Turkey between the two fires of ‘Iranian operations’ and ‘Kurdish ambitions’

Hoda Al-Husseini  – The writer is a columnist at Asharq al-Awsat

6.9.2012 – Not so long ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proudly stated that Turkish people could travel to Iran, Syria and Lebanon without a visa. It is weird how conditions change … now, Turkish people are subjected to kidnapping in Lebanon and are not welcome in Iran because the Iranian Chief of Staff has identified Turkey as “a targeted country.” As for Syria, war has closed the border between the two countries.

It is weird how conditions change although the person remains the same. In June 2010, Erdogan sent an invitation to the secretary general of Hezbollah, Syed Hassan Nasrallah, to visit Turkey. This initiative was taken upon the recommendation of the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, after a statement by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the “possibility of establishing an Iranian- Syrian- Turkish alliance including Hezbollah and Hamas.”

After 18 months of war in Syria, Turkey has a huge burden to carry and a batch of critiques and troubles to face. With the start of the “Arab Spring,” Erdogan had the feeling that his statements were influential in Egypt and that the redrawn Turkey had become an example to follow in international politics for “Arab Spring” countries. Erdogan had gained more confidence with the fall of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and felt that he was riding the horse that would cross all Arab states. However, the war in Syria does not seem to end and Kurds have thus gained a sort of self-governance style in Syria. If things continue evolving in that direction, Kurds might even separate themselves from the rest of Syria.

Last week, the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu ─ the mastermind behind the “zero problems with neighbors” policy ─ was confused to find no one in the United Nations was interested in his focus on the necessity of establishing safe shelters in Syria to protect the refugees. Then came the U.S. army chief of staff, General Martin Dempsey, who openly said that it is impossible to establish such shelters because they need military protection from missiles.

The U.S. general has uncovered the West’s deceit, which used to contend with the Russian and Chinese veto in order to justify the idle response towards the protection of Syrian civilians. Turkey thus feels that the West has abandoned it just as it has abandoned the Syrian people, and that the weekly phone call from President Obama to Erdogan is not enough.

Amidst these setbacks, Turkey is reconsidering its calculations out of fear of eventually becoming the biggest loser. After Iran defined Turkey as a “targeted state,” Ankara is afraid of Iran’s reactions. Iran can put an end to the economic ties with Turkey, cut gas supplies and reduce the numbers of Iranian tourists visiting Turkey, but most importantly, Iran can ban Turkish trucks from using Iranian roads to reach central Asian states. Turkey is also concerned by Iran’s capability of fabricating security problems in Turkey since Iran’s history is full of secret operations in Turkey. On September 1, Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman announced that the Turkish intelligence services have detected 100 additional trained spies sent by Iran to Turkey since March 2011. Those spies have entered the country undercover as journalists and workers in the Iranian embassy in Ankara, which means that some of them are working under a diplomatic cover in Turkey. They managed to weave contacts with members of the Kurdistan Workers Party and collected information about military facilities and Syrian refugees. They concentrated their activities in the eastern and south-eastern counties. Zaman reported the arrest of Iranians, two of whom were charged with transmitting information about the armed Syrian opposition in the Turkish territory.

Therefore, since the Supreme Leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had ordered to launch operations outside Iran, there was a fear of transforming Turkey once again into a scene for secret Iranian operations and of wakening the “dormant cells” that would activate their old networks. However, this time Turkey will be targeted from the inside, along with its western and Arab allies in the Turkish territory.

A Turkish official says that Turkey is still seeking an alliance with Iran for many reasons, despite their differences regarding Syria. That is because they are both tied to their anti-Kurd position.

In light of the new conditions of Kurds in Syria, the KPP attacks in Turkey have increased, nourished by the Kurds’ ambitions in Syria. Kurds want to witness the rise of the Greater Kurdistan that would include the Kurd Region in Syria. This issue is expected to cause problems for Ankara since Kurds have political ambitions in Turkey. The issue is even more sensitive for Kurds because the KPP controls the Kurd mountain region in the north of Syria near the Turkish border.

Syrian and Turkish Kurds are aware that Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region in Iraq, is their referential leader and might contribute to the fulfillment of their ambitions. It is known that Barzani is a strong ally of Turkey while Jalal Talbani is the ally of Iran. Kurds definitely want to establish a greater Kurdish state; however, if Turkey receives evidence of the widespread Kurdish political ambitions, it will have a ruthless reaction which will cause serious problems for Barzani. Thus, as one of the sources confirmed, Barzani decided to keep silent for now, “although he will spare no effort to establish the Kurdish state during the Iraqi parliamentarian electoral season in 2014.”

In a statement to the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper, the Iraqi vice president who fled to Turkey, Tarea al-Hashemi, said that the escalation of the KPP terrorist activity was expected due to the alliance of Ankara with the Syrian people against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “This is the pressure card in the hands of the Syrian regime; it supports another regional force in order to blackmail Turkey for her support to the Syrian people.” Hashemi advised that “it is time for Turkey to make a historical move to contain the Kurdish problem by putting some efforts to stop this war.”

Hashemi added that Iraq has become a route to support the Syrian regime and that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sent some members of the Iraqi militias to Syria to assist the regime. “Some Iraqi banks have violated the siege and sent financial support to Syria,” he said.

In the meantime, Turkey is highly concerned by the increase in the numbers of Syrian refuges, namely in the Hatay district where citizens have also expressed their discontent from the infiltration of KPP members and jihadist activists who are being deployed as refugees. Citizens are also complaining about the misbehavior of some Syrians.

Moreover, refugee camps have witnessed a state of insurgency which means that Turkey should not only protect its citizens but also its security. Hatay has become a gathering point for Islamic fighters as well as agents from the intelligence services of Western states and Israel, who fear Islamic extremists’ terrorism.

Ankara is also concerned about the potential efforts aiming at affiliating Hatay to the foreseen Alawite state. But many experts exclude this option. There are many differences in terms of mentality and lifestyle between Turkish Alawis and Syrian Alawis, however this issue has surpassed these small details and intelligence services are deciding whether the establishment of an Alawite state is the best choice. Hatay has gained its independence once for nine months, from September 7, 1938 to June 29, 1939, and has raised its flag over the land that is known today as the district of Hatay.

Are these the reasons behind the resumption of secret calls between Turkey and Israel?

A Western source said that the relations between both countries would improve if it wasn’t for the foreign ministers of the two countries who are known for their strict views towards the Turkish- Israeli discord and towards the future governing force in Syria after Assad. Dawood Oglu is still supporting the “Muslim brothers” in their race to power which intimidates Israel especially after more extremist members had started to control the Syrian opposition.

The source expects that both countries would keep on communicating in order to improve their relations unless Israel decides to attack Iran, then, everything will freeze because Iran is one of Turkey’s main economic arteries.

(The writer is a columnist at Asharq al-Awsat where this article was first published on Sept. 6, 2012.)