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Aleppo under siege: USA lets Russia claim diplomatic advantage

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] C [/yt_dropcap] onflicts in Middle East resembling a new World War launched by Bush administration to ensure energy security, are now focused on Syria where many foreign powers, led by USA one the one hand and Russia on the other, are targeting Muslims in Sunni nation ruled by a Shiite Assad who apparently wants to rule the nation of Syrians forever.

Syria has been under siege for years since the onset of Arab Spring and both the government and the Opposition forces keep claiming victories off and on but the war continues, killing and mutilating Syrians.

Bush Junior has made the US government a war machine fully engaged invasions, destabilization, destructions. US generals have demonstrated an impressive aptitude for moving pieces around on a dauntingly complex military chessboard in Islamic world. Brigades, battle groups, and squadrons shuttle in and out of various war zones, responding to the needs of the moment. The lesser theaters of conflict, largely overlooked by the American public, that in recent years have engaged the attention of US forces, a list that would include conflicts in Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. This engagement in wars have made Islamic world insecure. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been spared so far essentially for strategic reasons. The two principal conflicts of the post-9/11 era: the Afghanistan War, now in its 16th year, and the Iraq War, launched in 2003 and (after a brief hiatus) once more grinding on. Wars have helped USA control entire world.

Syria seems to have slipped out of US control and fallen into Russian orbit. Five years since the conflict began, more than 250,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, and almost 11 million Syrians – half the country’s prewar population – have been displaced from their homes. In 2011, what became known as the “Arab Spring” revolts toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. That March, peaceful protests erupted in Syria as well, after 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring.

The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, determined to stay in power at any cost, responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more. In July 2011, defectors from the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, and Syria began to slide into civil war. Initially, lack of freedoms and economic woes fuelled resentment of the Syrian government, and public anger was inflamed by the harsh crackdown on protesters. Successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt energized and gave hope to Syrian pro-democracy activists. Many Islamist movements were also strongly opposed to the Assad’s’ rule.

Assad control of Aleppo city parts

Reports suggest that Syrian government forces have captured a key part of eastern Aleppo, splitting rebel-held territory. Both state TV and the monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that the district of Sakhour had fallen to the Syrian army.

The Syrian army and their allies launched a major offensive to retake control of Aleppo in September. Thousands of civilians have fled rebel-held eastern Aleppo districts after a weekend of heavy fighting. Hundreds of families have also been displaced within the besieged area. Russia says its air force is active in other parts of the country, but not operating over Aleppo. While it is very difficult to find out exactly what is happening in besieged eastern Aleppo, several key districts appear to have fallen to the government, leaving very little, if any, of the northern part of the rebel-held enclave still under the rebels’ control.

There were 250,000 people in need of assistance in eastern Aleppo, 100,000 of them children. The situation on the ground in eastern Aleppo is almost beyond the imagination of those of us who are not there. State TV quoted a Syrian military source as saying that government forces “are continuing their advance in eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo”. The US led opposition had lost more than third of the area it controlled in Aleppo city during the recent advance. The east of Aleppo has been held by rebel factions opposed to President Bashar al-Assad for the past four years. In the past year, Syrian troops have broken the deadlock with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian air strikes. Things have turned out very differently.

Meanwhile, Russia has rejected US calls to halt bombing eastern Aleppo. Western observers have been generally impressed by Russia’s deployment in Syria, mainly reflecting a sense of disbelief that they proved to be capable of planning, executing and sustaining such a complex operation and dealing with the logistical issues involved in supplying forces at great distance from Russia.

As reports coming in, the Assad government currently controls the capital, Damascus, parts of southern Syria, portions of Aleppo and Deir Az Zor, much of the area near the Syrian-Lebanese border, and the northwestern coastal region. Rebel groups, ISIL, and Kurdish forces control the rest of the country.

Rebel groups continue to jockey against one another for power, and frequently fight each other. The Free Syrian Army has weakened as the war has progressed, while explicitly Islamist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, and the Saudi-backed Islamic Front have gained in strength.

Syria under threat

In March 1971, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, declared himself President, a position that he held until his death in 2000. Since 1970, the secular Syrian Regional Branch has remained the dominant political authority in what had been a one-party state until the first multi-party election to the People’s Council of Syria was held in 2012.

On 31 January 1973, Assad implemented the new Constitution which led to a national crisis. Unlike previous constitutions, this one did not require that the President of Syria must be a Muslim, leading to fierce demonstrations in Hama, Homs and Aleppo organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ulema. They labeled Assad as the “enemy of Allah” and called for a jihad against his rule Robert D. Kaplan has compared Assad’s coming to power to “an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development, shocking the Sunni majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.” The regime survived a series of armed revolts by Sunni Islamists, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, from 1976 until 1982.

In 2000, Bashar al-Assad took over as President of Syria upon Hafez al-Assad’s death. He initially inspired hopes for democratic reforms. A Damascus Spring of social and political debate took place between July 2000 and August 2001The Damascus Spring largely ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience In the opinion of his critics, Bashar Assad had failed to deliver on promised reforms.

The Assad government opposed the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Bush administration then began to destabilize the regime by increasing sectarian tensions, showcasing and publicizing Syrian repression of Kurdish and Sunni groups, and financing political dissidents. Assad also opposed the Qatar-Turkey pipeline in 2009. A classified 2013 report by a joint U.S. army and intelligence group concluded that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences, as the opposition supported by the Obama regime was dominated by jihadist elements.

Syria is now a major war theater where foreign forces are busy killing Muslims and destroying the nation. .

In the history of Syria – a Sunni nation- many events contributed to its gradual weakening. In the recent past, a severe drought plagued Syria from 2007-10, spurring as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into cities, which exacerbated poverty and social unrest. Although the initial protests were mostly non-sectarian, armed conflict led to the emergence of starker sectarian divisions.

In 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, a Shiite, ordered a military crackdown on the Sunni led Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, which killed between 10,000-40,000 people and flattened much of the city.

Recently, even global warming has been claimed to have played a role in sparking the 2011 uprising.

Although most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, Syria’s security establishment has long been dominated by members of the Alawite sect, of which Assad is a member.

Having left with no alternatives, no polls Sunnis and minority religious groups tend to support the Assad government, while the overwhelming majority of opposition fighters are Sunni Muslims.

The sectarian split is reflected among regional actors’ stances as well. The governments of majority-Shia Iran and Iraq support Assad, as does Lebanon-based Hezbollah; while Sunni-majority states including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others staunchly support the rebels.

Foreign backing and open intervention have played a large role in Syria’s civil war. An international coalition led by the USA has bombed targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as IS and ISIS and there could be more to be invented by CIA and Pentagon) group since 2014.

In 2013, ISIL emerged in northern and eastern Syria after overrunning large portions of Iraq. Meanwhile, Kurdish groups in northern Syria are seeking self-rule in areas under their control. This has alarmed Turkey’s government, which fears its large native Kurdish population may grow more restive and demand greater autonomy as a result. In response to attacks within Turkey, the Turkish government has bombed Kurdish targets in Syria. Kurdish groups have also clashed with al-Nusra Front and ISIL.

It appears USA and Russia had informally decided to take opposite sides in Syrian War Theater. In September 2015, Russia launched a bombing campaign against what it referred to as “terrorist groups” in Syria, which included ISIL as well as rebel groups backed by Western states. In October 2015, the USA scrapped its controversial program to train Syrian rebels, after it was revealed that it had spent $500m but only trained 60 fighters.

Russia has also deployed military advisers to shore up Assad’s defences. Several Arab states, along with Turkey, have provided weapons and materiel to rebel groups in Syria. Many of those fighting come from outside of Syria. Lebanese members of Hezbollah are fighting on the side of Assad, as are Iranian and Afghan fighter.

Although the USA has stated its opposition to the Assad government, it has hesitated to involve itself deeply in the conflict, even after the Assad government allegedly used chemical weapons in 2013, which US President Barack Obama had previously referred to as a “red line” that would prompt intervention.

Fluid situation and enter Russia

Syrian war is a multi-sided armed conflict in Syria in which international interventions have taken place. The war grew out of the unrest of the 2011 Arab Spring and escalated to armed conflict after President Bashar al-Assad’s government violently repressed protests calling for his removal. The war is being fought by several factions: the Syrian Government and its various supporters, a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) who often co-operate with the Sunni rebels, and the ISIL. The factions receive substantial support from foreign actors, leading many to label the conflict a proxy war waged by both regional and global powers.

As Assad government was facing rout at the crushing attacks of US led Opposition forces, Russia came to the rescue of Assad and his rule. Russian forces, enjoying a free hand in Syria, have been operating in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria for a year. Their impact has been significant. When they arrived, there were fears that government forces were close to collapse. This position has largely been reversed. It is the Syrian government – while still fragile – that is now on the offensive with a brutal bid to recapture the whole of the city of Aleppo. Initially seen by US analysts through the prism of recent Western military involvements in the region, many pundits were quick to dismiss the Russian effort as likely to fail. The Russian military, it was said, was not up to expeditionary warfare. Russia would quickly find itself bogged down in a Syrian quagmire.

Russia carries out its first air strikes on 30 September 2015 and Syria says it requested intervention to help in “the fight against terrorism”. On 10 November 2015 the Syrian army, aided by Russian strikes, lifts two-year-long siege by IS on the key Kuwairis airbase in eastern Aleppo province, marking its first victory against IS since the Russian intervention.

Obviously, on instruction from Washington, Turkey shot down on 24 November a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border; Benefiting from Russian support, the Syrian army makes territorial gains in various parts of Syria December 2015 – January 2016 and declares Latakia province rebel-free. Syrian army 24 March 2016 backed by Russian strikes inflicts a major symbolic and strategic defeat on IS, recapturing the historic city of Palmyra. In September 2016, Russia acknowledges providing air cover to the Syrian troops in their bid to seize control of Aleppo city.

Russian goal

Russia, of course, has had a strategic relationship with Syria going back to Soviet days. It has long maintained a small naval base on the Syrian coast and has close ties with the Syrian military, being its principal arms supplier. Syria had become Moscow’s last toe-hold of influence in the region. It was the fear of this relationship unraveling that prompted President Vladimir Putin to act.

While it is Russian air power that has been the main focus of news reporting on the Russian intervention, it is as much the intensified training and re-equipping of the Syrian army that has also been a crucial factor in helping to turn around President Assad’s fortunes.

Russian and Syrian military goals are not identical. While the Syrian government insists it still wants to recapture all the territory it has lost, Moscow’s approach is very different. Unlike Syria and Iran, Russia has no interest in fighting for territory. In defending Assad, Moscow had sought to steadily destroy the moderate Syrian opposition on the battlefield, leaving only jihadist forces in play, and lock the USA into a political framework of negotiations that would serve beyond its current Democratic shelf-life. In both respects, Russia has been successful. Ultimately, the Russian goal is to lock in gains for Syria via ceasefires, while slow-rolling the negotiations to the point that true opposition to the Syrian regime expires on the battlefield, leaving no viable alternatives for the West in this conflict by 2017. Russia’s intervention, however, does not seek to minimize losses.

The Russian air force has deployed some of its most modern aircraft to Syria, though the same cannot be said for the munitions they employ. The Russian air campaign overall has relied upon the use of “dumb bombs” of various types, a major distinction with modern Western air campaigns, where almost all of the munitions used are precision-guided. Russian Special Forces and artillery have been engaged on the ground. Long-range missile strikes have been conducted from Russian warships and submarines. Even Russia’s only aircraft carrier is now on its way to the region.

The Syria operation has also provided an invaluable opportunity for Russian generals to try out their forces in operational conditions, as well as offering something of a “shop-window” for some of Russia’s latest military technology. Russian military sees this as an opportunity to test new or modern systems; experiment with network-centric warfare capability; and to present evidence of the success of military modernisation.” This helps Moscow to showcase its new combat systems for West Asia and elsewhere. .

Syria has become a kind of sampler of Russian military capabilities. Israel could be disappointed.

Russia’s air campaign: Key moments

30 September 2015 – Russia carries out its first air strikes. Syria says it requested intervention to help in “the fight against terrorism”. 10 November 2015 – The Syrian army, aided by Russian strikes, lifts two-year-long siege by IS on the key Kuwairis airbase in eastern Aleppo province, marking its first victory against IS since the Russian intervention.

24 November – Turkey shoots down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border

December 2015 – January 2016 – Benefiting from Russian support, the Syrian army makes territorial gains in various parts of Syria and declares Latakia province rebel-free

24 March 2016 – Syrian army backed by Russian strikes inflicts a major symbolic and strategic defeat on IS, recapturing the historic city of Palmyra

September 2016 – Russia acknowledges providing air cover to the Syrian troops in their bid to seize control of Aleppo city.

Diplomatic advantage

The diplomatic consequences of the Russian intervention have also been a plus for Moscow. Its active military role in the WA region has reshaped its relationships with Israel, Iran and Turkey. Indeed, Israel and Russia have developed a significant level of “understanding”. Israeli air operations against the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, for example, have not been hindered by Russian control of significant parts of Syrian air space.

Attacks on Arab Muslims by any nation are good enough for Tel Aviv seeking to weaken entire Arab world. Russian attacks in Syria are welcome in Israel

Relations between Moscow and Tehran (Syria’s only other significant ally) have developed, and even the enmity between Moscow and Ankara has been diminished, with both countries realising they have to accommodate – at least to an extent – the other’s regional aims. Arabs are slowly shedding the Americophobia.

It is US-Russia relations that have been most profoundly influenced by Moscow’s intervention in Syria. At one level, Syria can be added to Ukraine as a dossier where the USA and Russia are failing to find common ground. But Russia’s military role ensured that the Assad leadership was not going to be removed from the chessboard. This made Washington revise its own approach and pursue what has largely proved an illusory effort, to develop some kind of partnership with Russia.

The indiscriminate nature of the Russian and Syrian air campaigns – exemplified by the current struggle over Aleppo – has certainly not won Russia many friends in the West, however. Russia has been accused by several governments of barbarity and potentially committing war crimes. According to the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 4,000 civilians have been killed in one year of Russian strikes. Russian casualties in Syria are difficult to estimate. Helicopters have certainly been shot down, and several members of Russia’s Special Forces are known to have been killed in combat.

Western public opinion seems largely unmoved by the struggle; perhaps to an extent a reflection of war weariness in the wake of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. And there has been a good level of confusion. Many in the West, sceptical about their own governments’ records, seem unwilling to get excited about what Russia is up to.

The importance of information operations was most clearly illustrated by the extraordinary concert mounted in the ruins of Palmyra after its recapture from so-called Islamic State (IS) by Syrian forces.

The Kremlin has skillfully managed how the Russian public sees this intervention. Given the woeful state of the economy, Russian leaders have always been concerned that Syria would come to be viewed as an undue burden, though victory in Syria would make Russians happy. Specialists interpret the Kremlin’s decision in March to announce a significant reduction of its air power in Syria as an attempt “to cash-out the political gains at home and recast the war in the public’s mind”.

Western expectations of political peril for President Putin have, so far, simply not been realized. Rather than a prolonged campaign, Russia’s combat operations have become the new normal. Those expecting Russian support behind Vladimir Putin to collapse, either over Ukraine, or Syria, or the economy, have thus far been proven wrong. The Kremlin is demonstrably more adept at securing public approval, or apathy, than commonly acknowledged in the West.

But the overall level of casualties appears to have been limited, and news of combat deaths (like those among Russian forces in eastern Ukraine) is restricted – another reason why there has been no domestic backlash against the Syrian adventure.

By its own standards, Russia’s intervention in Syria has been a success on several levels. The real question is whether this situation can last. Put it another way, is there any clear exit strategy for Russia that might enable it to bank its gains and end its losses?

Russia’s strategic goals are vague. The exit strategy, if there is one appears rooted in strengthening the fighting power of the Syrian army and securing some long-term political settlement that demonstrates Russia has returned as a great power. The “strategic impact” of Russia’s intervention still remains in doubt. “Such gains are readily lost and can prove illusory,” an expert says. The Syrian army remains a shambles, Iran is attached to Assad, while Russia is more interested in the grander game with the USA. And without a political settlement to secure them, these accomplishments can vaporize, as Russian patience and resources become exhausted. Russian leadership knows that this could take years and would rather cut a deal while possessing the military advantage with USA. .

Aleppo was once a place of culture and commerce, with a jewel of an old city that was on Enesco’s list of world heritage sites. Now, the five-year civil war that rages in Syria has left much of it destroyed and divided roughly in two, with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces controlling the west and the rebels the east. A month ago, government forces re-imposed a siege on the east, and launched an all-out assault to take full control of the city, accompanied by an intense and sustained aerial bombardment.

Activists say the offensive has left hundreds of civilians dead, but the government and its ally Russia have denied targeting them and blamed rebel fighters for operating in residential areas. But what about the 275,000 people who are trapped there? Where are they getting their food from? Do they have enough water and medicine?

In August, the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimated that 35,000 people were internally displaced inside eastern Aleppo, some of whom were in official shelters run in abandoned buildings, others staying with family or friends, and still others sleeping outdoors in parks and streets. Not many will have been able to leave since then – and it is likely that the number of people not sleeping in their own homes has gone up. And even those who are still at home know they are not safe. People are saying there is no safe place to go. There may be many who are staying in places that they don’t consider being adequate but they’re staying anyway.

Nearly half the people who live in besieged Aleppo are under the age of 18. Many of their schools have closed or moved. Some of the buildings have been bombed, while others are being used as shelters for displaced people, or fighters in the conflict are using them for military purposes. It might be difficult to imagine any child going back to school when bombs are falling.

People are buying water from wells and privately-owned water tankers, and carrying it home in buckets. Many have reported that it tastes bad, and there is no guarantee that it is free of disease. It is hard to say whether anyone has died of hunger in the siege because with aid agencies unable to get inside, they cannot accurately diagnose the level of malnutrition.

Many doctors have fled the city as refugees or been killed in the fighting, and there are just 30 doctors remaining in eastern Aleppo. Using the UN’s estimate for the number of people trapped there – 275,000 – that means there is roughly one doctor for every 9,100 people. This in a place that is being bombed every day – at least 376 people were killed and 1,266 wounded in the first two weeks of the latest government’s assault, according to the UN.

The places where doctors work have been repeatedly targeted by government and Russian air strikes, activists and charities say. The UN says six hospitals are still operating, although they are only partially functional. Two hospitals have been almost totally destroyed in the past two weeks, and three doctors and two nurses killed. The few remaining hospitals are collapsing under a flow of hundreds of wounded lying in agony on the floors of wards and corridors.

It has long maintained a small naval base on the Syrian coast and has close ties with the Syrian military, being its principal arms supplier. Syria had become Moscow’s last toe-hold of influence in the region. It was the fear of this relationship unraveling that prompted President Vladimir Putin to act.

While it is Russian air power that has been the main focus of news reporting on the Russian intervention, it is as much the intensified training and re-equipping of the Syrian army that has also been a crucial factor in helping to turn around President Assad’s fortunes.

Russian forces have been operating in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria for a year. Their impact has been significant. When they arrived, there were fears that government forces were close to collapse. This position has largely been reversed. It is the Syrian government – while still fragile – that is now on the offensive with a brutal bid to recapture the whole of the city of Aleppo.

Initially seen by US analysts through the prism of recent Western military involvements in the region, many pundits were quick to dismiss the Russian effort as likely to fail. The Russian military, it was said, was not up to expeditionary warfare. Russia would quickly find itself bogged down in a Syrian quagmire.

Things have turned out very differently.

Roger McDermott, senior fellow in Eurasian studies at the Jamestown Foundation – and a long-time watcher of the Russian military – says: Western observers have been generally impressed by Russia’s deployment in Syria, mainly reflecting a sense of disbelief that they proved to be capable of planning, executing and sustaining such a complex operation and dealing with the logistical issues involved in supplying forces at great distance from Russia.

But what exactly were Russia’s goals in intervening in the first place? Russia, of course, has had a strategic relationship with Syria going back to Soviet days.

Observation

USA created all problems in Syria but now Russia has all diplomatic advantages to win a powerful point over its nuclear rival America. The siege is pushing people towards starvation and serfdom.

The Syrian war is creating profound effects far beyond the country’s borders. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are hosting large and growing numbers of Syrian refugees, many of whom have attempted to journey onwards to Europe in search of better conditions.

Several rounds of peace talks have failed to stop the fighting. Although a ceasefire announced in February 2016 has limited fighting in some parts of Syria, recent government air strikes in Aleppo have prompted uncertainty about the ceasefire’s future. But with much of the country in ruins , millions of Syrians having fled abroad, and a population deeply traumatized by war, one thing is certain: Rebuilding Syria after the war ends will be a lengthy, extremely difficult process.

Syrian war has killed thousands, produced innumerable refugees. As Syria’s war reaches another grim milestone, refugees fleeing the 5-year conflict face greater hurdles to finding safety while international solidarity with its victims is failing to match and reflect the scale and seriousness of the humanitarian tragedy.

UNHCR provides basic and necessary humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and helps the most vulnerable refugees with urgently needed relief – including water, food, medicine, blankets and warm clothes, household items, diapers and hygiene supplies, and jerry cans.

By its own standards, Russia’s intervention in Syria has been a success on several levels. The real question is whether this situation can last. Put it another way, is there any clear exit strategy for Russia that might enable it to bank its gains and end its losses?

Russia’s strategic goals are vague. The exit strategy, if there is one appears rooted in strengthening the fighting power of the Syrian army and securing some long-term political settlement that demonstrates Russia has returned as a great power. The strategic impact of Russia’s intervention still remains in doubt. Such gains are readily lost and can prove illusory. The Syrian army remains a shambles; Iran is attached to Assad, while Russia is more interested in the grander game with the USA. And without a political settlement to secure them, these accomplishments can vaporize, as Russian patience and resources become exhausted. Russian leadership knows that this could take years and would rather cut a deal while possessing the military advantage.

The USA was compelled not just to deal with Russia as a diplomatic equal but also to shift its own stance towards the Assad government to one – that for all the obfuscation – falls well short of its long-time insistence that President Assad had to go, as the essential pre-condition for any negotiated settlement.

Not many powers like Israel are happy that the USA has not invaded Iran to equalize its destruction efforts in Iraq- both Shiite dominated Muslim nations in West Asia.

Neither the end of war in Syria nor peace in West Asia is the major concern of USA or Russia, or UNSC.

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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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