Friday 12 February 2016

Turkey's richly ambiguous (to put it politely) relationship with ISIS

Is an old-fashioned nineteenth century deal over Syria possible between America, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Saudis? The ceasefire agreed today (in Munich, oddly enough) by the International Syria Support Group, comprising all the regional powers except Israel, plus Russia, the US, the UK and France, might be a start in this direction. 

I hope it delivers a settlement, though I don't expect it will. More Government victories like the recent one in Aleppo may be needed before the rebels agree to stop fighting. The Syrian government and Russia probably think so too.

You might think the sudden victory for the Russians and the Syrian government in Aleppo earlier this week was good news, that could bring an end to the war nearer, but it was treated by the media in the US and the UK as a calamity. The press follows the line of the British and American governments, which are still committed to the defeat of the Assad regime and this is not, my guess, because of the regime's many undoubted war crimes. I wonder if the non-ISIS rebels, who include the Al-Nusra Front, which is the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, are any better.

Instead of peace coming closer, the Saudis may send troops, as they said last week that
they will do to fight ISIS, but really intending to fight Assad. Saudi troops are effete but well-equipped and the US sounds as if they might welcome Saudi intervention. If the Saudis do intervene and if the Turkish army also enters Syria, this would prolong and expand the war. The ceasefire postpones this. 

Everyone who reads the papers knows about the conflict being waged between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shia Crescent, against the Sunni powers (despite the fact that the Syrian army is mostly Sunni). It's much less well understood that a competition is going on between Saudi Arabia, Qatar,  ISIS and Turkey for leadership of the Middle Eastern Sunnis. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and ISIS represent rival versions of Wahhabism and one of ISIS's goals is to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, as was Osama bin Laden's. What exactly Erdogan represents nobody knows. A new Ottoman empire?

The Americans have many reasons for disliking the Assad regime, going back to the Cold War, including its alliances with Russia and Iran and its hostility to Israel. We know now that the history of the Cold War was the history of hegemons being manipulated by their satellites. Is America being manipulated by Israel, the Saudis and Turkey into backing the rebels, even though it is clear that the rebels are not moderate, not democrats and are not going to win?

I linked in my last post to a very interesting article published this week by Alistair Crooke, an ex-MI6 man who is an expert on the region. In another interesting article he wrote in October he talked about 
the Saudi, Qatar and Turkish joint resolve to mount huge numbers of jihadists on Syria's borders. According to two senior political figures I spoke to, up to 10,000+ Wahhabist/Salafists (predominantly An-Nusra/Al Qaeda) have been gathered by the intelligence services of these latter states, mostly non-Arabs from Chechnya, Turkmenistan, etc. Plainly, Washington is aware of this (massively expensive) Saudi manoeuvre and equally plainly it is turning a blind eye to it.
Part of the reason why the West has been backing the Sunni rebels, Crooke thinks, is to help drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, on the one hand, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

No one is fighting in Syria to defeat ISIS, except the Kurds, who do so to protect and solidify their territory. But the Kurds alone might be able to destroy ISIS, if they were allowed to do so by Turkey. Instead, Turkey protects ISIS from the Kurds and threatens to move forces into Syria to protect ISIS-held territory from the Russians and the Syrian government. Meanwhile Russia and the USA both compete to back the Kurds. 

We shall see if Vladimir Putin can destroy ISIS, at the risk of a war with Turkey. 

A former US Ambassador to Ankara has warned that Putin might attack Turkish territory (presumably from Syria) as he attacked Ukraine. Much more likely, I imagine, is a war between Turkey and Russia in Syria.

The relationship between ISIS and Erdogan is richly ambiguous. Turkey's main aim is to defeat or contain the Kurds, though Erdogan may have much wider, neo-Ottoman ambitions in the Middle East. At one point, at the request of the US, Turkey was said to be going to bomb ISIS. Then the Turkish air force shot down a Russian plane that crossed for a few seconds into Turkish aerospace. Russia stationed fighters in Northern Syria, intent on shooting down Turkish planes in revenge. The Turkish plan to bomb ISIS was abandoned. 

Press coverage of the Middle East is misleading and should be consumed with pitcherfuls of salt. This isn't because journalists in the Western press are propagandists or deliberately misleading us, or even because they are stupid, though some are not all that bright, but because most of them are incurious. They talk to Western diplomats and spies, to the rebels and refugees but not to Syrians who support the government. Many are more worried about Putin, ISIS and migrants than the future of Syria and these things are what interest the confused Western public. 

In any case, even the wisest reporters, like Patrick Cockburn and Charles Glass, know that they do not know what is really going on. Syria is full of unknown unknowns. 

We don't know anything like the full story, and may never do so, but we do know that Turkey is buying ISIS oil. Yet this is almost unreported in the West, as is the fact that Turkey could cut off ISIS supply lines but chooses not to. Turkey was, until recently when they clamped down on them, the route whereby thousands of volunteers from the EU entered Syria to fight for ISIS. The appalling bombing of civilians by Russia, by contrast, receives wide coverage. 

The part of Aleppo loyal to the Syrian government was until recently under a long siege by the rebels, but this was ignored in the Western press. The government will probably soon besiege the rebels and the papers talk about this as something very wicked. The Syrian government is allowing civilians to flee the rebel controlled area, and they would be well advised to flee quickly, but this opportunity is treated in the press as a diabolical plot on the part of Putin to flood the EU with migrants, in order to destabilise his enemies.

The media coverage of the Libyan war persuaded public opinion in Western Europe that Gaddafi would massacre the inhabitants of a rebel held town when it fell to his army. Attentive readers knew that at least one small town had changed hands twice without any reported massacre but, such is the power of the press and herd thinking, we still feared a Srebrenica. Sarkozy and Cameron then intervened, strongly backed by Hillary Clinton despite the advice of her officials, and effectively won the war in Libya for the rebels. We know what happened to Libya since, although it gets little press coverage. 


  1. David Ignatius of the Washington Post is quite good in covering the various angles. He has cultivated deep sources within the intelligence community over the years.

  2. In any case, even the wisest reporters, like Patrick Cockburn and Charles Glass, know that they do not know what is really going on. Syria is full of unknown unknowns.

  3. Turkey & Qatar were the original founders, paymasters, trainers & weapon suppliers of the faction that broke away from Al Qaeda and became ISIS.
    Tom Philips