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How stable are US-Turkey relations?

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It looks strange that an Islamic Turkey and essentially an anti-Islamic America have worked for years now notwithstanding serious differences even conflict between them. The fact that USA is not just a veto member and super power but also the strongest power that controls entire world by using most of the powers in the world, including Russia and China.

Turkey as a strong NATO member has been a useful asset for USA as well as all NATO and other anti-Islamic nations while United States and Israel have used the Islamist nation to their own advantages.

On positive side, USA and Turkey have maintained a closely knit relations for years since the Second World War and operated jointly to upset the Soviet efforts to make entire Europe and elsewhere anti-communist. They did achieve a great deal of success and by being the corner stone of NATO. However, that deep relationship looks shaking its foundations now.

In fact, the USA sought Turkey’s assistance for NATO and went on to sponsor Turkey’s successful bid for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The two countries then officially became allies. The alliance provided real political and security advantages to both parties, but it was certainly not to be free of frictions and tensions. The first occurred at the time of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Events of the past few weeks have precipitated a new crisis in American-Turkish relations, but it is certainly not the first one. In fact, it builds on a long history of bouts of mutual suspicion and antagonism over a period of more than 60 years. Last month, newspapers around the world featured pictures of US Vice-President Joe Biden shaking hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the presidential palace in Ankara. The facial expressions of the two men eloquently illustrated the state of relations between their countries. Both seemed extremely wary of the other and this for good reason.

Past

The relationship between the USA and Turkey began to take shape in the years immediately following the Second World War. At the time, Turkey was coming under serious political and diplomatic pressure from the Soviet Union, which wanted to gain control of the Turkish Straits. Turkey appealed for help to the USA, which provided it with certain security guarantees under the terms of the Truman Doctrine. The United States went on to sponsor Turkey’s successful bid for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The two countries then officially became allies.

The NATO alliance provided real political and security advantages to both parties, but it was certainly not to be free of frictions and tensions. The first occurred at the time of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Although strongly denied at the time by the United States government, it was widely believed that the USA had concluded a deal with the Soviet Union whereby in exchange for its withdrawal of missiles from Cuba, the United States would withdraw the Jupiter missiles it had recently deployed in Turkey. When the Jupiter missiles were indeed removed in April 1963, it was generally believed in Turkey that this was a case of the United States protecting its own security interests at the expense of Turkey’s.

Even while employing Turkey for a collective “capitalist” response to Soviet threat, Washington also played havoc in containing Turkey. The long-running Cyprus issue was to create more frictions in the alliance. When the Turkish government was contemplating military action in Cyprus in 1963-64, it was the object of a blistering response by President Lyndon Johnson. When Turkey did, in fact, invade and occupy northern Cyprus in 1974, it was soundly condemned in Washington and the US Congress voted an embargo on all military assistance to Turkey.

Comprehending US hidden agenda, the Turkish government retaliated by suspending all American operations at military facilities in Turkey. These events convinced many Turks that the US government and Pentagon-CIA duo had little interest in protecting Turkey’s vital interests and that it was operating under the influence of the Greek-American community.

As super powers, USA and Soviet Russia had maintained secret deals and this concealed relationship continues even today and did not reveal that to Turkey which even was made to fear an attack by Moscow. For instance, although strongly denied at the time by the US government, it was widely believed that the USA had concluded a deal with the Soviet Union whereby in exchange for its withdrawal of missiles from Cuba, the USA would withdraw the Jupiter missiles it had recently deployed in Turkey, accelerating fears in Istanbul. When the Jupiter missiles were indeed removed in April 1963, it was generally believed in Turkey that this was a case of the US protecting its own security interests at the expense of Turkey’s.

Many other events also contributed to cooling the bilateral relationship. The three military coups that occurred in Turkey between 1960 and 1980 were greeted with dismay in Washington, giving the strategic community in Turkey speculation that USA systematically promotes troubles in Turkey which then had to revise its anti-Soviet policy towards a neutral one.

USA insists every NATO member and ally must do exactly what Washington tell them. Turkey’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, therefore, was also the cause of serious concern. By the end of the decade, Turkey was receiving generous economic assistance from the Soviet Union, which created a major crisis in NATO. Turkey was benefitting enormously from its friendship with the one country the USA and NATO were dedicated to opposing and resisting.

Another significant irritant was to emerge in the 1990s: Turkey’s policies and actions regarding its Kurdish minority that sought independence with US backing. Successive In order keep Turkey under its control, Turkish governments mounted campaigns to repress secessionist movements among the Kurds. In the course of those campaigns, Turkish security forces committed massive human rights abuses, including the wholesale destruction of villages and the displacement of populations.

Along with the governments of many western European countries pursuing fake democracy and imperialism, the USA, seeking to control Turkish government, became increasingly critical of the ‘human rights violations’ and voted to block the sale of military equipment to Turkey. These criticisms and actions gave rise to profound resentment among Turks for whom the Kurdish question is a matter of national unity and territorial integrity. Those resentments were intensified when the USA gave its support to the Kurds of northern Iraq following the first Gulf War of 1991.

There was a further falling out between the USA and Turkey at the start of the new century when hawkish CIA boss turned US president George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq to remove President Saddam Hussein, destabilize Iraq and squander its vast energy resources and it did accomplish all with Turkey’s help. In the run-up to that war, the Bush regime put heavy pressure on the Turkish government to allow it to station forces in Turkey so as to be able to create a second front for the assault on Iraq (with a threat rider that if Turkey does not oblige, it would use Russia to create problems for Turkey).

However, despite offers of billions of dollars in American economic assistance, the Turkish parliament, reflecting Turkish public opinion, turned down the American request cum indirect threat. This forced the USA to make major last-minute changes to its military planning for the war and engendered considerable bitterness in Washington.

Coup

USA and Israel have every effectively used Turkey, for too long, to stop Moscow from coming into close contact with Arab world, Islamic nations. But that trend is facing rupture. USA, its Neocons strategists are now deeply disturbed by the emerging scenario of Russia and Turkey cementing their ties – seen as a devastating step that could harm US interests across the globe

In fact, as the EU opposes an Islamic Turkey from entering the essentially Christian European structures, USA feared Turkey if left out of EU would eventually join hands with Russia, eagerly wanting to take Istanbul into its own global fold. USA is eager to keep Turkey in perpetual tensions- neither within Europe nor inside West Asia. Now Russia is fast becoming a top ally of Turkey.

In recent times, especially after the Israeli-Turkish tensions over Gaza Strip, in which USA as usual took a pro-Israeli stand and later tensions with Russia over shooting down of a Russia war plane believable on US instructions and very recent anti-Islamist coup by the pro-US section of Turkish military Turkey got annoyed as USA refused to support the Turkish government or sympathize with President Erdogan, and indirectly supported the coup plotters hoping to dismantle the Erdogan government and replace it with a bogus democratic regime to promote US and Israeli interests blindly. However, the coup plot was put down and USA and Germany stood fully exposed of their anti-Islamic agenda for Turkey and Mideast.

To complicate matters, strong disagreements have emerged over the fate of a Muslim cleric by the name of Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in the United States for more than 15 years. From his base in Pennsylvania, Gulen runs a network of schools and charitable organizations in a number of Muslim countries, including Turkey. Once an ally of President Erdogan, they had a falling out in 2013, and since that time, Erdogan has accused Gulen of having infiltrated his supporters into the Turkish police, army and judiciary. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, Erdogan claimed that Gulen had masterminded it and demanded his extradition from the United States to face justice in Turkey. The American government has taken a cautious approach to this demand of a NATO member for years, citing the doctrine of the separation of powers in the USA. It has said that it is willing to extradite Gulen if and when the Turkish government provided sufficient evidence to satisfy an American court that extradition is warranted. This response has generated yet more conspiracy theories and anti-Americanism in Turkey.

Two things are clear now. USA is basically anti-Islamic and it has fielded Gulen, among others in Turkey, to work for USA and NATO. Another important reality in this regard that harms Turkey’s genuine interests is joint operations by USA and Israel against Islamic world, including Turkey.

A major US ally Israel, on its part, manipulated US-Turkish relations to its own advantages against Arab nations.

USA uses Turkey only for advancing hidden agendas

As the most dreadful state terror nation whose military-intelligence networks are spread across the globe, USA could be instrumental in creating problems for the Erdogan government for its “disobedience” and terror attacks took place in cities, forcing the Turkish government to finally change its tune. It decided to allow the United States to use a major air base in Turkey for operations against the ISIS and to join in the aerial campaign against the ISIS, making Washington happy. This, however, proved to be a mixed blessing from the American perspective. Turkish air strikes were directed equally against ISIS targets and against Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Now these Kurdish forces are among America’s’ most valued allies in the war against the ISIS and Islam, and the Americans had invested heavily in training and equipping them. The United States and Turkey were once again operating at cross-purposes, to the dismay and annoyance of the Obama regime.

Matters have only gone from bad to worse in recent months. In mid-July, Turkey was the scene of a failed military coup, presumably ignited by USA, Germany and Israel, in the course of which some 300 people were killed and many more wounded. With vast displays of popular support, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was able to crush the coup attempt and reassert his authority. Erdogan then took advantage of the event to strengthen the nation by launching an overdue purge of all of anti-Islamist operators backed by USA. He arrested or dismissed approximately 80,000 policemen, judges, civil servants, teachers, academics and journalists, and closed down a number of media outlets that had been critical of his government and Islamic system. The coup forced Erdogan to put on full display his authoritarian tendencies.

Turkish aidship and coup have exposed anti-Islamic mindset of Turkey’s western Washington allies as Obama was fairly slow to condemn the coup attempt and express its support for the democratically elected government. In fact, within two days of the event, John Kerry was issuing warnings to the Turkish government to respect the human rights of its citizens. This infuriated the Turkish government and wide swaths of the Turkish population.

Western powers and Israel as its agent for many tasks, including arms sale to third world, have caused authoritarian tendencies in Turkey. The US-Germany move to destabilize the Islamist government and nation by enacting a coup has clearly spoiled the ties very badly.

However, US strategists think Turkey could be brought back to US obit by using Israel and Arab nations.

Being a party to destabilization move in Turkey, Washington was fairly slow to condemn the coup attempt or express its support for the democratically elected government. In fact, within two days of the event, John Kerry exposed the US complicity in the coup attempt, by issuing warnings to the Turkish government to “respect” the human rights of its citizens. This infuriated the Turkish government and wide swaths of the Turkish population. Public opinion polls suggest that a majority of Turks believe that the United States had something to do with it. Anti-American sentiment is now rife in Turkey.

When the Turkish government was contemplating military action in Cyprus in 1963-64, it was the object of a blistering response by the administration of President Lyndon Johnson. When Turkey did, in fact, invade and occupy northern Cyprus in 1974, it was soundly condemned in Washington and the US Congress voted an embargo on all military assistance to Turkey. The Turkish government retaliated by suspending all American operations at military facilities in Turkey. These events convinced many Turks that the United States government had little interest in protecting Turkey’s vital interests and that it was operating under the influence of the Greek-American community.

Other events also contributed to cooling the bilateral relationship. The three military coups that occurred in Turkey between 1960 and 1980 were greeted with dismay in Washington. Turkey’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union in the 1970s was also the cause of serious concern. By the end of the decade, Turkey was receiving generous economic assistance from the Soviet Union, which created a major anomaly in NATO. Turkey was benefitting enormously from its friendship with the one country the United States and NATO were dedicated to opposing and resisting.

Another significant irritant was to emerge in the 1990s: Turkey’s policies and actions regarding its Kurdish minority. Successive Turkish governments mounted campaigns to repress secessionist movements among the Kurds. Along with the governments of many western European countries, the US Congress became increasingly critical of these human rights violations and voted to block the sale of military equipment to Turkey. These criticisms and actions gave rise to profound resentment among Turks for whom the Kurdish question is a matter of national unity and territorial integrity.

Those resentments were intensified when the United States gave its support to the Kurds of northern Iraq following the first Gulf War of 1991.

There was a further falling out between the United States and Turkey at the start of the new century when President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq. In the run-up to that war, the Bush administration put heavy pressure on the Turkish government to allow it to station forces in Turkey so as to be able to create a second front for the assault on Iraq. Despite offers of billions of dollars in American economic assistance, the Turkish parliament, reflecting Turkish public opinion, turned down the American request. This forced the United States to make major last-minute changes to its military planning for the war and engendered considerable bitterness in Washington.

US double speak

US double speak does not require any elaboration and explanations as it has been hallmark of US practice in dealing with nations across the globe. Anything that suits Washington is good and other things are too bad for USA.

USA always seeks get its “wanted “people from foreign nations but it does not oblige Turkey by extraditing Gulen. Once an ally of President Erdogan, they had a falling out in 2013, and since that time, Erdogan has accused Gulen of having infiltrated his supporters into the Turkish police, army and judiciary. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, Erdogan claimed that Gulen had masterminded it and demanded his extradition from the United States to face justice in Turkey.

Strong disagreements have emerged over the fate of a Muslim cleric by the name of Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in the United States for more than 15 years. From his base in Pennsylvania, Gulen runs a network of schools and charitable organizations in a number of Muslim countries, including Turkey. The American government has taken deliberately a cautious approach to this demand, citing the doctrine of the “separation of powers” in the USA. It has said that it would extradite Gulen if and when the Turkish government provided “sufficient evidence” to satisfy an American court that extradition is warranted.

This response has generated yet more conspiracy theories and anti-Americanism in Turkey. Starting in 2014, the Obama regime, advancing the Neocons “regime change” agenda to generate puppet governments in Asia, especially in West Asia (Mideast), except in Israel,   began to display ever more impatience with the Turkish government’s attitude toward the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. South Asia not a problem for USA as India and Pakistan are promoting US interests. The Turkish authorities initially saw the IS as a useful Sunni Muslim adversary of the Shia/Alawite Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad, whose overthrow had become a priority in Turkish policy. Not only did Turkey refuse to join the United States-led coalition fighting the IS, but it also allowed foreign fighters to transit its territory en route to join the ISIS extremists. This led the Obama administration to exert increasing pressure on Ankara to change its policy, but to no avail.

US leaders play chess with international affairs and get what they want form Turkey by promoting terror attacks. It was only when the IS began mounting terrorist attacks on Turkish cities and towns that the Turkish government finally changed its tune. It decided to allow the USA to use a major air base in Turkey for operations against the IS and to join in the aerial campaign against the IS. This, however, proved to be a mixed blessing from the American perspective. Turkish air strikes were directed equally against IS targets and against Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Now these Kurdish forces were among the USA most valued allies in the campaign against the ISIS, and the Americans had invested heavily in training and equipping them.

The United States and Turkey were once again operating at cross-purposes, to the dismay and annoyance of the Obama government. Starting in 2014, the Obama government began to display ever more “impatience” with the Turkish government’s independent attitude toward the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. The Turkish authorities initially saw the ISIS as a useful Sunni Muslim adversary of the Shia/Alawite Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad, whose overthrow had become a priority in Turkish policy.

The Obama team exerted increasing pressure on Ankara to change its policy by toeing the US line of state terrorist action, but to no avail.

Observation

Relations between the USA and Turkey are now at very low ebb. The historical record suggests that the two countries have in the past been able to overcome and reconcile their differences. They should seek to do so again in their mutual interest. However, whether or not they will be able to reconcile this time is an open question with profound implications for these two countries, as well as for Europe and the Middle East.

USA does not allow equal status in NATO any nation, including UK. This obviously creates tensions. USA always used Muslim nations, including Arab nations and never come to defend or support them in any manner and Turkey is no different.

Turkey, like today’s UK which refused to cooperate with USA and Israel over UN vote on Palestine’s defacto statehood, has shown it can withstand pressure tactics of USA and other western powers operating under the NATO terror organization and take a firm decision with regard to its national interest without spoiling the relations badly.

Unfortunately, America is eager to see an anti-Islamic Turkey emerging by throwing away the Islamist Brotherhood government and when his predecessors failed, Obama also tried it but also failed. The Islamist government in Turkey is not what USA wants in Europe and is trying to dismantle that.

American leaders have never been totally reliable partners of Turkey and so Turkey is not happy that USA stood by Israel when the Zionist military attacked Turkey aidship bound for Gaza to breach Israeli-Egyptian terror blockades. USA has succeeded, however, in dividing Islamic world as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

It is against this background of frequently troubled relations that the current tensions can best be understood. They represent little more than another chapter in a history largely characterized by episodes of mutual distrust and antagonism. Many in USA would think their destabilization move for Turkey would only harm President Erdogan and his Islamist program, but America would too feel the pinch once Turkey chooses to leave American orbit and US company.

As usual, USA can exert pressure on Russia to let Turkey, a close ally of USA and NATO, take its own decisions and force Turkey to undertake the tasks assigned by the big boss- Uncle Sam. The former Ottoman Empire would be very cautious.

Even though Turkey has been an ally of USA and NATO, It has been the target of these entire anti-Islamic nations. Even while using Turkey for NATO operations against Islam and Islamic nations, the USA has been working against Islamist government to destabilize it and replace it with a puppet regime like in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. But turkey has woken up the western challenge but that alone won’t end hostility of its sworn enemies in democracy uniform.

Of course USA and Turkey now each other as allies for several decades of joint military operations, but the latest development shows the former needs the latter more than the opposite scenario.

America is bent upon advancing terror wars in Islamic world. US concern for peace is not genuine. Hence the tensions with Turkey!

USA cannot exploit Turkey for advancing its own national interest and also create tension and destabilization in Turkey.

An honest ally won’t do that! Dishonesty can destroy any US sponsored international alliance.

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Middle East

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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