With the announcement last week of the setting up of two Turkish military bases in the Middle East – Qatar and Iraq – the geopolitics of the region is poised for a historic transformation. Turkey is reclaiming its Ottoman legacy with a vengeance and this time around, it is Turkey who will ride the Arab Revolt, which a century ago in an earlier form at the supervision of Imperial Britain had reduced it from an empire to a nation state.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks proactive and self-assured and demands serious attention

Contrary to the prevailing narrative of President Recep Erdogan being a maverick who made a mess of his country’s promising future, he looks proactive and self-assured and demands serious attention. Erdogan is juggling more than one ball and not all of them are Russian balls. By the idiom of the sport of juggling, Edogan plays simultaneously with beanbags, stage balls, and silicon balls.

He likes beanbags because of the ease with which they can be caught and their availability, stage balls for their dramatic effect, silicon balls for their easy grip and catch (although expensive in price), and he has a passion for Russian balls, which are cheap and well-suited for experimentation.

Each of them has a different use for Erdogan. The setting up of the Turkish military base in Mosul, northern Iraq, is a beanbag, of course. It comes cheap and is easily secured, but has valuable use against the backdrop of the maelstrom of Kurdish nationalism, energy security and the threat of Islamic State – and the broader regional backdrop of Iran’s rise – swirling in the region.

Turkey says it proposes to train the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq owing allegiance to Massoud Barzani and help them liberate Mosul from the clutches of the Islamic State. But Erdogan’s main purpose lies elsewhere: first, weaken the Kurdish separatists from Turkey belonging to the PKK operating out of sanctuaries in northern Iraq, and secondly, defeat the plan by the militant Syrian Kurdish groups to consolidate their presence along Turkey’s border and to create a corridor connecting Rojava (their homeland) with the Mediterranean, which could help them evacuate the region’s oil to the world market.

Barzani has been Turkey’s longstanding friend. But Ankara has noted with unease the frequent visits to Erbil lately by the famous Iranian general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qasem Soleimani and the growing proximity developing between Syrian Kurds (who are aligned with the Turkish PKK) and Moscow.

Unsurprisingly, Turkey is coordinating with Saudi Arabia and Qatar – with the tacit support of Washington – given the anti-Iranian, anti-Russian thrust of its move to establish military control over Mosul region, which is hugely strategic.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia, with a retinue of top 20 princes in attendance, including the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif and the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, hosted Barzani to a royal lunch on December 1, just four days before Turkey dispatched hundreds of troops and tanks to Mosul. For sure, Salman’s grand banquet for Barzani was a big signal to Tehran (and Moscow) that the Saudis are wading into Kurdish politics.

Erdogan intends to sap the capacity of Russia and Iran to use the Kurdish separatist card against Turkey, which in turn would give Ankara a free hand to push through the ‘regime change’ agenda in Syria, seize control of the vast hydrocarbon reserves of the region (which Imperial Britain had taken away under the Armistice of Mudros in 1918) and to rally the Sunni Arab countries under its leadership.

To be sure, Erdogan has a fight on his hands. Tehran has reacted furiously to the Turkish announcement on the setting up of a military base in Mosul, calling it a “threat to regional security”, which instead of helping the fight against terrorism will only “increase chaos and insecurity” in the region.

The Iraqi foreign ministry summoned the Turkish ambassador to protest against the “hostile act”; Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi called it a “serious breach of Iraqi sovereignty”; President Fuad Musam said the move is “a violation of international norms, laws and Iraq’s national sovereignty” and demanded that Turkey should withdraw the troops “immediately”.

A senior Iraqi politician Hakim al-Zamili, who heads the parliament’s security and defence committee warned, “We may soon ask Russia for direct military intervention in Iraq in response to the Turkish invasion and the violation of Iraqi sovereignty”.

Indeed, the big question is what Russia and Iran propose to do politically and militarily. A prominent Russian pundit from the Institute of Oriental Studies under the Academy of Sciences Boris Dolgov told the state news agency TASS, “Spurning repeated requests for support by the Syrian Kurds to Moscow, Russia until just recently preferred to stay neutral for the sake of preserving the relations of partnership with Turkey. (But) after the Turkish Air Force shot Russia’s Sukhoi-24 front-line bomber over Syria, the situation has changed. It should not be ruled out that in this delicate matter Russia will be acting in its national interests.”

Russia will closely watch how Washington handles its alliance with the Syrian Kurds, who happen to be a bulwark against the Islamic State. The US has a tradition of throwing the Kurds under the bus after using them, and in the present case, Turkey’s cooperation is vital for the American regional strategies.

Be that as it may, Erdogan is also holding stage balls and silicon balls and hopes to keep juggling them ad infinitum. If his stage ball would be Qatar – a military base in Qatar brings Turkey dramatically to Iran’s doorstep in the Persian Gulf – his silicon ball would be the West’s acquiescence, whilst he experiments with the Russian ball.

As a Russian warship passed through Bosphorous last week on its way to the Mediterranean, a Turkish submarine casually surfaced alongside. And a couple of days later, on Sunday, when Ceasar Kunikov, another Russian warship, passed through the Bosphorous, the Turkish footage on camera caught a sailor on board holding a ground-to-air missile. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reacted saying, “This is provocation, this is a harassing passage”. Clearly, this is a developing story.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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