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For Qatar, Hamas and Israel, Middle East Peace Plan Requires Quiet, Subdued Diplomacy

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The Middle East peace plan, repeatedly reported to be close to full unveiling, promises to offer both Israelis and Palestinians in Trump speak ‘the Deal of the Century’. Premonitions into the peace strategy offered by the White House, including the administration’s hither to approach to the so-called final status issues identified during the 1993 Oslo Accords, leave little doubt as to the plan’s would-be reception. Particularly across the wider Arab world, where adherence to the Palestinian cause – albeit reduced – still holds public consensus, the official publication of a Trumpian strategy that rejects key negotiation matters will demand a strong repudiation.

Trump’s exacerbation of the Middle East power balance equally challenges the ongoing multi-track negotiations led by Qatar and involving Hamas and Israel, as the advancement of the parties’ geopolitical objectives requires the maneuverability to defy the espousal of traditional stances – interests that are best served by a more subdued US diplomacy.

For those familiar with the political chimes that embody the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the spring and summer of 2018 offered a staunch reminder of the national social and political turmoil, not to mention the ever-changing regional geopolitical dimensions, that characterize the 70-year-old crisis.While initially a grassroots initiative, the Return Marches held in Gaza – intended to protest Trump’s Jerusalem decision and to commemorate Palestinians’ uprooting since 1948 – once again turned the world’s attention to the plight of those living in the tiny strip of land, in large part the result of the decade-long economic blockade implemented by Israel and Egypt in 2007. The resulting tensions on the border, simultaneously, offered Hamas the means to cement its long-sought domestic and international political legitimacy. Through Qatari diplomatic channels, Hamas – considered a terrorist organization by its indirect interlocutor – and Israel have engaged in truce talks with the aim of alleviating the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and avoiding a full-scale war. At the same time, the avoidance of further bloodshed and improving economic conditions, including through the planned establishment of a sea corridor in Cyprus, enable Hamas to subdue the popular challenge of dominant fundamentalist Salafi and other Jihadi movements in Gaza.

Qatar’s interest in the Gaza Strip is no novel occurrence; since 2012, the Qatar National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza(GRC) has been active in renovating and building destroyed infrastructure.In February, the Qatar-America foundation, citing Mohammed E. Al-Emadi, chairman of GRC and Qatar’s Gaza envoy, reported that between 2012 and 2018, Qatar had spent upwards of 400 million on reconstruction projects in Gaza.For Jason Greenblatt, one of Trump’s peace pointmen, Qatar’s partnering with Israel to provide aid to Gaza was supposed to “end […] support for Hamas.” Yet beyond the provision of development aid, Qatar’s assumption of a mediatory role between Hamas and Israel – first confirmed in June – serves its own international agenda.

The subject of an ongoing economic and political blockade led by Saudi Arabia and its allies, the small Gulf state seeks to depose the Egyptians of their role of chief regional negotiators by favoring Hamas-Israeli cooperation over the intra-Palestinian reconciliation sought by the el-Sisi regime. To date, several Cairo-sponsored reconciliation attempts between Hamas and Fatah have failed; the most recent agreement of October 2017 crumbled earlier this year. According to Al-Elmadi, the Qataris are well-placed to assume the role of a credible partner, because, as the envoy disclosed to Al Jazeera, “the Egyptians are not trusted by Hamas. This is because more than a year ago, the Egyptians made many promises to Hamas to achieve reconciliation with Fatah, among other things, but they did not deliver on their promise.”

For Israel, too, Qatar offers an interesting partnership, as one that promotes the administration’s short-term and long-term objectives. The Trumpian Middle East strategy is one which, to date, appears to align with that of Israel. The unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital last December, the refusal to apply internationally-recognized terminology to the Occupied Territories, the recent withdrawal of all aid funding to UNRWA, and the desire to strip millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees of their rights and status closely align with the policies and narrative put forward by the hawkish Likud party, which has, save a four-year hiatus from 2005-2009, ruled Israel continuously since 2001.

In the short term, a successful Qatar-brokered mediation with Hamas allows Israel to establish the desired security on its borders, while also diverting economic and social responsibility on the occupied strip to the oil-rich Gulf state. In the longer term, Israeli (in)direct engagement with Hamas also enables the continuation of the ‘No Partner for Peace Narrative’, initiated by former Labor PM Ehud Barak after the failure of the July 2000 Camp David, to thwart any substantial peace accord. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has continuously emphasized that any and all agreements on Gaza must run through Ramallah. Commenting on the potential ramifications of forging a deal between Israel and Hamas, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman correctly noted that sidestepping the Palestinian Authority would not only constitute a “tremendous prize” for Hamas but equally create a further obstacle to peace as “the Palestinian Authority should be part of the solution for the Palestinians of Gaza and Palestinians as a whole.”By isolating Abbas, Israel’s partner in security cooperation, the Israeli government also appears to reject the recommendations and warnings of the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet, who realize that sidelining the increasingly-frustrated octogenarian poses a regional security risk.

All indications point that Trump’s Middle East peace strategy, which has been under work since mid-2017, will be dead on arrival. The administration’s desire to challenge decades of failed peace-making initiatives is not an unlofty one. Nevertheless, the appointment of a peace team characterized by a pro-settlement approach, the sought disruption of UNRWA’s work and, in the words of President Trump, “taking Jerusalem off the table” demonstrate a tone-deaf approach to the complexities surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, the alienation and undermining of an already weak interlocutor as a means to further negotiations is symptomatic of a misunderstanding of sound international diplomacy. In her study of the failure of the Oslo Accords, Hilde Henriksen Waage concluded that the exacerbation of the overwhelming imbalance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians by a third-party facilitator acting as “Israel’s helpful errand boy” inevitably distorted the outcome of negotiations; in the end, according to Waage, the only results that can be achieved when this diplomacy is adopted are “no more than the strong party will allow.”

In response to Trump’s recent demand for Israeli concessions and the promise that Palestinians will get “something good” in return for his recognition of Jerusalem – statements that contradict previous reports – Netanyahu asserted that the publication of the plan had no “urgency.” The undesirability of a diplomatic quid-pro-quo is clear: changing geopolitical perspectives do not mean Netanyahu’s current interlocutors will expend the political capital that involves publicly challenging positions that the Palestinians – and the vast majority of the Arab world – reject.

Grace Wermenbol specializes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the post-Oslo period. She holds a PhD from Oxford University and has been appointed as a Teaching Fellow in contemporary Middle East history and politics at SOAS in London.

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Middle East

Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From our partner Tehran Times

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Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Middle East

Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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