Turkey, the Middle East’s perennial odd man out, has just jumped into bed with his latest significant other, Iran. Their fast-moving military and economic rapprochement is having instantaneous effect on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the crisis over Qatar and the competition between the US-led Sunni Muslim and the Russian-led Shiite blocs.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that Turkish forces occupying northern Syria are in offensive mode against the Kurdish enclaves in Efrin and the Sheba region, with the first exchanges of fire reported. The big difference now is that for the first in the seven-year Syrian civil war, Turkey is bashing the Kurds in operational coordination with two active partners: the Syrian army and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers serving with the Syrian armed forces.
The brittle façade of Turkey’s alliance with the United States began cracking after the failed coup against, President Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016. He has since harbored a deep grudge against Washington, accusing first Barack Obama, then Donald Trump, of colluding with the alleged plotters-in-exile.
Since then, relations have gone from bad to worse, dipping again in recent weeks after the Trump administration authorized the flow of US arms to the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia to support their battle for Raqqa against the Islamic State.
Tuesday, June 27, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that Washington would continue to provide weapons to Kurdish-led Syrian forces after the Raqqa battle was over.
This further incensed the prickly Turkish leader against America and gave him another incentive to take Tehran as his partner.
Also in steep decline are the personal relations between Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the degree that Berlin plans to soon withdraw its air force units from Turkey to new bases in Jordan.
Turkey’s changing sides is of fundamental concern to NATO, especially in the event of the Northern Alliance or members thereof deciding to dive into the war on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or the outbreak of a military clash between the US-led Sunni bloc and the Russian-Iranian-Shiite alignment.
These eventualities are far from hypothetical given the military presence in Syria of three rival powers, the US, Russia and Iran and their surrogates. (See a separate article on this.)
This week, the Turks pushed heavy weapons, including T-155 Firtina howitzers and ACV-15 armored vehicles, into the vicinity of the Kurdish-held town of Azaz in the northern Aleppo province. New Turkish army headquarters are going up in Azaz and Marea, with another YPG-held town, Tell Rifat, next in their sights.
To help the Turks, the Syrian army has closed off the Aleppo-Efrin road at Nubul and Zahra villages, holding Efrin under virtual siege. People trying to leave the town are arrested by Syrian soldiers. Turkish Howitzers and other long-range weapons are in position to bomb the center of Efrin as a softening up tactic ahead of an invasion with tanks, panzers and mortars across the Kurdish region.
Russia has not said a word about the Turkish offensive building up against the Kurdish canton, although the Efrin operation is located not far from the Russian special forces stationed near the Syrian-Turkish border. But Ankara certainly briefed Moscow along with Damascus about what it is up to.
Another facet of Turkish-Iranian cooperation is evident across the border in the Irbil, capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. In their drive to cut the Syrian Kurds down, Ankara and Tehran have found an ally in KRG President Masoud Barzani, who is worried that US support for his Syrian brethren will leave the Iraqi Kurds behind and of little account.
Like Russia, Turkey has also lined up behind Iran in its campaign for control of the Syrian-Iraqi border region, in which the Syrian army, Hizballah and pro-Iranian militias are heavily engaged. They were joined earlier this month by the Iraqi Population Mobilization Units (PMU), an Iraqi army outfit which stands at the disposal of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Ankara has also planted two feet into the dispute between four Arab nations and the Gulf emirate of Qatar. Exploiting its role as the only Muslim nation to back Qatar against the Saudi-led Arab boycott, Ankara has deployed Turkish troops in the Gulf region for the first time ever. At least five armored personnel carriers with their crews have been flown to Doha, described by the Turkish high command as the vanguard of larger contingents due within days.
Turkish exports to Qatar, including foodstuffs, have increased threefold, greatly easing the shortages generated by the boycott. It is beginning to look as though the Gulf feud has opened Qatar’s door wide for Iranian and Turkish influence to break through into the heart of the Arabian Gulf region. Riyadh’s calculation in going head to head with Qatar may turn out to have been a strategic blunder that Tehran and Ankara were quick to seize on.