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Who is Egypt’s Mysterious New Pharaoh?

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Egypt’s new de facto pharaoh, General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, is a man of mystery. Is he an Islamist, or a nationalist? Is he a person of high principle, or a lowly opportunist?

And in a land which has known five thousand years of mainly centralized, one-man rule, with limited experience of democracy, when have we seen his type before, and where will he lead the troubled, ancient nation now?

These questions are crucial to knowing how the U.S. should react to al-Sisi’s removal of Egypt’s first “freely elected” president, Mohamed Morsi on July 3 in answer to overwhelmingly massive street protests demanding that he do so, and to the ongoing bloody crackdown on Morsi’s group, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), that began on August 14. Citing the ongoing, actually two-way violence in Egypt, President Barack Obama’s administration has now suspended much of our annual $1.6 billion aid to the country, save for money needed to maintain security operations along the Israeli border in Sinai and to directly support the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.

Earlier, the administration had stopped the scheduled delivery of four out of twenty F-16s to Egypt, cancelled the bi-annual “Bright Star” joint training exercises that had been set for September, and launched a review of the bi-lateral relationship. There has now been a delay in paying the final $585 million tranche of this year’s aid package, pending that review, according to an October 9 report by the global strategic analysis firm, Stratfor.

However, the administration has been careful not to classify Morsi’s removal a “coup,” which under U.S. law would require an immediate cut-off of all of our aid to Egypt. That assistance is vital to the U.S.’ favored access to the Suez Canal, maintenance of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty and crucial bi-lateral security cooperation against international terrorism. Nonetheless, the latest move puts the entire alliance at great risk, and plays into popular demands that Egypt switch to a more independent stance, or even adopt Russia as chief military supplier instead of the U.S., an idea made more enticing by Washington’s apparent weakness in surrendering its interests in Syria to Moscow, and its seeming haste to make concessions to Cairo’s post-MB regional antagonist in Tehran over the latter’s nuclear program.

Yet along with a number of key Congressional leaders and most of the mainstream media, Obama has been far more critical of al-Sisi and his use of force against a group that our government wrongly supported while in power under the illusion that it was “moderate,” than they have been of the violence and mayhem of the MB.

Meanwhile, the MB’s “peaceful demonstrators” have been busy burning scores of Christian churches and schools along with hundreds of Christian businesses while attacking other citizens, museums and public buildings, the police and the army, and waging an open war against the state in Sinai and around the country. As the total number of deaths in the past nearly two months of confrontations climbs toward the thousands, the MB clearly hopes to use its own “martyrs” (as both sides call their fallen) to generate sympathy for their unaltered goal of restoring Morsi to power. So far, however, it’s not working. Despite a surge in turnout at demonstrations it organized to coincide with the State’s grand celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war on October 6, fewer and fewer people have been joining its protests, which have been tiny compared to the unprecedentedly-huge demonstrations against the Islamists.

THE SECRET THESIS

But what besides the obvious hard realities pushed al-Sisi to act when he did? What does he believe, and what does he want? A quiet man known for saying little and keeping his own counsel, in his year of study at the U.S. Army War College in 2006, al-Sisi produced a research paper or brief thesis on his views of Islam and the state. That document was first exposed by Robert Springborg, an expert on Egypt’s military, in a July 28 article in Foreign Affairs.

Springborg predicted that al-Sisi, who has sworn to swiftly restore democracy after a nine-month transition, intends to keep real power for himself. Furthermore, Springborg warned of his “Islamist agenda,” saying that he would not likely restore the “secular authoritarianism” practiced by Mubarak, but would install “a hybrid regime that would combine Islamism with militarism.” Intriguingly, though it holds no state secrets, the document was classified, and was only released under a Freedom of Information Act request by Judicial Watch on August 8.

In it, al-Sisi declares, “There is hope for democracy in the Middle East over the long term; however, it may not be a model that follows a Western Template” (sic). By that, al-Sisi makes plain, he means that Middle Eastern democracy must be based not on secularism, but on Islam.

However, in an August 16 profile of the previously obscure general published by The Daily Beast by Mike Giglio and Christopher Dickey, those who know al-Sisi (few of whom will talk much about him) say that he grew up in a family that was both religiously conservative—not radical—but extremely nationalistic. And indeed it is that sense of nationalism which seems to have had the upper hand in motivating the actions he’s taken thus far.

The chaos, economic calamity, and political upheaval that have rocked Egyptian society since a much more limited popular uprising against longtime president Hosni Mubarak resulted in Mubarak’s ouster by the military on February 11, 2011 (at Obama’s thinly-veiled urging the night before)—and which led in part to al-Sisi’s move against Morsi—have all been seen before.

THE RETURN OF GENERAL HOREMHEB?

In 1952, the widespread corruption, resort to political assassination, and the burning of the most elegant parts of downtown Cairo (both of the latter done, it is thought, mainly by the MB) led a group of so-called Free Officers to overthrow Egypt’s last king, the feckless Farouk—with covert aid from the U.S.[1]—in a coup, and to declare a republic the next year. Though the move was clandestine and confined to the army, it gained massive popularity and created a mythic hero (who was really an epic failure), Colonel Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the movement’s charismatic leader, himself initially a mystery—and to whom al-Sisi is often compared today.

Or perhaps he will be more like Anwar al-Sadat, another Free Officer, who in 1970 succeeded Nasser—the father of one of Egypt’s greatest military defeats, in the war of 1967. Sadat partially made up for Nasser’s many economic and political blunders by launching a successful surprise attack against Israeli forces in Sinai in 1973 (though it culminated in yet another defeat), partially repealing Nasser’s reckless state socialism, trading an alliance with the Soviet Union for one with the United States, and daring to make peace with Israel—though it cost him his life when Islamists shot him down on the anniversary of that “victory” in 1981.

Al-Sisi has rapidly returned to the direct and confident military cooperation with the Jewish State that Morsi reviles, in order to prevent al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups (believed to have cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood) from staging deadly incidents along the sensitive border.

However, much less reassuringly, al-Sisi has begun to flirt with both Russia and China, and is known to have neither much affection for the U.S., or patience with Obama’s pro-MB policy. But going back even further, to 1805, al-Sisi could turn out to be like Mohamed Ali Pasha—Farouk’s first direct royal forebear, an Albanian-Kurdish mercenary who used popular discontent against Egypt’s oppressive Ottoman governor to replace him in office.

Mohamed Ali would briefly revive Egypt’s long-lost military glory, and more relevantly, would do so by breaking with his own patrons in Istanbul–a possible cautionary tale for Washington now. And yet, plumbing much more deeply the currents of Egyptian history, al-Sisi may really most resemble Horemheb, the last king of the fabled 18th Dynasty.

Horemheb served as head of the army under Akhenaten (ruled 1353-1336 B.C.), the “heretic king” who became the first ruler of any country to embrace something close to monotheism, a fanatic who threw out the traditional pantheon of ancient Egyptian gods in favor of worship of the Aten, the disc of the sun. Akhenaten’s navel-gazing neglect of the nation’s economy and security while he persecuted the believers of other deities and—like Morsi—inserted his own followers everywhere in the bureaucracy, led to massive unrest and perhaps prompted his most trusted lieutenant, Horemheb, to overthrow him—though his exact fate is unknown.

Born a commoner, Horemheb did not seize the throne until its last royal claimant, Tutankhamun, had died—as well as the boy-king’s aged tutor Ay, who had married his widow. But when he did take it, he promptly stamped out the hated Aten cult and brought back that of the suppressed Amun-Ra, leading to a century of initially strong and stable rule by people mainly bearing the name of his successor and military protégé, a man called Ramesses.

As a soldier, Horemheb was no doubt angry that Akhenaten allowed Egypt’s hard-won empire in the Near East to largely slip away without a fight. The nation’s sacred prestige fell for the first time in centuries, and had to be reestablished so that ma’at—meaning everything from truth to order to righteousness, bound up with Egypt’s well-being–could reign once again. And that he quickly set out to do.

Here is a degree of parallel with al-Sisi, who reportedly had been enraged by Morsi’s actions that led not only to a loss of Egypt’s international prestige but also damaged her national sovereignty. This he saw not only in Morsi’s apparent covert cooperation with militants who had killed and kidnapped many Egyptian troops in Sinai, but also in his release of numerous terrorists convicted of murdering their fellow Egyptians plus members of the army, police and foreign tourists. Two symbolic acts by Morsi also not only raised eyebrows, but a sense of alarm about his intentions.

The first was Morsi’s decision not only to invite Tarek al-Zomor, a member of the terrorist organization, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (the Islamic Group), who took part in the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat on the eighth anniversary of his 1973 brief but psychologically crucial triumph over Israel in Sinai, but to place him in the front row during the commemoration of the day on October 6 last year. The second was Morsi’s June 2013 appointment of Adel Mohamed al-Khayat, a leader of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, which waged a civil war against the Mubarak regime in the 1990s, killing scores of foreign tourists as well as hundreds of security officials, politicians and Egyptian civilians, to be governor of Luxor—where its most violent attack killed 58 foreigners and four Egyptian police and tourist guides (who died trying to defend the others) in November 1997.

Moreover, in late June this year, Morsi threatened to declare jihad on the embattled Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria in which the military had no interest. Al-Sisi was similarly piqued that Morsi allowed some in his cabinet to make threats to attack a controversial dam in Ethiopia that it is feared will lessen Egypt’s accustomed share of the Nile’s vital waters. And he was reportedly appalled that Morsi had evidently even told Sudan’s Islamist president, Omar Bashir, whom the U.N. has accused of genocide in Darfur, that he would consider giving that country land which lies in dispute between them on their common border.

To Egyptians since antiquity, to yield any part of the nation’s territory is an unforgivable heresy.

“BUT I LOVED EGYPT MORE.”

Perhaps worst of all, the MB calls for the establishment of a new caliphate, and lately demanded that its capital be in Jerusalem, which would not only mean a war to the death with Israel for which Egypt is not prepared, but—if successful–would obliterate the nation’s independence. Misr al-Mahrusa—”God-Guarded Egypt,” an ancient epithet for the country–would be no more.

Though the general wrote nostalgically in his U.S. War College paper of the caliphate that united the Islamic world for seventy years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, he stated as well that only extremists were calling for its immediate return now. And if it does come back, he would undoubtedly want it to be based in Cairo.

Adding to all this was Morsi’s rapid and relentless attempt to turn Egypt into a one-party Islamist dictatorship, and how it had destroyed both tourism and foreign investment while turning formerly rather small, if persistent protests by scattered secularist groups in an historically pious society into the largest demonstrations the world had ever seen.

On October 8, The Washington Post ran an AP story that quoted the first of a three part interview of al-Sisi by the respected Egyptian daily, AlMasryAlYoum, in which the general-turned-king breaker recounts for the first time what led to his actions on July 3:

El-Sissi said the turmoil of the past three months could have been avoided if Morsi had resigned in the face of the protests that drew out millions against him, starting on June 30. Days after the protests began, el-Sissi said, he met with senior Brotherhood figures, including the group’s strongman Khairat el-Shater.

He said el-Shater warned him that the Brotherhood, which made up the backbone of Morsi’s administration, would not be able to control retaliation by Islamic groups in Sinai and other areas if Morsi were removed.

“El-Shater spoke for 45 minutes, vowing terrorist attacks, violence, killings by the Islamic groups,” el-Sissi told the paper. “El-Shater pointed with his finger as if he is shooting a gun.”

He said el-Shater’s speech “showed arrogance and tyranny,” adding: “I exploded and said … ‘What do you want? You either want to rule us or kill us?”

Addressing Islamists now in the wake of Morsi’s fall, el-Sissi said, “Watch out while dealing with Egyptians. You have dealt with Egyptians as if you are right and they are wrong … (as if) you are the believer and they are the infidels. This is arrogance through faith.”

In the first part of the interview published Monday, el-Sissi said he told Morsi in February, “your project has ended and the amount of antipathy in Egyptians’ souls has exceeded any other regime.” He added that the military’s move against Morsi was driven by fears of civil war.

Given all this, could it be any wonder that the highly-patriotic, if also pious general with whom Morsi had replaced the aged Mubarak holdover Mohamed Hussein Tantawi because of his seemingly solid Islamist credentials had—after long hesitation—eventually felt that he had to act for the sake of his country? Ironically, al-Sisi was born and raised in the old Islamic quarter of Cairo called Gamaliya, the native district of Egypt and the Arab world’s first (and so far only) Nobel laureate in literature, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006).

Mahfouz, despite a very strict Islamic upbringing, was from his youth a pharaonist—someone who placed Egypt’s unique national heritage above anything else, including Islam, in defining her identity—as well as his own. One of Mahfouz’s most prescient works is his peculiar 1983 novel-in-dialogue, Before the Throne. In it he hauls about three score of the nation’s rulers–from Menes in the First Dynasty to al-Sadat—before the Osiris Court, the divine tribunal which in ancient Egyptian belief judged the souls of the dead. Before the Throne features many cycles of tyranny, rebellion, chaos and restoration, which presage the events of the past three years in uncanny ways.

In the afterlife trial of Horemheb, there is an exchange between the general who turned on Akhenaten and the addled religious zealot himself that could well have taken place between al-Sisi and Morsi, though without the intense mutual affection, no doubt:

“I loved none of my followers more than you, Horemheb,” Akhenaten reproached him. “Nor was I as generous with anyone as much as I was with you. My reward was that you betrayed me…”

“I deny nothing you have said,” replied Horemheb. “I loved you more than any man I’d ever known—but I loved Egypt more.”

(This writer has explored this novel’s uncanny relationship to the overthrow of Mubarak in a May 2011 E-Note, “Egypt’s Revolution Foreseen in Fiction: Before the Throne by Naguib Mahfouz.”)

Time will tell if al-Sisi, currently calling the shots behind an all-secularist civilian government of technocrats of his choosing, is truly more nationalist than Islamist—whether he will restore ma’at or shari’a (Islamic law)—and if he will guide Egypt back into stability (or fails to do so) as a democrat in uniform, or as a martinet behind a “democratic” curtain. A key clue will be if he pushes for a new Constitution that omits the central problem with the one rammed through by Morsi, which not only made shari’a the main source of legislation (as it was before)—but which also empowered the clerics of al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, to interpret all laws to ensure compliance with it.

A draft of the new Constitution, released on August 21, would reinstate the Mubarak-era ban on religious parties, throw out the most offensive aspects of Morsi’s Islamist Constitution from the point of view of religious tolerance, and ban the formation of religious parties—a very good sign. The fifty-member commission (headed by former Arab League chief and presidential candidate, Amr Moussa), that is now reworking the draft, in coordination with the panel of experts that produced it, may entirely rewrite the Morsi-era charter.

The only Islamist group to join the body and to play any part in the transition, the Salafi al-Nour Party, has protested against the removal of the shari’a provision—but the secularists, including the commission’s spokesman, head of the Arab Writers’ Union Mohamed Salmawy, seem to control the process so far. However, the August 21 draft specifically outlawed the removal of the president by popular protest, reserving that right for parliament (the lower house of which has been dissolved due to violations of elections laws since June 2012)—to the outrage of the activists who fought to bring down both Mubarak and Morsi.

A recent decree replaces the oath that members of the armed forces formerly took to the nation’s president, Constitution and laws with a declaration of loyalty solely to the country’s military leadership. As the experience not only of Egypt both before and under the Brotherhood, but also Pakistan under its own generals, Gaza under Hamas and even Turkey under the more stealthily Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown, only a separation of mosque and state with civilian control of the military can deliver anything like real democracy.

In Egypt, arguably the most religion-obsessed country on earth all through her world’s-longest history (and one of the most authoritarian as well), we should not expect to see either genuine democracy or even its prerequisite, a strong degree of secularism, with or without the new Constitution—or al-Sisi himself–anytime soon.

Yet at least Egypt will not be ruled by the MB—which threatens not only the world’s oldest nation, but us all–thanks to this enigmatic character from the heart of Old Cairo:General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

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Middle East

Can the Idlib Memorandum Freeze the Conflict?

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During their Sochi talks in September 2018, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached an agreement on preserving the de-escalation zone in Idlib and abandoning the military operation that the Assad regime had been preparing to launch against the opposition groups in Idlib. The main provisions of the Sochi agreements boil down to the establishment of a demilitarized zone, 15–20 kilometres deep in the de-escalation area and the withdrawal by the conflicting parties of their heavy weaponry, including armoured vehicles, artillery, mortars and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) by October 10, and of radical terrorist groups by October 15 (the units of moderate rebels will hold their positions). Free movement and freight carriage is set to be restored on the M4 (Aleppo to Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo to Damascus) roads.

A Step Toward a “Turkish Republic of Northern Syria”?

Ankara has consistently advocated for the preservation of the opposition-controlled de-escalation zone, and it was the efforts of Turkey, and of Erdogan personally, that averted the military threat to Idlib, even if temporarily. Many provisions of the Sochi agreements rely on the so-called “white paper” that Turkey conveyed to Russia back in July. Ankara’s demonstration of military power also played a role. Between the Tehran summit of the “Astana troika” and the Sochi talks, the Turkish military was actively building up its forces in the Idlib de-escalation zone, boosting them with tanks and artillery. At the same time, additional weapons were supplied to the Syrian National Army units deployed in the Turkish “buffer” zone in Northern Aleppo, and its forces were ready to move to Idlib to assist the local opposition groups.

These steps indicate that Turkey is ready to press for the Province of Idlib to gradually turn into a Turkish “protectorate,” as happened in the regions of Northern Aleppo, which fell under the country’s “security umbrella” following the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations. Accordingly, preserving the opposition’s control over the regions remaining under its power gives Turkey a chance to head up and supervise the peaceful process together with Russia. Should Idlib transition under Assad’s control before a final political settlement in Syria is achieved, Turkey would essentially be left out of Syrian settlement, which would strip its fosterlings in the ranks of Syria’s opposition of any say and the opportunity to be represented in the transitional governmental bodies.

Therefore, it is important for Turkey to prevent the fragmentation of Idlib’s de-escalation zone and keep it under Turkish control without allowing the Russian military police to “take root” there as patrols or outposts, let alone as any administrative bodies of the Syrian regime. This is why Ankara supported the position of the Syrian rebel groups that opposed the Russian military presence in the demilitarized zone or their deployment along M4 and M5 routes. Ankara believes that Turkish troops are capable of handling the task independently. A compromise with Russia could be achieved on the issue. Turkey agreed to the demilitarized zone going exclusively through opposition-controlled territories. Consequently, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry will only apply to the insurgents, and not to the “conflicting parties” as the memorandum stated. In response, Ankara insists that any Russian military presence in the demilitarized zone is unacceptable.

Additionally, Syrian refugees pose an extremely grave problem for the Turkish leadership. The country’s population is growing progressively more discontented with accommodating several millions of Syria’s forced migrants in the long term. Applying the Lebanese scenario to resolve this problem is unacceptable for Ankara, since it would mean pushing the refugees back into Syria while the current regime is in power. Recep Erdogan has repeatedly stated that Bashar al-Assad is guilty of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and has even called him a “murderer.” For Turkey, the most convenient solution would be to create the necessary conditions for accommodating Syrian refuges in opposition-controlled territories. Camps are being built in Northern Aleppo that can take in over 150,000 forced migrants. Nonetheless, the Turkish “protectorate” areas in Northern Aleppo may not be enough. Therefore, the de-escalation zone in Idlib could become the principal region for returning Syrian refugees from Turkey once the required infrastructure is in place. However, it will only be possible if the danger of Syria’s governmental troops conducting a military operation there is averted and if the issue of terrorist groups present there is resolved.

Has the Triumphant Progress Stopped?

For Damascus, the Sochi agreements effectively put an end to a victorious 2018. Over that time, Damascus took control over opposition enclaves one by one: Eastern Ghouta, Al-Dumayr and Eastern Qalamoun, Yarmouk, Homs, Deraa and Quneitra. It seemed that one last push would have been enough to ensure a complete triumph for Bashar al-Assad. Therefore, there is reason to believe that, despite official statements, the Syrian authorities were not satisfied with the terms of the Sochi memorandum. The Syrian regime insisted on a military operation without taking into account many risks, such as the large numbers, motivation and equipment of the Idlib insurgents, who, unlike in other regions where Bashar al-Assad had achieved success, could count on military and other support from Turkey. In addition, Ankara had 12 observation points transformed into fortified bases along the perimeter of the de-escalation zone.

Nonetheless, Damascus did not resign itself to the current situation, and its representatives have said that the opposition has until December to reconcile and put down their weapons, although there are no such provisions in the Sochi agreements. For the Syrian regime, transforming Idlib into a Turkish “protectorate” is all the more unacceptable because it essentially rules out a military solution to the Idlib problem in the foreseeable future. That is, al-Assad’s regime would like to view the Sochi agreements as the first stage of the process to force the Syrian opposition to lay down their arms and reconcile following the scenario implemented in the south of the country. Damascus is likely to put pressure on Russia to pay greater attention to Syria’s wishes and channel the process of implementing the Sochi agreements into the direction that Damascus needs.

Moscow between Ankara and Damascus

Moscow is in a rather tricky position as, on the one hand, it is forced to take the position of Damascus into account, while, on the other, it understands that it is futile to engage in an open confrontation with Ankara. Moscow is still forced to look for compromise options in implementing the Sochi agreements. Nonetheless, Russia has demonstrated that it still has a decisive word in Syrian affairs, as well as enough influence on both Damascus and Tehran to prevent a military operation with as much as a decision only. In addition, Russia can count on Turkey making concessions on the political track of the Syrian settlement process. In practice, Turkey can be expected to promote various “frozen” projects more actively within the peace process that would stand no chance of being implemented in the event that military actions were to start. This applies in particular to those initiatives that were spearheaded and elaborated by Moscow, such as forming a constitutional committee where serious shifts were taking shape following the Geneva talks on September 10–11. Such a situation could have a positive effect on Russia’s plans to involve the countries of the European Union and the Persian Gulf in restoring the Syrian infrastructure, which would allow the process of returning the refugees to start.

Therefore, if the military escalation around Idlib continues to defuse, Ankara will be able to influence the Syrian opposition, forcing it to be more receptive to suggestions coming from Russia as part of the political settlement process. Thereby, Turkey will attempt to preserve Russia’s interest in further deferring the military operation until it is removed from the agenda completely, which, on the one hand, will promote the success of Russia’s peaceful initiatives and, on the other, oppose radicals in Idlib and demonstrate specific steps taken in that area.

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham

Turkey consistently works to undermine the standing of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that in early 2017 subsumed Jabhat al-Nusra (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) in Idlib. In summer 2017, the large group Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki split from the HTS. The presence of Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki had made it possible to claim that the transformation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham was not another re-branding of Jabhat al-Nusra. The HTS’s positions were further weakened when Jaysh al-Ahrar split from it as it set a course for restoring ties and developing cooperation with its “parent” structure Ahrar al-Sham. Turkey appears to have played the key role in the HTS split, since the excessive strengthening of the radicals, who had established their control of the province’s capital of Idlib shortly before that, was against Turkey’s interests. Ankara still has influence over various groups that are part of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, as well as over the leaders of the organization. Apparently, further steps should be expected from Ankara to stimulate individual HTS factions capable of reaching and maintaining an agreement to split from the alliance and join the moderate opposition. To make the HTS more amenable, Ankara put the alliance on the list of terrorist groups in late August. Thus, even though today Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham controls a little over a half of Idlib’s de-escalation zone, it remains significantly weakened compared to the winter–summer of 2017. The HTS numbers have fallen almost twofold since then and are now estimated at 12,000–15,000 militants. Additionally, the Turkistan Islamic Party consisting of 2300 Uighur militants actively interacts with the HTS.

The HTS units are highly combat-effective and, in terms of their combat capabilities, are no worse than the larger groups of moderate opposition. Nonetheless, during the fighting that took place in February–April 2018 between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (the Syrian Liberation Front), the former lost many of its positions in Idlib. After moderate groups assembled in the National Front for Liberation, these factions gained even greater superiority in numbers, which could push the HTS to make further concessions and comply with the provisions of the Sochi agreements on the HTS withdrawing from the 15-kilometer demilitarized zone.

The HTS is split on the issue of implementing the Sochi agreements. Consequently, as of the writing of this article, this group has not yet declared its position. The debate between followers of the two major factions still continues in the HTS’s Shura Council. One faction is the pro-Turkey Syrian bloc that insists on withdrawing the HTS forces from the demilitarized zone and further integration into the moderate opposition, since they connect their future with Syria. The other group is comprised of hard-liners, the “intractables,” many of whom are foreigners who may make their presence known once again in the event of a fresh exacerbation. And in case of failure, they plan to leave the country and continue their subversive activities in other regions.

Al-Qaeda

The “Syrian” part of the HTS is ready to gradually transition to the moderate opposition camp. Should the group continue to fragment, its radical wing is ready for a rapprochement with their former partners who had split from the HTS when it declared it was cutting ties with Al-Qaeda. These radicals have formed their own association, Hurras ad-Din, which is currently an Al-Qaeda branch in Syria. However, it is not a serious force, with no more than 800 people. Another group of the “intractables” is Ansar al-Din, numbering 300 people, which is a part of the HTS that refused to join the organization, judging it to be too moderate. Thus, radical groups in Idlib number up to 20,000 people in total. The province also has IS units, however, they are represented solely by secret underground cells.

The National Front for Liberation (Jabhat al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir)

In addition to causing dissent among radicals, Ankara has been working successfully on rebuilding the positions and consolidating the forces of the moderate opposition. In February 2018, Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (the Syrian Liberation Front), an alliance that proved capable of opposing the HTS and of pushing back against HTS radicals in Idlib, was established. The next stage was deploying the National Front for Liberation in May 2018; Jabhat Tahrir Suriya joined in August.

Establishing the National Front for Liberation in May 2018 was an important step on the way toward installing Turkey’s control over the armed opposition in Idlib with the prospect of its further integration in the united Syrian National Army. Establishing the National Front for Liberation drew a line under the process of separating moderate opposition from radicals: all the groups (besides Jaysh al-Izzah) that are outside the National Front for Liberation in Idlib can be called “radical.”

The next stage, in turn, envisions the merger of the National Front for Liberation deployed in Idlib with the Syrian National Army (SNA) formed in the Syrian protectorate of Northern Aleppo. The plan is to gather all the moderate opposition forces under its banner. However, the National Front for Liberation can merge with the SNA if the Idlib problem is resolved in accordance with the “Turkish scenario,” i.e. after de facto transforming the region into Turkey’s “protectorate.” It should be kept in mind that the SNA forces did not take part in the military operations against Assad’s regime in Idlib. They operate solely in the regions covered by the Turkish “security umbrella” and were primarily geared for military operations against Syrian Kurds from the Democratic Union Party.

Virtually all factions surviving into the eighth year of the Syrian conflict and operating under the Free Syrian Army “brand” joined the National Front for Liberation: the Free Idlib Army, Jaysh al-Nasr, Jaysh al-Nukhba, the Free Syrian Army 2nd army (Jaysh al-Thani), the Free Syrian Army 1st Coastal Division, the Free Syrian Army 2nd Coastal Division, the Free Syrian Army 23rd Division, Daraya’s Shuhada al-Islam, Liwa al-Hurriya and several other small Free Syrian Army factions, including units brought into Idlib from Damascus and other regions. Nonetheless, the National Front for Liberation’s principal assault force is comprised of moderate Islamist groups such as Faylaq al-Sham, Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (a coalition of Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki), Suqour al-Sham and Jaysh al-Ahrar (with the exception of the first group, they all joined the National Front for Liberation somewhat later, in August 2018). Today, the National Front for Liberation numbers 50,000–55,000 militants.

The Syrian National Army

Even though the Syrian National Army (SNA) is not deployed in Syria’s de-escalation zone, it does have an immediate influence on the situation in the region. Should the army’s units be retrained, re-armed and equipped by Turkey and shifted to Idlib, the situation there could change in terms of both possibly repelling Bashar al-Assad’s offensive and suppressing radicals there. Additionally, should the need arise, SNA units may come over to the National Front for Liberation side and join their “parent” units on the front, since both the National Front for Liberation and the SNA often comprise brigades from the same groups, for instance, Ahrar al-Sham.

The SNA is formed in the regions of the so-called Turkish “protectorate” or “buffer,” i.e. in those Syrian regions where the Turkish military operates and which are covered by Turkey’s aviation, thereby minimizing the possibilities of al-Assad’s regime and its allies carrying out a military operation.

The SNA includes five legions or corps. Three (the 1st, 2nd and 3rd) were deployed in Northern Aleppo and one (the 4th) in Homs. After the region was surrendered to al-Assad’s regime in May 2018, it was also deployed in Northern Aleppo. In July, the 5th legion began deployment in north-eastern regions of Idlib’s de-escalation zone (the Aleppo province). Factions from the National Front for Liberation are expected to join it, and the legion may become a transition model for integrating the National Front for Liberation’s Idlib factions into the SNA.

The 1st legion was formed from Turkoman brigades such as Mehmed the Conqueror Brigade and the Samarkand Brigade that formed the legion’s core. It also includes the Descendants of Saladin Kurdish Brigade (pro-Turkish), Victory Brigades, the 21st united Free Syrian Army division, the 101st Free Syrian Army division etc. The SNA’s 2nd legion is also considered Turkoman, and its principal parts are the al-Sultan Murad Division and the al-Hamza Division. Additionally, the legion includes the Mutasim Billah Brigade, the al-Safwa Battalions and others. The 3rd SNA legion may be called “Islamic,” since it comprises moderate Islamic groups, such as three factions of al-Jabhat al-Shamiya: the Northern Storm Brigade, the Sword of the Levant Brigade and the Soldiers of Islam Brigades, as well as some Ahrar al-Sham units operating in Northern Aleppo such as Tajammu Fastaqim Kama Umirt and Liwa al-Manbij, among others. The 4th SNA legion is also considered “Islamic.” It comprises Liwa al-Haqq, Faylaq Homs and Ahrar al-Sham brigades that had previously operated in Homs. As of August 2018, the SNA numbers 35,000 militants in total.

The process of units from other factions integrating into the SNA continues. The SNA may be boosted by units of Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam being withdrawn from around Damascus and positioned in two camps around Afrin and al-Bab in the Turkish “protectorate” of Northern Aleppo. Today, at least Jaysh al-Islam already operates under the SNA’s “umbrella,” although it has not been fully integrated into its corps structure. Therefore, once fully deployed, the SNA may number 50,000 troops. Accordingly, if the NFL joins the SNA, they will number 100,000 troops total: these are the forces at the disposal of Syria’s moderate opposition.

In addition to the National Front for Liberation and the SNA, the Jaysh al-Izzah group should also be counted as moderate opposition. It is the only faction flying the Free Syrian Army’s flag that still preserved its independence and did not join alliances. It numbers 3500 fighters.

Thus, the balance of power between the moderate opposition and radicals gives reason to hope that Ankara’s measures to ultimately free Idlib from terrorist groups will succeed. Although the Sochi memorandum does not provide a timeframe for “cleansing” the region of terrorist groups, or indeed the terms and methods of doing so, the temporary or long-term preservation of Idlib’s status quo will largely hinge on the resolution of this very question.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Turkey plays Khashoggi crisis to its geopolitical advantage

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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With Turkish investigators asserting that they have found further evidence that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed when he visited the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, Turkey appears to be leveraging the case to enhance its position as a leader of the Islamic World and reposition itself as a key US ally.

To enhance its geopolitical position vis a vis Saudi Arabia as well as Russia and Iran and potentially garner economic advantage at a time that it is struggling to reverse a financial downturn, Turkey has so far leaked assertions of evidence it says it has of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing rather than announced them officially.

In doing so, Turkey has forced Saudi Arabia to allow Turkish investigators accompanied by Saudi officials to enter the consulate and positioned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the kingdom’s saviour by engineering a situation that will allow the kingdom to craft a face-saving way out of the crisis.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering announcing that Mr. Khashoggi, a widely-acclaimed journalist critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who went into self-exile because he feared arrest, was killed in either a rogue operation or an attempt gone awry to forcibly repatriate it him back to the kingdom.

US President Donald J. Trump offered the Turks and Saudis a helping hand by referring this week to the possibility of Mr. Khashoggi having been killed by rogues and dispatching Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh and Ankara.

Mr. Khashoggi, seeking to obtain proof of his divorce in the kingdom so that he could marry his Turkish fiancé, visited the consulate two weeks ago for the second time after having allegedly received assurances that he would be safe.

Turkey emerges as the crisis moves towards a situation in which an official version is agreed that seeks to shield Prince Mohammed from being held responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and likely murder with its international status significantly enhanced.

Turkish leverage is further boosted by the fact that Saudi Arabia — its image in government, political and business circles significantly damaged by the crisis — and the Trump administration that wants to ensure that the kingdom’s ruling family emerges from the crisis as unscathed as possible, are in Ankara’s debt.

As a result, the denouement of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to alter the dynamics in the long-standing competition between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Islamic world.

It also strengthens Turkey’s position in its transactional alliance with Russia and Iran as they manoeuvre to end the war in Syria in a manner that cements Bashar al-Assad’s presidency while addressing Turkish concerns.

Turkey’s position in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia is likely to also benefit from the fact that whatever face-saving solution the kingdom adopts is likely to be flawed when tested by available facts and certain to be challenged by a host of critics, even if many will see Turkey as having facilitated a political solution rather than ensuring that the truth is established.

Already, Mr. Khashoggi’s family who was initially quoted by Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled media as backing Saudi denials of responsibility, insinuations that his fate was the product of a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, and casting doubt on the integrity of the journalist’s Turkish fiancée, has called for “the establishment of an independent and impartial international commission to inquire into the circumstances of his death.”

Turkey and Saudi Arabia differ on multiple issues that divide the Muslim world. Turkey has vowed to help Iran circumvent Saudi-supported US sanctions imposed after Mr. Trump withdrew in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear agreement.

Turkey further backs Qatar in its dispute with a Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance that has diplomatically and economically boycotted the Gulf state for the last 16 months. The credibility of the alliance’s allegation that Qatar supports terrorism and extremism has been dented by the growing conviction that Saudi Arabia, whether in a planned, rogue or repatriation effort gone wrong, was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

Mr. Khashoggi’s death, moreover, highlighted differing approaches towards the Brotherhood, one of the Middle East’s most persecuted, yet influential Islamist groupings. Saudi Arabia, alongside the UAE and Egypt, have designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Many brothers have sought refuge in Turkey with Mr. Erdogan empathetic and supportive of the group. A former brother, Mr. Khashoggi criticized Saudi repression of the group.

The Saudi-Turkish rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world was most evident in the two countries’ responses to Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his as yet unpublished plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Turkey emerged as the leader of Islamic denunciation of Mr. Trump’s move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognition of the city as Israel’s capital after Prince Mohammed tried to dampen opposition. Ultimately, King Salman was forced to step in a bid to clarify the kingdom’s position and counter Turkish moves.

No matter how Turkey decides to officially release whatever evidence it has, Saudi Arabia figures out how to respond and halt the haemorrhaging, and Mr. Pompeo holds talks with King Salman and Mr. Erdogan, Turkey is likely to emerge from the crisis strengthened despite its increasingly illiberal and increasingly authoritarian rule at home,

Turkey’s success is all the more remarkable given that it has neither Saudi Arabia’s financial muscle nor the mantle the kingdom adopts as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

A successful political resolution of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to earn it the gratitude of the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia, and its other detractors like the UAE who support the kingdom even if it may help it to regain popularity in the Arab world lost as a result of its swing towards authoritarianism, alliance with Iran and Qatar, and support for Islamism.

One immediate Turkish victory is likely to be Saudi acquiesce to Mr. Erdogan’s demand that Saudi Arabia drop its support for Kurdish rebels in Syria that Ankara sees as terrorists – a move that would boost Turkey’s position the Turkish-Russian-Iranian jockeying for influence in a post-war Syria. Turkey is also likely to see Saudi Arabia support it economically.

Turkey may, however, be playing for higher stakes.

Turkey “wants to back Saudi Arabia to the wall. (It wants to) disparage the ‘reformist’ image that Saudi Arabia has been constructing in the West” in a bid to get the US to choose Ankara as its primary ally in the Middle East, said international relations scholar Serhat Guvenc.

Turkey’s relations in recent years have soured as a result of Turkish insistence that the US is harbouring a terrorist by refusing to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the preacher it accuses of having engineered the failed 2016 coup; detaining American nationals and US consulate employees on allegedly trumped up charges, cosying up to Russia and purchasing its S-400 surface to air missile system, and aligning itself with Iran. Relations were further strained by US support for Syrian Kurds.

Mr. Trump, however this week heralded a new era in US-Turkish relations after the release of unsubscribeAndrew Brunson, an evangelist preacher who was imprisoned in Turkey for two years on charges of espionage.

Mr. Guvenc argued that Turkey hopes that Saudi Arabia’s battered image will help it persuade Mr. Trump that Turkey rather than the kingdom is its strongest and most reliable ally alongside Israel in the Middle East.

Said journalist Ferhat Unlu: “”Turkey knows how to manage diplomatic crises. Its strategy is to manage tensions to its advantage,”

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MbS: Riding roughshod or playing a risky game of bluff poker?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A stalemate in efforts to determine what happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is threatening to escalate into a crisis that could usher in a new era in relations between the United States and some of its closest Arab allies as well as in the region’s energy politics.

In response to US President Donald J. Trump’s threat of “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia is proven to have been responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance while visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia is threatening to potentially upset the region’s energy and security architecture.

A tweet by Saudi Arabia’s Washington embassy thanking the United States for not jumping to conclusions did little to offset the words of an unnamed Saudi official quoted by the state-run news agency stressing  the kingdom’s “total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether through economic sanctions, political pressure or repeating false accusations.”

The official was referring to the kingdom’s insistence that it was not responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and assertion that it is confronting a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The kingdom also affirms that if it is (targeted by) any action, it will respond with greater action,” the official said noting that Saudi Arabia “plays an effective and vital role in the world economy.”

Turki Aldhakhil, a close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and general manager of the kingdom’s state-controlled Al Arabiya news network, claimed in an online article that Saudi leaders were discussing 30 ways of responding to possible US sanctions.

They allegedly included allowing oil prices to rise up to US$ 200 per barrel, which according to Mr. Aldhakhil, would lead to “the death” of the US economy, pricing Saudi oil in Chinese yuan instead of dollars, an end to intelligence sharing, and a military alliance with Russia that would involve a Russian military base in the kingdom.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Aldhakhil was reflecting serious discussions among secretive Saudi leaders or whether his article was intended either as a scare tactic or a trial balloon. Mr. Aldakhil’s claim that a Saudi response to Western sanctions could entail a reconciliation with the kingdom’s arch enemy, Iran, would make his assertion seem more like geopolitical and economic bluff.

Meanwhile, in what appeared to be a coordinated response aimed at demonstrating that Saudi Arabia was not isolated, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt rushed to express solidarity with the kingdom. Like Turkey, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE have a track record of suppressing independent journalism and freedom of the press.

Ironically, Turkey may be the kingdom’s best friend in the Khashoggi crisis if its claims to have incontrovertible proof of what happened in the consulate prove to be true. Turkey has so far refrained from making that evidence public, giving Saudi Arabia the opportunity to come up with a credible explanation.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip “Erdogan wants to give Saudis an exit out of #Khashoggi case, hoping the Saudi king/crown prince will blame ‘rogue elements’ for the alleged murder, then throwing someone important under the bus. This would let Erdogan walk away looking good & prevent rupture in Turkey-Saudi ties,” tweeted Turkey scholar Soner Cagaptay.

The Saudi news agency report and Mr. Aldakhil’s article suggest that Prince Mohammed believes that Saudi Arabia either retains the clout to impose its will on much of the international community or believes that it rather than its Western critics would emerge on top from any bruising confrontation.

Prince Mohammed no doubt is reinforced in his belief by Mr. Trump’s reluctance to include an arms embargo in his concept of severe punishment. He may also feel that Western support for the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and reluctance to credibly take the kingdom to task for its conduct of the war was an indication that he was free to do as he pleased.

Prince Mohammed may have been further strengthened in his belief by the initial course of events 28 years ago, the last time that the fate of a journalist was at the centre of a crisis between a Western power and an Arab country.

At the time, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, similar to Mr. Trump’s inclination, refused to impose economic sanctions after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered the arrest, torture and execution of Farhad Barzoft, a young London-based Iranian journalist who reported for The Observer.

Since declassified British government documents disclosed that Mrs. Thatcher’s government did not want to jeopardize commercial relations despite its view of the Iraqi government as a “ruthless and disagreeable regime.”

The comparison between the Khashoggi crisis and the case of Mr. Barzoft goes beyond Western governments’ reluctance to jeopardize commercial relationships.

Mr Barzoft was executed months before Mr. Hussein’s military invaded Kuwait prompting US-led military action that forced his troops to withdraw from the Gulf state, crippling economic sanctions, and ultimately the 2003 Gulf War that, no matter how ill-advised, led to the Iraqi leader’s downfall and ultimate execution.

Prince Mohammed’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen, of which Mr. Khashoggi was critical in one of his last Washington Post columns, has tarnished the kingdom’s international prestige and sparked calls in the US Congress and European parliaments for an embargo on arms sales that have gained momentum with the disappearance of the Saudi journalist.

To be sure Saudi Arabia enjoys greater leverage than Iraq did in 1990. By the same token, 2018 is not 1973, the first and only time the kingdom ever wielded oil as a weapon against the United States. At the time, the US was dependent on Middle Eastern oil, today it is one of, if not the world’s largest producer.

More fundamentally, Prince Mohammed appears to show some of the traits Mr. Hussein put on display, including a seeming lack of understanding of the limits of power and best ways to wield it, a tendency towards impetuousness, a willingness to take risks and gamble without having a credible exit strategy, a refusal to tolerate any form of criticism, and a streak of ruthlessness.

“We’re discovering what this ‘new king’ is all about, and it’s getting worrisome. The dark side is getting darker,” said David Ottaway, a journalist and scholar who has covered Saudi Arabia for decades.

Mr. Hussein was public and transparent about Mr. Barzoft’s fate even if his assertion that the journalist was a spy lacked credibility and the journalist’s confession and trial were a mockery of justice.

Prince Mohammed flatly denies any involvement in the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi and appears to believe that he can bully himself out of the crisis in the absence of any evidence that the journalist left the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate of his own volition.

Mr. Hussein miscalculated with his invasion of Kuwait shortly after getting away with the killing of Mr. Barzoft.

Prince Mohammed too may well have miscalculated if the kingdom is proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Mr. Hussein’s reputation and international goodwill was irreparably damaged by his execution of Mr. Barzoft and invasion of Kuwait.

Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance has dealt a body blow to Saudi Arabia’s prestige irrespective of whether the journalist emerges from the current crisis alive or dead.

King Salman and the kingdom appear for now to be rallying the wagons around the crown prince.

At the same time, the king has stepped into the fray publicly for the first time by phoning Turkish president Erdogan to reaffirm Saudi cooperation with an investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate.

It remains unclear whether that phone call will pave the way for Turkish investigators to enter the Istanbul consulate as well as the Saudi consul general’s home and whether they will be allowed to carry out forensics.

The longer the investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate stalls, the more Saudi Arabia will come under pressure to put forth a credible explanation and the harder Western leaders will be pressed by public opinion and lawmakers to take credible action if Saudi Arabia is proven to be responsible.

A Saudi decision to act on its threats to rejigger its security arrangements and energy policy, even if overstated by Mr. Aldhakhil, in response to steps by Western nations to penalize the kingdom,  could prove to have not only far-reaching international consequences but, in the final analysis, also equally momentous domestic ones.

“Looks like #Saudi royal family is coming together to protect the family business. Eventually there will be internal reckoning with what transpired. Not now. Now is the time to save the family reign,” tweeted Middle East scholar Randa Slim.

Said former US State Department and White House official Elliott Abrams: “Jamal Khashoggi lost control of his fate when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Mohammed bin Salman must act quickly to regain control of his own.”

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