Tag Archives: Syria

Master of Puppets: Pulling the Strings in Turkey

On the night of July 15th 2016, Turkish Military Forces moved swiftly in the streets of both Ankara and Istanbul. What appeared to be a security operation slowly took the shape of a coup d’état as military units occupied key locations in the country’s two largest cities. Despite a history of successful coups by the Turkish military, this coup started to fail as soon as it began. Revolutionary units suffered from a lack of leadership and their seizure of critical infrastructure in and around the capital was haphazard at best. Most importantly, the coup failed to make any credible attempt to kill or capture President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the strongman leader of the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the lynchpin between success and failure. Despite dramatic scenes from around the country, loyalist forces were firmly back in control before sunrise and were pointing the finger of blame at a shadowy organization known by its Turkish acronym, FETÖ, the Fethullah Gülen Organization.

Erdogan’s apparent success emboldened him the following day. His security services had performed brilliantly. They were one step ahead of the coup at every turn and were already rounding up FETÖ members within the state. Despite 300 dead and more than 2100 wounded, Erdogan and AKP appeared to be in a strengthening political position and were consolidating authoritarian power across all the institutions of the Turkish government. Still, the situation remained complicated. The remaining military leadership did not have an amiable relationship with the AKP, a party whose Islamic leanings conflict with the military’s secular legacy. Erdogan the authoritarian will have to reconcile that relationship with the AKP’s devout Islamic voting base; a base that once looked to Fethullah Gülen for direction.

Stroke & Counterstroke

In 2002, Erdogan’s AKP swept the Turkish general election with an overwhelming majority. The victory was a shocking turn of events in a nation that traditionally embraced a secular order underpinned by vast military power. The secret of AKP’s success at the time was social mobilization in support of a more politically Islamic Turkey. In this endeavor, Erdogan received direct support from FETÖ media outlets and schools that enjoyed great popularity amongst Islamic voters. Though for years Erdogan benefitted politically from the relationship with FETÖ, it pitted him against the secular nationalist leadership of the military. Inspired by the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the “Kemalists” in the military were growing alarmed at the Islamization of Turkish politics led by the AKP and guided by Fethullah Gülen. Pressure mounted until 2012 when judges associated with Gülen convicted 322 military officers of plotting to overthrow the government. The failure of the plot, known locally as “Sledgehammer”, defanged the military and set its Kemalist leadership against Gülen for what the military believed was a political move against the legacy of Ataturk.

Turkey Power
The relationship between Erdogan and the military is increasingly complicated, but the coup allowed him to clean out the ranks of dissenters. Photo credit: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-05-30/turkeys-next-military-coup.

The relationship between the AKP and FETÖ dissolved shortly thereafter when Gülen criticized Erdogan over the handling of the 2013 Gezi Park protests; upheavals that supported freedom of the press while maligning the government for encroaching on Turkish secularism. Accusing Gülenists of running a parallel state, Erdogan expelled them from law enforcement and the judiciary. In turn, Gülen’s religiously-minded supporters viewed Erodgan’s actions as an attack on their organization and the Islamic path they sought for Turkey. Over time, as Gülen’s opposition to Erdogan’s growing power intensified, the Kemalists began to sense an opportunity to take their revenge.

Turkey Unveiled

After years of souring relations between AKP and the Gülenists, the National Security Council declared FETÖ a threat to national security in 2014; a partial victory for the Kemalists but one that did not regain them control of the military or the government. That would not happen until 2016 when Gülenists within the military sought the help of the remaining Kemalists to overthrow Erdogan and AKP. The move was not without merit. The Kemalists had already suffered at the hands of AKP and were increasingly uncomfortable with the ongoing erosion of secularism and consolidation of power by Erdogan but they calculated revenge was ultimately more beneficial than collaboration. Initially pledging their support for the coup, the Kemalists stepped aside at a critical moment, betrayed FETÖ, and declared themselves in full support of Erdogan’s government. The subsequent failure we all witnessed on television was therefore less of a success for Erdogan than it was a victory for the Kemalists. In one night, they regained control of the military and drove the wedge between AKP and its Islamic base a little deeper.

Recognizing the new reality, Erdogan changed his stripes from a one-time supporter of political Islam to an authoritarian nationalist; a position supported (for now) by the military but rejected by AKP’s traditional base. How long he can maintain this tenuous political charade will depend on his success in wielding the tools of authoritarianism; specifically, his relationship with the military and suppression of freedom of the press. The simultaneous and often conflicting vilification of FETÖ, the Kurds, and Daesh, continue to fuel police and military operations like Operation Olive Branch in Syria that serve to expand Erdogan’s power and keep his Kemalist allies busy.

Despite the outward appearance, Erdogan and AKP are without a political anchor and dangerously dependent upon the Kemalists they once betrayed. While western governments and media continue to operate on the assumption of Erdogan’s strength since the failed coup, it is likely the real master of puppets is wearing a military uniform, and he has yet to pull all his available strings.


Nuno FelixNuno Felix is a former non-commissioned officer with Portuguese Army Special Operations Forces. He is a sniper and special reconnaissance expert and is currently working as a consultant to top executives in the financial sector.

Green is the New Black: Making a Gas Cartel

As the disastrous civil war in Syria stretches into its sixth year, the conflict is beginning to take shape as a struggle for influence between Russia and the United States and their respective proxies. The Russian interest in Syria, initially limited to protecting the naval base in Tartus and keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, is now widely believed to have a regional and global power dynamic. Russia controls 26% of proven global natural gas reserves and has long been frustrated by its inability to export to customers other than the European Union (EU) and NATO member states. Not only does this geographic reality leave Russia dependent upon a single block of customers that has access to other suppliers, but it limits Moscow’s ability to influence politics with its overwhelming market share. In late 2015 however, the Russian military mission in Syria began to present other opportunities to exploit the politics and the pipelines that crisscross that war-torn region, thus giving birth to the prospect of a new natural gas cartel.

The global energy market is changing. Traditional, fossil-based energy supplies like coal and oil are becoming increasingly expensive to find and extract. Political turmoil in the Middle East coupled with popular pressure to address climate change, make natural gas a more attractive option for future energy needs, particularly in Europe. With average global gas consumption likely to increase approximately 1.6% annually until 2040, Europe needs a strategy to secure supplies from beyond the Russian monopoly. This is not a minor concern in Brussels. Moscow’s 2014 closure of gas pipelines into Ukraine highlighted the linkage of Europe’s energy future to Russia’s political ambitions, yet EU sanctions against the Russian oil and gas industry are seen as a delayed and ineffective western response. Europe, like Russia, now has its eye on massive natural gas reserves in the Middle East.

A Layered Strategy

The war in Syria is a catalyst for strategic cooperation between Russia and Iran. By bringing together the combined weight of their massive natural gas reserves, Moscow and Tehran would be able to influence Europe in powerful ways. If they bring Qatar’s reserves into the deal they could create an OPEC-like gas cartel with control of 60% of the world’s reserves; a frightening degree of dominance over the increasingly strategic commodity. However, there are many geographic and political obstacles to this ambition, and it is in these spaces the Russian strategy is taking shape.

Russia Natural Gas
Together, Russia, Iran, and Qatar possess more natural gas reserves than the rest of the world combined. Photo credit: http://www.energybc.ca/naturalgas.html

Distribution of Iranian reserves to Europe depends on the outcome of conflicts in Syria and Iraq and on the political independence of Kurdistan. These countries contain much of the existing regional natural gas pipeline transmission capacity. Stabilization of those conflicts presents an opportunity for positive Russian engagement with Turkey and forms the basis for a recent trilateral accord signed in Kazakhstan between Russia, Turkey, and Iran aimed at ending the Syrian civil war; an agreement made possible by an expansion of the Russian military mission there. Turkey, with an intense interest in the political future of Kurdistan, plays a unique role by controlling access to many of the natural gas pipelines aimed at Europe. More importantly perhaps, Turkey is the southernmost outpost of NATO and hosts the important US military base at Incirlik.

The notable absence of the EU, the US, and the United Nations from the Kazakhstan talks reflects an important aspect of Russia’s strategy: limiting western—particularly US—influence in the region. Though Iran is an enthusiastic and powerful ally in this endeavor, strategy alone is not enough as the US has some very real ties to the region. American bases in Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar form a defensive network that bolsters the political stability of many of Iran’s rivals; not the least of which are Israel and Saudi Arabia. As mentioned, Turkey’s own security is still based largely on NATO, and most of the Gulf Emirates are completely dependent on American hard power for their defense. Given robust and longstanding support for this political-military structure in Washington, it is not surprising that Russia and Iran are exacerbating tensions between all of America’s allies in the region, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Russia and Iran are the unseen beneficiaries of fractured relations between the two important US allies. Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Iran, is hardly an ally of Qatar, though enduring cultural links exist between the two states that can form a basis for renewed affinity. There is evidence Russia is encouraging an economic tie as well through business deals between Rosneft, the integrated oil company controlled by Moscow, and the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). It is here, where Russian, Iranian, and Qatari interests converge, that the possibility of a joint pipeline project begins to make sense.

Russia Gas Cartel
The eventual route from the Persian Gulf South Pars/North Dome gas field (red region, bottom right) to Turkey is of strategic importance in the Middle East. Photo credit: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g7421h.ct002142/ (pipeline routes added by Chris Golightly)

Overland transport of gas reserves from Qatar’s North Dome gas field will converge at the existing terminal in Ceyhan, Turkey, but could take several different paths. While Russia prefers a pipeline (IGAT-IX, above in black) along the Iran-Iraq border, the US backs a route that transits Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and possibly Israel and Syria. Whatever the eventual route, stability in Syria is vital for security of the entire coastal strip. Achievement of the Russian design depends upon three key elements: politically isolating the United States, fracturing its allies, and stabilizing the Syrian conflict on terms that are favorable to the Kremlin.

Though Russia clearly hopes to position itself as the lynchpin in the arrangement, neither Moscow nor Tehran possess the technology required to construct IGAT-IX or the high-end LNG export facilities required at its terminus. For that they require easing of western sanctions that currently prohibit US or European oil companies such as Exxon-Mobil from sharing technology. The framework for this collaboration already exists. In August 2011, Russian President Putin, and the Executive Chairman of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, met Rex Tillerson in Sochi when he was still CEO of Exxon-Mobil. There, the three signed co-operation agreements for ten joint ventures, including drilling projects in the Russian Arctic, exploration in the Black Sea, a joint Arctic research center, and substantial options for Rosneft to invest in projects in the Gulf of Mexico and Texas. Consequently between 2011 and 2013, Exxon-Mobil became the partner of choice for Rosneft and now puts Russia and Iran high on the priority list for exploration. The reciprocal cooperation and the elevation of Tillerson to Secretary of State increases the expectation that sanctions will eventually be lifted, or at least not increased. Already, the bill for increased sanctions against Russia, which includes prohibitions against certain dealings with its oil and gas industry, is hung up in the House of Representatives due in no small part to efforts by the US oil lobby.

The Cost of Inaction

The prospect of Russia and Iran controlling 60% of the world’s proven natural gas reserves aims right at the heart of European security. Addressing it will require energy-specific strategies that not only reduce demand through the use of renewable sources, but also political solutions that guarantee supply by stabilizing the Middle East. With European unity hamstrung by homegrown nationalist movements, and the United States distracted by an endless series of domestic political dramas, it is difficult for either to formulate such strategies for the long-term. While the West limits its efforts in the Middle East to defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Russia and Iran are playing a much broader game that will ultimately be more effective.

The potential for a tightening of gas supply options is a sober call for Europe to overcome domestic distractions and concentrate on a comprehensive energy security strategy; one that incorporates development and commercialization of a suite of renewable energy technologies. This should include solar and offshore wind, advances in nuclear fusion, offshore methane gas exploration, and clean, dry fracking. Until Europe reduces its reliance on Russian gas and takes measures to ensure political stability in the Middle East, there will be a risk of unwanted influence from Moscow and continued uncertainty.


Chris Golightly is an Independent Consulting Engineer specializing in offshore renewable energy, based in Brussels. Prior to 2010 he worked in the Oil & Gas industry.

The Gate: Standoff Against Daesh

A quick look at the military situation in Syria reveals – even to the most casual observer – that al-Bab is an important place. The northeastern-most outpost of the crumbling Islamic State, al-Bab – Arabic for “the Gate” – is the literal and figurative gateway to the Daesh capital, Raqqa, and the lynchpin in the ongoing strategic struggle in Syria. Located just 25 km from besieged eastern Aleppo, the small town is surrounded on three sides by enemies of Daesh. The Russian-supported Syrian regime, the US-supported, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), and the Turkish Army are all within artillery range of al-Bab and all have conflicting reasons to covet its control.

Though this seems a dire tactical situation for the defenders, mutual strategic hostility between Daesh’s enemies keeps them from acting decisively in al-Bab. The Assad Regime is at the limit of its capabilities, even with Russian support. Turkey, despite the massive superiority its Army enjoys in the region, is wary of pushing too far into Syria lest it trigger a defensive response from Assad. Lastly, the SDF, which has advanced west in a thin strip along the Turkish border from Hassakeh to beyond Manbij, believes al-Bab is perhaps a bridge too far. Seizing it could trigger a Turkish assault, possibly bringing its military into direct conflict with Russian forces for a second time since the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian fighter in November 2015. No one, not even the Kurds, thinks this tiny town of 2.5 square kilometers is worth a world war.

the-gate
The strategic centrality of al-Bab: “The Gate”.   Source: www.syriancivilwar.com

America in the Middle

The United States finds itself between a rock and a hard place. In northern Syria, this means Washington has to negotiate its way through the opposing objectives of its Turkish and Kurdish allies. The ultimate Kurdish aim is to unite its northern cantons into a contiguous state they call “Rojava.” An SDF seizure of al-Bab is a big step in that direction and could favorably influence the decision in Aleppo in a way that makes Rojava more likely. For this reason, some believe Ankara is withholding support for breaking the siege of Aleppo until the SDF withdraws east of the Euphrates River.

Believing Raqqa to be the Daesh center-of-gravity, the United States pushes its Kurdish allies to seize that city instead of al-Bab. Though the SDF is the only force capable of doing so, it is not clear how they would benefit from control of the Daesh capital. The city is overwhelmingly Sunni and would not welcome Kurdish rule. More importantly, Raqqa is out of the way and an assault on it would require SDF formations to turn their backs on their archenemy, Turkey. Though cultivating American support is normally a powerful multiplier, the Kurds have overestimated Washington’s loyalty before and it is increasingly clear the United States lacks influence in northern Syria. The Pentagon has no military options that do not involve the SDF and diplomacy with both Russia and Turkey is ineffective at the moment for reasons that have nothing to do with Syria. Some suggest the Kurds want to use Raqqa as a bargaining chip for other concessions, though none of the other stakeholders are currently in a position to maintain control of the city even if they were to acquire it this way.

Wrath of the Euphrates
SDF Spokeswoman, Jihan Sheik Ahmed, announces commencement of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates, the Kurdish-led operation to isolate Raqqa. It is not clear what benefit the SDF will derive from seizing Raqqa.

For its part, Turkey is vehemently opposed to the Rojava that would put Kurdish factions in control of Turkey’s entire southern border from Iran to Idlib. The only way for Turkey to stop further Kurdish advances however is with direct military intervention into neighboring states. Turkey did exactly this on August 24th 2016, when its Army seized Jarabulus on the pretext of ousting Daesh from its border. With this accomplished, the veil is now wearing thin. Turkish units and their proxies are in increasingly frequent and intensifying conflict with the SDF, placing Turkey in the uncomfortable position of fighting an American ally that happens to be the only force actually conducting offensive operations against Daesh in the upper Euphrates valley.

Worse for Turkey, there is mounting evidence its Army is seriously underperforming in the field. The highly centralized decision-making and leadership culture of the Turkish military, a serious weakness under normal circumstances, has been compounded by the ongoing purge of its officer corps. Following the abortive 15 July coup attempt, 38% of Turkey’s generals and admirals, and 8% of other ranks have been jailed or relieved. Those remaining are averse to making any recommendation that may be perceived as disloyal, even at the expense of sound military advice. Though it is unknown how much of their hesitation is self-censorship, officers down to the rank of Major continue to have their careers and livelihoods terminated without warning, even while serving in front line combat roles. This erosion of leadership results in poorly coordinated operations, slow and predictable movements, and an inability to respond effectively to frequent instances of troops in contact. The otherwise well-trained and equipped Turkish Army is losing its tactical engagements and suffering unexpectedly high casualties.

Russia and the Regime

By contrast, the Assad Regime has shown remarkable resilience throughout the terrible Syrian civil war. Though some of its longevity is due to Iranian, and later Russian support, its diplomatic efforts have yielded fruit. Despite systematic violations of human rights and the law of armed conflict, the Regime remains the internationally-recognized government of Syria. Its complex relations with a number of western powers divide the US-led Coalition on the questions of military purpose and Syria’s political future.

Russia’s intervention has also improved Assad’s military situation, though not decisively. The Syrian Army’s stranglehold on Aleppo is tenuous at best and its supply lines from Damascus to Alawite strongholds in the north remain threatened by a kaleidoscopic patchwork of hostile territory around Homs and Hama. The siege of Aleppo is completely dependent upon brutal Russian air power and Turkish restraint of its proxies in the surrounding Governorates, particularly Idlib. Meanwhile in the south and in rural Damascus, the best the Regime can hope to achieve is an economy-of-force operation that might allow it to co-opt one rebellious village at a time.

Still, Damascus – and probably Moscow – will respond vigorously to any Turkish or Kurdish moves on al-Bab. Failing to do so would dangerously weaken the already fragile encirclement of Aleppo and threaten the supply lines of Syrian forces there – the besiegers could become the besieged. Even if the Syrian Army – and the presence of Russian “advisors” – fails to deter a Turkish seizure of al-Bab, Assad still has one more card to play: he is the only one that can deliver success to the Kurds. A Syrian deal with General Masloum’s SDF, granting a contiguous and autonomous Rojava in exchange for flank security for the siege of Aleppo, is a significant deterrent threat to Turkey.

Daesh Standoff

So the game continues to swirl around al-Bab as Daesh waits patiently in the relative comfort of stalemate. With each side holding a trump card over the other, there is no sign the situation will be decided soon, though recent Kurdish moves suggest dialogue is ongoing. On 6 November, SDF spokesmen announced the commencement of the isolation of Raqqa, an operation they call “Wrath of the Euphrates”. Ten days later, in what is widely seen as a US-brokered deal to enable an SDF seizure of Raqqa without Turkish interference, the SDF announced it would withdraw east of the Euphrates, vacating the hard won districts of Qebasin (eastern al-Bab) and Manbij. There is some risk the Kurdish departure will leave a power vacuum to be filled by either the Turkish Army or by a number of competing “military councils” with varying degrees of legitimacy. However, as recently as 22 November, perhaps in recognition of these risks, the SDF was still in control of Manbij and continued to exchange fire with Turkish forces to its west.

The coming months will reveal how all these maneuvers play out. The SDF and its Coalition Special Operations advisors are not yet ready for the final assault on Raqqa. To be successful, Operation Wrath of the Euphrates will require large numbers of Arab fighters currently wary of following a Kurdish general. In this respect, recruiting for the SDF’s Arab component is dependent upon events in Mosul 530 km to the east. A quick decision there will encourage Arabs to turn on Daesh and join General Masloum. By extension, this will affect al-Bab and the siege of Aleppo. For the time being however, the question of al-Bab will remain unanswered as the Kurds march on Raqqa, leaving the Turks to either make good on promises to fight Daesh in earnest or just stay out of the way. In any case, until at least one of the players acts decisively, there will continue to be a strategic standoff at “The Gate”.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He just completed an advisory tour with Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.