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Middle East

Playing with Fire: Israel and its problematic friends solidify ties

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Remarks at United Hebrew Congregation, Singapore, 3 October 2017

There are no nice guys in the Middle East, a region that is in the sixth year of transition. It’s a transition that is likely to take up to a quarter of a century. It’s a transition that is being exacerbated by states that are battling either one another for regional hegemony or to maintain an unsustainable status quo or to shape the region in their mould. There are no good or bad guys in this battle, at best there are bad and worse ones.

That is the playing field on which long existing relations between Israel and status quo powers, primarily in the Gulf, as well as in Jordan and Egypt, have grown far closer and more overt. Closer relations are primarily based on perceived common interests in stymying Iran as well as political change. It’s an alliance in emergence, particularly with the Gulf, that irrespective whether it results in formal diplomatic relations as already is the case with Egypt and Jordan or may soon occur with Bahrain, is likely to be fragile, not because the parties view it that way, but because far-reaching change on the Arab side is inevitable.

The parameters and dynamics of what the Middle East is experiencing and the risks Israel runs with the alliances it is cementing centre on five fundamental developments or disputes:

  • The impact of the 2011 popular Arab revolts
  • The Gulf crisis
  • The Saudi-Iranian rivalry
  • Transition in the Gulf
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The roll back of the 2011 popular revolts by a UAE-Saudi led counterrevolution has prompted many to write off the chance for democratic change in the Middle East and to refer to the uprisings as the Arab winter. That may prove to be a short-lived analysis. For one, it’s a mistake to see the revolts as a quest for Western-style democracy. Rather, they were a quest for dignity, greater freedoms and liberation from corrupt, nepotistic regimes that, with few exceptions, had failed to deliver in terms of public goods and services. Those revolts may or may not have succeeded in the longer term but ultimately, they were prematurely defeated by domestic status quo forces backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, whether it is the 2013 military coup in Egypt, Saudi and UAE intervention in Yemen, or UAE and Egyptian backing of General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. To be clear, Qatar was a player in this too.

The legacy of the revolts is far greater than simply defeat or failure. It has changed mentality and attitudes. The quest for change is alive and kicking. That is not to say that masses of people are about to take to the streets again – despite recent months long protests in the Rif in northern Morocco. Events in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen may by and large have for now chilled the quest for revolutionary change. So has severe repression across the Middle East. The desire for change is however alive and kicking in social media.

It is also alive in kicking in the radicalization of Arab youth, who make up the bulk of jihadists in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic States is on the verge of territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, but that only means that political violence will no longer have a central address; it will be more decentralised, more amorphous, more spread out, and probably more lethal. Political violence has been a fixture of human history, but blunting its current phase will take a lot more than military might and law enforcement. It will take economic and social policies as well as forms of governance that are inclusive rather than exclusive.

Which leads to the third legacy of the 2011 Arab revolts: the future of Middle Eastern nation states as they were known until now.  Neither Iraq nor Syria will return as nation states in the borders prior to 2011 in Syria or 2003 in Iraq when the United States invaded and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. The independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is part of a global battle whose outcome will determine the ability of small states to chart their own course in the shadow of a regional behemoth, whether that is Saudi Arabia in the Middle East or China in Asia. It parallels the efforts by peoples like the Catalans in Spain, the Kurds in Syria, or Ambazonians in Cameroon to secede and form independent small states of their own. It also parallels the dispute in the Gulf between Qatar and various other Gulf states.

Most conflicts in the Middle East have a pot blames the kettle quality, but no one dispute more so than that between Qatar and a UAE-Saudi-led alliance of financially and politically dependent states. At the heart of the crisis are four issues: the ability of small states to chart their own, independent course; diametrically opposed perceptions of national security threats; fundamentally different strategies for regime survival; and radically differing definitions of what constitutes terrorism and who is a terrorist.

Also at the heart of both the Gulf crisis and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry are opposing approaches to political or activist forms of Islam. We can go in question and answers into greater detail about the Gulf crisis. Qatar has the naïve belief that it can support political change anywhere in the Middle East while at the same time ringfencing itself as well as other Gulf states from the fallout. Qatari support as well as its soft power strategy has meant that it has maintained contact and/or supported a host of militant groups, in some cases with the approval of the United States, as well as Islamists. It was a policy that clashed with that of the UAE, first and foremost, which sees any form of political Islam as a threat and under the influence of the UAE with Saudi Arabia’s evolving threat perception.

Fact of the matter is that all the Gulf states have maintained and/or supported militants and Islamists; no country more so than Saudi Arabia, not only in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been involved in a covert war for the past 40 years. It is a war that explains much of Iranian actions today. Yet, Saudi Arabia is fighting an uphill battle. Its future in the Middle East is that of a second fiddle state. There are three major powers in the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and Egypt, and Israel, in certain regards. Turkey, Iran and, Egypt have what Saudi Arabia does not: large populations, huge domestic markets, industrial bases, highly educated populations, and deep-seated identities grounded in histories of empire. Iran, moreover, has resources. Saudi Arabia has oil and Mecca, not enough to compete. Saudi Arabia is a regional power because of past containment policies towards Iran. Once Iran is unfettered, it will unlikely be able to compete for long.

A major aspect of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is the ideological and religious battle that Saudi Arabia has waged for the past four decades, the fallout of which is being felt across the globe. Saudi Arabia has invested an estimated $100 billion to promote Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism. To be clear, the bulk of that money did not go to militants, it went to religious, cultural and educational facilities that Saudi Arabia largely did not micro-manage or control. There are only a handful of countries where the Saudis funded violence: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Iraq and Syria. Also to be clear, ultra-conservatism does not by definition breed militancy but it does create an enabling environment in conjunction with other factors, first and foremost lack of social and economic opportunity.

The blowback of ultra-conservatism is felt in the kingdom as is evident in the economic and social transition Gulf states are embarking on. To put the transition in perspective, keep in mind that every person born in the Gulf today is likely to witness the end of oil in his or her lifetime. Economic streamlining and diversification was long overdue but was made unavoidable by the drop in oil prices sparked by Saudi oil policy that focussed on market share rather than price.

Economic reform and limited social change but no political liberalization amounts to ruling families unilaterally rewriting social contracts by rolling back the cradle-to-grave-welfare state. The reforms cater to aspirations of significant segments of the youth who constitute the majority of the region’s citizenry. But they also go against the grain of vested interests and deep-seated ultra-conservatism. With few exceptions, there is little indication that the reform process is being well-managed, certainly not in terms of the gap between expectations and delivery. With other words, the jury on the reform process is still out. Moreover, nowhere in the Gulf is the legacy of the 2011 Arab revolts potentially more potent than in Saudi Arabia given its size and repressed diversity in terms of popular aspirations. It goes without saying, that what happens in the kingdom would ripple across the Gulf.

The short-term silver lining of events in the Middle East may be developments in Palestine with the reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestine Authority in the West Bank as a result of engineering by the UAE and Egypt. It will no doubt bring relief to Gaza which has effectively been blockaded by both Egypt and Israel. The decisive factor however will be the ability of the government to provide jobs and services, the outcome of elections and how Hamas fares in those polls,

For sure, in theory the deal removes a major obstacle to peace talks: the division among the Palestinians themselves. Yet, fact of the matter is, even if a peace can be negotiated, it may not be worth the paper it is written on without Hamas being part of it. The good news is that the United States and Israel have been muted in their response to the reconciliation. Nonetheless, fundamental differences between Hamas and the Palestine Authority have not been resolved, including the terms of any peace talks and a unified military command.

The bottom line of all of this is that short-term, opportunistic policies will not provide solutions unless they lead to a tackling of fundamental problems. Without that, they could exacerbate situations, meaning that ultimately the threats and problems mushroom rather than shrink. If that happens, Israel’s alliance with Gulf could shift from an asset to a liability.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

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