Turkey is now turning to this oil policy during the coronavirus crisis as a possible new way to distract local media and create a new nationalist cause.
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN – JERUSALEM POST – MARCH 24, 2020 16:25
Turkey’s leadership thrives on crises. For the last several years the government in Ankara has invented a new crisis every month, sometimes with the US. In October 2019 it invaded part of eastern Syria, causing 200,000 people to flee. In November Turkey created a crises in Libya with an energy deal in the Mediterranean and in January and February it fumbled another crises in Idlib, only to hen encourages migrants to go to Europe in March. Now Ankara may be setting its sights on a new crises in Syria to distract from the coronavirus pandemic at home.
Hints of Turkey’s new plan to push the US out of the remaining parts of Syria, where Americans are guarding oil fields and continuing to support the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS, came in early March. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to his ally in Russia, President Vladimir Putin, and said that with Russian support Turkey could construct infrastructure using oil revenues from eastern Syria. “We can help destroyed Syria get on its feet.” Erdogan’s plan came in the context of the Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive in Idlib that had forced some 900,000 people from their homes in January and February. Erdogan wanted a deal with Moscow. The Syrian regime shelling, likely with the knowledge of Moscow, killed more than 40 Turkish soldiers in Syria’s Idlib in February where Turkish soldiers were monitoring the crises. Turkey’s response was to run to Moscow to secure a deal.
Turkey has a long history of working with Russia to partition parts of Syria. Beginning in 2017 Turkey, Russia and Iran joined the Astana Syrian peace talks. Turkey nominally backs the Syrian opposition rebels. It has turned them into the Syrian National Army and used them to fight Kurdish groups that Turkey claims are linked to the PKK. Then Turkey sent the Syrian rebels to bolster its war in Libya after Turkey sought gas and energy deals off Libya in December 2019. This is Turkey’s goal: Use the rebels to fight Kurds and as tools of Ankara foreign policy, while working with Russia on the rest of Syria.
Turkey signed a deal with Russia in September 2018 for Idlib province. Russia wants extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda to leave Idlib. Turkey doesn’t know what to do with the groups, including ISIS members like ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who was found by the Americans living a few kilometers from the Turkish border. One way to deal with the groups that are still independent of the Turkish-backed SNA is to let the Syrian regime destroy them until they run into Turkey’s arms. That was the plan in December and January as the Syrian regime advanced, but it advanced too fast and Turkey sent troops to Idlib to slow it down. Russia stepped in through discussions with Turkey in Munich and then in Moscow and finally came up with the deal. In the lead-up to the March 5 deal between Ankara and Moscow, Turkey sought to encourage Syrian refugees to go to Europe. Stoking the crises with Europe, Turkey turned its eyes to eastern Syria.
In October after Turkish threats the US had withdrawn from parts of eastern Syria. Turkey bombed the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and invaded part of eastern Syria. Then Turkey signed a deal with Moscow in mid-October, partitioning parts of eastern Syria, similar to Idlib. But the deal may not be done. Moscow and Turkey both want the US removed from eastern Syria.
To get the US out of eastern Syria, Turkey has hinted to Washington that it opposes Iran’s role in Syria. US Secretary of State Mike Pompe and anti-ISIS envoy James Jeffrey are both pro-Turkey and hope that if they give Turkey enough support then Turkey will finally turn on Iran. IN the past Turkey worked with Iran, letting Iran set up businesses in Turkey and encouraging Washington to have warmer relations with Tehran. But the US administration wants more sanctions. The US is angry at Turkey for buying Russia’s S-400 systems and has begged Ankara to take its Patriot system instead. But Turkey sees Moscow as a more reliable ally than Washington, mocking Jeffrey as not serious in February.
Turkey’s Erdogan said on March 9 that Syrian oil in Qamishli, a mostly Kurdish town, should be used to rebuild other parts of Syria. Oil from Deir Ezzor could also be used to help the Syrian regime. Erdogan said that he had spoken to US President Donald Trump in early March and that the US had again said it would withdraw troops from Syria. It comes down to cash. Trump is wary to waste money in Syria and only kept a small number of US forces in Syria after the October withdrawal to secure oil fields. Trump is in the middle of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, repositioning them in Iraq and may be amenable to withdraw more of them from Syria if there was a good proposal that he sees as a win. The Erdogan comment about a new US withdrawal raised eyebrows with former anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk. McGurk was replaced by Jeffrey in January of 2019.
Turkey says it wants to use the oil somehow. Putin has a plan, Turkey says. “I made a proposal to Putin,” Erdogan said on March 9. “We can build with the aid of the oil.” Turkey now wants to “revive Syria,” apparently to help keep Russian-backed Assad regime in power, despite Turkey’s past statements critiquing Assad. In Turkey’s view the Kurdish, Arab and Christian fighters in the US-backed SDF who liberated eastern Syria from ISIS are “terrorists.” Turkey claims that the “terrorists are benefiting” from the oil. “This will also show who’s after protecting Syria’s unit and who’s after seizing it,” Turkey says, indicating it wants a unified Syria under the Russian-backed Assad regime.
The US has no real interest in the oil in Syria but protecting the oil can help bolster the limited resources of the SDF to continue guarding ISIS prisoners. The US and western powers demand the SDF act as jailors for the ISIS prisoners, including thousands of foreigners, who were captured when the SDF defeated ISIS last year. European governments refuse to take back their ISIS citizens, and they have told the SDF that it cannot hand them over to the Syrian regime, or release them or send them to Iraq. The SDF today is needed as a contractor to house them, including several thousand ISIS men and tens of thousands of their family members. These detainees are all now at risk of the coronavirus and the US has made sure that no help from the UN or WHO will arrive in eastern Syria to test people there. Isolated from both Damascus and Washington, and viewed as terrorists by Ankara, the SDF has few options. “Turkey officially wants us removed from these areas, including Deir al-Zor,” a member of the SDF told VOA earlier this month.
Turkey is now turning to this oil policy during the coronavirus crisis as a possible new way to distract local media and create a new nationalist cause. On March 10, as Turkey was planning new ways to seize the oil and partition eastern Syria with Russia, the pro-government media was told to claim that Turkey was “virus-free.” Daily Sabah reported on March 10 that Turkey was a leading example of the fight against coronavirus, because it was virus-free. Pro-Turkish commentators praised the Health minister. Turkey had in fact been one of the first to warn of the coronavirus pandemic reaching Iran in mid-February when Turkey estimated up to 750 were already infected in Iran. But it is impossible to completely control the virus and Turkey now says it has 1,500 cases and 37 deaths. Curfews and closures are taking place in Turkey.
Even as the pandemic spreads, Turkey’s media wants to remind viewers that it is fighting “terrorists” in Eastern Syria. There have been no attacks on Turkey from the SDF or Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which is affiliated with it. Yet Turkey’s Anadolu claimed that Turkish commandos “neutralized two YPG/PKK terrorists in northwestern Syria,” on March 21.
As part of Turkey’s plans for eastern Syria it appears some US diplomatic officials have begun to stop mentioning their local SDF partners in eastern Syria. A US briefing with Jeffrey and US Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield on March 10 did not mention the SDF but said it was working on finding a way for the US or NATO to support Turkey in Idlib. A statement by the US State Department on the one year anniversary of the SDF’s defeat of ISIS in Baghouz, a four year campaign that cost the SDF 10,000 casualties, didn’t even mention the SDF. Instead it said that eight million people had been freed from ISIS control in Syria and Iraq and mentioned a “stabilization” plan that the US claimed had which had helped people “return home” and helped them rebuild their lives. The coalition, it said, would work to protect itself from the coronavirus pandemic with the “Iraqi authorities,” but the statement did not mention Syrian partners. The stabilization plan that was mentioned was actually discontinued in 2019 in Syria and most people have not returned home.
Pompeo tweeted on Tuesday about the one year anniversary of defeating ISIS in Idlib and the challenges of the coronavirus. He did not mention the SDF which played the key role in defeating ISIS or of any support for eastern Syria amid the pandemic. Signaling that the US seemingly left out mention or any thanks to the SDF, US Senator Lindsey Graham wrote that he had a phone call with SDF General Mazloum about the continued fight against ISIS and the need to protect the oil. Graham wrote that he spoke about a “future political settlement favorable to the Syrian people” and that they discussed concern about “Russian aggression along the Turkey-Syria border and potential efforts by Russia to grab oil.”
Graham’s comments reflect the concern that Russia has decided to provoke some kind of crises in eastern Syria to take control of the oil. This is linked to Turkey’s demand for the oil revenues. It appears that Turkey continues to press for what it calls a “safe zone” to take over Kurdish areas along the border and cause the people to flee as was done in Afrin and Tel Abyad after Turkey’s offensives. Russia may see an opportunity to press the US to leave more of eastern Syria, and Russia may think it can come to some kind of deal of trading Idlib to the Syrian regime in return for oil revenues to Turkey.
The goal of Turkey is not the minor oil revenues but to remove the US. Russia also agrees with this assessment, but Russia and Turkey are entangled in joint patrols now in Idlib and other areas of Syria so they must work together rather than clash. Russia and Turkey had their second joint patrol in Idlib this week. Working together to reduce US influence is in both their interests. Turkey needs a new crises. However the pandemic may be one real crises that is difficult for Ankara to surmount while also trying to create a new struggle with Washington and Russia over Syria’s oil.