Syria continues to be a major problem for Turkey while increased trade with Russia has provided a needed economic boost. Turkish relationships with Russia begin in Syria and elsewhere are increasingly merging in Syria.
At the same time the war in Syria continues to slow down. In the northwest (Idlib province) there are over 10,000 Islamic terrorists holding about half the province against weak but persistent attacks by Syrian troops. Most of the casualties in Idlib are caused by Russian airstrikes. The Kurdish-controlled northeast, including Hasaka and parts of Deir Ezzor and Aleppo provinces, continues to be attacked by Turkish forces, but not in a major way. That is changing as Turkey persuades Russia to shift its air support to assist Turkish operations.
Turkey is also continuing its “decapitation” (assassination) program against Kurdish civil and military leaders, especially those supporting the Kurdish led SDF (Syrian Defense Forces) militia and Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish separatists operating in northern Syria. Turkey uses electronic eavesdropping on Kurds suspected of supporting the Kurdish rebels and separatists. Air strikes, usually with UAVs armed with laser guided missiles, do most of the killing and a lot of the surveillance.
The Iranians continue to seek cooperation from the Turks, Syrians and Russians in getting Iranian forces close enough to the Israeli border to make attacks possible, but no one is interested. Iranian efforts in Syria and Lebanon are very low-budget and Iranian officers in charge of this have to make do with very little.
ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) also continues to contest control of remote areas in eastern Syria. Most of this occurs in the Badia Desert south of the Euphrates River Valley. ISIL and associated groups have long used the largely empty desert as a sanctuary. This desert area extends into nearby Jordan. Baida covers 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles) and represents about half of Syria, 85 percent of Jordan, and smaller portions of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Baida desert was long been the scene of ISIL activity and fighting against and between Islamic terrorists. All these desert areas are thinly populated by Sunni Arabs who are inclined to tolerate or support ISIL as long as ISIL attacks were directed at military targets and not local civilians. An exception to this rule has ISIL waging an assassination campaign against Islamic clergy and staffs of religious schools who teach that Islamic terrorism is wrong. Turkey is striving to achieve control of a 30-kilometer-deep (into Syria) border strip along the length of its Syrian border. The Assads and Kurds agree that this border strip is a bad idea.
The Assads are having a difficult time reestablishing a legitimate government, as opposed to its current status as a barely tolerated and much sanctioned government run by war criminals. The Assads have allies who are trying to work out a deal that legitimizes the Assads and leads to lots of economic aid and investment. There is some but not a lot of progress in that department. Israel is quietly working on a peace deal with the Assads by first consulting Russia, Turkey and the Arab nations Israel has diplomatic relations with. If Israel can achieve a consensus on how to offer and deliver the Assads a workable peace deal, Iran could be driven out of Syria. Israel and the Assads have been, since the 1970s, willing to leave each other alone and make mutually acceptable deals. The Assads would often threaten another war with Israel but did not pose as determined a threat as Iran. Because the Assads became allies of and dependent on Iran in the 1980s for protection from chaos in Iraq and Lebanon, they had to at least pretend to support the Iranian obsession with destroying Israel. The Assads knew better but until the Assad police state failed in 2011 and a rebellion got going, the Assads were able to resist Iranian presence and control of Syria.
Gaming NATO And Ukraine
On February 27th EU (European Union) nations closed their airspace to Russian commercial aircraft. Turkey has applied to join the EU but did not participate in the EU economic sanctions against Russia. As a result, trade between Turkey and Russia has increased over 30 percent (so far) this year. This was shown, among many other ways, by considerably increased air flights between Russia and Turkey with Turkish resorts becoming full of Russian vacationers, even though flights between Russia and Turkey are significantly more expensive because of increased aircraft insurance rates. This reflects the risk of Turkish airliners coming under fire in the Black Sea. The sanctions force Turkish airliners to make detours, which increases flight time and the air fares. This depressed passenger traffic, but not to a significant extent.
The Turkish economy has been in trouble for several years and president Erdogan is held responsible. He deliberately increased the power of the presidency since 2002. There are national elections in 2023 and Erdogan is doing all that he can to improve the economy to improve his popularity ratings and stay in power. This is more important than cooperating with the EU or NATO.
Turkey maintains good relations with Ukraine and continues to supply Ukraine with TB2 UAVs. Russia doesn’t like that but increased trade with Turkey has proved more important for the Russian economy and war effort. President Putin of Russia doesn’t have to worry about elections. Putin does have substantial economic problems because of Western sanctions and has tried to put all the blame in NATO. Senior Russian officials know better, but they have little personal power. Turkey insists it is not violating those sanctions but it is certainly helping Russia do so by increasing trade with Russia and providing easy air access between Russia and the outside world.
Turkey is also destroying its relationship with the NATO alliance by continuing to buy Russian weapons and refusing to join other NATO nations in supporting the Ukrainian fight against Russia. Turkey is taking advantage of the fact that NATO never established a procedure to expel a member nation. At the same time, major NATO decisions, like admitting new members, require unanimous approval. Turkey continues to block Sweden and Finland from joining NATO by demanding more and more incentives (concessions). This infuriates most NATO members because there is no way to prevent Turkey from engaging in all this bad (for NATO) behavior. Erdogan is largely responsible for this mess and, if he fails to get re-elected in 2023, most of these problems will likely disappear. Currently unemployment in Turkey is over ten percent and rising inflation is destroying the value of the Turkish currency (the lira). Turkish involvement in Syria is costing over $42 billion a year, mostly for the support of 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. The Turkish security zone on the Syrian side of the border is supposed to provide a safe haven for the Syrian refugees, who expect to be forced into the security zone once it is fully established.
Another problem with NATO is that while its military manpower is huge (over three million active-duty troops and organized reserves) most of that manpower comes from two members, the United States and Turkey. NATO forces are equipped with the most modern weapons and equipment but do not maintain adequate stockpiles of spare parts (to keep all the vehicles, aircraft and ships operational) and war reserves of weapons and munitions. Turkey is becoming a major manufacturer of these and depends on its NATO membership to export these weapons to customers who see NATO membership as a sign that the Turkish weapons are first rate (NATO standard). Turkish weapons exports are not a problem for the U.S. and other NATO members that also manufacture most of the high-tech weapons and equipment. For that reason, Turkish purchases of Russian S300 and S400 air defense systems is a major plus for Russia, which has problems exporting these systems because they don’t perform very well. That doesn’t matter to Turkey which considers the low performance of Russian air defense systems adequate for its needs and encourages Russia to increase trade with Turkey.
Turkey became a very unreliable NATO member after the anti-Israel and anti-NATO government came to power in 2002. Led by Recep Erdogan, the new Turkish government also proved to be economically inept and Erdogan faces loss of power in the next elections because of the damage he did to the local economy and living standards of many Turks. With Ukraine, Erdogan is trying to play both sides to gain any advantage he can for Turkey and his own political career. The war in Ukraine has proved to be a major embarrassment for most NATO governments because politicians believed Russia would not invade Ukraine. The surprise turned politically painful when it was realized how much it was costing to support the Ukrainian forces and how much more expensive, and politically damaging it would be to continue that support until Russia was defeated. Many NATO politicians are looking for a way to evade their moral responsibility to support Ukraine. East European NATO members disagree and are willing to pay whatever it takes to support Ukraine. This division threatens to destroy NATO as a unified defensive alliance. All that is of no concern to Erdogan. Getting reelected is his main goal.
Turkish officials falsely assure the United States that Turkey is abiding by all EU sanctions against Russia. They also say that if the UN imposes sanctions in addition to those imposed by EU nations, Turkey will participate. But the UN cannot impose any sanctions because that requires a resolution by the UN Security Council and Russia is one of the five founding members of the UN with a veto over such UN sanctions. Turkey, or at least Erdogan, doesn’t care what the United States or NATO thinks of his inaction on supporting sanctions on Russia. This is the kind of problem NATO members never anticipated when the organization was created after World War II as a means of protecting members from Russian aggression. For the moment Erdogan is unmoved by threats of economic retaliation by other NATO nations, particularly the Americans.
Many NATO members no longer trust Turkey, especially when it comes to things that can hurt the rest of NATO. For example, there’s the Turkish threat to open their European borer and allow Syrian and other refugees to move on to Europe. Tired of the Turk threats, Greece decided to fence its entire land border with Turkey and improve protection for Greek islands Turkey will help refugees reach.
Meanwhile Turkey is big empty symbolism. President Erdogan announced to day that Crimea belongs Ukraine and Russia must return it if they want the war to end. Erdogan recently met with the Russian leader and that meeting did not include any demands about Crimea.
August 20, 2022: In northern Syria (Aleppo province) two days of fighting between Turkish and Kurd SDF forces have left two Turkish soldiers and three wounded while Turkism artillery fire killed 17 civilians and wounded 35. Turkey blames the fighting, which consisted of artillery fire and bombs, is the fault of the United States for their support of the SDF.
August 18, 2022: President Erdogan visited Ukraine (in Lviv) to meet with Ukrainian president Zelensky and the UN Secretary-General to offer Turkish assistance in mediating an end to the war in Ukraine. Turkey also agreed to participate in rebuilding Ukraine after the war. Russia has been concentrating on destroying economic targets, and Ukraine is not interested in a mediated end to the war unless it involves Russian forces leaving all Ukrainian occupied since 2014.
August 17, 2022: Israel and Turkey have agreed to restore diplomatic relations. Israel and Turkey had been allies until 2002 when an Islamic party coalition (led by Recep Erdogan) was elected to run Turkey. The main reason for winning the election was the promise to reduce corruption. Next came improving relations with Arab countries. This meant siding with Palestinians whose main goal was the destruction of Israel. That led to severing diplomatic relations with Israel in 2010. The Islamic government also ran into problems with its NATO allies. The anti-corruption campaign faltered as did economic growth and relationships with Western trading partners. Efforts to restore relations with Israel began in 2015 and an agreement was worked out and signed in 2016. That didn’t last and in 2018 Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and went back to denouncing Israel for its treatment (the way it defended itself) of Palestinians. Meanwhile the Palestinian cause was losing support from Arab countries because of the Palestinian insistence on destroying Israel and now accepting Iranian support. Iran is at war with most Arab countries. Now Turkey is reviving its policy of staying out of Arab affairs and restoring good relations with Israel and the West. This was a policy adopted a century ago when a republic replaced the Ottoman Empire monarchy. Erdogan thought that because he was an Islamic politician he could succeed where the Ottoman monarchy had failed and found that he could not.
August 12, 2022: American credit rating agency lowered the rating for Turkey’s sovereign (national) debt rating lower to below investment grade. In other words, foreign investors are advised to avoid Turkey. This lower rating is caused by what Erdogan’s policies have done to the Turkish economy.
August 5, 2022: In Russia, president Erdogan met with Russian leader Putin to discuss Russian and Turkish economic cooperation as well as the Turkish need for some help in Syria. Turkey is having problems with the Kurdish SDF forces, that oppose Turkish efforts to seize control of a 30 kilometers deep security zone on the Syrian side of the border. Russia has been neutral in this matter, preferring to concentrate on supporting the Assad government and attacking ISIL terrorist still active in eastern Syria. Nothing was revealed about the results of today’s discussions, but the behavior of Russian air power in Syria will reveal if a deal was made to assist Turkey against the Kurds. Russia obtained long-term leases from Syria (the Assads) for the naval base and airbase. Russia still maintains a number of warplanes in Syria which are used mainly to support the Assads. Ukraine accuses Turkey of using these Russian investments, especially in oil refineries, as a way to facilitate the smuggling of Russian oil. Turkey has agreed to pay for some of its natural gas imports from Russia in rubles (the Russian currency.)
July 20, 2022: In northern Iraq (Kurdish controlled Dohuk province) Turkish artillery was used to bombard a vacation resort near the Turkish border. Nearly all the casualties (nine dead and dozens wounded) were Arabs taking a break from the very hot weather down south. Relaxing in the cooler and safer Kurdish mountains has become a popular activity for Iraqi Arabs who can afford it. The Kurds have been autonomous in northern Iraq since the 1990s and kept out nearly all of the Islamic terrorism that ravaged the Arab south after 2003. This led to many Arabs vacationing in the Kurdish north. Border security between the Kurdish north and the rest of Iraq was tight and few Islamic terrorists get in and if they did, they found it difficult to operate. The one danger the Kurds could not keep out was the increasing Turkish efforts to eliminate PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) who had established bases in remote areas near the border. Dohuk province had plenty of sparsely populated border areas where the PKK would establish their hideouts. These the Turks would search for with manned aircraft and UAVS. Once located the Turks would attack with artillery, F-16s or armed UAVs. Turkish troops would sometimes cross the border to follow up on artillery or air attacks. In more populated border areas of the Kurdish north the Turks established bases. These Turkish attacks take place regularly, with PKK targets hit up to three times a week. There are casualties every week as smugglers and PKK forces try to cross the border in either direction and are attacked by Turkish troops guarding the border. Turkey announces all such operations, especially when it involves PKK forces. Iran threatens to carry out similar attacks and occasionally does so but never takes credit for them. The Turks justify these attacks because the Iraqi Kurds will not use their troops and police, the best in Iraq, to go after the PKK or similar groups from Syria or Iran. There are no armed Iraqi Kurdish separatists because the Iraqi Kurdish autonomy is tolerated if the Iraqi Kurds do not attack the Arab dominated national government. This arrangement has generally worked, but the Iraqi government considers the Turkish violence in the north as partially the fault of the Iraqi Kurds who will not actively fight the armed foreign Kurds from Turkey, Syria and Iran. The unarmed Iranian Kurd separatists are OK but the PKK presence is a big problem for everyone. This is especially the case when the Turkish violence kills and wounds Iraqi Arabs is a major violation of Iraqi sovereignty and the unwritten understanding that tolerates the Turkish attacks on the PKK, even if it sometimes kills Iraqi Kurd civilians. The Iraqi Arabs see this as something the Iraqi Kurds have to take care of. The Turks are aware of the vacation resorts near their border and the Iraqi Kurds keep PKK members out of those resorts. That was apparently the case with the Dohuk resort and the large number of Iraqi Arab civilian casualties created major diplomatic problems for Turkey.
July 19, 2022: Turkey revealed that they were responsible for killing Hussein Shibli, a senior SDF military leader. Shibli was in northern (Kurdish controlled) Iraq for medical treatment when a Turkish UAV killed him with laser-guided missiles. Turkey and Russia are trying to persuade, or coerce, the largely Kurdish SDF rebels to side with Turkey rather than the Americans. Turkish missiles-armed UAVs, mainly the TB2 model, regularly carry out attacks against SDF and PKK forces in northern Iraq and Syria.