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The Algerian crisis of March 2019

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Since last February 22, Algeria has been shaken by street demonstrations that occur almost simultaneously in all the 48 provinces of the country.

 Working on the assumption that the people’s anger is entirely spontaneous, its immediate origin is the announcement by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika  he wants to run for his fifth term, which should start following the elections scheduled for next April.

  President Bouteflika, who is over 80 years of age, is in very poor health. In fact, as far as we know, he is currently hospitalized in Geneva for treatment, probably as a result of the two strokes he suffered in 2013.

 Bouteflika, however, made his spokesman, Abdelghani Zaalane, state that the upcoming election will be held on a date to be set by the National Assembly.

  In any case, Bouteflika does not intend to serve until the end of his next presidential term, but will confine himself to setting, as President, the date of the new election.

 Moreover, the elderly and sick leader has promised the adoption by referendum of a new Constitution, partly already drafted, and a reform of the electoral law.

 The Presidency, however, is currently run by the Head of the intelligence Services and by the Chief of the Armed Forces, who really pull the strings of Algeria’ s political and economic transition.

 However, who is really ruling in Algeria while, in the electoral campaign,  Bouteflika keeps on showing his photos of twenty years ago and is never heard on the radio or on TV?

 The power of the traditional leader of the FLN, who has been President for twenty years, is now divided into three groups: the presidential and political power; the military and intelligence one, and finally – albeit  certainly not to be neglected – the branch of family and State affairs, as well as internal and international influence.

  The Armed Forces, however, still play a primary role and seem to have great autonomy.

 Over the last few years, President Bouteflika has tried to reduce their autonomy in favour of his business clan, to which not even the senior officers of the intelligence Services and of the Armed Forces are alien.

 The military take orders only from the President himself, where possible, but above all from his brother Said.

  In the Algerian political circles’ imagination, the latter still epitomizes the true eminence grise of the regime.

 It should be recalled that Abdelaziz Bouteflika was Foreign Minister several times from 1960 to 1970. In 1979 he voluntarily relinquished power after the death of Houari Boumedienne, of whom he had been private secretary. He finally settled abroad, at first in the United Arab Emirates (which, in fact, have played a significant role in Algeria’s current “transformation”) and later in Switzerland and France.

 Shortly after Boumedienne’s death, he was accused of embezzlement of State funds.

 In 1999, only upon the military’s request, he returned to Algeria to rule it, following the resignation of General Liamine Zeroual.

  The old FLN President, however, has always done everything to move the military leaders away from the real centre of power, namely business and intelligence.

  Moreover, Bouteflika amended the Constitution twice to increase his powers and, above all, he has brought to power a new class of businessmen, who depend only on him.

   As happens also in Western Europe, the political parties are now only the pale shadow of what they were in the past.

 Political aggregation is achieved with the traditional advertising-style systems commonly used also in the West, but there is a sort of fear and prestige of the Leader, namely Bouteflika, that still lingers within the crowds.

 Here the political parties include the traditional group of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its traditional ally –  the former Soviet-style single party, known as Rassemblement National Democratique- as well as the Islamists (we do not know yet whether “moderate” or not) of the Rassemblement de l’Espoir de l’Algerie, and various other small parties. There is also the old single union, namely UGTA.

 As already mentioned, one of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s first supporters is his brother Said, who is the official advisor to the Head of State.

 He is aged 61, but nobody knows his true role and personal power which, however, is presumably very strong.

Opponents say he is the only one who chooses Ministers, but also decides policies and carefully coordinates news on the media. He never granted interviews.

 Former Professor at the University of Algiers and trade unionist, Said has a wide network of very solid friendships, both in Algeria and abroad, including Italy.

 The other man at the core of Algerian power is Ahmed Gaid Salah.

 He is aged 79 and is both Armed Forces Chief of Staff and Deputy-Minister of Defense, considering that the role of Minister is officially played by the President of the Republic.

 He is considered Bouteflika’s lieutenant.

 He has certainly obtained personal advantages thanks to his current role, especially when, in September 2015, the elderly President marginalized  Mohamed Mediene, known as Toufik, the traditional Head of the Algerian intelligence Services he had led for 25 years in a row.

 Bouteflika had openly accused Toufik of incompetence but, in the logic of the elderly President, the sense of his removal is to fully and safely control all the Algerian military apparatus and subject it to his wishes, which are above all those of the lively Algerian business community.

 At the core of the Algerian FLN power elite, there is also Athmane Tartag.

 He is the new Head of the intelligence Services. In the 1970s he trained for a long time at the KGB and in the 1990s he was a protagonist of Algeria’s very tough fight against jihadist terrorism.

 He is very close to Said Bouteflika.

 Nevertheless, the demonstrations throughout the country have now been reduced significantly by the current Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouhaya, who has spoken of “unknown sources” that allegedly fuel the street riots. Probably he is not entirely wrong.

 The fear of a new civil war, not necessarily linked to a new uprising of the “sword jihad”, troubles not only the ruling classes, but also the crowds in action. The latter do not absolutely want to go back to the 1990s and that was the spectre which, alone, stopped the possibility of an “Arab spring” in Algeria.

 It should be recalled that, at the beginning of the 1990s, the Algerian civil war – which was also the first mass evolution of jihad-exacted a toll of at least 200,000 deaths.

 For the Algerian crowds, in 2011 the only memory of those years avoided the “contagion” of the “Arab Springs” among the Muslim Brotherhood and the clumsy Western agents.

 The population and economic data, however, are currently similar to those found in the “democratic” propaganda machine of 2011: very strong corruption of the public apparata; widespread unemployment; a very high rate of youth unemployment and people’s poor aptitude for work.

 In fact, as early as the mass demonstrations of last February, the protesters’ demands have focused on stopping price increases – and in this case the  government has decided not to cut subsidies -and on protecting and increasing the now miserable salaries of the public sector (hence with a quasi-automatic recourse to the corruptive bakshish), as well as on finally finding a solution to the very severe housing emergency.

 The government, however, has no money.

 It still depends on oil remittances (to the tune of 65%), which obviously fall in time of low oil prices and OPEC restrictions. The government must also come to terms with an old Soviet-style bureaucracy. It still has a very extensive power on business and companies – a real longa manus –  but is in fact isolated from the new strategic and military equilibria of the Maghreb region, to which it reacts without being able to change them.

 Furthermore, the relative increase in oil prices – made possible almost exclusively by a decrease in the production of OPEC, of which Algeria is also a member – has certainly provided a small new channel of fresh liquidity to the Algerian government, but has also broken fiscal discipline and further increased public spending.

 Hence higher taxes on imported goods – as first economic measure implemented by the government -and relinquishment of the subsidy cuts introduced in 2017, as well as increases for investment and social spending.

  According to the Algerian General Accounting Office, however, rebus sic stantibus, the deficit should be redressed in 2023.

Furthermore, many customs duties have been levied on imports, which lead to an increase in prices. We should also consider the very poor success of the plans for economic diversification and for reducing “oil dependence”. Indeed, if anything, the Algerian authorities are trying to maximize profits from oil and natural gas and currently the GDP is growing thanks to the increase in public spending generated only by the increase in the oil price.

 However, what would be the real political alternatives to Bouteflika?  Probably for want of anyone better, the FLN has already crowned him, but it could not do otherwise. Prime Minister Ouyahia does not know where else to turn, although he is also the leader of the Rassemblement National Democratique.In particular, there is such a level of tension between the various powers within the clan and political affairs of Bouteflika and the Armed Forces that no true new national leader can emerge.

 Among the protesters in the streets, there is growing consensus for JilJedid, the “new generation” political party, but the possible candidates  also include Chabib Khelil, former Energy Minister and OPEC President, who has also the Moroccan citizenship, and is currently a powerful international consultant.

 Chabib Khelil has strong ties with the United States and a Palestinian wife with a US passport.

 This makeshis candidacy impossible, due to Algeria’s rules and regulations.

 Not to mention the judicial problems due to his old relations with SAIPEM.

 Another “new” candidate could also be Mouloud Hamrouche, a former “moderate” Prime Minister.

 Within the establishment’s natural strategy designed to fully support Bouteflika’s candidacy, we must also consider the recent ousting of the Police Chief, Abdelghani Hamel – who, at the time, was considered one of the most natural successors to Bouteflika – as a result of a drug trafficking case involving the powerful Algerian Police, that can rely on 200,000 men but – after the above mentioned reforms-is deprived of a reliable and stable Security Service.

 What doAlgeria’s current decision-makers fear? Obviously the “sword jihad”.

 We Europeans – and Italians, in particular – could add that the irrational disruption of Algeria relating to the “Arab springs” leads to a porous and uncontrollable Algerian coast, just as the danger of migration flows from Libya is slowly fading away and the migration flows from Tunisia have stabilized.

 Algeria is also deeply concerned about the tribal, jihadist and military instability that emerged in Mali during the elections held there between last July and August.

 The Algerian decision-makers are also worried about the great instability in Libya – currently a major problem for its military decision-makers – and obviously in Tunisia.

 With specific reference to Libya, Algeria is a clear, open and very helpful supporter of Al-Sarraj’s GNA, while its intelligence Services, which know the sub-Saharan deserts very well, are endeavouring for peace between the militias and the non-jihadist tribes of Fezzan, so as to later achieve the goal of a unified Libya.

 Shortly before the arrival of Haftar, who currently holds about 80% of the Libyan territory from the South.

 Nevertheless, apart from the recent amnesty for the local jihadists, which led to the surrender of about 88 militants of the “holy war”, all the Algerian military operations in Sahel are of scarce political relevance – and this is a very severe matter.

 Currently the Algerian Armed Forces can rely on 147,000 people – all well trained even in the desert -and on a total number of 460,000 reservists.

 It should also be recalled that, despite the economic crisis, Algeria spends 10 billion US dollars a year on weapons and, between 2012 and 2016, its military spending increased by 277%, almost all (80%) used to purchase Russian weapons.

 Algeria is still the fifth largest importer of weapons in the world and the third largest buyer of Russian weapons.

 It is also worth recalling that, although currently Algeria is not a place for migrant transit to Europe, there are still very active old routes from sub-Saharan Africa up to Tamanrasset and then leading to Morocco, Libya and Tunisia.

 Currently the only chance for avoiding the rehabilitation of the Algerian coasts for the transit of migrants heading to the EU and, above all, to Italy, is solely the Algerian authorities’ very firm will to repress these flows.

If this is no longer the case, we will soon have a powerful and effective alternative for the new transit of illegal migration flows from the Maghreb region to Italy and to the other European and Mediterranean ports.

 Algeria, in fact, has long been gathering its many irregular migrants and directing them, manu militari, towards Mali and Niger.

 There are some agreements between Algeria and the Sahel countries, but there have also been tensions, since Algeria has often imposed its pace and its weapons on sub-Saharan Africa, even with some clashes with Mali’s and Niger’s forces.

 Hence there is great fear that insecurity – now endemic in the Maghreb region – spreads also to the wide Algerian territory, the greatest true strategic driver of Bouteflika’s current management.

 The Algerian regime is certainly not wrong in assessing the facts in this way.

 The Kingdom of Morocco has denounced the fact that some months ago Algeria had the Iranian support in its old fight against the Polisario Front, with the subsequent closure of the Tehran diplomatic representative office last May.

 Even before the Algerian independence, the Polisario Front has been one of the souls of the FLN foreign policy.

 This is a sign that now the Algerian (and Moroccan) issue is at the core of the link between the jihad and the overt operations in all the internal areas of the two countries – and hence of their connection with the Sahel region.

 Nevertheless, there is still another issue on the table that is much more important than it may appear at first sight, i.e. the joint candidacy of Morocco and Algeria to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup.

 Another very great bet on the internal security of Bouteflika’s regime – and of Mohammed VI, who is very focused on this event to make his Alawite Kingdom rise to world fame.

 In all likelihood, however, the great global forces that disrupted Tunisia, at first, and then Egypt and Libya – thus making those old, but basically stable regimes an unbalanced system, largely porous from the South – are caring precisely about Algeria, which has all the characteristics to interest the global propaganda for world democracy: an old and sick leader – almost an absolute leader – an old protectionist and oil-based system, to be possibly made available to other OPEC countries; an internal demographic bomb and a major crisis preventing the young people and the new elites from finding opportunities in the Northern developed countries.

 A political-propaganda paradigm that is now very well tested, although ever more dangerous.

  The perfect scenario for an “old vs. young people” fight – as already seen in the US and French propaganda – or even a possible platform for internal liberalization, probably with the usual “moderate Islamists” who enter the political game, also because – just to use again the old-fashioned standards of Western propaganda -the blame for the sole presence of the sword jihad in the Maghreb region is to be laid on the “reactionary” governments’ “repression”.

 As already noted, with a view to facing the economic crisis and the lack of investment, the current Algerian regime has implemented a short-term expansionary fiscal policy, which has led to high inflation and only enables the government to buy for time, without being able to solve the central issues of State economy and the relationship between bureaucracy, political power, oil revenues and industrial transformation.

 For Algeria oil and natural gas still account for 97% of total exports, two thirds of State revenues and one third of GDP.

 These figures date back to 2014, but today data is only slightly different.

 The quantity of oil and gas reserves, however, does not bode well.

Oil experts talk about twenty years of reserves still possible for oil and fifty for natural gas.

 It should be noted, however, that Algeria’s foreign debt still accounts for a mere 2% of GDP.

 Hence probably Bouteflika and his successors want to keep things as they are and, in the future, start modernization by resorting to debt and foreign investment, with two additional years of debt fiscal spending and then a massive sale of Algeria’s public debt securities, which could finance again both the currency status quo, held artificially too high, and public spending in subsidies and bureaucratic jobs for young people.

 However, the demographic bomb – the trigger of the “Arab Spring” old crises – is one of the first aspects to study.

 Also from the anthropological and cultural viewpoints. The young people, also in the West, aredéracinés, without the memory of what happened to the FLN to make it reach that point.

 Currently five sevenths of the Algerian population is below 21 years of age.

 In 2019,for the Algerian young protesters, “democracy” is not the fight against France and the pied noirs, possibly helped by ENI and the USSR, but only a decent job and food every day.

 Hence crowds easy to manipulate, who probably Elias Canetti, in his extraordinary book Crowds and Power, would have defined “incited crowds”.

 Currently, the Muslim Brotherhood that has always been at the origin of  “Arab springs” – also for induction and interferences from abroad – is particularly active in Algeria.

 Hence the classic paradigm of the quasi-spontaneous people’s rebellion is ready, but probably Bouteflika will agree-albeit only after his fifth reelection (probable because his regime is seen as a factor of stable economic and civil growth) – on a new name, although always representing the old elites. A new leader that will build new and good relations with China (which has reduced its oil and gas purchases), but above all with Japan and the EU, which could really change the whole production formula of future Algeria, by changing and expanding the terms of economic trade between Algeria and the European Union.

 Provided said leader will have the necessary skills and strength, attitudes about which I am doubtful.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds

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The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.

It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.

The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.

Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.

Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.

Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.

There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.

The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.

This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.

The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.

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Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga

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Image credit: Hurriyet daily news

The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.

Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.

Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.

By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.

The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.

Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.

This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.

The Central Asia factor

These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.

Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.

Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).

The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.

“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.

All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.

As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.

Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.

Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.

This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.

Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.

In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.

Restoring balance with the West

Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.

Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.

This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.

However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.

From our partner RIAC

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The Battle for the Soul of Islam: Will the real reformer of the faith stand up?

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Saudi and Emirati efforts to define ‘moderate’ Islam as socially more liberal while being subservient to an autocratic ruler is as much an endeavour to ensure regime survival and bolster aspirations to lead the Muslim world as it is an attempt to fend off challenges rooted in diverse strands of religious ultra-conservatism.

The Saudi and Emirati efforts to garner religious soft power have much in common even though the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates build their respective campaigns on historically different forms of Islam. The two Gulf states are, moreover, rivals in the battle for the soul of Islam, a struggle to define what strand or strands will dominate the faith in the 21st century.

The battle takes on added significance at a time that Middle Eastern rivals are attempting to dial down regional tensions by managing their disputes and conflicts rather than resolving them. The efforts put a greater emphasis on soft power rivalry rather than hard power confrontation often involving proxies.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE propagate a ‘moderate’ Islam on the back of significant social reforms in recent years that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and relegates the clergy to the status of the ruler’s clerics.

The reforms include Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving, enhancing of women’s professional and personal opportunities, curbing the powers of the religious police and introducing Western-style entertainment.

The UAE last November allowed unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosened alcohol restrictions and criminalised “honour killings,” a widely criticised religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring her family.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete in the Muslim world with Turkish and Iranian Islamist strands of the faith that are laced with nationalism.

The Gulf states’ state-led moderation of religious practices rather than of theology and Muslim jurisprudence is also challenged by some strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on the basis of which Saudi Arabia was founded.

“Wahhabism has refracted into three broad groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse of civic rights, a centre occupying official posts of state (dubbed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or the ruler’s clerics) that has put up some resistance to the loosening of their powers in the social, juridical and media spheres, and a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaeda and its focus on questions of foreign policy,” said scholar Andrew Hammond.

While Turkey and Iran pose a geopolitical danger, autocratic monarchical rule is more fundamentally threatened by the religious challenge posed by what Mr. Hammond dubs the Wahhabi left and the Wahhabi right as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the only non-state player in the battle for the soul of Islam, that advocates and practices reform of Islamic jurisprudence and unconditionally endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The arrests in recent years of Saudi scholars and preachers such as Safar al-HawaliSalman al-Awda, Sulayman al-Duwaish, Ibrahim al-Sakran, and Hasan al-Maliki suggests as much.

Implicitly drawing a distinction with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Hammond argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms amount to “defanging Wahhabism not dethroning it.”

The crown prince, since coming to office, has radically cut back on the investment of tens of billions of dollars in the propagation of religious ultra-conservatism across the globe, most effectively in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also sought to balance Wahhabism with Saudi ultra-nationalism and shave off the rough social edges of the kingdom’s austere interpretation of the faith. His subjugation of the clergy, and incarceration of adherents of the Wahhabi left and far-right, put an end to a 73-year long power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al-Saud family and the clergy.

The left has entertained concepts of a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, called for political liberalisation and civil rights and in some cases endorsed the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats.

The Wahhabi left could be joined in challenging the conservative Gulf monarchies and, simultaneously, be challenged by Nahdlatul Ulama once the group expands its activities to target the Muslim world’s grassroots beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country as well as its foremost democracy. In its first outreach to grassroots elsewhere, Nahdlatul Ulama is expected to launch an Arabic-language website before the end of the year that would target the Arab world.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of a humanitarian Islam that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration goes considerably further than proposals put forward by Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi left, perhaps better described as more liberal rather than an ideological left-wing of a fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.

The Indonesian group’s concept of Islam also contrasts starkly with the Saudi and Emirati notion of autocratic religious moderation that involves no theological or jurisprudential reform but uses ‘the ruler’s clergy’ to religiously legitimise repressive rule under which protests, political parties and petitioning of the government are banned and thought is policed.

“The state has strengthened the Wahhabi centre through neutralising the Wahhabi left and right, which have each represented a threat to state authority and legitimacy … As for the civic rights innovations of the Wahhabi left exemplified by al-Awda, it is precisely this discourse that the state wants to shut down,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to the imprisoned cleric.

The track record of proponents of autocratic religious moderation is checkered at best. While the UAE has created a society that is by and large religiously tolerant, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight a soft power battle in the Muslim world but seeks to project itself as a champion of religious tolerance, can make a similar claim.

Prince Mohammed has met Jewish and Evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, long a major vehicle to promote Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, doesn’t miss an opportunity these days to express his solidarity with other faith groups. Yet, non-Muslims remain barred in the kingdom from worshipping publicly or building their own houses of worship.

In Egypt, Patrick George Zaki, a 27-year-old student, lingers in prison since February 2020 on charges of spreading false news and rumours for publishing an article documenting incidents of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

Mr. Zaki was arrested a year after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s citadel of Islamic learning, signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Pope Francis during the two men’s visit to the UAE. The declaration advocates religious freedom and pluralism.

By contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Staquf recently told the story of Riyanto in a September 11 speech at Regent University, a bulwark of American Evangelical anti-Muslim sentiment founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. A member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s militia, Riyanto died guarding a church in Java on Christmas Eve when a bomb exploded in his arms as he removed it from a pew.

“To us in Nahdlatul Ulama, Riyanto is a martyr, and we honour his memory every Christmas Eve alongside millions of our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,” Mr. Staquf said.

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