopolitics in their policy in Syria than humanism. » Churkin also brought in Iran: « I would not rule out that then they would move on to Iran … And this growing tension between Iran, the West and the Saudis is not helpful. »

Prior to the visit to Moscow, Erdogan also travelled to Beijing, which also senses that the US is closing the deal on Syria. The Global Times newspaper commented in an editorial on Friday that « It’s likely that the Assad administration will be overthrown … chances of a political solution are becoming increasingly small … changes in Syria might come rapidly. »

US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is travelling to Beijing to explore if the Chinese stance on Syria can be moderated.

Both Russia and China view the Erdogan era favorably for the upward curve in their ties with Turkey. Russia won a $20-$25 billion contract to build nuclear power plants in Turkey. China pulled in Turkey as a dialogue partner for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Turkey hosted a second military exercise with China recently and is aspiring to be a bridge between NATO and Beijing.

A man for all seasons

However, both Russia and China would factor in that as a « new cold war » builds up, Washington expects Turkey to get back into the fold and play its due role as ally in a vast swathe of land stretching from the Black Sea to the Caucasus and the Caspian and all the way to Central Asia. In the ultimate analysis, the US holds many trump cards, finessed through the Cold war era, to manipulate Turkish policies. This is quite evident from the centrality attached by Washington to the Iraqi Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, in the overall US strategy.

Obama received Barzani in the White House recently. Barzani has become a « lynchpin » in the US-Turkish policies on Syria. This was within months of ExxonMobil signing up in October to develop the fabulous oil fields located in the Kurdistan region controlled by Barzani, ignoring protests from Baghdad that such a deal with a provincial authority bypassing the central government would violate Iraq’s sovereignty.

Last week, the US oil giant Chevron announced that it too has acquired an 80% controlling share in a company operating in the region covering a combined area of 1,124 square kilometers that is under Barzani’s control.

The entry of ExxonMobile and Chevron is a game-changer in the regional politics over Syria. The point is, the best transportation route to the world market for the massive oil and gas deposits in Kurdistan will be via the Syrian port city of Latakia on the eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, an altogether new dimension to the US-Turkish game plan on Syria comes into view.

Siyah Kalem, a Turkish engineering and construction company, has bid for the transportation of natural gas from Kurdistan. Evidently, somewhere in the subsoil, the interests of the Anatolian corporate business (which has links with Turkey’s ruling Islamist party) and the country’s foreign policy orientations toward Syria and Iraq are converging. The US and Turkish interests overlap in the geopolitics of northern Iraq’s energy reserves.

But Barzani is not only a business partner for Washington and Ankara but also a key agent who could leverage Turkey’s Kurdish problem. With Washington’s backing, he has launched a project to bring together the various Kurdish factions – Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian – on to a new political track.

He held a meeting of the Kurdish factions in Arbil last month. Plainly, Barzani tried to bribe the leaders of various Kurdish factions with funds provided from Ankara. He claims he has succeeded in reconciling the different Kurdish groups in Syria. (The Kurdish insurgency in Turkey is led by ethnic Syrian Kurds.) He also claims to have persuaded the Syrian Kurds to snap their links with Bashar and line up with the Syrian opposition.

These tidings from Arbil have a vital bearing on Erdogan’s future course on Syria. As a prominent analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Soner Cagaptay, pointed out recently, the bottom line is that « Syria’s restless and well-organized Kurdish minority doesn’t for the most part trust Turkey. »

Salafism on Israeli wings

However, in the final analysis, only Israel can resolve Erdogan’s dilemma. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated over the weekend, « Syria has advanced anti-aircraft missiles, surface-to-surface missiles and elements of chemical weapons. I directed the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] to prepare for a situation where we will need to consider the possibility of an attack. »

Barak added that the « moment [Bashar] starts to fall, we [Israel] will conduct intelligence monitoring and will liaise with other agencies. » He spoke after a secret visit by Donilon to Israel the previous weekend. Close on the heels of Donilon’s consultations, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travelled to Tel Aviv after a historic meeting in Cairo with the newly elected President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who assured Washington that he wouldn’t contemplate creating any problems for Israel in a conceivable future.

Barak’s disclosure tears apart the thin veil of indifference that Tel Aviv so far maintained over the Syrian developments. What emerges, in retrospect, is that Washington kept Israel in abeyance for the ripe moment to physically demolish Bashar’s war machinery, an enterprise that Erdogan is unwilling or incapable of undertaking.

Most certainly, Erdogan was in the loop that he was going to partner Barak, but being a shrewd politician he kept up an appearance of agonizing publicly over the Syrian crisis – while, of course, covertly fueling it.

Simply put, Washington has outwitted Moscow and Beijing. It kept assuring Russia and China that a military intervention by the US all by itself or a Libya-style NATO operation was the last thing on Obama’s mind. No doubt, Obama kept its word.

What is unfolding is a startlingly refreshing sight – Salafism riding the wings of the Israeli air force and landing in Damascus. Erdogan will now set out with renewed vigor to shake up the Bashar tree in Damascus, while any day from now Barak will begin chopping off the tree’s branches in a lightning sweep.

Erdogan and Barak will make the Bashar tree so naked and helpless that it will realize the futility of standing upright any more. There is no « military intervention » involved here, no NATO operations, no Libya-like analogy can be drawn. Nor is Erdogan to order his army to march into Syria.

Secretary of State Clinton would say this is the « smart power ». In a magnificent essay titled « The Art of Smart Power » penned by her last week, as she surveyed the curious twist to the tale of the Arab Spring, Clinton wrote that the US is nowadays « leading in new ways ». [1]

Clinton underscored that US is expanding its « foreign-policy toolbox [to] integrate every asset and partner, and fundamentally change the way we [US] do business … [the] common thread running through all our efforts is a commitment to adapt America’s global leadership for the needs of a changing world. »

At the end of the day, Erdogan will bite the bullet, which is greased with pork fat. The plain truth is that Israel is going to complete the messy job for him in Syria.

Erdogan has no choice but to accept that he belongs to Washington’s « toolbox » – nothing more, nothing less. He was never destined for the role to lead the Muslim Middle East. The West was merely pandering to his well-known vanity. That role is Washington’s exclusive prerogative.

1. The art of smart power, New Statesman, July 18, 2012.

* Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.


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