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Why Turkey is Amicable to Iraqi Kurds Yet Fights with Syrian Kurds

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Operation Olive Branch and the presidential election, 2019

The Turkish military Operation Olive Branch in Afrin has demonstrated that the problem of Syrian Kurdish militias YPG has driven a serious wedge between the USA and Turkey who are strategic partners and leaders among NATO members based on the size of their military. The reason for the invasion of the territory of Syria by the Turkish military has been the statement by CJTF-OIR Public Affairs Officer Colonel Thomas F. Veale who said that the United States work to establish the People’s Protection Units on the Syrian border with Turkey and Iraq composed of 30,000 Kurdish militias. Ankara has been alarmed with Washington supplying military equipment and ammunition, including mortars, antitank weapons systems and heavy machine guns to the YPG fighters. The refutation by the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said that Washington was not going to establish an armed group in the northeastern border of Syria, which Turkey seems to have misunderstood, has failed to stop Turkey from achieving its goal.

The charismatic leader of the ruling AKP party, Recep Erdogan, who has been ruling the country for 15 years at his discretion and in a tough way, could not but seize the opportunity to strengthen his political capital before the 2019 presidential election. The opposition, except for the pro-Kurdish HDP, has all lent full support to the operation.By launching the military operation, he has managed to draw the Turkish nationalists over to himself. The leader of the nationalist party MHP Devlet Bahceli has already stated that his party would not nominate its candidate, but will support Erdogan in the elections.

If Erdogan manages to complete the military operation without heavy casualties, resettle over 4 million Syrian refugees from Turkey to the Syrian province of Afrin and create a strong buffer zone free from Kurdish militants, he can win the forthcoming election. Thus, many factors have intertwined in the Operation Olive Branch: state security protection, fight against Kurdish terrorists, geostrategic interests of Turkey in the Middle East, and domestic policy challenges.

Turkey’s Carrot and Stick Method on Kurds

It should be emphasized that in the last 15 years Turkey has been pursuing differentiated policies towards the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. If the cooperation with Iraqi Kurds is a tactical friendship, there’s a tough war between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds. What is the secret behind such different attitudes towards Syrian and Iraqi Kurds who belong to a single ethnic group?

The Kurds are one of the largest nations in the world with no national statehood. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, the Kurds were divided between the four countries in the Middle East – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. However, currently there are three active Kurdish ethnic groups that have complex relationships between them.

The first group is led by ex-president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Masoud Barzani, who has managed to establish cooperation with Ankara after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The second group is composed of adherers of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party in Iraqi Sulaimani that has lost its one-time influence after the death of its leader, Jalal Talabani, in 2017. The attitude of Ankara to this group of Kurds can be described as relatively stable. However, Turkey strongly disapproves of the initiatives of KDP and PUK to declare the independence of Kurdistan. Partly due to the diplomatic and economic pressure by Turkey, Erbil has had to freeze the independence referendum results as of September 25, 2017, and remain as an autonomous region of Iraq.

The third group includes Syrian Kurds who have united behind the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that controls the armed militias of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). According to Ankara, these armed groups of Syrian Kurds are closely related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered by Turkey and western countries as a terrorist organization. It should be emphasized that the Kurdish militants of PKK have been fighting against the Turkish Government to gain sovereignty since 1984. Therefore, Erdogan believes that PYD, YPG and PKK are all terrorist organizations. All three of them Erdogan refers to as Daesh (Arabic language acronym ISIS).

The concerns expressed by Ankara contain elements of truth. Despite the statements made by the Syrian Kurds about their non-affiliation with the PKK militants, evidence suggests otherwise. The training camps of PKK have been known to be based in Syria and Kurdish militants after committing terrorist attacks in Turkey have been hiding there successfully in the north of Syria. It is no secret that the leader of PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison in Imrali, is very popular among the Syrian Kurds. Therefore the Syrian Kurdsbuilt a huge, 53-meter-high, statue as a monument of Abdullah Ocalan on the slopes of the Darmyk Mountain in the northern Syrian region of Afrin, which the Turkish air force bombed during the Operation Olive Branch.Yet his life sentence has not stopped him from attempting to become the leader of the whole Kurdish world and to create the united Kurdistan at the junction of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Given that the Talabani group is not strong enough to compete, there’s an ongoing ideological struggle for leadership between Barzani and Ocalan, which has an impact on the situation in the region.

Turkey, in its relations with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, is using a carrot-and-stick approach. The government of Erdogan uses skillfully disagreements between the three Kurdish groups to improve its national security. Ankara is actively developing economic cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan and hosts Masoud Barzani at the highest level. In turn, Masoud Barzani reciprocates for the ‘Turkish carrot’. He tries to force the PKK militants out of his territory and upon the request of Ankara closes the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan for the Syrian Kurds. When in May 2014 the Syrian region inhabited with Kurds raised the question of establishment of autonomy, Masoud Barzani did not support his fellows and took Erdogan’s position. Thus, Barzani and Erdogan’s government have found common interest, which satisfies both leaders.

Unlike their Iraqi fellows, today Syrian Kurds in Afrin feel the brutality of the ‘Turkish stick’ approach. According to the General Staff of Turkey, over 1,000 PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists have been killed since the launch of the military operation. The Turkish army, jointly with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has managed to clean up a significant part of Afrin areas. Operation Olive Branch has demonstrated that Turkey is overreacting to the attempts of the Syrian Kurds to transform into an independent political force in the region.

Putin’s ‘hybrid tactic’ in the confrontation between Ankara and Washington

Erdogan has said that afterthe military operation in Afrin the Turkish army is prepared to clean up Manbij where about 2,000 U.S. troops and an umbrella group of Kurdish fighters YPG are stationed. He has called on the U.S. to leave Manbij and stop supporting the Syrian Kurds. In fact, Ankara has laid out a condition to Washington to choose between the Kurdish militias and Turkey. Washington meanwhile manages to walk a fine line between the Syrian Kurds and Ankara.According to YPG,if the United States refuses to support the Kurdish militias, who have turned out to be a strong support to the Americans in their fight against ISIS,it would be as bad as capitulating to the so-called Islamic State. Yet the red line across Manbij comes closer and closer every day.

Finally, it may be concluded that the confrontation between Ankara and Washington strengthened the positions of Russia, Iran and the regime of Bashar Assad in the Middle East. Russia,who has troops in Afrin and controls the skies over the region, has given a green signal to Turkey to attack US-backed YPG. Thus, Moscow punished the Syrian Kurds for rapprochement with Washington and the refusal to release Afrin to the army of the Assad regime.

Expectedly, the Kremlin will keep on trying to influence the two NATO members to collide, which will curb the influence of the United States in Syria. Erdogan, who has recently strongly demanded regime change in Syria, today he fears that Bashar Assad and YPG can unite against Turkey. This all reminds me of Putin’s ‘hybrid tactics’ during the brexit in the UK and interference in the US electoral process.

Today it is difficult to predict how long the Turkish “whip” diplomacy against the Syrian Kurds will last. The situation is becoming more dangerous. In this situation, much will depend on the statements and actions of Washington, which still has enough influence and resources to defuse the tense situation in northern Syria.

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Middle East

Beyond the friendship diplomacy between Morocco and Mauritania

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Over the past decade or so, many politicians and diplomats have held that the most significant bilateral relationship has been between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. That remains true today, and it will be likely the case for long- term partnership to come, even as the sort of that relationship changes over time. Due to, diplomatic rapprochement between them and bilateral cooperation on several levels, Mauritania, tends formally to withdraw its full recognition of the Polisario Front “SADR” before the term of the current president, Mohamed Ould Al-Ghazwani, ends.

Yet, the truth is that Mauritania has unalterably shifted from the previous engagement with Morocco to the recent conflict with it on nearly all the key fronts: geopolitics, trade, borders security, finance, and even the view on domestic governance. To that extent, Mauritania was the most affected by the Polisario Front militia’s violation to close the Guerguerat border crossing and prevent food supplies from reaching their domestic markets. This crisis frustrated Mauritanian people and politicians who demanded to take firm stances towards the separatists.

In the context of the fascinating development in relations between Rabat and Nouakchott, the Mauritanian government stated that President Ould Ghazwani is heading to take a remarkable decision based on derecognized the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and Polisario Front as its sole representative and follow up the recent UN peace process through the case of Western Sahara conflict under UN Security Council resolutions.

Similarly, the United States announced that “Moroccan (Western) Sahara is an integral part of The Kingdom–a traditional Ally, and it supports the Moroccan government’s constitutional procedures to maintain Moroccan Southern provinces strong and united.” It was rapidly followed by all major countries of African, and the Arab Middle East also extended their supports to the government in Rabat. What a determined move against the Polisario Front separatism in a sovereign state!

During the Western Sahara dispute, the Moroccan Sahrawi was humiliated to the end by Polisario Front: it not only lost their identity but also resulted in the several ethnics’ claim for “independence” in the border regions within. currently, Morocco is the only regional power in North Africa that has been challenged in terms of national unity and territorial integrity. The issues cover regional terrorism, political separatism, and fundamental radicalism from various radical ethnic groups. Although the population of the “Polisario groups” is irrelevant because of Morocco’s total population, the territorial space of the ethnic minorities across the country is broadly huge and prosperous in natural resources. besides, the regions are strategically important.

In foreign affairs doctrine, the certainty of countries interacting closely, neighboring states and Algeria, in particular, have always employed the issue of the Western Sahara dispute in the Southern Region of Morocco as the power to criticize and even undermine against Morocco in the name of discredit Sahrawi rights, ethnic discrimination, social injustice, and natural resources exploitation. therefore, local radical Sahrawi groups have occasionally resisted Morocco’s authority over them in a vicious or nonviolent way. Their resistance in jeopardy national security on strategic borders of the Kingdom, at many times, becoming an international issue.

A Mauritanian media stated, that “all the presidential governments that followed the former President Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidala, a loyal and supporter to the Polisario Front, were not at all satisfied with the recognition of the SADR creation due to its fear that it would cause reactions from Algeria. however, Mauritania today is not the state of 1978, it has become a well-built country at the regional level, and the position of its military defense has been enhanced at the phase of the continent’s armies after it was categorized as a conventional military power.”

This is what Mauritania has expected the outcome. Although neighboring Mauritania has weeded out the pressures of the Algerian regime, which stood in the way of rapprochement with the Kingdom of Morocco, and the Mauritanian acknowledged that Nouakchott today is “ready to take the historic decision that seeks its geopolitical interests and maintain strategic stability and security of the entire region, away from the external interactions.” Hence, The Mauritanian decision, according to the national media, will adjust its neutral position through the Moroccan (Western) Sahara issue; Because previously was not clear in its political arrangement according to the international or even regional community.

Given the Moroccan domestic opinion, there is still optimistic hope about long-term collaboration on the transformation between Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, even considering some temporary difficulties between the two in the Western Sahara conflict. For example, prior Mauritania has recognized the Polisario since the 1980s, but this recognition did not turn into an embassy or permanent diplomatic sign of the separatist entity in Mauritania, the Kingdom has a long-standing relationship with Mauritania and the recent regional politics would not harm that, because it’s a political circumstance.

Despite the strain exerted by the Polisario Front and Algeria on Mauritania, and intending to set impediments that avoid strategic development of its relations with Rabat, the Mauritanian-Moroccan interactions have seen an increased economic development for nearly two years, which end up with a phone call asked King Mohammed VI to embark on an official visit to Mauritania as President Ould Ghazwani requested.

For decades, the kingdom of Morocco has deemed a united, stable, and prosperous Maghreb region beneficial to itself and Northern Africa since it is Kingdom’s consistent and open stance and strategic judgment. Accordingly, Morocco would continue supporting North Africa’s unity and development. On the one hand, Morocco and Mauritania are not only being impacted by the pandemic, but also facing perils and challenges such as unilateralism, and protectionism. On the other hand, Rabat opines that the two neighboring states and major forces of the world necessarily established their resolve to strengthen communication and cooperation with each other. To that end, both states would make efforts to set up long-term strategic consensus including mutual trust, reciprocal understandings, and respect to the United Nations and the current international system based on multilateralism.

In sum, both Morocco and Mauritania are sovereign states with a strong desire to be well-built and sophisticated powers. Previous successes and experiences in solving territorial disputes and other issues have given them confidence, which motivated both countries to join hands in the struggles for national independence, equality, and prosperity. In sense of the world politics, two states promise to advance the great cause of reorganization and renovation and learn from each other’s experience in state power and party administration.

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Middle East

Getting Away With Murder: The New U.S. Intelligence Report on the Khashoggi Affair

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It was October 2, 2018 when a man walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate to collect some documents he needed for his impending marriage.  He had been there earlier on September 28, and had been told to allow a few days for them to prepare the needed proof of divorce from an earlier marriage.

So there he was.  His Turkish fiancée had accompanied him and he asked her to wait outside as it would only take a minute or two.  She waited and waited and… waited.  Jamal Khashoggi never came out.

What went on inside is a matter of dispute but US intelligence prepared a report which should have been released but was illegally blocked by the Trump administration.  Mr. Trump is no doubt grateful for the help he has had over two decades from various Saudi royals in addition to the business thrown his way at his various properties.  “I love the Saudis,” says Donald Trump and he had kept the report under wraps.  It has now been released by the new Biden administration.      

All the same, grisly details of the killing including dismemberment soon emerged because in this tragic episode, with an element of farce, it was soon evident that the Turks had bugged the consulate.  There is speculation as to how the perpetrators dispersed of the corpse but they themselves have been identified.  Turkish officials also claim to know that they acted on orders from the highest levels of the Saudi government.  They arrived on a private jet and left just as abruptly.

The egregious killing led to the UN appointing a Special Rapporteur, Agnes Callamard.  She concluded it to be an “extra-judicial killing for which the state of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.”  She added, there was “credible evidence”  implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior officials.  

Now the US report.  Intelligence agencies conclude Jamal Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi hit squad under the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  They add that the latter has had unitary control over Saudi security and intelligence organizations and thus it was “highly unlikely” an operation of this nature would have been possible without Prince Mohammed’s authorization.

Mr. Biden’s reaction is plain.  Although the Crown Prince is the de facto ruler with his father the King’s acquiescence, Mr. Biden has not talked to him.  He called the king and emphasized the importance placed on human rights and the rule of law in the US.

President Biden is also re-evaluating US arms sales to the Kingdom with a view to limiting them to defensive weapons — a difficult task as many can be used for both, a fighter-bomber for example.

There are also calls for sanctions against the Crown Prince directly but Biden has ruled that out.  Saudi Arabia is after all the strongest ally of the US in the region, and no president wants to jeopardize that relationship.  Moreover, the US has done the same sort of thing often enough; the last prominent assassination being that of the senior Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani,  by the Trump administration.  

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US intelligence report leaves Saudi Arabia with no good geopolitical choices

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The Biden administration’s publication of a US intelligence report that holds Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi creates a fundamental challenge to the kingdom’s geopolitical ambitions.

The challenge lies in whether and how Saudi Arabia will seek to further diversify its alliances with other world powers in response to the report and US human rights pressure.

Saudi and United Arab Emirates options are limited by that fact that they cannot fully replace the United States as a mainstay of their defence as well as their quest for regional hegemony, even if the report revives perceptions of the US as unreliable and at odds with their policies.

As Saudi King Salman and Prince Mohammed contemplate their options, including strengthening relations with external players such as China and Russia, they may find that reliance on these forces could prove riskier than the pitfalls of the kingdom’s ties with the United States.

Core to Saudi as well as UAE considerations is likely to be the shaping of the ultimate balance of power between the kingdom and Iran in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Central Asia’s border with China.

US officials privately suggest that regional jockeying in an environment in which world power is being rebalanced to create a new world order was the key driver of Saudi and UAE as well as Israeli opposition from day one to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that the United States together with Europe, China, and Russia negotiated. That remains the driver of criticism of US President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive the agreement.

“If forced to choose, Riyadh preferred an isolated Iran with a nuclear bomb to an internationally accepted Iran unarmed with the weapons of doom,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and founder of the National Iranian American Council. Mr. Parsi was summing up Saudi and Emirati attitudes based on interviews with officials involved in the negotiations at a time that Mr. Biden was vice-president.

As a result, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel appear to remain determined to either foil a return of the United States to the accord, from which Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald J. Trump, withdrew, or ensure that it imposes conditions on Iran that would severely undermine its claim to regional hegemony.

In the ultimate analysis, the Gulf states and Israel share US objectives that include not only restricting Iran’s nuclear capabilities but also limiting its ballistic missiles program and ending support for non-state actors like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and Yemen’s Houthis. The Middle Eastern states differ with the Biden administration on how to achieve those objectives and the sequencing of their pursuit.

Even so, the Gulf states are likely to realize as Saudi Arabia contemplates its next steps what Israel already knows: China and Russia’s commitment to the defence of Saudi Arabia or Israel are unlikely to match that of the United States given that they view an Iran unfettered by sanctions and international isolation as strategic in ways that only Turkey rather than other Middle Eastern states can match.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE will also have to recognize that they can attempt to influence US policies with the help of Israel’s powerful Washington lobby and influential US lobbying and public relations companies in ways that they are not able to do in autocratic China or authoritarian Russia.

No doubt, China and Russia will seek to exploit opportunities created by the United States’ recalibration of its relations with Saudi Arabia with arms sales as well as increased trade and investment.

But that will not alter the two countries’ long-term view of Iran as a country, albeit problematic, with attributes that the Gulf states cannot match even if it is momentarily in economic and political disrepair.

Those attributes include Iran’s geography as a gateway at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe; ethnic, cultural, and religious ties with Central Asia and the Middle East as a result of history and empire; a deep-seated identity rooted in empire; some of the world’s foremost oil and gas reserves; a large, highly educated population of 83 million that constitutes a huge domestic market; a fundamentally diversified economy; and a battle-hardened military.

Iran also shares Chinese and Russian ambitions to contain US influence even if its aspirations at times clash with those of China and Russia.

“China’s BRI will on paper finance additional transit options for the transfer of goods from ports in southern to northern Iran and beyond to Turkey, Russia, or Europe. China has a number of transit options available to it, but Iranian territory is difficult to avoid for any south-north or east-west links,” said Iran scholar Alex Vatanka referring to Beijing’s infrastructure, transportation and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative.

Compared to an unfettered Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE primarily offer geography related to some of the most strategic waterways through which much of the world’s oil and gas flows as well their positioning opposite the Horn of Africa and their energy reserves.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s position as a religious leader in the Muslim world built on its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, potentially could be challenged as the kingdom competes for leadership with other Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim-majority states.

On the principle of better the enemy that you know than the devil that you don’t, Saudi leaders may find that they are, in the best of scenarios, in response to changing US policies able to rattle cages by reaching out to China and Russia in ways that they have not until now, but that at the end of the day they are deprived of good choices.

That conclusion may be reinforced by the realization that the United States has signalled by not sanctioning Prince Mohammed that it does not wish to cut its umbilical cord with the kingdom. That message was also contained in the Biden administration’s earlier decision to halt the sale of weapons that Saudi Arabia could you for offensive operations in Yemen but not arms that it needs to defend its territory from external attack.

At the bottom line, Saudi Arabia’s best option to counter an Iran that poses a threat to the kingdom’s ambitions irrespective of whatever regime is in power would be to work with its allies to develop the kind of economic and social policies as well as governance that would enable it to capitalize on its assets to effectively compete. Containment of Iran is a short-term tactic that eventually will run its course.

Warned former British diplomat and Royal Dutch Shell executive Ian McCredie: “When the Ottoman Empire was dismantled in 1922, it created a vacuum which a series of powers have attempted to fill ever since. None has succeeded, and the result has been a century of wars, coups, and instability. Iran ruled all these lands before the Arab and Ottoman conquests. It could do so again.”

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