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.
War in Libya: A rare instance of US-Russian cooperation
There is little that Russia and the United States agree on these days. Renegade Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar may be a rare exception.
As Mr. Haftar’s mortars rained on the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital Tripoli and fighting between his Libyan National Army (LNA) and the United Nations-recognized government expanded to the south of the country, both Russia and the United States stopped a call for a ceasefire from being formally tabled in the UN Security Council.
Russia, which has joined US allies that include the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France, in supporting Mr. Haftar because of his grip on Libya’s oil resources and assertions that Islamists dominate the Tripoli government, objected to the British draft resolution because it blamed the rebel officer for the fighting.
The United States gave no reason for its objection. Yet, it shares Russia’s aversion to Islamists and clearly did not want to break ranks with some of its closest Middle Eastern allies, certainly not at a time that the UN was investigating allegations that the UAE had shipped weapons to Mr. Haftar in violation of an international arms embargo.
The significance of US-Russian agreement on Mr. Haftar’s geopolitical value goes far beyond Libya. It reveals much of how presidents Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Putin see the crafting of a new world order. It also says a great deal about Russian objectives in the Middle East and North Africa.
Messrs. Trump and Putin’s preference for a man with a questionable human rights record who, if successful, would likely rule Libya as an autocrat, reflects the two leaders’ belief that stability in the Middle East and North Africa is best guaranteed by autocratic rule or some democratic façade behind which men with military backgrounds control the levers of power.
It is a vision of the region promoted by representatives of UAE crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed who sees authoritarian stability as the best anti-dote to popular Arab revolts that swept the region in 2011 and more recently in Algeria and Sudan are proving to have a second lease on life.
Underlying the Trump-Putin understanding is a tacit agreement among the world’s illiberal, authoritarian and autocratic leaders on the values that would underwrite a new world order. It is an agreement that in cases like Libya reduces rivalry among world powers to a fight about the divvying up of the pie rather than the concepts such as human and minority rights that should undergird the new order.
Moscow’s support for Mr. Haftar serves Russia’s broader vision of the Middle East and North Africa as an arena in which Russia can successfully challenge the United States even if Messrs. Trump and Putin agree on what side to support in a Libyan civil war that is aggravated by the interference of foreign powers.
Russia national security scholar Stephen Blank argues that Mr. Putin’s strategy is rooted in the thinking of Yevgeny Primakov, a Russian Middle East expert, linguist and former spymaster, foreign minister and deputy prime minister.
Mr. Primakov saw the Middle East as a key arena for countering the United States that would enable Russia, weakened by the demise of the Soviet Union and economic problems, to regain its status as a global and regional power and ensure that it would be one pole in a multi-polar world.
“In order to reassert Russia’s greatness, Primakov and Putin aimed ultimately at strategic denial, denying Washington sole possession of a dominant role in the Middle East from where US influence could expand to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)” established in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union to group post-Soviet states, Mr. Blank said.
Messrs. Primakov and Putin believed that if Russia succeeded it would force the United States to concede multi-polarity and grant Russia the recognition it deserves. That, in turn, would allow Mr. Putin to demonstrate to the Russian elite his ability to restore great power status.
Syria offered Russia the opportunity to display its military prowess without the United States challenging the move. At the same time, Russia leveraged its political and economic clout to forge an alliance with Turkey and partner with Iran. The approach served to defang Turkish and Iranian influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Mr. Blank argued.
Similarly, Russia after brutally repressing religiously inspired Chechen rebels in the 1990s and despite the lingering memory of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has in line with UAE precepts, proven to be far defter than either China or the United States at promoting politically pacifist or apolitical loyalist Islam in a complex game of playing both sides against the middle.
Russian engagement runs the gamut from engaging with militants to cooperating with Muslim autocrats to encouraging condemnation of activist strands of ultra-conservative Islam to hedging its bets by keeping its lines open to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).
Even if Russia may be walking a tightrope in balancing its relationships with Mr. Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, like in Syria, it is positioning itself with the backing of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as the potential mediator that maintains ties to both sides of the divide.
Said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov: “We believe that Libya’s future must be determined by the Libyans themselves. We are convinced that there is no alternative to an inclusive intra-Libyan dialogue… Our work on this track proceeds in this spirit and the belief that there is no alternative to preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Libya.”
Battling for the Future: Arab Protests 2.0
Momentous developments across Arab North and East Africa suggest the long-drawn-out process of political transition in the region as well as the greater Middle East is still in its infancy.
So does popular discontent in Syria despite eight years of devastating civil war and Egypt notwithstanding a 2013 military coup that rolled back the advances of protests in 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak and brought one of the country’s most repressive regimes to power.
What developments across northern Africa and the Middle East demonstrate is that the drivers of the 2011 popular revolts that swept the region and forced the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to resign not only still exist but constitute black swans that can upset the apple cart at any moment.
The developments also suggest that the regional struggle between forces of change and ancien regimes and militaries backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is far from decided.
If anything, protesters in Algeria and Sudan have learnt at least one lesson from the failed 2011 results: don’t trust militaries even if they seemingly align themselves with demonstrators and don’t surrender the street until protesters’ demands have been fully met.
Distrust of the military has prompted an increasing number of Sudanese protesters to question whether chanting “the people and the army are one” is still appropriate. Slogans such as “freedom, freedom” and “revolution, revolution” alongside calls on the military to protect the protesters have become more frequent.
The protests in Algeria and Sudan have entered a critical phase in which protesters and militaries worried that they could be held accountable for decades of economic mismanagement, corruption and repression are tapping in the dark.
With protesters emboldened by their initial successes in forcing leaders to resign, both the demonstrators and the militaries, including officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are internally divided about how to proceed.
Moreover, neither side has any real experience in managing the crossroads at which they find themselves while it is dawning on the militaries that their tired playbooks are not producing results.
In a telling sign, Sudan’s interim leader Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan praised his country’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as he met this week with a Saudi-Emirati delegation at the military compound in Khartoum, a focal point of the protests.
Saudi Arabia has expressed support for the protests in what many suspect is part of an effort to ensure that Sudan does not become a symbol of the power of popular sovereignty and its ability to defeat autocracy.
The ultimate outcome of the dramatic developments in Algeria and Sudan and how the parties manoeuvre is likely to have far-reaching consequences in a region pockmarked by powder kegs ready to explode.
Mounting anger as fuel shortages caused by Western sanctions against Syria and Iran bring life to a halt in major Syrian cities have sparked rare and widespread public criticism of president Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The anger is fuelled by reports that government officials cut in line at petrol stations to fill up their tanks and buy rationed cooking gas and take more than is allowed.
Syria is Here, an anonymous Facebook page that reports on economics in government-controlled areas took officials to task after state-run television showed oil minister Suleiman al-Abbas touring petrol stations that showed no signs of shortage.
“Is it so difficult to be transparent and forward? Would that undermine anyone’s prestige? We are a country facing sanctions and boycotted. The public knows and is aware,” the Facebook page charged.
The manager of Hashtag Syria, another Facebook page, was arrested when the site demanded that the oil ministry respond to reports of anticipated price hikes with comments rather than threats. The site charged that the ministry was punishing the manager “instead of dealing with the real problem.”
Said Syrian journalist Danny Makki: “It (Syria) is a pressure cooker.”
Similarly, authorities in Egypt, despite blocking its website, have been unable to stop an online petition against proposed constitutional amendments that could extend the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until 2034 from attracting more than 320,000 signatures as of this writing.
The petition, entitled Batel or Void, is, according to Netblocks, a group that maps web freedom, one of an estimated 34,000 websites blocked by Egyptian internet service providers in a bid to stymie opposition to the amendments.
Mr. El-Sisi is a reminder of how far Arab militaries and their Gulf backers are potentially willing to go in defense of their vested interests and willingness to oppose popular sovereignty.
Libyan renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is another, Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is attacking the capital Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations recognized Libyan government that he and his Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian backers accuse of being dominated by Islamist terrorists.
The three Arab states’ military and financial support of Mr. Haftar is but the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Haftar has modelled his control of much of Libya on Mr. El-Sisi’s example of a military that not only dominates politics but also the economy.
As a result, the LNA is engaged in businesses ranging from waste management, metal scrap and waste export, and agricultural mega projects to the registration of migrant labour workers and control of ports, airports and other infrastructure. The LNA is also eyeing a role in the reconstruction of Benghazi and other war-devastated or underdeveloped regions.
What for now makes 2019 different from 2011 is that both sides of the divide realize that success depends on commitment to be in it for the long haul. Protesters, moreover, understand that trust in military assertions of support for the people can be self-defeating. They further grasp that they are up against a regional counterrevolution that has no scruples.
All of that gives today’s protesters a leg up on their 2011 counterparts. The jury is out on whether that will prove sufficient to succeed where protesters eight years ago failed.
As Marsha Lazareva languishes in jail, foreign businesses will “think twice” before investing in Kuwait
IF THERE IS one thing to glean from the case of Marsha Lazareva, it’s that foreign businesses must now think very carefully before investing in Kuwait.
For more than a year, Lazareva, who has a five-year-old son and is one of Russia’s most successful female investors in the Gulf, has been held in the Soulabaiya prison by Kuwaiti authorities. Those authorities claim she ‘stole’ half a billion dollars, a claim she strenuously denies.
Human rights groups and prominent officials, including the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Jim Nicholson, former Chairman of the Republican Party and former US Ambassador to the Vatican, have called for her release and expressed concerns about the apparent absence of due process in a country where Lazareva has worked for over 13 years. Both Freeh and Nicholson visited Kuwait in recent weeks with Neil Bush, son of the late President George H. W. Bush. Bush has said Lazareva’s incarceration ‘threatens to darken relations between the U.S. and Kuwait, two countries that have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship.’
Russian officials have been equally concerned. Vladimir Platonov, the President of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry, confirmed that a single witness gave testimony in Kuwaiti court, and only for the prosecution. ‘I myself worked in prosecution for more than eight years, and I cannot imagine any judge signing off on an indictment like this,’ he said. ‘One fact of particular note is that Maria was given 1,800 pages of untranslated documents in Arabic.’
Serious questions surrounding the safety and future viability of investing in Kuwait are now being raised. Through The Port Fund, a private investment company managed by KGL Investment, Lazareva has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local infrastructure and economic development projects during her time in the country. Until 2017, when a Dubai bank froze $496 million without cause, she had worked largely unobstructed.
But as things stand, more foreign investment is unlikely to be forthcoming. Jim Nicholson has said that the ‘imprisonment and harassment’ of Lazareva ‘threatens’ U.S. support. adding that the ‘willingness of the U.S. to do business with Kuwait’ is based on ‘its record as a nation that respects human rights and the rule of law’. Mark Williams, the investment director of The Port Fund and a colleague of Lazareva’s, has called on international investors to ‘think twice before doing business in this country’.
These comments will surely concern the Kuwaiti government, who said last year that FDI was ‘very crucial’ to the success of its Kuwait Vision 2035 road map. In September 2018, the FTreported that the government planned to reverse its traditional position as an investor in order to diversify its economy, carrying out a series of reforms designed to facilitate foreign investment and assist investors.
But despite these changes, which have propelled Kuwait to 96th—higher than the Middle East average—in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ report, investors may be unwilling to take the risk so long as Lazareva remains in jail. Lazareva’s lawyers have accused Kuwait of violating international law by breaching a long-standing bilateral investment treaty with Russia. Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC has brought the case to the attention of the British public and the EU, writing in The Times that ‘there is no evidential basis to justify any claim of dishonesty, corruption or any other criminal wrong’. He added: ’Anyone thinking of doing business in Kuwait should read on with mounting concern.’
What’s worth remembering is that Kuwait is an important, long-standing ally of the UK, and a country generally seen as stable and fair. It is equally a major non-NATO ally of the United States, where there are more than 5,000 international students of Kuwaiti origin in higher education. But these relationships, and the investment to which they have historically led, have been cast into doubt. And it now seems certain that relations will continue to sour so long as Marsha Lazareva languishes in Soulabaiya.
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