WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – On Monday, Russian planes attacked a camp in Idlib province, where Turkey trains Syrian fighters for its military efforts, including in Libya, Azerbaijan, and northern Syria.
Some 78 fighters were killed in the attack and another 90 injured, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The attack represented the most serious violation of a ceasefire reached between Turkey and Russia last March, which stopped a Syrian regime offensive to recover rebel-held territory.
Called “Faylaq al-Sham” (the Syrian Legion), the Syrian fighters trained at the camp constitute what has become, in effect, a Turkish Foreign Legion, emerging out of the chaos of Syria’s decade-long civil war.
“Faylaq al-Sham is considered to be close to the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, with some experts considering it to be its military arm,” Agence France Press reported.
It has prominently supported Turkey’s repeated attacks on Syria’s Kurds. “Faylaq al-Sham has fought alongside Turkish troops during the country’s three cross-border incursions since 2016, especially against Syrian Kurdish fighters,” the press agency added.
Azerbaijan and Libya
Faylaq al-Sham has also supported Ankara in other disputes. Turkey and Russia back opposite sides in Libya’s civil war and in the southern Caucasus, where Azerbaijan and Armenia are engaged in open conflict.
Turkey has sent some 2,000 Syrian fighters to support Azerbaijan in its attempt to take the disputed area of Nagorno Karabakh from Armenia. Russia, the US, the European Union (EU), and NATO have all sought to secure a ceasefire. Repeatedly reached, the ceasefires have repeatedly broken down, as stronger Azeri forces, backed by Turkey, press their offensive.
Turkey has also sent some 18,000 Syrian fighters to Libya, where they have supported the internationally recognized, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), while Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have backed the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east, under Khalifa Haftar.
On Friday, under UN mediation in Geneva, the GNA and LNA announced “a permanent ceasefire in all areas of Libya.” It includes a provision calling for all foreign fighters to leave Libya over the next three months.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly underscored that point, including in a tweet welcoming the agreement.
However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a somewhat different response. Although he welcomed the agreement, he also said that little would come of it, as “it does not appear to be achievable.”
Disputes with US: S-400 and Kurdish-led SDF
Given Ankara’s tense relations with Russia, one might think that Erdogan would try to maintain good relations with the West, rather than take on so many parties at once. But that is not so.
Erdogan has picked a series of quarrels, including with the US and France. On Friday, he publicly confirmed suspicions that Turkey had tested the S-400, its newly acquired Russian advanced air defense system. The US objects strongly to operationalizing the missile, because, as Washington has repeatedly warned, it will allow Moscow to better understand how to shoot down US planes, including the F-35, America’s newest fighter jet.
Both the Pentagon and State Department issued strong warnings after Erdogan’s remarks. But although making the missiles operational is supposed to trigger US sanctions, they made no specific threat to do so.
So Erdogan proceeded to mock such sanctions. “You told us to send back the S-400s. We are not a tribal state, we are Turkey,” Erdogan said in a televised speech on Sunday to a local congress of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the eastern Anatolian city of Malatya. “Whatever your sanctions are, don’t hesitate to apply them,” Erdogan affirmed, as he fired up his base by taunting Washington.
Erdogan has also renewed threats against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s main partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria. The day before, on Saturday, addressing an AKP congress in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri, Erdogan asserted, “Turkey will never allow the establishment of a terror state right beside its borders. We will do whatever is necessary and drain this swamp of terrorism.”
The threat could well prove too much more than incendiary speech, as Erdogan stated it in the context of increasing Turkish cross-border attacks, particularly near Ain al-Issa and Manbij.
Dispute with France: the Charlie Hebdo Murders
France has suffered two attacks over the past two months, both related to the magazine, Charlie Hebdo, which, in 2012, published satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, and Erdogan has sought to exploit this as well.
Three years after the cartoons first appeared, on January 7, 2015, Islamic radicals, claiming ties to Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, began a three-day spree of terror, which included an assault on the magazine’s office; the murder of a policewoman; and the siege of a kosher supermarket.
Altogether, they killed 17 people, before they themselves were shot dead. Last month, on September 2, the trial began of 14 people for their alleged role as accomplices, and Charlie Hebdo reprinted the cartoons—although it had, in the intervening years, moved to a secret location.
On September 25, a 25 year-old Pakistani immigrant attacked two people with a meat cleaver outside the magazine’s old office, wounding them both. He thought he was targeting Charlie Hebdo staff and did not realize the office had moved.
Three weeks later, on October 16, a Chechen immigrant killed and beheaded a school teacher, who had used the cartoons to teach his students about the meaning of French secularism.
The attacks have prompted a major, far-reaching effort by French authorities to address the challenge presented by radical Islamic propaganda among French Muslims and to better integrate them into French society.
Even before the second attack, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a program to address what he termed “Islamist separation” and to prevent the formation of a “counter-society” among radicalized French Muslims.
It includes ending the system by which imams come from foreign countries to preach in French mosques. France, with Europe’s largest Muslim population, has some 300 foreign imams—half of which are from Turkey!
The dispatch of clerics abroad is “one component of Turkey’s resurgent Muslim power,” Douglas Herbert, International Affairs Commentator for France 24, remarked on the state-owned television news network.
That has enabled Turkey, “in a sense, to project power,” Herbert continued, “not just into the region, but into the western world.”
Erdogan has taken the lead in catalyzing Muslim anger against Macron for his remarks, and Erdogan uses that anger to boost his own political position. In the process, he has expressed a remarkable rudeness, prompting criticism from not only France, but, more widely, from the EU and the US.
“Macron needs some sort of mental treatment. What else is there to say about a head of state who doesn’t believe in the freedom of religion,” Erdogan said on Saturday at the same AKP party congress in which he threatened Syria’s Kurds.
Paris responded immediately, denouncing Erdogan’s remarks as “unacceptable” and recalling its ambassador in Ankara. On Sunday, the head of the EU’s foreign policy office, Josep Borrell, blasted Erdogan’s insult as “unacceptable” and called on Turkey to “stop this dangerous spiral of confrontation.”
“The United States strongly believes that unnecessary alliance infighting only serves our adversaries,” a State Department Spokesperson told Kurdistan 24, reflecting the key point that France and Turkey are both NATO members and are supposed to be allies.
Understanding Erdogan’s Belligerence
It is well known that, in human beings, the emotions are stronger than reason, and the notion that one can generate political support by getting one group of people mad at another is ancient. In modern times, we have called it fascism and populism. And even those who do not necessarily believe the angry language, may cynically go along with it in order to gain for themselves support from the leader’s aggrieved and energized base.
In the long term, this often ends poorly, because it is not based on reasoned calculation. But people regularly think and act on the basis of narrow, short-term personal interest—what the Pulitzer prize winning historian Barbara Tuchman called The March of Folly.
Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and now Senior Director of the Turkey Program at Washington’s Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, explained Erdogan’s broad belligerency to Kurdistan 24.
“The dismal state of the Turkish economy forces Erdogan to fuel tensions on all fronts, as he feels the need to divert the electorate’s attention away from his economic mismanagement,” Erdemir said. He also believes that his “belligerent policy” and his “spoiler role on multiple fronts offers him leverage in bilateral and multilateral relations.”
“So far, this policy has not elicited much pushback from the United States and the European Union, reinforcing Erdogan’s belief that the West is just talk and no action,” he continued. But “Putin has proven to be much less forgiving, using punitive sanctions and military force when necessary to shape Erdogan’s policy.”
“Overall, Turkey and Russia have found ways to maintain a mutually beneficial tension that allows both to strengthen their political and military footprint at the expense of Western and other regional actors in Syria, Libya, and beyond,” Erdemir concluded.
“People do what you want, when you hurt them”
Indeed, Erdemir’s analysis reminds this reporter of a story related by a Kuwaiti professor of political science some 25 years ago. This man, an admirable figure, who had fought with the Kuwaiti resistance against Iraq’s occupation in 1990 and 1991, complained, “You Americans do not understand Saddam.”
“Why do you say that?” this reporter asked, and he responded with an anecdote about a meeting that the Arab Professors of Political Science held in the latter years of the Iraq-Iran war with a key Iraqi figure: Tariq Aziz, the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.
Both belligerents were attacking foreign shipping out of one another’s ports (including from Kuwait, which Iraq was using, as its own narrow access to the Gulf was blocked.) The professors asked Aziz why Iraq attacked French tankers carrying oil from Iran, even though France was friendly to Iraq.
“We want more international pressure on Iran to end this war,” Aziz responded, “and people do what you want when you hurt them.”
Editing by John J. Catherine