Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Parsing Iran's threat to Turkey

Iran's threat to bomb a NATO radar site in Turkey, in case of an attack by Israel or the US, doesn't seem to have gathered as much press attention as you might expect. Iranian rhetoric to "deal a firm blow" against Israel and the US - or even Gulf Arab allies - is one thing, but for a senior Revolutionary Guards official to threaten an attack on Turkish soil is a serious change in tone.

And yet the Turkish government has made no official response, which is rather surprising given Prime Minister Erdoğan's speedy and vocal denunciations of anyone else who would threaten Turkey's interests. According to columnist Lale Kemal, there are splits emerging within the Cabinet over Iran:
Some ministers, such as Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız, reportedly ran out of patience during a Cabinet meeting where he complained about Iran, accusing the country of being unappreciative of Turkey’s gestures, and criticized [Foreign Minister] Davutoğlu over his handling of Iran. 
Such splits have yet to be made public (unsurprising, given the tight rein which the PM tends to keep his ministers on). Nonetheless such an open threat to Turkey - even if it was, in theory, directed at Washington and Tel Aviv - is surely causing concern in the establishment, particularly in the military.

The warning comes bundled up with the decline in Turkish-Iranian relations over Syria. It is, depending on your point of view, either a coded and specific warning to Ankara to stop backing the Syrian opposition, or a sign of general frustration with Turkey and part of a gradual return to perceiving Turkey as a threat (largely due to its decision to host NATO's missile shield).

Ankara's official silence on the matter suggests one of two things, again depending on your viewpoint. Firstly, that Turkey doesn't take the threat seriously in the slightest, and refuses to bother responding to a message which was intended for domestic consumption. Secondly, that the threat is being taken very seriously, and that alarm bells are ringing in Ankara as officials scramble to defuse tensions.

It's not an easy one to read, but it may mark something of a sea-change in relations.

UPDATE: Ankara has sent a formal protest note to Tehran in response to the threat, whilst Davutoğlu has expressed “unease” to his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi, who said that the statement did not reflect official Iranian policy. A fairly mild reaction from Turkey, it must be said.

Turkey boosts energy security with Chinese deal

China and Turkey have signed a major deal to build a gas storage facility in central Anatolia, underscoring China’s growing investment profile and Turkey’s progress towards secure gas supplies.

Energy security has long been a major headache for Turkey for a number of reasons, from the PKK blowing up pipelines to less headline-grabbing issues like inefficient distribution networks and the slow pace of privatisation.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Karabakh snipers, a microcosm of the conflict

One of the signal failures of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process has been an inability to persuade the belligerents to withdraw snipers from the front line.

This relatively small step – which would leave untouched the vast numbers of infantry, heavy machine guns, mortars and artillery along the Line of Contact (LoC) – would cost little and would indicate at least some commitment to the peace process. But neither side has been willing to pull back snipers and, if anything, have boosted the capabilities of their sharpshooters.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Umarov appeals to Turkey to stop execution of Chechens

It seems that Doku Umarov, the leader of the North Caucasus rebel movement, isn’t content with fighting a David-and-Goliath struggle against Russia. He now has Turkey in his sights too.

In a video on North Caucasus jihadist clearing-house Kavkaz Center, Umarov warned PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gul that unless the assassination of Chechen exiles in Turkey ceased, the North Caucasus rebels would take “retaliatory action”.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Did the US just give up on Nabucco?

The US government has never championed the Nabucco project as much as Europe, for obvious reasons – unlike Caspian oil pipelines which Washington lobbied for extensively back in the 1990s, the US will receive no direct benefit from huge quantities of Caspian gas being piped to central Europe.

But the US has remained a heavyweight player in the debate, and American diplomats have been very useful to Brussels in leaning on Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to get things moving.

Now, with the choice of pipeline project being weighed up in Baku by the Shah Deniz consortium which will supply the first tranche of gas, Washington’s top Caspian energy specialist seems to have just delivered a major blow to the EU’s favoured project.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

US-Turkey helicopter deal approved

The US Congress has given final approval to sell three attack helicopters to Turkey's military, in another indication that the bilateral relationship is back on track.

The sale of three AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters, drawn from the Marine Corps inventory, has been on the table for some time. There was some opposition in the House, spearheaded by Democratic congressmen, who said that they were "deeply concerned by Turkey’s increased saber rattling, its threats against Israel, its outlook toward the European Union, its occupation of Cyprus and its unrelenting blockade of Armenia”.

Israel aside, there's nothing new in that list, certainly that's not stopped previous US Administrations from selling weaponry to Turkey and closely cooperating in the military-technical sphere. Like so many critics, the objections also seem to overlook the rather salient fact that Ankara remains a fully paid-up member of NATO, a vital partner in post-American Iraq and soon to be the host of an anti-Iranian missile defence system.

The $111 million sale will give Ankara a fillip in its renewed fight against the PKK. According to Hürriyet, Turkey purchased ten Super Cobras in the 1990s but only six are now operational, so the new acquisition will help to restore the military’s airborne capabilities.

A shortage of helicopters is a serious Achilles’ heel in taking the fight to the PKK’s mountain hideouts, and Turkish Aerospace Industries is working with Italy’s AgustaWestland to produce over 50 T-129 attack choppers to the tune of $3.2 billion.

The Super Cobra sale is a direct quid pro quo for hosting the missile shield, but it’s also just the prelude to a much more significant sale: of armed Predator and Reaper drones. If the impasse between Turkey and Israel continues, the Pentagon and pro-Turkish groups on Capitol Hill are going to have a fight on their hands to secure that particular prize.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

An evolution in Kazakh militant tactics?

Another militant attack has hit Kazakhstan, this time in the southern city of Taraz near the border with Kyrgyzstan. The country's deputy prosecutor general said that a lone gunman went on the rampage, killing five security officers, two civilians, and finally, setting off his explosive belt, himself. 

The attack is the single most deadly to have hit Kazakhstan in its year of discontent, which began with the suicide attack in Aktobe on May 17. It also marks a geographic expansion of the militant campaign, which has so far been concentrated in the west (with rare attacks in Almaty and Astana).

The full details of the Taraz attack are still a little sketchy and may never be fully revealed, but two things stand out from existing accounts. 

Firstly, the attacker - identified as 'Kariyev' - was fairly amateurish. He began by shooting dead two police officers who were tailing him, suggesting he was unable to disguise his intent and forced to begin his operation before intended. This goes some way to explaining the rest of the attack, in which Kariyev travelled between locations shooting police officers - and two civilians - as he did so, before blowing himself up as a police officer attempted to disarm him.

This is in line with other militant attacks in Kazakhstan, which appeared to have been the work of fairly unskilled operators who have, for instance, killed only themselves in premature bombings. The attacker was also alone, suggesting that a multi-member team could not be assembled for the attack. 

However the second point is that this may mark a tactical evolution of sorts. Kariyev may have simply been a suicide bomber on his way to a security service target, and armed as a precaution, when his cover was blown. But the Associated Press claims that at one point Kariyev went home to pick up a grenade launcher, a serious piece of kit which raises the possibility that this was a complex attack - a gun and grenade rampage ending with a suicide bombing, the favoured tactic of the Haqqani network in Afghanistan (among many others).

Previous attacks in Kazakhstan this year have been direct suicide bombings or gun attacks on security personnel. A combined attack suggests that the militants are becoming more confident, and capable of launching attacks outside their usual area of operations. The relative amateurishness of the attack does not contradict this.

Suspicion will fall on the Jund Al-Khilafah, the little-known militant group based on the Afghan-Pakistan border which threatened attacks in response to Kazakhstan's new restrictive law on religion, and claimed responsibility for the unsuccessful October 31st bombings in Atyrau. 

But questions remain over the relationship between Jund Al-Khilafah and the Kazakh militants. Are they sending ethnic Kazakh fighters back from Afghanistan to start a new wave of violence? Are they providing local militants with arms and training? Or are they simply inspiring religious Kazakhs to take up arms against the government?

Answers will be difficult to come by, but given the pace of attacks, it seems that the Taraz attack won't be the last in Kazakhstan's new struggle with Islamist militants.