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David and Goliath: How Qatar took on the world…and nearly won

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To say that the Middle East is a region of instability would be an understatement. The ongoing violence in Syria & Iraq receives heavy international news coverage. Now though, it seems it’s perpetuated up through to the highest levels of diplomacy.

Four months ago, a coalition of Arab nations abruptly cut off all diplomatic ties with Qatar. Qatar is famous for being the world’s richest country per capita. Among the various allegations were that Qatar is funding terrorism. Having an amicable relationship with Iran seems to only make things worse.

The coalition includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The coalition has called for the shutdown of Al Jazeera. A preposterous claim, as Al Jazeera is widely considered the only true bastion of free press in the region. The Qatari foreign minister likened this ludicrous demand to if China were to call for the UK to shut down BBC.

Currently, no evidence has surfaced to back up these claims. On the contrary, Qatar has insisted, that along with the US, it has fought tirelessly in the War On Terror. It would make sense too, seeing as the US military has a middle east headquarters at the Qatari Al Udeid Airbase.

Despite global media coverage, it seems that most of the world has viewed this as a mere family fall. Of course, with the hope that it’s all a misunderstanding that will end up in hug and make up.

Sadly, far from just being a small regional squabble, the ramifications are proving to be more serious. The fall out is threatening to disturb decades of global diplomatic progress.

Last week in Paris, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held an election to appoint its new leader.

UNESCO is headquartered in Paris and was set up as the intellectual agency of the UN in post-war 1945. The agency is tasked with promoting peace, social justice, human rights and international security. It strives for international cooperation on educational, science and cultural programs.

UNESCO is best known for its World Heritage program. Its true aim though is to promote and maintain peace through inter-cultural understanding.

After more than a year of campaigning, 8 candidates from various nations competed for the votes of the Executive Board.

Among the candidates were Qian Tang of China, Audrey Azoulay of France, Moushira Khattab of Egypt and Hamad Al-Kawari of Qatar.

This election was of prime importance. UNESCO has been crippled by funding issues and politicization. In 2009, the United States withdrew their funding contribution, a third of UNESCO’s total budget. This was in response to UNESCO choosing to recognize Palestine as a member state.

This election was widely referred to as the ‘Arab election’. Uniquely, 4 of the 8 candidates in contention were from the Arab world. Up until now, no leader of UNESCO has come from the Arab world. Many diplomats around the world and those in the media have said it’s their time.

The electoral process begun on the 9th of October and consisted of several rounds of voting. Executive Board members voted for their preferred candidates. Each round sought to result in a candidate with a majority (30) of the 58 total votes.

After the first round of voting, Hamad Al-Kawari of Qatar emerged as the frontrunner.

Al-Kawari, a seasoned diplomat has decades of experience as ambassador to various nations, including France and the US. Having previously, served as the Minister of Culture for his country, Al-Kawari was clearly the favorite.

Disappointingly for China, Tang didn’t win more than 5 votes and pulled out from the contest in the 3rd round. This was despite Tang currently being UNESCO’s Assistant-Director-General for Education. Clearly, having the support of a sole superpower was not enough.

Trailing behind Qatar were France and Egypt. Egypt’s candidate, Khattab, had received much criticism in the run up to the election. Her backers, the oppressive El-Sisi regime, are under intense scrutiny itself for a litany of human rights abuses. Among those are the jailing of journalists and political opponents and censorship. Many NGOs and media outlets warned that if elected, Khattab would only be a mouthpiece of Egypt’s dictator, el-Sisi.

Egypt’s image has deteriorated rapidly in the past several months, with several experts calling for the US to limit its relations with it.

After four rounds of voting, Al-Kawari continued to lead from the front. In contention for second place was Egypt and the French candidate, Audrey Azoulay.

Azoulay’s candidature was announced at the last minute, the day before the deadline, the 15th of March of this year. This was widely speculated as a last minute foreign policy push by President Hollande prior to his departure.

Azoulay, just 45-years, old briefly served as Culture Minister for France. Daughter of Andre Azoulay, adviser to Morocco’s King Mohamed VI, she has no diplomatic experience.

A French candidate for the leader of a UN agency is generally seen as a ‘safe’ vote. Out of the 10 Director-Generals that have lead UNESCO in the past, 7 of those have been from Europe or the US. A French leader would seem to be the default with its headquarters being in Paris.

For the fifth and final round of voting, the top two candidates from the previous day would compete. However, Azoulay and Khattab were tied for second. Votes were first taken to decide who would go against Al-Kawari.

France’s Azoulay prevailed and thus the world waited for the final round of voting against Qatar.

The Arab, anti-Qatar coalition had lost their preferred candidate, Khattab. Despite Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE not having a seat on the Executive Board, their influence no doubt is substantial.

They could have embraced the fact that with Al-Kawari, the arab world could, for the first time, have one of their own at the head of UNESCO. Or they could choose to act spitefully and undermine his efforts. Unfortunately, they chose the latter. The Egyptian Foreign Minister of Egypt, Sameh Shoukry was rather explicit in this. He was seen openly finger prodding and berating the Ambassador Kenya to vote against Qatar. His words were “despite it being a blind vote, we’ll know who you voted for”.

To add to the drama, President Trump of the United States announced his plan to withdraw the country from UNESCO. Israel was to follow suit. Both countries have loudly accused UNESCO of anti-Israel bias in the past. Whether the thought of a Qatari Director-General was the last straw is only speculation. Perhaps, President Trump was simply in another insular, anti-diplomatic mood.

Al-Kawari was the first candidate to announce his campaign and had begun work almost 2 years ago. Considered the underdog from the beginning, Al-Kawari visited over 60 world leaders during that time. Each visit, he would seek to understand the needs of each nation so he could best serve them as head of UNESCO.

Entering the first round of voting, it was clear he was the underdog no more. Al-Kawari had already received the firm support of many around the world. Support came from nations as diverse as Sweden, Pakistan, South Africa and Guatemala. With such strong support from Latin America, Guatemala’s own candidate pulled out of the race in support of Qatar.

Despite it all, the fierce Arab lobby against Qatar tipped the balance. In the final round, Azoulay won the required majority of 30 votes. Al-Kawari was just 2 votes short, with 28.

The results pose key two questions:

  1. What if anything did, France or UNESCO gain from the appointment of Azoulay?

For France, not much. France already has formidable soft-power as a nation. It is considered by many to be the cultural capital of the world and is the country frequented most by tourists. It’s unlikely that the head of UNESCO being French will do much for it. In addition, France has significant issues with maintaining its own cultural institutions, the additional burden of UNESCO may eventually turn out to be a diplomatic failure for the French Government as many regions felt France had little or no right to even contest for the post due to the unofficial regional rotation of the UNESCO DG post.

For UNESCO? It doesn’t make a strong statement about its pursuit for diversity and understanding. This election was the perfect time to appoint an arab candidate. Instead of striving to depoliticize the agency, it allowed itself to be swayed by political infighting and the bullying of the United States.

An inexperienced candidate with no diplomatic experience will do little to add the stability the agency needs.

  1. Is Qatar the real winner here?

Qatar’s Al-Kawari began the race as an underdog, fought his way to the front of the pack and it required a regional crisis to defeat him. With the United States throwing a tantrum and choosing to leave the agency, would have Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain had followed suit?

Qatar through Al Kawari’s global campaign was able to gain significant support from the developing nations and small islands nations.  In a highly significant diplomatic bow to his candidature, Guatemala withdrew its candidate in favour of Qatar. The support from El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina and St. Kitts and Nevis  has created new bonds for Qatar and this indeed has given the small nation a stronger foreign policy advantage.

His campaign, director by Dentons strategist Richard Griffiths was hailed as a great success for Qatar by the international community as Hamad al Kawari visited every country on the 58 member executive board. This intensive campaigning gave Qatar and their candidate a strong foothold in regions such as Latin America, South Asia and East Africa.

Even if Al-Kawari had secured the extra 2 votes, would these countries have kicked their level of spite up a notch? It certainly is not out of the question. Rumours suggested that Al Kawari would never take office as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the blockade countries would spare no expense or political capital to block him from taking office. The UN general conference still would need to confirm him on Nov.10 in New York.

What remains is the fact that Qatar has shown that when it comes to the highest levels of diplomacy, it is a contender. Despite the regional squabbles, Qatar won the support of half of the world. Qatar may have lost the Director General of UNESCO post but they have gained in Al Kawari an internationally known Statesman with significant backing globally.

This support will not be forgotten by either side. Perhaps Qatar is just getting started, and the world has shown Qatar they can be a player globally.

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Middle East

Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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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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Middle East

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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