It was clear at the Brookings Institution on last Tuesday that nothing is easy to predict when it comes to Turkey-Russia relations. As Torrey Taussig of the Brookings Institution, moderator of the panel “The Roller Coaster of Turkey-Russia Relations,” underlined significant events such as Turkey’s decision to purchase weapons from Russia, the increased dialogue among Turkey, Russia, and Iran concerning the Syrian war, Turkey’s move towards authoritarianism, and increasing anti-Western sentiment in both countries. To further discuss the relationship between Turkey and Russia based on a recently published report, “An Ambiguous Partnership, The Serpentine Trajectory of Turkish-Russian Relations in the Era of Erdoğan and Putin,” Taussig was joined by the authors, Pavel Baev and Kemal Kirişci of the Brookings Institution, as well as Evren Balta of New York University and Naz Durakoğlu of the US Senate.
Immediately evident in the remarks made by the panelists were the frequent fluctuations in relations between Turkey and Russia. Kirişci began his comments by referring to the Turkish shoot-down a Russian plane in 2015. Putin reacted by saying that Turkey’s actions were a “stab in the back by accomplices of terrorists,” associating Turkey with extremist groups fighting in Syria. These comments came only months after Putin had invited Erdoğan to Moscow to restore and open a mosque, making the sharp and sudden shift in discourse an unexpected one. Baev described the study of Turkey-Russia relations as “shooting at a moving target.” Conflicts between the two countries, motivated by their many differences, are common; the positive aspects of their relationship are more puzzling.
The sources of animosity between the two countries are easier to identify. Kirişci noted Russia’s discomfort with Turkey’s leading role in the world of political Islam, which Balta added was a major security threat to Russia. He added that Russia, in fact, saw itself as part of “European civilization” that Turkey no longer fit into, despite what he considered a long European heritage that dated back to Ottoman times.
According to Kirişci, beginning with the Arab Spring, Turkey has shifted from a European identity and to a major player in the Islamic world. Turkey saw the Arab Spring from a religious perspective, while Russia simply from a regime change perspective. Balta also referred to the competing interests of Russia and Turkey in Syria, with each supporting opposing sides. Russia has long been a supporter of the regime of Bashar Al Assad, aiding the government in numerous ways in the fight against the opposition, while Turkey has been an outspoken supporter of the opposition, leading to the association with extremist groups mentioned earlier. What has allowed the two countries to maintain a relationship has been in part Turkey’s acceptance of Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict, according to Balta.
Other factors include collaboration on different domestic issues. For example, Turkey imports most of its energy resources from Russia, and pipelines being built in Turkey will make Turkey a transit route for gas from Russia. Russia will be working on the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear plant. The Kurdish issue has also, for the time being, brought the two countries together. While Balta admitted that Russia may find an opportunity to threaten Turkey by taking the side of the Kurds against Turkey in the future, she emphasized that, currently, Russia is more supportive of Turkey in the fight against the Kurds than the US is, raising another point of common anti-Westernism, which multiple panelists evoked. Turkey and Russia mistrust Western intentions in the region, with both perceiving the goals of the West to be regime and territorial change.
Durakoğlu discussed the relationship from a Western perspective, drawing from her experience at the US Department of State. She emphasized that Turkey’s relationship with Europe is largely an economic one, and its relationship with the US is a security-related one. Turkey’s relationship with Russia, in Durakoğlu’s opinion, has no such definition and is “personality-driven,” based largely on a common anti-Western sentiment.
With its recent, post-coup authoritarian trajectory, Turkey has been “taking risks,” relating particularly to its relations with the US, which could “backfire” as the tolerance of American policymakers decreases. Kirişci sees the relationship between Turkey and the US as similar in its ambiguity to the US relationship with Russia. While Turkey has a stronger relationship with the US than it does with Russia, the Kurdish issue ultimately drives Ankara and Washington apart. Durakoğlu seconded this, noting that Turks constitute the biggest international student population in the US.
The panelists talked mostly a Turkish perspective, which Baev justified by reminding the audience that Turkey remains a US ally, while Russia’s relations with the US are less friendly. Tthe importance of understanding Turkey’s relations, whether it be with Russia, Europe, or the US, was made clear at the panel, making the event, as one of a few that have dealt with these topics, all the more valuable.
- The Trump Administration and the Middle East: What Should America Do Next? | Monday, September 25 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | “Donald Trump promised to do a great deal more in the Middle East than his immediate predecessors, but with much less,” Hudson Institute fellows Michael Doran and Peter Rough wrote recently in Mosaic magazine. “That is, he would achieve significantly more than Barack Obama at a much smaller sacrifice of blood and treasure than was incurred under George W. Bush. This he would accomplish by defining American interests sharply and pursuing them aggressively, not to say ruthlessly. The result would be a global restoration of American credibility and, as Trump never ceased to remind voters, renewed global respect.” Nearly nine months into his term in his office, has President Trump followed through on his promises regarding Middle East policy? Doran and Rough argue that America’s big problem in the region is still Iran. In a written response to the article, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution contends that America is not in a zero-sum contest with the Iranians. On September 25, join us for a frank discussion on the future of U.S. Middle East policy with Doran, Rough, and O’Hanlon. Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Lee Smith will moderate the panel.
- Rethinking Political Islam | Monday, September 25 | 5:30 – 8:00 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | The rapid succession of events of the past four years have challenged conventional wisdom on political Islam. In “Rethinking Political Islam” (Oxford University Press, 2017), Shadi Hamid and William McCants have gathered together the leading specialists in the field to examine how Islamist movements around the world are rethinking some of their basic assumptions. The contributors, who include Islamist activists and leaders themselves, describe how groups are considering key strategic questions, including gradual versus revolutionary approaches to change; the use of tactical or situational violence; attitudes toward the state; and how ideology and politics interact. On September 25, Graeme Wood of The Atlantic and Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington will join Hamid and McCants for a panel discussion on the book’s findings and conclusions. After the discussion, the panel will take audience questions. A reception and book signing will follow. Attendees may purchase “Rethinking Political Islam” at an exclusive 10 percent discount, with the option of pre-ordering a signed copy online
- Confronting the Next Wave of Violent Extremism | Wednesday, September 27 | 9:00 am – 4:30 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Join the U.S. Institute of Peace and the RESOLVE Network of global experts on violent extremism for the consortium’s annual forum on Wednesday, September 27, to discuss issues such as the risks in hotspots across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.The forum will feature preeminent international scholars and experts from across the network’s 20-plus partner organizations around the world. In addition to offering opportunities to connect with leading thinkers, practitioners and policymakers involved in developing responses to violent extremism, the day of panels and roundtable discussions will highlight findings from a year-long study on the rise of violent extremism in Bangladesh and preview upcoming research on the politics of religion in the Lake Chad Basin region. Panelists will address questions including what do we know about how and when terrorists decide to enter and exit violence, and how do the politics of religion, migration, and identity factor into efforts to counter violent extremism.
- Tunisia’s Road to Reform | Thursday, September 28 | 12:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Please join the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East for a panel discussion on the new Tunisian government and prime minister shuffle. As part of a four-year IMF approved loan, the new government and cabinet must enact fiscal reforms to continue receiving a $2.9 billion loan aimed at strengthening job creation and economic growth. Will the so-called “war government” geared towards reform succeed in this effort? Is enough being done to address corruption and strengthen good governance? What are the major challenges and obstacles facing the Tunisian government in its effort to bring the country back to economic and political stability? The panel will address these and other concerns related to Tunisia’s ongoing transition. Panelists include Oussama Romdhani of the Arab Weekly, independent journalist Fadil Aliriza, and Sarah Yerkes of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. The event will be introduced by Ambassador Frederic C. Hof of the Atlantic Council and moderated by Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council.
- Iran’s Land Bridge: Countering a Growing Influence in the Middle East | Friday, September 29 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The threat of an Iranian land bridge through Iraq and Syria—measured both in established influence and a physical presence—has become a reality. Iran’s goal for regional hegemony, a strategic plan more than three decades in the making, has come to fruition. With such a route in place, Iran can increase logistical and operational support to Lebanese Hezbollah and other IRGC-directed proxies. Is it possible to disrupt this route, and can it be done without provoking further conflict? On September 29, Hudson Institute will host a discussion assessing these and other elements of Iran’s strategic posture in the region. Hudson fellows Michael Pregent, Hillel Fradkin, and Lee Smith will join Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council to discuss the changing situation in the Middle East and the appropriate U.S. policy response.
The major conflict phase of the Syrian war is ending, with the American-supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces taking Raqqa and the Syrian regime with Iranian help likely taking Deir Azour. Only a few opposition-controlled enclaves remain in Idlib, north of Homs, northeast of Damascus, and in the south along the borders of Israel and Jordan. All are now more or less “de-escalated” zones. The regime, with heavy Russian and Iranian support, has mostly won the military contest, but that does not quite end the war.
The next phase will be more political. It is already outlined in general terms in UN Security Council resolution 2254 (2015). While all the deadlines in that resolution are blown, no one seems to doubt that the outlines of a “road map” for a supposedly “inclusive and Syrian-led process” remains valid:
- A political process lasting six months that sets a schedule for preparing a new constitution;
- Elections within 18 months pursuant to the new constitution, and administered under UN supervision.
The de-escalation zones have in some sense superseded the ceasefire, though that of course is still in principle desirable.
While there are many aspects of 2254 that have been ignored or superseded, these two pieces seem still to loom in the future, even if the time line may be significantly longer. During my visit to Turkey last week, opposition-affiliated folks were naturally anxious about what they could do in the next phase of this war.
How can an opposition that has largely lost the war gain some satisfaction in the peace? There will presumably at some point be a new UNSC resolution. The devil is in the details of that one. Here is what I think desirable with respect to elections. A future post will treat the constitution.
First, elections. While the first rule of post-war societies is that context matters and needs to be taken into account, as a general rule local elections should be held before national ones. It is rarely done (Kosovo is the only recent case I am aware of), largely because the internationals want to show progress. A national election usually satisfies their capitals, but local elections don’t.
There are at least five good reasons for doing local elections first, especially in Syria:
- Syria has never conducted anything resembling a free and fair election. Doing local elections first will be a test of the electoral mechanism and help to identify areas where it needs repair.
- Local elections will also help to identify who is emerging as political leaders: is it war criminals or extremists? If so, some rethinking by the internationals is in order. If not, the local elections will help the different political forces that emerge team up behind candidates for higher office.
- At the local level, voters are more likely to vote for people who can deliver services or advocate on issues, rather than on the basis of gender, ethnic, or sectarian identity. What do I care if the woman best equipped to collect the garbage, remove rubble, and pave the streets does not belong to my sect or ethnic group?
- Minorities and opposition are more likely to win at the local level than at the national level, because they are better organized and more numerous in particular communities. This matters a lot if the objective is inclusion, as it should be.
- National elections will favor the candidate with the best national organization backing him. That is still the Ba’ath party, which will of course back Bashar al Assad. Next in line nationally is likely the Muslim Brotherhood, though that is less clear.
So I’d be for local elections first, but only if they meet some exigent criteria.
First among these is absentee voting. More than half of Syrians are displaced. The standard in post-war elections since Bosnia is that recently internally displaced people and recent refugees should be permitted (not required) to vote where they came from. Otherwise, the election confirms ethnic, sectarian and political cleansing and makes it less likely that people will ever return (because those elected exclusive by those who remain in place may be hostile to returnees).
The problem with absentee voting is that it is complicated, especially in local elections. The ballot for each community has to be available in every other community, as well as in all polling places abroad. This can and has been done, but the UN resists it. No Syrian should be satisfied without absentee voting.
Nor should they be satisfied without intensive observation of the vote, including not only the procedures and counting on election day but also the performance of political parties and media during the campaign and the tabulation of the final tally. Intimidation often occurs far from the polls, both in distance and time. With armed groups likely still hanging around, observers need to be people who speak the local language and are willing to challenge malfeasance through whatever procedures are established by the electoral commission. Read more
Not only is Syria fragmented, its opposition is too. That has been true since the 2011 uprising, but things have gotten worse. The history since then is littered with opposition organizations: the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC or Etilaf), the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), and the High Negotiation Commission (HNC), not to mention the Syrian Free Army (SFA) and its many components. What, I asked last week during my talks with Syrians in Turkey, is the relationship among them. I won’t even try to recount the fate of Friends of the Syrian People and other ill-fated efforts to help.
The SNC, I was assured, has melted into the SOC.
The SOC still exists and claims to be the principal political body of the moderate opposition. It sees itself as setting the policy parameters and emphasizes it is100% committed to the fight against terrorism (principally Al Qaeda and the Islamic State), a point it intends to incorporate more fully into its narrative. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are SOC’s enemies, as much as the Assad regime, as the terrorists have frequently deprived the opposition of territory it controlled. This is an implicit critique of the SOC’s past exclusive focus on Assad.
The SIG is the executive branch of the opposition, whose eight ministers, including the Prime Minister, have relocated into Syria (presumably Idlib). They are trying to provide education, health, and other services in areas where opposition local administrative councils are able to operate. They are also making a big effort to coordinate the local councils (both those inside Syria and those in exile), whose representatives meet regularly under the chairmanship of the prime minister.
While now largely disregarded and unsupported by the internationals, the SOC and the SIG want to preserve the Syrian state by separating its security organs from its civilian apparatus, which will be welcome to return to opposition areas. The opposition is aiming to regroup and rebuild both its armed factions and its civilians apparatus. It seeks broader appeal through its disassociation from extremists and intends to maintain a more united armed wing under the Syrian National Army rubric.
The HNC is the technical negotiating arm of the SOC and SIG, from their perspective (I did not speak with anyone from the HNC last week). There is talk about a reform of the HNC, whose leader Riyad Hijab has been spending a lot of time in medical care in the US. The UN-sponsored Geneva negotiations in which it has been most involved have been unproductive. The regime and Iran see no need to negotiate seriously with the HNC, even if the Russians appear a bit more inclined in that direction.
The Americans do little to support the SOC and SIG, and only a bit more for the HNC. Most of their financing goes directly to local administrative councils and civil society organizations, thus contributing to fragmentation. The Europeans pay a bit more attention to the SIG, which however seems to be penniless at the moment and reduced to begging from Qatar, which has supported it in the past. The HNC was formed in Riyadh and still seems to have Saudi support.
One wag described the SOC, SIG, and HNC as “competing in weakness.” But the fighting has also dramatically weakened the Syrian regime, which depends on the Iranians and Shia militias for ground forces and on the Russians for support from the air. The way to strengthen the opposition is to unify its fighters and connect them more strongly to the civilian opposition local councils. The Russians have some sympathy with this approach. Moscow is interested in particular in using the opposition to fight terrorists in the communities the opposition controls.
Post-war, the SOC wants to see no reconstruction aid or diplomatic recognition for Assad, though some stabilization efforts could be appropriate. Provisional elections at the local level could be a prelude to allowing state institutions back into opposition-controlled areas. Property rights will be a big issues, both in the countryside and in urban areas, where there is extensive destruction of multi-story apartment buildings. Even permission to clear rubble will be a big issue.
One of my interlocutors argued vigorously that efforts at unification are the problem, not the fragmentation. From this perspective, there has been too much effort to smooth over differences between real liberal democrats and Islamists. That has weakened the opposition, which needs to remain true to its initial inspiration: a non-violent rebellion for human rights and freedom. What is needed now is for people who reject Islamism to unify and form the kind of political movement that can eventually win the day in Syria.
The Syrian opposition is fragmented. But it is also fertile, courageous, and determined. I wish those who want human rights and freedom success. They don’t merit the mess that Syria has become.
In a previous post, I focused on what I learned last week about the prospects for Idlib, a Syrian province still largely controlled by both moderate and extremist, non-regime forces. For the moderate opposition, which counts about 100 local councils there, Idlib is the center of gravity of its fight against the regime, even though Hayat al Sham (the Al Qaeda affiliate) has taken over much of the province (and controls an additional 40 or so local councils).
But there are many other issues in the rest of Syria that will contribute to determining the outcome of this long, costly, and deadly war.
First is the condition of the regime itself. Its regular Syrian Arab Army is down to below 40,000 soldiers, from a nominal strength of 125,000 before the war. Defections, deaths and injuries presumably account for the difference. As the regular army has declined, special forces and militias, some sponsored by Iran, have grown. These are less unified and less disciplined than the army, with commanders who are notoriously indifferent to human rights and other niceities. The dictatorship may well grow harsher as it tries to reassert control with diminished resources.
Even in its weakened state, the regime is seeking to shape Syria’s demography to its advantage, by moving politically loyal people into sensitive areas and leaving some districts once controlled by the opposition in ruins. It is also trying to ensure that reconstruction resources, insofar as they become available, will be under the control of regime-affiliated public/private partnerships, often at the municipal level. The local councils associated with the opposition are immediately disbanded when the regime takes over an area. Their members and associated activists are listed by name as among the first to be expelled/evacuated, so far usually to Idlib.
Areas other than Idlib out of regime control include the Euphrates Shield area under Turkish occupation, the Kurdish-controlled (PYD) “self-administration” zones, and the southern front, in addition to Raqqa and Deir Azour.
The Turks have trained and deployed more than 1000 mostly Arab police to operate in the Euphrates Shield area, have initiated local councils in Azaz and Al Bab, and are trying to restart schools and health services there, with less than complete success. They are also shutting out Syrian opposition people who would like to operate there. While Ankara might like most of the almost 2.5 million refugees it has received to return to Syria eventually, no more than one-quarter appear likely to do so. Some more highly qualified Syrians are now being offered Turkish citizenship.
The Turks regard the PYD and its associated YPG (Kurdish) and SDF (that’s YPG plus Arabs) forces that the US is relying on to take Raqqa as unreliable at best, hostile at worst. No Turks I talked with doubt that the PYD is just the PKK (the Kurdish rebel forces in Turkey) by another name. The Turks are hoping the US will abandon the PYD after taking Raqqa, force the return of the weapons it provided to the Kurds, and reengage productively with its Turkish ally. Ankara is looking for a gesture from the US, which is now regarded by ordinary Turks as their number one security threat responsible for not only the PKK but also the Gulenist coup, and ISIS (sic).
In Raqqa, there will be a tug-of-war between the US-sponsored city council and an opposition-controlled provincial council that has Turkish blessing. While this could be settled amicably with a division of labor, it could also prove problematic, as the provincial council is under Turkish influence and the city council includes people named by the PYD. It will not be easy to reopen the schools, re-establish health care and provide pyscho-social support for Raqqa’s seriously damaged infrastructure and people. For Deir Azour, the regime appears to have the upper hand, though some think the SDF will be prepared to fight the regime for it.
The southern front is opaque when viewed from Turkey. Everyone there just assumes that it will be maintained along the border with Israel and Jordan, in order to protect those two US allies. That sounds about right to me, though it may be tougher than it sounds.
The bottom line: If this war ends any time soon, the post-war process will be markedly different in different parts of the country. That’s ironic, because both the regime and the main opposition forces want it to remain united. More about that in a future post.
In his opening remarks at the Atlantic Council’s “Pushback: Exposing and Countering Iran” event on Thursday, September 14, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad addressed an American audience on the importance of paying close attention to Iran and its activity in the Middle East. He emphasized that a future in which Iran dominates the Middle East is not in the interest of the United States and that the United States should adopt certain approaches to decreasing the threat that Iran poses. The event included two panels, each discussing a report published by the Atlantic Council. The first panel assessed and described Iran’s activity in the region, and the second made practical recommendations directed towards the US administration.
To contextualize the issue, the first panel, based on the report “Revolution Unveiled: A Closer Look at Iran’s Presence and Influence in the Middle East,” began by examining evidence pointing to Iran’s increasing influence across the Middle East and identified some ways in which it maintains and increases that influence. Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (one of the authors of the report) and Tim Michetti of Conflict Armament Research explored Iran’s use of networks of loyal groups and militias and its role in arming these militias as two tactics that Iran has been using.
According to Smyth, Iran is actively expanding its list of primarily Shi’a groups and militias loyal to Tehran, using them as proxies in conflict zones such as Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, and financing them in an effort to become known as protectors of Shi’a groups. The importance of these groups lies not only in their number and the amount of territory which they span (Smyth mentioned mapping at least 40 groups aligned with Iran in Syria alone), but also in the image that they are able to convey of Iran’s strength and importance.
The appearance of these groups with weapons acquired through Iran is one significant way in which Iran accomplishes its goals. To demonstrate, Smyth referred to an image of a militia fighter carrying an AM-50 (Sayyad-2) rifle. The rifle, he explained, tends to appear with groups thought to be financed by Iran and in areas in which Iran possesses influence, and the wide circulation of the image serves as a possible announcement of Iran’s strengths.
Tim Michetti of Conflict Armament Research continued to demonstrate Iran’s apparent influence through weaponry, referring to two cases in particular. The first was the seizing of dhows in the Arabian Gulf that were headed from Iran to Somalia in 2016. The dhows contained Iranian and Russian rifles and weapons, labeled and in serial order, normally indicative of their belonging to a state. This indicated that Iran was sending weapons from its stockpile to armed groups. The second case involved the shipment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Houthi rebels in Yemen. The UAVs received resembled those manufactured by Iran, suggesting once again that Iran is supplying Shi’a forces with weapons across the region.
While Smyth and Michetti presented a picture of an Iran growing in power by the minute, Elisabeth Kendall of the Atlantic Council warned against overestimating Iran’s power. Kendall assessed that much of Iran’s influence is solely in appearance. She referred to the case of Yemen, where, through publicizing its alignment with the Houthis, Iran “antagonized” Saudi Arabia into joining the war, after which it significantly decreased its involvement, switching over instead into the role of peacemaker and leaving Saudi Arabia as the instigator of war in the country, diminishing its credibility. In this way, Iran has been able to “talk up” its involvement, spending less money than it appears to on rebel fighters while still increasing its influence and challenging its regional rivals.
Melissa Dalton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies contributed to this analysis by suggesting that Iran’s main strengths include its creativity and adaptability, traits that it has had to learn over time due to the isolation that it has experienced. Its tendency to use unconventional methods, however, has entrapped it in what Dalton described as a “vicious cycle,” in which the international community responds to Iran’s actions by increasing punishments, causing Iran to once again resort to “asymmetric” retaliation.
While a discussion on practical solutions was reserved for the upcoming panel, the panelists offered some suggestions, primarily related to the US’s outlook on the issue. Kendall’s comment offers an applicable piece of advice, as she urged the audience to approach Iran’s actions with a “healthy skepticism,” avoiding the polarization that often occurs when talking about Iran. Instead of suggesting, as some do, that Iran has a hand in all that occurs in the region, or inferring that it is completely uninvolved, Kendall suggested that one should instead adopt a middle path. A more rational approach to the challenge that Iran poses to the United States, backed with concrete evidence and that allows for a measured response, would be best.