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Can the Idlib Memorandum Freeze the Conflict?

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During their Sochi talks in September 2018, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached an agreement on preserving the de-escalation zone in Idlib and abandoning the military operation that the Assad regime had been preparing to launch against the opposition groups in Idlib. The main provisions of the Sochi agreements boil down to the establishment of a demilitarized zone, 15–20 kilometres deep in the de-escalation area and the withdrawal by the conflicting parties of their heavy weaponry, including armoured vehicles, artillery, mortars and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) by October 10, and of radical terrorist groups by October 15 (the units of moderate rebels will hold their positions). Free movement and freight carriage is set to be restored on the M4 (Aleppo to Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo to Damascus) roads.

A Step Toward a “Turkish Republic of Northern Syria”?

Ankara has consistently advocated for the preservation of the opposition-controlled de-escalation zone, and it was the efforts of Turkey, and of Erdogan personally, that averted the military threat to Idlib, even if temporarily. Many provisions of the Sochi agreements rely on the so-called “white paper” that Turkey conveyed to Russia back in July. Ankara’s demonstration of military power also played a role. Between the Tehran summit of the “Astana troika” and the Sochi talks, the Turkish military was actively building up its forces in the Idlib de-escalation zone, boosting them with tanks and artillery. At the same time, additional weapons were supplied to the Syrian National Army units deployed in the Turkish “buffer” zone in Northern Aleppo, and its forces were ready to move to Idlib to assist the local opposition groups.

These steps indicate that Turkey is ready to press for the Province of Idlib to gradually turn into a Turkish “protectorate,” as happened in the regions of Northern Aleppo, which fell under the country’s “security umbrella” following the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations. Accordingly, preserving the opposition’s control over the regions remaining under its power gives Turkey a chance to head up and supervise the peaceful process together with Russia. Should Idlib transition under Assad’s control before a final political settlement in Syria is achieved, Turkey would essentially be left out of Syrian settlement, which would strip its fosterlings in the ranks of Syria’s opposition of any say and the opportunity to be represented in the transitional governmental bodies.

Therefore, it is important for Turkey to prevent the fragmentation of Idlib’s de-escalation zone and keep it under Turkish control without allowing the Russian military police to “take root” there as patrols or outposts, let alone as any administrative bodies of the Syrian regime. This is why Ankara supported the position of the Syrian rebel groups that opposed the Russian military presence in the demilitarized zone or their deployment along M4 and M5 routes. Ankara believes that Turkish troops are capable of handling the task independently. A compromise with Russia could be achieved on the issue. Turkey agreed to the demilitarized zone going exclusively through opposition-controlled territories. Consequently, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry will only apply to the insurgents, and not to the “conflicting parties” as the memorandum stated. In response, Ankara insists that any Russian military presence in the demilitarized zone is unacceptable.

Additionally, Syrian refugees pose an extremely grave problem for the Turkish leadership. The country’s population is growing progressively more discontented with accommodating several millions of Syria’s forced migrants in the long term. Applying the Lebanese scenario to resolve this problem is unacceptable for Ankara, since it would mean pushing the refugees back into Syria while the current regime is in power. Recep Erdogan has repeatedly stated that Bashar al-Assad is guilty of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and has even called him a “murderer.” For Turkey, the most convenient solution would be to create the necessary conditions for accommodating Syrian refuges in opposition-controlled territories. Camps are being built in Northern Aleppo that can take in over 150,000 forced migrants. Nonetheless, the Turkish “protectorate” areas in Northern Aleppo may not be enough. Therefore, the de-escalation zone in Idlib could become the principal region for returning Syrian refugees from Turkey once the required infrastructure is in place. However, it will only be possible if the danger of Syria’s governmental troops conducting a military operation there is averted and if the issue of terrorist groups present there is resolved.

Has the Triumphant Progress Stopped?

For Damascus, the Sochi agreements effectively put an end to a victorious 2018. Over that time, Damascus took control over opposition enclaves one by one: Eastern Ghouta, Al-Dumayr and Eastern Qalamoun, Yarmouk, Homs, Deraa and Quneitra. It seemed that one last push would have been enough to ensure a complete triumph for Bashar al-Assad. Therefore, there is reason to believe that, despite official statements, the Syrian authorities were not satisfied with the terms of the Sochi memorandum. The Syrian regime insisted on a military operation without taking into account many risks, such as the large numbers, motivation and equipment of the Idlib insurgents, who, unlike in other regions where Bashar al-Assad had achieved success, could count on military and other support from Turkey. In addition, Ankara had 12 observation points transformed into fortified bases along the perimeter of the de-escalation zone.

Nonetheless, Damascus did not resign itself to the current situation, and its representatives have said that the opposition has until December to reconcile and put down their weapons, although there are no such provisions in the Sochi agreements. For the Syrian regime, transforming Idlib into a Turkish “protectorate” is all the more unacceptable because it essentially rules out a military solution to the Idlib problem in the foreseeable future. That is, al-Assad’s regime would like to view the Sochi agreements as the first stage of the process to force the Syrian opposition to lay down their arms and reconcile following the scenario implemented in the south of the country. Damascus is likely to put pressure on Russia to pay greater attention to Syria’s wishes and channel the process of implementing the Sochi agreements into the direction that Damascus needs.

Moscow between Ankara and Damascus

Moscow is in a rather tricky position as, on the one hand, it is forced to take the position of Damascus into account, while, on the other, it understands that it is futile to engage in an open confrontation with Ankara. Moscow is still forced to look for compromise options in implementing the Sochi agreements. Nonetheless, Russia has demonstrated that it still has a decisive word in Syrian affairs, as well as enough influence on both Damascus and Tehran to prevent a military operation with as much as a decision only. In addition, Russia can count on Turkey making concessions on the political track of the Syrian settlement process. In practice, Turkey can be expected to promote various “frozen” projects more actively within the peace process that would stand no chance of being implemented in the event that military actions were to start. This applies in particular to those initiatives that were spearheaded and elaborated by Moscow, such as forming a constitutional committee where serious shifts were taking shape following the Geneva talks on September 10–11. Such a situation could have a positive effect on Russia’s plans to involve the countries of the European Union and the Persian Gulf in restoring the Syrian infrastructure, which would allow the process of returning the refugees to start.

Therefore, if the military escalation around Idlib continues to defuse, Ankara will be able to influence the Syrian opposition, forcing it to be more receptive to suggestions coming from Russia as part of the political settlement process. Thereby, Turkey will attempt to preserve Russia’s interest in further deferring the military operation until it is removed from the agenda completely, which, on the one hand, will promote the success of Russia’s peaceful initiatives and, on the other, oppose radicals in Idlib and demonstrate specific steps taken in that area.

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham

Turkey consistently works to undermine the standing of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that in early 2017 subsumed Jabhat al-Nusra (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) in Idlib. In summer 2017, the large group Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki split from the HTS. The presence of Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki had made it possible to claim that the transformation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham was not another re-branding of Jabhat al-Nusra. The HTS’s positions were further weakened when Jaysh al-Ahrar split from it as it set a course for restoring ties and developing cooperation with its “parent” structure Ahrar al-Sham. Turkey appears to have played the key role in the HTS split, since the excessive strengthening of the radicals, who had established their control of the province’s capital of Idlib shortly before that, was against Turkey’s interests. Ankara still has influence over various groups that are part of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, as well as over the leaders of the organization. Apparently, further steps should be expected from Ankara to stimulate individual HTS factions capable of reaching and maintaining an agreement to split from the alliance and join the moderate opposition. To make the HTS more amenable, Ankara put the alliance on the list of terrorist groups in late August. Thus, even though today Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham controls a little over a half of Idlib’s de-escalation zone, it remains significantly weakened compared to the winter–summer of 2017. The HTS numbers have fallen almost twofold since then and are now estimated at 12,000–15,000 militants. Additionally, the Turkistan Islamic Party consisting of 2300 Uighur militants actively interacts with the HTS.

The HTS units are highly combat-effective and, in terms of their combat capabilities, are no worse than the larger groups of moderate opposition. Nonetheless, during the fighting that took place in February–April 2018 between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (the Syrian Liberation Front), the former lost many of its positions in Idlib. After moderate groups assembled in the National Front for Liberation, these factions gained even greater superiority in numbers, which could push the HTS to make further concessions and comply with the provisions of the Sochi agreements on the HTS withdrawing from the 15-kilometer demilitarized zone.

The HTS is split on the issue of implementing the Sochi agreements. Consequently, as of the writing of this article, this group has not yet declared its position. The debate between followers of the two major factions still continues in the HTS’s Shura Council. One faction is the pro-Turkey Syrian bloc that insists on withdrawing the HTS forces from the demilitarized zone and further integration into the moderate opposition, since they connect their future with Syria. The other group is comprised of hard-liners, the “intractables,” many of whom are foreigners who may make their presence known once again in the event of a fresh exacerbation. And in case of failure, they plan to leave the country and continue their subversive activities in other regions.

Al-Qaeda

The “Syrian” part of the HTS is ready to gradually transition to the moderate opposition camp. Should the group continue to fragment, its radical wing is ready for a rapprochement with their former partners who had split from the HTS when it declared it was cutting ties with Al-Qaeda. These radicals have formed their own association, Hurras ad-Din, which is currently an Al-Qaeda branch in Syria. However, it is not a serious force, with no more than 800 people. Another group of the “intractables” is Ansar al-Din, numbering 300 people, which is a part of the HTS that refused to join the organization, judging it to be too moderate. Thus, radical groups in Idlib number up to 20,000 people in total. The province also has IS units, however, they are represented solely by secret underground cells.

The National Front for Liberation (Jabhat al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir)

In addition to causing dissent among radicals, Ankara has been working successfully on rebuilding the positions and consolidating the forces of the moderate opposition. In February 2018, Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (the Syrian Liberation Front), an alliance that proved capable of opposing the HTS and of pushing back against HTS radicals in Idlib, was established. The next stage was deploying the National Front for Liberation in May 2018; Jabhat Tahrir Suriya joined in August.

Establishing the National Front for Liberation in May 2018 was an important step on the way toward installing Turkey’s control over the armed opposition in Idlib with the prospect of its further integration in the united Syrian National Army. Establishing the National Front for Liberation drew a line under the process of separating moderate opposition from radicals: all the groups (besides Jaysh al-Izzah) that are outside the National Front for Liberation in Idlib can be called “radical.”

The next stage, in turn, envisions the merger of the National Front for Liberation deployed in Idlib with the Syrian National Army (SNA) formed in the Syrian protectorate of Northern Aleppo. The plan is to gather all the moderate opposition forces under its banner. However, the National Front for Liberation can merge with the SNA if the Idlib problem is resolved in accordance with the “Turkish scenario,” i.e. after de facto transforming the region into Turkey’s “protectorate.” It should be kept in mind that the SNA forces did not take part in the military operations against Assad’s regime in Idlib. They operate solely in the regions covered by the Turkish “security umbrella” and were primarily geared for military operations against Syrian Kurds from the Democratic Union Party.

Virtually all factions surviving into the eighth year of the Syrian conflict and operating under the Free Syrian Army “brand” joined the National Front for Liberation: the Free Idlib Army, Jaysh al-Nasr, Jaysh al-Nukhba, the Free Syrian Army 2nd army (Jaysh al-Thani), the Free Syrian Army 1st Coastal Division, the Free Syrian Army 2nd Coastal Division, the Free Syrian Army 23rd Division, Daraya’s Shuhada al-Islam, Liwa al-Hurriya and several other small Free Syrian Army factions, including units brought into Idlib from Damascus and other regions. Nonetheless, the National Front for Liberation’s principal assault force is comprised of moderate Islamist groups such as Faylaq al-Sham, Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (a coalition of Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki), Suqour al-Sham and Jaysh al-Ahrar (with the exception of the first group, they all joined the National Front for Liberation somewhat later, in August 2018). Today, the National Front for Liberation numbers 50,000–55,000 militants.

The Syrian National Army

Even though the Syrian National Army (SNA) is not deployed in Syria’s de-escalation zone, it does have an immediate influence on the situation in the region. Should the army’s units be retrained, re-armed and equipped by Turkey and shifted to Idlib, the situation there could change in terms of both possibly repelling Bashar al-Assad’s offensive and suppressing radicals there. Additionally, should the need arise, SNA units may come over to the National Front for Liberation side and join their “parent” units on the front, since both the National Front for Liberation and the SNA often comprise brigades from the same groups, for instance, Ahrar al-Sham.

The SNA is formed in the regions of the so-called Turkish “protectorate” or “buffer,” i.e. in those Syrian regions where the Turkish military operates and which are covered by Turkey’s aviation, thereby minimizing the possibilities of al-Assad’s regime and its allies carrying out a military operation.

The SNA includes five legions or corps. Three (the 1st, 2nd and 3rd) were deployed in Northern Aleppo and one (the 4th) in Homs. After the region was surrendered to al-Assad’s regime in May 2018, it was also deployed in Northern Aleppo. In July, the 5th legion began deployment in north-eastern regions of Idlib’s de-escalation zone (the Aleppo province). Factions from the National Front for Liberation are expected to join it, and the legion may become a transition model for integrating the National Front for Liberation’s Idlib factions into the SNA.

The 1st legion was formed from Turkoman brigades such as Mehmed the Conqueror Brigade and the Samarkand Brigade that formed the legion’s core. It also includes the Descendants of Saladin Kurdish Brigade (pro-Turkish), Victory Brigades, the 21st united Free Syrian Army division, the 101st Free Syrian Army division etc. The SNA’s 2nd legion is also considered Turkoman, and its principal parts are the al-Sultan Murad Division and the al-Hamza Division. Additionally, the legion includes the Mutasim Billah Brigade, the al-Safwa Battalions and others. The 3rd SNA legion may be called “Islamic,” since it comprises moderate Islamic groups, such as three factions of al-Jabhat al-Shamiya: the Northern Storm Brigade, the Sword of the Levant Brigade and the Soldiers of Islam Brigades, as well as some Ahrar al-Sham units operating in Northern Aleppo such as Tajammu Fastaqim Kama Umirt and Liwa al-Manbij, among others. The 4th SNA legion is also considered “Islamic.” It comprises Liwa al-Haqq, Faylaq Homs and Ahrar al-Sham brigades that had previously operated in Homs. As of August 2018, the SNA numbers 35,000 militants in total.

The process of units from other factions integrating into the SNA continues. The SNA may be boosted by units of Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam being withdrawn from around Damascus and positioned in two camps around Afrin and al-Bab in the Turkish “protectorate” of Northern Aleppo. Today, at least Jaysh al-Islam already operates under the SNA’s “umbrella,” although it has not been fully integrated into its corps structure. Therefore, once fully deployed, the SNA may number 50,000 troops. Accordingly, if the NFL joins the SNA, they will number 100,000 troops total: these are the forces at the disposal of Syria’s moderate opposition.

In addition to the National Front for Liberation and the SNA, the Jaysh al-Izzah group should also be counted as moderate opposition. It is the only faction flying the Free Syrian Army’s flag that still preserved its independence and did not join alliances. It numbers 3500 fighters.

Thus, the balance of power between the moderate opposition and radicals gives reason to hope that Ankara’s measures to ultimately free Idlib from terrorist groups will succeed. Although the Sochi memorandum does not provide a timeframe for “cleansing” the region of terrorist groups, or indeed the terms and methods of doing so, the temporary or long-term preservation of Idlib’s status quo will largely hinge on the resolution of this very question.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Suicide attack in Iran frames visit to Pakistan by Saudi crown prince

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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This week’s suicide attack on Revolutionary Guards in Iran’s south-eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan, the second in two months, could not have come at a more awkward moment for Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan.

The assault on a bus carrying the guards back from patrols on the province’s border with the troubled Pakistani region of Balochistan killed 27 people and wounded 13 others. It occurred days before Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was scheduled to visit Pakistan as part of a tour of Asian countries.

While Baluchistan is set to figure prominently in Prince Mohammed’s talks with Mr. Khan, the attack also coincided with a US-sponsored conference in Warsaw, widely seen as an effort by the Trump administration to further isolate Iran economically and diplomatically.

Inside the conference, dubbed The Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that US policy was designed to force Iran to alter its regional and defense policies and not geared towards regime change in Tehran.

Yet, US President Donald J. Trump appeared to be sending mixed messages to the Iranians as well as sceptical European governments with his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, addressing a rally outside the conference organized by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial Iranian exile group believed to enjoy Saudi backing.

Mr. Giuliani told the protesters who waved Iranian flags and giant yellow balloons emblazoned with the words, “Regime Change” that “we want to see a regime change in Iran.”

Mr. Trump appeared to fuel suspicion that Mr. Giuliani represented his true sentiment by tweeting on the eve of the Warsaw conference in a reference to the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution: “40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future.”

In a statement, the Revolutionary Guards blamed the attack on “mercenaries of intelligence agencies of world arrogance and domination,” a reference to Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel.

Jaish-al-Adl (the Army of Justice), a Pakistan-based splinter group that traces its roots to Saudi-backed anti-Shiite groups with a history of attacks on Iranian and Shiite targets, has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The group says it is not seeking Baloch secession from Iran. Instead, it wants to “force the regime of the guardianship of jurisconsult (Iran) to respect the demands of the Muslim Baloch and Sunni society alongside the other compatriots of our country.”

Militants targeted a Revolutionary Guards headquarters in December in a rare suicide bombing in Chabahar, home to Iran’s Indian-backed port on the Arabian Sea, a mere 70 kilometres from the Chinese supported port of Gwadar, a crown jewel in the Pakistani leg of the People’s Republic’s Belt and Road initiative.

The attacks coupled with indications that Saudi Arabia and the United States may be contemplating covert action against Iran using Pakistani Balochistan as a launching pad, and heightened Saudi economic and commercial interest in the province, frame Prince Mohammed’s upcoming talks in Islamabad.

During his visit, Prince Mohammed is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding on a framework for US$10 billion in Saudi investments.

The memorandum includes a plan by Saudi national oil company Aramco to build a refinery in Gwadar as well as Saudi investment in Baluchistan’s Reko Diq copper and gold mine.

The investments would further enhance Saudi influence in Pakistan as well as the kingdom’s foothold in Balochistan.

They would come on the back of significant Saudi aid to help Pakistan evade a financial crisis that included a US$3 billion deposit in Pakistan’s central bank to support the country’s balance of payments and another US$3 billion in deferred payments for oil imports.

Taken together, the refinery, a strategic oil reserve in Gwadar and the mine would also help Saudi Arabia in potential efforts to prevent Chabahar from emerging as a powerful Arabian Sea hub.

Saudi funds have been flowing for some time into the coffers of ultra-conservative anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian Sunni Muslim madrassahs or religious seminars in Balochistan. It remains unclear whether they originate with the Saudi government or Saudi nationals of Baloch descent and members of the two million-strong Pakistani Diaspora in the kingdom.

The funds help put in place potential building blocks for possible covert action should the kingdom and/or the United States decide to act on proposals to support irredentist activity.

The flow started at about the time that the Riyadh-based  International Institute for Iranian Studies, formerly known as the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies, an allegedly Saudi government-backed think tank, published  a study that argued that Chabahar posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.”

If executed, covert action could jeopardize Indian hopes to use Chabahar to bypass Pakistan, significantly enhance its trade with Afghanistan and Central Asian nations and create an anti-dote to Gwadar.

Pakistani analysts expect an estimated US$ 5 billion in Afghan trade to flow through Chabahar after India in December started handling the port’s operations.

Iranian concerns that the attacks represent a US and/or Saudi covert effort are grounded not only in more recent US and Saudi policies, including Mr. Trump’s withdrawal last year from the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program despite confirmation of its adherence to the accord and re-imposition of harsh economic sanctions against the Islamic republic.

They are also rooted in US and Saudi backing of Iraq in the 1980s Gulf war, US overtures in the last year to Iranian Kurdish insurgents, the long-standing broad spectrum of support of former and serving US officials for the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq and in recent years of Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ex-ambassador to the United States and Britain.

Said Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s Iran analyst: “The concern was never that the Trump admin would avert its eyes from Iran, but rather that is in inflicted by an unhealthy obsession with it. In hyping the threat emanating from Iran, Trump is more likely than not to mishandle it and thus further destabilize the Middle East.”

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Turkey-Israel: Caught between friendship and enmity

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In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the State of Israel. Territorial disputes with Iraq (Ankara claims the Mosul region as Turkish territory) and with neighboring Syria (which has never recognized Alexandretta Sanjak, Hatayt vilayet’s joining Turkey after WWI) necessitated a search for a regional ally. Moreover, the long-simmering conflict with Greece and accusations of the Armenian genocide had threatened to cut off the supply of high technologies and weapons from Western countries. Therefore, Israel has from the very outset been a major supplier of such advanced technologies and weapons to Turkey.

As for Israel, ties with Turkey meant a breach in the Middle Eastern countries’ political and economic blockade of the Jewish state, and an example to follow by neighboring countries. The rapprochement between Ankara and Tel Aviv was good news also for the United States, as it set the stage for the emergence of a pro-American alliance in the Middle East.

The agreement that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed in 1993 served as a “moral” basis for forging even closer ties between Ankara and Tel Aviv. After the Israeli intelligence services helped their Turkish colleagues to locate the whereabouts of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader Abdullah Ocalan, Turkey and Israel signed a raft of cooperation agreements on security, on combating terrorism and on the implementation of joint agricultural projects in Central Asia.

Exchanges of visits by the two countries’ senior military officials that followed resulted in the conclusion of contracts for the supply and joint development of certain types of weapons, with Turkey making its airspace available for training flights of Israeli military aircraft as the territory of the Jewish state is too small for this.

The Free Trade Agreement that Ankara and Tel Aviv inked in 1996, effectively opened the Israeli market, and also those of the United States, Canada and Mexico for Turkish goods. However, in that very same year, relations between the two countries suffered a setback when Turkish Prime Minister Nejmettin Erbakan, the founder of “Turkish political Islam,” openly branded Israel as the “archenemy” of the Arab and Muslim world, intimidating voters with a Zionist plot against Turkey and ultimately calling for an end to all ties with the Jewish state. Before long, however, Erbakan was forced out by the then-powerful Turkish generals.

However, after the Justice and Development Party came to power in Turkey in 2002, relations between Turkey and Israel cooled again. The anti-Israeli rhetoric in Turkey has been heating up since 2004 with Turkish filmmakers contributing to this process by presenting Israel in a bad light – to a point where Israel’s Mossad agents were shown in a TV series as taking the Turkish ambassador hostage, along with his entire family. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was forced to go on record saying that “scenes similar to those shown in the series make the life of Jews in Turkey unsafe.”

This did not prevent the two countries from raising the volume of their bilateral trade and continuing military-technical cooperation though. Even faced with a situation like that, Turkey still proved itself a cool-headed realist.

Tensions between Turkey and Israel came to a head in 2009 when Ahmet Davutoglu, the author of the “neo-Ottomanism with Muslim overtones” doctrine, which became the unofficial paradigm of Ankara’s foreign policy, was appointed foreign minister. Besides, a new Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip prompted Ankara to postpone and ultimately cancel a planned drill by Turkish, US, Italian and Israeli military. And, to top it all off, incensed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed never to return to the annual gathering again.

In May 2010, Israeli forces intercepted the so-called “Freedom Flotilla” with humanitarian aid for Gaza residents. Simultaneously, passengers of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara actively attempted to thwart a landing on the ship by Israeli commandos. In the violent clash that followed nine activists were killed and 30 were injured. The Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned the incident, Ankara recalled its ambassador from Israel and an angry crowd hurled stones at the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. Many experts believe that the conflict was deliberately provoked. In any case, the “resistance” by the passengers of the Turkish ship and Ankara’s angry response earned it the laurels of a fighter for Muslim interests both inside the country and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Even though the UN commission investigating the incident concluded that the Israeli commandos had used force to defend themselves against “organized and armed resistance from a group of passengers.”

Alarmed by the events of the “Arab Spring” that fueled the rise of political Islam in the region amid the growing confrontation with Turkey, the Israeli leaders started building up ties with Greece and Cyprus. In 2013, Israel launched commercial development of an offshore natural gas field near  Haifa with an eye to exporting its gas to Europe via these two countries. Turkish companies, for their part, proposed building an underwater pipeline to a Turkish terminal, from where the gas could be delivered to European consumers through the Turkish pipeline system.

Wary of Moscow’s reaction to the November 2015 downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber over Syria, and fearing Russian sanctions, Ankara started looking for alternative trade partners. In a bid to ensure its energy security, Turkey now staked on Israeli natural gas. In a surprise move, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that peace in the Middle East was impossible without Turkey and Israel working together. Israel, meanwhile, while praising Ankara’s desire to mend fences, was still mindful of Russia’s possible backlash with then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warning that “normalization of relations with Ankara will cause serious damage to our relations with Cyprus, Greece and, of course, with Russia.”

Israel still paid compensation to the families of the victims of the Mavi Marmara incident, and agreed to allow Turkish humanitarian supplies into the Gaza Strip.

Last year’s transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in defiance of a resolution by the UN General Assembly, which condemned the move, sparked a new standoff between Turkey and Israel.  After Palestinian protests were harshly suppressed by Israel, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador, recalled its own envoy from Ankara and convened an extraordinary summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul. Speaking at the forum, President Erdogan said that he expected the OIC countries to “put the decision of the embargo [on trade with Israel] into practice.”

Erdogan’s hope never came true as Ankara did not actually want to cut ties with the Jewish state. Indeed, harsh as Ankara’s rhetoric was, it did not slow the pace of the trade and other economic ties between the two countries.  According to the Turkish Ministry of Commerce, in 2000, bilateral trade amounted to $1.13 billion, in 2005 – $2.27 billion, in 2010 – $3.44 billion, in 2017 – $4.91 billion and in the first 10 months of 2018 – $4.54 billion. This is what postmodern reality is all about.

Politics-wise, the future of relations between Turkey and Israel generally looks pretty bleak as Ankara is now relying on the Astana format in implementing its foreign policy goals, while Israel is gravitating towards a Saudi-led anti-Iranian bloc, which is now being established in the Middle East. Turkey refuses to recognize Bashar Assad as Syria’s legitimate president, but Israel would rather have Assad as a neighbor than religious radicals or a pro-Iranian government in Damascus.

Israel is much less concerned about the situation in northern Syria though. Turkey, whose freedom of geopolitical maneuver is much greater than what Israel can boast of, plays and will continue to play a leading role in bilateral relations. However, these relations will only be able to improve sustainably if the Turkish leaders give up on the ideology of neo-Ottomanism, where Israel is assigned a very unenviable rile. With the Turkish leaders’ ambitions extending far beyond the country’s boundaries, chances of Ankara revising its foreign policy any time soon look pretty slim. That being said, the history of the past few decades shows that rapprochement is still possible, but this will most likely have a tactical nature depending on the changing political situation. For example, if the United States abandons its doctrine of creating “controlled chaos” in the Middle East.

Russia, which is now returning to the Middle East, will avoid confrontation with any of the regional players (save for terrorists, of course) as the “above-the-fray” position allows it to act as a mediator in resolving major regional conflicts.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Warsaw meeting: Roots of the crises in the Middle East

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The U.S. is co-hosting a conference on the Middle East with Poland in Warsaw. It has claimed the aim of the conference is to address crises in the region.

It is not difficult to really understand the chief causes of conflicts and instability in this volatile part of the world.

First and foremost, Israel and Washington’s blind support for Tel Aviv have been and will remain to be the main culprits behind the conflicts in the Middle East.

The continuous stealing of the Palestinian lands is not only a violation of international law and the basic rights of an entire nation, it has also radicalized the youth in the regional countries, especially those in the Arab world.

Add to this the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem al-Quds in violation of international law. This has just added salt to the wound.

Now Israel may boast that it is gradually normalizing ties with certain Arab countries but its continued policy will not help change the minds of the Arabs and other Muslims about the Tel Aviv regime.

The other main reasons behind the problems in the region is Washington’s support for dictators in the Arab world. Donald Trump’s sword dance with Saudi officials who ordered the brutal chopping of Jamal Khashoggi is a concrete example.

While the U.S. claims support for human rights, it is shamefully arming and supporting Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners in their relentless war on fellow Arab nation of Yemen.

Washington is also oblivious to the Shias’ struggle for equal rights in Bahrain and has closed its eyes to the Medieval Age verdicts against political opponents in the country.

There are many other examples to cite.

The other reason for the headaches in the region dates back to the United States’ support for Muslim youth fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In those days U.S. politicians viewed religious fanaticism as the main bulwark against the Soviets who were viewed as pagans. In fact, officials in Washington fueled religious fanaticism to prevent the influence of the Soviets in the Cold War era.

Later these Muslim youth, chief among them al-Qaeda members who were mostly from Arab countries, turned against their masters and started terrorist activities in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Add to this the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq in 2003 in violation of international law and repeated warnings by international figures of the time such as Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Nelson Mandela and many other dignitaries.

It is clear to the entire world that the U.S. invasion of Iraq, under the false claim that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, not only led to unspeakable suffering for the Iraqi people it also led to spread of terrorism and violence in the region.

Some of those notorious terrorists in Iraq had become battle-hardened in Afghanistan and through their bigoted ideology triggered civil war in Iraq.

When the Arab spring started people who were angry of the rulers and their corrupt systems rose up for a change but, without the exception of Tunisia, the uprisings in the Arab world were misled and struggle for democracy and justice changed their place with terrorism and violence.

Rich Arab nations in the Persian Gulf region were instrumental in misleading pro-democracy movements in order to prevent the spread of uprisings to their countries. Analysts say they transferred money and arms to terrorists in order to convey this message to the people that if they rise against their ruling system they will become another Syria.

Some of those youth who had been trained and fought in Afghanistan and years later committed many terror acts inside Iraq poured into Syria.

Certain Arab countries’ support for radicals to topple the Syrian government, which does not see eye to eye with Washington and its regional allies, was so great that it led to the birth of more terrorist groups such as ISIS who were crueler than al-Qaeda.

If the U.S. did not fan the flames of religious bigotry in Afghanistan in the 1980s and did not invade Iraq, and also if certain Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia did not support radicals in Iraq and Syria today there were not such names as al-Qaeda, ISIS, al-Nusra and some other terrorist groups.

So it is clear that Washington, especially its current administration, does not really seek a peaceful and stable Middle East. If it is really seeking ways to stabilize the region it must rectify its mistakes; stop support for countries such as Saudi Arabia which is the birthplace of the ideology of religious terrorism; pressure Saudi Arabia and the UAE to end their war on Yemen; and more importantly stop supporting Israel which has been acting for decades against all internationally accepted norms and international law.

Though Washington, under European pressure, has been forced to retitle the agenda of the Warsaw conference from demonizing Iran to a focus on peace and security in the Middle East, there is no doubt that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Vice President Mike Pence, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will use the opportunity to vent their personal anger at Iran and say that Iran is the root of the problem.

However, demonization of Iran will not solve any problem so long as this policy continues. The Warsaw conference is in fact a disinformation campaign against Iran. To the surprise of Pompeo and his friends in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the disinformation campaign in Warsaw faced a dead end before it started on Wednesday.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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