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US alliance with Gulf Decays as UAE Strengthens Ties with China and Russia

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The United States has stayed as staunched to its allies as it has remained to its foes. However, where the rivalry has been equally retaliated, some of its partners chose to maintain strategic relations. It won’t be a misconjecture to say that one of the most influential nations in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been that ally.

The Emirati sands have recently blown in a different direction altogether, as it began purchasing Chinese weapons, creating bloodbath in the MENA region. Besides, some secret meetings at Seychelles — involving Trump administration, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Russians — also influenced the US electoral process. The meddling not just hurt the US’ national interests, but is also believed to potentially change the American perception about Democrats in future elections.

Before the partnership between these three nations, the US was the sole influential player. Going back to the early 1970s, the US-UAE relations grew into one of the greenest trees in the global garden of alliances. Besides, the major benefits have fallen into the laps of the UAE, as its de facto ruler MbZ shrewdly expanded his empire of influence by following the American lead.

The formal diplomatic relation between the two countries was established in 1972, and the bilateral cooperation has since turned stronger. Both have been partners in defence, non-proliferation, trade and law enforcement.

With vast oil and gas reserves, the UAE became the single largest exporter to the US in the MENA region. Washington, on its part, provided protection from external aggression, especially Iran, with which both share a common rivalry.

Prince MbZ used American expertise for its military training and former spies to set up its intelligence service. From 2007-2010, Prince Mohammed spent huge amounts on acquiring weapons — 80 F-16 fighters, 62 French Mirage jets and 30 Apache combat helicopters. This was more than those received by other five Gulf monarchies put together.

In the later years, the US began deploying various aircrafts at Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi. In 2014, the United States began supplying more fighter jets as well as bombs to assist the UAE’s mission in Iraq and Syria. Even today, America is backing the Emirates’ intervention in both Yemen and Libya. It still provides weapons, intelligence and other support to the Saudi-UAE led coalition, causing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

In 2018 fiscal year, the US supplied more than half of its arms to the Middle East. Out of Pentagon’s total foreign sales of $55 billion, more than $30 billion worth of weapons and other military products were sold to Saudi and the UAE, in particular.

Moreover, a number of US Officials have provided such militarily or intelligence assistance to the UAE in the past. However, many have also crossed moral and legal boundaries in order to aid the Gulf monarchy. A fine example would be a CIA veteran and former US assistant secretary of defense, Mary Beth Long. In 2017, the HuffPost revealed Long’s questionable links to the UAE ambassador to US, Yousef Al Otaiba. This was revealed through leaked emails.

The US official, Mary Beth Long, is also known for having connections with general Khalifa Haftar, during Mohammed Gaddafi’s era. At the time, she was heading a group of US companies lobbying a sceptical Congress to sell weapons to Libya.

In return, the Gulf nation has not just supplied oil to Washington, but also became the first Middle Eastern country to assist the US-led mission in Afghanistan by sending its troops. In 2003, Mohammed bin Zayed willingly deployed 1,200 soldiers belonging to the Presidential Guard forces. The Emirati troops reportedly remained in Afghanistan till 2014. Moreover, the UAE also made its military facilities available for America and allied use, after the September 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda in the US.

Along the same lines as US, even the Gulf nation opted unethical practices of supporting its only friend in the White House, Donald Trump, during the 2016 presidential elections. Apart from their role in Russian meddling, Otaiba and Emirati businessman Rashid al-Malik allegedly intervened in Trump’s May 2016 speech on energy policy. The links were revealed through the emails they exchanged with Thomas J Barrack Jr, the top campaign fund-raiser and close friend of Trump.

However, the alliance tree is now on the verge of decaying, as the UAE’s interests are now spreading in varied directions. US is no longer its sole focus. The UAE has remained clear in terms of its needs, maintaining strategic ties with the US and its greatest foes— China and Russia.

China Injures US in Silence

China has been standing up to President Trump and America in multiple areas, especially in the trade sphere. While Trump continues to throw sanctions at the Asian nation, China’s confidence remains unwavering. China has been working on attaining greater support from the rest of the world. It has increasingly been successful through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Along with African, European and Asian countries and the US rival Russia, the UAE is also set to play a big role in China’s BRI.

On April 27, 2019, the Dubai ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, concluded their partnership in the BRI. He announced that the deal would potentially boost existing $53 billion bilateral trade to $70 billion in 2020.

China has not just retaliated in the trade war, but has also strategically established a strong foothold in the UAE. Dubai’s tribute to the Chinese New Year from the past two years, celebrating it with a nine-days ‘Light Up’ show in Burj Khalifa, is a testimony to their growing camaraderie.

In December 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed visited China, which came as a major leap in relations of the two countries. He signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, to launch a significant investment cooperation fund worth $10 billion.

The relations further strengthened when Xi visited the UAE in July 2018, and the diplomatic relations turned from a mere bilateral cooperation to a comprehensive strategic partnership. During the three-days visit, the Chinese leader also met the Dubai ruler, along with Abu Dhabi’s MbZ. Besides, the UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan awarded Xi the Order of Zayed— the Emirates’ highest civil decoration.

The two nations announced 13 agreements and MoUs, which also included the approval for first Chinese state-owned financial services firm to set up in Abu Dhabi Global Market. Besides, the China National Petroleum Corporation and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company also agreed to explore joint business opportunities.

This year, Crown Prince MbZ visited Beijing for the first time since 2015, along with a considerable delegation of government and businesses. The three-day visit from July 21-23 advanced the relations between the two nations in more practical ways.

Leaders of the two nations announced to work towards increasing bilateral trade volume to $200 billion by 2030. Besides, a total of 16 agreements and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) were signed, aiming to strengthen cooperation across several sectors.

The visit also induced a major change in Arab culture, where the UAE became first Gulf nation to include Chinese language in their national education system.

China has also been facilitating the UAE’s needs better than America, when it comes to the Emirates’ ongoing missions in different countries of the MENA region. Top security partner to the UAE, the States’ Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy restricts the Pentagon from supplying armed drone technology to its Arab ally. On the other hand, China has displayed its weaponized drones in the market under its “no questions asked” policy.

Statistics reveal that the UAE’s defense spending grew by 10.8 per cent in a year— from $19.3 billions in 2017 to $21.4 billions in 2018. The UAE first purchased a Chinese drone, Wing Loong I, in 2016. More than a year later, in early 2018, the purchase of an upgraded and much deadlier version, Wing Loong II, was reported.

There were multiple reasons for the UAE to opt Chinese drones, particularly since America, under the Obama administration, denied to sell their armed UAVs to the Arab ally. Besides, Chinese weapons were easily available at much cheaper prices. The estimated cost of Wing Loong is about $1 million, while the US-made counterpart is sold at about $5 million.

In July 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese strikes and surveillance drones were being used by both UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war. A former Pentagon official and president of the US-UAE Business Council, Danny Sebright, stated that the Emiratis bought Chinese drones and equipped them with South African laser targeting systems. They have used them to guide missiles from planes for strikes in Yemen, he said.

According to the satellite images, the UAE has also used these drones to support Khalifa Haftar in Libya, who is in a battle of control against the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli.

While the US-UAE weapon trade cords were gradually rifting, the American President recently decided to win back the confidence of the Middle Eastern allies. On May 23, the Trump administration announced to sell $8.1 billion worth of munitions, aircraft parts, and other supplies to Saudi Arabia and UAE, without congressional approval. However, on July 17, the House joined the Senate and voted to block the arms sales.

UAE has also been engaging with a controversial military contractor, Erik Prince, the bother of US Secretary of Education, Betsy DaVos. He is allegedly the common link between China and the UAE. Prince is accused of training the militia for the ethnic cleansing of the Uighur Muslims in China and training the Emirati troops for showdown against the Houthis in Yemen.

China has also defeated the US in providing artificial intelligence technologies to the UAE. While such a technology faces escalated scrutiny in the States, China’s Hikvision and Huawei have been marketing biometric surveillance systems in the Gulf nation, which has made heavy investments in surveillance technology and has been using cellphone hacking software to spy journalists and dissidents.

Moreover, several Chinese firms have also been making large investments in Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (KIZAD), over the last two years. Earlier this month, the East Hope Group of China also proposed an investment of $10 million, which would be implemented in three stages over 15 years.

The Rising Russia-UAE Axis

Russia has been another significant rival of the United States and an emerging major ally of the UAE. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, often have telephone conversations. In June this year, MbZ received a phone call from Putin. The two leaders reportedly discussed their relationship and joint co-ordination on international issues of mutual interest.

In June 2018, the Abu Dhabi ruler visited Moscow with a delegation for two days. Apart from discussing cooperation, the two nations also signed a declaration of strategic partnership in all domains, including political, economic, cultural and security.

MbZ had stated that it was crucial to “maintain a continuous coordination with Russia on regional issue to ensure security and stability”.

The Russian-UAE links were also highlighted in 2016, during a secret meeting in Seychelles that centered around influencing the US electoral process. Special counsel Robert Mueller, in his report, has mentioned the connivance between the Trump administration, MbZ, Russia and Erik Prince aimed at ensuring victory for Donald Trump.

Russia, too, has been supplying weapons to the UAE, indirectly backing the Emirates’ interests in war-torn nations like Yemen and Libya.

Russia is one of the three global producers of advanced air superiority fighters, along with China and the US, and the UAE was significantly interested in acquiring high-end fighter jets. Among the three producers, Washington has not produced a high-end fourth-generation heavy fighter, restricted the export of its fourth generation platform, the F-15C, to three clients, and has imposed a complete ban on the export of its fifth-generation platform, the F-22.

In the past, the UAE has constantly raised requests for F-35 aircrafts to the US, which have been rebuffed since 2011. China, on the other hand, remained unwilling to sell off its own air superiority platforms. Because of that, Russia became a monopoly in fourth-generation air superiority fighters, such as the Su-30 and Su-35.

In February 2017, Russia signed an agreement to sell multiple Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E fighter jets to the UAE, and help it develop a fifth generation platform for its Air Force. At the time, the Gulf nation also awarded a $708 million contract for anti-armor missiles to the Russian agency Rosoboron export, during the IDEX 2017.

The growing partnership between the UAE and Russia were believed to be the Emirates’ way of gaining US concessions on F-35s and other possible transactions, which according to the Congressional Research Service could have become possible due to the US concerns regarding Russia-UAE arms dealings.

The concerns slightly proved to be true on April 15 this year, when the US deployed the F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters to Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE. The aircraft costs about $90 million and could not be redacted by radar. Besides, on April 30, the Emirates also conducted airstrikes on a Daesh tunnel network in Iraq, using the US fighter jets for the first time.

The relationship between Russia and the UAE is enhancing at a greater pace. The trade between the two nations increased by nearly 35 per cent in two years – from around $161 million in 2015 to $217 in 2017.

Earlier this month, the Russian Energy Minister, Alexander Novak, met the UAE’s minister of state, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, running the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), to discuss cooperation in LNG projects in Moscow.

While the Trump administration is indulged in a conflict with China and Russia, these powerful global nations have been finding ways to establish strong relations with the Gulf. Several media reports have stated that it is crucial for the Pentagon to develop weapons, since both its rivals are developing hypersonic capabilities that can potentially defeat conventional anti-missile defense systems.

However, weaponry is not the sole area that is slipping from the hands of the US. Trade, energy, investments, diplomatic as well as cooperative relations, have also enhanced between the Gulf monarchy and the US foes – Russia and China. 

The UAE has been defying America by establishing stronger relations with both China and Russia. While the expanding distance with the allies is often blamed on the American policies, it could also be associated to the UAE’s nature of perceiving ties, which apparently strengthens strategic partnerships with countries facilitating its interests without a hitch.

A political analyst from Portsmouth, UK, with a specialization in politics from Middle East diaspora. A political science doctorate in modern liberalism and conservatism, emphasizing on the human rights and political connect constrained to a regional situation. Presently working as an activist and syndicated columnist.

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Elections in Syria: Forgetting Old Resentments?

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In the presidential elections on May 26, Bashar al-Assad won more than 95% of the votes. According to the current constitution, this term will be the last for the president. But in the next seven years of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, the constitution may change, and it is far from certain that this will happen as a result of the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, with UN mediation. The victory of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was accompanied by congratulations from allies and a lack of recognition of the election results by Western countries. In any event, what is the attitude towards this war-torn country and its ruling elites in the Arab world? Will Bashar al-Assad be able to rebuild the country and deliver it from chaos?

Forgetting old resentments. From balance of power to balance of interests

Through regional recognition lies the path to global recognition. It is necessary in some form for the reconstruction of Syria, the cost of which is estimated at more than $250 billion. Syria’s allies do not have such funds, and the West links the provision of funds for the country’s reconstruction with conditions for a political settlement of the conflict, which the current authorities will not agree to. In the absence of economic reconstruction, however, there is a threat of the re-activation of the defeated terrorists. In this context, the role of the rich oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf—the most promising source of money—becomes especially significant.

Syria is traditionally called the “heart” of the Arab world. This, nevertheless, did not prevent other Arab countries from responding to the unfolding violence in Syria by freezing its membership in an important regional structure, the Arab League, in 2011. Speaking about the return of Syria to the Arab League, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “Arab diplomacy is very, very famous for its effectiveness, so it seems to me that here we can expect that the issue will be resolved, and, I hope, quite quickly.” However, there are a number of factors that can support this process, and constraints that can hinder it.

The conversation about the return of Syria to the Arab League has been going on for several years—since it became clear that Bashar al-Assad will be able to keep power in his hands. This became obvious to regional and global players with the defeat of terrorists and opposition, with the active support of the Syrian leadership from Iran and Russia. In addition, compared to 2011, the situation has changed in the Arab League itself. In Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world, the secular regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who has roots in the military), is now in power, and not the anti-Assad-minded Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in the Russian Federation). A number of Arab League member states like Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon have never been against Syria, and now actively advocate its return to the organisation. The Gulf monarchies have gone through a decade of reassessing challenges and threats.

Conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have led to the strengthening of the regional rivals of the Arab states of the Gulf—Turkey and Iran. The expansion of these major regional powers is forcing the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to seek new approaches. In the context of Syria, this means the Arab rejection of the Turkish occupation of Syrian (and, therefore, Arab) land in northern Syria. At the same time, the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula are thinking about whether it is worth it to push Syria into the hands of Iran, if they can try to return it to the “Arab homeland” and balance the Iranian influence on Damascus. The UAE, Bahrain and Oman have already reopened their embassies in Damascus, but so far Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two key countries that oppose Syria in the Arab League, are in no hurry to do the same. In any event, the Saudis are increasingly inclined towards a partial return of relations. It is clear from some of their actions. For example, we are talking about the restoration of ties between Bahrain and Damascus, since the policy of Bahrain is a litmus test of Riyadh’s aspirations. In early May, there were reports about the visit of the head of the general intelligence service of Saudi Arabia, Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, to Damascus. In late May, for the first time in 10 years, a Syrian delegation led by Minister of Tourism Mohammad Rami Martini made an official visit to Riyadh to participate in the work of the World Tourism Organisation Committee for the Middle East.

The results of the presidential elections in Syria once again remind the Arab states that they will have to work with Bashar al-Assad and his government.

Obviously, Damascus is ready to forget old grievances. Among other things, Arab nationalist rhetoric is extremely important for the ruling Baath Party. On the eve of the elections, Assad’s adviser Busseina Shaaban said: “Efforts are being made to improve relations between Damascus and Riyadh, and in the coming days we can witness results in this matter.” If Riyadh changes its position on the return of Syria to the Arab League, there will be only one Arab country opposing this—Qatar. Qatar’s non-Arab ally in the recently weakened regional confrontation is Turkey, which will also hinder this and continues to declare the need of a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. True, this is less and less possible, although the opinion of Turkey, which has more than 3.5 million registered Syrian refugees, is something to be reckoned with.

Veni, vidi, vici?

At the global level, Russia and the United States have different positions. Russia’s foreign policy advocates sovereignty, the return of Syria to the Arab League and its early restoration. But even if Syria returns to the League, it will not solve the economic problems of the country, where corruption is rampant, the currency continues to depreciate, there is barely enough electricity and fuel for the population to survive, and 80% of citizens remain below the poverty line. In addition, the Syrian economy will not receive serious injections, even from the Gulf countries, due to the policies and sanctions of the United States, which remains the hegemon in the region. However, it is precisely the regional recognition of Damascus that is extremely useful and can be considered as a step towards further stabilisation.

Even before the elections in Syria, the Americans, together with Britain, France, Germany and Italy, issued a joint statement about their illegitimacy. The sanctions adopted by the US Congress against Syria under the name “Caesar Act” are “secondary” in nature, which means that any third country doing business with the Syrian government is included in the US sanctions list. Companies from the UAE have already faced this problem, and potentially sanctions deprive Syria of any major projects with the Gulf States in the future. This issue is unsolvable at the regional level. Much depends on how the Americans are committed to the implementation of the sanctions regime.

An excessive US appetite for sanctions may hurt the interests of its regional allies, which will displease the latter (and not always tacitly).

At the moment, however, to quote the journalists of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, we observe “the absence of American leadership”: the United States is not engaged in promoting any active campaign to counter the normalisation of relations between Syria and other members of the international community. The previous pattern with regard to Syria remains—with the illegal presence of the American military in the east of the country, support for Kurdish groups, and the illegal use of Syrian resources.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has not yet formed a new course towards Syria, since this issue is not a priority for it. In these conditions, regional and interested global players have the opportunity to correct their positions, build up links with previously inaccessible actors, and make attempts to go beyond the existing restrictions.

Bashar al-Assad sent a message to the whole world that he is ready for a new stage. The world is no longer what it was a decade ago. At the regional level, the Arabs are thinking about accepting the existing reality, but at the global level, the Syria issue is not a priority. In his victory speech, al-Assad noted that the Syrian people “returned to the true meaning of the revolution” after it was “blotted by mercenaries”. It is obvious that Damascus persistently and patiently stands on its ground. Arabs say that patience is the key to joy. The only question is whose joy it is.

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The syndrome of neglect: After years of hyperactivity, Erdogan is completely isolated

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At the NATO Summit held in Brussels on June 14, strategically important issues were discussed, such as the relations of the Alliance’s Member States with China and their attitude towards President Putin’s Russia. The Member States’ positions on these issues did not appear unambiguous and diplomats had to struggle to find the right wording to draft the final communiqué. What was evident, however, was an only apparently marginal fact: the total “physical” as well as political isolation of Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan.

After being defined by Prime Minister Draghi as a “dictator and autocrat”, the Turkish President also had to endure the harsh reprimands of the US State Department which, at the end of the “eleven-day war” between Israel and Hamas, did not hesitate to condemn – in unusually harsh language – some of his public statements made in the first days of the war when, in order to underline his thoughts towards the Israeli leadership, he called Benjamin Netanyahu “the Jewish Prime Minister”.

The derogatory use of the word “Jewish’ instead of “Israeli” triggered a reaction from President Biden’s Administration. The State Department spokesman, Ned Price, was instructed to express “the strong and unequivocal condemnation of the Turkish President’s anti-Semitic comments’, and called on him to refrain from “incendiary remarks, which could incite further violence … not least because anti-Semitism is reprehensible and should have no place on the world stage”.

After struggling for years to become a true regional power, President Erdogan’s Turkey is now on the sidelines of the political scene and the Turkish leader’s bewildered expression emerging from the photographs of the NATO Summit of June 14 – which show him physically isolated from the other Heads of State and government – appears as an iconic testimony to the irrelevance to which Turkey has been condemned, owing to the adventurism of its President, after a decade of reckless and counterproductive political and military moves.

As early as in the spring of 2010, in view of showing he was at the forefront in supporting the Palestinian cause, President Erdogan authorised the establishment of the “Freedom Flotilla”, a naval convoy capable of challenging – under the Turkish flag – the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

On May 31, 2020, Israeli commandos intercepted the Mavi Marmara ship carrying not only humanitarian aid, but also Hamas militants attempting to enter again the Gaza Strip illegally.

As soon as Israeli soldiers stepped onto the deck of the Turkish ship, they were confronted by Palestinians and crew members armed with axes, knives and iron bars. Ten Palestinians and Turkish sailors died in the ensuing clashes, but the most severe wound was inflicted on Turkish-Israeli relations.

Turkey broke off diplomatic relations with Israel – long-standing relations dating back to 1949 when Turkey was the first, and for many years the only, Muslim country to recognise the State of Israel, thus also interrupting important economic and military relations that represented for the entire Middle East the example of how it was possible to follow paths of integration and pacification between Muslims and Jews.

Since 2011, with the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Springs”, President Erdogan has tried in every way to take a leading role in a flow of events which – rather than exporting liberal democracies in the region – aimed to underline and validate the victory of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and of the most backward and fundamentalist Islam.

While thinking he could easily solve his competition with Assad’ Syria and at the same time dismiss the problem of Turkish and Syrian Kurdish irredentism, President Erdogan intervened heavily in the Syrian civil war by providing military aid and logistical support not only to the militias of the “Syria Liberation Army”, but also to the Salafist formations of Jabhat Al Nusra and even ISIS.

We all know what has happened: after a decade of civil war, Syria is in ruins but Bashar al-Assad is still in power; the rebels are now closed in small pockets of resistance and Russia, which intervened siding with Damascus, thus overturning the outcome of the conflict, is firmly established in the country while Turkey is not only excluded from the promising business of Syria’s reconstruction, but finds itself managing a massive refugee emergency.

In President Erdogan’ sometimes ill-considered quest to make his country take on the role of the leading regional power, his activism led him to intervene in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis in support of the Azerbaijani Turkmen against the Christian Armenians, with the result that, after the last crisis in the autumn of 2020, Turkey had to step aside to leave Russia the role of interposition and peacekeeping force.

In Libya, too – after sending arms and mercenaries to support al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) – after its resignation last January, the Turkish role became less influential than the Turkish leader’s aspirations.

In 2017, in a vain attempt to send a signal to NATO and US allies, President Erdogan bought S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia, worth 2.5 million dollars.

The move did not please the then US President, Donald Trump, who immediately imposed economic and military sanctions on Turkey, thus contributing to the decline of its economy and to its progressive international isolation.

It has recently been reported that, in an attempt to bring Turkey closer to the new Biden Administration, President Erdogan has decided to send back home the Russian technicians who were in charge of S-400 maintenance at the Incirlick base – which is also a NATO base – with the result of infuriating Vladimir Putin who obviously does not like the idea of seeing highly sophisticated equipment in the hands of the Americans.

The end result of all these unhinged moves is that the US sanctions remain in place while the Russians can only regret having trusted an unreliable leader.

On the domestic front, too, despite the repression that followed the failed coup d’état of 2016, things are not going well.

The deep economic crisis, resulting from excessive military spending, poor administrative capacity and rampant corruption, as well as the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, makes the situation even more difficult for the Turkish President and his party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), which have ruled the country continuously since 2002.

The recent local elections, in which the AKP was defeated, and the election polls indicate that, despite the tactical alliance between President Erdogan’s party and the ultra-nationalist National Movement, a success for the President and his party in the 2023 general and Presidential elections seems far from certain.

What makes President Erdogan’s sleep even more restless is certainly the ‘Peker scandal’ that has been hitting the headlines of all Turkish newspapers and social media over the last few days.

Sedat Peker, a businessman formerly affiliated with the extreme right-wing organisation of the “Grey Wolves” (the same one to which Ali Agca, known for the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, belonged) has long been a supporter of Tayyp Recep Erdogan and is known to have been one of the main suppliers of weapons to jihadist groups involved in the Syrian civil war.

Last April, after being accused of corruption and criminal conspiracy, he went into self-exile, first in Montenegro and then in the United Arab Emirates, from where he has been conducting a relentless campaign against President Erdogan and his party on charges of corruption and other crimes and offences.

Under the interested supervision of Mohamed Dalhan, the former Head of the Palestinian intelligence service in the Gaza strip, exiled to the Emirates after the break with Hamas, Sedat Peker daily floods social media with accusations against the Turkish President’s “magic circle”, starting with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu and his ally Mehemet Agar, former Police Chief, who in Peker’s opinion are responsible not only for corruption, but also for extortion, drug trafficking and murder.

Despite government-imposed censorship, these sensational accusations dominate the political debate in Turkey.

Mohammed Dalhan, the Palestinian secret agent, helps Sedat Peker both out of a spirit of revenge against Hamas and, hence, against its Turkish supporter, and because the Abu Dhabi government, for which he now works, has not favourably viewed Turkey’s attempts to sabotage the “Abraham Accords” between Israel and moderate Arab countries and the explicit support offered by President Erdogan to Hamas during the recent “eleven-day war”. Moreover, the latter ended thanks to Egypt’s mediation – a diplomatic success for the moderate Arab front that pushes Turkey and its leader ever further to the sidelines, as they – observant Sunnis – are now forced to move closer to the heretical Shiites of Iran, the only ones who now seem to give credit to President Erdogan, who is now like a bad student relegated to a corner of the classroom, from which he will find it difficult to escape without a clear change of course towards a more moderate approach in domestic policy and a rapprochement to the West in foreign policy.

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Iranian Election Portends Increased Human Rights Abuses, Demands Western Response

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When the Iranian regime holds its presidential election this Friday, it is likely to experience the lowest level of voter turnout in its 42-year history. This has been acknowledged by certain Iranian officials and state media outlets. There are a number of reasons for this, which include the lingering effects of three anti-regime uprisings, public resentment over authorities’ crackdowns on those uprisings, a lack of serious competition among the candidates, and the brutal legacy of the clear frontrunner.

All but the last of these factors were already apparent in February of last year, when Iranian regime held elections for various governors and members of parliament. Those elections are the ones to beat if the country is to set a new record for low turnout this week. Moreover, if persistently anti-democratic conditions aren’t enough to yield that outcome on their own, public antipathy toward Ebrahim Raisi might just be the thing that pushes the electoral boycott over the top.

For months now, Raisi has been recognized as a person favored by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the next President. But that preference specifically stems from Raisi’s unwavering loyalty to the supreme leader and his willingness to flout the security and wellbeing of ordinary Iranians in order to safeguard the future of the theocratic dictatorship. In 2019, Raisi was appointed to head the nation’s judiciary, and his penchant for political violence was put to the test by the outbreak of a nationwide uprising in November 2019 – a follow-up to similar protests in January 2018.

The regime’s response to the latter uprising constituted one of the worst singular crackdowns on dissent since the early years of the Iranian regime. As head of the judiciary, Raisi played a leading role in that crackdown, particularly the systematic torture of political prisoners that was detailed in a September 2020 report by Amnesty International. That report was closely accompanied by the emergence of new evidence supporting the tally of protest-related killings provided by the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

The MEK, which has long been recognized as the leading voice for Iranian democracy, quickly determined that security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had killed 1,500 people in mass shooting incidents over just several days coinciding with the November 2019 uprising. Over time, the MEK has also released the names of more than half of the victims, naturally starting with those who were members of the organisation or were otherwise closely connected to it.

Details of the crackdown serve to underscore the notion that it was largely an attack on the MEK, which Khamenei had acknowledged as a driving force behind the initial uprising in early 2018. The supreme leader referenced months of planning by dissidents in order to explain the popular embrace of slogans calling for “death to the dictator” and condemning both the “hardline” and “reformist” factions of mainstream politics inside the regime. This messaging was tantamount to a call for regime change – the expressed platform of the MEK and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

In recent weeks, MEK-affiliated activist collectives known as “Resistance Units” have been using precisely this platform to promote the concept of an all-encompassing electoral boycott. In April alone, those activists erected posters, painted graffiti, and held demonstrations in more than 250 localities across the Islamic Republic, urging citizens to “vote for regime change” by avoiding the polls and denying any semblance of legitimacy to the ruling system. Since then, the call to action has been echoed by various other groups, including pensioners and blue-collar workers whose frustration with the regime has greatly intensified in the midst of an economic crisis exacerbated by self-serving government policies and blatant corruption.

Protests by these and other demographics have lately come to feature slogans like, “We have seen no justice; we will not vote anymore.” The implication is that Iranians from all walks of life are not only rejecting the current election but also the entire underlying system, in favour of a platform akin to that which is being promoted by the MEK and the NCRI. The details of that platform are clarified for an international audience each year at a rally of Iranian expatriates and political supporters which invariably features eager endorsement of the “10-point plan” for a democratic Iranian republic that was authored roughly 15 years ago by NCRI President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi.

The plan calls for free and fair elections as well as secular pluralism, and it expresses a commitment to international laws and principles of human rights. By contrast, the existing regime has repeatedly rejected those laws and principles through such recurring actions as its execution of juvenile offenders, its routine usage of torture and forced confessions, and its explicit insistence upon exception from human rights standards that are deemed to conflict with the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Shiite Islam.

Despite all of these, Tehran’s contempt for human rights has arguably never been more blatant than is now, in the run-up to Raisi’s appointment as the regime’s next president. His role in the crackdowns following the November 2019 are certainly one reason for this, but the main source of Raisi’s infamy remains his participation in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners. Those killings arguably constitute the late 20th century’s single worst crime against humanity, and as one of four figures in Tehran’s “death commission” at the time, Raisi bears as much responsibility as anybody for the roughly 30,000 hangings that were carried out over just several months.

In commenting on the election, the NCRI has made it clear that Raisi was chosen to run a more-or-less uncontested campaign precisely because of this legacy. Specifically, the NCRI argues that Khamenei witnessed the Resistance movement gaining momentum and resolved to consolidate power in the hands of those most comfortable with political violence. But in so doing, the supreme leader gave Iranians even more incentive to protest the political process than they had had in February 2020. Thus, when Raisi takes office, he will immediately be faced with the challenge of compensating for an electoral boycott that effectively deprive the regime of any claim to political legitimacy.

The consequences of that challenge will surely depend, in part, on the role that the international community chooses to take on in the midst of forthcoming conflicts between the Iranian regime and a population that is showing ever-greater support for an organised resistance. If major world powers elect to stand on the sidelines, it could give the Raisi administration license to assume office and then immediately initiate human rights abuses rivaling those of November 2019, or possibly approaching those of summer 1988. However, if those powers recognize this danger and instead elect to intervene on the Iranian people’s behalf, then they may find they have ample opportunities to do so.

Relevant strategies will be presented by NCRI officials and the political supporters, including European and American lawmakers and academics with diverse party affiliations, when they take part in the coalition’s World Summit on a Free Iran between July 10 and 12.

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