Syria’s PKK game
Clues about allegations regarding that recently Syria and PKK have gotten closer to one another will be strived to be searched through archive review and discourse analysis methods in this study.
To this end; news on Turkish press, analyses taking place in news agencies close to PKK, and the statements of PKK and leaders from Democratic Union Party (PYD) which is its political wing in Syria will be used as basis. The conclusions at the end of the research are as follows: The news, which are rather related to the intelligence, on Turkish press put forward that “In recent months, Syria has been providing PKK terrorist organization with area of movement, even if it is not at the same level as it was in 1980's and 1990's”. When the statements of PKK and PYD leaders are evaluated in accordance with discourse analysis, it is seen that these statements are such as to support “an increasing approach between Syria and PKK”. And the third conclusion reached is that, “Within the framework of an effort to have an influence on the Syrian Kurds, there has been a rivalry between PKK and North Iraq (particularly KDP).”
It can be suggested that roughly there is a double split among the Syrian Kurds in terms of political influence. The first is the group, which is led by PYD that is the political extension of PKK in Syria and PKK itself. This group has a critical approach against Syrian opponents and opponent organizations, which were organized abroad and argue for breakdown of the Assad regime. Even though they do not want to be seen too close to the Assad administration, they strive to monopolize the Syrian Kurds by taking advantage of the current weak position of the regime. A tactical cooperation between this group and the regime could be mentioned. Within this scope, while the regime provides PYD with area of movement in Kurdish regions again, PYD use its influence on the Kurds in favor of the regime. And the group, which is against PYD and which adopted a critical approach against the regime, acts in unison with the Syrian opposition while striving to receive a foreign support from North Iraq. The political representative of this group is the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, which is led by Abdul Hakim Bashar and composed of 11 parties. While these two groups compete with each others, on the other hand, they try to secure their positions inside by receiving supports of different regional actors. In this study, all these aforesaid allegations and assumptions will be strived to be based on a ground.
Back to the Past in Turkey-Syria Relations: Signals of Syria-PKK Cooperation
After the civil unrest emerged in Syria on March 15th 2011, the first signal of cooperation between the Assad regime and PKK was seen in an analysis of the Fırat News Agency, which is known for its close relations with PKK. According to this analysis, “The mistakes of AKP in foreign policy opened new areas to PKK. These mistakes expanded PKK's room for maneuver. Above all, the area ranging from Iran, Iraq, Syria to Lebanon was thoroughly opened to PKK.” What is meant here by the mistakes of AK Party is probably AKP's anti-Assad approach related to the events in Syria. In the analysis, it was strived to be said that Turkey's “wrong” policies lead Syria and her supporter Iran to let anti-Turkey forces act more freely in their own areas of movement.
Within this process, an important development took place in Qamishli province of Syria. Meshal Temmo, one of the prominent leaders of Syrian Kurds, was assassinated in front of his house in Qamishli on October 7th, Friday. While reporting this news on Firat News Agency, such a statement was used: “Meshal Temmo, Kurdish member of Syrian National Council (SNC) established in Istanbul and supported by the Western powers and Turkey.” According to the same resource, Temmo “was one of the 7 people elected in the presidential council of the SNC declared in Istanbul, but it was not announced yet. In all its statements, PYD described Kurdish representatives within SNC as “collaborator”.
Concerns regarding that Syria could start to support PKK again as she did before were mentioned by Turkish officials as well. In an analysis on Western media, referring to a Turkish official, “the fact that Syria supported PKK was reminded, and concerns about the possibility that Damascus could play the Kurdish problem card in order to provoke Turkey following the setback in relations between the parties” were mentioned. Even if not explicitly, these concerns were implicitly mentioned by the highest level. Nobody suspected of the fact that the target was Iran and Syria, when Prime Minister Erdoğan stated that “Anyone who support or encourage the terrorist organization will all be called to account by all means” after the PKK attack organized in Çukurca. Another top-level statement came from President Abdullah Gül. Probably based on information in this direction, Gül strongly recommended to the Syrian party “not to involve in the PKK game.” And Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu responded to a similar question by saying that “I do not believe Syria would make a mistake by using PKK.” According to some allegations on Western media again, “Syrian intelligence service threatened Turkey by saying that 'We start to arm PKK again, if Erdoğan continues to interfere in our internal affairs'”.
Within this process, another signal of Ba'ath-PKK approach came from Beirut. During the pro-Assad demonstration, which was organized in front of the Syrian Embassy in Beirut on October 31st 2011, PKK flags and posters of Abdullah Öcalan were unfurled.  An analysis on French Le Figaro journal more clearly put forth the details of this approach. According to this, “Syrian government started to support the Kurdish in the country to pose a threat to Turkey.” And this support was given to PKK and PYD, which is its political extension in Syria, already in good relations in the past; rather than to the whole Syrian Kurds. The most important indicator within this framework was the fact that PYD leader Saleh Mohammed Muslim, who was in exile for many years, was allowed to turn back to the country. PYD leader Saleh Muslim, who was officially called, appeared to participate in a meeting of the opponents tolerated by the regime in Damascus on September 17th. Muslim became the vice-chairman of the Syrian National Committee for Democratic Change, which gathered regime opponents rival to the Syrian National Assembly receiving the support of the Western. According to the author, the fact that PYD leader Saleh Mohammed Muslim was allowed to come back from the exile was a clear message for Turkey. In addition to this, the signals of the “initiative” were listed as follows: “Opening 6 new Kurdish schools, allowing Kurdish national anthem in these new schools, and giving Kurdish education.” According to the same news, “The fact that Muslim firstly became the member of National Committee for Democratic Change in a short while after he turned back from exile, and secondly he became the vice-chairman of the committee was not a coincidence.” PYD's giving permission to open three cultural centers and four Kurdish language schools in Aleppo, Qamishli and Malikiya was not possible until recently. Furthermore, the half of 640 PYD militants in Syrian prisons were released. Kurdish leader Meshal Temmo's assassination was also considered as a part of this process. According to this, the Damascus regime gave the message that the new Kurdish formation killed the leader Meshal Temmo and gave the message that “good Kurd is a Kurd who is the member of PYD supported by the regime.”
Another development in favor of the cooperation was the allegation that “PKK set up a new camp in Syrian district of Resulyan on Turkish borderline”. In the news based on Turkish intelligence units, it was stated that, “the camp, which was set up in a close distance from Ceylanpınar district of Şanlıurfa and where 150 members of the organization took part in, was set up upon the order of Fehman Hussein, one of the PKK leaders. The same news mentioned the fact that the Chief of the Army Hayri Kıvrıkoğlu came to Şanlıurfa and examined the borderline, in relation with the camp set up.
Following the assassination of Meshal Fazel Temmo, leader of Future Movement Party; Abdullah Bedro, who was one of the most prominent leaders of the tribe in the region, was attacked in his own house in January. The attack, in which Bedro was severely wounded and his three sons were killed, was a sign showing that PKK started again its operations in Syria. Living in Qamishli province, Abdullah Bedro was the leader of one of the biggest tribes of the region, and he was also a former PKK sympathizer. Registering the titles of some houses on his own name for the organization to take shelter in when Öcalan used to live in Syria, Bedro was attacked upon the fact that the organization wanted to take the houses back and that he did not want to. According to the news on the Turkish media, “PKK, which transferred a part of its forces to the region to support Assad because of the political vacuum in Syria, especially pursued villas and apartments used by Abdullah Öcalan, with the strength taken from the Ba'ath regime. Within this framework, Abdullah Bedro was the first person strived to be called to account by the organization. The organization, which was after the former estates, wanted these estates to be given back to themselves and the argument turned into an armed conflict.”
The organization, which did not want to assume the attack in the first place, had to admit it upon the revelation that PKK senior official Mahmoud Muhammed was killed during the attack. Bedro was one of the major tribal leaders of the region, known for his opposition to the Ba'ath administration in Qamishli province. According to the information on a Syrian Kurdish website, it was put forward that “Syrian leader Assad, who wanted to disable the Kurdish in order to weaken the power of public opposition, used PKK to that end.” In the news, it was also stated that “Syrian state strived to establish an absolute control over the Kurdish by giving PYD, which is the back-up power of PKK, unlimited opportunities. To that end, Syria provided all the appropriate conditions for Saleh Muslim, the PYD leader sentenced to a life imprisonment, to be released and freely act with a snap decision. Meshal Temmo's assassination was an action of this alliance as well.”
Similar strong allegations also came from the Syrian opponents in Turkey. According to this, the Syrian government used Syrian wing of PKK against the opponents striving to overthrow President Bashar Assad. This card could also be played against Turkey in the near future. According to Syria's former ambassador to Sweden, Mohammad Bassam Imadi, who settled in Turkey and took part in Syrian opposition, “PYD strived to suppress the protests by acting together with the Assad regime.” Imadi put forward “the fact that Saleh Muslim Mohammed, the leader of PYD since 2010, was forbidden to enter in Syria before the uprising but that now this ban was lifted” is the most important basis of this allegation. Another elements supporting the same argument was PYD leader's statements regarding that “If Turkey interferes in Syria, then we fight against it.” 
The last indicator of the cooperation between the Assad regime and PKK appeared in photos published on some Kurdish websites. In this visual news, PYD supporter young people, whose faces were covered with masks chanting slogans in favor of PKK and Abdullah Öcalan, were interfering in the demonstrations organized by the Kurdish to protest the Assad administration. Another interesting dimension was the fact that these demonstrations were organized by the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, with whom they were rivals to each others. According to the news, people, whose faces were covered with masks, who had sticks and knives and who chanted slogans in favor of Abdullah Öcalan, randomly attacked against the demonstrators protesting against Bashar Assad. In the news, which was given based on the resources of Syrian Kurdish movements, “The opponent Kurdish movements other than PYD accused PYD of acting in unison with the Bashar Assad administration, in order to suppress the demonstrations in Syria.”
In fact, Syrian leader Bashar Assad indirectly stated that they could play the Kurdish card against Turkey. In an interview Assad gave to the Western media, “Syria is center of the region. The fault line. If you fiddle with the ground a lot, you cause to an earthquake. A problem in Syria destroys the whole region. If the plan is to split Syria, then the whole region is split,” he said.  Everybody agreed on the fact that one of the addresses of these statements was Turkey. Syria's eagerness on this subject was clearly seen in journalist Cengiz Çandar's information given based on one of the senior officials of the Iraqi Kurdish government directly in contact with the Syrian government. According to this, the Syrian regime was extremely uncomfortable with Turkey's policies, and was in pursuit of paying it off. According to the Iraqi Kurdish official's statement, Syrian officials were saying that, “Playing the Kurdish card is not new for us, we know PKK very well.” In another anecdote Çandar gave by basing it upon some other resource, he cited from the statement of a prominent person from the immediate family of Bashar Assad to a foreign journalist saying that “Turkey hurts us, but we know how to hurt them and we will” and that he personally heard from the foreign journalist that the family member had referred to PKK.
PYD's Outlook on Events in Syria and on Turkey
One of the major concerns of PYD is that civil unrest in Syria results in an international intervention. Because the movement thinks that such an intervention would be led by Turkey and that this situation would put an end to all its activities across the country. Therefore, all the opponent formations in exile such as the Syrian National Council (SNC) arguing for international intervention and every initiative Turkey is involved are opposed. The movement acts in unison with “National Committee for Democratic Change”, which is an internal opposition formation absolutely rejecting international intervention and having an approach that does not exceed red lines of the Assad regime.
These approaches were explicitly set forth in an interview of PYD leader Saleh Mohammed Muslim. Muslim claimed that, “Turkey has severe initiatives in order for the Kurdish in Syria do not get the best of the uprising process and Turkey's gathering the Syrian opponents is a part of this plan.” PYD expressed its distant approach towards the change movement in Syria through these statements of its leader Muslim: “As PYD, we believe that the international plan asking for a change in Syria is not in favor of the peoples.” In accordance with the PYD perception, “In return for assuming the leading role on Syria, Turkey received compromises by the West on suppressing the Syrian Kurdish. One of the major reasons of the regime change project in Syria was to eliminate the Kurdish.” Therefore, the party acted with suspicion towards all kind of change movement in Syria supported by Turkey. The Kurdish representatives within SNC, on the other hand, were described as “Kurdish collaborators”.
In another interview the PYD leader Saleh Muslim gave to Firat News Agency, he expresses PYD's, and thus PKK's outlook on Syrian opposition and on Turkey's role with these statements: “The Syrian National Council (SNC) and Muslim Brotherhood organizations do not recognize the Kurds and their rights. And their policy on the Kurds are already defined by Turkey. We do not have any agreement with the Syrian administration. However, the state is aware of the fact that the Kurdish people are multi-organized. They know that all the Kurdish provinces in Syria would protest, if they had any armed initiative against us. Right now, we do not attack against the police stations. We are cautious as we are not directly attacked. Besides, we do not trust in Muslim Brothers conflicting with the regime either. We establish our assemblies for the time being. We have opened language schools all across the Kurdish provinces. Our de facto autonomy is in question. We have not resorted to armed struggle so far, but we cannot know what is ahead of us. If the circumstances change, the Syrian militants within PKK might begin a fight against Syria. According to PYD, an agreement was made between the AK Party government and Syrian National Assembly, and in accordance with this agreement; Adana Agreement signed in 1998 would be maintained, and constitutional right would not be given to the Kurdish, after the breakdown of the Assad regime. PYD warned the Kurdish representatives within the SNC to act in the light of this information. And in the statements of PKK, the organization put forth the fact that they have a distant approach towards the Syrian opposition and especially to the Muslim Brotherhood Movement, and that they stay away from them.
Within this process, there were some information in the Turkish media putting forward that PKK was after establishing an “autonomous Kurdish Government” by taking advantage of the conflict in Syria. Within this framework, increasing the propaganda activities in regions close to the Turkey-Iraq borderline in order to establish unity among the tribes, PKK started to distribute weapons. PYD, which is PKK's political wing in Syria, explicitly stated that their main objective is “Democratic Autonomy”. Demands for autonomy could seem to contradict with the Syrian administration. However, if the Syrian administration overcame the current problematic process, it would think that it can easily suppress PYD's expectation for autonomy or all the other Kurdish demands. Thus, it also plays its Kurdish card against Turkey, and can spread the terror regarding that North Iraq-like formation could appear in the Syrian Kurdish region. What is more problematic for Turkey would be PKK-PYD, which is the most effective power of the possible North Iraq-like formation.
Rivalry Between North Iraq and PKK Over the Syrian Kurds
The first Kurdish party in Syria was established in 1957, under the name of “Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria”. The party in the leadership of the Iraqi Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani repeated the objectives of Iraqi KDP. Two years after Ba'ath's coming into power, in 1965, “Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party” was created. This party was in a close relation with PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) which was formed by the Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani in 1975. Therefore, it is possible to suggest that North Iraq has affected the Syrian Kurds throughout the history.
It is known that PKK also has a base among the Syrian Kurds. Cemil Bayık, one of the leaders of the organization, put forward the situation during one of his interviews as follows: “There is no doubt that there is a significant and organized Kurdish population under the influence of the Leader Apo, who worked in Syria for years. Of course, all the organizations in Syria do not have independent characteristics. Nevertheless, considering the significance of Leader Apo over the social base, it is possible to think that the Kurdish Freedom Movement's approaches and policies have a certain impact on Syria. In the statement, the fact that the other Syrian Kurdish parties were described as “not independent” draws the attention.
Another conclusion reached while tracing back the approach between the Syrian regime and PKK is the fact that there is a rivalry between North Iraq and PKK to establish an influence over the Syrian Kurdish. The conflicts between these forces got more profound upon the civil unrest in Syria, and became visible. In the recent period, PYD has adopted a critical approach towards all initiatives developed in the leadership of KDP, and it has not taken part in these initiatives. From time to time, this situation causes to tension between the parties.
In late October 2011, 11 parties in Syria came together and established “Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria”. Established in Qamishli province, the Assembly suggested that, “The Kurdish problem should be solved within the framework of Syria's territorial integrity and that the rights of the Kurdish should be guaranteed.” This approach was different from PYD's expectations of “Democratic Autonomy”. PYD withdrew from the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria by setting forth the representation problem. Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria organized a conference in Arbil with the participation of Massoud Barzani in late January 2012. And PKK's outlook on the aforesaid conference was harshly criticized by the statement of KCK Executive Council Presidency. KCK “argued for that the conference taking place in Arbil, encompassing only a certain group and not encompassing the majority of the people is such as to be a coup d'état against the unity of the Kurdish people, and that it is an initiative making the split more profound, and even that it is an initiative dynamiting the Kurdish union”. PKK used these expressions for the “Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria”: “It is known that the majority of parties in the composition does not have a programme, charter and a cadre that is enough to form an assembly. More than half of these parties have not carried out a single congress up till now. They do not exist in Western Kurdistan.” PKK described the Conference as, “it is obvious that the main objective is to decrease the impact of PYD, around which masses were organized in Western Kurdistan, through a media study.” This outlook showed the rivalry between PKK and North Iraq on the Syrian Kurds.
The tension was carried further in short term and led to a direct polemics between Barzani and PKK. The Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq criticized PYD, which stated they were not invited to the “Congress of the Syrian Kurdish Diaspora Hawler” organized in Arbil. In the statement, also by using the name of MHP Chairman Devlet Bahçeli, it was indicated that PYD's announcement and messages remind us of the statements of Devlet Bahçeli, and the same style fed by anti-Kurdism is used as well as the same approach and the same mentality”. In the written statement made by the spokesman of the Kurdistan Regional Government Presidency, it was indicated that PYD had been invited to the congress, but that they changed their minds and decided not to participate in the congress in the last minute. The aforesaid tension was clearly put forth through the statements of Hüseyin Koçer, who is the PYD Representative of Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq. Koçer argued for that “the Kurdish went through very critical times, and that the policy pursued by the Federal Kurdistan Regional Government for the Syrian Kurdish is not in favor of Kurds.
PKK considered the Arbil-centered diplomatic traffic taking place before the conference as a signal of effort to breaking off their efficiencies over the Syrian Kurdish. Accordingly, “firstly the leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC) Burhan Galion and Commander of the Free Syrian Army Riad Assad, who took refuge in Turkey, talked. Then the Leader of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea paid a quiet visit to Arbil on January 12th. During this visit, a meeting was held among the Head of the Kurdish National Council of Syria Abdul Hakeem Bashar, Burhan Galion, Semir Geagea, and some Southern officials.” PKK interpreted this process as “the negotiation of how to share the policies in Syria, and what kind of supports could be received from the Kurdistan Government.” This traffic of negotiations was assessed as “imposing the strategy agreed by Turkey on Western Kurdistan.” These aforesaid interpretations explicitly showed how the process was read and perceived as threat by PKK.
It was possible to see the signs of the rivalry between PKK and North Iraq on Syrian Kurds during the visit of journalist Çetiner Çetin along with the delegation of Felicity Party to Damascus in early January 2012. In the analysis based on the interviews carried out with Syrian officials, Çetin made an assessment regarding that, “Assad, who concerned about the fact that the Head of Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq Massoud Barzani did not accept his invitation to Damascus and about the talks between Barzani and the former Prime Minister of Lebanon Hariri, is planning to cooperate with PYD, which is political extension of PKK terrorist organization in Syria, against Barzani by thinking that Barzani could cooperate with the Kurds in northern Syria and that he could cause to revolt among the Kurdish here”. Çetin strived to reinforce his argument through development such as “Assad's forgiving Saleh Muslim, the PYD leader sentenced to lifetime imprisonment in the past months, his letting Muslim appear in meetings, and Muslim's praising the Assad regime to the Syrian Kurdish people and his saying that the people should support the regime”.
The regression in Turkey-Syria relations started upon the spread of civil unrest into Syria on March 2011. However, Turkey's changing her incentive policy into the policy of pressure and isolation took place following the critical talk that Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoğlu carried out with Syrian leader Bashar Assad in Damascus on August 2011. Even though Turkey had a critical approach towards Syria during the process before this development, she acted as a shield on West's outlook in favor of taking stronger and faster steps. Until this period, the tension only reflected on foreign policy discourses, but was not put into practice. In fact, Syrian party even gave two PKK terrorists to Turkey within July 2011 in order to decrease the pressure coming from Turkey and to show what the good relations with Syria meant. Syria was trying to decrease Turkey's pressure through these steps and also to show what Turkey would deprived of in case the tension increased. Nevertheless, it is seen that the parties mutually put their pressure tools into practice upon the breaking off in relations.
The conclusion reached in this study is the fact that especially after September 2011, there has been an approach between the Syrian administration and PKK-PYD. The elements supporting this claim could be listed as follows: change in PKK and PYD discourses towards the Assad administration, PYD's finding room for maneuver in Syria again, and PYD's applying pressure on other Syrian Kurdish groups that are critical against the Assad regime. However, considering in terms of PKK and PYD, it is seen that there has been a tactical cooperation with the Assad regime. Above all, PKK was under the pressure of the Syrian administration as a result of the cooperation between Turkey and Syria in the fight against terror for the last 15 years upon the Adana Agreement. During this period, many PKK terrorists were given to Turkey. PKK leader group already explicitly state that they do not forget this period. In addition to this, PKK considers Assad regime's getting weaker in internal and foreign pressure environment as an opportunity both for itself and for the Syrian Kurds. As of now, the Syrian Kurds and PKK consider the uprising as a struggle among Arabs, and they try to take the maximum advantage by not involving much in this struggle. PKK pulls off compromises from the regime by preventing the Syrian Kurds from pouring into the streets in mass groups. The Kurds and PKK think that Arabs got weaker and split by conflicting among themselves. Despite being minority, the disunity in the country carries the Kurds into a critical position just like in the Iraqi politics. Both regime and opposition strive to take the Kurds on their own sides. And the Kurds strive to carry their gains to the top level in each scenario by developing relations with both sides. And in this equation, PKK appears as the actor staying close to the Syrian regime. However it is also seen that PKK does not argue for Assad regime's surviving no matter what. PKK can use the opportunity of breakdown of the Assad regime in case the organization secures is position among the Kurds by taking advantage of the current situation. The second leader of PKK, Murat Karayılan's statements on Roj TV put forward this approach. Accordingly, “Many regimes changed in Syria from 1945 to 1963, but the Kurdish could not somehow take advantage of that. Right now, a historical opportunity is in question. The Kurds can have their fundamental legal rights here, and can be recognized as a nation. Nevertheless, in order to do so, the Kurdish union, a Kurdish strategy should be established. The Kurds should not immediately take a side. They should develop self-defense instead of attack.” As clearly seen from these statements as well, although PKK and PYD have a tactical cooperation with the regime, they do all their plans depending on the post-Assad.
Considering in terms of the Syrian regime, PKK is considered as a tool to protect the regime both inside and outside. Syrian Kurds' uprising in a period when the unrest got more violent will turn the power balance in favor of the opponents in the country. How organized the Syrian Kurds are, and their potential of threatening the regime was clearly seen Kurdish unrests in 2004 and 2005. Above all, the administration prevents the Kurdish unrest by providing room for maneuver to PKK, which is effective on the Syrian Kurds. Besides, the administration also have chance to apply pressure on the groups between the Syrian Kurds and the opposition camps through PKK. The assassination of Meshal Temmo, who was within the Syrian opposition, could be given as an example. If the Syrian regime overcomes this problematic process, it would already think that it could pacify PKK again whenever it wants. However, it is not possible for the Syrian administration to support PKK as in 1980's and 1990's. Such an approach would provoke Turkey in such a period, when military intervention is talked and when expectations from Turkey to assume an active role on this issue are quite high, and it would also legitimize taking military measures. Syria only wants to give message via PKK, but for now, she does not take any step that would force red lines of Turkey.
Lastly, considering in terms of Turkey, it is possible that she supports the group taking the side of opposition in polarization among the Syrian Kurds and developing good relations with the administration of North Iraq. Although the Syrian Kurdish Conference, which was held in Arbil, disturbed some groups; it is necessary to see that, in fact, there are some opportunities. First of all, if a Kurdish political movement will be effective over the Syrian Kurds, North Iraq would be preferred rather than PKK. And secondly, Turkey, who argues for the regime change in Syria, would want to support the groups within the opposition camp. And this situation would be Syrian Kurdish movements, which are found within the SNC or which stand closer to the Syrian opponents.
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Oytun Orhan, ORSAM Middle East Specialist