Analysis: Turkey’s entry in Syrian war further-complicates a chaotic conflict

Syrian troopsEver since 2011, when the Syrian Civil War erupted, Turkey has refrained from directly intervening in the conflict, other than to provide material support to opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The hope in Ankara was that Islamist and pro-Assad forces would exhaust each other. There is no evidence that Turkey was at any point seriously alarmed about the rise of Sunni militancy in Syria. Instead, the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made no secret of its primary concern, which was the rise of Kurdish nationalism in northern Syria.

However, a possible demise of the Islamic State may strengthen Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq and could leave the al-Assad regime in place in Damascus. That would be the worst possible outcome for Turkey, which has always viewed the Syrian president a direct threat to its national security, surpassed only by Kurdish separatism. In a desperate effort to avoid such an outcome, Turkey is now increasingly intervening in the war. Its current goal is to have a strong say in how the region will look like once the Islamic State has been defeated.

With the exception of some pro-Turkish rebels, such as the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, who openly welcome Ankara’s intervention, no rebel factions in Syria are especially elated by Turkey’s entry in the war. Most recognize that the sole reason for Turkey’s intervention is the protection of its own national interest, which centers on preventing a rise of an independent Kurdish state —either official or de facto— in northern Syria.

Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war will further complicate the conflict and is likely to prolong it. The more international actors are involved in the war, the more convoluted it gets and the longer it will take for it to end. Currently we have the Syrian government, various Sunni rebel forces, the Islamic State, Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Kurds, and several European powers involved in the war. The last thing this conflict needs is yet another foreign intervention, no matter where it comes from.

Moreover, Ankara’s overall role in the Syrian conflict has been inconsistent, as the country has at times sharply distanced itself from both Russian-led and American-led efforts in the region. President Erdogan’s policy on Syria —as on most other matters— has been spasmodic and haphazard, and has been primarily shaped by domestic concerns, as Turkey’s political strongman tries to solidify its rule inside the country. Consequently neither Moscow nor Washington have much faith in the reliance of the Turkish military contribution to the conflict.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States could further-complicate the regional balance of power in the Middle East and Turkey’s role in it. If a rapid rapprochement takes place between Washington and Moscow in 2017, Turkey will feel increasingly uneasy about its regional role. The Kurds, who have been working closely with Russia in Syria and with America in Iraq, will expect to be rewarded and compensated once the dust settles in the region. There have been voices in Moscow and Washington calling for the establishment of a de facto independent Kurdish state in northern Syria. If that happens, it will signal a massive setback for Turkey’s foreign policy and negatively affect its relations with Russia and possibly the United States.

Over a million people have now died in the Syrian civil war. Millions more have been displaced internally and abroad. Things could get immeasurably worse if Russian-led and American-led forces launch all-out attacks in Aleppo and Mosul respectively. There is no reason to believe at this point that the Islamic State and other rebel groups will abandon these cities, where over a million people remain trapped between the warring sides. We could be seeing the largest slaughter of civilians since World War II. At that point, there will be little that Ankara or anyone else can do to restore stability in that desperately troubled region.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 November 2016 | Permalink

Comment: Far-right militancy just as dangerous as Islamist extremism

Dylann RoofMany in the United States associate terrorism with contemporary versions of militant Islam. The data, however, tells a different story: since 2002, domestic extremists who hold far-right ideologies have struck more often and have killed more people than Islamic-inspired radicals. This blog has argued in the past that American counterterrorism policy creates a security vacuum by over-concentrating on Islamic-inspired radicals and largely ignoring domestic terrorist groups. In an insightful article published earlier this year in Newsweek magazine, Kurt Eichenwald, a 20-year veteran of investigative reporting and author of The Informant, argues that far-right radicalism is a bigger threat to American security than Islamic militancy, including the Islamic State.

Eichenwald cites a report by Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, which was based on surveys from 382 law enforcement groups across the US. The report, published in June of last year, argues that American “law enforcement agencies […] consider anti-government violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat of political violence” they face. He also points to increasing incidents of surveillance of Muslim schools, religious and community centers in nearly a dozen states by members of far-right militia groups for what informants describe as “operational purposes”.

American counterterrorism specialists understand that the term “far-right militancy” encompasses thousands of groups of various sizes and capabilities, which are both wildly diverse and constantly evolving, says Eichenwald. Most experts separate the members of these groups into three distinct categories, namely violent racists, anti-federalist (or anti-government) radicals, and religious fundamentalists. These factions, which include dozens of sub-factions, do not usually work together and even have adversarial relations with each other. Violent racists operate as members of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in mostly rural and semi-urban settings. In urban environments, neo-Nazi and skinhead groups are more prevalent than the KKK. Anti-government radicals join armed militias that espouse various ideologies representing the so-called “sovereign citizens” worldview —namely the belief that federal, state or local laws are tyrannical and do not apply to them. The final category, religious fundamentalists, are members of various Christian identity groups that prioritize the Bible over the US Constitution and support the violent imposition of Christian religious codes on social life.

The list of these groups is growing, says Eichenwald, largely in reaction to economic pressures caused by the deep recession of 2007. The ascendency of Barack Obama to the US presidency has also radicalized the racist-oriented far right, he says, which overlaps to some extent with the militia movement. In 2008 there were 42 organized militia groups operating in the US. Today there are 276, he says, referring to information provided by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center. There is no doubt that Islamic fundamentalism poses clear dangers to US security. But, as Eichenwald argues, this country has been extremely lucky to have avoided a repeat of the 1995 attack on the Oklahoma Federal Building, which was carried out by a white supremacist guided by militant anti-government ideas. A repeat of such a massacre in recent years has not been due to lack of trying, says Eichenwald, and ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 October 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Is Putin planning to restore the Soviet-era KGB?

SVR hqLast week, following the results of Russia’s parliamentary election, Russian media run a story suggesting that the Kremlin is planning to implement far-reaching changes to the country’s intelligence apparatus. According to the Moscow-based daily Kommersant, the administration of President Vladimir Putin is considering merging Russia’s two major intelligence and counterterrorism agencies into one. Specifically, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, will merge with the FSB, the Federal Security Service, according to Kommersant. The merger will create a new amalgamated intelligence agency that will be named “Ministry of State Security”, or MGB, in Russian. The last time this title was used was from 1946 to 1953, during the last years of the reign of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. It was one of several agencies that were eventually combined to form the Soviet KGB in 1954.

If the Kommersant article is accurate, Russia’s two main intelligence agencies will merge after an institutional separation that has lasted a quarter of a century. They were separated shortly after the official end of the Soviet Union, in 1991, when it was recognized that the KGB was not under the complete control of the state. That became plainly obvious in August of that year, when the spy agency’s Director, Vladimir Kryuchkov, helped lead a military coup aimed at deposing Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The two new agencies were given separate mandates: the SVR inherited the mission of the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorates and focused on collecting intelligence abroad; the FSB, on the other hand, assumed the KGB’s counterintelligence and counterterrorist missions. A host of smaller agencies, including the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI), the Federal Protective Service (FSO) and others, took on tasks such as communications interception, border control, political protection, etc.

Could these agencies merge again after 25 years of separation? Possibly, but it will take time. An entire generation of Russian intelligence officers has matured under separate institutional roofs in the post-Soviet era. Distinct bureaucratic systems and structures have developed and much duplication has ensued during that time. If a merger was to occur, entire directorates and units would have to be restructured or even eliminated. Leadership roles would have to be purged or redefined with considerable delicacy, so as to avoid inflaming bureaucratic turf battles. Russian bureaucracies are not known for their organizational skills, and it would be interesting to see how they deal with the inevitable confusion of a possible merger. It could be argued that, if Putin’s goal is to augment the power of the intelligence services —which is doubtful, given their long history of challenging the power of the Kremlin— he would be better off leaving them as they are today.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 October 2016 | Permalink

Analysis of the Islamic State’s ‘wedding attack’ in Gaziantep, Turkey

Gaziantep, TurkeySaturday’s suicide bombing, which killed over 50 and injured dozens at a wedding in Gaziantep, Turkey, was without doubt the work of the Islamic State. It was yet another attempt by the militant Sunni group to discourage the Kurds from confronting it in battle, by pointing to the deadly consequences. It was also fueled by the desire for vengeance against a population that has consistently resisted the Islamic State’s ideology. Additionally, if confirmed, the use of a child as a suicide bomber by the Islamic State may form a pattern of operational activity that can lead to broader conclusions about the current state of the organization.

It has become increasingly clear in the past two years that the armed Kurdish groups in northern Syria and Iraq, as well as Kurdish peshmerga units based in Turkey, are some of the most formidable opponents of militant Jihadists on the ground. By bombing soft targets inside Turkey, the Islamic State is sending a message to the Kurds that armed opposition on the ground will carry a heavy cost at home. Contrary to initial impressions, there was nothing special about the particular wedding ceremony that was targeted on Saturday. Any wedding would have been suitable for the Islamic State’s purpose. In fact, the randomness of the attack increases its shock value by demonstrating to the local population that any activity can be attacked, even if it does not involve notables. Additionally, the specific choice of a wedding magnifies the brutality of the attack, by targeting a young couple on what is typically the happiest day of their lives. The high concentration of children among the casualties may indicate that the bomber was given specific operational instructions to attack younger participants. The clear warning here is that the disruption will leave nothing untouched –including something as ‘off-limits’ as a couple on their wedding day, or groups of children– if the Kurds continue to fight the Islamic State.

Moreover, the Islamic State is trying to widen the already deep division between the Turkish state and the Kurds, by exposing the inability of the government in Ankara to protect its Kurdish population from attacks. The Kurds already resent Turkey’s ‘soft policy’ on the Islamic State. They and the rest of the world can see that Ankara has typically viewed the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus as far more threatening than the continuing rise of Islamist fundamentalism. Since the failed July 15 coup, the Turkish state has begun to revise its soft stance on the Islamic State, but this comes too late to pacify the country’s infuriated Kurdish population. This latest attack will only intensify the deep anger felt by the Kurds against the Turkish state.

Initial reports indicate the possible use of a child or a teenager to carry out the Gaziantep bombing. These may or may not be accurate. They could easily be an attempt by the Kurds to further-incense international public opinion against the Islamic State. If the reports are accurate, they do not necessarily represent some sort of break from the traditional tactics of the Islamic State. According to the group’s war-fighting doctrine, there is no differentiation between men and children when it comes to what it sees as the defense of Sunni religious doctrine. Every Muslim, regardless of race, gender, or age, is required to engage in holy war. Indeed, the Islamic State has deployed children before, in warfare, executions and suicide bombings against both hard and soft targets. However, even though the use of a child to carry out the Gaziantep bombing is not in itself unique, or particularly important, it matters if it forms part of a broader pattern. If it is verified that ISIS is increasingly using children in suicide bombings, or in warfare, it may signify two things: first, that the organization is finding it difficult to recruit able-bodied men for missions. Second, that adult ISIS recruits are becoming scarcer, so the organization is trying to preserve them for decisive battles.

It may be, of course, that a child or younger teenager was selected in order to avoid security profiling by the Kurds. Still, the use of children in warfare or suicide missions can result in a large degree of unpredictability. Children may be relatively easy targets for recruiters, for the obvious reason that they are young and impressionable. Their reality can therefore be effectively altered by fantastical tales of the supernatural, which the Islamic State is very skilled at. However, children are not necessarily very dependable in war, or terrorism. They can be easily frightened, can change their mind at the last minute, and they do not stay calm under pressure. There are several recent examples of children or teenagers who were recruited for suicide operations but surrendered after changing their mind.

Ultimately, shocking massacres such as Saturday’s attack in Gaziantep cannot be prevented. They can only be limited through careful police and intelligence work. In the case of Turkey, however, this will be difficult. The country’s police, intelligence and military structures have been significantly weakened following the failed July 15 coup. Thousands of government officials, police officers, intelligence and military personnel have been fired, demoted or imprisoned. The state, which is becoming increasingly synonymous with the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP party, is too preoccupied with preserving its own stability to concentrate on combating the terrorist spillover from Syria.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 August 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: It seems everyone predicted the coup in Turkey except its spy agency

Turkey coupAfter the failure of the recent military coup d’état in Turkey, much attention has been given to the country’s armed forces, the police, even the judiciary. In contrast, little to no information has surfaced about Turkey’s intelligence establishment, which is led by MİT, the National Intelligence Organization. Did it anticipate the plot, and how did it fare as the crisis unfolded in the early hours of July 16?

Two days after the failed coup, American Congressman Peter King (R-NY), a senior member of the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security, claimed that “no one […] saw this coup coming”. Speaking on WNYM, a conservative talk-radio station in his home state of New York, Rep. King said that, as far as he was aware, “there was no diplomatic talk; there was no intelligence talk of this coup”. Speaking a day earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry had stated that the White House had “no idea” that a coup was imminent in Turkey, and that developments in the country had “surprised everybody”.

As is often the case, King and Kerry were both wrong. Even as early as October of 2015, Norman Bailey, of the University of Haifa in Israel and the Institute of World Politics in Washington, was stating with certainty that Turkey’s “army will step in and take over” if it senses that the country is descending into chaos. On March 12 of this year, Russian observers warned that Turkey’s military was “gradually building up its political influence, thus laying grounds for a military coup”. Later in the same month, Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute, asked: “could there be a coup in Turkey?”, and answered that “no one should be surprised […] if the Turkish military moves to oust Erdogan and place his inner circle behind bars”. And on March 30, the esteemed journal Foreign Affairs hosted an article by Gönül Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, in which she explained that Turkey was about to face its “next military coup”. During an interview on July 2 of this year, the present author spoke about the “very volatile situation within [Turkey]” and added: “I can’t think of any countries in the region that are more unsettled and unpredictable right now than Turkey”.

If analysts relying on open sources were able to issue concrete warnings about Turkey’s political instability at least a year in advance of the coup, it should be taken for granted that intelligence observers were equally alarmed over the same period. We know, for instance, that American intelligence analysts were “concerned for months” prior to the coup “about simmering tensions between President […] Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish military brass”. Read more of this post

Analysis: Will ISIS claim responsibility for Istanbul airport attack? (updated)

Istanbul Airport TurkeyTurkish security and counterterrorism officials are blaming the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria for Tuesday’s bloody attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport, which left at least 41 people dead and nearly 300 injured. But will ISIS claim responsibility for the attack? And if not, why not? ISIS is indeed the most likely culprit of Tuesday night’s terrorist attack. The modus operandi of the three attackers, which some unconfirmed reports suggest Turkey has now confirmed were foreign nationals, matches that of previous ISIS attacks on high-profile international targets. More importantly, the style of the attack does not fit the profile of the secessionist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as PKK, which almost always targets uniformed personnel in Turkey.

There is no shortage of motives for ISIS to target Turkey. The militant group wants to destabilize Turkey, which it sees as a prime market for spreading its ideas, especially among the country’s disenfranchised religious working class. The attack at Istanbul’s airport happened in the holy month of Ramadan, the most revered time on the Muslim religious calendar, during which ISIS said would launch a wave of violence around the world. Last but not least, foreign and domestic intelligence agencies had warned the Turkish government in recent weeks of an impending large-scale attack by ISIS, saying that the group was anxious to re-galvanize its supporters after suffering heavy military defeats in Iraq and Syria. Since the start of 2015, experts have connected ISIS to at least seven different attacks on Turkish soil, most of them in large urban centers like Ankara and Istanbul. However, the only attacks the militant group has claimed responsibility for were against Syrian anti-ISIS activists based in southern Turkey. In contrast, ISIS has shied away from officially linking itself with deadly attacks against high-profile targets in Turkey. This latest attack may fall in line with that pattern.

But why would ISIS not claim responsibility for such a media-savvy strike? There is no question that the Sunni Islamist group wants to destabilize Turkey’s economy, a goal that it sees as key to its success. That explains Tuesday night’s attack on one of the country’s busiest transport hubs during the peak of the tourist season. At the same time, however, ISIS is aware that Turkey’s main concern in the Middle East is not Sunni Islamism, but the rise of the PKK and other secessionist Kurdish groups. The latter are some of ISIS’ most formidable military adversaries, and the Islamist group would rather not distract Turkey from its escalating war against the Kurds. What’s more, because Ankara has been paying most of its attention to Kurdish separatists, ISIS has been able to build an extensive network of operatives inside Turkey, and it does not want to see it demolished by Turkish security forces. ISIS is therefore engaged in a delicate balancing act: on the one hand it wants to destabilize Turkey so as to export its sectarian war to one of the world’s most populous Sunni Muslim nations. On the other hand, however, it does not want to alter Turkey’s security priorities, which are mostly focused on Kurdish militias.

What will it mean if ISIS breaks with the typical pattern and does claim responsibility for Tuesday’s attack in Istanbul? That would be equivalent to an official declaration of war by the Islamic State against the Turkish Republic, a call for arms issued to all pro-ISIS networks in Turkey for the opening of a northern front in this widening regional conflict. It could also spell trouble for Turkey’s beleaguered security forces, which will be forced to divide their attention between two foes, the PKK in the east and in urban centers, and ISIS in the south and in popular tourist resorts throughout the country.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 June 2016 | Permalink

Experts warn about Brexit’s effects on European, NATO cooperation

BrexitAfter Thursday’s Brexit vote, European and American security officials have tried to pacify concerns about major disruption of longstanding Western security cooperation arrangements. But experts stress that the international security landscape will be significantly impacted by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU). As early as Thursday night, British defense, military and intelligence officials launched a marathon of phone calls in order to reassure their European and American counterparts that the United Kingdom was not going to retreat from its role in security pacts with Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

On Friday, the office of NATO Director General Jens Stoltenberg issued a statement assuring the public that Britain’s decision to leave the EU would not impact on NATO’s security arrangements. On Sunday, however, a new statement by Stoltenberg appeared to revise his earlier comments. It argued that Britain was “the biggest provider of security in Europe” and that its eventual exit from the EU “matters”, adding that the West’s security situation post-Brexit was “more unpredictable […] than before”. Citing security officials from both sides of the Atlantic, including Stoltenberg, The Wall Street Journal opined on Sunday that Brexit “could have a profound effect on global security”, but stressed that its precise impact remains uncertain. Some officials warned that, in the long run, Britain’s exit from the EU would weaken its military, which is Europe’s most powerful. This could happen through a possible breakup of the country, with Scotland and Northern Ireland splitting from the United Kingdom in reaction to Brexit. Alternatively, Britain’s worsening economic situation could prove detrimental to its overall defense spending.

On Saturday, United States Navy Admiral (ret.) and former NATO commander James Stavridis, argued that NATO will benefit from Brexit, because it will allow the United Kingdom to devote “more resources and manpower to support” NATO’s mission. There will also be a “reduction in the […] battlefield competition between NATO and the EU”, said Adm. Stavridis, which “will likely produce a stronger NATO”. Others, however, disagreed. Citing several current and former officials, The Wall Street Journal warned that Britain’s exit from the EU would result in the loss of a quarter of the EU’s combat power. That could prompt Germany, France, and other EU nations to increase their military spending, in order to advance a more unified defense policy among EU nations. That could bring about a unified EU military headquarters, or even a joint European Army, which NATO has traditionally resisted, as it believes it would duplicate resources and undermine transatlantic cooperation. But with Britain leaving the EU, a staunch pro-NATO voice that strongly objected to the creation of a European Army ceases to exist. That could open the door to the creation of a European Army, say experts.

Last but not least, the UK was a strong player lobbying in favor of instituting EU-wide sanctions against Russia in the wake of the war in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. With London now removed from the decision-making center in Brussels, the voices from EU member states like Spain, Italy and Greece, which argue for abandoning the sanctions against Moscow, are likely to grow louder, said The Wall Street Journal.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 27 June 2016 | Permalink