Dr. Murat Aslan, a faculty member at Hasan Kalyoncu University's Political Science and International Relations Department, told Daily Sabah in an exclusive interview that the U.S. was cannot take a chance in losing Turkey as a partner while simultaneously indicating that it will continue to cooperate with the PKK under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Regarding the Manbij agreement reached with the U.S., Aslan asserted that the U.S. might attempt to relocate the PKK to their base in Syria's al-Tanf region.
Expressing that the U.S.' business in the region isn't over yet, Aslan claimed the PKK cannot be sustained in the region anymore. In addition, he suggested that the U.S. might strategize to create a "safe zone" for itself and Israel around the Jordanian border by relocating the PKK there on the pretext of utilizing the terrorist organization against the Daesh.
The academic expressed that Turkey's counterterrorism strategy is continuously transforming; the focus has shifted from fighting terrorism on domestic soil to cross-border operations which was marked by Operation Olive Branch and the ongoing Qandil operation. Thus, Aslan asserts that Turkey has adopted a "preventative" grand strategy aiming to "annihilate terrorism."
Daily Sabah: On one hand Turkey has reached an agreement with the U.S. regarding Manbij, on the other hand it has launched an operation against the PKK in Qandil. Considering these developments, how is Turkey's counterterrorism strategy evolving?
Murat Aslan: Firstly, we have to understand what Turkey's previous counterterrorism strategy was like. Turkey's main focus was on the domestic soil; cross-border operations were launched only seldom. Terrorist shelters were raided on domestic soil, while cross-border operations were relatively short. Cooperation with other countries was key. For instance, agreements about sharing intelligence were struck with the U.S. and a mechanism at the ODC [Office of Defense Cooperation Turkey] office in Ankara was established. In northern Iraq, there was trilateral cooperation between Turkey, the U.S. and Iraq. All of these were functioning well. Other than these, Turkey had many cooperation agreements with various intelligence agencies. However, these collaborations were ineffective in northern Iraq in regards of counterterrorism activities. Moreover, as Turkey's and the U.S.'s interests didn't overlap in Syria, coordinated counterterrorism efforts became nonviable.
These caused Turkey to incrementally shift its counterterrorism strategy. Turkey decided to be self-sufficient in this fight and launched initiatives in defense technology initially. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are the best-known example of this; yet, there is more to it. Turkey started to implement ammunition, weapon and intelligence technologies. Diplomacy was rendered active and proactive. Beside nationalizing the proactive measures with a focus on technology, Turkey also started to shift its objectives; Turkey initially sought to expel the PKK from its soil, while now it aims to annihilate the terrorist organization. It's a strategy with to facets: extermination and prevention. This was clearly observed in Afrin. The operation had three main goals: to secure the border, secure Syrians' welfare and incapacitating the terrorist organization. The last goal is still relevant.
The issue of Manbij is being resolved through diplomatic channels. Certain conditions are being met; when it's put on a schedule according to the agenda, the issue will be resolved. However, in order to secure its southern border, Turkey asserts that it will establish a corridor in parallel with the border to prevent crises in Iraq and Syria from spilling over. If you look at it, we pursue a similar strategy in territories that were cleansed from terrorist elements with Operation Euphrates Shield along with Manbij and northern Iraq. This is important as the effect of security and social issues in these regions make a ripple in Turkey. More than 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey is a direct result of the crisis. On the other hand, Turkey is trying to defuse the situation in Manbij through diplomatic means as it might establish a precedent for further initiatives.
DS: Continuing to talk about Manbij, a road map comprised of three stages was announced. How will the implementation of the three stages proceed?
MA: The bigger picture requires us to evaluate the situation in Manbij. For this evaluation, we need to focus on the objectives and methods. As the U.S. currently controls Manbij, what is the U.S.' objective? What motivates Turkey to strike a deal with the U.S. regarding Manbij? Answers to these questions will reveal the future phases.
The U.S. doesn't want to lose Turkey. Turkey is a valuable ally in the region where powers like Russia and Iran are vying for control. Turkey is like a humongous aircraft carrier which has access to Caucasia, Balkans, and the Middle East along with the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas. Turkey's shift toward another power like Russia is disadvantageous to the U.S. and Europe and the U.S. are discomforted by the prominent Russian presence in the Balkans. Russia is accused of tampering with elections in other countries, Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia being the most recent. Countries like Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea improving relations with the U.S. is considered as a threat by Russia. Crimea is also separate issue. Whether Ukraine is to join NATO is a conundrum. Georgia fears for its territorial integrity. The issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan is like a ticking bomb; there are ongoing armed conflicts in both Nakhchivan and Karabakh. Iran poses a prominent issue as well, especially for Israel. Considering all of these, the U.S. would want to keep Turkey at its side. I'm not talking about a complete compromise, but the U.S. will surely make certain sacrifices to gain the upper hand against others. The Manbij agreement is a significant opportunity for the U.S. This opportunity isn't limited to Manbij only; it will also provide an opportunity in the east of Euphrates along with northern Iraq and against the PKK. Losing Turkey would cost dearly to the U.S. in the field.
The U.S. has recently implemented a 'no boots on the ground' strategy; without Turkey, the U.S. will fail to render this strategy viable and there surely will be 'boots on the ground.'
DS: Let's elaborate on the 'no boots on the ground' strategy. Was this strategy represented by the PKK or its affiliates with different names? Why did U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis continue to suggest that they will continue to collaborate with the SDF, which consists of PKK militants, in his recent statements?
MA: Israel's security is the main concern of the U.S. because of the prominent presence of a powerful pro-Israel lobby. The U.S. thinks of 'moderating' Islam as a result of Islamophobia. The U.S. could have exerted soft power, implement cultural measures; however, it preferred to sponsor a Marxist terrorist organization against radical Islam which was embodied by Daesh. 'Keep your eye on the ball' is the motto here. Daesh was pushed to the fore and the PKK's Marxist ideology was presented as an antidote to radicalism. Yet, this is wrong. It's like billiards. You can't expect the cue ball to hit just a ball; it will mobilize many balls and they might enter any hole than your intended one. The U.S. failed to calculate this. The U.S. even redesigned the existent PKK and its affiliate elements in Syria and Iraq to form a corridor that would cut Saudi Arabia and Turkey's ties with Sunni populations in the region. Both Sinjar and Qandil are extensions of this strategy. A Marxist organization is present there. The U.S. aimed to relieve its concerns with an organization that is disconnected from the realities of the region.
DS: Therefore, the U.S. was using an organization which is completely incompatible with the cultural, religious and historical realities of the region. Do you agree?
MA: Definitely. The U.S. might hold the PKK's existence like the sword of Damocles over Turkey. They might or might not employ the terrorist organization to Southeastern Anatolia in Turkey. We don't know what will become of it; it might be used as a trump card against Turkey. This might be used against Iran more easily. Qandil is also an extension of this possible policy. When there is an issue of balance in northern Iraq, the PKK might be used against Barzani. Similarly, it could also be employed against the pro-Iran Hashd al-Shaabi. The PKK is like a Swiss Army knife lodged at the center of the Middle East. For this reason, the U.S. wouldn't wish the demise of the PKK.
What was the U.S.' solution? As it was stated by Mattis, the U.S. aims to simultaneously cooperate with Turkey and the SDF. Actually, the SDF is the same with the PKK. They say SDF also has Arab recruits; however, we know nothing about their worldview. Are they Marxists, former Baathists? It's an enigma. Contrary to what the U.S. is asserting, we know that all Arab tribes weren't included to the SDF. Considering Syria is a multi-ethnic nation, this presented force's ethnic composition and ideological motivations should be investigated. This will reveal who they are.
DS: Taking all of these factors into consideration, what will be more prominent in Manbij: Diplomacy or military force?
MA: Diplomacy is always a priority as military options come into play when it fails. There is an ongoing diplomatic initiative about Manbij. We'll see whether there will be some 'tricks' against Turkey. If the U.S. is thinking about replacing the PKK with another group, Turkey won't fall into this. Turkey is awake and aware of the realities of the region; Turkey currently has the original inhabitants of Manbij as its guest. Firstly, these people will eventually return to Manbij, so a demographic engineering won't be allowed. Secondly, these people will govern themselves while the U.S. and Turkey will jointly observe the region with patrol. These patrols aren't necessarily military; there will be civilian patrols. Regarding infrastructure, countries that are most afraid of immigration should shoulder this responsibility. They should invest in the infrastructure through Turkey. Our country has been carrying this burden alone for many years. The reconstruction of Manbij will have a significant financial cost as the city is in ruins. Therefore, multidimensional reconstruction process should begin in Manbij, Idlib, Azez and Afrin. Such an initiative will be exemplary for the rest of Syria. This model should also spread to the east of the Euphrates which is currently controlled by the PKK.
DS: The PKK is said to be controlling 25 percent of Syria. Is there precise data about the situation east of Euphrates? What is the percentage of the territory the PKK controls there and how many militants does the terrorist organization have? Where they will be relocated?
MA: Some claim it's around one third; however, I don't have the precise figure. Considering the territories across Turkey's southern border, the PKK has been organizing there which was supported by [Bashar] Assad for a while. However, this doesn't mean the PKK reigns supreme there. As it's the case in Ain al-Arab, Arab tribes populate the region, not the PKK. A normalization process is due. Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds that were forcibly removed by the PKK should return to the region; this is what I mean by normalization. Where will these PKK militants be relocated to? There are several options.
DS: So, will the PKK be relocated like Daesh in Syria?
MA: There are certain signs validating these suspicions. As you know, the U.S. established a base in al-Tanf. It's a region that is unwanted by both the Syrian regime and Russia, which is positioned toward the southern border of Syria. Why the U.S. isn't relinquishing the region is unknown as Daesh isn't present there. Assad and the U.S. had no issues about this region. Under the banner of SDF, the U.S. relocated the PKK to that region. I believe it's all about Jordan. It seems they want to have a common border with Jordan in that region. The U.S. seeks to isolate different regimes and groups that could pose a threat to Israel's security. Even though the distance seems great, it's a flat land. When the PKK under the guise of SDF meets the Jordanian border, Iran's crescent like area of influence will be broken. Because of this reason, the U.S. has its military present there. Therefore, I believe the U.S. will focus more on the southern parts of Syria rather than the lands to the east of Euphrates after the Manbij agreement; Daesh still exists to the north of al-Tanf. It will give the U.S. a good excuse. I believe the U.S. will come up with measures that will challenge geostrategic locations in the region.
This means the relocation of PKK and its affiliate, the YPG [People's Protection Units]. Meanwhile, despite the agreement, the YPG asserts that they won't withdraw from Manbij.
The YPG's message appeals to its base. Of course, the agreement might fail in implementation. Nevertheless, only the U.S. keeps the armed PYD [Democratic Union Party] and YPG on their feet. We have seen this in Afrin.
DS: Assad has also made some statements about this issue, asserting that the Syrian regime will 'enter the territories controlled by the PKK.'
MA: Assad doesn't have the luxury to disconnect himself from Russia. If Russia allows it, he might do it. Yet, I believe the U.S. wouldn't want the Syrian regime to be present in the region. I won't talk about PYD as I believe it's same with the PKK; I believe the PKK can't act in the region without U.S. consent. For instance, they failed to act against Daesh when it started to expand. If the U.S. hadn't provided air support, Kobani had already fallen. The PKK lacks the capacity; it's the U.S. air support along with intelligence that expands the PKK's capacity. Nevertheless, I don't believe the PKK could sustain itself without the U.S. support.
DS: Will the U.S. cease its air support to the PKK?
MA: I don't think so, no. The U.S. still has business to conduct in the region. You should understand what the U.S. trying to achieve in the region. Even if the U.S. achieves its objectives in the region, it will continue to be present in the region either by itself or through proxies, as it was the case in Afghanistan. I believe the U.S. sees the PKK as an extension of its presence.
The U.S. is aware of this contradiction; the U.S. recognizes the PKK as a terrorist organization yet continues to cooperate with it. It's against the U.S. laws, hence the name change. On the other hand, the U.S.' actions are devoid of international law. Think about it. Country A has an issue with country B and utilizes a terrorist organization in country C against country B. If this becomes a legitimate course of action, all countries around the world will start to cooperate with terrorist organization. This would have catastrophic results; Africa and Southeastern Asia would spiral into chaos while 'lone wolves' returning from Iraq and Syria will start to organize in Europe, becoming a tool for a power. Therefore, the U.S. is opening a can of worms without being aware of it. These terrorist organizations could also be utilized against the U.S. For this reason, I believe the current U.S. strategy will blow up in its own face.
DS: What would you like to say about the status and objectives of the ongoing Qandil operation?
MA: As you already know, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has been carrying out regular operations in Iraq since March 11. Currently the TSK is primarily targeting PKK camps near the border. The priority is capturing Hakurk as it will incapacitate militants trying organize around Şemdinli. Derecik is also a crucial region for Turkey; the operation in Şemdinli was launched from there. The PKK tried to push there, putting pressure on village guards. By launching the operation from Derecik, Turkey has provided morale support the inhabitants. Moreover, if you look at the locations of Mezi, Sini and Hakurk camps, you can see that there is an attempt to surround Derecik.
There are also other camps which are located in parallel with the border. Mezi and Sini camps are the closest ones to Turkey; they're near to the Kazan Valley which allows access up to Bitlis in Turkey. Toward the west, there are Metina and Zap camps. Most important than all, there is Gara camp. I believe Gara is as important as Qandil; as far as we know, the U.S. is training PKK militants there. It's located in the mountainous regions on the south of the town Amadiya. You will reach Khaftanin if you move towards west from Gara and Metina.
Turkey has launched a major operation which covers a large swath of land. It's possible to directly move to Qandil; however, the operation shouldn't be symbolic. In my opinion, Turkey doesn't see Qandil as a target that it could reach within one or two weeks. All statements made by officials have the same phrase in it: 'when the time is right.' I believe the TSK will first capture the aforementioned camps and incapacitate the PKK there. Then the army will move toward the main bases of the PKK. Qandil is a base where the PKK command is located and provides all kind of logistics to the terrorist organization. It's on the Iranian border and extends into Iran. When Turkey launches an operation to Qandil, the militants move into Iran; similarly, when Iran launches an operation against the PKK, they move into Iraq. On the other hand, the U.S. has a temporary base in Sinjar. The PKK is also present there. Yazidi presence is also important.
Turkey has launched a major operation which aims to sweep the border step by step. The Hakurk operation is a party of this larger operation. The Turkish army will move toward the major PKK bases after capturing Hakurk. However, there is another factor in this operation: the federal government of Iraq. Therefore, it will be a bit different than the operations in Syria. Iraq's disposition toward the operation along with measures that are to be taken by Iran are crucial. The U.S. stated that it won't interfere with the Qandil operation. So, we can say that Turkey is operating in regions where the U.S. won't interfere with. I believe Turkey will move step by step, stage by stage to realize its own goals while taking the regional balance of power into consideration. This operation won't end within a matter of days as it's multidimensional. First the army has to move to that region, then the supporting elements like UAVs should be deployed there. So, there are many technical matters. It's not possible to capture Qandil without resolving these technical matters. In addition, Turkey should definitely neutralize the terrorist camps near the borders.
DS: Do all of these operations aim to annihilate the PKK ultimately?
MA: Counterterrorism is a challenge in itself. There are two distinct terms: war on terrorism and war on terrorists. Especially in the '90s, Turkey had a war on terrorists. However, from 2000s onward, Turkey started its war on terrorism not only with its security forces, but with all public institutions. The year 2015 was a breaking point; the PKK made a huge mistake by moving into the cities. The terrorist organization lost significant popular support. For this reason, the PKK is unable to settle in Turkey.
On the other hand, if the PKK poses a threat to the country, Turkey will definitely engage the terrorist organization. Turkey doesn't have the luxury to turn a blind eye to the PKK. It would cast all of its issues aside to deal with the terrorist organization. So, Turkey has to fight the PKK until the very last militant is neutralized. We cannot allow such a dangerous organization to be present in this region.