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How much solidarity with Iran can the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization afford?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A planned China and Russia-led show of support for Iran at next month’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit is likely to be primarily symbolic unless the group opts to honour the Islamic republic’s bid to be upgraded from observer to full member.

Yet, even a symbolic SCO gesture at its June 9-10 gathering in the Chinese city of Qingdao that would denounce the US withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran and imposition of harsh sanctions could prove tricky.

The meeting is expected to be attended by the presidents of China, Russia, Iran India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It will come a day after the leaders of G-7 that groups the United States, the European Union, Japan, Canada, Britain, France and Germany are unlikely to find common ground on Iran at their summit in Quebec.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will presumably not look kindly at solidarity at a time that the underlying motto of US and Saudi policy towards Iran appears to be isolation and regime change.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE moreover fear that membership in the SCO, which groups four Central Asian nations as well as Pakistan and India alongside China and Russia, would grant Iran a veto over their potential association with the grouping. With Israel and others interested in joining the SCO, that may be the reason why the group has so far dragged its feet on Iranian membership.

China and Russia, like Europe are signatories of the nuclear agreement, but less concerned than Britain, France and Germany about the threat of US sanctions against their own companies who do business in Iran. At least officially, they have so far not factored in a potential Saudi and UAE response to efforts to defeat the sanctions and salvage the agreement.

As a result, Chinese and Russian state-backed companies are manoeuvring to profit from European firms like French oil company Total that are leaving Iran in the belief that the European Union will not be able to shield them from US retaliation.

Swiss lender Banque de Commerce et de Placements (BCP) said on Tuesday that it had suspended new transactions with Iran and was winding down Iran-related activities. Earlier, Germany’s second biggest lender, DZ Bank, said it would halt financial transactions with Iran in July.

For its part, India, despite being dependent on energy from the Gulf, has vowed to keep trading with Iran irrespective of the fallout from US sanctions. “India follows only UN sanctions, and not unilateral sanctions by any country,” said Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.

Pakistan could find itself in the most difficult situation given its close political, military and cultural ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and its 700-kilometre long border with Iran.

The degree to which SCO members could find themselves between a rock and a hard place will depend on what strategy the United States and Saudi Arabia adopt in possible attempts to change the Iranian regime.

So far, the Trump administration appears to see economic pressure that would fuel already widespread discontent in Iran as its best bet. That could change however if efforts by SCO members as well as Europe succeed in countering US sanctions and salvaging the nuclear deal.

Complicating the debate about how best to confront Iran is the fact that senior aides to President Donald J. Trump have close ties to a controversial Iranian exile group, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) or Holy Warriors of the People, seeking the overthrow of the government in Tehran that also enjoys Saudi support.

The group, believed to be responsible for the killing of several American military personnel and contractors in Iran in the 1970s, was designated by the US Treasury in 1997 and delisted in 2012, a year after a host of former US and British officials, came out publicly in support of the group.

Many of the officials have attended and addressed MEK rallies, allegedly in exchange for handsome fees and all-expenses paid trip. MEK, which first gained recognition for its opposition to the Shah of Iran, has denied paying for speaking engagements.

Mr. Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton and Richard Giuliani, one of his top lawyers, were among the speakers.

“The declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullah’s regime in Iran. Before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran,” Mr. Bolton told an MEK rally less than a year before his appointment by Mr. Trump.

“The regime is evil, and it must go. Free Iran,” added Mr. Giuliani.

Others who have backed the group include former FBI director Louis Freer, former British home secretary Lord Waddington, former US Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two former directors of the CIA, former commander of NATO Wesley K. Clark, two former U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations., former national security advisers Fran Townsend and General James Jones, and 93 members of Congress.

US officials said at the time that the group had been delisted after it had renounced violence and cooperated in closing a paramilitary base in Iraq from where it was operating since declaring its support in 1983 for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war.

“As far as the MEK is concerned, their guy is in the White House. They’re tied in this together. John Bolton is the MEK’s guy in the White House,” said Joanne Stocker, a journalist who has tracked the group for almost a decade,

The group also has the backing of Saudi Arabia, which has developed plans and invested in building blocks for potential covert operations to destabilize Iran.

A Syrian opposition news website reported this week that Saudi Arabia was funding and providing logistical support to the US-backed Democratic Union Party (PYD), a battle-hardened Syrian Kurdish group that has proven its mettle in fighting the Islamic State.

The public face of the kingdom’s backing of the MEK is former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to Britain and the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal.

“Your legitimate struggle against the (Iranian) regime will achieve its goal, sooner or later. I, too, want the fall of the regime,” Prince Turki, echoing the statements by Messrs. Bolton and Giuliani, told an MEK rally in Paris in 2017.

One-time MEK National Liberation Army commander and security chief, Massoud Khodabandeh, who turned against the group in the second half of the 1990s, says that “I personally have brought money and gold from Saudi Arabia to Iraq for the Mujahedeen… It was three trucks of gold… I would say about a ton each.”

A 2012 report by the Library of Congress identified Mr. Khodabandeh and his wife as Iranian intelligence agents. The report said the couple had agreed to cooperate with the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security after it threatened to kill Mr. Khodabandeh’s brother and confiscate extensive real estate holdings in Tehran owned by his mother.

More recently, MSNBC’s Richard Engel reported that Gulf states had funded construction of an MEK military base in Albania.

The MEK has denied receiving any foreign assistance, insisting that it is wholly funded by members and supporters.

The MEK is widely believed to have been responsible for a series of bombings in Iran in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 toppling of the Shah. that killed scores of post-revolution leaders.

Dutch media reports suggested last week that an Iranian exile killed in Amsterdam in 2015 was an MEK operative who had been sentenced to death in Iran for bombing a gathering of officials in Teheran in 1981.

Seventy-three people were killed in the attack, including Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti, the second most powerful cleric at the time after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as well as four ministers and numbers of members of parliament.

It’s unclear what degree of support the MEK enjoys in Iran today with many analysts convinced that the group lost sympathy when it sided with Iraq against Iran. Groups associated with the MEK have claimed credit for protests in recent years in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, that has a significant ethnic Arab population. Iranian Arab activists deny the groups’ assertions.

Saudi backing of groups like the MEK and PYD as well as ultra-conservative, anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian forces in the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders on Iran could potentially pose a serious problem for the leaders of the SCO.

Heightened tension in Balochistan could threaten China’s $50 billion plus infrastructure and energy investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of the People’s Republic’s Belt and Road initiative.

So far, China is in good company with much of the international community opposed to abrogation of the Iranian nuclear agreement and, at least in word, determined to defeat US efforts to bring Iran to its knees with sanctions.

Yet, like many in the international community with Europe in the lead, China may find that putting its money where its mouth is could prove in the final analysis problematic.

Similarly, Russia has much at stake after having forged close cooperation with Saudi Arabia in managing world oil prices while attempting to ensure that Iran’s presence in Syria does not escalate into a war with Israel.

If Europe’s Achilles Heel is obstacles to putting credible mechanisms in place to protect its companies against US sanctions, China’s weak spot is its ruthless campaign to tame Islam in China, particularly among Uighurs in the strategic northwest province of Xinjiang.

So far, it has been able to do so with little international response because Saudi Arabia and other Islamic states have looked the other way. The question is whether an effective Chinese countering of US sanctions that would significantly weaken the impact on Iran may prompt Saudi Arabia and others to revisit the issue.

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

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

Dr.Alon Ben-Meir

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Middle East

Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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