Authors: Dr.Matthew Crosston, Nenad Drca
Over the years America has made little progress in Iraq and Syria, something Russia is determined to change apparently.
The Obama administration maintains that a lasting political solution requires Mr. Assad’s departure, but facing Russian military involvement, Iranian ground troops, Hezbollah military units, many armed jihadists groups, and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the United States is facing a very convoluted and unclear situation that it seems unable to overcome on its own. NATO is concerned with the recent Russian creation of an A2/AD zone (anti access/area denial system) in Syria. This anti access/area denial strategy could severely hinder the ability of the Western alliance to use its military assets in Syria. Moscow’s military moves in the Middle East and its geopolitical positioning around the globe strive to embarrass America’s image as a reliable and confident player when it comes geopolitics and fighting terror. For the most part, this is just Russia employing a ‘turnabout is fair play’ principle, after what it feels is American harassment of Russia on many fronts. What is clear, after a subtle analysis of the consequences of Russia’s entrance into Syria, is an entanglement of enemies that might signal much more chaos before any substantive coordination.
The new U.S. strategy against DAESH in Syria will be backed by special operations forces in Erbil, Northern Iraq, and meant to be strengthened by cooperation with the Iraqi military in retaking key cities, with expanded security assistance by Jordan and Lebanon. This was done to counter the sudden Russian military expansion into the region. Iraqi Shiite politicians were calling for Russians to conduct airstrikes against DAESH in Iraq as well. Following intensive talks between Iraqi and U.S. officials, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said the Iraqi government had promised it would not request any Russian airstrikes or military support for operations against DAESH. The United States is trying to engage in very demanding diplomatic talks which include the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, firm supporters of Assad, and nations such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are opposed to the Syrian Assad regime. Of course, it would have been better if these diplomatic talks took place earlier with more intensity, because it is hard to overestimate just how difficult getting all of these disparate players to cooperate at the negotiating table is.
The complexity of these current diplomatic talks is evident by the fact that are still no agreements to establish areas of collaboration in various air campaigns or even to share intelligence and target information in Syria. The lack of military and diplomatic cooperation between Russia and the United States is pushing both sides to resort to Cold War-style tactics of proxy war. In addition, Russian cooperation in the region with Iran could imply proxy conflict that could create tension with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, UAE, and Kuwait. The United States is walking a fine line by attempting to court multiple sides while ensuring certain relationships do not escalate into something much worse. Indeed, it is proving quite difficult to wage war when ‘allies’ do not agree on the ‘enemy.’
Before Russia’s entrance, America’s Persian Gulf allies wanted to fight the Syrian government but refuse to attack radical Islamic groups. Turkey was against the Syrian regime and DAESH but in reality it wanted to fight and weaken the Kurds, which so far have been one of the few good American allies and effective fighters against DAESH. Another U.S. ally, Israel, is cautiously observing the landscape and seems to be ready to act if any threat materializes against its interests. But other than that, Israel seems intent on remaining outside the fight. In all this it is fair to describe the fight against DAESH not so much a coalition but as a competing potpourri: it is more chaos than coordination. Then Russia arrives with a lean but clear objective of assisting its old Arab ally, Assad, while restoring its national prestige in the Middle East. Russia has received full endorsement to stay in the region from both Syria and Iran. A third party, Iraq, is considering the same. By comparison, U.S. diplomats are facing the very difficult task of appeasing many different allies whose demands seem non-negotiable and not compatible with each other.
Asking Russia to stop its air campaign would play into the propaganda that the U.S. is not interested in defeating DAESH if someone else does it. If Russia is allowed to weaken DAESH in Syria and Iraq then that would be a major blow for the U.S. If the United States chooses to follow Turkey’s example of arming certain militant groups, then the risk is that it could find itself with a group of jihadists who are impossible to control at the end of the conflict. Ironically, this is the original criticism Russia made against the U.S. back when the first opposition groups fought against Assad. Another choice is to join Russia in its fight but that will make the U.S. look like it is endorsing a leader it has accused of dictatorship and oppression. So far, America simply seems incapable of cooperating openly with Russia, even with the terror fight.
Are there any real options for this conflict in terms of diplomatic negotiations and concessions? Realistic electoral transition in Syria cannot take place without advanced talks and a lasting ceasefire, in addition to international observers. Only the combined pressure from Russia and the United States can realistically force those conditions on Syria. Russia can use massive debt to pressure Syria to comply and to promise economic relief once Assad is replaced. The alternative for Moscow is to indefinitely support the Syrian regime and military. That could be something economically unpalatable to Putin. In a show of good will, Europe and the U.S. could suspend their sanctions against Russia and encourage Turkey to remind Russia of its plans to expand trade there from $32 billion to $100 billion dollars in the next five years. The EU can assure the Russians that they will support cutting the weapons flow to jihadist groups throughout the area that often include Chechens. Reassurance from the EU and Turkey about stopping the weapons flow would make Russia feel better about militant groups such as Jaish Al-Muhajireen and Jaish Al Fatah, in addition to DAESH, which all include Chechen fighters. Russia is worried that hardened Chechen jihadists will always return from Middle East battlefields to Southern Russia and launch terrorist attacks against Russian citizens, something that has already played out in the past with both the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.
These diplomatic discussions could potentially bring some militants and government representatives into direct negotiations, which Geneva talks have always failed to accomplish. To this end aid could be provided only to non-Salafist militants who promise a protection of religious minorities. The role of YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Unit) will have to be carefully negotiated with Turkey. In short, there are far more questions than answers involving far more players than most Western media reports seem to realize. This entanglement of enemies is far more complex than a simple reduction to Cold War proxies. Indeed, the world should be afraid when we look longingly at the prospect of Cold War proxy conflicts as an improvement over the current state of affairs.
War of rumors and Al Jazeera
Authors: Mohamed Maher and Irina Tsukerman
The media plays an important role in educating the public, revealing facts and monitoring the various authorities in normal peace times, but it also plays a dangerous role in times of crises, wars, and epidemics, as it is incumbent on them to educate the public about the upcoming danger and how to prevent it.
It is assumed that the media’s loyalty to the truth, and the truth only, as it is supposed to have a moral and humanitarian responsibility towards peoples and societies in the first place.
However, Al Jazeera, the Qatari channel linked to the Doha government chose for it another path, and despite the depth of the current global crisis towards confronting the Coronavirus, this did not deter the Qatari channel from continuing its process of fabricating news and publishing false news for purely political purposes, to provoke the few and crises.
And just over the past few days, Al-Jazeera has published widely, an inaccurate and weak Canadian study indicating that the numbers of the cases in Egypt include 19,000, which is a very exaggerated number if we consider that the official figures at that time, when the study was published, did not was no more than 200, which prompted the Egyptian government to refute such allegations, also withdrew the accreditation of the British Guardian reporter, and issued a warning to the New York Times correspondent in Cairo, which made him latter apologize for his previous tweets on Twitter about the numbers of the cases in Egypt.
The British daily reported that its correspondent, Ruth Michaelson, left Egypt last week after Western diplomats informed her that Egyptian security services wanted her to leave “immediately”, the daily said.
Michaelson reported on unpublished research by Canadian infectious disease specialists estimating an outbreak size of more than 19,000 cases in Egypt. The scientists used data from early March when Egypt officially had only three confirmed cases, according to Michaelson’s report published on March 15.
The following day, Michaelson, along with a New York Times reporter who tweeted her story, was summoned by Egyptian officials and told they were accused of misreporting and spreading panic, The Guardian said.
A day later, Egypt’s State Information Services, the government-body overseeing foreign correspondents, SIS demanded an apology from the Guardian for publishing the report that cited a Canadian medical doctor’s study claiming that infected people in the country may amount to more than 19,000. The official number stands at 196, with six deaths and 26 recovered cases at the time of writing. revoked Michaelson’s press credentials and released a statement accusing her of citing a “misleading” study based on “false conclusions” and “speculation”.
Several days later, the French ambassador in Cairo publish a video message to the French community in Egypt, inviting them to sit in their homes in Egypt until the end of the crisis, but Al-Jazeera and a several of other channels close to the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood received the message to turn it into a warning to the French people in Egypt, before you difficult days, even though the ambassador spoke in general, which made the French embassy in Cairo issued an official statement indicating that the translation from French to Arabic was not accurate for some channels, and some of them distorted the ambassador’s statements in a manner inconsistent with the intended goal of the message in reference to translation.
The history of Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera’s role as instigator, obfuscator, and distorter of news long precedes the instant COVID19 pandemic crisis.
The recent four hour coverage dedicated to the largely debunked claims by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos regarding his phone. allegedly hacked by the Saudi Crown Prince from his personal Whatsapp account, is just one example of Al Jazeera seizing any manufactured scandal, and amplifying even issues of narrow interests until they appear larger than life. This episode, however, is only a minor illustration of the way Al Jazeera either fuels or takes advantage of existing social or political crises. Manufacturing an appearance of crisis when the issues is relatively minor is also part of the media conglomerate arsenal. Not so long ago, Al Jazeera and affiliate channels, and various European and Arabic-language outlets funded by Al Jazeera or Qatar have pushed the story of immense anti-government demonstrations allegedly taking place in Egypt. These stations have gone as far as to interview alleged participants and witnesses to these supposedly mass gatherings. Meanwhile, 24-hour cameras that were set up to transmit the developments in the hotspots in questions showed empty streets, occasionally interrupted by small crowds. Eventually, Al Jazeera’s narrative made it out into major Western networks and newspapers.
The Independent covered these protests as almost revolutionary in nature. Ultimately, Reuters revealed, that in reality, the gatherings were rather small, and no military force was used. The Sissi government was not particularly flummoxed either by the protests, or by the concerted attempt to make them appear like the second coming of the Arab Spring. This attempt to manufacture an appearance of crisis served two purposes: the first was to inspire a more massive revolt among those who found Al Jazeera more credible and “free” than Egyptian media or who simply did not like President Sissi.
The second was to send a propaganda message to the West, in the hopes that the mainstream press will rely on Western-style networks, often without verifying through independent coverage or through associations with local reporters. The idea is that American or British journalists will consider local Egyptian press “biased” in favor of the government and automatically disregard those perspectives. Indeed, Al Jazeera partially succeeded having captured headlines in a number of Western national publications that played into the narrative of mass opposition to the Sissi government..
Neither of these modes of action have much to do with journalism, in the conventional understanding of the term. Instead, Al Jazeera strives to be the newsmaker and the narrative make at the same time, rather than merely breaking or analyzing the news based on best available evidence. Al Jazeera has a long history of jumping on board with various uprisings and revolutionary movements and picking and choosing “winners” that receive disproportionate coverage, and thus, an inherent advantage of free media publicity. The 2019 Cairo protests followed Al Jazeera’s much more successful involvement in the Arab Spring in Egypt and other countries, where Al Jazeera’s coverage buoyed Morsi to victory even as the channel essentially ignored more secular-minded candidates and their supporters.
Similarly, in Sudan, Al Jazeera gave space to young protesters to air grievances while shaping a version of the events which placed blame on the anti-protester violence on Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypti. The conglomerate’s presence in Libya has played a very similar role, and has likewise played up the violent anti-government riots popping up in Malawi following the disputed elections in 2019. The coverage of all these conflicts and crises is narrative driven, and often inaccurate, if not outright fabricated. The same trend can be observed in the coverage of the Khashoggi affair, where Al Jazeera aired the most preposterous claims without ever fully retracting any of them.
Far from being an objective observer of the investigation, Al Jazeera frequently allowed deeply personal and sensationalist attacks on Mohammed bin Salman, who was at the very start portrayed to be a cartoonish villain. And long before Khasoggi was ever on the radar of most of the Western public, Al Jazeera was on the ground in Afghanistan, apparently facilitatingTaliban and giving a welcoming space to Al Qaeda on air as well as via logistical support. Rather than merely covering the conflict, the media conglomerate was at the center of it and taking active part in calling shots through coordinating with the preferred parties. Likewise, in the United States and the United Kingdom, Al Jazeera worked to help shape public perception of Jewish organization and acceptance of old school anti-Semitic conspiracy theories through spy operations that were later turned into documentary narratives and leaked to left wing outlets.
What do all of these incidents of political meddling, dispensation with journalistic objectivity, and outright fabrications have in common? Al Jazeera was engaged in these narrrative-building exercises as a media and psychological warfare outfit for Qatar’s foreign policy. While many analysts have referred to Al Jazeera as a “mouthpiece” for Qatari agenda, that is not quite the right term, as in addition to airing preferred Qatar regime perspective, Al Jazeera specifically has been used to influence foreign policy as a lobbyist, propagandist, and employer of active measures. Despite Congressional push to designate the media conglomerate under Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Al Jazeera has been able to avoid scrutiny both throughlegal charades and by touting a strong relationship with the White House, with Jared Kushner making occasional appearances on the channel and welcoming it as a partner and an “important actor in the region” to the White House. The converse to this observation is Al Jazeera’s relative silence or positive coverage with regards to Qatar’s allies, such as various militias funded by the government in Libya and Syria, or for that matter, internal Qatari matters, such as the disputes within the al-Thani family or human rights abuses. To figure out how and why Al Jazeera chooses to focus on certain matters, one should only look for Qatar’s interests in the issue. Antagonizing the members of the Anti Terrorism Quartet (KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain) is always on the agenda. Wreaking havoc and undermining criticism of Qatar’s geopolitical agenda in Western countries is another. For that reason, it should come as no surprise, that despite Qatar’s attempts to cover up the rapid spread of the pandemic inside its own borders, rather than criticizing the policy shortcomings, such as open ended travel to Iran and Oman, Al Jazeera focused on searching for and creating problems externally, in part to divert attention from the problems in Qatar, and in part because any crisis can be exploited to sow the seeds of Qatar’s longer-term interests in exerting influence, preferably at the expense of others.
The views expressed within Modern Diplomacy are solely those of the authors in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of the Modern Diplomacy, its Advisory and Editorial Boards, Sponsors, Partners, or Affiliates.
Turkey in Idlib
What is the real strategic sense of Turkey’s very recent military operation in the Idlib region of North-Western Syria?
We will analyse here, above all, the main strategic effects and the consequences within the entire Middle East region, as well as the counterpressures within the global geopolitical framework.
The word Idlib comes from the Aramaic “Adad” (God) and “Lib” (centre).
A very important geographical and military factor is that, to the West, Idlib is very close to Latakia, where the Russian base of Khmeimimim is located, with more than 1,000 stable operatives, who are now part of the Russian defence apparatus, together with those of the Tartus naval base, where – at the air base near Latakia – also an important unit of the Sixth Directorate of the Russian Military Secret Service (GRU) operates.
As early as 2015, i.e. the outbreak of war in Syria, Idlib has been, at first, the centre of protests against Bashar al Assad by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni groups. Later Idlib was taken as a safe base by the various jihadist groups, including the remaining elements of the “Islamic State” of Raqqa that have now largely fled to the North-Western Syrian city, in close contact with the Turkish territories.
Not to mention the over 100,000 ones, previously held by the Kurds, who are relatives, collaborators and mere militants of the so-called “Caliphate” that Turkey has no interest in keeping detained and is slowly releasing.
Currently Idlib is not controlled by any majority jihadist group, but by an often vague balance among the many groups of the “holy war”, i.e. the Middle East and the other proxy wars, usually mediated by the Turkish Intelligence Services.
Besides autonomous groups of jihadists coming from the Chinese Turkestan-Xinjiang, often weakened with lightning operations by the operatives of the Chinese Armed Forces, in the region. There are also Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Al Qa’eda faction that has been operating for many years in Syria and partly in Iraq, and the National Liberation Front, founded in May 2018 and openly supported by Turkey.
It currently includes as many as 11 jihadist factions, but also nationalistic and mainly anti-Assad groups.
These groups often emerge from the Syrian Sunni majority, largely present in the North of the country.
In agreement with Russia, however, as early as 2019 the Syrian government led by Assad has stated that “Syria’s first goal is to free Idlib”.
A very harsh signal for Turkey which, just in that phase, was beginning to have as many as 1,300 soldiers around Idlib to monitor the ceasefire.
In that case, Turkey’s primary goal was to avoid adding a further and probably incalculable mass of other migrants to the 3 million Syrians already present in the Turkish territory on the border with Syria – with EU money – but assigned by Germany alone to Turkey.
That situation made the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, do his utmost to prevent a new offensive against Idlib from the South and from the East.
Hence, Staffan de Mistura’s proposals were the usual talks to avoid military pressure and, above all, create a humanitarian corridor, mainly with a view to avoiding the rush of crowds of Syrian migrants to Idlib and, from there, to the “Balkan route”.
European countries are full of migrants but, when thinking about geopolitics, they focus only on humanitarian aspects and, precisely, on how to avoid the arrival of other migrants.
Cannot we call it a failure?
In October 2018, in Sochi, the contacts between Putin and Erdogan led to an agreement.
A “de-escalation zone” was created in Syria – just to use the terminology of the Astana talks, the real ones, not the semi-deserted talks in Geneva – and it was in that area that Turkey took up the role of maintaining public order.
Shortly after the Sochi agreement, in an interview on the Russian TV, Bashar al Assad stated: “The Syrian military confrontation with Turkey is illogical”.
The document signed in Sochi between the two leaders stated that: a) there was a commitment of both countries for Syria’s territorial integrity; b) there was a common commitment to the fight against “all terrorists”, as well as the beginning of a ceasefire regime in Idlib as from March 6, and the establishment of a ‘security corridor’ along the Syrian M-4 motorway, six kilometres to the right and six kilometres to the left of the road axis; c) finally, there was the introduction of joint Turkish-Russian patrols, again along the M-4 motorway, in Idlib, in the direction controlling the Latakia-Aleppo axis.
Regardless of what happens to the Sochi agreement, the clash between Turkey and Russia is therefore very unlikely.
Neither Turkey nor, even less, Russia want to open a Syrian front where they would inevitably enter de facto marginalized from Syria.
A new war for hegemony in North-Western Syria between Russia and Turkey would be a very hard blow for both economies, which are now increasingly interconnected. By clashing with Turkey, the Russian Federation could lose an easy access to the Dardanelles and its own Syrian bases, as well as to the Bosphorus.
Moreover, Russia does not want to upset a NATO country like Turkey, which is now a maverick in the Atlantic region. An incalculable advantage position for Russia.
On its part, however, Turkey cannot do without specific support also from the United States, especially if obtained outside the North Atlantic Treaty region.
This means Turkey’s future concessions to the United States in the Eastern Mediterranean region and Turkey’s involuntary delicate hand against the PKK and other Turkish organizations (all offspring of the PKK, however) that are still essential on the ground for the United States (and Israel).
Currently, however, many executives of CIA, the Pentagon and the vast U.S. intelligence community do not even hide the desire to put an end to Erdogan’s regime.
Certainly the new Turkish Sultan is “scarcely democratic”, but if the United States were to test the approach of all its Middle East traditional allies in this regard, obviously the only democratic country would be Israel.
It will not be easy for the United States to define its future regional alliances, but the situation of relations between Turkey and the United States is today increasingly ambiguous and, in any case, very tense.
Only the most brilliant people within CIA are worried about not exasperating tempers, so as to avoid Turkey agreeing definitively with Russia irremediably against the United States.
The idea of some North American intelligence executives is also to push Turkey into reckless military adventures in Syria and, possibly, also in Libya – a distant area, but very much correlated with Syria – to eventually create a Turkish Vietnam and then leave Erdogan’s regime in the hands of the increasingly angry and impoverished Turkish crowds. A hope more than a strategic idea.
A vast program- as De Gaulle would have said – but anything is possible, even the U.S. planners’ dreams, if you are in the Middle East.
At this juncture, there is a key question. Can Assad alone control the stability of his Syria, after a victory which means, above all, the persistence of Russian protection over the old Ba’ath regime and also the inevitable support of the covert or non-covert military structures of Iran, which wants, above all, to create a stable terrestrial continuity towards the Lebanon and border with Israel, with its military and signal intelligence (SIGINT) stations?
Currently – after having changed and made the strategic framework much more insecure, with an ineffective stability of the U.S. positions in Syria and Turkey’s definition of the agreement with Russia, as well as the strong permanence of the ever stabler Assad’s regime, in the rest of Syria – the Turkish forces have approximately 20,000 soldiers in the Idlib area.
The deployment of Erdogan’s forces in Idlib includes his five special forces, which depend only on the Chief of Staff and not on the classic territorial chain of command of the Turkish Armed Forces. It also includes some armoured units, light infantry units, i.e. real commandos, and the 5th Brigade, specialized in paramilitary operations and mountain warfare.
Hence nothing to do with a Military Police that deals with an agreement on the M-4 motorway line.
The dozens of thousands Syrian or para-Syrian migrants, who want to push towards Europe, in the direction of Greece and then the “Balkan route”, are always supported by the Turkish Armed Forces themselves, who do not want civilians standing in the way between them, Assad’ Syria, Russia and the other players in the Syrian war, especially Iran.
Clearly Turkey does not want even the United States. If anything, Erdogan wants the financial support of the E.U., which, as usual, is terrorized of the obvious result of a war it has recklessly supported.
Hence, currently, the feeble agreement that Turkey and Russia reached in Sochi – which, indeed, served their most basic strategic interests – no longer holds, except for the wise malice of both statesmen.
It has even been said that recently Russia has sought the support of the Emirates and of Saudi Arabia (currently it is more difficult, after the fall of OPEC+) so as to break the stalemate with Turkey, while it is known that none of the powerful countries of Jazeera, namely the Arabian Peninsula, likes the Turkish strategic behaviour.
Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have begun to support, with money and weapons – the weapons that the new E.U. IRINI mission naively seeks at sea – the Libyan “rebels” of Cyrenaica, against the pro-Turk Tripolitanians, supported by the naivest part of the international community and, above all, by the Muslim Brotherhood that, instead, is not naive at all.
Obviously, however, Syria’s final victory at Idlib would never be accepted by Turkey, which would probably react with a limited but very harsh counteroffensive, capable of turning the Idlib area not into a Turkish enclave, to be used as a bargaining chip with Syria, but into a real Turkish area.
Furthermore, the Syrian economic crisis has not permitted an acceptable reconstruction in the areas of the Idlib region brought back to the Syrian regime or to Russia. This has also led to further revolts and provided induced support to the old jihadist networks that are fierce and still rich in liquidity.
It is also possible that the great push of Syrian and para-Syrian migrants – of various ethnic origin and political nature – is not viewed too negatively by Russia, which could thus favour those ethnicist and right-wing forces which now permanently support Russian strategic goals in the now brain-dead Europe.
Hence what should we do? Should we support the Idlib Strip as an area of permanence and support – with E.U. money – of the over three million additional migrants – something that is now physically impossible?
Where could the E.U. money be found, in the midst of a COVID-19 financial emergency?
Meanwhile, until the Idlib issue is solved, Assad’ Syrian regime is not stable and hence not capable of facing the great business of the country’s reconstruction, without the others’ strategic “teeth”.
Certainly – for what foreign policy agreements are worth – the Adana Agreement of 1998 still applies between Syria and Turkey. It dealt with the Province of Hatay, as well as the issue of water, essential for both countries, not to mention the Syrian recognition of the PKK as a “terrorist organization” and, therefore, the subsequent and immediate expulsion of the PKK leaders, especially Abdullah Ŏcalan, from Syria.
This is something we Italians remember fairly well. Therefore, between 2004 and 2010, the relations between Turkey and Syria were excellent.
The two countries also signed the beginning of a High Level Strategic Cooperation Council in September 2009, with an immediately subsequent free trade agreement between them.
That agreement was immediately extended to the Lebanon and Jordan, besides the two first signatories – hence the old Levant Quartet. When the war, which had begun as the Syrian “Arab Spring”, became radicalized, and both global and regional elements entered Syria, Turkey changed its observation point, mainly with reference to the strong presence of Iranian and, in any case, Shi’ite forces organized by Iran.
This was also connected to the proven substantial U.S. lack of interest in Syria, and above all its sole support for the various Kurdish political-military organizations – which, indeed, has never been the only one for the Kurds.
Since the beginning of tensions in Syria in 2014 – especially thanks to the local organizations of the Muslim Brotherhood, often connected at the time to the U.S. networks, as in Egypt – Turkey had clear and very simple goals in mind: the management of the inevitable humanitarian crisis, in which it was directly and inevitably interested; the fall of Assad’s regime; a proxy war against Iran; the elimination of Daesh, competing with the Turkey-manipulated jihadist organizations on the ground, and the final marginalization of the entire Kurdish area.
Currently there are approximately 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Therefore, Turkey’s goals are currently to stop further migrant flows, as well as to support those already there, and finally keep its very safe borders with Syria in view of avoiding further migrant flows.
At that juncture, once the clash in Syria had started, Turkey saw both the Kurds and Daesh arrive at its borders.
Later, in 2011, when the “Arab spring” broke out in Syria, Turkey explicitly advised Assad to start a radical reform of the Ba’athist regime in view of maintaining internal stability.
Certainly, today, with the penetration of Russian and Iranian security apparata into Assad’s regime, the fall of Ba’ath and the Assad dynasty – a desire never hidden by Turkey – is much more difficult to achieve. Furthermore, Russia has an economic and oil agreement with Turkey that is worth the entire survival of the Turkish AKP regime.
One of Turkey’s primary plan to topple Assad, and hence free Syria from Russia and Iran and turn it into a dépendance of Turkish geopolitics, was to try to unite all the forces opposing Assad into a single “front”.
The Turkish support also applied to the Astana talks, where Turkey supported the opposition against Assad, including jihadists, and, above all, sought peace in Syria with a view to sending its 4 million migrants back to their Syrian homes and in the rest of the world.
From this viewpoint, we can better understand the Turkish operations Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Olive Branch in 2018, both designed to avoid the Daesh penetration into Turkey and the Kurds’ arrival in Ayn-el-Arab and Afrin.
As already seen, however, the real punctum dolens of Turkey’s regional geopolitics is the possible “Shiazation” of Syria, while Turkey would like to have the entire Syria or, at least, its Sunni-majority parts, hegemonized by Turkish interests.
The Turkish Forces’ and Intelligence Services’ penetration into Idlib has also this meaning: at first, we take our area of influence, then we will decide to negotiate with Bashar al Assad, but from a position of strength.
It should be recalled that the first aspect of the 1979 revolution in Iran was the expansion of Islamic radicalism, which immediately spread to both Sunni and Shi’ite countries.
The second strategy, which is currently still pursued by Iran, was instead pan-Shi’ism.
After the predictably unfortunate “Arab Springs” that the United States invented to defuse the sword jihad by reactivating the militancy, including the religious one, with a bottom-up and rank-and-file approach, with the results we could well imagine even before, Iran no longer uses pan-Islamism, but only pan-Shi’ism.
Since 1980, however, Turkey has carved out its geo-informative role of defender of the West against pan-Islamism and, above all, against the great Shi’ite insurgency organized by Iran, which has also strengthened the never well clarified relations between the AKP, Erdogan’s party, and the Muslim Brotherhood which, at the beginning of the “Arab Springs”, was also the primary instrument of the U.S. operations in the framework of the great change regime planned by Langley in the Arab-Islamic world.
Certainly Iran has its very strong Shi’ite identity, which mobilizes and strongly motivates all its proxies, in Syria as in the rest of the world. Also Turkey, however – especially after Operation Olive Branch, has created its myth: a “democratic and pluralistic” Syria, i.e. without the Assad dynasty in power, but still maintaining the political and territorial unity of the Syrian Republic.
In other words, Turkey still envisages the silent division into zones of influence, possibly favouring Russia, which maintains the TurkStream project, the bilateral gas pipeline leaving from Anapa, in the Russian region of Krasnodar, crossing the Black Sea and arriving at the Turkish station of Kiyikoi.
A clearly strategic pipeline since it strengthens Russian-Turkish ties and hence favours Turkey’s substantial moving away from NATO. It also avoids Russia’s transit through the dangerous and unstable Ukraine, which will hence become more a problem for the West, which has opposed Russian operations in the region, than for Russia.
Let us, however, analyse the current Turkish military operations in Syria. The Turkish military action began on October 9, 2019, with attacks on the Kurdish area of Tall Abyad and Sere Kaniye, which were carried out also thanks to the help of some jihadist groups connected with the MIT, the Turkish secret service.
Still today, it is an area of Turkish hegemony, obtained in a territory previously controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish initiative and involving Christian (Assyrian) and Arab (Sunni) troops.
Well before the SDF, however, much of the territory occupied by Turkey was previously held by the so-called Caliphate of Raqqa.
Another Turkish goal was to militarily separate the Syrian Kurds – who are often mostly on the Syrian-Turkish North-Western border – from their fellow countrymen in Iraq and, all the more so, in Turkey.
In addition, Erdogan’s Turkey plans to relocate at least 2-3 million Syrian refugees or refugees coming from Syria (who are the largest share) already present in Turkey.
A solution that has already caused two problems. All migrants come from North-Western Syria and, hence, they are not homogeneous with the Turkish stability projects in the region. There is also the danger of giving room and bases for action to Turkey’s traditional enemies: the Syrian Democratic Forces; some remnants of the “Caliphate”, that, especially in its last phases, had close relations with the Turkish Intelligence Services; some Kurdish areas well armed from their supply lines, which go mainly from South-Eastern Syria to the whole Northern border.
Just think that, in 2013, there were also confidential talks between the Chief of MIT and the Turkish Foreign Ministry and the leaders of all the Kurdish forces, in view of reaching a stable agreement. Those negotiations, however, were harshly disrupted by Turkey.
In the meantime, the E.U. is obtusely undertaking to paying Turkey to stop migrants at the beginning of the “Balkan route”, which is, however, largely used both by Syrian migrants and by the majority migrant flows passing through Syria.
Indeed, the E.U. support for all the U.S. and Franco-British democratist follies, aimed at bringing free elections and secular democratic systems throughout the Middle East, has been a unique case of strategic masochism, i.e. paying the same Turks who destabilize North-Western Syria and then asking Europe to pay the bill for what they have done precisely to the designated victims, namely the powerless Europeans.
Resisting Lockdowns: Bringing Ultra-conservatives into the fold
The Coronavirus pandemic points a finger not only at the colossal global collapse of responsible public health policy but also the importance of balancing exclusionary religious practices and social cohesion.
While government negligence allowed an Evangelist prayer meeting to drive the spread of the virus in France, lagging social cohesion coupled with politicians’ politicking put ultra-conservative communities in Israel and Pakistan in the disease’s driver’s seat.
The resistance to public health policies of ultra-conservatives, who pay the price with high infection rates, takes debate about social cohesion beyond European efforts over the past two decades to restrict ultra-conservative Muslim and, to a lesser degree, Jewish practices in a bid to prevent the fringes of society turning into breeding grounds for militancy and political violence.
Various European governments have sought to impose social cohesion by banning women’s face covers, forcing people to shake the hand of someone of a different gender, restricting foreign funding for religious institutions and calls for outlawing Muslim and Jewish rituals for the slaughter of animals.
Post-Kemalist Turkey under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the only democracy to move in the opposite direction, was the exception that confirmed the rule.
While European nations banned hijabs and niqabs, Mr. Erdogan, as part of his effort to Islamicize society, lifted the ban in universities and government offices, demolishing a pillar of French laicist-inspired Kemalism.
The issues of social cohesion and political violence took centre stage in February in a Dutch parliamentary inquiry that investigated “unwanted influence of unfree countries.”
The parliamentary group grilled a controversial Salafi imam with questions that implied that the cleric was undermining social cohesion and enabling militancy with advice to his community to avoid intermingling with non-Muslim Dutchmen and to look the other way when walking past a church.
Critics charged that the inquiry by focussing exclusively on ultra-conservative Muslims and Turkish nationalist moves to control Dutch Turkish mosques was putting the Muslim community, that accounts for five percent of the Dutch population, on the defensive.
Israeli efforts to combat the coronavirus have highlighted similar social cohesion issues with ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, a city near Tel Aviv, that are among the Jewish state’s foremost virus clusters. Authorities put Bnei Brak this week in lockdown.
Initial government reluctance to enforce the closure of schools and synagogues as well as social distancing among the ultra-orthodox, who account for 12 percent of Israel’s population of 8.6 million, was seemingly motivated by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s fear that he would alienate religious parties that support his effort to form a new post-election government.
Mr. Netanyahu has recently been twice in quarantine, once after having been in face-to-face contact with his ultra-orthodox advisor, Rivka Paluch, who tested positive, and a second time after his health minister, Yaakov Litzman, a prominent member of the ultra-orthodox community, contracted the disease.
It took the disease to persuade Mr. Litzman that harsher measures were needed.
Mr. Litzman, discussing the virus. insisted last month that “we are praying and hoping that Messiah will come by Passover, it’s the time of redemption. I am sure that the Messiah will come just like he took us out of Egypt.”
Mr. Litzman and Ms. Paluch’s initial resistance to tough public health measures suggests that ultra-orthodox assertions that lack of information explained ultra-orthodox resistance was not the only reason for the failure of to comply with government policy.
To be sure, ultra-orthodox Jews frequently live in a world of their own that centres on prayer and religious learning. Many do not have television, access to the internet or listen to mainstream radio broadcasts. They rely on community news sheets.
Add to that the fact that proposed public health measures disrupt ultra-orthodox life.
Like Muslims, ultra-orthodox Jews congregate several times a day for prayers. Unlike Muslims, Jews require for certain prayers a quorum of at least ten adult men. The government’s closure of rituals baths, moreover, means that couples are banned from intimacy or sleeping in one bed.
Furthermore, ultra-orthodox interactions with more secular Jewish society are few and far between. Members of the community often speak Yiddish, rather than Hebrew, a language that in their view is reserved for prayer in the absence of the arrival of the Messiah.
Like recent ultra-orthodox funerals, recent mass gatherings in Pakistan, Malaysia and India of Tablighi Jamaat, a transnational ultra-conservative Muslim movement, have turned into hubs from which the coronavirus has spread.
Former Israeli justice and religious affairs minister Yossi Beilin could have been speaking about the Tablighi when he summed up the ultra-orthodox Jewish view as ‘keep praying together. Whatever you try doing will not change anything, because the disaster is a God-given phenomenon, and only begging God may change things for the better.’’’
An Evangelist pastor in Florida, Reverend Rodney Howard-Browne, who was arrested for organizing Sunday church services in defiance of emergency orders, echoed Mr. Beilin’s rendition of attitudes among some ultra-conservatives.
“We are demonized because we believe that God heals, that the Lord sets people free, and they make us out to be some kook,” Mr. Howard-Browne said.
With governments across the globe having failed to prepare for or counter the coronavirus from day one, Israel and Pakistan are in good company So is France, where a week-long Evangelist gathering in the city of Mulhouse kickstarted the virus’ spread in the country.
Members of the congregation said they knew nothing about the virus’ threat. Indeed, the French government had at that point failed to issue proper warnings and take the kind of measures that potentially could have blunted the virus’ devastating impact.
The upshot of Israel’s travails, the Dutch inquiry that at times resembled an inquisition, Pakistani hesitancy to impose public health measures on an influential religious group, and French negligence constitute in essence government failures on two counts: The failure to read the writing on the wall with regard to the virus and the failure to work with ultra-conservatives to bring them into the fold.
Talking about the ultra-orthodox, Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute appeared to put the onus on ultra-conservatives. “The main question towards the future is whether within the community there will be voices…that will say: ‘We want to protect our community, but we also belong to the state,’” Mr. Malach said.
If the emergence of ultra-conservative communities as virus clusters says anything, it is that waiting for ultra-conservatives to raise their voice isn’t good enough. The coronavirus demonstrates the price of not reaching out to ultra-conservative communities and establishing two-way channels of communication.
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