Assessing Turkey’s Future Role in the Middle East

Nicholas Morgan is an M.A student studying Russian and Post-Soviet Politics at University College London.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessing Turkey’s Future Role in the Middle East

Date Originally Written:  October 2, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  November 5, 2018.

Summary:  As a result of its unilateral foreign policy choices as well as a lingering currency crisis at home, Turkey will be forced to re-evaluate many of its present policies in relation to the Middle East. With ongoing threats of greater violence on its borders, increasing diplomatic isolation and economic decline, Turkey’s aspirations for greater regional influence are seriously reduced and it is likely that its position is to decline further because mounting problems at home and abroad.

Text:  Turkey’s challenged position within the Middle East is a result of regional dynamics that have de-stabilized its neighbors, whether it be from their own internal turmoil or geopolitical intrigues by larger powers. At the dawn of the Arab Spring, Turkish leaders saw it as an opportunity to assume a leadership position amidst the ashes of political upheaval and was upheld as a model by others. However, Turkish ventures into issues such as the Syrian Civil War and the blockade of Qatar have cost it significant political capital among its neighbors. An ongoing currency crisis, domestic political changes and fighting on its borders have only served to further weaken Turkey’s position in the Middle East.

The maelstrom that is Syria’s civil war can be considered the harbinger of many of Turkey’s present woes. The spillover effects from the war threatened to escalate as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has moved towards an offensive against Idlib province along Turkey’s southern border. Such a move would be nearly catastrophic for Turkish interests given its holdings in northern Syria, and the potential flood of refugees across its borders, when it already is the largest host of Syrians fleeing the war[1]. In addition to refugees, jihadist fighters targeted by Assad would likely retreat over the Turkish border or into holdings in Syria, raising the specter of violence there.

Caught in the spotlight of these circumstances are Turkey’s alliance with Russia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has invested significantly into his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, frequently meeting with him to secure Russian concessions to Turkish concerns in Syria. The two have met several times in recent months to discuss Idlib, and it appears to have borne fruit as Russia recently delayed any offensive into the province while Turkey tries to disarm or remove jihadist fighters there[2]. However, Russia did not commit to a total halt of any offensive on Idlib, just to postpone one. Moscow is acutely aware of Turkey’s vulnerability in the event of an offensive and that Turkey will be unlikely to convince jihadist hardliners to abide by any ceasefire[3]. Ultimately, an attack on Idlib will come regardless given Assad’s desire to reunify his nation by force and as the past has shown, Russia will commit to assisting that goal. Neither has any desire to see a clash between their forces in the province, but Russia is more than aware of its leverage when an offensive is launched given the spillover risks to Turkey itself and the refusal of jihadist groups to abide by the ceasefire.

Another danger presented by any offensive on Idlib is the effect it would have on Turkey’s conflict with Kurdish militias it considers terrorist groups. Presently, with the looming threat of fighting Assad over Idlib, Turkey’s stance is precarious. Worried about a U.S withdrawal and the status of the lands they conquered, the Kurds have hedged their situation by opening negotiations with Damascus and Moscow[4]. If Turkey is seen as retreating under threat of confrontation with Syria, it could embolden the Kurds to seek deeper ties with the regime. Given Assad’s desire for restoring his rule over all Syria and the Kurds’ desire for recognition of their interests, an attack would call into question Turkey’s control over Afrin and other holdings. At that point, Turkey would be stuck in the unenviable position of being dragged deeper into the war or being made to surrender Kurdish lands it seized in recent years. This would defeat all of Ankara’s strategic objectives in engaging in Syria.

Beyond Syria, Turkey’s relationships with the other Middle Eastern powers are at a low point that shows little sign of improving. Its only ally within the region is Qatar because of Erdogan’s decision to back Doha in its dispute with other Gulf monarchies last year. The other Arab states allied to Saudi Arabia view Turkey with enmity, with the Saudi crown prince even declaring the Turks as part of a triangle of evil because of its support to Qatar and its position in the Syrian war[5]. Even Israel, who Turkey had just begun reproaching several years ago after a long period of tension, has found itself more aligned with the Arabs than Ankara. This alignment was evident in the Arab denunciation of Ankara for insisting the Arab League was hesitant to support the Palestinians, a cause Erdogan personally seeks to champion[6]. Given that Arab officials have gone to the point of warning Israel about excess Turkish influence in East Jerusalem, it is safe to suggest whatever leadership position Turkey aspires to in the region will remain a pipe dream[7].

Finally, considereing the fragile state of the Turkish economy in light of mounting foreign debt, high inflation and American sanctions, the country may soon be forced to focus on preventing a deeper recession than on foreign intrigues. The government’s response so far has not significantly halted either the currency’s decline nor has it halted the growth of inflation. Already, plans involve new austerity measures and support to larger institutions in restructuring their debt[8]. All the while, smaller businesses are bucking under increased costs from the lira’s weakness and consumers are beginning to feel the sting of rising inflation[9]. With the specter of renewed migration as a result of an attack on Idlib in Syria, Turkey’s domestic politics risk further unraveling. Between rising prices and the risk of unemployment as well as a reluctance to take in more refugees, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) may find their political position at greater risk in future elections[10].

Given its increasingly constrained position, Turkey is unlikely to be able to exert any greater influence over the wider Middle East. Facing security risks relating to the Syrian Civil War, diplomatic isolation from its decision to back Qatar and alienate the United States, and economic decline at home, Turkey will be forced to retreat from many of its policies across the region. Otherwise, Ankara’s own stability may be called into question, a scenario that all but ensures a further diminished posture and an end to any aspirations of leadership.


Endnotes:

[1] Schelin, Lisa. UN Official: Buffer Zone in Syria’s Idlib Province Averts War for Now. VOA. https://www.voanews.com/a/un-official-buffer-zone-syria-idlib-averts-war-for-now/4580255.html (September 20, 2018)

[2] DW. Russia, Turkey agree to create demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib. DW. https://www.dw.com/en/russia-turkey-agree-to-create-demilitarized-zone-around-syrias-idlib/a-45530727 (September 17, 2018)

[3] Decina, Alexander. ANALYSIS: How Security and Diplomacy Intersect in Russia and Turkey’s Idlib Deal. WANA Institute. http://wanainstitute.org/sites/default/files/publications/Publication_Idlib_English.pdf (October 2, 2018)

[4] Tastekin, Fehim. As conditions shift in Syria, Kurds open to talks with Damascus. al-Monitor.https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/06/turkey-syria-what-pushes-kurds-deal-with-regime.html (June 21, 2018)

[5] Evans, Dominic. Saudi Prince Says Turkey part of ‘Triangle of evil’-Egyptian Media. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-turkey/saudi-prince-says-turkey-part-of-triangle-of-evil-egyptian-media-idUSKCN1GJ1WW (March 7, 2018)

[6] Sawsan, Abu Hussein. Arab League Denounces Turkish Statements on Relocating U.S Embassy to Jerusalem. Asharq al-Awsat. https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1266991/arab-league-denounces-turkish-statements-relocating-us-embassy-jerusalem (May 13, 2018)

[7] Tibon, Amir & Kubovich, Yaniv. Jordan, Saudis and Palestineans warn Israel: Erdogan operating in East Jersusalem under your nose. Haaretz. (July 1, 2018)

[8] Albayrak, Ozlem. In Turkey, New Economic Plan Comes up Short. Asia Times. http://www.atimes.com/article/in-turkey-new-economic-plan-comes-up-short/ (September 21, 2018)

[9] Pitel, Laura & Guler, Funja. Turkey’s shopping centres at sharp end of currency crisis. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/90479ce0-bb64-11e8-8274-55b72926558f (September 19, 2018)

[10[ Brandt, Jessica & Kirsici, Kemal. Turkey’s economic woes could spell trouble for Syrian refugees. Axios. https://www.axios.com/turkeys-economic-woes-could-spell-trouble-for-syrian-refugees-d1eaae2e-fcd3-45ff-a1b1-a26567115e8b.html (August 28, 2018)

Assessment Papers Middle East Nicholas Morgan Turkey

Assessment of the Threat Posed by the Turkish Cyber Army

Marita La Palm is a graduate student at American University where she focuses on terrorism, countering violent extremism, homeland security policy, and cyber domain activities.  She can be found on Twitter at maritalp.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


Title:  Assessment of the Threat Posed by the Turkish Cyber Army

Date Originally Written:  March 25, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  April 9, 2018.

Summary:  Turkish-sympathetic hacker group, the Turkish Cyber Army, has changed tactics from seizing and defacing websites to a Twitter phishing campaign that has come remarkably close to the President of the United States.

Text:  The Turkish Cyber Army (Ay Yildiz Tim) attempted to compromise U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter account in January of 2018 as part of a systematic cyber attack accompanying the Turkish invasion of Syria.  They were not successful, but they did seize control of various well-known accounts and the operation is still in progress two months later.

Although the Turkish Cyber Army claims to date back to a 2002 foundation in New Zealand, it first appears in hacking annals on October 2, 2006.  Since then, the group has taken over vulnerable websites in Kenya, the European Union, and the United States[1].  As of the summer of 2017, the Turikish Cyber Army changed tactics to focus on Twitter phishing, where they used the compromised Twitter account of a trustworthy source to bait a target to surrender log-in credentials[2].  They do this by sending a direct message from a familiar account they control telling the desired victim to click on a link and enter their log-in information to a page that looks like Twitter but actually records their username and password.  Upon accessing the victim’s account, the hackers rapidly make pro-Turkish posts, download the message history, and send new phishing attacks through the new account, all within a few hours.  The Turkish Cyber Army claim to have downloaded the targets’ messages, apparently both for intelligence purposes and to embarrass the target by publicly releasing the messages[3].  Oddly enough, the group has yet to release the private messages they acquired in spite of their threats to do so.  The group is notable both for their beginner-level sophistication when compared to state hackers such as Fancy Bear and the way they broadcast every hack they make.

The first documented victim of the 2018 operation was Syed Akbaruddin, Indian Permanent Representative to the United Nations.  Before the attack on Akbaruddin, the hackers likely targeted Kurdish accounts in a similar manner[4].  Since these initial attacks, the Turkish Cyber Army moved steadily closer to accounts followed by President Trump and even managed to direct message him on Twitter[5].  In January 2018, they phished multiple well-known Western public figures such as television personality Greta van Susteren and the head of the World Economic Forum, Børge Brende.  It so happened that Greta and Eric Bolling, another victim, are two of the only 45 accounts followed by President Trump.  From Eric and Greta’s accounts, the hackers were able to send messages to Trump.  Two months later, the Turkish Cyber Army continued on Twitter, but now primarily with a focus on Indian accounts.  The group took over Air India’s Twitter account on March 15, 2018.  However, the aftereffects of their Western efforts can still be seen: on March 23, 2018 the Chief Content Officer of Time, Inc. and the President of Fortune, Alan Murray tweeted, “I was locked out of Twitter for a month after being hacked by the Turkish cyber army…” Meanwhile, the Turkish Cyber Army has a large and loud Twitter presence with very little regulation considering they operate as an openly criminal organization on the platform.

President Trump’s personal Twitter account was also a target for the Turkish Cyber Army.  This is not a secret account known only to a few.  President Trump’s account name is public, and his password is all that is needed to post unless he has set up two-factor authentication.  Trump uses his account to express his personal opinions, and since some of his tweets have had high shock value, a fake message intended to disrupt might go unquestioned.  It is fair to assume that multiple groups have gone at President Trump’s account with a password cracker without stopping since inauguration.  It is only a matter of time before a foreign intelligence service or other interested party manages to access President Trump’s direct messages, make provocative statements from his account that could threaten the financial sector or national security, and from there go on to access more sensitive information.  While the Turkish Cyber Army blasts their intrusion from the compromised accounts, more sophisticated hacking teams would be in and out without a word and might have already done so.  The most dangerous hackers would maintain that access for the day it is useful and unexpected.

While nothing immediately indicates that this group is a Turkish government organization, they are either supporters of the current government or work for it.  Both reporter Joseph Cox and the McAfee report claimed the group used Turkish code[6].  Almost a hundred actual or bot accounts have some identifier of the Turkish Cyber Army, none of which appear to be censored by Twitter.  Of particular interest in the group’s history are the attacks on Turkish political party Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi’s (CHP) deputy Eren Erdem’ın, alleging his connections with Fethullah Gulen and the 2006 and possible 2017 attempts to phish Kurdish activists[7].  The Turkish Cyber Army’s current operations occurred on the eve of massive Turkish political risk, as the events in Syria could have ended Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s career had they gone poorly. Not only did Turkey invade Syria in order to attack trained troops of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, the United States, but Turkish representatives had been banned from campaigning in parts of the European Union, and Turkish banks might face a multi-billion dollar fine thanks to the Reza Zarrab case[8].  Meanwhile, both Islamist and Kurdish insurgents appeared emboldened within the country[9].  Turkey had everything to lose, and a cyberattack, albeit not that sophisticated but conducted against high value targets, was a possibility while the United States appeared undecided as to whom to back — its proxy force or its NATO ally.  In the end, the United States has made efforts to reconcile diplomatically with Turkey since January, and Turkey has saved face.


Endnotes:

[1]  Ayyildiz Tim. (n.d.). Retrieved January 24, 2018, from https://ayyildiz.org/; Turks ‘cyber-leger’ kaapt Nederlandse websites . (2006, October 2). Retrieved January 24, 2018, from https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2006/10/02/turks-cyber-leger-kaapt-nederlandse-websites-11203640-a1180482; Terry, N. (2013, August 12). Asbury park’s website taken over by hackers. McClatchy – Tribune Business News; Ministry of transport website hacked. (2014, March 5). AllAfrica.Com. 

[2] Turkish hackers target Sevan Nishanyan’s Twitter account. (2017, July 28). Armenpress News Agency.

[3] Beek, C., & Samani, R. (2018, January 24). Twitter Accounts of US Media Under Attack by Large Campaign. Retrieved January 24, 2018, from https://securingtomorrow.mcafee.com/mcafee-labs/twitter-accounts-of-us-media-under-attack-by-large-campaign/.

[4] #EfrinNotAlone. (2018, January 17). “News that people  @realDonaldTrump followers have been hacked by Turkish cyber army. TCA made an appearance a few days ago sending virus/clickey links to foreigners and my Kurdish/friends. The journalist who have had their accounts hacked in US have clicked the link.”  [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/la_Caki__/status/953572575602462720.

[5] Herreria, C. (2018, January 17). Hackers DM’d Donald Trump With Former Fox News Hosts’ Twitter Accounts. Retrieved March 25, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/eric-bolling-greta-van-susteren-twitter-hacked_us_5a5eb17de4b096ecfca88729

[6] Beek, C., & Samani, R. (2018, January 24). Twitter Accounts of US Media Under Attack by Large Campaign. Retrieved January 24, 2018, from https://securingtomorrow.mcafee.com/mcafee-labs/twitter-accounts-of-us-media-under-attack-by-large-campaign/; Joseph Cox. (2018, January 23). “Interestingly, the code of the phishing page is in… Turkish. “Hesabın var mı?”, or “Do you have an account?”.”  [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/josephfcox/status/955861462190383104.

[7] Ayyıldız Tim FETÖnün CHP bağlantısını deşifre etti. (2016, August 27). Retrieved January 24, 2018, from http://www.ensonhaber.com/ayyildiz-tim-fetonun-chp-baglantisini-desifre-etti-2016-08-28.html; Turks ‘cyber-leger’ kaapt Nederlandse websites . (2006, October 2). Retrieved January 24, 2018, from https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2006/10/02/turks-cyber-leger-kaapt-nederlandse-websites-11203640-a1180482.

[8] Turkey-backed FSA entered Afrin, Turkey shelling targets. (2018, January 21). BBC Monitoring Newsfile; Turkey blasts Germany, Netherlands for campaign bans. (2017, March 5). BBC Monitoring European; Zaman, A. (2017, December 07). Turkey probes US prosecutor in Zarrab trial twist. Retrieved January 24, 2018, from https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/11/turkey-probes-reza-zarrab-investigators.html.

[9] Moore, J. (2017, December 28). Hundreds of ISIS fighters are hiding in Turkey, increasing fears of attacks in Europe. Retrieved January 24, 2018, from http://www.newsweek.com/hundreds-isis-fighters-are-hiding-turkey-increasing-fears-europe-attacks-759877; Mandıracı, B. (2017, July 20). Turkey’s PKK Conflict Kills almost 3,000 in Two Years. Retrieved January 24, 2018, from https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/western-europemediterranean/turkey/turkeys-pkk-conflict-kills-almost-3000-two-years.

Assessment Papers Cyberspace Marita La Palm Trump (U.S. President) Turkey

Options for Turkey in Syria

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Chris Townsend is an active duty U.S. Army officer with 20 years of service.  He is a Middle East and North Africa Foreign Area Officer.  He can be found on Twitter @FAO_Chris and has written for the Journal of Defense Resources Management, Small Wars Journal, Armchair General, and the Strategy Bridge.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Turkey’s options regarding the civil war, humanitarian, and international crisis in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  November 23, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 12, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is an active duty military officer currently focused on Multinational Logistics for a Geographic Combatant Command.  This article explores Turkey’s options in the Syrian Conflict.  The author’s opinions of Turkey’s options in Syria have been informed by his experiences as a Foreign Area Officer and benefitted from articles published by World Politics Review, Politico, The Middle East Institute, The Atlantic Council, and Stratfor.

Background:  Following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, protests in Syria resulted in a security crackdown that devolved into outright civil war between Alawi leaders and loyalists and the largely Sunni resistance.  Refugee flows from conflict areas have created problems for all neighboring countries.  Al-Qaida and the Islamic State have been actively involved in the resistance, while Lebanese Hezbollah has supported the Syrian ruling regime.  Russia has intervened on behalf of the Syrian government, while the United States has provided training and equipment to resistance fighters.  Kurdish militias in Northern Syria have largely supported opposition forces.  The complex and dynamic array of forces presents significant challenges politically and militarily for Turkey.

Significance:  The ongoing sectarian struggle in Syria presents significant security challenges for Turkey.  The presence of international and indigenous military forces in Syria as well as heavy refugee flows fleeing the fighting all represent a threat to the security and stability of the Turkish state.

Option #1:  Containment.  Turkey can close its border and protect its airspace until the situation in Syria is resolved.

Risk:  Refugee flows will create problems at the border and a potential humanitarian crisis that would draw condemnation from the global community.  Kurdish militias will be able to link up and may represent a perceived threat to Turkish security.

Gain:  Refugees are kept out of Turkey.  Turkish military involvement is limited to border security and airspace defense.  Turkey provides a neutral space for negotiations between belligerents and reaps potential diplomatic gains.

Option #2:  Syrian Buffer Zone.  Turkey pushes ground and air forces south to secure Northern Syria from Azaz in the West to Jarabulus in the East.

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Risk:  Turkish troops exposed to increased conflict from Syrian Forces.  Potential clashes with Kurdish and Russian military elements could escalate conflict.  Actions could be seen as the invasion of a sovereign nation and will likely be met with condemnation and potential sanctions.  No-fly zone activities to support the buffer zone may be challenged by Russia or Syria with ramifications for interdiction.  Turkish resources are insufficient to sustain such an effort and would require external support for extended operations.

Gain:  Provides a safe space for refugees without allowing them into Turkey.  Prevents Kurdish elements in the East and West from linking up.  Provides a learning opportunity to Turkish Forces by deploying troops and equipment into combat with a minimal logistics tail.

Option #3:  Support to Syrian proxy Jaysh Halab (Army of Aleppo).  Turkey provides training and equipment with support from Saudi Arabia to its proxy in Syria to maintain a Turkish footprint without Turkish presence and prevent Kurdish elements from combining into a larger force on Turkey’s southern border.

Risk:  Exposure to culpability for actions of the proxy force if war crimes are committed against Syrian or Kurdish soldiers or civilians.  Lack of vetting capability exposes the proxy to infiltration by other elements.  Little clarity of intent as forces are engaging both Kurdish and Syrian forces.

Gain:  Proxy inhibits Kurdish momentum towards unification of forces.  Increased relations with Saudi Arabia help to further offset Iranian influence in the region.  Turkey poised to establish proxy as peacekeeping force if hostilities cease, maintaining influence in Syria and positive control of border interests.

Other Comments:  Turkey seems to be currently pursuing all three options simultaneously.  A border wall is under construction.  Turkish forces are operating in Syria. Jaysh Halab is receiving support but its early activities seem to be anti-Kurd instead of anti-Syrian Government.  The Turkish presence in Northern Iraq serves as a hedge that will largely funnel retreating Islamic State forces west into Raqqah, Syria.  The Turkish or proxy forces to the North of Raqqah provide pressure and limit options for the Islamic State as threats emerge from the East and South.  Turkey represents a potential spoiler for U.S. efforts to clear Raqqah as their involvement creates political hazards by limiting U.S. options and increasing the risk of rejection by Kurdish partners.

Recommendation:  None


Endnotes:

None.

Chris Townsend Civil War Islamic State Variants Option Papers Syria Turkey