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Turkey’s diminishing policy options in Syria


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The recent shifts in the balance of power in the Syrian civil war have further reduced Turkey’s ability to shape the course of the conflict in line with its long-term goals. In addition, the repercussions of its policy towards Syria have continued to heighten social tensions in Turkey and accelerated the deterioration of an already precarious domestic security situation. Yet there is no indication of major change in the Turkish government’s policies. Indeed, Ankara currently appears caught between its inability to realise its objectives in Syria and its refusal to abandon or moderate them.

Even though it lacks the resources to advance its own goals unilaterally, Ankara can still complicate – and even hinder – international attempts to mitigate the fallout from the Syrian civil war and to broker an end to the conflict. Turkey’s geographical location has made it a vital international partner both in counter-terrorism efforts – particularly given its status as a transit route for Islamist extremists to and from the fighting in Syria and Iraq – and in initiatives to address the refugee crisis created by the civil war. Ankara has had no hesitation in leveraging this position, whether in seeking to extract political concessions from the European Union in return for helping stem the flow of refugees into Europe or by blocking the participation of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the United Nations-sponsored Syrian peace talks in Geneva.

From expansionist nostalgia to defence against blowback

In 2011, the attitude of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) towards the Syrian opposition’s uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gradually hardened from circumspect political encouragement to limited operational support, as Ankara allowed rebel forces to use Turkey as a staging ground for their armed campaign inside Syria. In November 2011, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – then Turkey’s prime minister, now its president – became the first foreign leader to call publicly for Assad to step down.

The shift in Ankara’s position coincided with the consolidation of Erdogan’s grip on domestic power. In June 2011, the AKP won a third successive general election. Apparently confident that he had no reason to be concerned about any domestic challenge to his authority, Erdogan became not only more authoritarian but also less reticent in his attempts to reshape Turkish society according to his own conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam. The same confidence produced greater assertiveness in foreign policy. The public discourses of both Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu – then the foreign minister, now prime minister – became replete with Ottoman references and portrayals of Sunni Islam as a binding political and societal force. Erdogan and Davutoglu regaled their supporters with visions of transforming the Middle East into a Turkish sphere of influence. From this perspective, the intensification of the Syrian civil war was initially regarded not as a threat to Turkey’s own security but as an opportunity for enlarging its political writ.

Erdogan and Davutoglu appear to have been genuinely convinced that, by opening the country’s borders to refugees fleeing the conflict and allowing rebel forces to organise inside Turkey, they would facilitate Assad’s overthrow and that he would be replaced by a Sunni regime dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which would look gratefully to Turkey for leadership. Syria would thus form the first piece in a mosaic of Turkish influence in the Middle East. Such ambitions were always unrealistic, not least because they failed to take into account the fact that few Arabs share the AKP’s nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire. But they continue to underpin the AKP’s long-term attitudes towards Syria even though its immediate policy emphasis has shifted from expanding Turkey’s regional influence to countering the destabilising impact of the Syrian civil war inside Turkey.

Turkey’s shifting priorities

From late 2012 onwards, as the military campaign by the politically moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) began to falter, the AKP allowed more extreme elements to organise, recruit and provision from inside Turkey. Relations between the Turkish authorities and the different groups varied, ranging from relatively close ties with organisations like al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham to a chillier modus vivendi with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), some elements of which were openly hostile to the AKP. The Turkish security community was disinclined to clamp down hard on extremist groups because it viewed them as mechanisms for weakening the Assad regime and had become worried about terrorist backlash. The result was a tacit agreement: Turkey made little attempt to restrict the flow of supplies, weapons and foreign recruits to the extremists fighting in Syria; in return, organisations like ISIS refrained from executing attacks inside the country on Turkish targets, Western agencies and organisations or members of rival Syrian rebel groups who were also using Turkey as a base.

In summer 2014, ISIS emerged as the most formidable military force fighting to overthrow Assad. Although there was genuine distaste in Ankara for ISIS’s excesses, the belief was that its growth was an inevitable product of the Assad regime’s brutality. AKP officials argued that, once Assad was overthrown, support for ISIS would fade and ‘moderates’ would govern Syria. The hope was that these would be Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers who would look to Turkey for leadership and help in rebuilding the country. In terms of both policy and security operations, Turkey’s dispensation began to change in late 2014 and early 2015 due to pressure from Turkey’s NATO allies to prevent extremists from using the country as a transit route and an increase in Turkish intelligence reports that ISIS-affiliated elements were planning attacks inside Turkey, albeit primarily against Western targets. Through the first half of 2015, Turkish authorities gradually tightened restrictions on foreign Islamist extremists transiting the country. The process intensified after ISIS bombings in predominantly Kurdish southeast Turkey of anti-government, pro-Kurdish rallies in Diyarbakir on 5 June 2015 and in Suruc on 20 July 2015. After the Suruc bombing, Turkish authorities began to target ISIS propaganda and recruitment activities, blocking access to some pro-ISIS websites and detaining alleged recruiters.

The ISIS suicide bombings in Ankara on 10 October 2015 were seen as a significant escalation. Although the target was similar to that of the Diyarbakir and Suruc operations – namely, an anti-government, pro-Kurdish rally – the death toll of 102 was considerably higher than the four and 32 respectively killed in the previous attacks. The October bombings also took place in the heart of the Turkish capital. ISIS bombings in Istanbul on 12 January 2016 and on 19 March 2016, which killed a total of 15 foreign tourists, have reinforced the sense among Turkish authorities that ISIS is shifting its sights towards Turkish targets. Although eyewitness reports indicated that on each occasion the suicide bomber singled out foreign tourists, the foreseeably negative impact on the lucrative tourism industry translates into anti-Turkish economic targeting. Although foreigners will probably remain ISIS’s preferred direct targets, the group could select official premises or AKP offices as attack sites.

One incentive for doing so is that Turkey hosts the United States-led air campaign against ISIS at its airbase in Incirlik and has occasionally directed artillery fire and air-launched missiles against ISIS positions inside Syria. But its military response to the ISIS attacks has been relatively desultory – particularly

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