More and more Kurdish land in Syria and Iraq being taken

Craving expansion and annexation

While the western media has been dominated by the Ukraine war, it is virtually silent about Erdoğan’s ongoing military operations in Iraq and Syria, writes Esen Uslu

The war in Ukraine has shaken the established order in the Middle East. That order was determined after World War I, and reformed and reinforced in the aftermath of 1945. During the years of the cold war, it seemed to become solidified, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union it quickly came unravelled. Now the struggle to establish enclaves, zones and new spheres of influence seems to be the order of the day.

The Turkish bourgeoisie and its state are more than keen to grab their share in what is a melee - the aim would be to consolidate and extend the tentative steps they have taken during the last decade, thanks to the opportunities provided by various conflicts. The first step was to extend Turkey into northern Syria and Iraq under the pretext of ‘counterterrorism’ operations against ‘unruly’ sections of the Kurds. In Syria the zones occupied in a piecemeal manner during recent years are now to be incorporated into Turkey itself. The process of integrating the occupied Syrian territories has already reached quite an advanced stage. Those territories are run by the Turkish administration, while its military maintains ‘law and order’. Alongside this, schools and other public services are provided by Turkish state institutions.

Beyond the occupied zone there is a Sunni-Islamic belt that extends down to the M4 autoroute, which is secured by the presence of a 15,000-strong armoured group based in around 29 strategic points. That belt is meant to thwart any incursion by Syrian and Russian forces and also to create suitable conditions for further expansion. The Syrian town of Kobanê remains the thorn in the flesh, but on either side of it Turkish control has been growing incrementally thanks to targeted military operations.

In Iraq there are now almost 40 fortified strongholds and bases, all maintaining year-round control over the traditional routes of travel. The occupied zone is now 30-40 kilometres deep along the border and extends to the foothills of Qandil Mountains on the Iranian border. Roads capable of carrying heavy lorries and armoured vehicles even in harsh winter conditions are being constructed between those bases. Meanwhile, the cronies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara are benefiting from various contracts for clearing forests and building roads and military defences in the occupied territories. Mount Sinjar and Sinjar town provide the thorn in the flesh in Iraq. Like Kobanê in Syria, Sinjar is controlled by opponents of the Turkish regime who are aided and abetted by the USA.

In northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan the avowed aim of Turkish nationalism is to incorporate the area around Kirkuk and Mosul, with its lucrative hydrocarbon reserves and Sunni-Turkoman population, which tends to side with Ankara. This region extends about 200 kilometres from the current border. During the invasion of the region by Islamic State, Turkey’s sympathy was apparent. Despite the occupation of the Turkish consulate in Mosul and its staff being taken hostage, Turkey attempted to maintain good relations with IS till the bitter end.

Now, however, Turkey believes that maintaining control of the region requires the collaboration of Kurdish Regional Government which is under the domination of the Barzani clan. The KRG and its Peshmerga force are seen as a useful tool to ‘separate the hot potatoes from the ashes’. They are being cajoled to move into the Sinjar area with the aim of disarming Ezidi and Kurdish forces.

Just a couple of days ago the town of Snuny to the north of Mount Sinjar was occupied by Peshmerga forces, after fighting with Ezidi and Kurdish forces. In doing this they blocked the traditional escape route of the Ezidi population towards Syria and Turkey, when Sinjar was attacked. So a stepping stone towards a genocidal attack on the remaining Ezidi people has been laid.

But what is the west’s attitude to such threats? All calls for urgent international assistance have fallen on ears deafened by the bombardment of Ukraine. While the USA is conducting its proxy war against Russia over Ukraine, with some justification Turkey has felt it has free rein to act as it pleases to its east.

Oil and gas

Now that reducing or even halting Russian oil and gas exports to western Europe has become the order of the day, Turkey is desperate to find new sources to quench its growing thirst - and it is also trying to find new ways to profit from transporting gas to Europe from the Middle East. The northern Iraqi and Kurdish hydrocarbon reserves represent some lucrative options.

According to Reuters reports, Turkey and Israel are cooperating in moves to pipe Kurdish gas through Turkey. It should also be pointed out that the Iraqi Kurdish oil company, KAR, owns 40% of the Kurdistan oil export pipeline. The other principal partner in the pipeline is the Russian firm, Rosneft! KAR reached an agreement with the Kurdish Regional Government to built a pipeline between Khor Mor field, which is in the Kirkuk area, to cater for domestic needs. However, when the pipeline reaches Dohuk, a town on the northern area, only 35 kilometres remain to the Turkish border, where a branch of the pipeline has already been built and is awaiting connection from the south. It is connected to the main pipeline carrying Azeri gas to Europe and it is ready to accommodate a new supply. Perhaps it is superfluous to point out that KAR is controlled by the family of KRG president, Masoud Barzani.

Inevitably the potential export of Kurdish gas and oil has created ripples within the Iraqi regime, and consequently on Iran’s plans for the region. Iran prefers an alternative route, passing through Jordan and bypassing Turkey. But the shaky Iraqi government has been unable to accommodate such wishes. At the end of March, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards lobbed a couple of missiles on Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region. Meanwhile, Barzani is in contact with Qatar, seeking further investment in the hydrocarbon industry. However, the closer cooperation between KRG and Turkey has caused anger which translated into a couple of missile attacks on the Turkish base at Bashiqa near Mosul.

It is well known that 44% of Turkey’s gas needs were met by Russia last year. However, what is less well known is that during last winter the USA became the second largest gas supplier, with 17% of Turkey’s imports. During the same period Russia supplied 38%, while the other major suppliers were Azerbaijan (13%) and Iran (12%). The rest is supplied by Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria.

While Turkey is desperate to find alternative suppliers, a redivision of the world gas market has happened. Qatar, which used to supply a substantial amount of gas to Turkey, is now shipping it to south Asia and the far east. And the whole of Europe, as well as Turkey, is getting much more gas from the USA despite the fact that on the Netherlands-based TTF gas market, which sets the bulk-buying prices, they are five to six times what they were a year ago.

A short-term solution may be arrived at by persuading Azerbaijan and Iran to reach an agreement with Turkmenistan to transport gas from there, since there is some spare capacity in the Iran-Turkey pipeline. However, this winter the fact that the existing flow was halted for a fortnight due to a ‘technical fault’ has illustrated the precarious nature of the keeping the valves under Iranian control.

Turkey’s accelerated gas exploration in its exclusive economic zone in the Black Sea has produced results in the Sakarya field on the western seaboard. It is not expected to be operational before next summer with an initial low capacity - the aim is to reach full capacity by 2030, but that also requires a pipeline to be laid.

The other option, which seemed unimaginable a couple of years ago, is now becoming realisable. Exploring and developing south-eastern Mediterranean gas fields jointly with Israel and Egypt, and to connect them via an underwater pipeline to the existing Turkish network, from where they can be delivered to Europe. This may soon become a viable option. Considering the ‘exclusive economic zones’ dispute with Greece and Cyprus, Turkey may now be holding the trump card to persuade the European powers to support such a project.

However, Turkey’s economy is on the rocks. It has no resources to undertake the necessary investment. Hence the visit of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Saudi Arabia to patch up relations tarnished by the brutal murder of opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. First the ongoing court proceedings in absentia were stopped and the case files were transferred to Saudi Arabia for continuation. Then a few weeks later a major governmental visit was arranged and Erdoğan embraced and shook hands with people whom he called murderers a couple of years ago. On his return journey he told Turkish journalists that such disputes could not be carried on indefinitely.

The same ‘realist’ politics are being pursued with US and European Union institutions. Meantime, a firm grip over the opposition within the country is being maintained - as the trial of Osman Kavala and other activists has shown. Slapping the face of the International Court of Human Rights and other such institutions, Erdoğan’s courts sentenced Kavala to life imprisonment and another seven defendants to lengthy terms - all for organising a (largely peaceful) anti-government protest in 2013.

Nor was mercy shown to Aysel Tuğluk, the former People’s Democratic Party MP, who is suffering from dementia and is now incapable of taking care of herself. But the Forensic Medicine Department has deemed her fit to serve the rest of her sentence. And, true, to form, Kurdish freedom fighters have been kept in jail using similar ‘legal devices’.

The short-term aim of the government is to maintain its grip on power in the face of elections that are due to be held within the next year. However, it is quite apparent that it is losing popular support. That is why Turkey’s expansion and annexation aims, as well as its ‘victories’ against the Kurdish ‘enemy’, are being used to stoke up a nationalist and militarist ferment. That, and burnishing its Islamist credentials, are being relied upon to win the coming elections.