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Playing Palestinian politics: UAE-backed ex-security chief weighs his options

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A controversial former security official and Abu Dhabi-based political operator, Mohammed Dahlan, has lurked for several years in the shadows of Palestinian politics. Now, he could emerge as a monkey wrench in an attempt to pave the way for US president Donald J. Trump’s much maligned ‘deal of the century’ to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestine Authority, and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, have condemned the proposed, yet to be published deal and boycotted a conference in Bahrain in June organized by Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s negotiator and son-in-law, that focussed on economic aspects of the proposal.

The Palestinian boycott followed Mr. Abbas’ earlier rejection of the United States as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, cut off funding and closed down the Palestinian representation in Washington. Mr. Trump has since recognized the occupied Syrian Golan Heights as part of Israel.

Mr. Kushner unveiled at the conference, attended by government officials and businessmen from the Gulf, the United States, Europe and Asia, a US$50 billion investment plan, US$28 billion of which would be earmarked for the creation of Palestinian jobs and reduction of poverty.

The Trump administration has said it would release political details of the peace plan only after the September 17 Israeli election so that it does not become an issue in what appears to be a tight electoral race between prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and former military chief Benny Gantz’s Blue and White.

Saudi and United Arab Emirates crown princes, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, have quietly sought to support the US peace effort that in Mr. Kushner’s words will deviate from the 2002 Arab peace plan by not calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Dahlan, who is believed to be close to the UAE’s Prince Mohammed as well as former Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, has played an important role in that effort, particularly with regard to UAE efforts to clip Hamas’ wings.

Mr. Dahlan went into exile in the UAE in 2007 after Hamas defeated his US-backed efforts to thwart the group’s control in Gaza. US President George W. Bush described Mr. Dahlan at the time as “our boy.”

Mr. Dahlan has since been indicted by Mr. Abbas’ Palestine Authority on corruption charges.

In his latest move, Mr. Dahlan is reported to be considering establishment of a long muted political party, a move that would enjoy UAE and Egyptian support but could divide his following in Gaza.

Some of Mr. Dahlan’s supporters in the Democratic Reform Current that remains part of Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah movement, argued in the past that a party would further fragment the Palestinian political landscape.

The revived talk of a party appears to be fuelled by Israel’s facilitation of hundreds of millions of US dollars in Qatari support for Gaza’s health and education services as well as reconstruction.

Qatar, with its close ties to various Islamist movements, has long supported Hamas, while Prince Mohammed’s visceral opposition to any expression of political Islam has pitted the UAE against the movement.

The two states’ diametrically opposed views of political Islam lie at the core of the rift in the Gulf with the UAE alongside Saudi Arabia leading a more than two-year-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The revived talk follows a failed 2017 effort to negotiate Mr. Dahlan’s return to Gaza in talks between Hamas, representatives of Egyptian intelligence, and the Palestinian politician.

The deal would have involved Hamas sharing power with Mr. Dahlan in exchange for a loosening of the Israeli-Egyptian economic stranglehold on the impoverished Gaza Strip at a time that Mr. Abbas was refusing to pay salaries of Gazan civil servants and Israel was reducing electricity supplies in a bid to force Hamas’ hand.

The talk of Mr. Dahlan making a political move comes against the backdrop of a broader, sustained UAE-Saudi effort to facilitate the US peace plan, despite the two states’ official insistence that East Jerusalem should be the capital of an independent Palestinian state, and counter manoeuvring in Palestine by Qatar and its, ally Turkey.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE sought to weaken Turkish efforts to exploit opposition to Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem to bolster its claim to leadership of the Muslim world and weaken Jordan’s role as the custodian of the Haram esh-Sharif in the city that is home to the Al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third most holy site.

Speaking earlier this year to an Arab media outlet believed to be close to Qatar, Kamal Khatib, an Israeli Palestinian Islamist leader, asserted that Mr. Dahlan, working through local businessmen, had unsuccessfully tried to acquire real estate adjacent to the holy site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount where Judaism’s two ancient temples once stood.

With approximately half of its population of Palestinian descent, Jordan has walked a tight rope balancing its reluctance to endorse the Trump administration’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace-making with its complex ties to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Unlike Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are not shackled by Palestinian demographics but need to tread carefully in supporting an initiative that is widely believed to be designed to deprive Palestinians of independent statehood because of domestic public sentiment and fears that it would backfire and strengthen Hamas.

A formal re-entry into Palestinian politics by Mr. Dahlan could help resolve the UAE and Saudi dilemma that is accentuated by concern that too much pressure on Mr. Abbas to reverse his rejection of US mediation could boost Hamas with its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Said one Gulf official: “We are trying to strike a delicate balance. The key in doing so is to strengthen moderates, not extremists,” the official’s codeword for Hamas and other Islamists.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From our partner Tehran Times

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The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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