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Big power competition in the Eastern Mediterranean: Is Trump missing the point?

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A Trump administration decision to sanction two key Turkish officials in retaliation for the continued detention of an American cleric coupled with unqualified support for Israel and the adoption of a backseat in Syria threatens to further undermine US influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, a key part of the world in which Russia, Iran, China and an increasingly anti-American, Eurasia-focused Turkey are gaining the upper hand.

Crisis in Europe, spurred in part by the Eastern Mediterranean’s export of millions fleeing civil war in Syria, highlights the risks inherent to US abandonment of the region and single-minded focus on support of Israel.

The risks are magnified by the fact that the region remains a jihadist heartland and a playground in the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional hegemony. Potential instability is enhanced by Israel’s determination to deprive Iran of a permanent military presence in Syria and unresolved Palestinian and Kurdish national aspirations.

“The United States needs a holistic and integrated approach towards the Eastern Mediterranean that will stabilize Europe and shift the regional balance in the Middle East back towards the United States. Resolving the Syrian conflict is essential for Eastern Mediterranean stabilization, and developing an appropriate policy approach toward an increasingly antagonistic and anti-democratic Turkey is the key to solving the Syria puzzle and re-anchoring the region toward the Euro-Atlantic community,” said a report published this week by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

If the sanctioning of the Turkish ministers of justice and interior in response to the two year-long detention of pastor Andrew Brunson on charges of supporting Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, whom Turkey holds responsible for the failed 2016 military coup, is any indication, the Trump administration is in no mood to engage constructively in a bid to reverse its diminished influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The administration, adding insult to injury, announced the sanctions on the same day that the Senate approved a defense bill that prohibits the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey until the Pentagon reports on the state of Turkish-US relations, including the impact of Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile system.

Spinning the US actions as part of a conspiracy to undermine Turkey’s economy at a time that the Turkish lira has dropped dramatically against the dollar, pro-government media pronounced Turkey’s alliance with the United States dead and called for an end to US access to the Incerlik air base in the southeast of the country.

Vowing to take retaliatory action, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish foreign ministry adopted both a defiant and hurt tone in their response to the US sanctions imposed at a time that Turkish-Russian relations face an uncertain future.

In the short term, the sanctions and increasingly strained relationship with the United States make Turkey more dependent on Russia.

They also constitute an obstacle to the United States’ ability to exploit potential opportunities to shift the balance of power in the region in its favour.

Russian-Turkish interests are likely to diverge once Syria moves to regain control, of Idlib, the dumping ground for rebels and jihadists, including those that hail from the Caucasus and Central Asia, evacuated from areas elsewhere retaken by Syrian military forces.

Russia has been seeking to stave off a Syrian military offensive that would create yet another humanitarian crisis by attempting to negotiate a solution with Turkey and rebel groups.

Idlib is but one potential flashpoint in Turkish-Russian relations. Both Russia and Syria see the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia viewed by Turkey as a terrorist extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as important to resolving Idlib. YPG representatives have been travelling to Moscow, where the group was allowed to open an office in 2016.

Syrian Kurdish representatives have met in recent weeks with the government of president Bashar al-Assad to negotiate the future of Kurdish areas that Turkey wants to wrest from Kurdish nationalist control. They reportedly reached agreement on sharing oil revenues from two Kurdish-operated oil fields.

Recent remarks by Russia’s Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, did little to ease Turkish concerns.

“The Kurds will take part in the Syrian Constitutional Committee anyway. Their representatives will be included in every faction: opposition groups, the government’s delegation and civil society. We ask everyone to abstain from dividing the Kurds into pro-Turkish, pro-Russian or PYD and YPG categories, the latter of which is viewed negatively in Ankara,” Mr. Lavrentiev said referring to the political wing of the YPG, the Democratic Union Party, by its initials PYD.

A Russian-backed resolution of a three-decade-old dispute over the rights of Caspian Sea littoral states – Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan — set to be signed on August 12 paves the way for construction of an oil pipeline to Europe that could undermine Turkish hopes of becoming an alternative energy corridor that bypasses Russia.

Moreover, Russia this month began delivering arms to Armenia, whose borders with Turkey and Iran are guarded by Russian troops against the backdrop of reports that Turkey was planning to establish a military base in Nakhichevan, a landlocked autonomous region that is separated from Azerbaijan by a strip of Armenian territory.

Russian officials fear that Turkish and Azerbaijani military moves in Nakhichevan could fuel Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In its report, CSIS argued that the United States has a strategic interest in reasserting itself in the Eastern Mediterranean as a means of preserving European unity and security; stabilizing the Middle East; countering projection of power by Russia, Iran and China, and confronting challenges by numerous non-state actors.

Describing the Eastern Mediterranean as a theatre of big power competition that threatens US and trans-Atlantic interests, the report, maps out a detailed strategy for US re-engagement.

The United States, “must make hard choices and embrace realistic goals, however unattractive, to reinvigorate US diplomatic, economic and security engagement in the region. This will involve addressing and reconciling seemingly incompatible US policies towards Syria and Turkey that can only be bridged through active created and sustained diplomacy backed by ongoing military engagement,” the report said.

The US sanctioning of the Turkish ministers suggests that the mood in the Trump administration is a far cry from the kind of approach the report envisions.

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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Why Israel should support the establishment of the Middle Corridor

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The governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan earlier in the year signed a declaration on improving the transportation potential throughout the region.   Following that, the Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Georgian and Turkish foreign and transport ministries decided that there should be accelerated transport routes throughout the region, which will include the development of the Middle Corridor, a rail freight and ferry system that will link China with Europe.  

It starts in Southeast Asia and China, and runs through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey before reaching southern and central Europe.   This will permit trains to travel from China to Europe within 20-25 days, thus helping to reconnect the former Silk Road.  As a former Israeli minister, I believe that Israel should be supportive of the establishment of the Middle Corridor, as it will help to strengthen the Abraham Accords if it is expanded to include Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region.

The entire Middle East region used to be connected by train under the rule of the Ottoman Turks.   There are a number of remnants of this wonderful train system in Israel, including the Ottoman train stations in Beersheba, Jaffa, and Jerusalem.    These Ottoman train stations are historic landmarks from a bygone era when train travel across the Middle East was possible. Ottoman-era trains used to travel from Jaffa to Jerusalem, Haifa and other areas of the former Ottoman Turkish Empire, such as Medina and Damascus.

However, since Israel was declared to be independent, there has been no train travel between Israel and the Arab world.    This was one of many causalities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.     Yet in the wake of the Abraham Accords, this all has the potential to change, as the Arab countries no longer view Israel to be the pariah that they once viewed it to be.   If anything, the Persian Gulf countries now view Israel to be a partner in the struggle against Iran, as do the Turkic republics like Azerbaijan, who greatly disdain how the mullahs are treating the Azerbaijani population in the Islamic Republic.   

Thus, if this Middle Corridor is built, we Israelis can try to connect onto it as well, as it will help to counter the mullahs in Tehran by creating a stronger connection between the Turkic republics, Israel and the Arab world.   We can connect to it via Turkey by ferry, and then from there, have another set of trains going from Israel to Jordan and Saudi Arabia and from there, to the United Arab Emirates.   In our times, this is within the realm of the possible.   

This will thus help to greatly expand trade between China, the Turkic republics, Israel and the Arab countries.   Already, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan know that it is necessary to have a train that crosses from Israel to the Gulf states.  They are talking about it and thinking about it.  They are starting with trucks with containers that I arranged, where they bring containers from Abu Dhabi to Israel crossing from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Haifa.  They could continue from there to Turkey via ship and from there to Europe and anywhere else. 

That means that we can have a train traveling from Europe to Turkey and from there, ships can go to Haifa, and from Haifa to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and from there, to the Gulf states, and they can go back in the opposite direction.    I am in Bulgaria now to check how I can make it more relevant.  After that, a Saudi Arabian agreement with Israel can start with a new train, like what existed in the Ottoman times with the Hijaz Railway.   The people of Hijaz want to make it happen again. This is in the plan of the Abraham Accords Agreement and it will happen in the future.    

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Qatar punctures FIFA’s political fantasy

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If the Qatar World Cup proved anything, it’s that sports and politics are inseparable Siamese twins joined at the hip.

Politics popped up at every twist of the World Cup’s road, whether related to the right of freedom of expression of players, sports commentators and fans; anti-government protests in Iran; anti-Israeli sentiment among Qataris and Arabs; a backlash against Western, particularly German, critics of Qatar; or ultra-conservative religious rejection of soccer as a sport.

Qatari efforts to stage manage the intrusion of regional politics ranged from picking and choosing which protests fit its foreign policy agenda to seeking to ensure, where possible, that events elsewhere in the region would not overshadow or inflame passions during the World Cup.

Palestine is a case in point.

Amid escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Mohammad al-Emadi, the Qatari official handling Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, travelled to the region to ensure that it and Islamic Jihad, another Gaza-based organization, would not respond with rockets to Israeli use of lethal force against Palestinian militants on the West Bank.

Qatar feared that a response to last week’s killing of an Islamic Jihad commander on the West Bank and near-nightly Israeli raids could spark a renewed Israeli intervention in Gaza, already crippled by a 15-year-long Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

The Qatari pressure puts in a different perspective the Gulf state’s endorsement of expressions of support for the Palestinians during the World Cup in the form of pro-Palestinian flags and T-shirts and a refusal by Qatari and Arab fans to engage with Israeli reporters covering the tournament.

Despite refusing to follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan in recognizing Israel without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Qatar has a long-standing working relationship with the Jewish state that serves the interests of both countries.

The Gulf state, often at Israel’s request, has pumped millions of dollars into paying government salaries in Gaza, providing aid to thousands of families affected by past wars, and funding fuel for the Strip’s power plant as well as infrastructure projects.

Moreover, Qatar became the first Gulf state to put money into Israel when it funded in 2006 a six-million-dollar stadium in the predominantly Israeli Palestinian town of Sakhnin, an investment long before the UAE-led Arab recognition of the Jewish state 14 years later.

Sakhnin and the Doha Stadium are home to Bnei Sakhnin, Israel’s most successful Israeli-Palestinian club.

As a result, allowing expressions of pro-Palestinian sentiment during the World Cup served multiple Qatari purposes.

It gave a release valve to Qataris, a minority in their own country, who were concerned about the impact on their society of the government’s live-and-let-live approach towards soccer fans with very different cultural values visiting their country during the World Cup.

Preventing fans from taking pro-LGBT paraphernalia such as One Love and rainbow-coloured armbands and shirts into stadiums served a similar purpose.

It also allowed Qataris to vent their frustration at perceived double standards in European and American criticism of Qatar’s rejection of LGBT rights, particularly after the German team’s hands-over-mouth gesture in protest against FIFA’s denial of their right to wear pro-LGBT armbands.

In one instance, Qataris wore pro-Palestinian armbands of their own to a match as a protest against the donning of a pro-LGBT One Love band by German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, who attended the game.

Expressions of pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli sentiment also suggested that Qatar’s refusal to recognise Israel was more in line with Arab public opinion than efforts to project the UAE-led recognition of the Jewish state as genuinely popular and indicative of a drop in support for the Palestinian cause.

If anything, recent polls show that public support for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel had fallen across the Arab and Muslim world, including in countries that normalized their ties to the Jewish state.

In Bahrain, 20 per cent of the population supports the accords, compared with 45 per cent in 2020, according to a Washington Institute for Near East Policy poll in July. Support in Saudi Arabia fell from 41 to 19 per cent. Even in the UAE, where normalisation had the greatest impact, support dropped to 25 per cent this year from 47 per cent in 2020.

For Qatari World Cup managers, Palestine was low-hanging fruit. Protest against the government in Tehran was a far trickier challenge.

A regional behemoth, Iran is a partner as well as a potential threat with which Qatar shares the world’s largest offshore gas field.

Maintaining relations with Iran has allowed Qatar, at times, to be a background mediator with the United States on issues like the moribund talks to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement.

Qatar feared that allowing stadiums to become venues of confrontation between opponents and supporters of the Iranian government could have persuaded Iran to rank the Gulf state, alongside Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States, as an instigator of sustained anti-government protests in which security forces have killed hundreds.

As a result, Qatar sought to prevent anti-government banners, T-shirts, and pre-revolution flags from entering stadia. The problem resolved itself when Iran was knocked out of the World Cup in the group stage.

Yet, the larger issue remains. The Qatar World Cup demonstrates that FIFA’s insistence that sports and politics can be separated amounts to a political fantasy.

More concerning than that, it enables FIFA and autocratic World Cup hosts like Qatar to decide what are convenient and inconvenient expressions of politics. That hardly makes for a level playing field, the starting point for any sport.

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The challenges lie ahead Ankara’s decision to normalize relations with Cairo and Damascus

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as they attend reception hosted by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on the occasion of the opening ceremony of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. [Murat Kula - Anadolu Agency]

Although Egypt and Syria are at the bottom of the list of states with which Turkey intends to reconcile, the 10-year conflict with the two mentioned countries, which is accompanied by conflict and bloodshed in Syria, is on the verge of ending, and Turkey’s relations with Egypt and Syria are returning to normal. 

Of course, the recent progress is due to the efforts of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey; Especially after the negotiators failed to close the last case of incompatibility between the two sides. The process of reconciliation began in 2021, in the city of Al-Ala in Saudi Arabia, and since then, Cairo and Ankara continued to strive and innovate in order to achieve reconciliation and compromise, and finally achieved positive and significant results.

However, the reconciliation between the two states was not at the leadership level; Until Qatar provided the ground for the meeting of Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Doha during the opening ceremony of the World Cup. The sitting of the Secretary General of the United Nations between the presidents of the two countries was not aimed at keeping them away from each other, and it seems that the Egyptians and the Turks had prepared for this occasion a few weeks ago, and the opening ceremony of the World Cup was held as a tribute to the mediation of Qatar, as the appointment was selected.

Regardless of political compliments, the reconciliation of Egypt and Turkey is very important; Because the continuation of tension between the two countries can lead to many risky developments. Relations between Egypt and Turkey became strained after the overthrow of the government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013. At that time, it became clear to political observers that this inconsistency will last for a long time and will not end soon; Especially since the late president of Egypt tried to run his country with the mentality of a one party rule. For this reason, the solidarity of the angry protesters with the security institutions played a central role in changing the situation in this state and marked the end of the Muslim Brotherhood government. Then, the Muslim Brotherhood made Istanbul its alternative capital and began its plans and efforts to return to power from there. This caused a crisis in the relations between Egypt and Turkey, and with the passage of time, the incompatibility between the two states increased.

However, in the past year and a half, the governments of Turkey and Egypt have held several meetings in order to resolve the dispute and end the disputed cases, and they were able to achieve significant successes in terms of security and media. Ankara more or less stopped the activity of the Egyptian opposition in Turkish territory, but the reconciliation between the two sides was not complete and the disagreement over how to manage the Libyan war crisis and the dispute over territorial waters in the Mediterranean remained unresolved.

In the case of Libya, Turkey supports one side of the conflict and Egypt supports the other side. Libya plays a vital role for Egypt in terms of security, and it is an important market for Turkey in terms of economy. In addition, Libya has many debts to pay to Turkey since the Gaddafi government.

On the other hand, after the discovery of gas fields in the Mediterranean waters, which are believed to contain a large amount of energy, there was a dispute between Egypt, Turkey and Greece over territorial waters in the Mediterranean, and the aforementioned states have not been able to find a solution to overcome this challenge.

The issue of ending the tension between Egypt and Turkey is very important, because achieving this goal may help end the war in Libya, and this in itself is reason enough to be optimistic about the current efforts for reconciliation between the two states. However, the price of this reconciliation will be paid by the opposition affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood outside of Egypt.

Of course, the path of reconciliation between Damascus and Ankara is extremely chaotic and risky. It is so difficult to reach the stage of reconciliation between the two states that, according to Erdogan, if he himself goes to Damascus, he will not be able to find a quick solution to end this complex crisis. Turkey and Syria have been fighting indirectly for more than 10 years. In addition, several military powers, including the forces of the Islamic Republic, Russia, the United States, foreign militias, the remnants of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the separatist Kurds of Turkey, and the Syrian armed opposition continue to invade Syria.

Meanwhile, the inability of Damascus to control parts of the Syrian territory has created a power vacuum in different parts of the country. Millions of Syrian refugees live abroad; In addition, millions of other citizens who have been forced to leave their homes have sought refuge in areas far from the war and are still displaced.

Therefore, any solution that is presented to end the crisis should consider the above points. Currently, all sides want the war in Syria to end, but the path to achieving this goal remains elusive.

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