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Turkey’s Changing Dynamics Over Syria: From “Zero Problem” to “Zero Tolerance”?

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Several conflicts happening in various capacities over the region of North Syria has been practicing since the mid-Arab Spring. The issue has become supraterritorial case and Turkish political environment is also being affected from the contemporary developments.

How are the domestic status quo and strategic maneuvers of Turkish foreign policy towards Northern Syria changed? By two diverse developments in external and internal agenda. On one hand, soft power politics have failed and could not meet Turkish national interests anymore. On the other, dominant politicians in the conservative right are beating the drum of national security; they have exceeded country’s threat level in order to overshadow disappointing results of last election and regain their political popularity once again.       

The decision matrix of foreign policy moves provides many options to states in order to implement in different environments and centuries. Variables of international conjuncture and geographical status quos have been playing crucial roles in accordance with these developments. For instance, although dreadnought diplomacy or Bismarck-oriented “realpolitik” was perceived as an operative solution until early 20th century world affairs, late 20th century politics have validated that soft power ideology and cultural diplomacy could also occupy a prominent position within the modern foreign policy statecrafts. Nevertheless, compact geographical hostilities generating large scale imbalances may “force” states to switch their insights towards the sphere of influence that they decided to apply soft power politics. Against this theoretical backdrop, the Arab Spring could provide a case for assessing possible changes in Turkish foreign policy calculations and behaviours. It can be put forward that until, Muhammad Boazizi’s, an average street vendor, self-immolation in 2010, Turkey’s external relations with its close neighbours in the upper Saharan region were following principles of reciprocal understanding and tolerated politics which chiefly based on pragmatic soft power implications such as “cultural proximity” and “role modeling figure” under neo-liberal Islamism doctrine.

As Arab Spring phenomenon has been extended its impacts within defined geography and proved its continuance in the region, driving forces of Turkish foreign policy have altered in parallel to changing equilibrium within Middle East. In this sense, the level of gradual shifts in Turkish foreign decisions over Middle East has been composing of many diverse ways. To exemplify the notable shift it can be argued that while Turkey’s insightful politics on Assad regime were depending on regional cooperation principle and even strategic partnership, present-day’s “zero tolerance” tendency was out of the question. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, the international community observed that Turkey, under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) established close bonds with Syria and trying to persuade the Assad regime to solve social unrest by implementing smoother and inclusionary internal politics rather than exacerbating the crisis.

On the basis of the dialog platform, Turkey has comprehended that soft power diplomacy with Syria could serve to establish collective interests of both countries since the idea has proved its effectiveness in terms of improving twofold commerce or cultural interaction between countries for many years. Throughout this dialog process, Turkey’s foreign trade with Syria surpassed 400 million dollar per year1 and tourism between two countries rose by an average of 3% per year2 until 2011. Although soft power politics can contribute enhancing trade activities and enlargement of cultural ties, it may fail to launch critical dialogues on delicate topics which may pave the way to question countries’ sovereignty and lawfulness such as massive killings or religious clashes. Therefore, it should have been premeditated by Turkish policy makers that overlooking the main reasons of civil unrest and offering democratic solutions to such a complex internal anxiety would not be internalized by Baath hardliners who came to power by 1963 Syrian coup d’état. A soft power oriented “Zero Problem” doctrine was satisfactory for Turkish government in order to enhance regional trade partnership in Middle East and the ideology was supported by the AKP. After threatening cases were crossed over as the increasing tensions around Turkish Embassy of Damascus in 2011 regional leadership politics, state sovereignty issues were started to be concentrated around Assad’s legitimacy.

Turkey’s “practical advice” policy which was developed to ease tensions between the Assad regime and rebels fractionally gave its way to “sovereignty” dialogues discussing Syria’s legitimacy to use national army against insurrectionists. The case attested that economic benefit and role modeling figure objectives, under soft power ideology as a foreign policy, could not achieve Turkey’s regional balance of power role per se because uncontrolled internal violence in Syria was signaling further armed confrontation between opposition groups which have been clashing since “The Damascus Spring” in 2001. In parallel to this process, considering the longest border with Syria, the Turkish attitude has modified neorealist “self-help” strategy which mainly based upon martial coercion against the Assad regime as a dissident player. This movement was supported by implementing security discourses to national agenda on Syria which has been driven by the recent issues such as Pro-Assad groups’ attacks to Turkish Embassy in Damascus in 20113, following to that Turkish F-4 plane crash in 20124 and the huge influx of Syrian refugees5 apart from the past practices of water sources crises6, Hatay province case7 and father Assad’s support to PKK extensions in Syria8. By virtue of decline in soft power politics and recent disputes, the new parameter has become as the new and most effective variable: the Turkish parliamentary elections of June 2015.

During the last single party rule of AKP, Turkish external policies over Northern Syria have warned for an escalation in the severity of armed clashes-toughness in this region. Critical media organs’ assertions such as providing logistic support to radical religious groups9 and National Intelligence Service’s truck scandal which was accusing National Intelligence about carrying supplies to ISIS10 were deepened Turkey’s challenging situation over Northern Syria. Besides this politically tight shape, after thirteen years of majority in the parliament, the parliamentary election results marked a psychological turning point for the single party government. AKP lost its majority in the parliament and was required to looking into forming a coalition government. AKP élites thought that they lost their ideological endorsement coming from legitimate voting.

Consideration of “politico-military” choice which was designed to suppress opposite voices has begun to be discussed among AKP officials. To regain political support from grassroots by politico-military actions, national security dialogues and concerns about regional organizations as People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Northern Syria and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) were intensified by provisional government right after the election results were released. There are many potential reasons behind this attitude change over the Northern Syrian case. First, as it was argued, while soft power fails in foreign policy, realism appears to be a “stabilizer”11 (Burchill, 2001:70). In this direction, inadequate politics over Northern Syria triggered AKP’s national popularity to decline. In addition to this political decision, AKP decided to securitize the national agenda in order to stabilize its decreasing per cent of votes which were dispossessed by Kurdish dominated People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Similarly, AKP’s changing policy reflects their martial agenda discourse since securitization of issues can thus be seen as a more extreme version of politicization12 (Buzan, 1998:23).

On the other hand, last election results have warned AKP dominated Turkish decision-makers about the opportunity that, in theory, foreign interventions may bring consolidation of political power and may help to stabilize it which was lost in last elections. By securitization of politics justifies extraordinary actions such as cross border military operations and state of emergency law can be legalized by a government in political distress in order to occupy agendum and postpone nationwide expectations of following the elections. Secondly, national security unifies the nation against a common enemy13 (Huntington, 1997: 350-375). This step also appears as a modern statecraft of national politics to regain fallen political popularity once again. Within this framework it can be deducted that the idea of a potential intervention in Syria is much more linked to what national security “means” rather than what national security “does”. According to interpretations of the Copenhagen School which works on how security dialogues function in international system, having a security agenda could provide opportunities for political groups to overflow regular national politics and create special justifications for political actions14 (Guzzini and Jund, 2004: 1-13).

In light of these assertions it can be argued that if the Turkish government would militarily intervened in Northern Syria before the June 2015 elections, the political costs of intervention for the ruling AKP would have been extremely high. Post-elections, however, a possible intervention has become a viable solution for the AKP to recover political popularity and making the party look like a “national hero”. Equally significant, the developed anti ISIS coalition under the leadership of the US has provided Turkish policy makers with an opportunity to boost its relations with the West. Although the Western powers have been critical to Turkey’s Syrian policy, by getting support from the new strategic alliance, Turkey has started to act more flexible over non-ISIS targets like YPG positions situated in Northern Syria and Iraq until Incirlik Airbase in Malatya has started to be used by US jets. It could be claimed that military actions and tough regulations in Southeastern Turkey could shake Turkey’s “soft power leadership” and remit the political achievements of Turkey in the region where the cultural popularity and political legitimacy of actions were established to strengthen the country’s regional power.

However, circumstances have changed in accordance with the decline in soft power variables and Turkish internal political dynamics. Ongoing activities highlighted that the intervention agenda on the Northern Syria issue will continue to remain on both the internal and external agendas of Turkey as an inefficient and questionable martial involvement which appears as of AKP’s main asset even there is no definite enemy of Turkey in the region because of ever-changing domination struggles among groups. Presently, unstable internal political dynamics, security agenda headlines and de facto neighbor fears are transforming Turkey’s neo-liberal soft power image to hardliner state portrait. It may be deduced from these progresses that AKP’s “Zero Problem” paradigm progressively has evolved into a “Zero Tolerance” mentality over the Syrian conflict.

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia’s Entertainment Plans: Soft Power at Work?

Dr. Theodore Karasik

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Saudi Arabia recently broke ground on its ambitious “entertainment city” known as Qiddiya, near Riyadh. The splashy launch, attended by 300 dignitaries from around the world, highlights a frequently overlooked aspect of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan: the entertainment industry as a growing economic sector. As the kingdom diversifies its economy away from reliance on petro fuels, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been keen to showcase the increasing openness of his country, promoting festivals, concerts and sports events and ending the country’s 35-year ban on cinemas.

These projects are partially intended to bolster the economy and attract FDI—but not only. Saudi Arabia is also playing catch-up with other regional actors, such as Qatar and the UAE, in terms of cultural output and cultural participation. With Qiddiya and the other cultural projects in the works, Saudi is now carving out a road for itself to become a regional culture hub.

Thefirst phase of Qiddiya, which includes high-end theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari area, is expected to be completed in 2022.  Saudi officials hope the park will draw in foreign investment and attract 17 million visitors by 2030; the final phase of the project is expected to be completed in 2035, by which point the entertainment resort will be the largest in the world, dwarfing Florida’s Walt Disney World.

Beyond these financial incentives, however, the Qiddiya project is Saudi Arabia’s answer to events like the Dubai Expo 2020 or the Qatar World Cup 2022 and suggests that the kingdom is trying to position itself as the next big destination for lucrative events – which also add to the idea that entertainment, culture, and innovation are key to Saudi Arabia’s economic vision and success.

Vision 2030’s emphasis on entertainment raises a key question: is Riyadh attempting to increase its soft power across the region in a constructive and proactive way?  The answer to that question is yes.

In the immediate future, Qatar and the UAE will remain the region’s foremost entertainment and cultural hubs.  From Qatar’s Islamic Museum of Art, which famous architect I.M. Pei came out of retirement to design, to Dubai’s theme parks, including a $1 billion behemoth which is the world’s largest indoor theme park, these two Gulf states are demonstrating their prowess to develop an arts and culture scene.  In Doha, Qatar is exemplifying its unique outlook towards world affairs by emphasizing humanitarianism and fourteen centuries of history.  Qatar is also hosting the World Cup in 2022, intended to bring Doha center-stage in the sports world. Abu Dhabi’s Louvre has been referred to as “one of the world’s most ambitious cultural projects”, while advertisements throughout the emirate insist that the museum will cause its visitors to “see humanity in a new light”.

Despite these Gulf states’ head start on developing vibrant entertainment sectors, there is still room for Saudi Arabia to offer something new. For one thing, some of its neighbors are dealing with trouble in paradise: Qatar’s once-strong economy is under increasing strain as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt boycott it; meanwhile, the company which owns many of Dubai’s largest theme parks lost $302 million in 2017.

The Qiddiya project also represents a particular vision that’s distinct from neighboring countries’ cultural programs. Qiddiya is designed to mix desert heritage and the ethos of the past with the technological advances of the future. The intended result is to be a fusion between aspirations and building on those achievements from desert to post-modernity, on a colossal scale.

The project is crafted both to satisfy domestic demand—it includes plans to build 11,000 homes to serve as vacation homes for Riyadh residents— and to compete directly against Saudi Arabia’s neighbors in the Gulf. With two-thirds of the Saudi population under the age of 35, building a thriving entertainment sector is particularly important.

The kingdom is hoping to use its idea of mixing the past with the future in Qiddiya to significantly alter the flow of tourist revenues in the Gulf. The UAE, Qatar and Bahrain rely on tourists from the Gulf and beyond for essential cash inflows—including the $30 billion a year Saudis spend on tourism abroad every year. By providing new entertainment options in-country for Saudi Arabia’s citizens and residents, who pay more than any other country’s citizens while on vacation, Riyadh aims to redirect some of this overseas tourism spending back into the kingdom. It’s set up concrete goals to this effect, hoping to increase domestic spending on culture and entertainment from about three percent of household income to six percent. Saudi Arabia also likely hopes that Qiddiya will attract significant international tourism as well—one senior official tied the park’s creation to the goal of making Riyadh one of the top 100 cities in the world to live.

Of course, it is likely to be a long wait before the kingdom itself starts producing the cultural output that will make it a real entertainment hub; after all, Saudi public schools still do not teach music, dance and theater, and the kingdom lacks music and film academies. But by taking the first steps of embracing the vast economic potential of the entertainment sector, the kingdom may well be on its way there.

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Israel, Ukraine, and U.S. Crack Down Against Press

Eric Zuesse

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On Wednesday, May 16th, Russian Television reported recent crackdowns against the press, on the part of both Ukraine’s Government and Israel’s Government. One headline story, “9 journalists injured by Israeli gunfire in Gaza ‘massacre’, total now over 20”, reported that Israel had shot dead two journalists:

“Yaser Murtaja, 31, a cameraman for Palestinian Ain Media agency, died on April 7 after he was shot by Israeli forces the previous day while covering a protest south of the Gaza Strip. He wore a blue protective vest marked ‘PRESS’.”

And:

“Ahmad Abu Hussein, 24, was shot by Israeli forces during a protest in the Gaza strip on April 13. He died from his injuries on April 25. He was also wearing a protective vest marked ‘PRESS’ at the time.”

The other 18 instances were only injuries, not murders, but Israel has now made clear that any journalist who reports from the Palestinian side is fair game for Israel’s army snipers — that when Palestinians demonstrate against their being blockaded into the vast Gaza prison, and journalists then report from amongst the demonstrators instead of from the side of the snipers, those journalists are fair game by the snipers, along with those demonstrators.

Some of the surviving 18 journalists are still in critical condition and could die from Israel’s bullets, so the deaths to journalists might be higher than just those two.

Later in the day, RT bannered “Fist-size gunshot wounds, pulverized bones, inadmissible use of force by Israel in Gaza – HRW to RT” and presented a damning interview with the Israel & Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch.

The other crackdown has been by Ukraine. After the U.S. Obama Administration perpetrated a very bloody coup in Ukraine during February of 2014, that country has plunged by every numerical measure, and has carried out raids against newsmedia that have reported unfavorably on the installed regime. The latest such incident was reported on May 16th by Russian Television, under the headline, “US endorses Kiev’s raid on Russian news agency amid international condemnation”. An official of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) stated there: “I reiterate my call on the authorities to refrain from imposing unnecessary limitations on the work of foreign journalists, which affects the free flow of information and freedom of the media.” An official of the CPJ (Committee to Protect journalists) stated: “We call on Ukrainian authorities to disclose the charges and evidence they have against Vyshinsky or release him without delay. … We also call on Ukrainian authorities to stop harassing and obstructing Russian media operating in Ukraine. The criminalization of alternative news and views has no place in a democratic Ukraine.” However, as reported by RT, Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General called the editorial policy of the anti-regime RIA Ukraine “anti-Ukrainian” in nature, amounting to “state treason.” So, the prosecutor is threatening to categorize and prosecute critical press under Ukraine’s treason law.

The U.S. regime is not condemning either of its client-regimes for their crackdowns. (It cites Ukraine’s supposed victimhood from “Russian propaganda” as having caused Ukraine’s action, and justifies Israel’s gunning-down of demonstrators and of journalists as having beeen necessary for Israel’s self-defense against terrorism.) In neither instance is the U.S. dictatorship saying that this is unacceptable behavior for a government that receives large U.S. taxpayers funds. Of course, in the U.S., the mainstream press aren’t allowed to report that either Israel or today’s Ukraine is a dictatorship, so they don’t report this, though Israel clearly is an apartheid racist-fascist (or ideologically nazi, but in their case not against Jews) regime, and Ukraine is clearly also a racist-fascist, or nazi, regime, which engages in ethnic cleansing to get rid of voters for the previous — the pre-coup — Ukrainian government. People who are selected individually by the installed regime, get driven to a big ditch, shot, with the corpses piling up there, and then the whole thing gets covered over. This is America’s client-‘democracy’ in Ukraine, not its client-‘democracy’ in Israel.

May 16th also was the day when the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee voted 10 to 5 to approve as the next CIA Director, Gina Haspel, the person who had headed torture at the CIA’s black site in Thailand where Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times and blinded in one eye in order to get him to say that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks; and, since then, Zubaydah, who has never been in court, has been held incommunicado at Guantanamo, so that he can’t testify in court or communicate with the press in any way. “The U.S. Government has never charged Zubaydah with any crime.” And the person who had ordered and overseen his torture will soon head the agency for which she worked, the CIA.

Whether the U.S. regime will soon start similarly to treat its own critical press as “traitors” isn’t clear, except that ever since at least the Obama Administration, and continuing now under Trump, the U.S. Government has made clear that it wants to seize and prosecute both Edward Snowden and Julian Assange for their journalistic whistleblowing, violations of “state secrets,” those being anything that the regime wants to hide from the public — including things that are simply extremely embarrassing for the existing rulers. Therefore, the journalistic-lockdown step, from either Israel, or Ukraine, to U.S., would be small, for the United States itself to take, if it hasn’t yet already been taken in perhaps secret ways. But at least, the Senate Intelligence Committee is strongly supportive of what the U.S. Government has been doing, and wants more of it to be done.

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JCPOA in Post-US Exit: Consequences and Repercussions

Nisar Ahmed Khan

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The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal signed by the P 5+1 in 2015 was widely hailed as a landmark achievement made possible by sincere dialogue and diplomacy. Indeed, the agreement is to a greater extent an achievement of the nuclear non-proliferation regime that helped checked the increasingly disturbing power symmetry in the Middle East which in return has managed to contain the transformation of low intensity conflicts into all out wars. A relative stability is the hallmark which resulted from JCPOA in the Middle East which is extremely volatile region of the world. A vital question is: how these achievements are going to be affected by the US withdrawal from it?

The US withdrawal from JCPOA will adversely affect the aforementioned three areas of its accumulative achievement with variant degree. First, it has negative consequences for the norm that negotiated settlements in international arenas has the potential and lasting credibility to minimize violence or other coercive means led by war. The momentum and confidence the diplomatic means have garnered in post- JCPOA scenario will come to the crushing halt. The sealed and mutually agreed upon agreements in international arena especially in which the US is the potential party, will come under extreme scrutiny leading to an environment of gross trust deficit. Therefore, on the first instance this withdrawal has negative lasting consequences for the diplomatic norms in itself.

Secondly, US exist from the deal does not augur well for the nascent nuclear non-proliferation regime. This regime has a dearth of good precedents like the JCPOA which has deterred a nation from acquiring and operationalizing nuclear weapons as is the case with Iran. Keeping in view this backdrop of this institution, JCPOA has been its glaring example wherein it has managed to successfully convince a nation to not pursue the path which leads towards the nuclear weapons. Therefore, the US withdrawal has shaken the confidence of the non-proliferation regime to its core. It has engendered a split among the leading nations who were acting as sort of de facto executive to enforce the agreements on the nuclear ambitious states. Therefore, this US withdrawal has undoubtedly far reaching repercussions for the non-proliferation as an institution. This development may affect the nature and its future development as an institutional mechanism to deter the recalcitrant states to change their course regarding the nuclear weapons.

Thirdly, in relation to the above mentioned negative consequences on diplomacy and nuclear non-proliferation regime, the US withdrawal from the deal has far serious security ramifications for the volatile and conflict ridden Middle East. It has multiplied the prospects of all-out war between Iran and its regional rivals on one hand and Iran and Israel on the other hand. Just tonight the announcement of Trump exiting JCPOA and the Israeli aggression on Syrian military bases substantiates the assertion that there exists a correlation between this US withdrawal and the Zionist regime`s regional hegemonic designs. It has extremely positive message for the Saudi Arabia. The impulsive and overambitious Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) went on extended tours in the US and Europe to convince Western leadership that Iran should be contained.  Therefore, element of stability in the region – contained low intensity conflicts – got serious motivation to turn into all-out-wars  with non-exclusion of nuclear options at the disposal of Zionist regime in the Middle East. The Middle Eastern region with this exit of the US is going to observe substantial turmoil in the months to come which will have some extra regional ramifications.

As a conclusion it could be argued that the US exit has some far reaching repercussions for the diplomatic norms, non-proliferation regime and above all for the volatile Middle Eastern region. All these ramifications resulted from the US withdrawal will also in return have some serious consequences internally and externally. The status of the US as the sole super power of the world will be diminished with this decision. It will create an unbridgeable gap in the West. Henceforth, the EU foreign will be more autonomous, integrated and autonomous in her conduct.

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