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The Problem with Turkey’s “Zero Problems”

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U nder the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), Turkey’s foreign policy has been associated with the prescriptions and efforts of three men: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Abdullah Gül, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

Davutoğlu, a former international relations professor, has been the most articulate exponent of the troika’s ideas,

penning perhaps the most authoritative summary of its worldview in his 2001 Stratejik Derinlik (Strategic Depth)[1] and coining its foremost article of faith: a “zero-problems policy” with Turkey’s neighbors because Ankara “wants to eliminate all the problems from her relations with neighbors or at least to minimize them as much as possible.”[2]

This might all be well and good if such words were supported by actions. But Davutoğlu has also described Turkey as a “heavyweight wrestler,” hinting that it may use “the maximum of its abilities” when dealing with its neighboring “middleweight wrestlers.”[3] A survey of Ankara’s relations with these “middleweight wrestlers” reveals its “zero problems policy” to be little more than a cover for the AKP’s reasserted “neo-Ottoman” ambitions.

The Eastern Mediterranean

Achieving a zero problems status with Greece and Cyprus would seem to be the most difficult goal for Ankara to attain, given both countries’ painful history with Turkey.

Even if one could put aside the long and tortuous past—from the Greek war of independence of the 1820s, to the 1923 uprooting of Greeks from Asia Minor, to sporadic crises over Aegean islands (1976, 1987, 1996), to the continuing standoff over air space and territorial waters—the AKP’s rise to power has exacerbated, not allayed, tensions.

Far from following a zero problems policy with Greece, Turkey maintains existing problems and adds new ones: It has made alleged violations of the Muslim minority’s rights in Western Thrace an item on the Islamic Conference’s agenda[4] and has muddied the waters over what constitutes Greece’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by questioning the role of the Greek island of Kastelorizo (one mile off Turkey’s coast) in determining that EEZ. And Davutoğlu’s ambitions did not stop here:

The security of the Balkans is increasingly identified with the security considerations of Turkey’s western border. The security zone that has been established in eastern Thrace during the Cold War should be extended to the west with multilateral and bilateral agreements which should be made on a Balkan level.[5]

These are not mere words. Ankara has recently signed a military cooperation agreement with Albania, allowing docking privileges for Turkish warships at Durës, thereby marking the return of the Turkish navy to the Adriatic Sea after centuries.[6] The press has reported that Turkey is responsible for the cancellation of an agreement between Athens and Tirana over the delimitation of maritime zones,[7] and Turkey has also initiated major programs of military assistance to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a state with which Greece is in dispute over the use of the name “Macedonia.” Finally, Turkey continues to flood Greece and the European Union with tens of thousands of mostly Muslim illegal immigrants.[8]

Meanwhile, the already fraught relations with Cyprus have worsened. Turkey not only works against ending the continued and illegal occupation of the northern half of the island but seems bent on increasing problems. Such behavior is not all that surprising considering Davutoğlu’s belief:

It is not possible for a country that neglects Cyprus to have a decisive say in the global and regional politics … Even if there was not one Muslim Turk there, Turkey had to maintain a Cyprus issue. No country can stay indifferent toward such an island, located in the heart of its very own vital space … Turkey needs to see the strategic advantage which it obtained … in the 1970s, not as the component of a Cyprus defense policy, directed toward maintaining the status quo, but as one of the diplomatic main supports of an aggressive maritime strategy.[9]

Small wonder, therefore, that Ankara reacted to the discovery of new energy resources in the Cypriot EEZ in a heavy-handed manner, stating that it too had rights and interests in the region and warning that support for the Republic of Cyprus on this issue would have consequences in future negotiations with Nikosia.[10] It attempted to stop Cyprus and Noble Energy, which planned to drill for natural gas off southern Cyprus’s coast, from proceeding, then signed an agreement delimiting the continental shelf between itself and the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (recognized by no one except Ankara), so as to carry out its own energy exploration in the area. This culminated in Ankara dispatching a research vessel into the Cypriot EEZ to protect its “national interests,” simultaneously ignoring U.S. and EU entreaties and alarming Israel.[11]

Notwithstanding claims about zero problems then, Turkish behavior in the eastern Mediterranean remains impenitent, bordering on the aggressive, and seemingly indifferent to the consequences it may have for any possible future with the rest of Europe.

Former Soviet Republics of the Caucasus

After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the resulting independence of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, Turkey perceived a power vacuum in the region and attempted to expand its presence into areas of former Soviet influence in both the Caucasus and Central Asia.[12] But its current zero problems policy is being tested in a region of past enmities, fractious ethnic interests, lucrative energy resources, and a resurgent Russian presence.

Due to historical, cultural, and linguistic ties, relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan seem to offer the best prospects, despite their religious differences (Sunni and Shiite, respectively). The benefits for Turkey could be substantial due to proximity, trade links and especially Azerbaijan’s energy resources. Unfortunately, such relations do not exist in a vacuum, and in its effort to improve relations with other neighbors, Ankara has sometimes acted in a way that threatens its relationship with Baku.

Take for example, the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute in which both Turks and Azerbaijanis assert that Armenia is illegally occupying the area. This meeting of minds was set back when Ankara attempted to improve relations with Armenia, leading to Azeri assertions that such contemplated agreements would undermine regional peace and security.[13] Nor did Ankara take into account Azerbaijan’s interests when it recognized Kosovo, which had seceded from Serbia. For Azerbaijanis, recognition of such a breakaway republic (similar in this way to Nagorno-Karabakh) was far from reassuring.

In addition, Ankara’s on-again off-again relations with Tehran bear on its relationship with Baku. Iran threatens that it will explore for hydrocarbons in parts of the Caspian Sea claimed by Azerbaijan while not allowing the latter to do the same.[14] Concurrently, there is growing restiveness among Azeri-speaking Iranians against perceived suppression of their heritage and language by the mullahs and even talk of some form of union with Azerbaijan. On these topics, Ankara is apparently silent, leading some Azerbaijanis to wonder about the true intentions of their “friend.”

Armenia, of course, presents its own set of problems with the Turks, largely due to the genocide of Turkish Armenians in 1915, which Ankara refuses to recognize. These differences were exacerbated by the struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh; and in 1993, Turkey closed its land border with Armenia in support of Azerbaijan’s claims over the territory.[15]

In 2008-09, there was an effort to improve relations between the governments of Turkey and Armenia centering, in part, on the possibility of Armenian participation in the long-planned Nabucco pipeline project.[16] The two countries drafted the so-called “Zurich protocols,” but when Turkey tried to link ratification with its position on the Armenian genocide and Nagorno-Karabakh, the initiative floundered.[17] Relations between the two countries remain problematic; from time to time they worsen, especially when third parties attempt to recognize the Armenian genocide officially as France did in 2001.[18] While Davutoğlu may assert that Turkey “rejects the concept of freezing problems with her neighbors,”[19] relations with Yerevan have barely begun to thaw.

Likewise, while Davutoğlu has claimed that Ankara aims “to solve problems in line with a win-win approach,”[20] its behavior vis-à-vis another Caucasian neighbor, Georgia, belies that assertion. This is largely due to an unspoken recognition that its neo-Ottoman efforts run up against its old nemesis from actual Ottoman days—Russia.

In the immediate post-Cold War period, when Turkey’s orientation was still largely pro-Western, Ankara was eager to recognize Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union. In 2011, the two countries signed and ratified a protocol, according to which their citizens could travel in both countries without travel documents. According to the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs, Turkey is Georgia’s largest trading partner (with a positive balance in Turkey’s favor) and cooperates with it in the field of energy pipelines.[21]

But these good relations are clouded by Ankara’s two-faced approach to the questions surrounding the breakaway Russian-backed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.[22]As a NATO member, Ankara feels bound to follow, at least in word, the Western line defending Georgia’s territorial integrity. Its actions, however, are more equivocal. Turkish officials have visited Abkhazia while there have been cases where ships, under a Turkish flag, have unsuccessfully tried to break the sea blockade the Georgians have imposed on Abkhazia or to strengthen the latter in any way they can.[23] Likewise, regarding South Ossetia, whose independence only Russia recognizes, Turkey has taken a more moderate stance than that of its Western allies; it tried to broker a distinct compromise of its own,[24] which “got a cold reception in the United States, a close ally of Turkey, where officials complained they had not been informed in advance and criticized the initiative for failing to include Western nations.”[25] According to the Jerusalem Post, Erdoğan’s Caucasus proposal was met with “disbelief in both Georgia and Azerbaijan, since it effectively promised to freeze all territorial disputes in the region, including legitimizing Russia’s recent territorial grab in Georgia.”[26] Finally, Turkey, by using the Montreux Treaty, delayed allowing Western ships to cross the Bosphorus.[27]

This ambivalence has a number of root causes. Abkhazia is home to a small Turkish population over which Ankara may feel protective; at the same time, there are Abkhazians in Turkey who actively promote Abkhaz interests.[28] Further, Turkey’s interests in Georgia, regardless of trade ties, are naturally better served with a weakened neighbor to the north.[29] A weakened Georgia is also what Turkey’s more northerly neighbor craves; and for all its imperial pretensions, Ankara is not ready or willing to provoke the Russians and will thus follow a policy ranging from appeasement to the freezing of problems. Notwithstanding Davutoğlu’s claims, zero problems are only for selected neighbors.

Northern Middle East Neighbors

Syria and Iraq, according to Davutoğlu, form both the “northern Middle East” region and the Mesopotamia-Persian Gulf “axis.” In his view, Ankara is “obliged to act in these regions not simply as a NATO member but also as a regional power, defending its own national strategies.”[30] With such an admission, it is hardly surprising that the policy of zero problems has come up hard against a regional reality that is, to say the least, transitional and turbulent.

Turning first to Syria, it must be acknowledged that there is a long and difficult history between the two nations, revolving around issues of territorial integrity (e.g., Alexandretta),[31] control of water resources (the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates),[32] Ottoman behavior toward its former Arab subjects, and most importantly, the Kurdish problem.

Turkish-Syrian relations began to improve with the signing of the Protocol of Adana on October 20, 1998, under which Syria expelled from its territory Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party—Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan), and his Kurdish rebels. Under Erdoğan, these relations continued to improve with mutual visits at the highest level,[33] Turkish support for Syria during the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, and a 2007 memorandum of understanding between the two countries creating conditions for cooperation in the fields of politics, security, economics,[34] energy, and water resources.[35] In 2009, the two countries met, along with Iraqi representatives, to resolve issues related to control of the Tigris and Euphrates water resources.[36] Turkish-Syrian relations were further strengthened after Ankara’s condemnation of Israel’s incursion into Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009[37] and formalized in early 2011 when the Turks signed an agreement to train Syrian armed forces (simultaneously raising questions within NATO.)[38]

With the emergence of serious domestic opposition to the Assad dynasty in 2011, Turkish leaders sensed an opportunity for increasing the country’s influence and dramatically changed their behavior toward Damascus. After an initial delay, Ankara froze relations with Syria, began to criticize the regime, and lobbied for greater participation by Sunni Muslims in Bashar al-Assad’s government, and when that failed, raised the banner of democratization and human rights, pressuring Assad to step down.[39]

At present Ankara is pursuing multiple goals in Syria, some of which are mutually exclusive. It seeks first and foremost to overthrow Assad and to help accomplish this, obtain the assistance of Masoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurd leader, as well as incite the sizable Kurdish population in Syria to join the opposition against Assad. This must not, in Ankara’s eyes, evolve into the creation of a separate Kurdish enclave should Syria disintegrate, thereby igniting the aspirations of its own restive and autonomy-seeking Kurdish population. Turkey also seeks to limit the influence of Iran and Russia in the Syrian crisis, a task made all the more difficult by Moscow’s clear stake in keeping the Assad regime in power: Syria is an important purchaser of Russian equipment, and Tartus is the only naval facility open to Russia in the Mediterranean. For its part, Iran’s only state alliance in the region has long been Syria, which has also served as a transit point for arming Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.[40]

Like Syrian relations, Turkish-Iraqi relations are colored by a past history of Ottoman rule as well as the Sunni-Shiite divide. Although Ankara antagonized both its NATO allies and Iraq’s nascent post-Saddam regime by denying use of its territory for the 2003 coalition invasion, it has over the past five years made efforts to promote its interests in Iraq though these efforts have hardly fostered zero problems.

One of Ankara’s highest priorities has been to exclude the PKK from operating in Iraq.[41]At the same time, it seeks, for various reasons, to improve relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Most importantly, it wants to play a major role in the transfer of the landlocked oil deposits from northern Iraq to the West via either Kirkuk-Ceyhan or Nabucco pipelines.[42] As such, it signed an agreement in May 2012 with the Kurdish Barzani government to build a new pipeline for transporting crude oil.[43] In doing so, Turkey has adopted a tactic of momentarily forgetting its opposition to an independent Kurdistan but without abandoning previous declared positions[44] or practices of military intervention[45] when it so chooses.

While Turkey has officially declared its support for the territorial integrity and national unity of Iraq, its actions have contributed to the forces that threaten to tear the country apart. Much of this instability has its origins in Shiite-Sunni antagonism: Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, is considered too close to Iran while Iraqi vice president Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, is close to Turkey, the Arab countries, and the Regional Government of Kurdistan.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops in December 2011 has increased centrifugal forces in Iraq.[46] When a governmental crisis erupted around an arrest warrant issued for Hashemi, Ankara quickly reacted, siding with the Sunnis and criticizing the policies of the prime minister. Maliki’s reaction was unusually strong by diplomatic standards, excoriating the Turks for interference in the internal affairs of his country “as if Iraq is controlled or run by them.”[47] Having fled to Turkey, Hashemi was sentenced to death by an Iraqi court.[48] Erdoğan gave his full support to the exiled leader, declaring, despite Interpol’s “red notice,” that Turkey would host Hashemi for “as long as he wants,” and that it “will not hand him over” to Iraqi authorities.[49]

Further, Ankara sought to obtain a non-Kurdish status for the oil-rich Kirkuk area in northern Iraq after the fall of Saddam and supported its “cousin” Turkmens in their claims to the area, thus creating a tool of leverage within Iraq against the Kurds and the Iraqi government.

In sum, Ankara seeks its own interests in Syria and Iraq, which, while often contradictory, are clearly independent of the interests of both states. Whether supporting an insurgency in Syria or encouraging the Kurds of northern Iraq, Turkey’s behavior cannot be characterized as that of a good neighbor. And while Ankara may reap some short term gains, notably the transfer of Iraqi Kurdish oil through its territory, it also risks losing its land access to the Arabian Peninsula by angering Baghdad. It remains to be seen whether all these Turkish actions will bear long-term fruit.

Turkish-Iranian Rivalry

Iran has been a Turkish rival in some form or another at least since the days of the old Ottoman and Safavid empires, and the AKP Erdoğan government has vacillated between drawing closer to Tehran and confronting it over various issues.

Some analysts consider Ankara’s outreach to Tehran as being purely economic in origin. Certainly trade with Iran has increased significantly from $1 billion at the beginning of the decade to $10 billion in 2009, to $16 billion in 2011.[50] It is Iran, however, that mostly benefits from these trade relations[51] while simultaneously using its Turkish connection to break out of its international isolation.[52]

Erdoğan seems happy to oblige the ayatollahs and has repeatedly acted as an apologist for Iranian behavior.[53] His congratulations to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his fraudulent reelection in 2009 outraged many in the West. He has argued that Tehran is unjustly accused by outsiders and has characterized discussions regarding the Iranian nuclear weapons program as “gossip,” deriding any potential military operation against it as “crazy.”[54] While serving as a non-permanent Security Council member, Ankara voted against U.N. Security Council resolution 1929 of June 2010, which imposed serious sanctions on Tehran in various spheres. In opposition to the wishes of its NATO partners, Turkey joined in a trilateral meeting with Iran and Brazil, the upshot of which was an agreement for Iran to send 1200 kilograms of uranium for enrichment to Turkey and receive, in exchange, nuclear fuel for its reactor.[55] To Ankara’s deep embarrassment, Iran almost immediately reneged on the agreement, vowing to continue its efforts to enrich uranium.[56]

Ankara has further distanced itself from its NATO allies by embracing Tehran’s positions regarding a proposed missile shield to be installed on Turkish soil to safeguard against Iranian threats. When it failed to convince its partners not to install the antimissile shield, Turkey worked to ensure that Iran would not be named its target and has assured the Iranians that no non-NATO country (i.e., Israel) would have access to the radar’s data.[57]

True, there are areas of disagreement between Ankara and Tehran. The Turks would like to see better conditions for their Iranian Azeri “cousins” while the Iranians want Turkey to stay out of its internal affairs and to keep neighboring Azerbaijan from inflaming this issue.[58] While both states reject an independent Kurdistan, neither is above playing the Kurdish card with each other’s minority group.[59] And the two governments have starkly divergent positions vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war where Turkey has thrown its support behind the rebels while Tehran sends arms and soldiers to bolster the Assad regime.[60] Is this behavior a successful example of zero problems? For all its bluster, Ankara’s choices may merely reflect recognition that Tehran has dangerous military capabilities that must be blunted.

Turkey and Israel

Significantly, Turkish policies toward Iran are also potentially damaging Ankara’s standing with the West and its closer neighbor—and former ally—Israel. Turkish overtures to Iran have often come at the expense of Israel, which has borne the brunt of Ankara’s revived imperial ambitions, coupled with an Islamist disdain for the Jewish state.

Until the rise of the AKP, relations between Ankara and Jerusalem had ranged from good to excellent. Not only did the two countries not compete, but during the Cold War, they benefited from U.S. as well as British foreign policy imperatives. In the post-Cold War era, as two regional Western strongholds in a turbulent area, the governments cooperated on addressing common risks such as terrorism, strengthening their relationship in all areas.

Under Erdoğan, this has changed dramatically. By way of reasserting its leading regional role and winning over the Arab world, Ankara has progressively distanced itself from Israel and the West. In 2004, Erdoğan accused Israel of practicing “state terrorism;”[61] in 2006, his wife publicly endorsed the Valley of the Wolves, an anti-American and anti-Semitic movie; also in 2006, instead of inviting extremists to renounce violence, Erdoğan personally received Hamas leader Khaled Mashal after the militant Islamist group won the Palestinian elections.[62]

Matters worsened in late 2008 and early 2009 when Israel, reacting to years of rocket and missile attacks against its southern citizens, launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. In January, Erdoğan publicly railed against longtime dove and Israeli president Shimon Peres at an international conference in Davos, Switzerland. In April, Turkey conducted joint military exercises with Syria, and in October, excluded Israel from the “Anatolian Eagle” military exercise,[63] in which the latter had participated in every year since 2001.

Turkish hostility to Israel reached its zenith on May 31, 2010, when the Mavi Marmara boat, under Turkish flag, attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza under the pretence of transferring aid to the Palestinians. According to Turkish press reports, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in contact with the organizers of the operation despite claims to the contrary.[64] When Israeli troops boarding the ship were met with violence, which resulted in the death of nine people,[65] Ankara downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel and cancelled all military cooperation with Jerusalem.[66] Despite Israeli offers of compensation for the victims’ families,[67] Turkey continues to spurn any efforts at reconciliation. Most recently, it announced the intention to sell uncensored images of Israel when it launches the GokTurk satellite, something that could damage Israeli security interests[68] and has threatened Israeli and Cypriot energy explorations in the eastern Mediterranean.

While Israel may not border Turkey directly, it is the only true democracy in the region and a country with which Turkey not only had zero problems for decades but also the closest of relations. In an effort to woo the neighboring Arabs by being seen as a champion of the Palestinians and, to some degree, of Islam, Turkey has initiated a cold war with the Jewish state. At the same time, it seems that Iran has earned more from Ankara’s policy of rapprochement while Israel accumulates the costs.

Conclusion

Thanks to continuous Western support, the end of the Cold War found Turkey stronger, both militarily and economically, and with a power vacuum to its immediate east. Within this context, the AKP’s foreign policy decisions demonstrate the insincerity of its “zero problems with neighbors” claims. Rather than solve problems, Ankara is, at best, freezing them, in the hope of building better commercial relations to satisfy its growth needs. In many instances, it is worsening them at its neighbors’ expense.

The Turkish government’s insincerity manifests itself in an attempt to mask its expansionist ambitions and an attitude that can be described as “what applies to others does not apply to me.” Thus, Erdoğan accuses foreign leaders of “killing children”[69] while fighting against the recognition of past genocides (Armenians, Greeks of Pontus, and Assyrians). It exploits the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in which nine Turks were killed while downplaying its far more numerous killings of Kurdish civilians in Iraqi territory. It accuses Israel of occupying Palestinian territories while illegally occupying northern Cyprus, claims the right to invade Iraq with impunity, and frequently violates its neighbors’ airspace.[70] It accuses others of terrorism while facilitating the transfer of weapons to terror organizations.[71] It participates in and benefits from NATO while obstructing the organization’s policies as in the case of Iraq in 2003, Lebanon in 2005, Georgia in 2007, and Iran.

Initial improvements with the Arab world have stalled. Despite statements to the contrary from its minister of economics,[72] Turkey has lost the Syrian market. It risks losing access to the energy resources of the Arabian Peninsula through Iraqi or Syrian pipelines and is desperately trying to replace this route with shipping routes from Mersin to Port Said, Egypt.[73] Due to its policies toward its Western-oriented neighbors—Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, and Israel—the AKP has also undermined Ankara’s relations with the West, particularly those nations who were contemplating its joining the EU.[74]

The policy of zero problems appears to be operative with only two states: Iran and Russia. In contrast to their behavior toward Greece, Cyprus, Syria, and Iraq, which have at various times either been threatened with violence or have been attacked, the Turks remain conspicuously silent toward Armenia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia where Russian armed forces are present. Similarly, Ankara behaves toward Iran as if it were not a member of NATO, excusing Tehran’s nuclear program and delaying the installation of a NATO missile shield system. Since both Russia and Iran are stronger than Turkey, Ankara seems, for the most part, to be doing its utmost to avoid upsetting their regional interests, but this has nothing to do with neighborly solicitude.

The zero problems policy has not failed, as has been suggested, because it was tested against authoritarian governments:[75] Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, and Israel are hardly governed by dictators, and Iraq, for all its failings, has not descended to this level. The policy has failed because it was a tool for neo-Ottoman ambitions and global aspirations that have now become all too obvious.[76]

The unvarnished truth is that Ankara acts, to use Davutoğlu’s metaphor, like a heavyweight wrestler seeking to intimidate its middleweight neighbors. As such, “zero problems with neighbors” may turn into the country’s zero hour as Ankara finds itself increasingly considered an unreliable partner by its allies and a regional bully by its neighbors.

Ilias I. Kouskouvelis is Professor of International Relations at the University of Macedonia, Greece, and Director of the Laboratory of International Relations and European Integration. The author thanks Nikolaos Raptopoulos, Alexander Koutsoukis, and Revecca Pedi for their incisive comments.

[1] Ahmet Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik. Türkiye’nin Uluslararası Konumu (Istanbul: Küre Yayınları, 2001).
[2]Policy of Zero Problems with Our Neighbors,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, Ankara, accessed Sept. 21, 2012.
[3] Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik, p. 147.
[4] See, for example, “On the situation of the Turkish Muslim Minority in Western Thrace, Greece,” res. 3/33-M, 33rd Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (ICFM), Baku, June 19-21, 2006; “On the Situation of the Turkish Muslim Minority of Western Thrace, Greece,” res. 3/34-MM, 34th ICFM, Islamabad, May 15-17, 2007.
[5] Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik, p. 124.
[6] The Sofia (Bulgaria) Echo, June 3, 2010.
[7] SKAI TV (Greece), accessed Oct. 1, 2012.
[8] See “Annual Risk Analysis 2012,” Frontex, European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, Warsaw, Apr. 2012.
[9] Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik, pp. 176-80.
[10] Hurriyet (Istanbul), Dec. 17, 2010, Jan. 5, 2011.
[11] Ibid., Aug. 5, 2011, Sept. 21, 27, 2011.
[12] “National Security,” Country Studies, Turkey (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, Jan. 1995), chap. 5.
[13] BBC News (London), Oct. 11, 2009; Today’s Zaman (Istanbul), Dec. 26, 2011.
[14]Azerbaijan,” The World Factbook 2002, CIA, Mar. 19, 2003.
[15] “Background note: Armenia,” U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., Mar. 22, 2012.
[16] Eurasia Insight (New York), Eurasianet.org, Sept. 29, 2008.
[17] New Caucasus (Armenia), Jan. 29, 2011.
[18] See, Génocide arménien, Assemblée Nationale, Paris, Jan. 30, 2001. For Turkish reactions to French actions, see Today’s Zaman, Jan. 23, 2012, Reuters, Jan. 23, 2012.
[19]Policy of Zero Problems with Our Neighbors,” accessed Sept. 21, 2012.
[20] Ibid.
[21]Relations between Turkey and Georgia,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, Ankara, accessed Sept. 21, 2012.
[22] Today’s Zaman, Apr. 28, 2010.
[23] Georgia Times (Tbilisi), June 11, 2006.
[24] Today’s Zaman, Aug. 15, 2008.
[25] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Washington, D.C.), Sept. 5, 2008.
[26] The Jerusalem Post, Jan. 14, 2009.
[27] Radikal (Istanbul), Sept. 20, 2008.
[28] See Mitat Çelikpala, “From immigrants to diaspora: Influence of the North Caucasian diaspora in Turkey,” Middle Eastern Studies, 3 (2006): 423-46.
[29] Igor Torbakov, “The Georgia Crisis and Russia-Turkey Relations,” The Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C., 2008.
[30] Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik, pp. 397-405.
[31]Syria,” Country Studies, Turkey (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, Jan. 1995).
[32] CNN World, Sept. 3, 2009.
[33] See, for example, “Latest Developments,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, Ankara, Sept. 21, 2012.
[34]Syria Economic and Trade Relations,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, Ankara, accessed Sept. 21, 2012.
[35] CNN World, Sept. 3, 2009.
[36] Ibid., Sept. 3, 2009.
[37] Ibid., Dec. 14, 2010.
[38] CNSnews (Alexandria, Va.), Feb. 11, 2011.
[39] BBC News, Nov. 30, 2011.
[40] Today’s Zaman, Dec. 18, 2011; United Press International (Washington, D.C.), Jan. 12, 2012.
[41] “Latest Developments,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, Ankara, Dec. 15, 2011.
[42] United Press International, Dec. 22, 2011.
[43] Southeast European Times Türkiye (U.S. European Command), June 21, 2012.
[44] Today’s Zaman, Aug. 10, 2012.
[45] CNN News, Dec. 30, 2011.
[46] BBC News, Dec. 22, 2011.
[47] Today’s Zaman, Jan. 14, 2012.
[48] BBC News, Sept, 10, 2012.
[49] Today’s Zaman, May 8, 2012; Reuters, Sept. 11, 2012.
[50] AEI Irantracker, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., June 24, 2010; CNN World, Sept. 7, 2011; Tehran Times, Mar. 28, 2012.
[51] Today’s Zaman, Jan. 25, 2012.
[52] Eurasia Daily Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C., Mar. 3, 2009.
[53] CNSnews, Feb. 11, 2011.
[54] BBC News, Oct. 26, 2009.
[55] Ibid., May 17, 2010.
[56] CNN World, May 17, 2010.
[57] Today’s Zaman, Mar. 30. 2012.
[58]Iran,” Country Studies, Turkey (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, Jan. 1995).
[59] Ibid.
[60] The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 27, 2012.
[61] BBC News, June 3, 2004.
[62] Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), Feb. 23-Mar. 1, 2006.
[63] BBC News, Oct. 11, 2009.
[64] Milliyet (Istanbul), June 5, 2010.
[65] The New York Times, May 31, 2010.
[66] CNN World, Sept. 6, 2011.
[67] The Guardian (London), May 24, 2012.
[68] Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), Mar. 10, 2011.
[69] CNN World, June 6, 2011.
[70] The Guardian, Dec. 29, 2011; The Sofia Echo, Aug. 19, 2009.
[71] See, for example, Voice of America, Aug. 24, 2012; Hurriyet, Sept. 18, 2012; The Guardian, Sept. 27, 2012 .
[72] Reuters, Dec. 7, 2011.
[73] Today’s Zaman, June 4, 2012.
[74] O Fileleftheros (Cyprus), Jan. 11, Dec. 9, 2011; Hurriyet, Sept. 28, 2011.
[75] Damla Aras, “Turkish-Syrian Relations Go Downhill,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2012, pp. 41-50.
[76] Piotr Zalewski, “The Self-Appointed Superpower: Turkey Goes It Alone,” World Policy Journal, Dec. 2010, 27, pp. 97-102.

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Middle East

Amid ethnic protests, Iran warns of foreign meddling

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Iran has raised the spectre of a US-Saudi effort to destabilize the country by exploiting economic grievances against the backdrop of circumstantial evidence that Washington and Riyadh are playing with scenarios for stirring unrest among the Islamic republic’s ethnic minorities.

Iran witnessed this weekend minority Azeri and Iranian Arab protests in soccer stadiums while the country’s Revolutionary Guards Corps reported clashes with Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish insurgents.

State-run television warned in a primetime broadcast that foreign agents could turn legitimate protests stemming from domestic anger at the government’s mismanagement of the economy and corruption into “incendiary calls for regime change” by inciting violence that would provoke a crackdown by security forces and give the United States fodder to tackle Iran.

“The ordinary protesting worker would be hapless in the face of such schemes, uncertain how to stop his protest from spiralling into something bigger, more radical, that he wasn’t calling for,” journalist Azadeh Moaveni quoted in a series of tweets the broadcast as saying.

The warning stroked with the Trump administration’s strategy to escalate the protests that have been continuing for months and generate the kind of domestic pressure that would force Iran to concede by squeezing it economically with the imposition of harsh sanctions.

US officials, including President Donald J. Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton, a long-time proponent of Iranian regime change, have shied away from declaring that they were seeking a change of government, but have indicated that they hoped sanctions would fuel economic discontent.

The Trump administration, after withdrawing in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, this month targeted Iranian access to US dollars, trade in gold and other precious metals, and the sale to Iran of auto parts, commercial passenger aircraft, and related parts and services. A second round of sanctions in November is scheduled to restrict oil and petrochemical products.

“The pressure on the Iranian economy is significant… We continue to see demonstrations and riots in cities and towns all around Iran showing the dissatisfaction the people feel because of the strained economy.” Mr. Bolton said as the first round of sanctions took effect.

Mr. Bolton insisted that US policy was to put “unprecedented pressure” on Iran to change its behaviour”, not change the regime.

The implication of his remarks resembled Israeli attitudes three decades ago when officials argued that if the Palestine Liberation Organization were to recognize Israel it would no longer be the PLO but the PPLO, Part of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In other words, the kind of policy changes the Trump administration is demanding, including an end to its ballistic program and support for regional proxies, by implication would have to involve regime change.

A string of recent, possibly unrelated incidents involving Iran’s ethnic minorities coupled with various other events could suggest that the United States and Saudi Arabia covertly are also playing with separate plans developed in Washington and Riyadh to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among non-Persian segments of the Islamic republic’s population.

Mr. Bolton last year before assuming office drafted at the request of Mr. Trump’s then strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, a plan that envisioned US support “for the democratic Iranian opposition,” “Kurdish national aspirations in Iran, Iraq and Syria,” and assistance for Baloch in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Balochistan province as well as Iranian Arabs in the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan.

A Saudi think tank, believed to be backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, called in 2017 in a study for Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran. Prince Mohammed vowed around the same time that “we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Pakistani militants have claimed that Saudi Arabia has stepped up funding of militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian fighters.

The head of the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs met in Washington in June with Mustafa Hijri, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), before assuming his new post as counsel general in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said last weekend that they had killed ten militants near the Iranian border with Iraq. “A well-equipped terrorist group … intending to infiltrate the country from the border area of Oshnavieh to foment insecurity and carry out acts of sabotage was ambushed and at least 10 terrorists were killed in a heavy clash,” the Guards said.

The KDPI has recently stepped up its attacks in Iranian Kurdistan, killing nine people weeks before Mr. Hijri’s meeting with Mr. Fagin. Other Kurdish groups have reported similar attacks. Several Iranian Kurdish groups are discussing ways to coordinate efforts to confront the Iranian regime.

Similarly, this weekend’s ethnic soccer protests are rooted in a history of football unrest in the Iranian provinces of East Azerbaijan and Khuzestan that reflect long-standing economic and environmental grievances but also at times at least in oil-rich Khuzestan potentially had Saudi fingerprints on them.

Video clips of Azeri supporters of Tabriz-based Traktor Sazi FC chanting ‘Death to the Dictator” in Tehran’s Azadi stadium during a match against Esteghlal FC went viral on social media after a live broadcast on state television was muted to drown the protest out. A sports commentator blamed the loss of sound on a network disruption.

A day earlier, Iranian Arab fans clashed with security forces in a stadium in the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz during a match between local team Foolad Khuzestan FC and Tehran’s Persepolis FC. The fans reportedly shouted slogans reaffirming their Arab identity.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs have a long history of encouraging Iranian Arab opposition and troubling the minority’s relations with the government.

Iranian distrust of the country’s Arab minority has been further fuelled by the fact that the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK), a controversial exiled opposition group that enjoys the support of prominent serving and former Western officials, including some in the Trump administration, has taken credit for a number of the protests in Khuzestan. The group advocates the violent overthrow of the regime in Tehran.

Two of Mr. Trump’s closest associates, Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, and former House speaker New Gingrich, attended in June a gathering in Paris of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq.

In past years, US participants, including Mr. Bolton, were joined by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of the kingdom’s intelligence service and past ambassador to Britain and the United States, who is believed to often echo views that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman prefers not to voice himself.

“The mullahs must go, the ayatollah must go, and they must be replaced by a democratic government which Madam Rajavi represents. Freedom is right around the corner … Next year I want to have this convention in Tehran,” Mr. Giuliani told this year’s rally, referring to Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the Mujahedeen who is a cult figure to the group.

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Middle East

Russia’s Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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It is often said in the Western mainstream media that Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a disrupting role around the world, including in the Middle East. However, such accusations remind of an old Soviet joke that made its rounds in the late 1980s and could certainly be applicable to the United States and other Western countries. The joke begins with a man walking into a Soviet hospital and asking the desk nurse if he can see the eye-ear doctor. “There is no such doctor,” she tells him, “Perhaps you would like to see someone else?” “No,” he replies, “I need to see an eye-ear doctor.” “But there is no such doctor,” she replies. “We have doctors for eyes and doctors for ears, nose and throat (ENT), but no eye-ear doctor.” “No help,” he repeats. “I want to see the eye-ear doctor.” They go around like this for a few minutes before the nurse interjects and says, “Sir, there is no eye-ear doctor, but if there was one, why would you want to see one?” “Because,” he replies, “I keep hearing one thing and seeing another.”

This is exactly the sentiment that seems to be gripping the international community. It is stated as fact that President Putin is attempting to destabilize the Middle East and Europe quite like he ‘orchestrated’ in the American Presidential Elections in 2016. Leaving aside the lack of evidence for the latter two cases, Middle Eastern countries do not feel that Russia is trying to destabilize the region. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Israeli-Russian relations have never been better: Russia’s “frenemy,” Saudi Arabia turns to Russia for regional issues more so than to the US; and Turkey has improved its relations with Russia since the Turkish army shot down the Russian jet in Syria. Russia is in close contact and on good terms with all the key players and countries in the Middle East, and playing broker or interlocutor when a crisis arises.

Russia has been actively involved in the region to preserve its interests, namely ensuring stability in a region where jihadi terrorism has run rampant. That was the main reason it intervened in Syria in 2015, as Salafi jihadi forces such as Da’esh, Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra or Al-Qaeda in Syria), Ahrar al-Sham, and others were almost certainly on their way to occupying Damascus, which constitutes a red line for Moscow. In nearly three years, Russia has almost removed all of the Salafi jihadi terrorists from Syria and is now focused on finding a negotiated solution to the seven-year civil war. While it is working on a peace agreement in Sochi and Astana, Russia still sees Syria as the front line to its war on terror and is closely working with the Syrian Army to ensure it can fend off terrorists and any destabilizing efforts from any regional and external players. At the same time, Russia is constantly working with all the necessary partners to ensure stability there.

However, some prominent Russian figures including Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the Russian deputy envoy to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov, and scholar Vitaly Naumkin have suggested that Russia can play a crucial role in resolving the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the prospect for a solution to this conflict seems bleak, having a new player that can help is a positive sign. In fact, Russia has unique credentials to kick-start peace talks, since it is a veto-holding member of the UN Security Council and a member of the Middle East Quartet. In both international bodies, Washington has been mingling with far right-wing elements in Israel and stonewalling any potential peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians by vetoing key United Nations Security Council resolutions. A more reliable player who is active in the region, like Russia, would serve well as a broker to help the necessary parties come to an agreement.

More importantly, Russia can play a constructive role and be a dependable broker because it has close ties with all the necessary parties needed for any agreement. It is more of an honest broker than Washington for a variety of reasons. Chiefly among them, if for no other reason, is the fact that Russia can play a fair interlocutor given its presence in the region. If we look at Donald Trump’s ill-advised decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it not only reignited violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians but it also revealed that Washington had never been an honest broker in resolving the age-old conflict.

This is not the first time that Moscow had offered to be a broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Kremlin had offered to host the two parties in Moscow as a venue for discussions in 2016. However, all hopes were dashed when two Israeli professors decided to reveal that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was a KGB Agent in the 1980s while pursuing his doctorate degree. It was later revealed that the two Israeli professors had leaked this document to the Israeli press because they had their own agenda and did not want negotiations to bear fruit under the auspices of the Russians.

It takes two to tango: Do the two states want it?

Israelis

Current Coalition Government

The current Israeli government’s perspective on a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis is nearly nonexistent. This is Israel’s most far-right government coalition since it first became a state in 1948. Since becoming Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has always found an excuse to not seek a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Moreover, Netanyahu has laid down the conditions to an agreement that no Palestinian leader can agree to. For instance, in 2013, he outlined his so-called “vision” for a future Palestinian state. He stated that there would be no agreement unless the Palestinian leadership recognizes Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” This is an ill-conceived approach as Israel’s concern should be about creating a two-state solution (and future narrative) for its national security rather than ensuring that its future neighbouring state recognizes the complexion of its statehood. Does the United States have to recognize Canada as a multicultural country? Or does Canada have to recognize the United States as a Christian state? No. The United States recognizes Canada as a state and vice versa. What each state does internally is its own business.

Under Netanyahu’s leadership, he has always suggested that the Palestinians are divided and when they did unite he suggested that they are aligning with Hamas—a “terrorist” organization—and, thus, Israel cannot negotiate with the Palestinians. In reality, Hamas conducted terrorist activities in the past, but today they are very popular with Gazans, East Jerusalemites, and West Bankers. If elections were held today in the Palestinian Territories, Hamas most likely would win in all three cities. For the last nine years, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition governments have accused the Palestinian leadership of incitement. However, the blame should really be put on Netanyahu’s government for their incitement in the Occupied Territories (East Jerusalem and the West Bank), as it condones the daily activities of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the settlers’ mistreatment of the Palestinians on a day-to-day basis. As the country has shifted further to the extreme right in recent years, it will take much skill to convince Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his far right-wing coalition to come to the table and, eventually, agree on a final two-state solution with Israel’s neighbours. If anyone other than Netanyahu’s “Likud” Party in this coalition (namely Naftali Bennett’s “HaBayit HaYehudi” Party, any of the religious parties, or, to a certain extent, Avigdor Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beiteinu” Party, or any of their offshoots) wins the next general election, which is scheduled for 2019, then it will be increasingly difficult to reach a two-state solution agreement.

Opposition Parties

There is still some hope because there are a few party leaders that want to seek a two-state solution. However, the two main opposition leaders—Avi Gabay (“Labor” Party) and Yair Lapid (“Yesh Atid” Party) — do not seem to indicate that they are genuine in seeking a two-state solution. Their statements about Jerusalem, and other issues for a future agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, are disheartening. Both Gabay of the “Labor” Party (a central partner in the “Zionist Union” Party with Tzipi Livni’s “Hatnuah” Party) and Lapid of the “Yesh Atid” Party have shifted to the right of the Israeli political spectrum. Whether this is a tactic to attract right-wing voters or it is their fundamental belief remains to be seen. However, their statements signal trouble for the two-state solution if either of them were to become Prime Minister.

That leaves Israel with “Meretz” Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg, Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and “the Joint List” Chairman Ayman Odeh. Zandberg leads the progressive “Meretz” Party into the next election with only 5 seats in the Israeli Knesset (Israel’s Parliament). She has tried to inject new life in the party and suggested that if she were to lead a government, or take part in a coalition government, she would enter with all progressive parties on the Israeli left and would not rule out right-wing politician and current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, the Chairman of “Yisrael Beiteinu,” is a pragmatic leader who might be the only politician on the Israeli right that will change his view if he sees the security of his country at risk. That leaves the progressive with some hope that he would play it nice with Zandberg, but his negative comments about Arabs, Palestinians, and a future peace agreement makes one wonder if his views will actually change when faced with any potential agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Zandberg’s comments, however, could simply be a tactic for trying to lure more voters to her party, especially those on the right of the spectrum. It is still disheartening to hear the new “Meretz” Chairwoman make that promise to voters despite Lieberman’s rhetoric, which puts him in opposition to a fair peace treaty. Also, “Meretz’s” silence on Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, like other political parties on the left, with the exception of the “Joint List,” is also demoralizing to those struggling to bring peace.

Ehud Barak is a factor because he has wanted to return to the political scene since he resigned from his post as Defense Minister in a previous Netanyahu administration. He has been quite critical of the current Prime Minister over his several corruption scandals and his lackluster interest in seeking dialogue with the Palestinians. A former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and a protégé of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Barak has always sought a peace agreement with Israel’s neighbours and the Palestinians in particular. This is encouraging news, as Israel needs safe borders to ensure its stability and address its two national security priorities: ensuring the Jewish complexity of the state and reducing the violence within its borders. While it would be advisable to maintain a two-state solution, Barak’s strategy to ensure Israel’s national security concerns might be met with stumbling blocks. First, it is unclear if Barak is a strong contender, as many Israelis still remember his attempt at a peace agreement with the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Second, it is unclear what he will do should he negotiate with the Palestinians. In his last attempt, he refused to divide Jerusalem, rejected to return land to the Palestinians along the 1967 borders, and declined to dismantle settlements in those Occupied Territories. If he were to repeat this strategy, negotiations will almost certainly fail. In any case, Barak’s last attempt was Israel’s closest at reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. It abruptly ended when violence broke out between Palestinians and Israelis on Temple Mount, when then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon decided to pay a visit to the holy site for Jews and Muslims, thus giving start to the second intifada. In the following elections, Ehud Barak lost to Ariel Sharon ending all hopes for a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

While most would dismiss Ayman Odeh, it would be a mistake to do so. The “Joint List” is the third largest political party (13 seats) in the current Knesset behind the “Zionist Union” (24 seats) and the “Likud” (30 seats). Along with being the Chairman of the “Joint List” Party, a coalition of several Arab parties in the Knesset, Odeh is the leader of the “Hadash” Party. The young and energetic leader has consistently said that he supports a two-state solution, has consistently advocated for the rights of minorities living in Israel, and has challenged the current government’s policy on settlement building in the Occupied Territories (the West Bank and East Jerusalem), in Gaza, and how it has conducted itself in bordering countries—namely in Syria and Lebanon. More importantly, Odeh and his “Joint List” Party can play a productive role in a coalition government. As previously mentioned, Odeh has consistently stated that he wants a two-state solution—something that Israel should be seeking to ensure its national security. More specifically, in a future coalition, he can make the government treat minorities with respect and dignity—something past government coalitions have not done. A high ministerial position in the government for Odeh would be a first step in demonstrating that Israel is serious about integrating the 20% of its population that feels neglected and alienated by Israeli society. At the time of publication, both Gabay and Lapid have ruled out giving the “Joint List” Party a place in their coalition government, but we have yet to hear from the other candidates on the Israeli left. It is unknown what “Meretz” Leader Zandberg would do. In any case, if not as Prime Minister, Odeh and his “Joint List” Party can inject some new blood into a two-state solution and implement some progressive policies within Israel.

Palestinians

Fatah (Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani al-Filastini)

Fatah is one of the main factions in the Palestinian National Authority (PA) and the second largest faction in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The Chairman of the faction, Mahmoud Abbas, is also the President of the PA. He succeeded the PA’s late President, and Fatah founding member, Yasser Arafat in a contested election. There are many problems with Fatah. Much has changed since it was founded in 1959. Swamped with graft and corruption, the “Old Guard” is still in control, but it is a movement that is deeply divided. The main tribulation for the “Young Guard” is the amount of corruption and the fact that it governs with a vertical approach, both within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. While the “Young Guard” is demonstrating its frustrations about the movement, it remains largely dominated by aging cadres from the pre-Oslo era of Palestinian politics—most of them gaining prominence through their patronage to the late Yasser Arafat.

Most notable from the “Young Guard” is the popular Palestinian politician Marwan Barghouti. The jailed politician left Fatah in 2005 to form his own “al-Mustaqbal” Party, which was mainly composed of the youth of Fatah. His main complaint was the faction’s lack of vision and exorbitant corruption. This struck a chord with many in the Occupied Territories. However, his party never came to fruition, as Fatah decided to present a unified list to voters in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections—with Barghouti campaigning for Fatah from his jail cell. After the election, Barghouti remained popular within Fatah regardless of being in jail. PA President, Mahmoud Abbas is aging, in poor health, completely disconnected with the Palestinian people, and utterly alienated and demonized by the Israelis (with support from the United States). Any future mediator must look to the “Young Guard” within Fatah for a negotiating partner for a two-state solution—and Barghouti is one of those leaders to keep an eye on.

Hamas (Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah)

Hamas is another faction within the PA, and the largest faction within the PLC. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Mahmoud Zahar, and several others founded it in 1987, right after the beginning of the first intifada. Its current Chief of the Political Bureau is Ismail Haniyeh. He succeeded Khaled Mashal, who held on to the position from 1996 until 2017. Originally an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was hostile to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)—the predecessor to the PA—and Israel. However, it has since revoked most of its hostile rhetoric to the PA and Israel. Furthermore, it has revamped its hostile charter, which recognizes Israel as a state along the 1967 borders—indicating the land that Israel obtained in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel took ownership of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

This is not to mean that Hamas does not face challenges. It is in a quagmire of its own, as it struggles to maintain legitimacy in the Gaza Strip, where it has governed since the brutal power struggle between them and Fatah following the 2005 Disengagement. There have been some small murmurs of discontent of their leadership as it tries to balance between resisting the occupation, avoiding another war, and governing its people. As the economic situation has deteriorated over the years (mainly but not solely due to the Israeli blockade), it has led to small divisions within the rank-and-file, but nothing noteworthy of any type of threat to their leadership in the Gaza Strip. For all intents and purposes, Hamas is a necessary partner in a future peace agreement as it is still popular with the majority of Palestinians.

Suggesting that Hamas is solely a terrorist organization is a mistake. There are some elements within the organization that still seek a hard line with Israel and want to have the entire state of Israel. However, this is not the official position of Hamas. This is the main argument that comes from the Israeli right and the naysayers to openly negotiating with Hamas. To those that feel that Hamas should never be trusted and dialogue with the organization is a non-starter: would it not be wiser to engage with an organization that has extremist views, such as they do, and integrate them into the mainstream in the hopes of marginalizing those that want to make Palestine a cause while strengthening those that want to make Palestine a nation? The only way to change Hamas’ behaviour for the better is to engage them in the process, rather than leave them as an outlier where their mischievous behaviour will certainly continue. Engaging Hamas is necessary because without Hamas, there is no peace agreement.

The current regional players: How do they see it?

Saudi Arabia

The PA and Saudi Arabia have had a longstanding relationship. They both sit in the Arab League and the Islamic Cooperation Council. For the longest time, the two countries have been allies and the perception had been that the Saudis have always defended the Palestinians. As a charter member of the Arab League, Saudi Arabia has supported Palestinian rights to sovereignty and called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories since 1967. However, in recent years, this all changed. With the new Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman having won the power struggle to succeed King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz, the policy and relations with the Palestinians have significantly shifted.

With the Crown Prince in full control, he “offered” a “deal” to the Palestinians that was almost immediately rejected by PA President Abbas because it made many guarantees to the Israelis, but offered the Palestinians nothing. This should not come as a surprise because, in one of the region’s worst kept secrets, Saudi Arabia and Israel have improved their relations significantly. This is a foreign policy that Bin Salman has carried out since solidifying his power. One has to wonder if this is a wise decision for Israel because the young Defense Minister has been highly sectarian in his wars with Yemen and the standoff with Qatar. What is more, he deems Iran as a greater threat than Israel, which is the main reason for his policy shift. For a country that is very weak, he is trying to hold on to power with an iron fist. This will not bode well for the Sheikhdom—a country composed of regions that differ in nature, which were united into a single political entity only by blending the Ibn Saud dynasty with Wahhabism. If left unchecked, Bin Salman’s iron fist mentality, will most certainly disintegrate Saudi Arabia into its historic components, as happened in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and potentially could happen in Syria. Furthermore, Bin Salman’s belligerent behaviour may lead to resistance from the Saudi elites who he is attempting to purge. Also, there is a considerable Shi‘i minority in the eastern part of the Sheikhdom, which will probably pursue a military or political sponsor for itself in Iran.

This type of aggressive activity at home and abroad has the very real possibility of creating a confrontation with Iran. Thus, Saudi Arabia can no longer be trusted as a key player in any political solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians, if not for its weakness and bellicosity, then for its lack of support within the Palestinian leadership as it’s seen as a guarantor for the Israeli side. This does not mean engagement should be shelved. On the contrary, a mediator should be in contact with the Sheikhdom in order to avoid rogue elements within the regime to sabotage an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Iran

Iran has been labeled as a menacing force by many Western countries, namely the United States and Israel. The argument is that Iran is a state that is sponsoring terrorism in the region and abroad. This is grossly exaggerated. While it might be on the same level as Saudi Arabia in “sponsoring terrorism,” where is this criticism of Saudi Arabia? It has funded numerous organizations that are in line with its Wahhabist vision. We see this in Iraq, Libya, and Syria where Daesh (the Islamic State or IS for short), and other similar organizations, have wreaked havoc after American covert or overt operations created a vacuum allowing these Salafi jihadi organizations to run amuck. These same organizations are still threatening others in the region. The Arab New Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia might have started in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution was successful in overthrowing the Shah, but the extremist ideological feud predated it with the Saudi Sheikhdom’s unholy alliance with Wahhabism and the exportation of its revolution into other countries in the Middle East. All this while cozying up to Western powers long before Iran had begun to export its revolution. What needs to be done with Hamas is exactly what needs to be done with Iran, and for the same reason. However, a similar approach also needs to be taken with Saudi Arabia because it is a country that has been allowed to act without consequence. The onus for the instability in the region and international terrorism should be placed on the Sheikhdom just as much as (if not more than) the Iranians.

Regarding Iran’s influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is limited. They do fund the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, which has claimed responsibility for some of the rockets launched into Israel. However, their influence and power are limited. But, if a mediator wants to marginalize the extremists within the organization, it would be wise to engage with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is what Fmr. US President Obama began in 2015 with his “Iran Nuclear Deal.” The withdrawal from the deal by the United States by current US President Donald Trump is disheartening for the simple reason that Iran has no incentive for cooperating with the international community and, more specifically, revoking its funding to Shi‘i organizations in the region, such as the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Turkey

In recent years, Turkey has taken a major shift from what it used to be in the 20th century. Under current President and former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the country has taken on a more traditionalist identity. When first elected as Prime Minister in 2003, Erdoğan was elected because the society was changing. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were military coups happening more often than one would change their underwear. Those that had become wealthier now wanted to be able to practice their religion freely. Many people also felt disenfranchised for a variety of reasons. Whether it was for religious, economic, or social reasons, the people wanted a change from a strict, secular country guided by the military. It would be a misnomer to suggest that Turks wanted (and still do not want) to be an Islamic fundamentalist state. Rather, they wanted to be free to pray or practice their religion without feeling threatened (a more traditionalist state, if you will). The Turks do not want an Islamic fundamentalist state and their Presidential elections have consistently shown that as Erdoğan or his presidential allies have usually received a little over than fifty percent of the vote while always maintaining power in the Turkish parliament. The message the voters are sending is that it likes the government’s economic policies and it wants the traditionalist element in Turkish daily life but it does not want to have a fundamentalist version of Islam guide its country.

At the beginning, Erdoğan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), were the perfect fit. This is exactly what the party promised in their first election campaign and it has, more or less, implemented these laws throughout their time in power. However, as time went on, many rifts emerged within the AKP that eventually cost it seats in parliamentary elections. In fact, it received a minority government for a brief period before a snap election was called where the AKP regained its majority. Over the years, Erdoğan had gradually become weaker while pursuing a “neo-Ottoman” crusade in the region. We saw this in Libya during its civil war, in Syria during its civil war, and in his tough words and actions regarding Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Erdoğan remains weak and we know he is weak given the failed coup attempt back in 2016 and the countless arrests he has made ever since.

Today, Turkey has resumed ties with Moscow after Ankara shot down a Russian plane over Syrian skies. This is good news if Russia seeks to mediate a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Turkish-Israeli relations are “luke-cold” at best. They have diplomatic relations with each other. However, Turkey consistently criticizes Israel’s every move and consistently tries to defend the Palestinians. It is in close contact with Hamas, a vital partner for any agreement, and ties have been improving with Fatah. Turkey has consistently invited Hamas to Ankara and has defended them on many occasions. Any mediator needs to include Turkey, given their strong ties to Hamas, because leaving the country on the sidelines might have undesirable consequences that will not be in the international community’s best interest.

Qatar

Long before Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s failed blockade back in 2017, Qatar had been conducting a robust foreign policy. The tiny peninsular Arab country has sought ties with many different states within the region beyond its “base.” For instance, it has sought ties with Iran, which was at the heart of the Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates (UAE) led blockade. Since the Saudi-UAE led blockade, the Qataris also successfully reached out to improve diplomatic relations with Oman, Turkey, the United States, and Russia. Regarding the latter, in the waning years of the Soviet Union, Qatar established diplomatic relations and for three decades the two countries have had good diplomatic relations despite some minor tensions between them. In any case, economic ties between the two countries are strong and became even stronger after the failed Saudi-UAE blockade.

More importantly, Qatar is a crucial player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will play a critical role in its solution. For the longest time, Qatar has been an active supporter of Hamas. It housed Hamas’ former Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mashal and has assisted the Palestinian organization financially. This has been another element in its robust foreign policy. For a small country, it is trying to gain clout in a region where countries are jockeying for a position of regional supremacy. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it very much has clout due to the fact that, like Turkey, it has very close ties to Hamas. Some might suggest that it has more pull than Ankara. In any case, like Turkey, it should not be left aside in a future peace agreement.

Two be or not two be: Can it be done?

The question remains: can this seven-decade-old conflict be resolved? The answer is yes, if there is the resolve. There are players in both camps that are willing to engage in resolving the conflict. It will be a tall order to accomplish, but all parties — both domestic and foreign — need to be on board and engaged. “Yisrael Beiteinu” Chairman and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman once said that there should be a regional agreement before a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He does have a point, but it is vital that the two sides come to an agreement first before a regional agreement is achieved for the very simple reason: it’s imperative Israel solve this issue for its own national security.

The United States and other Western countries have tried and failed to make the two sides come to an agreement. In the case of the former, it was never an honest broker in resolving the problem and usually took the side of the Israelis. Western players—namely, the European Union (EU) — never had the wherewithal and clout to resolve the conflict. With the exception of some breakthroughs, the Israelis and the Palestinians are far from coming to an agreement in which Israel will agree to give up the West Bank (in its entirety) along with East Jerusalem, and remove the blockade in the Gaza Strip. Israel claims that it still needs security guarantees that the latter will not lead to constant wars. However, if it doesn’t completely relinquish these areas, the one-state reality and the very real possibility of a civil war will be upon the Zionist entity sooner rather than later, which would surely spell the end of the Jewish identity of the country.

At the moment, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are keen on talking to one another—each accusing the other of incitement and blaming one another for the upsurge in violence. Where the United States and the EU have been unsuccessful, Russia has the potential of successfully bringing these two sides together. Why Russia? It has good ties with the Israelis and Palestinians as well as the key regional players that must sign off on the agreement. As much as it is in the Israelis’ national security interests to come to an agreement as soon as possible, so too is it an urgent national security issue for Russia. A civil war, which could explode in a region where extremism is rampant, is not only a threat to the Israelis, Palestinians, and the entire Middle East—but also to Russia and the entire international community.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russian-Jews left the Russian Federation, because under former President Boris Yeltsin, life was tough and Israel offered better opportunities. Today, Israel has a significant population of Russian-Jews as well as other Jewish people from other countries of the former Soviet Union. Since President Putin came to power, he has sought better relations with Israel. Over the years, there have been numerous state visits: many Israeli Prime Ministers visited Russia and President Putin and others have visited Israel on many occasions. Today, the two countries are cooperating very closely in Syria. Russia also has good ties with the Palestinians. This relationship predates the Russian Federation when the Soviet Union usually took the side of the Palestinians. Where Russia plays a unique role that others don’t is its presence and commitment to the region. It also has contacts with all the countries in the region and is, more or less, on good terms with them all. Russia genuinely wants to ensure stability in this region because of its fears that the extremism can spread to its backyard and, potentially, into its own country. It also has the experience and the relevant expertise to make the two-state solution a reality. More importantly, Russia has been in the region for centuries. So, trust and experience in a region full of skepticism can go a long way—and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no exception.

The Israelis and Palestinians have been in a stalemate for too long and something needs to change. The status quo is unsustainable, mainly for the Israelis but, to a certain extent, for the Palestinians as well. Both parties desperately need to return to the table if for no other reason than to ensure that their people live in peace, stability, and security. With the United States removing itself from the region over the last decade and a half coupled with the fact that it is a biased broker in this conflict, both the Israelis and the Palestinians should look to Russia if they want to resolve their age-old conflict. Russia seems to be a willing partner to broker a deal. Now, the warring parties must be ready to do the same rather than throw out useless accusations of incitement or “it is their fault, not mine.” For Israel, this is an existential moment, as the very identity of the country is at stake. If this opportunity is overlooked, Israel will only have itself to blame—and one would assume that the elite in Israel do not want that to happen to its people and to the Jewish diaspora who it claims to be protecting.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Middle East

Yemen war challenges Saudi moral authority

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi conduct of its ill-fated war in Yemen coupled with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alignment with the Trump administration and Israel, and his often coercive approach to diplomatic relations, has opened the door to challenges of the kingdom’s moral leadership of the Sunni Muslim world, a legitimizing pillar of the ruling Al Saud family’s grip on power.

The cracks in Saudi legitimacy are being fuelled by the escalating humanitarian crisis in Yemen, described by the United Nations and aid organizations as the world’s worst since World War Two; shocking civilian deaths as the result of attacks by the Saudi-led coalition; electoral successes by populist leaders in countries like Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan; and the kingdom’s inability to impose its will on countries like Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Oman.

An attack this week on a bus in the heartland of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that killed at least 43 people, including 29 children returning from a summer camp, dealt a significant body blow to Saudi moral authority.

The coalition said it would investigate the attack that has sparked international outrage.

The attack was but the latest of multiple incidents in which weddings, funerals and hospitals have been hit by coalition forces in a war that has gone badly wrong and demonstrates Saudi military ineptitude despite the fact that the kingdom’s armed forces operate some of the world’s most sophisticated weaponry, according to military sources.

Mr. Trump reversed a decision by his predecessor, Barack Obama, to halt the sale of air-dropped and precision-guided munitions until it had better trained Saudi forces in their targeting and use of the weapons. An Obama official said at the time that there were “systemic, endemic” problems in Saudi targeting.

“Malaysia and other Muslim nations can no longer look up to the Saudis like we used to. They can no longer command our respect and provide leadership. The Saudis have abandoned the Palestinians, just like the Egyptians. The Saudis have moved much closer to Israel who are suppressing and killing the Palestinians,” said Raja Kamarul Bahrin Shah Raja Ahmad, a member of Malaysia’s upper house of parliament and the head of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition in the Malaysian state of Terengganu.

“Perhaps Malaysia under the leadership of Dr Mahathir Mohamad should take the lead again in speaking up for the oppressed Muslims of the world. It is about time Malaysia again show the leadership that was once so much admired and respected worldwide,” Mr. Bahrin added.

Malaysia has sought to distance itself from Saudi Arabia since the return to power in May of Mr. Mahathir, whose past Islamist rhetoric and stark anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish statements propelled him to prominence in the Islamic world.

Malaysia has in recent weeks withdrawn troops from the 41-nation, Saudi-sponsored Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) and closed the Saudi-backed King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) in Kuala Lumpur. Mr. Mahathir’s defense minister, Mohamad Sabu, long before taking office this year, was already highly critical of Saudi Arabia.

In anticipation of investigations into allegations of corruption against former prime minister Najib Razak and his recent indictment, Seri Mohd Shukri Abdull, Mr. Mahathir’s newly appointed anti-corruption czar, noted barely a week after the May election that “we have had difficulties dealing with Arab countries (such as) Qatar, Saudi Arabia, (and the) UAE.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera last month, Mr. Mahathir said that “we are disappointed that Saudi Arabia has not denied that the money was given by Saudi,” referring to $681 million in Saudi funds that were allegedly gifted to Mr. Razak.

Malaysia is but the latest Sunni Muslim nation to either challenge Saudi Arabia or at least refuse to kowtow to the kingdom’s foreign policy as it relates to its bitter rivalry with Iran; Prince Mohammed’s tacit backing of US President Donald J. Trump’s staunch support of Israel and pressure on Palestinians; its 14-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar; and the war in Yemen.

Like Mr. Mahathir in the past, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite his evolving autocracy, has emerged as an Islamist populist counter pole, his credibility enhanced by his escalating disputes with the United States, his often emotional support for the Palestinians, and opposition to moves by Mr. Trump like his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey this week became the latest target of Mr. Trump’s wielding of trade and economic sanctions as a means of bullying countries into submitting to his demands. Mr. Trump doubled metals tariffs on Turkey after earlier sanctioning two senior Turkish ministers in an effort to force Mr. Erdogan to release American evangelist Andrew Brunson.

Mr. Brunson has been detained in Turkey for the past two years on charges of having been involved in the failed 2016 military coup against Mr. Erdogan and seeking to convert Turkish Kurds to Christianity.

Mr. Erdogan has in recent years consistently thought to thwart Saudi policy in the region by positioning himself as the leader of a Muslim world opposed to Mr. Trump’s Israel-Palestine approach and a de facto Arab alliance with Israel, maintaining close ties to Iran and defying US sanctions against the Islamic republic, supporting Qatar, and expanding Turkish influence in the Horn of Africa in competition with the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s closest regional ally.

Mr. Erdogan has portrayed Prince Mohammed’s vow to return Saudi Arabia to an unidentified form of ‘moderate Islam’ as adopting a Western concept.

“Islam cannot be either ‘moderate’ or ‘not moderate.’ Islam can only be one thing. Recently the concept of ‘moderate Islam’ has received attention. But the patent of this concept originated in the West. Perhaps, the person voicing this concept thinks it belongs to him. No, it does not belong to you. They are now trying to pump up this idea again. What they really want to do is weaken Islam … We don’t want people to learn about religion from foreign facts,” Mr. Erdogan said.

Echoing former US president George W. Bush’s assertion of an axis of evil, Prince Mohammed charged in March that Turkey was part of a triangle of evil that included Iran and Islamist groups. The crown prince accused Turkey of trying to reinstate the Islamic Caliphate, abolished nearly a century ago when the Ottoman empire collapsed.

Similarly, Pakistan’s prime minister-in-waiting appeared to be charting his own course by saying that he wants to improve relations with Iran and mediate an end to the debilitating Saudi-Iranian rivalry despite the fact that the kingdom has so far ruled out a negotiated resolution and backs US efforts to isolate the Islamic republic.

In a bow to Saudi Arabia, Jordan has backed the kingdom in its row with Canada over criticism of Riyadh’s human rights record and refrained from appointing a new ambassador to Iran, but has stood its ground in supporting Palestinian rejection of US peace efforts.

Similarly, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri has reversed his resignation initially announced in Riyadh last year under alleged duress while Oman and Kuwait, alarmed by the Saudi-UAE campaign against Qatar, have sought to chart a middle course that keeps them out of the firing line of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

For the time being, Saudi Arabia is likely to successfully fend off challenges to its leadership of the Muslim world.

However, responding viscerally to criticism like in the case of non-Muslim Canada or, more importantly, two years ago to Muslim leaders who excluded Wahhabism and Salafism, the religious worldview that underpins the Al Sauds’ rule, from their definition of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah or the Sunni people, is unlikely to cut ice in the longer term.

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