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Turkey

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Turkey’s Choice

“We will defend Aleppo: all of Turkey stands behind its defenders” – Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Wednesday, 10 February.

“Turkey and Saudi Arabia may launch an operation (into Syria) by land” – Turkish Foreign Minister Mehmed Cavusoglu, Saturday, 13 February.

“There is no thought of Turkish soldiers entering Syria” – Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz, Sunday, 14 February.

Between Wednesday of last week and Sunday night, the Turkish government, in league with Saudi Arabia, made a tentative decision to enter the war on the ground in Syria – and then got cold feet about it. Or more likely, the Turkish army simply told the government that it would not invade Syria and risk the possibility of a shooting war with the Russians.

The Turkish government bears a large share of the responsibility for the devastating Syrian civil war. From the start Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, was publicly committed to overthrowing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. For five years he kept Turkey’s border with Syria open so that arms, money and volunteers could flow across to feed the rebellion.

Erdogan’s hatred of Assad is rooted in the fact that he is a militant Sunni Muslim while Assad leads a regime dominated by Shia Muslims. Both men rule countries that are officially secular, but Erdogan’s long-term goal is to impose Islamic religious rule on Turkey. Assad is defending the multi-ethnic, multi-faith traditional character of Syrian society – while also running a brutally repressive regime. Neither man gives a fig for democracy.

Saudi Arabia has been Erdogan’s main ally in the task of turning Syria into a Sunni-ruled Islamic state (although 30 percent of Syrians are not Sunni Muslims). Together these countries and some smaller Gulf states subverted the original non-violent movement in Syria that was demanding a secular democracy, and then armed and supplied the Sunni-dominated armed rebellion that replaced it.

The US government also wanted to see Assad’s regime destroyed (for strategic reasons, not religious ones). So for years Washington turned a blind eye to the fact that its allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, were actually supporting the extremists of Islamic State (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria.

Largely as a result of that support, these two extremist organisations now completely dominate the Syrian revolt against Assad’s rule, accounting for 80-90 percent of the active fighters. Turkey and Saudi Arabia finally broke their ties with Islamic State last year, but they still back the Nusra Front, which has camouflaged itself behind an array of minor “moderate” groups in the so-called “Army of Islam”.

When the Nusra Front, with strong Turkish support, overran much of northwestern Syria last spring, Russia finally went to the aid of its long-standing ally, the Syrian government. Russian air power helped the Syrian army push back the troops of both the Nusra Front and Islamic State. Erdogan pushed back, ordering Turkish fighters to shoot down a Russian bomber last November.

Even at the time, however, it was clear that the Turkish army was very unhappy about the prospect of a military clash with Russia. It doesn’t share Erdogan’s dream of an Islamist-ruled Syria either. Meanwhile the Russian bombs kept falling, the Syrian army went on advancing, and now it has cut the main supply line from Turkey to the rebels in and around Aleppo.

Erdogan is frustrated and angry, and he now has an equally reckless ally in Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi deputy Crown Prince and defence minister. Over the past week these two men appear to have talked themselves into a limited military incursion into Syria to push the regime’s troops back and reopen the supply lines to the rebels.

This would also have allowed the Turkish army to whack the Syrian Kurds, who are building a de facto independent state in the Kurdish-majority territory along Turkey’s southern border. (Erdogan is already at war with Turkey’s own Kurdish nationalists, having broken a four-year truce with them last summer.)

On Saturday the Turkish army began shelling Syrian Kurdish forces. On Sunday Assad’s government complained to the UN that about a hundred “Turkish soldiers or mercenaries” had crossed the border into Syria. But at that point the grown-ups took over, and the Turkish defence minister denied that there was any intention to invade Syria.

France publicly warned Turkey to end its attacks on Saturday, and there were doubtless secret but frantic warnings to the same effect from Turkey’s other NATO allies. Turkey (and Saudi Arabia) have almost certainly been put on notice that if they choose to start a local war with Russian forces in Syria, they will have to fight it alone.

So that is probably the end of that, and everybody can get back to the business of partitioning Syria – which is what all the talk of a “cessation of hostilities” is really about.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Erdogan’s…democracy”; and “This would…summer”)

Goodbye Schengen

“Europe has forgotten that history is fundamentally tragic,” said Manuel Valls, the French prime minister. “If Europe can’t protect its own borders, it’s the very idea of Europe that could be thrown into doubt. It could disappear – not Europe itself, not our values, but the European project, the concept we have of Europe, that the founding fathers had of Europe.”

The European Union – 28 countries and 500 million people – is not really going to disappear just because it cannot agree on how to deal with one or two millon refugees. But one of the great symbols of its unity, the Schengen Treaty that allowed its citizens to move around without passports or border checks, is being suspended, perhaps forever.

Schengen doesn’t cover every single EU country. The United Kingdom and Ireland remain outside the Schengen Zone, and Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus, all new EU members, are still waiting to join. Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are part of the Schengen Zone although they are not EU members. But it does include over 400 million people.

It is a remarkable achievement. You could get into your car in Portugal and drive all the way to Finland via Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia without ever once having to show a passport or identity card. There would not even be anybody in uniform standing at the frontier to wave you past, just a sign by the side of the road saying “Welcome to (Country X)”.

Or rather, that was the situation until last month, when Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Austria re-imposed passport checks at their borders, ports and airports even for travellers arriving from other Schengen Zone countries. France acted even earlier, declaring emergency controls on its borders after the terrorist massacre in Paris in November. So now fully half of the EU’s citizens (counting the UK and Ireland) live behind real borders again.

The new border controls are alleged to be temporary measures, which the Schengen Treaty permits for a maximum of six months in the face of some unspecified emergency. But the refugee emergency is not going to fade away by next July, and the threat of terrorism will persist for the foreseeable future.

That’s why the European Commission is now examining how the legal framework of Schengen can be fiddled to allow a further two years of controls on the EU’s internal borders. Nobody doubts that they will find a way to do that – but a great many people doubt that the passport-free zone, once suspended for that long, will ever come back.

This is happening not because Germans fear French travellers or Swedes fear Danes. It’s happening because none of them believe that the EXTERNAL borders of the Schengen Zone are properly controlled.

Even in freeezing January weather 35,000 refugees entered the EU last month, and it looks set to be another million-refugee year. And two of the men who carried out the Paris attacks crossed from Turkey to Greece (a Schengen member) as refugees. You can’t call that a secure external frontier

The three countries that took in 90 percent of last year’s refugees, Germany, Austria and Sweden, have all blamed Greece for letting so many refugees in and failing to document them properly. “Greece has one of the biggest navies in Europe,” said the Austrian interior minister, Johana Mikl-Leitner. “It’s a myth that the Greek-Turkish border cannot be protected.”

The Greeks quite reasonably ask what their big navy is supposed to do. Sink the refugee boats? As for the failure to register all the refugees properly, they point out that at peak flow last autumn more than ten thousand were arriving each day. They didn’t have enough officials and equipment to cope with such numbers: forty fingerprint machines running non-stop around the clock can only deal with about 4,000 people a day.

There is even talk of suspending Greece from the Schengen Treaty for two years, but a better solution would be to give it the people and resources needed to document everybody who comes in – and to turn back those who have no right to come in.

It’s not just a question of screening out possible terrorists, although that must be done better if confidence in Schengen is to be restored. In practice, Greece (or EU officials operating in Greece) would also have to decide AT THE BORDER who is really a genuine refugee they are obliged to admit, and who should be returned immediately to Turkey.

The brutal truth is that most of the people crossing from Turkey into Greece, including the Syrians and Afghans who come from war-torn countries, are “asylum-shoppers”. They were already safe in Turkey, which is sheltering almost 2 million Syrian refugees and spending billions of dollars a year on them. But life in the camps in Turkey is hard, so they are moving on to seek asylum in richer countries with better facilities.

There is no obligation for Europe to take them all, and the Schengen Treaty will die if it does. But the European Union itself will soldier on without it, at least until and unless the euro currency collapses when the next recession hits.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“Schengen…people”; and “The Greeks…day”)

Turkey: Seventeen Seconds

The key fact is that the Russian plane, by Turkey’s own admission, was in Turkish airspace for precisely seventeen seconds. That’s a little less time than it takes to read this paragraph aloud. The Turks shot it down anyway – and their allies publicly backed them, as loyal allies must.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared: “We stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally, Turkey.” President Barack Obama called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to assure him that the United States supported Turkey’s right to defend its sovereignty. But privately, they must have been cursing Erdogan. They know what he’s up to.

This is the first time in more than fifty years that a NATO plane has shot down a Russian plane, and it happened in very suspicious circumstances.

Even if Turkish radar data is to be believed, the two Russian SU-24s only crossed the bottom of a very narrow appendix of Turkish territory that dangles down into Syria. As Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “Our pilots, planes did not threaten Turkish territory in any way. ” What harm could they have done in seventeen seconds?

Moreover, the two Turkish F-16s that brought one of the Russian planes down had only seventeen seconds to get into position to fire their air-to-air missiles over Turkish territory. It would have been hard to do, in that confined space, without crossing into Syrian territory themselves.

According to the Russian radar data, it was the Turkish planes that crossed into Syrian territory. In this version of the story, the Russian planes were following a well-established route just south of the Turkish border, probably turning into a bomb run against Syrian rebels in Latakia province. How strange that there was a Turkish TV crew in northern Syria, positioned just right to film the incident. (The Russsian plane crashed 4 km. inside Syria.)

Either way, it seems quite clear that President Erdogan really wanted to shoot down a Russian aircraft, and that the Turkish pilots were under orders to do so if they could find even the slightest pretext. So why would Erdogan want to do that?

President Putin said bitterly that Erdogan and his colleagues were “accomplices of terrorists”. That’s hard to deny: Erdogan is so eager to see Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad overthrown that he left the Turkish-Syrian border open for four years so that recruits and supplies could reach the Syrian rebel groups, notably including Islamic State (IS).

Putin also observed that “We have long been recording the movement of a large amount of oil and petroleum products to Turkey from IS-occupied territories. This explains the significant funding the terrorists are receiving.”

Black-market oil is Islamic State’s largest source of revenue, and almost all of it goes to Turkey – which could not happen without the Turkish government’s active connivance. And when the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, was driving Assad’s forces back in northwestern Syria last spring, Turkey jammed the Syrian army’s telecommunications to help the rebels win.

Erdogan is utterly determined that Assad must go, and he doesn’t really care if Assad’s successors are Islamist extremists. But he also wants to ensure that there is no new Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border.

That is a problem for him, because that state already exists in embryo. It is called Rojava, a territory that the Syrian Kurds have carved out in the far north of the country along the Turkish border, mainly by fighting Islamic State. Indeed, the Syrian Kurds are the US-led coalition’s only effective ally on the ground against IS.

When Erdogan committed the Turkish air force to the Syrian war in July, he explained it to the United States as a decision to fight against Islamic State, but in fact Turkey has made only a token handful of strikes against IS. Almost all Erdogan’s bombs have actually fallen on the Turkish Kurds of the PKK (who had been observing a ceasefire with the Turkish government for the past four years), and above all on the Syrian Kurds

Erdogan has two goals: to ensure the destruction of Assad’s regime, and to prevent the creation of a new Kurdish state in Syria. He was making some progress on both objectives – and then along came the Russians in September and saved the Syrian army from defeat, at least for the moment.

Worse yet, Putin’s strategy turns out to quite pragmatic, and even rather attractive to the United States despite all the ritual anti-Russian propaganda emitted by Washington. Putin wants a ceasefire in Syria that will leave everybody where they are now – except Islamic State, which they can all then concentrate on destroying.

This strategy is now making some headway in the Vienna ceasefire talks, but it is utterly abhorrent to Erdogan because it would leave Assad in power in Damascus, and give the Syrian Kurds time to consolidate their new state. How can he derail this Russian-led project?

Well, he could shoot down a Russian plane, and try to get a confrontation going between Russia and NATO.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 10. (“Moreover…themselves”; and “Putin…win”)

Terrorism: A Relatively Minor Issue

By sheer coincidence, a book I wrote called “Don’t Panic: Islamic State, Terrorism and Today’s Middle East” was published just before the terrorist attacks in Paris. So naturally everybody interviewing me about the book asked me if it is time to panic now. They couldn’t resist it. And of course I replied no, it is not time to panic.

If a train derailed in the Paris Metro, killing 130 people and injuring over 300, the story would dominate the news in France for around 24 hours, 48 hours tops. In other countries it would definitely be only a one-day story: just one more transport accident, in a world where trains collide, planes crash and ships sink from time to time.

But if it’s not an accident – if human beings deliberately caused those deaths – then the media feeding frenzy starts. The story is twenty times as big, and it can dominate the news schedules for a week. Most people in Europe, North America and the Middle East have watched at least several hours of coverage of the Paris events and their aftermath – as long as a feature film – and even in more distant parts of the world it has been the event of the week.

There is nothing puzzling about this phenomenon. It’s perfectly natural for people to be more interested in murder than in mere mechanical malfunctions. But the sheer volume of the coverage makes a terrorist attack feel like a much bigger event than it actually is. Even if you live a very long way from where the real action is.

If you live in Syria, the threat isn’t just terrorism. Islamic State is already a major threat to the many Syrians it hates (Shias, Christians, Druze, and even Sunni Muslims who have worked for the government or fought in the army). If IS gained control of the whole country, the number of Syrian refugees would double or triple.

If you live in Iraq, you are much less at risk, for Islamic State has little hope of expanding into the Shia-dominated parts of the country still under Baghdad’s control, or into the areas under Kurdish control.

If you live in Turkey or other Arab countries – indeed, in any other Muslim country – you may face a serious threat from home-grown extremists, but all they get from IS is encouragement and maybe a bit of training. It’s really a domestic problem.

If you live in France or the United States or China, your only worry is the occasional terrorist attack that may have been encouraged by Islamic State – but the people who carry it out are mostly locals. You deal with that sort of thing just the way you dealt with other terrorist threats in the past: border controls, enhanced security measures at public events, and good intelligence.

If Western air forces want to bomb Islamic State too, by all means do so, but they will be all alone in that job. The Arab states that are allegedly part of President Obama’s “coalition” have all withdrawn their air forces and are bombing Yemen instead. And the Turks are almost exclusively bombing the Kurds (including the Kurds fighting Islamic State), except when they shoot down a Russian plane.

The Russian and “coalition” (mostly American) bombs falling on Islamic State have stopped its expansion, at least for the moment, and the recent air attacks on the tanker-trucks that carry the black-market oil out have certainly cut into its income, but it is not about to fall.

As for “boots on the ground”, forget it. The only people fighting Islamic State on the ground are the Kurds and what’s left of the Syrian army after four years of war. The Syrian army was on the brink of collapse last summer before the Russian bombing campaign saved it, and it still lacks the strength to recapture much territory. Islamic State is going to be around for a while.

Stopping Western air attacks on Islamic State might save some Western cities from terrorist attacks, but even that is not guaranteed. Islamic State is competing with al-Qaeda for support in the Muslim and especially the Arab world, and spectacular acts of terrorism are good recruiting tools. Islamic State also thinks it is following a divinely ordained script, which makes it relatively impervious to normal calculations of strategic advantage.

Does this mean terrorist attacks inspired by Islamic State will continue for months or years no matter what the West does? Probably.

Within living memory Western countries have fought real wars that killed millions of
their citizens, and they didn’t buckle under the strain. The scale of the threat they face now is so much smaller that it is ridiculous to call it a war at all, and yet they flap about like frightened poultry.

If terrorist attacks on the scale of Paris are the greatest threat facing the West, then these are very fortunate countries.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“If you live in Iraq…control” and “If you live in Turkey…problem”)