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Turkey is a semi-colonial economic power-with everything this implies today -at the gates of Asia and Europe. The world seen from the perspective of Turkish imperialism is asphyxiating. Its two historical strategic options: access to the EU market and exporting capital to the Turkic world, were drastically blocked over a decade ago. The Erdoganist alternative has been to rely on the Muslim Brotherhood to recover influence and dialogue in what was once the domain of the Ottoman sultanate -from Tunisia to Qatar and from Azerbaijan to Sudan- and to fight, more and more openly, for the control of fossil fuels in Northern Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean.
In principle, such a broad conflict map would exceed Turkey’s military and financial capabilities. But Erdogan has not played all his pieces in one go. The current situation, with open conflicts in Libya, Syria, the maritime border with Greece and Cyprus, Azerbaijan and Iraq has been the result of difficulties rather than successes of the strategy over the past three years. Turkey follows the old Chinese strategic rule: when the game turns sour it expands the battlefield.
It was the stalemate of the confrontation in Syria – which was about to take the Turkish regime down– what precipitated a change of strategy in Libya. It was the Egyptian intervention and the control by Russian forces of the main Libyan oil plants, which forced Erdogan to choose between his allies’ stagnant advance or an escalation that he could not sustain indefinitely, which led him, in July, to bluff for the first time with a new front in Azerbaijan… in the middle of the Russian backyard. The feint served to leave a good deal of military equipment in Azerbaijan that the Turkish army simply did not collect before returning home after the joint maneuvers that followed. But it was finally the collapse of the strategy of both sides in the face of the mobilizations on both sides of the Libyan front line, which decided to spur the reopening of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Azerbaijan.
France, Germany, Italy, USA and others in the Minsk group
No wonder France is at the forefront of declarations and proposals for sanctions against Turkey. The Syrian civil war displaced France even more in Syria itself and in Lebanon -where Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, keeps closing the door even now. France was so displaced that it ended up having to ally itself with the most fragile faction… the Kurdish PKK-YPG, which meant accepting a role as a front for the US and confronting Ankara directly. Also in Libya, France has been displaced to the point of abandoning its own NATO mission -the first time that something like this happened in the history of the organization- having not found support among the allies after a dangerous friction with the Turkish army.
And to top it off, the French state has long been in a veritable republican crusade on its own territory against the Muslim Brotherhood. Today Macron presented the latest campaign against them and the Salafists. Turkish patronage is for France a problem of internal politics.
Now France has been the first to come out accusing Turkey of transporting Syrian Islamist mercenaries, just as it has been the main backer of Cyprus and Greece to impose EU sanctions on Ankara … sanctions that finally have not been approved because of German pressure, which is mobilizing countries like Spain or Italy in its policy of appeasement.
Why does Germany want to appease Turkey and is willing to kick Cyprus and Greece? In the first place, because in the gas business in the Eastern Mediterranean France, the USA, Egypt, Israel, etc. are winning… even Italy and Spain might benefit from it, but not Germany. Secondly because Turkey is their main source of alternative gas supply to Russia (NordStream, NordStream 2 and Ukraine) and to the USA (by ship). And to top it all off, Turkey threatens with reopening the door to the refugees again, thus fuelling the divisions between Germany and its neighbors and the upward tendencies of the xenophobic majority of the German petty bourgeoisie.
Does the Minsk group have a chance to play a role in the conflict? It will depend exclusively on the Russian strategy. For the time being, as we anticipated, the first tacit agreement between Russia and Turkey, on opposite sides here too, has been to leave out the other members of the Minsk group.Erdogan told the Turkish Parliament only yesterday:
Given that the United States, Russia and France have neglected this problem for almost 30 years, it is unacceptable for them to be involved in the search for a ceasefire.
Iran and Israel
Nothing is more ridiculous in the media these days than attempts to present this war as the projection of religious divisions. It is not only that Turkish Sunnism and Azeri Shiism have nothing to do with each other. It is that the main Shiite power, the Islamic Republic of Iran… is siding with Armenia. Or rather, against Azerbaijan. While Azerbaijan is leaning on Israel almost as much as on Turkey.
Azerbaijan is the national reference for the Azeris of Iran, whom Azeri nationalism hopes to bring together one day. It has a long tradition of providing asylum to opponents of the Iranian clerical regime, and to top it all, it has allowed itself to finance dissident, if not subversive, groups in the neighboring province of South Azerbaijan with which it borders. In addition, one of its main hydrocarbon purchasers is Israel, which it also serves as critical base for the surveillance of Iran.
Israel has been openly arming the Azeri army with anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles. And the Azeri defense minister, Hajayev, confessed the other day that they were using reconnaissance and attack drones, both conventional and kamikaze, the famous Harop drones. And if all this were not enough at the start of hostilities, it was reported that two large military cargo planes traveled to a military base in Israel. They did not come back loaded with cherry tomatoes.
Iran, for its part, is arming Armenia although the same ayatollahs who are chartering the cargoes for the government of Yerevan are issuing ritual communiqués showing their solidarity with the Shiite brothers of Azerbaijan.
The Indian press reported the presence of Pakistani soldiers in the Azeri army, which Islamabad has since strongly denied. It is possible that they are irregular Kashmiri forces -supported by Pakistan-, instructors of Pakistani intelligence or simply a hoax. But there is a basis of truth. Turkey has increasingly openly supported Pakistan’s position in Kashmir against India. And Islamabad was one of the few governments to support Ankara in Syria. It is very likely that Pakistan will try to play some sort of trump card in this war if it is not already doing so.
Russia’s relationship with the Pashinyan government is not so different from that with Lukashenko, although they may appear to be opposites. Pashinyan came to power two years ago riding atop the latest color revolution. Russia is not at all friendly to drastic political changes on its border and Pashinyan was not well received. But what determines Moscow’s imperialist policy is not some ideological stubbornness. So as Pashinyan took power, Russia maneuvered to successfully ensure that Armenia remained aligned with its fundamental imperialist interests. It didn’t take long. The Armenian bourgeoisie loves to fantasize about the potential investments of the diaspora, to promote cultural days with the Alliance Française and to organize start ups with British funds. But in the end its borders face Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia. The same Russia in whose stalinist and post-stalinist mold its national bourgeoisie was formed and which is, moreover, its main trading partner.
Russia has a military alliance with Armenia which has not changed with the Pashinyan government… and a military base on the border with Turkey. Although it also sells military material to Azerbaijan, the relationship is far from symmetrical. And neither is it because of any religious similarity, if at all, between Russian and Armenian Orthodoxy. As Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish foreign minister, said this week:
If Armenia had not been supported by other Western countries, but especially by Russia, it could not have been so brave today.
Russia, much stronger militarily and politically than Turkey or the other players on the ground, is not going to hurry up and respond. Time is on its side: the more it lets time pass, the clearer the US and France’s impotence will be, and the clearer Armenia’s dependence will be. Russia may simply reserve the role of final arbiter for itself.
But there is already a red line underway that could lead to more direct Russian intervention sooner than expected. Turkey is moving Islamist militias and Syrian jihadists from Libya … and Russia cannot afford a mass of Islamist mercenaries in a part of the Caucasus that took years and hundreds of thousands of victims to bring under control in the face of islamist insurgency. Chechnya and Dagestan are one step away from the fronts opened today. But Azeri President Aliyev, the son of a senior KGB leader who hoards personal lines of communication with Putin, cannot ignore it. And it certainly is not ignored by Macron, who called Putin to discuss this particular issue yesterday, Thursday. The statement from the French Presidency’s cabinet underscored the concern about Turkey sending Syrian mercenaries to Nagorno-Karabakh. In the Kremlin’s summary, this part was excluded, although later TASS took up the issue, citing the French as a source and acknowledging that the Russian authorities were aware of it.
For the time being, Armenia makes rhetorical references to its willingness to reach a cease-fire based on the one reached in 1994 with the mediation of the Minsk group. But it is pure rhetoric. In fact, Lavrov and Çavuşoğlu keep the line open to keep the conflict out of the hands of the French and Americans. And in European chancelleries and in Washington, there is a growing uncomfortable feeling that Nathalie Loiseau, the former macronite minister of European affairs, confessed to the Greek press about Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean: Under the armed conflict, Turkey and Russia share a common interest which leads them to collaborate even as they wage wars through intervening actors. In the end, they exclude everyone else from the spoils.