The issue of Sinai and its jihad is increasingly important, also considering Hezbollah’s new strategy in Southern Lebanon, as well as the current deployment of Iranian, Syrian, Russian and various Sunni and jihadist forces between the Golan Heights and the Bekaa Valley, on the border between Syria and Israel.
The “sword jihad” in the Sinai peninsula, however, dates back to many years ago.
In 2011, precisely at the peak of tension both in the West and within some of the so-called “moderate” Islamic forces operating in the Maghreb region, during the various national “Arab springs”, the Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis group (ABM) was created in the Sinai peninsula.
As was easy to foresee, unlike what CIA believed at the time, the destabilization of the old regimes had strengthened and not weakened the jihadist organizations.
ABM was the new network of exchange, training, intelligence and fundraising of the local jihad that, for the first time, played its own autonomous role.
For all the organizations of the Egyptian-Palestinian “holy war”, the opportunity of Mubarak’s fall was too fortunate to be missed.
In the void of power (and of welfare for the Sinai populations), the newly-established ABM easily succeeded in winning the local populations’ support.
It should also be noted that, albeit always careful in its approach – except in the strategic void occurred with Morsi’s government linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which lasted from June 30, 2012 to July 3, 2013, when the coup of the Head of the military intelligence services, Al Sisi, ousted him from power – Egypt was interested only in the security of Sinai’s oil networks, not in the support of local populations.
Even currently, with the emergence of Sinai’s jihad, Egypt bears the brunt of its strategic oversight and the poor social and political analysis of the peninsular system around its canals.
Nevertheless Al Sisi-led Egypt has very little money- hence some simplicity in its analyses is quite understandable.
The activity to make the Sinai networks safe had already started as early as Mubarak’s time and has continued until the current government of Al Sisi, who knows all too well that – after the “cure” of the Muslim Brotherhood -he cannot completely trust his own police forces or his intelligence services, and hence is thinking of somehow “delegating security” for the Sinai peninsula also to third parties.
At that juncture, however, the news was spread that the Israeli forces were using precisely Palestinian elements to collect primary intelligence on the Sinai’s Isis, one of ABM current developments.
ABM was one of the first groups outside the Syrian-Iraqi system to swear allegiance to the “Caliph” Al Baghdadi.
Israel used those intelligence networks only to support Egypt in its specific local war on terror, considering that Daesh-Isis still had at least 2,000 active elements in the peninsula that, for the time being, were not specifically targeted to the Jewish State.
On January 11, 2019, for example, the Egyptian Armed Forces successfully hit and hence killed 11 terrorists, who were already making operations against the city of Bir-el-Abad in Northern Sinai.
It was even said that the Israeli intelligence had infiltrated the local Daesh-Isis. This was also confirmed by Egyptian President Al-Sisi himself who, in an interview with the American TV channel CBS on January 3, 2019, reaffirmed the existence of close cooperation between the Israeli intelligence services and the Egyptian forces in all the anti-jihadist operations in Sinai.
Clearly, the goal of ABM – which had meanwhile quickly converged into Al Baghdadi’s “Caliphate” –was the stable deterioration of relations between Egypt and Israel.
It should also be noted that the continued terrorist action against the oil and gas networks in Sinai forced Jordan to look for and buy oil and gas elsewhere.
Obviously the permanent insecurity of networks in Sinai slowed down and often blocked the prospects for expansion of the Israeli gas and oil in their connection both with Egypt and with the long Arab Pipeline network reaching Damascus and, through Turkey, the European market.
Hence, since 2013, with the successful coup staged by Al Sisi, the ABM – which was already part of the pseudo-Caliphate system – has been focusing on one goal: the fight against the Egyptian armed forces and power.
Hence Sinai’s new jihadist network is composed of Wilayat al Sinai, i.e. the pseudo-Caliphate network; some groups linked to Al Qaeda, such as Jund al Islam, a structure operating above all in Sinai’s Western desert, as well as Ansar al Islam and other groups, always active in Sinai’s Northern peninsula.
There are also militant groups that are explicitly linked to the Islamic Brotherhood, such as Hassm (the acronym of the “Army of Egypt’s Forearms”) and Liwa al Thawra, also known as “the Banner of the Revolution” which, however, operates above all in Egypt, between Alexandria, Cairo and Suez.
It should also be noted that last February both the Islamic “State” of Daesh-Isis and Al Qaeda itself uploaded a video in which Ayman Al Zawahiri harshly criticized the behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and above all in Sinai.
Hence in 2014 Al Sisi militarized Sinai.
Although not much is known about it, it is a low-intensity war that has already exacted a toll of several thousand victims.
The ABM, renamed Wilayat al Sinai after its affiliation with Daesh-Isis, was still supported by much of Sinai’s population, while the economic crisis of the region worsened with the embargo imposed by Egypt, with a view to stopping oil smuggling and the widespread arms trafficking.
At that juncture, Al Sisi launched its great Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018, a military action which began on February 9, 2018, and was organized between the Nile Delta and Northern and Central Sinai.
In fact, everything began after the attack on the Al-Rawda mosque of November 24, 2017. It should be noted that Al-Rawda is a mosque linked to the Jayiria Sufi sect, a mystic “order” widespread particularly in Sinai, especially in the Bir el-Abed area.
Thanks to the effective results of that great operation, Egypt also closed the Gaza border and the Rafah border that, however, has been recently reopened.
It is worth noting that the “great operation” had been launched shortly before the Egyptian political and presidential elections of March 2018.
Hence these are the terms of the equation: strong anti-Egyptian jihadist threat in Sinai; limited forces available to the Egyptian army and intelligence services and above all the issue of the International Monetary Fund’s loan to Egypt, which has strategic and military importance also in Sinai.
Therefore Al Sisi’s military credibility is one of the essential factors of his financial salvation.
In fact, in November 2016, the IMF granted to Egypt an Extended Fund Facility worth 12 billion US dollars.
All the applicative reviews, including the last one of February 4, 2019, have already been approved by the Fund’s board.
So far, however, the reforms implemented by Al Sisi’s regime have always been evaluated positively by the aforementioned board.
And also by many private investment banks, which could also take over from the IMF at the end of the Extended Fund Facility.
Hence macroeconomic stabilization but, first and foremost, resumption of the GDP growth.
Tourism, the primary sector of the Egyptian economy, has again started to perform very well. The same holds true for migrants’ remittances and for the product of the non-oil and manufacturing sector, which the IMF has identified as the key to Egypt’s future – a sector which is recovering and, anyway, is also growing steadily.
The social protection put in place by the Egyptian government, essential for “keeping the crowds under control” (and, often, also local jihadist terrorism) provides food for children, basic commodities and medicines, with a recent and significant increase of the liquidity available in the many smart cards already distributed to the poor people.
The takafol and karama programs, designed to support the poor families’ standard of living, already apply to over 2.2 million households, i.e. 9 million Egyptians.
Too many poor people and hence many candidates to swell the jihad ranks, with a very effective network now available, including para-Caliphates, Al Qaeda and all the rest, but especially the network of Muslim Brotherhood’s “young people”, who are refocusing on a “slow-paced”, but equally cruel, brutal and effective jihad.
Hence, without making it explicitly known to Israel, Egypt has already placed Hamas in the frontline of its low-intensity war in Sinai.
In late November 2018, the former ABM group in Sinai had also already seized a shipment of Iranian weapons, especially kornet missiles, that went from Iran to Hamas through the Gaza Strip.
For some years, however, the relations between the Palestinian Islamic jihad and Egypt have weakened, thanks to the well-known support that the Palestinian group of Gaza, also linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, has provided to the Sinai jihad. Hence currently the real strategic link lies in the structural clash between Daesh-Isis and Hamas in the Sinai peninsula.
Obviously, the primary goal of the Israeli secret services is always to get good intelligence on the Al-Baghdadi system in the peninsula, but Hamas does not certainly remain silent.
In fact, in early January 2019, the Interior Minister of the Gaza Strip – obviously a Hamas leader – arrested as many as 54 aides of the Israeli forces who, according to Hamas, were operative of Shabak, the Israel Security Agency.
In Sinai, however, Isis still has a very close relationship with Hamas and is still the main carrier of arms smuggling in the Gaza Strip.
Currently, however, the real news is that the “Caliphate” has harshly broken with the Muslim Brotherhood’s group that rules in the Gaza Strip.
As a result, as previously said, Egypt has enlisted precisely Hamas in its fight against the so-called “Caliphate”.
Therefore also Qatar’s portentous funding granted only to Al Sisi’s regime is not useless here. This is an essential factor to understand the new strategic equation of both Qatar and present-day Egypt.
It was exactly in early January 2018, however, that the “Caliphate” openly declared war on Hamas.
Later, in March 2019, there have also been severe attacks on Israeli civilian positions, starting from the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli intelligence services have also ascertained that the specifically military wing of Hamas, namely the “Izz-ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades”, have already agreed with the Egyptian Armed Forces to fight the “Caliphate”, especially in the areas on the border with the Gaza Strip.
The Egyptian intelligence services have also notified Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia of the fact that they know the military-financial transactions of the Egyptian regime with Qatar very well. They have also informed Russia that the agreement between Hamas and the Egyptian forces is designed to permanently “recovering” Gaza’s Palestinian group, while in October 2018 Egypt had also arranged a short agreement between Hamas and Israel to reduce tension between the two areas.
In essence, pending the forthcoming end of military activities in Syria, a new tripartite order is being created, in the Middle East, between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Emirates. All these three actors really want Israel to participate in the whole stabilization of the region.
This obviously implies the stable solution of the Palestinian issue, possibly with a new joint leadership –also different from the current one – and hence a new division of the areas of influence also within the Palestinian world.
Egypt wants to directly control the Gaza Strip, i.e. Hamas and the smaller local networks of Fatah and the Palestinian Jihad again in the Gaza Strip, but without forgetting the military and financial ties of these three organizations with Iran.
In the design of the new Arab tripartite agreement, Iran shall leave quickly.
Egypt is here imagining a sort of unification between the various groups of the old Palestinian resistance movement, with new organizations of political representation within the Gaza Strip and possibly also in the PNA’s Territories.
Nevertheless many problems will obviously emerge: the Palestinian National Authority, de facto expelled from the Gaza Strip, has had no news or ideas about the state of security in the Gaza Strip for at least ten years.
Egypt, however, does not want to put only in Hamas’ hands the whole issue of Sinai stability, as well as its sensitive, but fundamental relations with Israel.
Al Sisi is mainly observing – with extreme care – the role played by the number 2 leader of the PNA, Mohammed Dahlan, who has good relations with Hamas, but is still accused by Fatah of being “the one who lost the Gaza Strip in 2007”.
In any case, currently Egypt and Israel have excellent relations (Al Sisi and Netanyahu have regular phone conversations every week), while it should be recalled that it was exactly the emergence of the Sinai jihad that enabled Egypt to militarize the areas in which that had been forbidden exactly by the Peace Treaty with the Jewish State.
Another central issue is the cooperation between Israel and Egypt on energy issues.
Recently an agreement has been signed to enable Egypt to import Israeli natural gas to liquefy it.
Egypt absolutely needs the Israeli support, considering that – in this context – the struggle against Turkey was and still is an all-out struggle.
Nevertheless this new collocation of the military agreement between Egypt and Hamas has also put Israel in difficulty, which was not consulted, before this alliance, about the Gaza Strip.
The pact between the group of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip and Egypt became known to Israel only when Hamas pointed out to Egypt that there had been breaks in the “truce”, which the Israeli army still did not know in all its strategic value and relevance.
In any case, Israel has tripled the sale of electricity to the Gaza Strip, while as many as 11,000 trucks were sent from the Jewish State to support the population of the Gaza Strip.
Qatar alone provided over 15 million US dollars of aid to the political and humanitarian organizations of the Gaza Strip.
Indeed, Hamas wanted above all a refund or monetary support from Israel, but much greater than expected, at least for the funds that the PNA’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, had decided autonomously to remove from the autonomous administration of the Gaza Strip.
As usual, the response was obviously a terrorist one, with bombs thrown at the IDF troops and the Jewish population outside the border.
Despite of the above mentioned stabilization projects, Hamas wants to make the most of the climate prevailing for the Israeli upcoming elections scheduled for next April.
Certainly the next target of the Palestinian groups will be the joint Israeli-US exercise scheduled for March 4 next.
It will be a very important military exercise: a United States European Command (USEUCOM) battery composed of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles will be made operational, right on the border between the Gaza Strip and the Jewish State.
The THAAD system will soon be added to the Israeli defense systems, along with the Iron Dome, mainly operating against short-range missiles; the Arrow system, intercepting long-range missiles in their exo-atmospheric phase and David’s Sling to hit tactical ballistic missiles.
Both the THAAD and the Arrow systems are already included in the USEUCOM’s early warning network, using a series of radars located on a US base in the Negev desert.
A base that, however, already monitors any missile launch from Iran.
Obviously the THAAD network is a US implicit suggestion not to give in to the flatteries and blandishments of the Sunni treaty on the new areas of influence between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – a treaty which is still written in the Sinai sand.
Syria: 10 years of war has left at least 350,000 dead
A decade of war in Syria has left more 350,200 people dead, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the Human Rights Council on Friday, noting that this total was an “under-count of the actual number of killings”.
These are a result of a war that spiralled out of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Based on the “rigorous work” of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), she said that the tally, which includes civilians and combatants, is based on “strict methodology” requiring the deceased’s full name, the date of death, and location of the body.
People behind the numbers
In the first official update on the death toll since 2014, Ms. Bachelet informed the Council that more than one in 13 of those who died due to conflict, was a woman – 26,727 in all – and almost one in 13 was a child – a grim total of 27,126 young lives lost.
The Governorate of Aleppo saw the greatest number of documented killings, with 51,731 named individuals.
Other heavy death tolls were recorded in Rural Damascus, 47,483; Homs, 40,986; Idlib, 33,271; Hama, 31,993; and Tartus, 31,369.
“Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights”, reminded the High Commissioner.
“We must always make victims’ stories visible, both individually and collectively, because the injustice and horror of each of these deaths should compel us to action.”
More accountability needed
Her office, OHCHR, is processing information on alleged perpetrators, recording victims civilian or combatant status and the type of weapons used, Ms. Bachelet said.
To provide a more complete picture of the scale and impact of the conflict, the UN agency has also established statistical estimation techniques to account for missing data.
The High Commissioner explained that documenting deaths complements efforts to account for missing people and that her office has been helping the families of the missing, to engage with international human rights mechanisms.
Given the vast number of those missing in Syria, Ms. Bachelet echoed her call for an independent mechanism, with a strong international mandate, to “clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people; identify human remains; and provide support to relatives”.
No end to the violence
Today, the daily lives of the Syrian people remain “scarred by unimaginable suffering”, the UN human rights chief said, adding that they have endured a decade of conflict, face deepening economic crisis and struggle with the impacts of COVID-19.
Extensive destruction of infrastructure has significantly affected the realization of essential economic and social rights, and there is still no end to the violence.
“It is incumbent upon us all to listen to the voices of Syria’s survivors and victims, and to the stories of those who have now fallen silent for ever”, the High Commissioner concluded.
Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds
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.
Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga
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.
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