Turkey, expansion and leadership. The Syrian Quagmire (I)

The Kurdish conflict is the main reason for Turkey's aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East
Turkish soldiers in the village of Qaminas, about 6 km southeast of the city of Idlib in northwest Syria, on 10 February 2020

AFP/OMAR HAJ KADOUR  -   Turkish soldiers in the village of Qaminas, about 6 km southeast of the city of Idlib in northwest Syria, on 10 February 2020

An analysis of Turkey's role in the Middle East, given the complexity of the region, the fickleness and the multiple players present, would give rise to a dozen or more research papers. This is also the case with the new grey eminence of Turkish diplomacy, Mevlut Çavusoglu, who would need a longer article than these pages cover, to analyse his diplomatic action in the region in depth. Just as President Erdogan is a continuous presence in the Balkan region, Çavusoglu is a continuous presence in the Middle East. 

The Kurdish conflict is the main reason for Turkey's aggressive foreign policy in the region. Since 2015, the objective in Syria has been the elimination of all Kurdish armed forces, preferably units of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), an organisation declared terrorist both by the Turkish government, the EU and the US and considered by Ankara the main internal threat to the country's security, even above the FETÖ. During the month of March, Ankara declared the capture of at least 60 Kurdish fighters from the YPG (People's Protection Units), who, without specifying the exact number, were identified with PKK members. According to the International Crisis Group, since 2015, Turkish offensives in the north of Syria have caused almost 5,000 casualties among the YPG, of which between 2,500 and 2,700 are PKK fighters. In Iraq, Turkish operations against Kurdish organisations have been much more limited, although, due to the situation in the country since the American invasion in 2003, the Turkish army has been able to operate with greater or lesser intensity on Iraqi territory since 2008. In May last year, coinciding with operations in Syria, Ankara launched Operation Garra, the largest intervention against Kurdish organisations in Iraq for more than a decade, penetrating between 20-30 km into Iraqi territory. At the end of July, the operation had produced, according to Turkish official media, some 100 Kurdish casualties belonging to the PKK, which would be reduced to around 60 according to international media and think tanks. At the end of August, the final phase of the operation, the so-called Claw 3, was launched to selectively bomb Iraqi territory, and air operations of both conventional aviation and unmanned aerial means, resulting, according to the Turkish Ministry of Defence, in about 160 casualties of PKK militants. Unlike Syria, in Iraq Ankara has benefited from intelligence collaboration from both Baghdad and the Kurdish authority in Erbil. The PKK in Iraq, consequently, multiplied indirect actions against Turkish interests and citizens, operating mainly through attacks in the Erbil area. 

El ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de Turquía, Mevlut Çavusoglu, en una rueda de prensa
PHOTO/Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey via AP - Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu at a press conference

An interesting fact about the Kurdish question is that the AKP, the ruling party in Turkey, was never distinguished by heightened nationalism, unlike its governing partners in the MHP (Nationalist Action Party). This aspect was crucial for the support of Kurdish Turks or Turks of Kurdish origin in the 2015 general elections, support of around 45%, which has gradually turned into just under 20% in opposition to the AKP, given the nationalist drift taken in recent years, and the successive campaigns against both Kurdish parties and organisations in both Turkey and Syria, against the organisations established there. At the end of March, the government dismissed around a dozen mayors of the HDP (People's Democratic Party) in the province of Diyarbakir, the majority of whom were Kurds, on the accusation of collaborating with the PKK.

This party, the third largest force in the country with 67 seats in Ankara's parliament, has had its main leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağm, imprisoned since 2016 along with several parliamentarians, accused of collaboration with an armed gang. The Kurdish alliance during the war with the US represented the defence of American interests against Damascus and Iran on the one hand and Daesh on the other, and led to the establishment of a territory under Kurdish control, with the hope of establishing an autonomous authority similar to that established in the northern provinces of Iraq. Ideologically, the Kurdish organisations practice a kind of Marxist syncretism, with a characteristic that differentiates it from almost any other regional political movement, the equality of rights between men and women, to the point of forming military units with women only. 

Combatientes kurdos de las Unidades de Protección del Pueblo (YPG)
PHOTO/AP - Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG)

On the other hand, Turkey and its ally Qatar financed the Islamic organisations that fed the ranks of Daesh, allowing them to cross their territory and facilitate the incorporation of fighters to the ISIL, which was fighting the Kurds in Syria. Operation Olive Branch in 2018 responds to the threat posed to Turkey by the possibility of uniting the territories under Kurdish control in northern Syria. Possibility thanks to a hard negotiation between Russia, USA and Kurdish organisations. The Turkish action ignores the United Nations mandate that had decreed a ceasefire in the region, and culminates in the capture of Afrin. The situation is aggravated by the US withdrawal from part of Syrian territory. This situation has led the YPG to seek, in the face of the foreseeable Turkish offensives, Syrian support, offering them a reliable alliance against the Turkish invasion, knowing that for Damascus, Kurdish control of the north of the country is preferable to Turkish control. The last major Turkish operation in the area, and which has led to the permanent establishment of Turkish army units in the region of Idlib, took place in October last year, Operation Peace Spring, which responded to the opportunity to increase pressure on Kurdish organisations and strengthen the presence in Syria, giving Turkey control of the flow of refugees from the conflict areas to the north. Refugees, who as we have seen, and will see later, are one of Turkey's main assets when it comes to putting pressure on its western allies. Part of the YPG, integrated in the FDS (Syrian Democratic Forces), organisation that they lead, still collaborate with the remains of the US troops deployed in the area of Deir ez Zor, where there are still remains of the units of what once was Daesh, besides being one of the most important oil centres in the country where the American administration has reached an agreement with Saudi Aramco for the exploitation of the region's resources. 

Simpatizantes del Partido de los Trabajadores del Kurdistán (PKK) ondean banderas y pancartas con la imagen del líder del partido Abdullah Ocalan
AFP/FREDERICK FLORIN - Supporters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) wave flags and banners with the image of party leader Abdullah Ocalan

Much has been said in recent years regarding the abandonment by the US of its interests in the Middle East, beyond Iraq, and a small presence in Syria. The Trump Administration has always been against involving more troops in the region, subordinating the defence of its interests to allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia or, to the Kurdish militias, both in Iraq and Syria. This support to the Kurdish forces in Syria has clashed head-on with Turkish interests and objectives in its southern neighbour, which has always used the Kurdish question as a justification for successive interventions in the north of the country. The truth is that northeast Syria is vital to American interests, in that Turkey, as an ally, has occupied, along with more inconvenient players for Washington, such as Iran and Russia, the vacuum left by the US in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. Despite these circumstances, or because of these circumstances, the Trump Administration, by evacuating, to the surprise of Bolton, Mattis and McGurk, who were unaware of the President's plans, their troops from Syrian territory in 2018, reaches an agreement with Turkey to establish a security zone in the country, that they justify in a Manichean way, accepting that, if Turkey is going to intervene unilaterally in Syria, it was more convenient for their interests that they do so without the presence of American troops in the region, so that this action would prevent the Kurdish militias from withdrawing and leaving the Turkish army free. John Bolton expressed it very clearly: "We do not want Turkey to intervene militarily without being coordinated with the US so as not to endanger our troops and also our allies against Daesh. A somewhat cynical position for a whole White House hawk who received in response to President Erdogan's refusal to receive him in Ankara, let alone guarantee the security of Kurdish units. After the launch of Operation Peace Spring, Washington threatened Ankara with the imposition of taxes of up to 50% on Turkish steel, sanctions which, of course, did not stop the operation, and which were unilaterally lifted a week later. More serious was the exclusion of Turkey by the US from the F35 project, by which Turkey would receive 100 units of the most modern fighter in service in the US Army. This measure led President Erdogan to suggest, again, the revocation of the joint use treaty of the Incirlik airbase, the main US operational base in the region, where Washington not only accumulates a large amount of modern material, but also 50 units of the B61-12 nuclear bomb.

Incirlik is defended by a battery of Spanish Patriot missiles from 2015, Active Fence mission, which in December 2019 was extended until December 31 this year. According to the NY Times, the Pentagon had to draw up emergency plans to repatriate these bombs when, as some analysts described, President Erdogan threatened to kidnap the 50 B61-12, knowing the coercive value of being an advanced nuclear storage facility. The B61-12 bomb is a tactical nuclear weapon operational from B2 bombers or F15 fighter-bombers. A useful and dangerous asset for President Erdogan less than 400 km from Syria, just 60 years after the first American nuclear deployment in Turkey. Fate, sometimes, is macabre.

Foto de archivo tomada el 28 de julio de 2015 muestra un avión militar en la pista de la base aérea de Incirlik, en las afueras de la ciudad de Adana, al sudeste de Turquía
PHOTO/AFP - Archive photo taken on July 28, 2015 shows a military plane on the runway at Incirlik Air Base on the outskirts of the city of Adana in southeastern Turkey

Officially, the Trump Administration has stood by its ally, and they have stated so in public on as many occasions as possible, such as the multiple declarations of condolence regarding the Turkish military killed in Syria by the White House. Even from the mouth of Mike Pompeo who, at the beginning of March, coinciding with the most compromised moment for Turkey in Syria, due to the government offensive supported by Russia since September last year, declared to the Turkish agency Anadolu: "We firmly believe that our NATO ally, Turkey, has every right to defend itself against the risk that is being generated by what Assad, the Russians and the Iranians are doing inside Syria". However, relations remain at a standstill, as Washington insists on a political solution that Turkey, despite its lack of involvement, seems neither to be seeking nor to want, to the extent of claiming the validity and validity of the Sochi agreement.

March 15 marked the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Syria, which far from being close to its end, remains the most active conflict in the world at the moment. Since December, the escalation of the conflict has generated, according to US media, nearly two million displaced people, according to Save the Children; on March 4, half a million people were on the border between Syria and Turkey in refugee camps lacking the minimum infrastructure. According to the United Nations, as noted in an earlier article, 70,000 new refugees arrived at the Turkish-Syrian border in October 2019, joining the approximately 90,000 residents in the camps set up for internally displaced persons. The Monitor, in early February, estimated that some 120 000 people were displaced due to the Syrian offensive on Idlib. In total, according to UN data from February, at the end of December, the number of displaced persons in Idlib was 389 000 and humanitarian assistance is needed to assist about 1.8 million people in northern Syria. ACLED (Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project) estimates that there will be more than 19 000 cases of violence against civilians in 2019 throughout the country, with 2 400 civilian deaths in Idlib alone. Resolution 2504/2020 brings the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance throughout Syria to over 11 million as a direct result of the military operations in the north of the country since the end of last year and the beginning of 2020. Similarly, the United Nations considers the presence of foreign armies in Syria to be the greatest obstacle to establishing a lasting peace agreement, as it believes that as long as the operations continue, the flow of refugees towards Turkey will only increase. In order to channel the arrival of refugees, the Turkish army has set up humanitarian corridors towards its border, with the probable intention, not of receiving them in refugee camps, but of letting them pass through Turkey in order to increase the pressure on the Greek border, both by land and by sea. In early April, the problem of refugee flows from Syria to the Turkish border was exacerbated by the SARS COV 2 health crisis, as camps in the north of the country lacked the necessary prophylactic and sanitary measures to contain infections in a population that, even before the medical emergency was declared, was already crowded into camps lacking any basic health infrastructure. 

Tropas turcas y rusas patrullan en la autopista M4, que va de este a oeste a través de la provincia de Idlib, Siria
PHOTO/Turkish Ministry of Defense via AP - Turkish and Russian troops patrol the M4 highway, which runs east-west through Idlib province, Syria

During this year, clashes between Turks, who support the so-called Syrian opposition in Idlib, and the Syrian army, supported by Russia, have been ongoing throughout February and early March. Turkey reportedly provided heavy artillery to the rebels used by them to counterattack government units north of Aleppo, while Russia reportedly supported the Syrian army with air attacks. The chronology of the most relevant events during this year, begins with an attack on February 27 attributed to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, against Syrian positions is answered, after warning the Turkish Army, which claimed not to have units deployed in the area, by Syria with an air strike in Saraqeb, which resulted in the death of 35 Turkish soldiers, and a similar number of injured. The retaliation, which was not long in coming, was a Turkish bombardment of Syrian positions, causing about thirty deaths belonging to the Syrian Army. The next day, President Erdogan mobilises his emergency diplomacy and, while trying to de-escalate the situation in Syria at the highest level, with an emergency conversation with President Putin, he condemns Syria's aggression to the United Nations and declares that he will not withdraw his army from northern Syria. He also communicated, under the cover of the Russian air attack, to President Trump the need to send more Patriot anti-aircraft batteries to guarantee the security of Turkish planes operating over Syria. He also officially notified NATO of the activation of Article 4 of the Washington Treaty, after Syria announced the closure of the air space over the province of Idlib and reconquer, with Russian support, another strategic enclave within Idlib, the town of Maaret al-Numan, on the Damascus-Aleppo road. Russia, at this time, is upping the ante and deploying frigates off the Syrian coast equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles. In Turkey, relevant voices within the AKP declare the need to go to war with Damascus, despite the enormous international implications that such an act would entail, starting with NATO.

Las fuerzas turcas aseguran un tramo de la autopista M4, que une las provincias sirias septentrionales de Alepo y Latakia, cerca de Ariha, en la provincia siria de Idlib, controlada por los yihadistas, el 12 de mayo de 2020
AFP/OMAR HAJ KADOUR - Turkish forces secure a section of the M4 motorway linking the northern Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Latakia near Ariha in the Jihadist-controlled Syrian province of Idlib on 12 May 2020

That Turkey would eventually invoke Article 4, or even 5, of the Washington treaty was already taken for granted at the time of the US withdrawal from Syria, even before, when such a withdrawal was only a remote possibility. Also, in all this achievement of events and decisions, it has influenced the decision to buy the Russian S400 system, instead of the American Patriot, system that they had signed with Washington for a sum of 3500 million dollars. As we have already seen when dealing with Turkish external action in the Balkans, NATO did not go beyond making a mere institutional declaration of condolence and a call to respect the ceasefire, but confirmed that it was maintaining air surveillance operations over Syria, operations on the other hand, where clashes between Russian and American aircraft are frequent. The subsequent declaration of solidarity was made in the personal capacity of the organisation's secretary general. After protesting to the Russian diplomacy about the operation in Maaret al-Numan, the Turkish approach is again to go on the offensive: on March 1, Turkey announces Operation Spring Shield, officially aimed at stopping the advance of the Syrian Army, and launches a series of attacks that end on the first day of the offensive with 15 Syrian soldiers dead and the shooting down of two government apparatus. Russia declares that from that moment on it will not be able to guarantee the safety of Turkish planes, and reports, together with Syria, the violation of Syrian airspace by Turkish F16 fighters. On 2 March, President Erdogan announced a meeting with President Putin on 5 March in Moscow, with the intention of de-escalating the situation in Syria. However, far from showing any signs of a willingness to ease tension in the region, he also announced an attack on the positions of the Syrian army, which at that time was operating against rebel forces in Idlib. Moscow again warns Turkey that it cannot guarantee the safety of any Turkish aircraft in Syrian skies, and also tries to dissuade any other player in the region from entering into conflict with Russia. On 3 March Turkey announced the shooting down of a third Syrian Albatross that was operating in support of Syrian troops in the north of Idlib.

The first disagreements between Russia and Turkey occurred as early as the beginning of February, when, following a first Syrian attack on Turkish positions in Idlib, Ankara informed Moscow that the Astana process and the Sochi agreement were not being fulfilled, due to, among other considerations, that the Syrian army refused to stop the offensive on Idlib, where, as we have seen, they had taken up key strategic positions, and accused Russia not only of not being able to de-escalate the conflict, but of fighting Syrian civilians, whom it also dared to call terrorists. On the contrary, Moscow claims precisely this, that the ceasefire and the reason for the Syrian offensive is the presence of terrorist organisations in Idlib and the harassment of government troops. President Erdogan conveys that his patience is running out and that, if the Syrian advance does not stop, they are planning a major offensive in Idlib to stop the troops in Damascus, despite the partnership with Russia to keep the peace, following the Turkish diplomatic offensive and the exchange of statements, in which both governments warned each other. On the 5th, Presidents Putin and Erdogan meet to try to reach some kind of agreement to deter the situation in the north of Syria, reaching a ceasefire agreement, which comes into effect in the early morning of 5-6 March, and in which, among other aspects, it is agreed to jointly patrol a strip of territory to the east and west of the strategic town of Saraqeb, along the disputed M4 road and 6 km deep on both sides of the road. Saraqeb is located at the intersection of the two most important roads in Syria, the aforementioned M4, Aleppo-Latakia, and the no less important M5, Aleppo-Damascus, so the possession of this town is vital to the interests of either of the warring factions. The joint patrols began on 15 March. It was also agreed to open a security corridor between Aleppo and Latakia, the country's main port. This is one of the most interesting points in terms of bilateral relations in Syria, between Turkey and Russia, since this corridor, which corresponds to the same route of the M4 road, ensures a free path to their bases, naval in Tartus and air in Latakia, with the peculiarity that Tartus is the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean, and that, unlike Sebastopol, it is not conditioned by Turkish control of the exit to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea, which gives Russia some control over the eastern Mediterranean. Same problem as in 1915. United Nations resolution 2254/2015 forms the political framework within which the ceasefire agreement is framed, and serves as a reference for the development of a future agreement for the establishment of a lasting peace. 

El presidente de Rusia, Vladimir Putin, derecha, y el presidente de Turquía, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, se dan la mano después de una conferencia de prensa conjunta en el Kremlin, Moscú, Rusia, el  5 de marzo de 2020
Photo/Presidential Press Service via AP - Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands after a joint press conference at the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, March 5, 2020

Turkey reported the attacks by the Syrian army on its troops, and said it reserved the right to respond with whatever force it deemed necessary to any action by the Syrian army. Russia denounces the presence of terrorist organisations in Idlib, which have the operational capacity to launch attacks against Syrian and Russian forces, the most prominent of which is the former Al Nusra Front, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an organisation that is causing Turkey a real headache, not only by opposing any agreement with Russia, including the Astana process and the Sochi agreement, which both Russians and Turks seem to accept for the time being, but also because of the harassment to which it subjects the other organisations and armed groups supported by Turkey. Russia has demonstrated the control it maintains over the stabilisation and peace process in Syria, being the interlocutor with Turkey, which openly shows its differences with Moscow, by considering, in a manner contrary to Russia, that the Astana peace process is dead, it being necessary to have a new framework in accordance with the current situation in the country. Similarly, it has shown open disagreement over the Kurdish question in Syria, accusing Moscow of lukewarmness towards the Kurdish military organisations. In 2018, Ankara opposed the dialogue promoted by Russia between all parties involved in the Kurdish conflict and the PYD, the Kurdish democratic party, the political arm of the YPG, and of course, terrorist for Ankara. At the end of October last year there was some tension between Russia and Turkey over the presence of YPG units in the border area under Russian control, in contravention of the Sochi agreement, which established a security belt along the Russian-Turkish border with a depth of 10 km in Syrian territory, through which patrols from both countries would create a safe zone of YPG units.

According to Turkish sources, Operation Spring Shield resulted in the death of 2,500 Syrian soldiers and the loss of more than 100 armoured vehicles, forcing part of the Syrian Army to return to the ceasefire line determined in Sochi. Despite the success that these figures have meant for both Turkish media and military commanders in Syria, in mid-April the Damascus offensive on Idlib continued, attacking the government army on the 15th, in the south of the region, positions of the organizations supported by Turkey. 

The only circumstance that, at this moment, seems to stop Turkish actions in Syria, is the global emergence of COVID-19. At the beginning of April, the Ministry of Defence, in view of the urgency of the pandemic, ordered a halt to Syrian operations, limiting troop movements to the maximum, joint patrols with Russia, and occasional actions against Kurdish units, while special medical units were deployed in the country's northern bases to provide specialised attention to units operating in Syria, and to determine the quarantine of those units or soldiers returning to Turkey from Syria. Although the reality seems to be somewhat more complex. According to data from the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, between 7 and 8 April Turkey was sending reinforcements to the area, which, despite halting operations, it was taking advantage of to consolidate its position in Idlib and counterattack the Kurdish forces deployed east of the Euphrates River, as reported by Al Monitor on 13 April. On 10 April, Turkey imposed a total quarantine in 31 provinces in an attempt to contain the coronavirus, since the first containment measures were decreed at the end of March for people under 20 and over 60 years of age. According to data from the UTN-FRCU Database Research Group, the incidence of COVID-19 in Turkey on 15 April was 69,392 confirmed cases and 1,518 deaths with a lethality rate of 2.19%. 

Tropas del Ejército turco, con máscaras protectoras contra el coronavirus, toman posición detrás de las barricadas de arena destinadas a bloquear la carretera por los manifestantes sirios en la autopista M4, que une las provincias sirias septentrionales de Alepo y Latakia
AFP/ABDULWAJED HAJ ESTEIFI - Turkish army troops wearing coronavirus protection masks take up position behind the sand barricades designed to block the road from Syrian demonstrators on the M4 motorway linking the northern Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Latakia

As of April 20, the situation in the region has changed little, and it seems that even the coronavirus will not remedy this. The Syrian Army reports that jihadist organisations in Idlib continue to receive reinforcements and therefore resumes the offensive with heavy artillery against positions of these organisations.

The withdrawal of operations ordered by Ankara, which as we see is partial, if it can be considered a withdrawal, since it is really a cessation of operations, could be decisive for Iran's interests in the region, as the effectiveness of Turkish troops in Idlib is diluted. For Iran, one of the main supporters of Damascus, it will be extremely beneficial when it comes to repositioning its forces in Syria and redefining interests and objectives. Despite their conflicting interests, Russia, Turkey and Iran reached an agreement at the Astana and Sochi summits, to achieve, if not a peace agreement, a regional stabilisation agreement. Iran and Russia, alongside the Syrian Shiite Government, and Turkey supporting the so-called Sunni opposition, which for Damascus represents the remnants of the terrorist organisations and Daesh. Ankara, Moscow and Tehran have tried to overcome a priori insurmountable differences in order to find a solution to the Syrian conflict, and to the conflict that confronts them in the struggle for power over regional leadership. Like Moscow, Iran provides funding to Damascus, and has been and is instrumental in providing military support to the Syrian Army, both in the form of military advisors and funding, as well as through the presence of revolutionary guard units and the presence of Hezbollah units.

However, Operation Spring Peace was not only a violation of Syria's territorial integrity and sovereignty, but for Iranian strategists it implies the possibility of altering the situation in northern Syria with a new deployment of Turkish troops and the installation of advanced bases that would allow for greater Turkish military projection in Syria, with the excuse of fighting Kurdish militias, something that Tehran considers unacceptable. In an attempt to de-escalate the situation, Iran proposed to resolve any conflict in Syria affecting Turkish interests, under the 1998 Adana agreement. The Adana agreement on security cooperation between Syria and Turkey states that Syria will not allow any Kurdish activities that endanger Turkey's security. The approach to the Kurdish issue is again completely different, although both governments share the fear of a large autonomous Kurdish state. Turkey, as we saw, focuses its actions on fighting the PKK, while for Iran, with almost 7 million Kurds, the big concern is the federalisation of Syria, where an autonomous Kurdistan could endanger the great effort made to connect Iran to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria. Iran is, together with Russia, one of the guarantors of the Astana process and the Sochi ceasefire, agreements in which Tehran is vehement - they must not be broken no matter what happens, and any diplomatic action aimed at a lasting ceasefire in Syria and a Turkish withdrawal backed by the Adamian agreement should be orchestrated on them at this time. However, the positions of both Turkey and Iran on key issues such as the continuation of Bashar al-Asad or the territorial integrity of the country, as we see, are very different. Cooperation between the Sochi trio is a relationship based on mistrust and convenience. At the end of last year, relations between the two governments became strained and mistrust increased, following a new case similar to that of the dissident journalist Khashoggi with Saudi Arabia. 

Masud Molavi Vardanjani, an Iranian dissident, was shot in Istanbul in mid-November, according to Turkish military sources, either by members of Iranian intelligence or on his orders. According to these sources, Vardanjan had worked as a computer engineer in the Iranian Ministry of Defence and had been in Turkey for a year as a refugee because of his criticism of the political regime of the Ayatollahs. According to the US, which ignored the Khashoggi affair, this murder, allegedly political in nature, is very defining of how the terrorist regime of Iran resolves complex issues, thus adding more fuel to the fire of the tense relations between Ankara and Tehran. No member of the Turkish Government has publicly stated that there was a possible involvement of Iranian intelligence, although official sources do acknowledge that Vadanjani was in the sights of Iranian intelligence, which has certainly not helped to defuse relations between the two governments.

Fotografía de archivo  del 4 de abril de 2018 que muestra a los presidentes de Irán, Hasán Rohaní, de Turquía, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, y de Rusia, Vladimir Putin, en una conferencia de prensa conjunta tras su reunión en Ankara, Turquía
REUTERS/UMIT BEKTAS - Archive photograph of 4 April 2018 showing the Presidents of Iran, Hassan Rohani, Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Russia, Vladimir Putin, at a joint press conference after their meeting in Ankara, Turkey

Syria has become a quagmire for Turkey as Vietnam was for the US, Afghanistan for the USSR or Yemen for Saudi Arabia. In addition to the complicated relations between the multiple state players present in the area, there is the presence of non-state players that are very difficult to manage, not only for the Turkish military, but also for international public opinion and its own allies. The presence of terrorist organisations and remnants of Daesh in the area controlled by Turkey and the complicated management of these groups, tolerated insofar as they serve Ankara's strategic interests, whether in Syria itself, where they are camouflaged as mercenaries or members of the so-called democratic opposition, or in secondary scenarios, such as Libya, where many of these mercenaries are evacuated to serve again as boots on the ground, is becoming a real headache for Turkey, as has been seen in the clashes between Turkish security forces and these groups over the opening of the Aleppo-Latakia corridor, which is opposed by organisations such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. These organisations are also largely to blame for the repeated breaches of the ceasefire, which put Ankara in a very difficult position also vis-à-vis its allies of convenience, Russia and Iran. 

Once again, the US has considered Turkey, together with Israel, representing different roles, priority allies in the region, alternating Turkey, or rather substituting it, in recent years, with Saudi Arabia. During the Cold War, Turkey was both a Black Sea gendarme and a nuclear weapons depot and first line of defence against the USSR. In recent years, either because of the abandonment of its interests in the Eastern Mediterranean by the USA, or because of the convenience of establishing new alliances in the region - for example the support given to Kurdish militias during the war in Syria - or because of the deterioration of bilateral relations between Ankara and Washington due to the enormous political differences and strategic interests between both countries, Either because of the pressing lack of political leadership in the US and an erratic foreign policy, or why not, for a compendium of all these reasons and surely some more than obvious factor, have led Turkey to become independent from its once main ally, swinging between its historical enemies, like Russia, and current ones like Iran. 

Within the multiple scenarios in which Turkish foreign action is working, perhaps, due to the weight of events, the Middle East is the most relevant at this time, as it is a scenario where a significant number of independent and interrelated conflicts are taking place at the same time, where, as we have seen, antagonisms turn into alliances depending on the interests of the different players involved.

Turkey's interests in the region inevitably pass through Syria, Iraq and Iran, integrating the conflicts in Syria, and to a lesser extent in Iraq, into the domestic conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish minorities in the south of the country. Syria is, in all senses, the main factor when it comes to articulating a general analysis on the presence and external action of Turkey in the region, since, around the Syrian factor, all, or at least the most important, conditions that at this moment affect Turkey in the Middle East orbit. There are multiple conditioning factors and two reasons: the Kurdish conflict and the dispute for regional hegemony between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.