REALPOLITIK: ‘The Fog of War’, Turkey’s Syria gambit is fourth-generation warfare at its finest – By J. Arnoldski & J. Flores

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“…We have to step outside of conventional thinking. It’s too easy to forget how information works in warfare.. We know that in 4GW, the point is that the way we perceive the reality also creates the reality. And how we can misperceive things is part of the strategy”:

(Flores interview: Turkey’s Syria gambit is fourth-generation warfare at its finest – J. Arnoldski & J. Flores)

Turkey’s seizure of multiple villages from the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces,” i.e., US-backed Kurds has put into question the fate of Kurdish forces in and around Aleppo. What’s more, discussion has opened as to whether or not Damascus and Ankara have reached a deal trading “Kurds and terrorists for Aleppo,” thus heightening cooperation between the two countries in attaining strategic objectives which were diametrically opposed just several months ago.
Analysts have been split in their assessments of Euphrates Shield operation and its implications for Turkish-Russian rapprochement and the dynamics on the ground in Syria. While some appraised Turkey’s adventure, its involvement of “FSA” forces, and its supposed backing by the US coalition represented by Joe Biden as signs of post-coup Turkish treachery, others suggested that the campaign could not have begun, much less advanced so far, without coordination and at least tacit agreement with Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran.

Arnoldski: The question begs itself; why is it that analysts cannot agree on the nature and scope of the Turkish incursion?
Flores: We have to step outside of conventional thinking. It’s too easy to forget how information works in warfare. Information is written consciously by people, it’s interpreted by people. Information is created to be interpreted a certain way.
There are events, facts. And then there’s interpretation. Which facts you look at, and which facts you even have access to, these are separate questions. But the map is never the terrain. Whether your map features mountain ranges or bathroom stops, these are value judgments. Value judgments and reality are not the same thing.
There is of course a lot of ‘fog of war’ stuff that we can attribute to the first day or so of the Turkish incursion, which is why I bit my lip and didn’t want to give an opinion on the subject. I knew my opinion would be unpopular.

But there are more complex reasons why it’s virtually impossible to give a definitive answer here.

We know that in 4GW, the point is that the way we perceive the reality also creates the reality. And how we can misperceive things is part of the strategy.
Public analysts may forget that analysis, public analysis, and also think tank analysis written only for officials, is part of the war.
If there is a lot of confusion and disagreement over the nature of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement, if that’s even happening at all, and how to interpret Syria in light of that – then good.
Imagine how confused and confusing intelligence gathering is operating right now. You have not only analysts but various pillars in each of the societies or states that have made official and semi-official statements. Let’s face it, they are all conflicting.
So we enter into a sort of Rorschach blot and confirmation bias reality. Whatever your operating thesis was going into this event, that will determine precisely how you interpret the events. The facts have been intentionally set up and placed a certain way, precisely so that there’s something for everyone’s bias. This is intentional.

Arnoldski: So how do US attempts to contain the situation in view of their own biased reality affect the overall arrangement? Was Biden’s visit actually meant to play a part in obfuscating the turn of events? 

Flores: Yes and no. Everything is obfuscation. We have to begin on a footing of humility. We have to know that we do not know.

Now imagine Biden’s visit with Erodgan on the cusp of the Turkish invasion, incursion, however you want to term it. Of course Biden went in there with something to offer. There was this failed coup attempt. The Americans, Biden comes in, and there’s some degree of plausible deniability.

The US dissembles reality, they can play upon this perception they’ve promoted in media – it doesn’t matter to what extent it’s true, perhaps it is, probably is, but here it doesn’t matter – they’ve promoted this idea that the pentagon, the White House, and the CIA are at odds over a few things. Biden says, look, it was these other guys trying to stage the coup. He plays up this perception.
But Biden received a cold reception at the airport. He was met by a relatively low level public official. Ankara’s displeasure was clear. Or at least that’s what they wanted to project. Everyone’s putting everyone together. It’s multiple realities running in tandem.  Erdogan can tell Biden, hey we are going to make it look like we are really upset with you, so your reception will ‘appear’ cold. At the same time, in reality, others are expecting that Erdogan give Biden a cold reception – and that’s what is produced.

Everything is symbolic, and it means things to people looking for meanings. But in reality we are dealing with seasoned politicians, they are masters. Nothing means anything. Nothing is personal. ”You tried to  kill me, but I’m still here. It doesn’t bother me, let’s make a deal.”

Arnoldski: Did Erdogan ‘buy’ what Biden was selling? 

Flores: Probably not. The only reason his plane didn’t get shot down was Russian intel that they shared with him.

Understanding how these things go down means understanding how deals work. You also have to understand human nature and what bullshit smells like. Sometimes you pretend you’ve made a deal, so that the other guy doesn’t see you as a problem, so he doesn’t go home trying to figure out the next way to get at you. So, you shake hands, ‘yes we have a deal’. But was there a deal?
I’d say that Biden probably left that day believing that Erdogan at least partly went for the US’s explanation of the coup, and he knew that Turkey was going to make an incursion, and that it was going to be somewhat beneficial to the US.
Erdogan would have been clear that the US wouldn’t like everything about it, but you know in a way ‘tough shit’ because ‘you guys tried to overthrow me’, even if Biden is saying it was the other American guys and not Team Obama.

At the same time, everyone is gaming each other, and setting up for the possible double-cross in the event that they think they are going to be double-crossed. So, they may just preemptively double-cross. So the whole situation is fluid. It’s set up precisely so that everything can turn on a dime. Those are your own internal games. ‘I have no way to confirm that’. So you just chalk that up to irrelevance.

But at the same time, Erdogan was convincing enough to Biden that this would be in America’s interest. It’s a typical con game. ”Look”, said Erdogan, ”You’re going to see Damascus flip shit about this. You want to see if they are happy about it? Ask them, see how they respond.” So of course Damascus is on point for this script, and ready to flip shit about it.

Of course Damascus can’t just welcome an illegal incursion in their country. They can’t ‘invite’ Turkey in like they did with Russia, because Turkey can’t be seen as doing so to the US, Turkey wants to pursue a multi-vectored foreign policy and have as much plausible deniability as possible.

And think about now how much public resources have gone since this war started, and how much momentum there is now, on this anti-Turkey and anti-Erdogan thing among Syrians and the pro-Syrian activist crowd internationally. It’s tremendous. You can’t just ‘welcome’ Turkey.

And what happens if they go out of bounds, or flip the script and really do the US’s dirty work? Then you as the Syrian state have lost all legitimacy. Assad can’t just welcome Erdogan in.

And Erdogan still has to maintain the official line about regime change, at least for now until the situation matures a bit. Otherwise he looks very weak to his constituency, and to the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood he supports and who back him. They helped do the dirty work in the streets to put down this coup. He can’t just do them dirty, at least not so fast.

Arnoldski: And the Kurds?

Flores: Turkey has problems with the Kurds, but Syria has to denounce the incursions – these Kurds, even if they are up in arms, are still Syrian citizens. And moreover, Damascus may need to patch things up with them in the future. In fact they will. Damascus doesn’t need to ‘welcome’ any attack on Kurds from the Turks. Syria’s problems with Kurds are not the same as Turkey’s. There’s no reason for them to become the same issue.

Maybe the Turks want to genocide the Kurds. Maybe they don’t. But these are Kurds that any unitary Syrian state will have to live with, and will require support from. Not the present Kurdish leadership perhaps, but Kurdish people and new representatives. Well, welcoming in this incursion where now Turks may violently suppress Kurds as a general category, well that’s not going to fly so well in the near term future history. So the Syrians have to officially oppose all of this.

The Syrians always had to treat these Kurds with kid gloves. The Kurds have the least intel outside the region. They have no real friends. They have all bad information, they are in the dark. In geostrategic terms, they are retarded. The US has been playing them for stupid, getting them to fight against ISIS whom the US also arms through its proxies and allies.

The game here was to have ISIS retreat and ‘melt away’ with Kurdish advances, in reality to weaken Damascus and fragment Syria. Will the Kurds ever understand how they were played? Only history will tell. But they won’t listen to any Damascus later on, if Damascus welcomed the Turkish incursion.

So of course Damascus’s role in the script says they have to denounce the incursion. Whether the incursion was welcome or unwelcome, in either event, they would have to denounce it. In fact I’d be more prone to think it was unwelcome if they had publicly welcomed it. See how that works?

Arnoldski: Are the Americans backing the Turks, the Kurds, or ISIS then right now?

Flores: They think they’re backing all of them, sure, right now, why not? The Turks objectively have the most agency and the most objective capacity to make their own policy. ISIS is entirely reliant on US and Israeli proxies in the region, and the Kurdish YPG wouldn’t be where it is without the US.

But the Americans want to have some control over this Turkey incursion. At least they need to appear to. That will also cause more confusion. So the Americans can call this a victory. They desperately need a victory right now. A lot is on the line here. But the Americans can run several confusing scripts too. The neocons can call it a victory. But the other pillars will be more sympathetic to Kurds.

The Russians may have a deal with the Turks in Syria. They certainly have deals in the works, or at least both agree to pretend to, in energy markets. And this Syria war is all about the gas pipelines and Israel’s conflict with Iran. Anyone who forgets this or thinks this is about ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ of Erdogan has not only lost the script, but never had it.

After all, Erdogan’s probably assured Biden that this will be partly in their interest. It will at least create new facts on the ground and shake things up. Sometimes new facts and a shake up is all you need to get through a strategic impasse. It’s adding in that ‘X’ factor, a new variable that changes the equation. It may not be immediately apparent in which way the variables changed, but no matter what, it changes the game.

So the Americans want to make sure the ‘right’ message about this is sent, and they offer support for the operation. ”Sure, great”, says Erdogan.  So yes the Americans and the Turks had a deal. But what’s in a deal?

The more that the Americans appear to turn against the Kurds, and support most of Turkey’s moves, the more that it makes the Russians scratch their heads. ”Have we been played?” Of course not all Russians, but we are talking about various analytic circles and advisory councils. A thing to keep in mind is that all of the states involved are connected to basically market based economic models. This involves a lot of speculation. And ‘democracy’ is a lot like speculation also, it’s easy to lose support. Even if your plan is solid, the opponent can create the simulacrum that your plan isn’t solid. Then you lose support. Then your plan is no longer solid. Then you lose investors.

In that respect, analysis not only interprets the world, but under conditions of 4GW, analysis creates the world.


Arnoldski: Do you have any idea what the actual plan is? Or who said what to whom? Looking at whether Turkey has the deal with Russia and Syria, or with the US, which of these contending views are right?


Flores: Of course not, that’s unrealistic. Right now, everyone is speculating. The analysts with integrity will always go back and say when they’ve learned something or revised their positions. But others, who are basically never right about anything, and have consistently been wrong about Russia’s moves in the past, seem emotionally driven to conclude that Russia is always making blunders. So that’s their confirmation bias. Or they are speaking to the confirmation bias of their targeted audience.

The role of analysts isn’t to be ‘right’. Or ‘wrong’. This is like some reality TV conception of analytic work. Analysts have different specialties and they approach the same question with different perspectives. Other analysts, generalists, have to sort through these opinions. Even ‘wrong’ opinions are very valuable, because we can trace these to certain lines of thought, or we can analyze ‘why’ they are wrong, which produces positive data. Analysts who get things ‘wrong’ are very valuable. And right and wrong, doesn’t properly asses the work being done. A conclusion may be wrong, but the methodology is right. Would you rather have a broken clock that tells the right time twice a day, or a working clock that ticks every second perfectly, but is slow by a few hours and random minutes? Those are two different ways to be wrong. Methodology can be very good, but premise or conclusions wrong. So even apparently wrong analysis may have very sound logic, or it may introduce facts and methods of approaching the problem which are very useful.

Also, in the public sphere, not talking private analytic work directly for unpublished documents at the governmental or quasi-governmental level, but in the public sphere, some analysts are actually doing intelligence type work. They are promoting wrong views to give an impression that such and such pillar within a society views something a certain way. It’s obfuscation. It’s part of the war itself.

In reality, nobody knows what anybody said to each other behind closed doors. Even decades later when these guys write their autobiographies from the retirement home, they are going to tell the history in the way they want it remembered, or how they think people should remember it.

So you can’t even really interpret these events without a lens to see it through, but that lens is going to sway you.
We aren’t naturalists observing animals in the wild. We are people observing people who know they are being observed. They are sending signals to the observers precisely so that our interpretations of their actions and statements can be read a certain way.

We don’t approach this using Ockham’s razor. The most elegant theory is least likely to be the correct one. Tremendous resources go into creating the most confusing and inelegant, anti-rational narrative possible – that’s how you dissemble reality and confuse the opponent. The more twists and turns you can create without confusing yourself or your actual allies, the better.

Arnoldski: How do the Syrians want to be read in all of this?

They want to be read different ways by different people. There are lots of important Syrians, way up, that are just pissed as shit at Erdogan for this whole war. Lots of emotions are tied up in this, and rightfully so. Same goes for the world of analysts who tend on the emotional side, and are attached to their own views.
That’s why I always try to be detached, just lay out what’s happening. There was always a lot of vilification of Erdogan in the anti-Imperialist milieu. You’ll notice there aren’t many if any moralizing adjectives when I describe geopolitical events. When I describe the liberal ideology, sure, yes –  I can get polemical. But I have fun doing this.

The Syrians can’t be read as inviting the Turks, even if they are. That’s for sure. For reasons I’ve laid out, if you want to even try to start to figure this tangled mess out – and you never will fully – at least understand that ‘evidence’ such as Syria’s public statements about Turkey, is in fact evidence of nothing.

Arnoldski: To clarify then, the entire personification of this controversy as one between Erdogan and Putin, or Erdogan and Assad is part of the problem?

Flores: I’ve never described actions, whether Putin’s or Erdogan’s, as being rooted somehow in certain highly personalized proclivities. Instead, I look at the forces of geopolitical and geostrategic gravity operating on them. And sometimes these ‘gravity wells’ have been placed under them precisely to get them to act a certain way.
Turkey has been acting along the rational actor model this whole time, since before the start of this. They wanted a Persian pipeline deal with Iran over ten years ago. Israel wanted to isolate Iran because Iran also came up just like Israel did when Iraq was dismantled the first time 15 years ago. Israel and the neo-cons were warning about Iran – not the Iran that was – but the Iran that is in the making, in part because of the dynamics of Iraq under US occupation and after. We are talking concrete things like political support from Shias suppressed by Sadam, water and oil rights, etc.

So Turkey always wanted normal, even decent ties, with Iran. They wanted to build this pipeline. It’s politically incorrect to connect more dots regarding Russia’s line on this, so at this point even my own job says to shut up, so I will.

But if people got wrapped up in thinking that Putin lacked resolve, or that Erdogan was ‘deceitful’, then they’ve basically violated some of the basic tenets of analysis in IR, and have moved into psychoanalysis and the ‘great man’ view of history. Yes, psychology of leaders plays a role. And in cases of an actually absolutist state, the psychology of the leader plays a bigger role. Even here though, an absolutist ‘despot’ can be rational and humble himself in light of smarter views from advisors.

But there are also advisors working for all the states involved, and people whose job it is within an administration to play devil’s advocate, disagree, and other things to avoid Abilene paradox and group think situations. This is public administration 101.

Arnoldski: That being said, where is the real “deal” here? Once the 4GW intentions are sorted out, what deal and with who could this Turkish operation be revolving around? 

Flores: The situation is meant to be fluid, and this is Turkey’s initiative, post coup-attempt. This is specifically designed for us NOT to understand it, and we won’t really know until the dust has settled.

Turkey’s operation revolves around Turkey. I know this sounds circular, but it will make sense if I can explain.

But first let me say that no one’s strategic culture should be underestimated, not the Iranians, not the Americans, not the Russians, and not the Turks. No one’s.

I don’t like forecasting, I prefer summarizing events that have happened. Rational actor model is normally always the best. Always respect the intelligence and rationality of people clearly quite intelligent and capable of coming to power in complex societies. They may have giant egos, but that alone will not get them far. In fact, an unchecked one will normally preclude them from getting past a certain level. The rational actor model is the most humble and least arrogant, and most in tune with reality.

There’s always some analyst somewhere out there who thinks he’s smarter or a better planner than all of the hundreds or thousands of analysts of all the institutions, working on complex and interconnected policy questions, for that society’s government and academic institutions. They believe they know better than people who are privy to inside and top-secret information. I can’t explain it. It’s tremendous hubris. I want no part of that, no backseat driving. I don’t have the answers. The real inside baseball can only start to be unwrapped after the fact.

But if pushed to give an opinion, I will give one. We do happen to have access to political channels inside of Turkey, and Russia, some important pillars in the process of being rehabilitated in Turkey connected to some Kemalists, as well as in Russia to some of Putin’s advisers and supporters, working in the realm of information. Those who know of our other projects will understand this.

I think Turkey wants to break away from its unilateral commitments to the US and NATO, and have a security policy which is more inline with its economic and developmental policy in the region.

I think Turkey would like good relations with the US, pursuing a multilateral and multi-vectored foreign policy, and so also be able to engage in energy markets as a partner with Iran, to sell to Europe and the Balkans. They want good relations with Russia, in the area of developing energy and transport hubs, and of course they are the two powers which share the ever important Black Sea.

Turkey requires agreement with Russia to resolve any number of issues in the Caucuses. These are not necessarily friendly agreements, but Turkey has an interest to at least be able to pursue its own foreign policy interests, whether with Russia or at odds with Russia, but at any rate on its own behalf as a sovereign state.

I assess that since the US seems bent on increasing hostilities with Russia, it is strategically unacceptable for Turkey to have nuclear weapons placed on Turkish soil which only the US has the ability to activate.

It makes no sense to be a walking target for a war that’s not in your interest. Are there things that the US maybe could have done to make Turkey have a greater interest? Perhaps. Maybe these would do with the Black Sea and the Crimea, defense matters dealing with post-coup Ukraine. That that didn’t pan well for the US.

Turkey’s proximity to Russia makes it like Poland, a first strike target, and Poland is in a similar situation, but lacks the objective conditions to have an independent foreign policy, in the way that Turkey does.

Turkey is a regional hegemon in its own right and yet through unilateral policy, it has put itself in otherwise unnecessary peril. This has nothing to do with Erdogan the man. Erdogan inherited the present situation. I oppose the policies of that state when they should be opposed, and support them when they should be supported. Erdogan has come, and he will eventually leave – but Turkey’s objective and special geostrategic and geopolitical position will remain.

Arnoldski: So what is your assessment of Turkey’s position in the Syrian war in general?

In my humble opinion, Turkey was forced into this war not because ‘Erdogan wants to do Washington’s bidding’. Not because anyone wanted anything of that sort. Things just do not operate this way in reality.

Keep in mind what I’ve said about bias. I’ve tried to give my biases here – rational actor model, etc. But also you can see my view is that much of this is related to security, infrastructural development, and of course gas pipeline geopolitics.

So bearing that in mind, I think one scenario that is most likely, of all the scenarios I’ve considered, is this:

Turkey’s interest in the war revolved around the completion of the AGP line into Turkey. But Syria led by Assad wouldn’t allow this, because it cut seriously against Iran’s interest.

But initially, Turkey wanted to do the deal, the Persian pipeline deal, with Iran.

But once Iran was under sanctions and Washington put the squash on the Persian pipeline, because the EU and Switzerland went along with the sanctions, it was clear that the Southern Corridor plan or Nabucco by itself would not produce enough to justify investment or expansion by the Turks.

The pressure from the US and Israel was then to complete the Arab Gas Pipeline that ended in Syria, onto Turkey. And Israel wanted to expand the Arish-Ashkelon connector as it’s stealing Palestinian gas and it sells through the AGP. Israel may have also wanted a separate line that doesn’t go through Jordan, but directly goes from Egypt up all the way, because the Arish-Ashkelon connector isn’t central and as a result can reverse flow back to Egypt without a disruption of the whole line. In fact its reverse flowing now to Egypt, now that there is an Egyptian government which won’t allow itself to be energy starved at Israel’s demand.

But the point of the AGP is that Syria would not only receive less gas, but the connection to Turkey would be completed, and hook up with existing Turkish lines, or be repackaged and sold to investors as part of a Southern Corrdior or Nabucco plan.

Several big signs that Turkey was trying to get out from under the gravity well placed beneath it, which had forced it on a war path with Syria, were these:

First, Syria began to win the war, and with Russia and China overtly involved, this is not going to change.

Second Russia and Turkey announced the Turkish stream – this is a hedge for Turkey against being committed to the AGP completion, and hence to the war effort in Syria.

Third, Turkey and Iran had a high level meeting just last March 5th at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, where they agreed to a range of things relating to security and mutual economic development. It’s important symbolically that it was Turkey that went to Tehran.

That’s why the Iranian airbase situation with the Russians was such a big deal. The US cannot be given a free ticket to pressure the Swiss, or say that Iran is in violation of sanctions. The Swiss were heavily invested in this Persian pipeline, and they still want it. It’s also good for Europe.

Fourth, the sanctions against Iran were partially lifted, and importantly so, the Swiss announced such. The Swiss are the largest European investor in the Persian pipeline. This means that an independent Turkey can return to the Persian pipeline.

Lastly, the coup in Turkey was backed by the US and sought to put into power precisely that pro-Israel and pro-US part of the NATO establishment in Turkey committed to the war in Syria. The US would have probably put in someone both the Gulenists, NATO, and the ruling AKP would support – former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu – who was just fired by Erdogan last May.

That this coup failed, and that those involved were closest to Atlanticist power stuctures and were subsequently arrested, says a lot to me.

Therefore, I am forced to conclude, from the perspective of my own bias, and my limited understanding of a very complex world in which I can never know all the facts, that Turkey is for the first time operating in Turkey’s interests. Not entirely, not purely, but by a tremendous factor more so than ever before in recent history. If that’s neo-Ottomanism, then it’s neo-Ottomanism, so be it.

But in reality it’s about developing a policy based on what has always been the rule of thumb in diplomacy, to have as much good relations with as many states as possible, at any given time. Being obedient to NATO or a unilateralist policy, is the opposite of this rule of thumb.

Turkey will use its position in Syria to wrestle what it wants from Syria. Maybe this will include the completion of the AGP! But only if Iran also gets its connector to Turkey, and other guarantees from Turkey.

Arnoldski: What does this mean for the war as a whole, in conclusion? 

At any rate, this whole war, if it can end soon as a result of Turkey’s change of position, besides the human tragedy to date, will be studied for generations to come as the product of states like Turkey tied to irrational alliances forced upon them by the US and Israel, which created conflict that could have been avoided. If Turkey can play a role in ending this conflict in a way that is in the interests of Turkey, but also Syria and Iran, then it will have ended in an acceptable way.

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