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New dynamism in Russia-Turkey relations?

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Until a few days ago there were no hopes that Turkey and Russia would see eye to eye for years as many critics wrote obituary to Russo-Turkish relations thanks to which the NATO got a shot in its terror arms. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the shooting of Russian plane angering the Kremlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued sanctions against Turkey following the downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber by the Turkish air force on Nov. 24. The document, signed on Nov. 28, envisages restrictions on the import of certain types of products from Turkey. Russia suspended the visa-free travel regime for Turkish citizens, Russian employers will not be allowed to hire Turkish nationals, and charter flights will be banned.

The collapse in relations between Turkey and Russia, as well as between Erdogan and Putin has been dramatic. Not only did Putin branded Erdogan’s forces accomplices of terror after they shot down a Russian military jet due to repeated airspace violations on Russia’s behalf, Erdogan fired insults back. Both leaders accused one another of trading oil with Islamists and Russia introduced trade and travel sanctions on Turkey.

Russo-Turkish relations have always been stained. From the late 16th to the early 20th centuries, relations between the Ottoman and Russian empires were often strained, as the two powers were engaged in a number of Russo-Turkish wars. However, in the 1920s, as a result of the Bolshevik Soviet assistance to Turkish revolutionaries during the Turkish War of Independence, the governments of Moscow and Ankara developed warm relations. In 1932 the Turkish Republic took its first foreign loans from the Soviet Union, and the first 5-year economic and industrial development plan of Turkey (1934–1938) was largely modeled after the 5-year plans of the Soviet Union, which seemed to perform well during the Great Depression; despite setbacks such as the Soviet famine of 1932–33, which was largely hidden from the outside world. The good relations between Moscow and Ankara lasted until Joseph Stalin demanded Soviet bases on the Turkish Straits after the Montreux Convention in 1936, most notably at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and placed itself within the Western alliance against the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, when relations between the two countries were at their lowest level.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between Turkey and Russia quickly improved and the two countries eventually started to rank among each other’s largest trade partners. Russia became Turkey’s largest provider of energy, while many Turkish companies began to operate in Russia. In this period, Turkey became the top foreign destination for Russian tourists. However, the warm bilateral relations of the past two decades have been severely strained after the November 2015 jet shoot down incident, when a Turkish F-16 combat aircraft shot down a Russian Su-24 during an airspace dispute close to the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkish President Erdogan eventually apologized on Nov. 24, 2015 for downing a Russian jet in November and triggered a seven-month-long crisis in bilateral relations. However, majority of Russians do not think their government should hurry to accept Erdogan’s apology. The results of the opinion poll indicate how the negative coverage in the Russian media concerning Turkey, has affected the Russian people.

A process of normalization of relations was launched following the apology: Putin and Erdogan had their first telephone conversation since the November incident, the parties agreed to meet in person in the near future, and restrictions on travel to Turkey for Russian tourists were lifted.

Late in the evening of July 15, a military coup was attempted in Turkey. The attempt to seize power was organized by a group of officers from the country’s military police and air force. According to the latest reports, the death toll in Turkey has climbed to 265 and about 1,440 more were injured as a result of the coup attempt.

The military coup in Turkey is considered by many as a colossal blow has been dealt to the authority and influence of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party. After the failed military coup in Turkey views are divided on the significance of the failure to overthrow the Turkish government by members of the country’s armed forces for Russia-Turkey relations.

It has been 36 years since the last military coup in Turkey, which took place in 1980. Now President Erdogan has provoked another putsch, having plunged the country into chaos and undermined its prestige on the international arena. The plotters have put the nation in danger.

There could be many reasons for the revolt against the Turkish leadership. Turkey has many anti-Islamic elements that want to destabilize Turkey in the hope that USA and Europe would support their cause. Erdogan has in effect provoked a resumption of a civil war in Turkish Kurdistan. In the opinion of many Turkish politicians and Kurds themselves, it was his actions that triggered a flare-up in hostilities and wiped out years of efforts to establish a peace dialogue.

There is a serious ideological conflict between the army, which has been traditionally considered a guarantor of the secular nature of the Turkish state, and the elected Islamist authorities. For a long time it seemed that Erdogan, who is pursuing a policy of Islamization, had the upper hand, after suppressing the resistance of the generals for more powers and, having “purged” the officer corps through a series of large-scale court trials for their anti-Turkey activities. Society is split, as was testified by the mass protests in 2013.

As relations with the EU are ruined, Turkey has practically no chances of joining the EU in the foreseeable future, whereas it is this goal that the country’s leadership has been proclaiming for several decades. The Kurdish issue has caused serious tensions with the United States, while the downed Russian bomber has provoked an unprecedented crisis in relations with Moscow, which only recently was considered to be Turkey’s key partner.

It would appear that all these circumstances have prompted the Turkish president’s opponents into decisive action. Erdogan is pushing for realignment with Russia and Israel. The military plotters may have come to the conclusion that time has come to act. The military coup was untimely as Turkey has already mended ties with Russia and Israel. It was also suggested that the coup had deep-lying causes and reflected the pressing issues of Turkish society.

Russian and Turkish presidents share authoritarianism attitudes. May be, the concentration of all power in the hands of the Turkish president increases the risk of ill-judged decisions, and the Russian authorities will be taking this into account.

While the international community condemned the attempt to seize power in Turkey, Moscow was more restrained in its reaction, with no outright condemnation of the coup bid. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev urged Ankara to restore the constitutional order as soon as possible. “What happened shows that there are strong and deep divisions inside Turkish society and the armed forces, which were manifested in these events,” he said. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov expressed concern at the developments in Turkey, saying that Russia was keen to see the events unfolding in Turkey end “in a legitimate way as soon as possible” and hoped that the country would “return to the path of stability, predictability, and law and order.”

The developments in Turkey will not have a negative effect on relations with Moscow.“The attempted coup failed. The plotters have been arrested. Democracy has triumphed. The country’s leadership will start to pursue a more independent policy aimed at strengthening security in the country. The downside will be a drop in the number of Russian tourists and a delay in the lifting of Russia’s economic sanctions

Two flights of Turkish Airlines from Antalya resort town landed in Moscow, according to online data of Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport. A flight from Istanbul airport to Moscow also landed this morning. These are the first flights from Turkey that landed in Moscow after the coup attempt. Russia has currently restricted flights to Turkey. However, Russian and Turkish air carriers may continue performing flights from Turkey, the Russian aviation authority said earlier. Russian flag carrier Airport will start delivering Russians trapped in Istanbul and Antalya today. SU2134 Moscow – Istanbul flight will take passengers in Istanbul and return back to Moscow on July 18, Aeroflot spokesperson told TASS earlier. SU2142 flight will depart from Moscow to Antalya on July 18.

Russia was neutral in Israeli attack on Turkish aidship bound for Gaza strip to breach the Zionist terror blockades, leaving many Turkish and an American dead. Putin refused to condemn the Israeli military attack on sea because of the fact that most of illegal settlers n the illegal colonies inside Palestine are of Russian origin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy consultant Alexander Dugin visited Ankara after being invited to a meeting held by the nongovernmental organization Eurasian Union of Local Governments a day before the coup. Dugin said that a new era is about to dawn in relations between Russia and Turkey that might even surpass the previous state of ties. At the meeting, which former Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies and ministers Dugin said he expected fundamental changes for the better. The timing of the recent attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport was meaningful, as it happened right after Turkey and Russia started to mend their relations. He praised President Erdoğan, saying that “his courageous initiative had a significant role in the normalization.” Dugin affirmed that Erdoğan offering his condolences to the killed Russian pilot’s family minimized Russia’s concerns. “The most important thing was to normalize relations,” Dugin said. “Both Erdoğan and Putin understood this fact while the relations were strained.”

Dugin said he foresees a significant change in the policies of both Russia and Turkey. He said that the USA is advocating the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in the region, which contradicts Russia’s strategies and beliefs. “If Russia and Turkey can reach consensus on Syria, I believe we can also resolve the issues regarding a Kurdish state in the region,” Dugin said. Meanwhile, a Turkish delegation led by Ministry Deputy Secretary Ali Kemal Aydın also held a meeting separately with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksey Meshkov, talking about the normalization of relations along with gradual revitalization of Turkish-Russian cooperation in economy and trade.

The developments in Turkey will give an impetus to normalizing relations with Moscow. The negative public opinion in Russia surrounding Turkey will gradually become history if relations stay good. Many experts opine the bilateral ties are likely to grow further. The failed coup has the potential to uplift the Russo-Turkish relations to a higher level than ever before.

Putin and Erdogan are reportedly seeking to deepening the ties on all domains.

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Middle East

Landing in Riyadh: Geopolitics work in Putin’s favour

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin lands in Riyadh this week for the second time in 12 years, his call for endorsement of his proposal to replace the US defense umbrella in the Gulf with a multilateral security architecture is likely to rank high on his agenda.

So is Mr. Putin’s push for Saudi Arabia to finalize the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system in the wake of the failure of US weaponry to intercept drones and missiles that last month struck key Saudi oil installations.

“We are ready to help Saudi Arabia protect their people. They need to make clever decisions…by deciding to buy the most advanced S-400 air-defence systems. These kinds of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack,” Mr. Putin said immediately after the attacks.

Mr Putin’s push for a multilateral security approach is helped by changing realities in the Gulf as a result of President Donald J. Trump’s repeated recent demonstrations of his unreliability as an ally.

Doubts about Mr. Trump have been fuelled by his reluctance to respond more forcefully to perceived Iranian provocations, including the downing of a US drone in June and the September attacks on the Saudi facilities as well as his distancing himself from Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu following last month’s elections, and most recently, the president’s leaving the Kurds to their own devices as they confront a Turkish invasion in Syria.

Framed in transactional terms in which Saudi Arabia pays for a service, Mr. Trump’s decision this week to send up to 3,000 troops and additional air defences to the kingdom is likely to do little to enhance confidence in his reliability.

By comparison, Mr. Putin, with the backing of Chinese president Xi Jinping, seems a much more reliable partner even if Riyadh differs with Moscow and Beijing on key issues, including Iran, Syria and Turkey.

“While Russia is a reliable ally, the US is not. Many in the Middle East may not approve of Moscow supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s beleaguered ally in Syria,” said Middle East scholar and commentator Mark N. Katz.

In a twist of irony, Mr. Trump’s unreliability coupled with an Iran’s strategy of gradual escalation in response to the president’s imposition of harsh economic sanctions in a bid to force the Islamic republic to the negotiating table appear to have moderated what was perceived as a largely disastrous assertive and robust go-it alone Saudi foreign and defense policy posture in recent years.

While everyone would benefit from a dialling down of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Mr. Trump’s overall performance as the guarantor of security in the Gulf could in the longer term pave the way for a more multilateral approach to the region’s security architecture.

In the latest sign of Saudi willingness to step back from the brink, Saudi Arabia is holding back channel talks for the first time in two years with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The talks began after both sides declared partial ceasefires in the more than four year-long Yemeni war.

The talks potentially open the door to a broader Russian-sponsored deal in the context of some understanding about non-aggression between the kingdom and Iran, in which Saudi Arabia would re-establish diplomatic relations with Syria in exchange for the Islamic republic dropping its support for the Houthis.

Restoring diplomatic relations and reversing the Arab League’s suspension of Syrian membership because of the civil war would constitute a victory for Mr. Al-Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran. It would grant greater legitimacy to a leader viewed by significant segments of the international community as a pariah.

A Saudi-Iranian swap of Syria for Yemen could also facilitate Saudi financial contributions to the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria. Saudi Arabia was conspicuously absent at last month’s Rebuild Syria Expo in Damascus.

Mr. Putin is likely to further leverage his enhanced credibility as well as Saudi-Russian cooperation in curtailing oil production to boost prices to persuade Saudi Arabia to follow through on promises to invest in Russia.

Saudi Arabia had agreed to take a stake in Russia’s Novatek Arctic-2 liquefied natural gas complex, acquire Sibur, Russia’s largest petrochemical facility, and invest an additional US$6 billion in future projects.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak predicted that “about 30 agreements and contracts will be signed during President Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia. We are working on it. These are investment projects, and the sum in question is billions of dollars.”

In anticipation of Mr. Putin’s visit, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), said it was opening its first overseas office in Riyadh.

RDIF and the kingdom’s counterpart, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), are believed to be looking at some US$2.5 billion in investment in technology, medicine, infrastructure, transport and industrial production.

The Russian fund is also discussing with Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company, US$3 billion in investments in oil services and oil and gas conversion projects.

Saudi interest in economic cooperation with Russia goes beyond economics. Ensuring that world powers have an increasing stake in the kingdom’s security is one pillar of a more multilateral regional approach

Said Russian Middle East expert Alexey Khlebnikov: “Clearly, the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities have changed many security calculations throughout the region.”

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No peace for Kurds: Rojava still under attack

Silvia Fornaroli

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The Amazon is still on fire. The “lungs of the Earth” are hardly breathing while the flames are threatening people and nature reserves. As long as we do not see with our own eyes the burnt trees, the endangered species and the indigenous tribes fighting to save their dying forest, we seem incapable to understand the actual consequences.

Thousands of miles away from this environmental catastrophe, a different kind of tragedy is waiting to happen. Rojava-Northern Syria Federation — the self-declared autonomous region that Kurdish people managed to carve out in northeastern Syria during the Civil war — is burning again.

On September 24, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly and proposed to create a “safe zone” in the north of Syria, in order to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees. He is hoping to establish a peace corridor with a depth of 32 kilometers and a length of 480 kilometers, which would easily turn the area into the world’s largest refugee camp. Despite the seemingly humanitarian purposes, this might represent the umpteenth attempt to destroy the Kurdish dream of an independent democratic enclave.

It is undeniably clear, in fact, how Turkey could take advantage of the situation: Erdoğan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has already claimed that Ankara’s aim is also to clear the borders from “terrorist elements.”

The People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), which — along with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — played a key role in the fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are the official army of Rojava but currently designated as terrorist organizations. These armed groups, in fact, are considered as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the far-left militant and political organization founded in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan and  often involved in armed clashes with Turkish security forces.

Kurdish people are about to be left alone once again and the recent decisions of the White House trigger alarm in the whole Middle East.

On October 7, president Donald Trump announced that the United States  — so far the main financer, trainer and supporter of Kurds — would start pulling troops out of those territories, although it would not constitute a full withdrawal.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said that “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the president — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria,” and that “The US Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation.”

Mazlum Kobanê, the commander in chief of the SDF, announced that they will protect Syrian’s borders and fight back against Ankara’s army. Since the majority of Kurdish cities are located in this area, it is not difficult to understand how potentially devasting this ongoing operation could be.

Turkish assault is going to begin from the city of Gire Spi/Tell Abyad, once controlled by the so-called Caliphate and captured in 2015 by the YPG during the Tell Abyad offensive. The cities of Qamishli, Derek/Al Malikiya, Tell Tamer and Kobanê/Ayn al Arab are next to become target of air strikes and artillery fire as well.

It is no coincidence that shortly after the siege of Kobanê, Kurdish forces directed their efforts towards Tell Abyad, being such a strategic site for ISIL militias. The city, in fact, was better known in the West as the “Jihadi Highway”, a de-facto corridor for foreign fighters. In the chaos caused by the fighting, jihadists would surely try to regain strength and Turkish move is serving the cause.

At the Al-Hol camp — a huge detention female camp near Al-Hasakah — numerous riots have occurred in the past few weeks, and the managers of the structure believe that the women held in the prison — former jihadi brides — might be the vehicle for renewed forms of radicalization.

In view of the fact that US officials confirmed that they will not intervene nor will they seize control of those prisons, Kurdish forces called Washington’s move “a stab in the back”. Meanwhile in Raqqa, ISIL militants are still carrying out suicide bombing attacks against SDF positions.

Shervan Derwish, official spokesman of the Mambij Military Council, has expressed his concern with a very touching message on Twitter.

The YPG and YPJhave fought in many historical battles and their solitary resistance during the last Turkish Afrin offensive in January 2018 became a symbol of their resilience.

On the other hand, Turkey’s army will be backed by their well-known rebel allies:  “The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly, “wrote Fahrettin Altun — Turkey’s communications director — in a Washington Post column. Numerous military groups are active in the region and, although their nature is still debated, there are evidence of many connections with jihadi-inspired organizations.

Working in cooperation with the SDF, Rojava’s cantons are ready to resist and defend their independence, but Trump’s decision sounds like a betrayal.

If forests are burning, so will be democracy in Syria. The Rojava project is in imminent danger, and this time there will be no mountains for the Kurds to seek refuge in. Here in the West we are blessed not to directly witness the destruction of both tragedies, but it is still up to us whether to look those flames in the eye or remember them as the unique environments they actually were.

In loving memory of Mehmet Aksoy, who dedicated his life to the Kurdish cause.

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Middle East

Revisiting Saudi-Iranian Rivalry: From A Cold War Perspective

Zaeem Hassan Mehmood

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Middle East considered the “bridge between the East and West” has long grabbed attention of great power policy makers due to its geostrategic and geopolitical significance. After the discovery of oil in the early part of 20th Century, Iran and Saudi Arabia had gained a prominent position at the global international arena. The defining moment in their relation was the year 1968, when the British government announced its withdrawal from the “Persian Gulf,” threatening thereby the balance brought to an equilibrium by more than 150 years of English security guarantees to the sheikdoms. The international community largely sees the conflict in terms of sectarian and on religious grounds which is an inadequate approach and one that rules out other detrimental factor. There have been little analysis and studies undertaken on the conflict from a “Cold war” perspective, which can significantly help other states in maintaining a viable balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The conflict dubbed as the “New Middle East Cold War” or “Saudi-Iranian Cold War” is not the first event termed as “Cold war” in the Middle Eastern history. Malcolm Kerr writing in his acclaimed book Arab Cold War 1958-67 termed the growing rivalry and quest for leadership in the Middle East at the aftermath of British and French withdrawal between Republican Egypt and conservative Arab monarchies as a regional equivalent of Cold war. The present relations of Saudi Arabia and Iran are short of war, a condition where although the contenders do not engage in open battlefields face to face, it is a ‘battle’ nevertheless fought on different fronts including the media. Daniel Serwer of John Hopkins writes that Saudi-Iran conflict is regional equivalent of20th century US-Soviet Cold war.

Characteristics of Cold War

The term ‘cold war’ had been in use before 1945 to describe period of extreme tensions between states that were just short of war. In the year 1893, German socialist Eduard Bernstein described the arms race between Germany and its neighbors as a kind of ‘cold war’ where “there is no shooting but bleeding.” The term rapidly came back into use when United States and Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) faced each other eyeball to eyeball. British writer George Orwell remarked on the significance of the moment foreseeing “a peace that is no peace” where the two mighty powers were to be “unconquerable and in a permanent state of cold war.”Anders Stephanson has defined the essence of a Cold War as consisting of characteristics whereby both sides deny each other the legitimacy as a regime, attempting to attack each other by all means short of war. This is in the view of the author, followed by an intense military buildup with a prolonged arms race.

Cold War since then has exclusively referred to as the ‘sustained state of political and military tensions’ between the 20th century superpowers. Although the rivalry had ceased with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the term and subject-matter has remained ever relevant to an extent that the study of grand strategy and security is considered incomplete without the former’s inclusion. Saudi Arabia and Iran, in order to contain conflict and to ensure; that it ends up being short and as shallow as possible, need to revitalize the lessons of the ‘original Cold War.’ United States and Soviet Union despite their sustained rivalry developed a variety of mechanism for escalation and risk management. This was undertaken without foregoing their core national interests and ideologies. The leadership understood that there was ‘wisdom in engaging’ rather than isolating the other. The approach is more relevant today in the era of globalization than it was in those years. “Geo-economics must replace geopolitics” as the focal Saudi-Iranian approach in order to reach a ‘non-zero sum situation.’

Religious and political ideology plays an important role in the foreign policy between Riyadh and Tehran. The two offer competing ideologies and political model with a strong desire for strategic and geopolitical supremacy. The standoff, experts believe is also the result of the desire and aspirations of the two, for political leadership in the Islamic world. The conflict is not the result of alleged schism between Shia and Sunni school of Islam, but is rather a byproduct of centuries’ political and religious contestation that existed between empires and is now manifested into politics of these modern states.

Diplomacy is integral to the Middle East cold war. Since establishing relations in 1929, the two have had their ups and downs. In the years of the Shah, relations began to take the turn for worse when Shah’s ‘hegemonic desires’ and Saudi Arabia’s desire not to accept Iran predominant role in the Gulf and beyond. Nevertheless, relations remained intact at least diplomatically despite severity of incidents such as Gunboat coercion and the oil wars.

Conclusion

Wars have recognizable beginnings and they comprise of direct fighting between the adversaries with armistices and peace treaties as their conclusive ends. However, a Cold war has none of these characteristics, in words of Walter Lippman, “it brings neither peace nor honour to those who wage it.” The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has “spillover effects” and repercussions beyond the region. States such as those in the West, and Pakistan in particular close in proximity to the two have had a tough time “balancing” their relations. A careful, delicate and pragmatic approach needs to be adopted on part of statesmen, taking into account the opportunities and challenges arising from a “Cold War” need to be taken into account. Media on both sides has an important role to play in patching up the hostilities by upholding ethical standards and avoiding propagandist contest to avoid further aggravation of the conflict. 

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