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Understanding Arab-Islamic Politics: Advocating the Case of the Political Culture Approach (A)

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The chronicles of human history are mainly the struggle between despotic, oppressive governments, on the one hand, and freedom from tyranny and the aspiration to achieve civil rights and freedoms, on the other; between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and liberal democracy.

In the words of Fukuyama, the twentieth century witnessed the world attacked by convulsions of ideological violence in the struggle of democratic liberalism, first against the remains of absolutism, and afterwards against Bolshevism and fascism. The end of the century witnessed the victory of Western liberal democracy. The world had not only reached “the end of ideology”, but also “the end of history.”

Thus, Marshall McLuhan’s vision, as early as 1964, regarding “the global village”, took on form and content with its outstanding expression being the tremendous spread of the social media and the communications and news networks. Society has reached “the Mac-World” as a cultural phenomenon. Moreover, the gaps between “high politics” – which deals with war and peace – and “low politics” which deals with social-economic issues and human welfare, are being progressively narrowed. This is the basis for the argument that the cultural borders between human societies have been blurred, and local cultures are now subject to the profound influence of the global culture.

However, is this the real situation? If “the end of history” has arrived, and democracy is victorious, why are there still so many wars between states, and so many tyrants threatening to bring about the destruction of humankind? If the cultural borders between human societies have become blurred, why is there an increase in fanatic nationalism? Why have ethnic conflicts and separatist uprisings multiplied?

Why is there still a First, Second, Third and even a Fourth World? Why is the division between the North and the South in effect and even more intense? And above all, why is Huntington so right in his analysis that in every place where Islam and Arabs are found, violence as well as internal and external wars are likewise found?

Indeed, the world reality is far from the optimistic, globalization vision, and it is doubtful whether cultural boundaries have been blurred. Hostility, rancor, violence, and global dangers have not vanished. National and state interests have not only converged but have partly moved further apart. Unfortunately, Islam confronts and viciously fights all other world’s civilizations, and as Huntington refers to Islamic boundaries are borders of blood.

The end-of-history and the globalization approaches are based on two perceptions that are not necessarily accurate: first, has the state really become obsolete as a central focus of reference, and is it losing its power and its sovereign control? Secondly, has the growth in importance of cross-border economic forces and transnational players really diminished the significance of conflicts between states over territory? Has geo-economics replaced geo-politics? It is not only doubtful whether the world at the twenty-first century is more stable and quieter, but it is sure that Islamic religious ideology takes advantage of the power vacuum that has been created to control and to subdue the civilized world, and to bring it to the Islamic 7th century desert.

The data is crystal clear. Over 90 percent of world terrorism and over 70 percent of world violence is purely Islamic, and the countdown continues rising up. This is enough without any doubt to put Islam to where it belongs. In 2015 there were 452 cases of homicide bombings alone. All of them where Muslims. From September 11 to April 2016 there were more than 28,000 terrorist acts alone, in which hundreds of thousands of people victimized.

In the last 70 years 14 million Muslims were massacred by other Muslims. There is not even one state around the world that is not confronted by Islam, by Jihad violence and terrorism, or by Da’wah, the preaching to Islam and the diplomacy of deceiving the infidels, or by Hijrah, massive huge immigration and birth-rate demography. Isn’t it enough to label Islam to where it belongs? Islam has never been all over its 1400 years, even for one day, a religion of peace.  

The interesting phenomenon is that there is a broad consensus that there is a distinct Japanese, or Chinese, or Hindu, or African-Tribal cultures, and, a distinct Arab-Islamic culture of great power and influence. We even teach these characteristics as a variegated cultural difference on the anthropological level, however, at one and the same time, we deny the cultural difference on the political level and disavow its importance on the level of behavioral insight.

But in our understanding, the gaps between Western and Arab-Islamic culture are so deep and qualitative that it determines everything. There is ample scientific and empirical clear proofs that without understanding the cultural ideological spectrum there is a huge deficiency in the ability to qualitatively analyze the Middle East and Islamic world. The denial to use culture as a scientific tool on the racial grounds and as a part of politically correct approach is not only stupid but largely contributes to the lack of understanding in fact the large ignorance that determines our behavior.

The world may have turned into a small village in many aspects, but political culture, which is also influenced and shaped by religion, dictates gaps in behavior and attitudes and creates deep political differences, which are difficult to bridge over.

Indeed, the widespread use of modernization and technology does not necessarily blur the behavioral boundaries and certainly not the cultural ones. Such is the case of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The tremendous petro-dollar riches they have accumulated have not changed the traits of the traditional anarchistic tribal society as a pre-medieval community. The capacity to purchase every technological innovation and the state of the art of Western means has not at all changed their societies’ way of life and tribal-clan structure.

In the West, those who do not understand this cultural phenomenon are astounded and full of wonder at how these states perpetuate their traditional way of life, and at the same time, prevent Westerners from leading their regular way of life and demand from them consideration for their religious and cultural values while staying there.

A no less severe phenomenon is that Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars in buying many research institutions throughout the world, and finances universities and researchers in the West, just in order to glorify its own cultural values. It finances, in fact buys communications media outlets, public opinion and lawyers firms throughout the Western world. It spends billions of dollars in maintaining internet sites of high quality in English and Arabic, which are meant to uphold its own anachronistic tribal values and the features of traditional Islam. And it has worked to prevent antagonism against itself, as a society hostile to Western culture.

Above all, Saudi Arabia is Enemy Number One of the modern, democratic international system. It finances, aids, supports, and consolidates most of the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organizations and groups throughout the world. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia aspires to restore the Islamic past to the future of modern, human society. Modern life and the Western technology that it uses have not changed Saudi society. The cultural structure has remained congealed in tribal anarchy; hence, the Western conception of change and transition to modernity has no chance either of flourishing or of even becoming established in Arab-Islamic political culture.

The central argument which we are expounding, is that there are wide gaps between various cultures, which are expressed in profound differences in ways of life and social structure, chiefly between Western political culture and Arab-Islamic political culture, and this influences patterns of political and behavioral activity. These gaps constitute a basis for flaws of thinking, distorted perceptions, and failures of policy. These factors, which are shaped and fostered in the various cultures, bring about strategic surprises and mental blindness (visual agnosia) and lead to the march of folly and disasters.

We may diagnose the phenomenon with the concept of “mirror image”. This expresses a personality system, which causes one to perceive an adversary’s thinking as matching one’s own. You look at your adversary and see his conceptions and mental images as matching your own set of values and beliefs. But in practice, you see yourself reflected in the mirror, and you attach to your adversary operational evaluations and defining positions that are exactly the same as your own.

Let’s take the issues of war and peace through the lenses of the “mirror image.”

You estimate that your conceptions, strategic definitions, and certainly your operational means, are your adversary’s as well. You and he aspire to peace, and you and he strive in the same direction and in the same trends by means of peace. And you are sure that you and he understand peace in the same parameters, and all that is needed is good will on both sides to end the war and to march into peace.

It is clear to you that your good will expresses the same boundaries as your adversary’s good will. Therefore, matters are absolutely understood by both sides, and the way to ending wars and establishing peace leads down the same path. You estimate that the political circumstances and the historical conclusions lead both you and your adversary to the same operational evaluations.

You and your adversary have arrived at the same situation after having tried everything, hence you both have the firm opinion that the shared aim in sitting down together for talks and discussions is to arrive at successful political arrangements, which you both understand according to the very same parameters.

And why is this absolutely clear and taken for granted? Because you and your adversary both understand that both of you have paid a high human and economic price, that you are both ripe for negotiations and political arrangements that will bring about peace and coexistence.

However, do both sides really aspire to peace in like manner? Do they both define the longed for peace in a symmetrical manner? Are they ready for an arrangement as a consequence of the same operational conclusions? Are they both politically exhausted and socially tired that their only conclusion is ending the war and reaching peace?

Our intention is to stress that “the mirror image” distorts the perception of reality, and muddles positions. From here the way is short to strategic surprises and shameful failures and national disasters, which might bring states to the verge of extinction.

We all know that the outer objective world is not the internal subjective world, still we do not translate it operatively in the political realm and we totally ignore the cultural dimension. We so much want to believe our adversary resembles us in our mutual aspirations and the means to achieve them that we literally erase behavioral boundaries and resist any other information to enter our minds.

But what if your adversary is different from you culturally and his conceptual definitions and political beliefs are different from you? What if what is for you moderate is in Islam the opposite? What if Bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are extremists according to your views, while they are moderate according to Islam? What if those who follow the Islamic commandments are moderate true believers according to Islam while their behavior and acts put them on the extreme line of the spectrum according to Western values and beliefs? What if to kill, to butcher, to slaughter, to decapitate, to terrorize and to hate the infidels and all other inhumane acts are totally unacceptable according to Western moral values, but are in fact part of Islamic commandments to its believers to follow?    

Indeed, we do not understand consciously and we do not want to contend conceptually with a problem so deeply unprecedented in history. This is not a nightmare that would fade away, rather this is a horrible plague, a contagious virus that spread all over the world aspiring to critically change it. We all watch and read and listen to the words clearly declared by Muslims: ‘we will win over you, we will subdue you, just because you love life, while we love death,’ and we still continue to ignore.

We all watch and read and listen to the voices clearly say that the is occupying the entire world and bringing it under Islamic rule, because it is the destiny of Islam to solely rule the world, and that the Shari’ah is the only constitution under which humanity must accordingly live and still continue to pretend everything is just find and the Muslims will accommodate and assimilate.  

The political cultural approach is a sensitive filter for understanding the deep gaps between the positions and conceptions of the parties. To illuminating the flaws and the lack of cultural insight one may consider the remarks of the Israeli journalist Doron Rosenblum, who related to the throwing of stones from Lebanon from the border toward Israel by Prof. Edward Said, the author of the notorious Orientalism:  

Perhaps the most famous intellectual today…to join the latest trend, in which masses from all the Arab states stream to the Lebanon-Israel border in order to spit, to curse, and to throw stones at Israel?… Why do the Arab masses really stream precisely to the place from where we withdrew to the last centimeter; precisely to the point where there is no occupation and no territorial claims; precisely to the place where we raised our hands; precisely there they stream to express their bottomless hatred [which has] no end or purpose; precisely to there of all places?… And in true astonishment one may ask, what are your intentions? Is it because of the past or because of the future? Or is it just because of hatred and inertia?

Doron Rosenblum, ignorant and lacking in insight as to the meanings of the cultural gaps, does not at all understand that precisely in the place where Israel had definitively withdrawn, it was transmitting a message of great weakness, and the reaction was total hostility and lack of inhibition by the Arab masses, intellectuals, and politicians. He does not understand that in Arab-Islamic political culture, weakness is not accepted as magnanimity in victory, but precisely the opposite: the continuation of warfare. He does not understand there is no quit pro quo in Arab-Islamic political culture and if you retreat and give up there is no mutual reaction from Arab-Islamic side. In the Middle East, everything is right and acceptable but weakness and failure. And Rosenblum does not understand that the stone expresses the cultural dimension in its ancient usage, disavowing by stoning to death.

The Free World leaders make their work easy: they fight against the symptom and not against the real issue. They declare fighting terrorism, Jihad, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, but not the ideological-religious sources that motivate them. That is why they fail time and again and Islam continues in its march of victory. Bernard Lewis has tried to explain this in his research, What Went Wrong.  

How is the cultural phenomenon expressed? Why is it so elusive, despite its being known and understood to scientific research? Norman Dixon in his Our Own Worst Enemy examined the psychology of failing leaderships. He directed attention to the phenomenon that the leadership invests its resources in two activities: denying objective reality by a wishful thinking approach, and rationalization of mistaken behavior when reality proves the leaders were wrong and their actions are proven mistaken.

Various scientific disciplines deal with national perceptions and images, how beliefs and values influence activity and leaders’ reactions. The concept of belief systems include terms such as “the image”, “the operational code”, “cognitive map”, that link between the actor’s psychological and operational environments. These are set of lenses through which information is received. Yet, the literature concerning misperception focuses on the psychological accounts of why individuals interpret the world in the way they do, rather the belief systems focuses of how the individuals see the world and act accordingly.

Robert Jarvis explains how misperceptions and misconceptions determine our behavior. People make decisions according to their interpretation of the information they get without studying and analyzing it. People stick to political based conceptions and ignore any contradictory information. Importantly, people with higher education are less open to change their political views, even less readiness to assimilate contradictory information.

Part of the explanation for this phenomenon is the “cognitive dissonance” approach, advanced by Leon Festinger, in his The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. That is, there is unwillingness to accept what may contradict one’s values, conceptions, positions, and beliefs. Instead of checking one’s own values and actions, a person’s mind is closed to any unacceptable development, and he refuses to admit his mistakes or his failed evaluations. From comes conceptual fixation and closed consciousness.

This also leads to visual agnosia, even willful blindness. People observe only what they want to observe. People believe in what suits their views and values and people tend to follow the optimistic side of human behavior. This is likened to a man’s reaction to threatening information that contradicts his conceptions and values, or that fundamentally contradicts his policy. The immediate reaction is refusal by way of disbelief that the threat will be realized, a phenomenon that leads to being unprepared. The problem is if we are all infected with this syndrome. Leaders are supposed to think in terms of the nation as a whole, and their responsibility is higher and more concrete. Leaders with a great deal of self-confidence will display more indifference to risks, and will not deploy to face threats and dangers. This might lead to war.

Those whose self-confidence and experience are low might sharpen crises and again be drawn into war as a result of failure to make proper responses. In any event, inaction on the part of leaders, or superfluous action, is a recipe for national disasters. Barbara Tuchman referred to this, pointing out that throughout history governments have taken positions opposed to the interests of their peoples. A leadership’s capacity to perform is extremely poor, and precisely those leaderships had an existential influence on the fate of peoples and states. Wars break out not necessarily because of failure to perceive a developing reality, but as failures of leadership, and their inability to analyze ongoing phenomena because of their aspiration to force their will on reality.

What characterizes political leadership is folly, closed minds, and stubborn blindness, which are a source of self-deception that does not learn from experience, as they continue to evaluate their own political path as correct, and practice a mistaken policy.20 Moreover, leaders aspire to invent the wheel anew, rather than basing themselves on orderly thinking, systematic policy, and long-range plans, preferring self-deception and conceptions determined in advance. Lastly, they totally disregard contrary signs and signals, and are incapable of pausing to examine the policy in effect in light of developing reality, out of the estimate that there is no alternative to their policy.

When we discuss the issue of culture, the political leadership has decisive influence. The manner of its behavior and conduct is not necessarily understood. Leaders, like society in general, do not act in accord with “logical”, defined parameters. This stands out particularly on the issue of contending with matters that are important to deal with as against urgent matters. Leaders are busy, first of all, with “the politics of oblivion”, which means not dealing with controversial, problematic matters, which resemble booby traps from the standpoint of the potential problems they enfold.

Second, when these problems reach their desks nonetheless, they seek to postpone dealing with them by a “policy of delay”. Third, when the problems pop up again, and dealing with them cannot be put off any longer, leaders adopt a “policy of committees”. They set up an investigating commission to examine the situation in the hope that the situation will change before it has concluded its work.

Fourth, when the investigating commission finishes its work and presents its recommendations, the leaders practice a “policy of file away and do nothing”, or set up a commission to implement the recommendations, which buries the matter. In any event, time is a variable of critical importance, and a major trait of their activity.

Why do we deal with these aspects? Because leaders continue not to learn, and stubbornly persist in not drawing lessons, even when strategic failure cannot be ignored and proves them wrong. This is the politics of permeability and closed minds, hence also, their inability to mold another policy, based on national interests and taking into account their own responsibility. National disasters are the next stop.

Tuchman quotes the historian of Philip II, king of Spain, who was “more closed minded than all the kings”, so that no failure of his policy could challenge his absolute faith that his policy was excellent. Indeed, unlike accidents, it must be understood that national disasters do not develop overnight, but as a consequence of a series of faults and mistakes in political assumptions. This involves events that are cognitively dissonant, that are ignored or the existence of which is denied; flaws of processing information or correctly dealing with it; and incapacity to control events.

The first duty of leaders is to examine whether it is possible to attain goals, and whether they are realistic. The more that they are not realistic the more leaders mislead their own people and present it with “surprises” and failures. What is not realistic will not be realized, no matter how splendid it is, and no matter how much it is defined as a historical breakthrough. What is important is to stay with reality, with the possible, and with what can be achieved, after deeply probing study and research, deliberation, and obtaining reliable intelligence. Anything that is not based on these foundations might end up as a national disaster.

The most responsible attitude for leadership is to know when to stop, to examine issues frankly, and to admit mistakes. Flimsy foundations of a policy will not stand in place, even if they are mended with splendid patches. What cannot be mended will collapse in disaster. On the other hand, leaders very much love to make reforms, and to declare a new national policy, or a revolutionary strategy that they have drawn up. The problem is that it is not enough to show that a certain situation is bad. It is necessary to be sure that the problem has been properly described, and that the solution proposed will lead to improvement of the situation.

For that reason, common sense, judgment, avoidance of comprehensive solutions that have not been properly checked must all be avoided, and always there must be a willingness to stop and examine the situation anew. Successful leaders are those who act responsibly, but who also admit failure. A major reason why leaders become irresponsible is because they become confused between the unreasonable and the impossible to achieve. What they perceive as unreasonable is not taken seriously in shaping policy.

Indeed, the most dangerous mental defects are laziness of thought, which means lack of readiness to contend with complex, unknown reality, and lack of operational patience, which leads to infatuation with theories that apparently explain everything, instead of practicing political judgment and taking national responsibility. The most important expression of this in the words of the ancient sages is, “Think first before you act.” There is nothing more important nor lesson more instructive for political leadership than this maxim. Indeed, intelligent, considered policy is expressed by “Think first before you act.” (Literally: “the end of an act begins with a thought”) Another insight is in the statement “Noah built the ark before the deluge.” Before the deluge, always before the deluge. Disasters have to be dealt with before they occur, not after they have taken place.

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Middle East

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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Middle East

Syrian Kurds between Washington, Turkey and Damascus

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The recent turmoil over Idlib has pushed the developments in Syrian Kurdistan out of political and mass media spotlight. However, it’s Idlib that will most likely host the final act of the drama, which has become known as the “civil war in Syria”.

The self-proclaimed Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), or Rojava, was formed in 2016, although de facto it has existed since 2012. Added later was the hydrocarbon-rich left bank of the Euphrates, which had been cleared of militants of ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), and now the jurisdiction of the unrecognized DFNS extends to almost a third of the country’s territory.

From the very start the main threat to the existence of this predominantly Kurdish quasi-state came for obvious reasons from Turkey, where Turkish Kurds were set on securing autonomy. In addition, the most influential political force in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the latter has officially been declared a terrorist organization and unofficially – a number one enemy – in Turkey.

In January-March 2018, the Turkish army, backed by the Arab and Turkomanen allies, occupied part of the territory of Rojava (canton Afrin). And it looks like Ankara plans to settle on these territories: recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that Afrin will be transferred to its residents “when the time comes” and that “this time will be set by us”. In the meantime, according to local media reports, the demographic situation in the canton is changing rapidly. Taking advantage of the fact that many Kurds left their homes at the approach of the Turkish army, the local (in fact, Turkish) administration is bringing in Arabs here, who, in many cases, are not Syrian Arabs.

Kurdish politicians, fully aware of the fact that amid Turkey, Iran and Syria maintaining statehood without outside assistance is hardly possible, opted for the patronage of Washington. And, as it seems, they lost.

In Syria, the Americans decided to replay the “Kosovo scenario”, by turning part of a sovereign state into a political structure, which is allied to them. Washington, which only recently excluded the People’s Protection Units (the armed wing of the Democratic Forces), from the list of terrorist organizations, argues, like Ankara, that its military personnel will remain in the region “for an indefinite period” to protect Kurdish territories from “aggression” on the part of Damascus. And from Ankara’s ambitions as well. But this is read between the lines.

All this enabled Turkey to accuse the United States of supporting terrorism and relations between the two countries quickly deteriorated into a crisis. As mutual accusations, occasionally supported by political and economic demarches, persist, the parties, however, are beginning to look for common ground. Talks on June 4, 2018 in Washington between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo resulted in a “road map” for the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from predominantly Arab Manbij, which Kurds regained control of from ISIL (an organization banned in Russia) two years ago. The next day, the Turkish minister announced that the Kurdish troops “… would retreat east of the Euphrates. However, this does not mean that we will agree that they stay there. ” On September 24, 2018, upon arriving at the UN General Assembly, Erdogan confirmed: Turkey will expand its sphere of influence in Syria, by including areas that are under control of the Kurdish armed units.

If Turkey does not change its rhetoric, then the assurances of the American authorities that the US troops will remain in Syria are intermingled with statements about the need for the withdrawal of its forces from this country. In any case, it is unlikely that the United States will choose to leave the region “to its own devices”. We can recall how Washington trumpeted the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan! But things haven’t budged an inch since then. The Afghanistan example demonstrates that the Americans will not move out of Syria that easily – they will not pull out in full, at least not of their own free will. US instructors and pilots will remain here “for an indefinite period.” But who will they care of and support? Here are the options:

Firstly, it could be a hypothetical “Arab NATO” with Saudi Arabia in the lead. But there are serious doubts as to the effectiveness of such a structure – even if we forget about the level of combat readiness of these kinds of coalitions (in Yemen, for example), Arab countries could unite only on an anti-Israeli platform. And that, as history shows, is unlikely to yield success. In addition to this, it is still unclear how Kurds, the majority of whom are not religious, will react to Wahhabi commanders.

Secondly, the United States could choose to strengthen the Arab sector of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (Rojava militia) at the expense of the Kurds. In mid-September, a number of media outlets, citing sources in the Syrian opposition, reported that Saudi emissaries had already suggested this option while meeting with leaders of the Arab tribes living east of the Euphrates. However, this development is also fraught with the Kurdish-Arab confrontation.

Thirdly, Washington persists in its attempts to improve relations with Turkey,  distancing it from Russia and Iran, and instruct it to “maintain order” in the region: the Americans did not intervene in the Operation Olive Branch and made concessions on Manbij. Even though this might seem strange amid the hostile American-Turkish rhetoric, military and political contacts between Washington and Ankara have been on the rise in recent months. Moreover, President Erdogan has already stated that he believes in an early improvement of relations with the United States despite the “inconsistency” and “economic aggression” of Washington.

Meanwhile, we need to remember that the US control over Kurds is far from unlimited. The “people’s protection units” are ideologically close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or could even be seen as its “branch” in Syria), and the PKK itself, grown on the Marxist ideas, would normally support the Soviet Union and “by inertia” – Russia. For this reason, the Americans have to threaten the Kurdish allies with a cessation of military and financial support. Reports say the US and Turkish troops are already operating in the Manbij area, having dislodged the Kurdish YPG militia from the area.

These threats, along with the self-withdrawal of the United States during the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops, have made Kurds doubt the reliability of their patron. The result is a move towards rapprochement with Damascus. In late July, the Kurdish leadership announced an agreement with the Syrian authorities on the creation of a “road map” for the formation of a decentralized Syria.

The Americans are not sitting idle either, though it looks like they have no concrete plan of action. Such a conclusion comes from Donald Trump’s somewhat incoherent answers to questions from a correspondent of the Kurdish media group Rudaw (09/27/2018):

Question: What are you planning to do for (Syrian – AI) Kurds?

Answer: We will offer them a lot of help. As you know, we are good friends to them, we fought shoulder to shoulder with ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), we recently defeated ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation). We accomplished this with the support of the Kurds. They are great warriors. You know, some nations are great warriors, and some are not. The Kurds are great warriors, they are a wonderful people. We are currently negotiating this.

Question: So what will you do to support them?

Answer: As I said, we will negotiate this, we have begun negotiations. The Kurds have helped us a lot to crush ISIS (an organization banned in the Russian Federation).

Most likely, the hot phase of the protracted inter-Syrian conflict is nearing its end, and the preferences of the Kurds will determine the outcome of future elections, a referendum, or another form of will expression of the Syrian people, when the political situation allows it. Moscow has always called for involving Kurds in the negotiation process and on ensuring their full participation in the life of post-war Syria. “Russia insists that Kurds should participate in the process to determine the post-conflict future of Syria on a parity basis with other ethnic and religious groups of this country,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama.

Until recently, Damascus did not particularly pedal negotiations with Rojava, but being aware that the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops was not in its interests, it has adjusted its approach to the self-proclaimed territorial entity. It looks like Syrian leaders have opted for softening their stance, which was previously set on the revival of the country on the basis of unitarism. Otherwise, an agreement with the Kurds will be nowhere in sight.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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