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Turkey: Caught between two fires - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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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. How circumstances have changed! Now, Turkish people are vulnerable to kidnappings in Lebanon and are not welcome in Iran because the Iranian Chief of Staff has identified Turkey as “a targeted country.” As for Syria, the war has closed the border between the two countries.

How conditions change although the individuals remain the same. In June 2010, Erdogan sent an invitation to the Secretary General of Hezbollah, 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 now has a huge burden to carry, many criticisms to deal with, and rising internal unrest. At the start of the “Arab Spring,” Erdogan believed that his statements had great impact in Egypt and that his re-modeled Turkey would become an example to follow in international politics for the “Arab Spring” countries. Erdogan 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 seems endless and as a result the Kurds have gained an increasing degree of autonomy there. If things continue evolving in this direction, the Kurds might even separate themselves from the rest of Syria.

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

Hence the U.S. general revealed the West’s deceit. America and Western countries have often cited the Russian and Chinese veto in order to justify their idle response towards the protection of Syrian civilians. Yet now, Turkey feels that the West has abandoned it just as it has abandoned the Syrian people, and the weekly phone call from President Obama to Erdogan is not enough.

Amidst these setbacks, Turkey is reconsidering its calculations for 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 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 to artificially create security problems in Turkey since Iran’s history is full of covert operations there. On the 1st September, Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman announced that the Turkish intelligence services had detected 100 additional trained spies sent by Iran to Turkey since March 2011. Those spies 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. They managed to weave contacts with members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and collected information about military facilities and Syrian refugees. They concentrated their activities in the eastern and south-eastern provinces. Zaman reported the arrest of Iranians, two of whom were charged with transferring information about the armed Syrian opposition in Turkish territory.

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

A Turkish official says that Turkey is still seeking an alliance with Iran for many reasons, despite their differences regarding Syria. This is because they both share an anti-Kurd stance.

In light of the new conditions of Kurds in Syria, the PKK attacks in Turkey have increased, nourished by the Kurds’ ambitions in Syria. The Kurds wish to see the establishment of a greater Kurdistan that would include the Kurdish region in Syria. This issue is expected to cause problems for Ankara since Kurds also have political ambitions in Turkey. The issue is even more sensitive because the PKK controls the Kurdish 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 widespread Kurdish political ambitions, the reaction will be ruthless and will pose serious problems for Barzani. Thus, as one source confirmed, Barzani has decided to keep silent for now, “although he will spare no effort to establish the Kurdish state during the Iraqi parliamentary electoral season in 2014.”

In a statement to the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper, the Iraqi Vice President who fled to Turkey, Tariq al-Hashemi, said that the escalation of the PKK terrorist activity was expected due to the alliance of Ankara with the Syrian people against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “This is a pressure card played by the Syrian regime and supported by other regional forces to blackmail Turkey to stop its support for the people of this region.” Al-Hashemi advised that “the time has come for the Turkish government to make very different, historical decisions as to how to accommodate this problem, by endeavoring to put an end to this fight [with the PKK].”

Al-Hashemi added that Iraq has become a corridor of support for the Syrian regime and that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has sent some members of the Iraqi militias to Syria to assist the regime. “Some Iraqi banks have given financial support to Syria, breaking the economic embargo,” he said.

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

Moreover, the refugee camps are witnessing something of a rebellion which means that Turkey is not only tasked with protecting its citizens but also its security. Hatay has become a gathering point for Islamist fighters as well as agents from Western and Israeli intelligence services, who fear Islamic extremist terrorism.

Ankara is also concerned by the potential efforts to affiliate Hatay with the rumored Alawite state, but many experts are ruling out this option. There are many differences in terms of mentality and lifestyle between Turkish Alawites and Syrian Alawites, yet the issue may surpass these small details and intelligence services are now wondering whether the establishment of an Alawite state is a viable choice. Hatay has gained independence once before, for nine months between September 7th, 1938, to June 29th, 1939, when its flag was raised over the land that is known today as Hatay province.

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

A Western source said that the relations between both states would improve if it wasn’t for the foreign ministers of the two countries who are known for their hardline views towards the Turkish- Israeli discord, and towards the future governing force in Syria after Assad.

Davutoglu is still supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in their quest for power in Syria, and this is a source of concern for Israel especially after more extremist members have started to appear in the Syrian opposition ranks.

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