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Turkey’s foreign policy reorientation

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Today, Turkey is facing three major problems and though it employs diplomatic skills to cater for the redress of those problems, it has not been able to overcome the obstacles. The three issues the former Ottoman Empire is facing are: one, its EU membership efforts against which many European countries raise opposition, making Istanbul’s entry into the European parliament as a legitimate European state difficult, though the present Brexit move gives hopes for its speedy entry; two, the Kurdish problem, fueled by outside sources which has given a constant headache for the ruling AKP and its leader Erdogan; and three, its effort to lead Islamic world that are spoiled by war in Syria. Turkey’s chances of becoming a veto power depend on the successful handling by the government of these issues.

Turkey is doing a faster burn on the Kurds. Having waged a fierce war against Kurdish separatists in southern Turkey, the Turkish government has taken military action against the Kurds of Iraq and Syria to prevent Kurdish forces from connecting two enclaves — one in Iraq and one in Syria — that could form the geographic beginning of an independent Kurdistan.

Although Turkey has successfully resolved to sort out its issues with Russia and Israel so that it could put at rest the challenges from both these powerfully dictatorial states controlling the wars in Mideast by coordinating their destabilizing operations along with USA.

When it found its assertive diplomacy is not yielding the desired fruits, Turkey has revised its strategy and renewed its ties with both Russia and Israel.

Turkey and Russia

A NATO member Turkey and an anti-NATO Russia do not have close ties and in fact ideally they cannot cooperate in international politics, either. In fact, Turkey joined the NATO very early when it felt the Soviet threat and the NATO used Istanbul in order to assert its ‘traditional” control over Islamic world, including Arab world and Iran. USA and UK and other big powers skillfully divided Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt to deny them a place on the important UNSC veto system and made them fight for just non-veto position on the UNSC for usual two years by rotation. In fact, these top Islamic nations bitterly opposed each other on the UNSC with veto, unlike Russia which fought for China, its communist ally then, on the veto regime. .

Bilateral trade was normal

In the first four months of the year, Turkey’s exports to Russia dropped to $484.6 million, a 61.5 percent decrease compared to the same period of 2015. The head of the Agriculturalists Association of Turkey (TZOB) earlier noted that his sector’s losses had reached $290 million over the year due to the political problems with Russia. “Russia’s share in our fresh fruit and vegetable exports was 39 percent on an amount basis and 42 percent on a value basis. The sector’s exports have been negatively affected since sanctions were imposed by Russia on Jan. 1. While Turkey made around $368.2 million in revenue in exchange for around 530,000 tons of fresh fruit and vegetable exports to Russia in the first five months of 2015, this figure plunged to around $78.2 million of revenue for some 113,000 tons of exports”.

A downturn in relations occasioned by Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet last November especially impacted economic and trade ties. When Turkey developed tension with Russia over the latter’s violation of Turkey’s air space, Israel moved swiftly to win over Russia and Netanyahu became a regular visit to President Putin’s office in Moscow as part of their joint strategy in Syria and West Asia in general. Turkey felt the pinch which was unbearable. Hence Turkey decided to move cautiously and make over with both Russia and Israel, maybe on US advice. Thus Istanbul’s effort to neutralize the badly tensed situation harming its interests has made it a favourite of both countries.

Relations between Russia and Turkey have taken a nosedive over the Syrian civil war, particularly after Turkey shot down a Russian plane. But even before that, Turkey’s support of Sunni jihadist organizations was a thorn in the side of Russia, which still fears Sunni jihad inside southern Russia. Russia has goals in Syria and Israel also has requirements.

After roughly nine months of disagreement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to revive their stalled bilateral relationship in their first direct contact on June 29, fueling hopes about restoring economic and trade ties. According to experts, recent moves to normalize ties between Turkey and Russia will benefit both sides’ economy as well as the region’s economy, particularly in the energy, tourism and trade sectors.

Russian Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukayev said the trade and investment relations between Turkey and Russia would be rebuilt, according to a TASS report on July 1. An expert from the Energy Markets and Policies Institute (EPPEN) said the improving relations would make the most positive contributions in the energy sector. Russia has heavily invested in Turkey’s energy sector and a possible resolution over gas prices would be significant if both sides can agree. Nigyar Masumova, an academic from the World Economy Department of Moscow State International Relations University, said the normalization in ties was some good news during difficult days for the both countries. Trade and tourism ties will return to the former levels in a short time, while the planned Turkish Stream project could be delayed due to economic problems in Russia. “We believe that the sanctions imposed by Russia on fresh fruit and vegetable imports from Turkey will likely be abolished in the autumn,” she added.

One is not very sure if Turkey shot down the Russian plane on the instructions from Pentagon and that could the reason why Russia did not retaliate because if it did retaliate NATO would attack Russian planes in the region leading to a brief war. . The Middle East total bankruptcy and the only country that Turkey can establish stable relations, start a dialogue and discuss political options with is Israel. Ankara and Tel Aviv’s increasing need to share field intelligence seems to have triggered this normalization. Recently, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen visited Ankara and met with the top brass of the intelligence-security bureaucracy led by Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan.

Turkey and Israel

Turkey and Israel had enjoyed a privileged relationship for more than 60 years. Before the flotilla raid, there was truly far-reaching military cooperation between Israel and Turkey that dated back to the 1960s and peaked in the 1990s. With the 1994 Defense Cooperation Agreement and 1996 Military Training Cooperation Agreement, military-security relations between the two became the most intimate in the Middle East. This cooperation was particularly prominent in intelligence sharing, military training and the defense industry. But relations between the two countries went into a deep freeze in 2010, when Israeli commandos attacked a Turkish ship in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

With the 1994 Defense Cooperation Agreement and 1996 Military Training Cooperation Agreement, military-security relations between the two became the most intimate in the Middle East. This cooperation was particularly prominent in intelligence sharing, military training and the defense industry.

In the early 2000s, in return for Israel’s technical and intelligence support to Turkey in combating the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey shared with Israel the intelligence on Iran it had collected in Iraq and Turkey. Israel’s combat pilots participated in the annual Anatolian Eagle exercises held at an airfield in Turkey’s central Anatolian province of Konya, where they conducted training over mountainous topography unavailable in Israel. They also conducted regular joint exercises in the eastern Mediterranean until 2010. In return, Turkish pilots received training on surface-to-air missiles in Israel. In the defense industry, the most recent joint projects were the modernization of M60 tanks at a cost of $650 million and F-4E planes for about $1 billion, procurement and operation of armed Heron UAVs for $200 million, electronic reconnaissance and surveillance systems at $200 million, and procurement of missiles and smart ammunition for $150 million.

Israel and Egypt have come to a deep understanding of the sources of instability and insecurity in Sinai, and the relationship between Hamas in Gaza and its primary sponsor, Iran, as well as ISIS.

Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla, the flash point

Turkey and Israel, mediated successfully by the USA and UK, have had excellent relations, including regular joint military exercise, for many years until the Mavi Marmara flotilla of 2010, symbolizing the beginning of a new chapter in the freedom struggle of Palestine.

The Turkish-owned ship Mavi Marmara took part in a 2010 “Gaza flotilla” attempting to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. After the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla Turkey made three demands of Israel: an Israeli apology for the deaths of Turkish activists; a financial settlement; and lifting the Gaza blockade, which Turkey claimed was illegal. In 2011, however, the UN Palmer Commission Report, produced as per the US-Israel demands, found the Zionist terror blockade of Gaza — jointly perpetrated with Egypt — to be legal, and said Israel owed Turkey neither an apology nor compensation.

In 2013, at the urging of President Obama and to move the conversation off the impasse, PM Netanyahu did apologize for the loss of life and agree to discuss compensation. While Obama was pleased, Turkish President Erdogan repaid the gesture by denigrating Israel on Turkish television and announcing he would force the end of the blockade. Israel’s condition — that the office of Hamas in Ankara be closed — was ignored for the simple reason that Turkey Is not occupying Gaza Strip. .

Nevertheless, in February 2014, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkish television that Israel and Turkey were “closer than ever” to normalizing relations.” And in February 2016, there was yet another announcement of imminent restoration of government-to-government ties. In March, Kurdish sources said Turkey was already demanding weapons from Israel, but that Israel wanted to ensure that Turkey would not use them against Kurdish forces.

Alongside mending ties with Israel, Turkey began repairing relations with Turkey as well because restoring full relations between Israel and Turkey would irritate Russia, with which Israel has good trade and political relations, and understandings regarding Syria. Israel’s relations with the Kurds are also at issue.

Most of illegal settlers in Palestine are of Russian origin and are a powerful group in the parliament and close links with Russia. And hence Israeli leaders like Netanyahu enjoy free lunch at Putin’s official palace In Moscow. .

Assertive diplomacy

Turkey’s assertive diplomacy got revealed when in 2010 Turkey sent the Mavi Marmara aidship with humanitarian assistance to breach the Israeli blockades around Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists and one American from IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation were killed during an Israeli commando terror raid on the Mavi Marmara cruise ship and blocked humanitarian help for the Gaza Strip. Turkey broke off the bilateral ties forthwith.

On Nov. 24, 2015, Turkish F-16s shot down a Syrian-based Russian bomber that had allegedly strayed into its airspace. This triggered a confrontation between Ankara and Moscow, and especially between the two presidents, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. The Russian ambassador was recalled, harsh and damaging economic sanctions were applied, and there were even threats of war.

The war of words and military muscle flexing in Syria, the Caucasus, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean continued all through the first half of 2016. Turkey requested a stronger NATO presence in the Black Sea to help protect it against a more assertive Russia.

On the credit side of the ledger, Turkey has given shelter to almost 3 million refugees from Syria – many of whom eventually began to move on to Europe. As it gathered in strength, this exodus produced a paradigm shift in the European Union’s attitude. Suddenly, Turkish help was needed to contain the migrant stream.

Brussels responded by offering Ankara money and halfhearted concessions – some of them long overdue, like visa-free travel

Problem of assertive diplomacy

History has shown that only the USA can effectively pursue assertive diplomacy and so far even Russian has not be able to achieve it without US help as it is happening in Syria.

Without being a superpower, Turkey faced serious opposition to its assertive diplomacy because its punitive measures against Israel and Russia threatened to cause damages to Turkey in the short term at least.

USA which shields the Zionist crimes against humanity has made overtones to collaborate with Russia in Syria and Mideast East. So, Istanbul sensed danger because Russia and Israel jointly begin a containment approach towards Turkey.

After the Mavi Marmara incident, intelligence sharing between the two countries came to an end, followed by cancelations in military training and cooperation.. After the downgrading of ties with Turkey, Israel conducted a series of military exercises with the air, sea and ground forces of Greece and the Greek Cypriots with which Turkey has problems.

After pursuing an assertive diplomacy for a few years, Turkey has now reverted to back to a big power policy format that, as before, would not only get back to US-Israeli orbit but also realign its relations with Russia with which it developed a serious conflictual situation.

The reason for the former Ottoman Empire to revise its policy in favor of Israel seems to be that it knew the e level of influence over USA and many other countries that also began a negative approach to Turkey after the Israeli –Turkish clash over breaching of Israeli terror blockade to Gaza Strip. Turkey helps all big powers in selling their terror goods to third world, including India. .

Though isolated internationally no-account of its illegal colonies and genocides in Palestine, Israel still calls all shots in Mideast with its arms and triclomatic arsenals. Selling terror goods to third world and receiving aid from USA and EU, Israel has generally good economic and political relations with Russia and Turkey while Russia and Turkey are doing a slow burn.

Islamic world’s bilateral trade with Turkey is not impressive. Most Muslim nations have been purchasing terror goods from USA, Europe, Israel and Russia while Turkey has not made any serious effort to build up its economic relations with Islamic world. Antagonism with Israel only harmed turkey as Islamic world has not come for economic ties with Istanbul in order to assure it their support.

True, for too long Turkey rejected Israeli moves to restart the diplomatic and military relations. But since 2014, therefore, Turkey has been searching to renew ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia’s tensions with Iran and the USA after the West-Iran nuclear deal in 2015 have encouraged Saudi rapprochement with Israel. Turkey followed the suit accepting the new reality and realignment with Israel was found to be “profitable” option. In fact, this is part of a new regional reality, where those countries, along with Qatar and Jordan, fear spillover from Syria and Iraq.

Vision

Turkey learns that it cannot pursue any assertive foreign policy in order to advance its legitimate interests globally without the help of USA and with Israel opposing it as a counter force, especially when USA and Israel operate jointly.

Turley has begun to take sharp turns in its foreign policy. Following a statement by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim that Turkey will pursue a more realistic foreign policy to decrease enemies and increase friends, the first major turn has appeared in Israel-Turkey relations after May 31, 2010, when the Israeli military raided a Turkish flotilla that was trying to break through the Israeli blockade and deliver humanitarian relief supplies to Gaza. 10 Turkish nationals and an American aid worker were among those killed by Israeli military attack. While Turkey strained its ties with arrogant and fascist Israel, USA did not consider the killing of its citizen by Israeli military as a crime at all because he was not killed by Islamic terrorists.

Over the past two weeks, three remarkable things happened. On June 26, Israel and Turkey agreed to restore normal diplomatic relations, potentially unlocking the development of huge offshore natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. The next day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that Erdogan had apologized for the downing of the Russian warplane in a letter to Putin. Russia lifted its ban on package tours to Turkey the same week, and relations began to normalize.

An important reason for the revision of foreign policy in relations with Israel is the Turkish armed forces that pressured the government about their needs and projects the AKP government could not ignore the demand of military. Also, because of its disturbing isolation in the region and with inadequate support from the USA and NATO, had no choice to but turn back to Israel for regional military-security cooperation. The growing profile of Iran, the regionalization of the PKK threat and regional developments around Hamas, the Islamic State (IS), Iraq and Syria have laid the ground for Ankara and Tel Aviv to cooperate

Today, Israel is the country closest to the US and Russia. That is why Israel can play a middle role in preserving Ankara’s relations with the US at an appropriate level and also help normalize relations with Russia.

However, it is unlikely that Turkey-Israel relations will be restored to 1990s levels anytime soon but this may help the shaping of a new geopolitical equation for the eastern Mediterranean and facilitate their counterbalancing of Iran in the region.

Naturally, the PKK, Hamas, Iran, the Syrian regime, ISIS and Russia won’t be happy about rewinding of bilateral ties. Israel wants Turkey to help play a more active role in NATO. In ore rot take Russia on board to reduce tensions, Turkey has made up with Russia as well.

Notwithstanding the benefit both parties, rapprochement between Israel and Turkey is likely to be much more expensive for Turkey.

Zionist criminal mindset: Politics of convenience?

Turkey and Israel are reported to have reestablished full diplomatic ties after more than half a decade. The history of how Israel and Turkey had such a deep falling out goes back seven years. In January 2009, at a World Economic Forum meeting at Davos, members of an international panel were waiting to wrap up and get to dinner when then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demanded to respond to Israel’s President Shimon Peres. Taking off his simultaneous translation earphones, he told Peres, “Maybe you are feeling guilty and that is why you are so strong in your words. You killed people. I remember the children who were killed on beaches.”

Not only has the US ally Israel killed Palestinians, it, having assumed as a super power, also killed Turkish people. A little over a year later, on May 31, 2010, nine Turkish activists from IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation were killed during an Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara cruise ship that was trying to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Erdoğan ordered the Turkish ambassador to leave the Jewish state immediately, claiming the raid was contrary to international law and tantamount to “inhumane state terrorism.”

Relations between the two countries cooled severely. Given Turkey’s relationship with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, it seemed to be growing closer to groups that were traditionally hostile to Israel. Israel fought three wars against the ruling Hamas in Gaza since 2009, and Turkey has demanded Israel lift its blockade of the small strip.

Last year, things have taken a dramatic turn. Returning from a trip to Saudi Arabia, Erdoğan said that Turkey “needs” Israel (gas and terror goods) and asserted that Israel needed Turkey, “a fact of the region.”

The normalization agreement was supposed to include long-term Turkish demands at compensation for the deaths in 2010, as well as a decision about Gaza. B. Netanyahu had consented to another Turkish demand in 2013 by issuing an apology of sorts in a phone conversation with Erdoğan. US President B. Obama was reported to have a close role in encouraging the conversation to take place.

The rise of the AKP in Turkey’s 2002 elections changed the diplomatic playing field. New faces in Ankara were less interested in Israel and more interested in a new regional paradigm that would see rising Turkish influence. Turkey sought to mediate between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights in 2009. Erdoğan was shocked by fascist PM Ehud Olmert, who mercilessly killed even children to win the general poll, visiting him in 2009 and then going to war in Gaza, rather than concluding a deal with Syria. Israel’s military minister Ehud Barak said Israel did “teach the Turks a lesson”.

Erdoğan was “personally offended” and felt humiliated by Israel as USA watched the terror show on sea by Zionist military using US terror goods. . It was in this context that Erdoğan sat with Peres at Davos and accused him of killing Gazans. The resulting deaths irrevocably harmed relations.

In March of 2016, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz met Erdoğan in Washington and discussed the war in Syria, Iran’s presence there, terrorism—and natural gas. Reuters claimed that the issue of Israeli exports of natural gas to Turkey was an essential piece of the puzzle because Turkey has been weaned of Russian gas since their relations strained over Syria.

Implications of realignment

The implications of this policy shift are enormous. It will integrate the refugees into Turkey’s economy, which is likely to accelerate growth – especially since many of the Syrians are highly qualified professionals. It also strengthens Mr. Erdogan’s political base, giving him a new cohort of likely supporters.

The realignment process will have implications for the Syrian conflict, natural gas exports and Saudi-Israeli relations. Israel has always sought to maintain good relations with the Turks, and the two countries had enjoyed relatively warm relations since the 1950s. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel. As a powerful non-Arab state in the region and NATO member, Turkey was aligned with Israel during the Cold War. Several founders of the state of Israel were educated in Istanbul, and there was an affinity between the two country’s national movements.

The larger picture is the regional chaos that has unfolded since the break in relations in 2010. The Arab Spring in 2011 brought Morsi to power in Egypt. And when rebellion broke out in Syria, Turkey hoped that the Syrian rebels, whose more Sunni Islamic ideology tended to meld well with Turkey’s own AKP, would push Bashar al-Assad from power. But the rebels faltered, Islamic State took over part of Syria, and the United States and UK decided not to bomb Assad in 2013. Turkey continues to support Syria’s rebels, but it knows Assad will not fall. Morsi was pushed from power in 2013 in what Turkey considers a coup.

As Turkish renewal move was taking place Saudi Arabia and Egypt also began closer relationship. Recently, Egypt and Saudi Arabia upgraded relations with Egypt ceding back to the Saudis two islands that Saudi Arabia had given Egypt in 1950 to help Egypt fight Israel in the Red Sea. An Egyptian court however, has struck down the Egypt-Saudi islands deal. The Egyptian government informed Israel of the parameters of the deal, noting that Riyadh would be obligated to honor all of Egypt’s commitments in the peace treaty with Israel, including the presence of international peacekeepers on the islands and freedom of maritime movement in the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel approved the deal “on condition that the Saudis fill in the Egyptians’ shoes in the military appendix of the peace agreement.”

In sum, these moves transform Turkey’s position. Europe will have to reconsider its hypocritically superior attitude toward a country that is an indispensible regional partner, and which has also done much more for Syrian refugees than the EU itself.

What is most encouraging about these developments is their common denominator: pragmatism. This may bode well for resolving Turkey’s worst predicament, the Kurdish conflict, which has degenerated into a near-civil war raging in the country’s southeast.

Pragmatic leadership in Ankara, dealing from a position of strength, may find ways to accommodate Kurdish interests within the Turkish republic. This solution could even prove attractive for the Kurdish state in northern Iraq, which might become Turkey’s close associate. Turkey opposes the Kurdish movement for a soverign state. Maybe, Turkey thought Russia and Israel could openly support the Kurdish movement for a separate state.

Perhaps the most important development of the past two weeks is President Erdogan’s offer to grant Turkish citizenship to Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Turkey is now back as a leading regional power in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Mutual security

USA knows Israel’s security is tied with that of Palestine and Israel cannot ensure security of its lands and people if they don’t allow security and freedom to Palestinians. .

Turkey insists Israel breaks all terror blockades around Gaza strip and let the Palestinians have some freedoms. To meet Turkey’s condition, Israel would have to abandon the terror based security arrangement it shares with Egypt against Palestine, which has increased Israel’s own imagined security and pay regional dividends. Israelis are cleaver people who know its security is linked with the security of Palestinians and with intermittent terror attacks on Gaza, Israel cannot ensure its security.

Even when Israeli military keeps attacking Palestinians in Gaza Strip, killing even women and children, in 2011, the UN Palmer Commission Report found the blockade of Gaza — jointly administered with Egypt — to be legal, and said Israel owed Turkey neither an apology nor compensation. It argued that lifting the Israel/Egypt embargo on Gaza would empower Gaza rulers Hamas, and thereby the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran and ISIS — which would seem an enormous risk for no gain.

Quartet should have worried about mutual security for both Palestine and Israel as a two state solution is looming large to enable both Palestine and Israel exist side by side. However, like Israel and USA, the Quartet is also interested in Zionist expansionism and one state idea of Jews.

Observation

Turkey’s decision to renew ties with both Russia and Israel is timely as it did not want to precipitate the conflict further and that move welcomed even by intentional community wanting peace.

The EU issue of Turkey remains intact, though the recent Brexit move gives hopes for its speedy entry. The Kurdish problem, being accelerated by the war in Syria and ISIS attacks is not easy to solve but by realigning with both Russia and Israel, the problem cannot wire explosive. With a shift assertive diplomacy in favor of peaceful one, Ankara can now try to shoulder leadership of the Islamic world along with Saudi Arabia.

Netanyahu has publicly supported the establishment of a Kurdish state. Even at the peak of Israeli-Turkish relations, Israel’s support of the Kurds has been a relatively open political secret. Although the Israeli government consistently denies providing weapons, reputable sources suggest, at a minimum, training for Kurdish forces. Most recently, Israel acknowledged buying oil from Kurdish sources in Northern Iraq, and IsraAid, an Israeli humanitarian organization, provided assistance to Kurdish refugees fleeing ISIS.

Turkey’s problems with Israel, Russia and Egypt are based purely on principles because they wronged with Turkey by taking undue advantage of the US led NATO war on Islam (terror war). Turkey’s prompt action as a soverign Muslim nation having regard for Islam led to deterioration of relations with all these three powers.

The Arab Spring and NATO terror wars on Islam for energy resources, the US attacks on Libya and Syria, followed by Russian military intervention on behalf of an adamant Assad, among other factors, made Israeli fascist occupation and crimes against humanity fairly easier as it also claims legitimacy for its crimes and occupational settlements.

For Israel to trade its increasingly important relations with Russia, with Egypt — and thereby with Saudi Arabia — and with the Kurds for Turkish political approval and a promise to buy Israeli natural gas would seem to be a good idea for future deals.

The new developments taking pace with Turkey playing active reconciliation role are likely to give benefit to Mideast and Israel by negating and ending the Israel-Egypt terror blockades of Gaza.

In order to conduct smooth foreign policy globally, especially in Europe and West Asia, Israel needs to lift the Israel/Egypt embargo on Gaza by removing all terror blockades without unnecessarily wasting brains if the action would empower Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran or ISIS because maintaining the blockades would never let Israel gain credible security, though Palestinians would continue to suffer and continue to fight for survival and sovereignty. By giving defacto status the UN has already declared Palestine state a reality.

Time is over for Israel, UN, ICJ and Quartet to consider seriously about a soverign Palestine state and peace in West Asia. If the ICJ and ICC think no peace is possible in Mideast unless Israeli criminals are punished, then they should first punish them. US leaders who have promoted the criminal Zionist regime in Mideast must also deserve punishments for their deliberate crimes, including misuse of the veto to shield the Zionist crimes against humanity.

With Turkey’s shift in foreign policy structuring, will Russia and Israel become true allies of Turkey?

This trillion dollar question deserves a definite answer if one is forthcoming.

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Valentine’s Day pinpoints limits of Saudi prince’s Islamic reform effort

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Valentine’s Day in Riyadh and Islamabad as well as parts of Indonesia and Malaysia puts into sharp relief Saudi Arabia’s ability to curtail the global rise of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism the kingdom helped fuel at the very moment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing some of its sharpest edges in his own country.

To be fair, controversy over Valentine’s Day is not exclusively a Muslim ultra-conservative preserve. Russian and Hindu nationalists have condemned the celebration as either contradictory to their country’s cultural heritage or a ‘foreign festival.’

Yet, the Muslim controversy takes on greater global significance because of its political, security and geopolitical implications. Its importance lies also in the fact that it demonstrates that Saudi Arabia, after funding the global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for four decades to the tune of $100 billion, has helped unleash a genie it no longer can put back into the bottle.

The contrast between, yes, a socially liberalizing Riyadh, and increasingly more conservative Islamabad; Indonesia’s Makassar, Surabaya and arch-conservative Bandar Aceh; and Indonesia and Malaysia’s highest Islamic councils could not be starker.

Banned for years from celebrating Valentine’s Day with shops barred from hawking anything that was red or mushy cards that hinted at the love feast, Saudis this year encountered a very different picture in markets and stores. This year they were filled with items in all shades of red.

One Saudi flower vendor reported that he had sold 2,000 red roses in one day with no interference from the kingdom’s once dreaded religious police.

Sheikh Ahmed Qasim Al-Ghamdi, the outspoken former religious police chief, in a reversal of the conservative religious establishment’s attitude, put Valentine’s Day on par with Saudi Arabia’s National Day as well as Mothers’ Day.

“All these are common social matters shared by humanity and are not religious issues that require the existence of a religious proof to permit it,” Sheikh Ahmed said in remarks that were echoed by religious authorities in Egypt and Tunisia.

While Saudis were enjoying their newly granted social freedoms that include the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, Pakistanis were groping with a second year of a Saudi-inspired ban, in part the result of the kingdom’s pernicious support of ultra-conservatism in the country for more than six decades.

The Islamabad High Court last year banned public celebration of Valentine’s Day on the basis of a private citizen’s petition that asserted that “in cover of spreading love, in fact, immorality, nudity and indecency is being promoted –which is against our rich culture.’

The ban followed a call on Pakistanis by President Mamnoon Hussain to ignore Valentine’s, Day because it “has no connection with our culture and it should be avoided.’

This year, Pakistan’s electronic media regulator ordered broadcasters not to air anything that could be interpreted as a celebration of Valentine’s Day.

Official opposition highlighted the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative attitudes have become entrenched within the Pakistani state and would take years, if not a decade, to dislodge without creating even greater havoc in the country.

While ultra-conservatism dominated attitudes in all of Pakistan, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were engaged in culture wars with proponents of Saudi-influenced worldviews agitating against Valentine Day’s or imposing their will in parts of the country where they were in control or exerted significant influence.

In Indonesia, at least 10 cities banned or curtailed love feast celebrations. Authorities in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city, last week briefly detained some two dozen couples suspected of enjoying their Valentine’s Day.

Banda Ace in Ace province and Makassar on the island of Sulawesi upheld their several years-old bans. Last year, Makassar’s municipal police raided convenience shops on February 14 and seized condoms, claiming that they were being sold ‘in an unregulated way’ to encourage people to be sexually promiscuous on Valentine’s Day.

The actions were legitimized by a ruling in 2012 by Indonesia’s highest Islamic council that stipulated that Valentine’s Day violated Islam’s teachings.

The attitude of Malaysia’s state-run Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) based on a fatwa or religious opinion that it issued in 2005 is in line with that of their Indonesian counterparts. JAKIM annually blames Valentine’s Day, that it describes as a Christian holiday, for every sin in the book ranging from abortion and child abandonment to alcoholism and fraudulent behaviour.

Authorities have over the years repeatedly detained youths on Valentine’s Day on charges of being near someone of the opposite sex who is not a spouse or close relative.

Valentine’s Day is often but one battleground in culture wars that involve gay and transgender rights as well as the existence and application of blasphemy laws and the role of Islam in society. The vast majority of ultra-conservative protagonists have no link to Saudi Arabia but have been emboldened by the kingdom’s contribution to the emergence of conducive environments and opportunistic government’s that kowtow to their demands.

The culture wars, including the Valentine’s Day battlefield, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce a degree of greater social freedom and plan to halt Saudi funding of ultra-conservatism elsewhere is likely to have limited effect beyond the kingdom’s borders even though the kingdom with its traditionally harsh moral codes is/was in the Muslim world in a class of its own.

A Saudi decision earlier this month to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels in the face of Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators appears at best to be an effort to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and underline Prince Mohammed’s seriousness rather than the start sign of a wave of moderation.

Brussels was one of a minority of Saudi institutions that was Saudi-managed. The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s largesse operated independently.

As a result, the Valentine’s Day controversy raise the spectre of some ultra-conservatives becoming critical of a kingdom they would see as turning its back on religious orthodoxy.

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Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran

Mohammad Ghaderi

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Last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we saw the joint work of Washington and Paris on how to deal with the nuclear question. Trump and Macron decided to launch and lead the “the JCPOA transformation process” using the U.S. Congress. Macron’s remarks on the “possibility of completion of the JCPOA” by including Iran’s missile armaments and new constraints on Iran’s nuclear program were the proofs of this bilateral agreement between the White House and the Elysée Palace.

Following Trump’s controversial speech on the nuclear deal and his two-month time limit to the U.S. Congress to review the JCPOA, Macron continued his negative maneuvers in dealing with Iran’s missile program. But the U.S. Congress could not reach consensus on the matter and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration and the Congress will continue cooperation to revise the JCPOA.

“Now, we’re also working with the Congress to arrive at a new agreement, a new set of conditions for sanctions going forward. The reality is that the nuclear deal was so ill-founded, because it did not deny that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Being a 10-year agreement, it virtually guaranteed that they would develop a nuclear weapon after that 10-year period. Whether we’ll continue to waive sanctions will be decided soon,” said Pence.

According to the Vice President, the Trump administration and the Congress are drafting a law stating that if Iran ever resumes its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and missile to deliver it, all nuclear sanctions will immediately be imposed against Tehran. About three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron explicitly stated that “the JCPOA” is unchangeable, but he still talks about completing the nuclear deal. What is certain is that completing the nuclear deal means altering this agreement.

Macron himself knows that an annexation, supplementary agreement or even a secondary agreement is a clear breach of the original agreement. In such a situation, the JCPOA will lose its value. There are some points in this regard that need to be addressed.

Firstly, the U.S. officials will first try to agree on a joint plan to “transform the deal”. Over the past two months, Tom Cotton and Bob Corker, two Republican senators, have made great efforts to persuade the Congress to address Donald Trump’s concerns, but they failed in this regard. According to the Cotton-Corker joint plan, Iran’s missile activities will be linked to the nuclear deal, and if the Islamic Republic prevents the IAEA from inspecting its military sites, the deal will automatically be nullified.

Also, according to their plan, the so-called sunset clauses will be removed, and the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be permanent. Democrat Senators believe that the plan will mean the withdrawal of the U.S. from the deal, and therefore they have not agreed with it. Some Republican Senators such as Ron Paul and Jeff Flake are also concerned. Nevertheless, the joint talks between the Congress and the White House on this project continue.

Secondly, the ةlysée Palace is still clinging to the term “completion” of the JCPOA. This is bizarre because Macron also states that the deal is unchangeable, while he wants to incorporate restrictions on Iran’s missiles into the deal.  What is certain is that the slightest change in the nuclear deal means the other party’s failure to fulfill its obligations. In other words, it means the official withdrawal of the P5+1 from the nuclear deal. The insistence on this explicit and decisive stance by the Iranian diplomats can perhaps effectively counterbalance the U.S.-French designs on the JCPOA.

A third point is that it should not be forgotten that Washington and Paris are jointly trying to muck up the nuclear deal. We should not consider Paris and Washington’s game separately. Considering France as a “mediating actor” or “independent actor” would be a mistake. Paris is clearly against the JCPOA and acting as a supporting actor with the U.S. The softer tone of the French authorities should not deceive Iran.

It appears that the French president and his foreign minister are not going to behave in the same way as the previous governments of the country regarding the nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the French continue the same approach of former governments regarding peaceful nuclear activities in Iran.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Who Controls Syria? The Al-Assad family, the Inner Circle, and the Tycoons

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Ever since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971, the three pillars of the Syrian regime have been the Ba’ath Party, the Alawite minority and the army. The current Syrian elites were formed around these three forces. The tip of the pyramid is represented by the so-called inner circle: a small group of people most trusted by the head of state. Their influence on the decision-making process stems not so much from the posts they hold, as from their being members of – or otherwise close to – the al-Assad family. The inner circle has always included separate groups, which can compete against one another.

The military conflict in Syria has affected the structure of the inner circle. In particular, the decision-making process is now influenced by figures who have made their way to the top during the course of the civil war. At the same time, some of Bashar al-Assad’s former confidantes have been forced to flee the country and effectively defect to the opposition.

The Defectors

The latter include, among others, the influential Tlass clan of Circassian origin. Until his death in 2017, the Tlass family was headed by Mustafa Tlass, who was minister of defence from 1972 to 2004 and one of the closest associates of former President Hafez al-Assad. It was Mustafa Tlass who largely facilitated Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration following the death of his father, despite the fact that a portion of the Syrian opposition was calling for Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Assad, to become the new president.

The Tlass clan managed to become Syria’s second-most-influential family after the al-Assads. They were as significant as the Makhlouf clan, relatives of Bashar al-Assad’s mother. Mustafa Tlass’s son, Firas Tlass – one of the most influential Syrian magnates – had interests in many branches of the country’s economy. He was Syria’s second wealthiest person, after Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.

Mustafa and Firas left Syria in 2011 and joined the opposition. Firas Tlass subsequently financed the Farouq Brigades operating in the Tlass family’s native district of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate. Firas’s younger brother, Manaf Tlass, former Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard’s 105th (other sources say 104th) Brigade, subsequently emigrated to Jordan and attempted to form an opposition military force intended to replace the Syrian armed forces. The project proved a failure.

One other member of the al-Assad family’s inner circle to have fled Syria since the beginning of the uprising is Ali Habib Mahmud, another former minister of defence (2009–11). Unlike the Sunni Tlass family, Mahmud is an Alawite. He may be viewed as the highest ranking representative of the Alawite minority to have pledged allegiance to the Syrian revolution. Mahmud initially led the operation to suppress the uprising, and was even subjected to sanctions for this. However, after losing his post he established contact with the militants and left the country.

There are reasons to believe that the Tlass family and Mahmud fled Syria not because of their support for the opposition, per se, but rather due to the alignment of forces within the Syrian leader’s inner circle. Bashar al-Assad’s relatives found a way to get rid of their most influential rivals, accusing them of sympathizing with the opposition and maintaining contacts with them, while criticizing their inability to stifle the uprising. In this situation, the Tlass family and Mahmud had nothing left to do but join the opposition.

The Tlass family and Mahmud may yet theoretically make a return to Syrian politics, as they are seen as acceptable politicians both by the opposition and by some of the Ba’ath functionaries. Everything will depend on the progress and direction of the peace process. If a national accord government is formed, then members of the Tlass family might be appointed ministers. They could even, under certain circumstances, lead this government.

The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor

Another important development that reshaped the inner circle was the explosion at the National Security headquarters in Damascus that took place on July 18, 2012. Liwa al-Islam (now known as Jaysh al-Islam) claimed responsibility for the attack. The blast killed several influential representatives of Al-Assad’s inner circle; the most prominent casualty was Assef Shawkat, husband of Bashar al-Assad’s sister Bushra, who had enjoyed significant clout with the Ba’ath leadership.

Shawkat had been on rather strained terms with some of the al-Assad family members. On the one hand, he was believed to be a close confidant of Bashar al-Assad since his return from London following the death of his brother, Basil Shawkat. On the other hand, Assef was in conflict with Maher al-Assad. According to some reports, Maher had fired a shot at Assef in 1999, wounding him in the stomach. Nevertheless, it was the trio of Assef Shawkat and the al-Assad brothers whom experts named as the central figures of the inner circle. Shawkat held senior official posts in the Syrian government: he was head of Military Intelligence in 2005–10, deputy chief of staff in 2009–11 and, from April 2011 until his death, deputy minister of defence acting as chief of staff of the armed forces.

Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf at the Top of the Pyramid

The flight of the Tlass family and Assef Shawkat’s death promoted Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf to senior roles within the inner circle. The two came to have a decisive say in the decision-making process, despite the fact that they do not hold key posts in the government.

Maher al-Assad is currently described as the second most important figure in Syria after the president. He is the de-facto commander of the 4th Armoured Division (Maher’s official military post is that of commander of the division’s 42nd Brigade, whereas the division is officially commanded by Major General Mohammad Ali Durgham), and also supervises the Republican Guard, the elite force charged with guarding government installations and defending the capital city.

Apart from holding command posts and being represented in the central committee of the Ba’ath Party, Maher al-Assad is a financial magnate. According to some reports, he earned up to $1 billion supplying food to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and further increased his wealth through a money-laundering scheme involving the Lebanese bank Al-Madina, which subsequently folded. Sources have indicated that Maher controls the Sheraton hotel network in Syria and certain media outlets, including Cham Press. This means that, in addition to the loyal 4 th Division and the Republican Guard, Maher al-Assad commands significant financial influence.

Maher is on rather difficult terms with Rami Makhlouf, another influential member of Bashar al-Assad’s current inner circle. The two may be partners on certain projects: it is known that they used to do business together in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In other situations, however, they may be seen as rivals.

One of Maher al-Assad’s important partners is believed to be Muhammad Hamsho, who represents his interests in the business community. The latter is involved in financing a range of pro-government media outlets, such as Addounia TV, and owns Hamsho International Group, as well as stakes in Middle East Marketing, Syria International for Artistic Production and Al-Sham Holding. Hamsho also acts as the middleman for the business structures of Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf.

Overall, Maher al-Assad is a fairly independent actor. He can afford to openly express his disagreement with Bashar al-Assad’s decisions and is capable of imposing his own views on the president. Maher is the main advocate of the “party of war” in Damascus. He is also named as one of the key conduits of Iran’s interests in the Syrian leadership. Maher reportedly has contacts with the Iranian special services, and is reported to have voiced the idea to involve Iranian military experts in the early phase of the Syrian conflict. In addition, the military units under Maher’s control are being used to form branches of Shiite paramilitary forces. For example, the Shiite battalion Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi operates as part as the 4th Division.

Maher’s contacts with Iran previously provided grounds for rumours disseminated by pro-opposition sources about his conflicts with Bashar al-Assad. In 2016, reports began circulating which alleged that Maher al-Assad had been dismissed as commander of the 42nd Brigade, promoted to major general and assigned a secondary role within the General Staff. Sources explained that the “honorary exile” was the result of an alleged quarrel between the brothers. In January 2017, rumours emerged accusing Maher of an attempted military coup against the president with the support of Iran, allegedly over Maher’s disagreement with the Syrian leadership’s course towards joining the peace process and initiating talks with the opposition. However, in summer 2017, Maher al-Assad was sighted commanding the 4th Division during an operation in Daraa Governorate in the south of Syria.

Nevertheless, the very existence of rumours alleging a conflict between the al-Assad brothers does reflect certain concerns. Namely, that should the peace process reach a stage at which it will be necessary to form a national accord government, the hardliners and the Ba’ath conservatives maintaining contacts with Iran might roll out Maher as their candidate. Maher al-Assad has the necessary clout with the security agencies, commands serious financial resources and, most importantly, is prepared to make any sacrifice in order to secure his goals, as he has repeatedly demonstrated in the past, including in the form of cruel reprisals of civilians during the first phase of the Syrian revolution.

The next most significant and influential actor in Syria after Maher al-Assad is Rami Makhlouf, the country’s wealthiest person with an estimated fortune of $6 billion. Makhlouf co-owns Syria’s largest mobile network operator Syriatel and the corporation Cham Holding. The latter used to control the most profitable services in the country, including hotels, restaurants, tour operators and the air carrier Syrian Pearl Airlines. Makhlouf is also a major shareholder in a number of banking institutions, including International Islamic Bank of Syria, Al Baraka Bank, International Bank of Qatar, Cham Bank and Bank of Jordan in Syria. The Makhlouf family is known to have close ties with UK business. In particular, they have invested in the British oil and gas exploration and production company Gulfsands Petroleum. Rami Makhlouf also controls such media outlets as Al-Watan, Ninar, Dünya TV and Promedia. According to some estimates, he controls up to 60 percent of the country’s economy.

Despite the sanctions imposed against him, Rami Makhlouf is using his connections, influence and resources to seek ways for the al-Assad family and other representatives of the ruling circles to bypass the international sanctions. For this purpose, he has been using three Syrian companies linked to the government: Maxima Middle East Trading, Morgan Additives Manufacturing and Pangates International. Rami has also used the Panama-based legal firm Mossack Fonseca to open shadow companies in the Seychelles. He is also using his Eastern European companies, DOM Development Holding of Poland and Rock Holding of Romania, to the same end.

The Al-Bustan Association

An important component of the Makhlouf empire is the Al-Bustan Association, which was set up as a charity fund intended to address the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian civil war. The association is known to have received payments from UNICEF to the tune of $267,933. In reality, Al-Bustan has turned into the primary source of financing for different Shabiha paramilitary units unrelated to the official Syrian security agencies. In effect, Rami Makhlouf is using Al-Bustan to set up private military companies controlled by himself. The most prominent such units are Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) and the Fahud Homs (the Leopards of Homs) special units. It is believed that by bankrolling these forces, which are linked to the Air Force intelligence service, Rami Makhlouf has secured his own positions within the latter. He thus took advantage of the civil war to develop all the requisite attributes of personal influence, primarily financial resources and a personal army.

Rami Makhlouf may be characterized as a proponent of the peace process, as he is interested in having his frozen assets abroad released and the Western sanctions against him lifted, but this will only become possible if he makes a personal contribution to the peaceful settlement of the conflict. He has already filed an appeal with the Swiss courts. On the other hand, it is obvious that Makhlouf’s financial welfare will largely depend on whether the current Syrian regime stays in power.

The Father of the Desert Hawks

One Syrian actor worth mentioning among those who have managed to strengthen their positions during the course of the internal conflict and can influence the Syrian leadership’s decisions is Ayman Jaber.

An oil tycoon, Jaber used to control oil and gas extraction at most of the fields located in government-controlled territories, and held a de-facto monopoly on oil supplies to the state. He also chairs the Syrian council on metallurgy and is a shareholder in a number of businesses alongside Rami Makhlouf and other Syrian tycoons. To protect his field, Jaber runs numerous private military companies. Some of these have been turned into elite assault units, including Liwa Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Hawks) and the Syrian Marines. The two units were previously commanded by Ayman Jaber’s brothers, Mohamed (who also has a business in Russia) and Ibrahim. At some point, the independence enjoyed by these groups became excessive. In summer 2017, the Desert Hawks stopped a governmental convoy from entering an area under their control. This incident resulted in Ibrahim Jaber’s arrest. The Desert Hawks were disbanded and reassigned to the 5th Voluntary Assault Corps and to the Syrian Commandos, which are financed by Ayman Jaber.

Another influential Syrian oil magnate close to the country’s leadership is George Haswani, who owns the company HESCO. Haswani finances Dir’ al-Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield Forces), which is a part of the Syrian Army’s 3rd Armoured Division. Turkey and Western powers are accusing Haswani of having sold oil extracted by so-called Islamic State from seized Syrian fields. He is also linked to Russian business circles and has contacts with Stroytransgaz and Gazprom. According to some reports, he holds Russian citizenship.

The Old Guard and the Special Services

Representatives of the so-called Old Guard (who were close to the previous president of Syria) and also special services continue to have a modicum of influence on the decision-making process within the country. One influential veteran of Syrian politics is 77-year-old Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem, who served as Syrian ambassador to the United States during the final years of Hafez al-Assad’s presidency.

Standing out from the other heads of Syria’s numerous security agencies is Ali Mamlouk, former head of the General Security Directorate (GSD). He retained his influence in the GSD following his appointment as head of the National Security Bureau, which coordinates the work of Syria’s entire intelligence community, in 2012. A number of sources report that Mamlouk is an experienced politician who manages to manoeuvre delicately between Russia and Iran and secure support for his initiatives from both countries. In addition, he is the only member of the Syrian leadership with whom the Gulf monarchies and Turkey are prepared to talk. Mamlouk is trusted to conduct sensitive talks behind closed doors with external opponents of the Syrian regime. These opponents view the head of the Syrian special services, who is also a Sunni, as a person with whom they can negotiate. It is noteworthy that Mamlouk visited Saudi Arabia in 2015.

Elements of Matriarchy

Women are also a force in the decision-making process in Syria. Anisa Makhlouf, the late mother of Bashar and Maher al-Assad, certainly played a significant part in keeping the ruling family in balance and mitigating disagreements between the two brothers. Some observers note that the relationship between the men started to deteriorate after Anisa’s death in early 2016.

Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, is also believed to have had some influence on her spouse, but the level of that influence remains unclear. It is known, however, that Asma has founded numerous NGOs and funds used, among other things, to process money transferred by international organizations to support the victims of the Syrian conflict, despite the fact that she was under sanctions. Another influential woman in the al-Assad family, Assef Shawkat’s widow Bushra, also retains some influence and has business ties with Rami Makhlouf.

Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?

All the main threats to the Syrian regime have been staved off by now. However, it must be noted that this was possible thanks exclusively to external interventions. Russia and Iran played a key role in keeping the al-Assad family and their closest associates in power. Without the participation of these two countries, the armed confrontation would most likely have resulted in the toppling of the regime.

On the other hand, the regime may wave won the war, but it has not yet won peace. All the problems that caused the revolution in the first place only worsened in the course of the war, including runaway corruption and the concentration of capital in the hands of a small group of people. Unless serious and comprehensive reforms are carried out in Syria, the country may well face collapse and a new wave of violence.

On the other hand, no actual reforms appear possible for as long as the al-Assad family remains in control. The only things possible are half-measures and window dressing. It therefore appears advisable to proceed from the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including as applicable to the formation of a new executive body.

The most agreeable scenario might be to transform Syria into a parliamentary republic and strip the head of state of a significant portion of powers and access to administrative levers. Whatever the case, any positive change will be difficult to implement without the full involvement of the opposition, including armed opposition factions, seeing as there are otherwise no factors that might prompt the government to carry out tangible reforms.

First published in our partner RIAC

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