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Putin, clumsily, seeks to exploit mounting Gulf tensions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Vladimir Putin, eager to capitalize on escalating tension in the Gulf, looks like he needs a marketing and reputation management advisor.

Mr. Putin recognized opportunity when he urged Saudi Arabia to move ahead with the acquisition of Russia’s much-touted S-400 anti-missile defense system after the kingdom’s six battalions of US-made Patriot batteries failed to detect drone and missile attacks on two of the country’s key oil facilities, knocking out half of its production.

“For self-defence, for the defence of one’s country, we are ready to provide help to Saudi Arabia, the political leadership of Saudi Arabia. It is enough to take a wise government decision…They will protect any infrastructure objects in Saudi Arabia effectively,” Mr. Putin said.

Russian efforts to capitalize on the mounting tensions are as much opportunistic as they are strategic.

The attacks, whether executed by an Iranian-backed group based on an decision of its own or at the behest of Iran or launched by the Islamic republic itself, sent a message not only to  Riyadh and Washington but also Moscow and Beijing: Iran and its allies will not sit idly by as the United States seeks to cut off Iranian oil exports, allow Saudi Arabia to gobble up Iranian market share and force the Islamic republic on its knees.

Leaving aside the veracity of Mr. Putin’s claim that Russian systems would perform against low-flying drones and projectiles where US systems had failed, the Russian leader didn’t necessarily inspire confidence by making his offer flanked, but two of Saudi Arabia’s foremost regional enemies and rivals: presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

As if to drive the point home, Mr. Putin pointed out while making his offer that he had already sold Russian systems to Turkey and Iran.

Saudi Arabia was careful to let Mr. Putin’s seeming faux pas pass. The kingdom has played its cards close to its chest by similarly refraining from responding to US President Donald J. Trump’s apparent rewriting of the long-standing US commitment to the defense of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the attacks.

Mr. Trump’s emphasis on the fact that the attacks were against Saudi Arabia and not against the United States and that his administration would support a Saudi response or potentially act on its behalf against payment will nonetheless not have gone unnoticed in Riyadh and elsewhere in the Gulf.

Question marks about the United States’ commitment were first sparked by President Barak Obama when he paved Iran’s initial return to the international fold with the 2015 agreement curbing the Islamic republic’s nuclear program and his publicly expressed belief that Saudi Arabia and Iran needed to share power in the Middle East.

Gulf concern diminished with Mr. Trump visiting Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as president months after assuming office in 2017, his withdrawal last year from the Iranian nuclear accord and imposition of harsh economic sanctions on the Islamic republic, and his defense of the kingdom in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

That started to change when Mr. Trump in June failed to respond to the downing by Iran of a US drone, reacted cautiously to attacks since on tankers in the Gulf, and Mr. Trump’s apparent transactional approach to the targeting of Saudi oil facilities.

Trump, in his response to Iran, is even worse than Obama. His inaction gave a green light to this. Now an Arab Gulf strategic partner has been massively attacked by Iran — which was provoked by Trump, not by us — and we hear Americans saying to us, you need to defend yourselves! It is an utter failure and utter disappointment in this administration,” said UAE political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla.

Gulf anxiety is further fuelled by a growing sense that the United States, no longer dependent on Gulf oil imports, is changing its perception of the Gulf’s strategic importance and has embarked on a gradual process of turning its back on the region.

The United States is leaving the Persian Gulf. Not this year or next, but there is no doubt that the United States is on its way out… Leaders in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, and Muscat understand what is happening…and have been hedging against an American departure in a variety of ways, including by making overtures to China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey,” said Steven A. Cooke, a scholar at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Anxiety lies at the root of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s more assertive posture that has led to several years of ill-conceived, erratic and largely failed disastrous political and military initiatives including the devastating war in Yemen and the debilitating diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

In what may have been both an indication of changing Gulf attitudes towards the United States and a bow to US demands for burden sharing, Saudi Arabia has started in the wake of the oil attacks to reach out to other countries for help in bolstering its air defences.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had requested South Korean assistance in the strengthening of the kingdom’s air defense system.

The Pentagon, in response to a request from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and an effort to cushion potential Gulf doubts about the United States’ commitment, said it was sending an unspecified number of troops and equipment to the two countries to bolster their defences.

General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US would help provide “a layered system of defensive capabilities to mitigate the risk of swarms of drones or other attacks that may come from Iran.”

Seeking to enhance Iran’s international isolation and share the burden, a first step towards reduced US engagement, General Dunford  said the US was looking “for other international partners to also contribute to Saudi Arabia’s defense.”

The US deployment followed a Saudi decision to  join a US-led maritime coalition to protect shipping in the Gulf.

Nevertheless, the US president’s limiting of his country’s commitment, anchored in the 1980 doctrine proclaimed by president Jimmy Carter that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf, could make elements of a Chinese-backed Russian proposal for a revamping of the region’s security architecture more attractive.

The proposal involves a collective security concept that would replace the Gulf’s US defense umbrella and position Russia as a power broker alongside the United States.

It entails creation of a “counter-terrorism coalition (of) all stakeholders” that would be the motor for resolution of conflicts across the region and promote mutual security guarantees.

It would involve the removal of the “permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states in the territories of states of the Gulf,” a reference to US, British and French forces and bases.

The proposal called for a “universal and comprehensive” security system that would take into account “the interests of all regional and other parties involved, in all spheres of security, including its military, economic and energy dimensions.”

The coalition, to include the Gulf states, Russia, China, the US, the European Union and India as well as other stakeholders, a likely reference to Iran, would be launched at an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf.

That could be the proposal’s Achilles Heel. It’s hard to envision Saudi Arabia, which has repeatedly stated that it would only sit with Iran at one table on conditions unacceptable to Tehran, reversing its position and joining a security pact that would include the Islamic republic.

To push its potential advantage, Russia’s state military exporter, Rosoboronexport, said a day after Mr. Putin urged Saudi Arabia to follow through on its intention to buy a Russian anti-missile system, that it would put its latest defences against unmanned aerial vehicles and other air attack weapons on display at the Dubai Airshow in November.

Said Russian Middle East expert Alexey Khlebnikov: “Clearly, the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities have changed many security calculations throughout the region.”

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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War of rumors and Al Jazeera

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Authors: Mohamed Maher and Irina Tsukerman

The media plays an important role in educating the public, revealing facts and monitoring the various authorities in normal peace times, but it also plays a dangerous role in times of crises, wars, and epidemics, as it is incumbent on them to educate the public about the upcoming danger and how to prevent it.

It is assumed that the media’s loyalty to the truth, and the truth only, as it is supposed to have a moral and humanitarian responsibility towards peoples and societies in the first place.

However, Al Jazeera, the Qatari channel linked to the Doha government chose for it another path, and despite the depth of the current global crisis towards confronting the Coronavirus, this did not deter the Qatari channel from continuing its process of fabricating news and publishing false news for purely political purposes, to provoke the few and crises.

And just over the past few days, Al-Jazeera has published widely, an inaccurate and weak Canadian study indicating that the numbers of the cases in Egypt include 19,000, which is a very exaggerated number if we consider that the official figures at that time, when the study was published, did not was no more than 200, which prompted the Egyptian government to refute such allegations, also withdrew the accreditation of the British Guardian reporter, and issued a warning to the New York Times correspondent in Cairo, which made him latter apologize for his previous tweets on Twitter about the numbers of the cases in Egypt.

The British daily reported that its correspondent, Ruth Michaelson, left Egypt last week after Western diplomats informed her that Egyptian security services wanted her to leave “immediately”, the daily said.

Michaelson reported on unpublished research by Canadian infectious disease specialists estimating an outbreak size of more than 19,000 cases in Egypt. The scientists used data from early March when Egypt officially had only three confirmed cases, according to Michaelson’s report published on March 15.

The following day, Michaelson, along with a New York Times reporter who tweeted her story, was summoned by Egyptian officials and told they were accused of misreporting and spreading panic, The Guardian said.

A day later, Egypt’s State Information Services, the government-body overseeing foreign correspondents, SIS demanded an apology from the Guardian for publishing the report that cited a Canadian medical doctor’s study claiming that infected people in the country may amount to more than 19,000. The official number stands at 196, with six deaths and 26 recovered cases at the time of writing.  revoked Michaelson’s press credentials and released a statement accusing her of citing a “misleading” study based on “false conclusions” and “speculation”.

Several days later, the French ambassador in Cairo publish a video message to the French community in Egypt, inviting them to sit in their homes in Egypt until the end of the crisis, but Al-Jazeera and a several of other channels close to the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood received the message to turn it into a warning to the French people in Egypt, before you difficult days, even though the ambassador spoke in general, which made the French embassy in Cairo issued an official statement indicating that the translation from French to Arabic was not accurate for some channels, and some of them distorted the ambassador’s statements in a manner inconsistent with the intended goal of the message in reference to translation.

The history of Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera’s role as instigator, obfuscator, and distorter of news long precedes the instant COVID19 pandemic crisis.

The recent four hour coverage dedicated to the largely debunked claims by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos regarding his phone. allegedly hacked by the Saudi Crown Prince from his personal Whatsapp account, is just one example of Al Jazeera seizing any manufactured scandal, and amplifying even issues of narrow interests until they appear larger than life. This episode, however, is only a minor illustration of the way Al Jazeera either fuels or takes advantage of existing social or political crises. Manufacturing an appearance of crisis when the issues is relatively minor is also part of the media conglomerate arsenal. Not so long ago, Al Jazeera and affiliate channels, and various European and Arabic-language outlets funded by Al Jazeera or Qatar have pushed the story of immense anti-government demonstrations allegedly taking place in Egypt. These stations have gone as far as to interview alleged participants and witnesses to these supposedly mass gatherings. Meanwhile, 24-hour cameras that were set up to transmit the developments in the hotspots in questions showed empty streets, occasionally interrupted by small crowds.  Eventually, Al Jazeera’s narrative made it out into major Western networks and newspapers. 

The Independent covered these protests as almost revolutionary in nature. Ultimately, Reuters revealed, that in reality, the gatherings were rather small, and no military force was used. The Sissi government was not particularly flummoxed either by the protests, or by the concerted attempt to make them appear like the second coming of the Arab Spring. This attempt to manufacture an appearance of crisis served two purposes: the first was to inspire a more massive revolt among those who found Al Jazeera more credible and “free” than Egyptian media or who simply did not like President Sissi.

The second was to send a propaganda message to the West, in the hopes that the mainstream press will rely on Western-style networks, often without verifying through independent coverage or through associations with local reporters.  The idea is that American or British journalists will consider local Egyptian press “biased” in favor of the government and automatically disregard those perspectives. Indeed, Al Jazeera partially succeeded having captured headlines in a number of Western national publications that played into the narrative of mass opposition to the Sissi government..

Neither of these modes of action have much to do with journalism, in the conventional understanding of the term. Instead, Al Jazeera strives to be the newsmaker and the narrative make at the same time, rather than merely breaking or analyzing the news based on best available evidence.  Al Jazeera has a long history of jumping on board with various uprisings and revolutionary movements and picking and choosing “winners” that receive disproportionate coverage, and thus, an inherent advantage of free media publicity. The 2019 Cairo protests followed Al Jazeera’s much more successful involvement in the Arab Spring in Egypt and other countries, where Al Jazeera’s coverage buoyed Morsi to victory even as the channel essentially ignored more secular-minded candidates and their supporters. 

Similarly, in Sudan, Al Jazeera gave space to young protesters to air grievances while shaping a version of the events which placed blame on the anti-protester violence on Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypti. The conglomerate’s presence in Libya has played a very similar role, and has likewise played up the violent anti-government riots popping up in Malawi following the disputed elections in 2019. The coverage of all these conflicts and crises is narrative driven, and often inaccurate, if not outright fabricated. The same trend can be observed in the coverage of the Khashoggi affair, where Al Jazeera aired the most preposterous claims without ever fully retracting any of them.

Far from being an objective observer of the investigation, Al Jazeera frequently allowed deeply personal and sensationalist attacks on Mohammed bin Salman, who was at the very start portrayed to be a cartoonish villain. And long before Khasoggi was ever on the radar of most of the Western public, Al Jazeera was on the ground in Afghanistan, apparently facilitatingTaliban and giving a welcoming space to Al Qaeda on air as well as via logistical support. Rather than merely covering the conflict, the media conglomerate was at the center of it and taking active part in calling shots through coordinating with the preferred parties. Likewise, in the United States and the United Kingdom, Al Jazeera worked to help shape public perception of Jewish organization and acceptance of old school anti-Semitic conspiracy theories through spy operations that were later turned into documentary narratives and leaked to left wing outlets. 

What do all of these incidents of political meddling, dispensation with journalistic objectivity, and outright fabrications have in common? Al Jazeera was engaged in these  narrrative-building exercises as a media and psychological warfare outfit for Qatar’s foreign policy. While many analysts have referred to Al Jazeera as a “mouthpiece” for Qatari agenda, that is not quite the right term, as in addition to airing preferred Qatar regime perspective, Al Jazeera specifically has been used to influence foreign policy as a lobbyist, propagandist, and employer of active measures. Despite Congressional push to designate the media conglomerate under Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Al Jazeera has been able to avoid scrutiny both throughlegal charades and by touting a strong relationship with the White House, with Jared Kushner making occasional appearances on the channel and welcoming it as a partner and an “important actor in the region” to the White House. The converse to this observation is Al Jazeera’s relative silence or positive coverage with regards to Qatar’s allies, such as various militias funded by the government in Libya and Syria, or for that matter, internal Qatari matters, such as the disputes within the al-Thani family or human rights abuses. To figure out how and why Al Jazeera chooses to focus on certain matters, one should only look for Qatar’s interests in the issue. Antagonizing the members of the Anti Terrorism Quartet (KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain) is always on the agenda. Wreaking havoc and undermining criticism of Qatar’s geopolitical agenda in Western countries is another. For that reason, it should come as no surprise, that despite Qatar’s attempts to cover up the rapid spread of the pandemic inside its own borders, rather than criticizing the policy shortcomings, such as open ended travel to Iran and Oman, Al Jazeera focused on searching for and creating problems externally, in part to divert attention from the problems in Qatar, and in part because any crisis can be exploited to sow the seeds of Qatar’s longer-term interests in exerting influence, preferably at the expense of others.

The views expressed within Modern Diplomacy are solely those of the authors in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of the Modern Diplomacy, its Advisory and Editorial Boards, Sponsors, Partners, or Affiliates.

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Turkey in Idlib

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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 What is the real strategic sense of Turkey’s very recent military operation in the Idlib region of North-Western Syria?

 We will analyse here, above all, the main strategic effects and the consequences within the entire Middle East region, as well as the counterpressures within the global geopolitical framework.

 The word Idlib comes from the Aramaic “Adad” (God) and “Lib” (centre).

 A very important geographical and military factor is that, to the West, Idlib is very close to Latakia, where the Russian base of Khmeimimim is located, with more than 1,000 stable operatives, who are now part of the Russian defence apparatus, together with those of the Tartus naval base, where – at the air base near Latakia – also an important unit of the Sixth Directorate of the Russian Military Secret Service (GRU) operates.

 As early as 2015, i.e. the outbreak of war in Syria, Idlib has been, at first, the centre of protests against Bashar al Assad by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni groups. Later Idlib was taken as a safe base by the various jihadist groups, including the remaining elements of the “Islamic State” of Raqqa that have now largely fled to the North-Western Syrian city, in close contact with the Turkish territories.

 Not to mention the over 100,000 ones, previously held by the Kurds, who are relatives, collaborators and mere militants of the so-called “Caliphate” that Turkey has no interest in keeping detained and is slowly releasing.

 Currently Idlib is not controlled by any majority jihadist group, but by an often vague balance among the many groups of the “holy war”, i.e. the Middle East and the other proxy wars, usually mediated by the Turkish Intelligence Services.

 Besides autonomous groups of jihadists coming from the Chinese Turkestan-Xinjiang, often weakened with lightning operations by the operatives of the Chinese Armed Forces, in the region. There are also Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Al Qa’eda faction that has been operating for many years in Syria and partly in Iraq, and the National Liberation Front, founded in May 2018 and openly supported by Turkey.

 It currently includes as many as 11 jihadist factions, but also nationalistic and mainly anti-Assad groups.

These groups often emerge from the Syrian Sunni majority, largely present in the North of the country.

 In agreement with Russia, however, as early as 2019 the Syrian government led by Assad has stated that “Syria’s first goal is to free Idlib”.

 A very harsh signal for Turkey which, just in that phase, was beginning to have as many as 1,300 soldiers around Idlib to monitor the ceasefire.

 In that case, Turkey’s primary goal was to avoid adding a further and probably incalculable mass of other migrants to the 3 million Syrians already present in the Turkish territory on the border with Syria – with EU money – but assigned by Germany alone to Turkey.

 That situation made the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, do his utmost to prevent a new offensive against Idlib from the South and from the East.

 Hence, Staffan de Mistura’s proposals were the usual talks to avoid military pressure and, above all, create a humanitarian corridor, mainly with a view to avoiding the rush of crowds of Syrian migrants to Idlib and, from there, to the “Balkan route”.

 European countries are full of migrants but, when thinking about geopolitics, they focus only on humanitarian aspects and, precisely, on how to avoid the arrival of other migrants.

 Cannot we call it a failure?

 In October 2018, in Sochi, the contacts between Putin and Erdogan led to an agreement.

 A “de-escalation zone” was created in Syria – just to use the terminology of the Astana talks, the real ones, not the semi-deserted talks in Geneva – and it was in that area that Turkey took up the role of maintaining public order.

 Shortly after the Sochi agreement, in an interview on the Russian TV, Bashar al Assad stated: “The Syrian military confrontation with Turkey is illogical”.

 The document signed in Sochi between the two leaders stated that: a) there was a commitment of both countries for Syria’s territorial integrity; b) there was a common commitment to the fight against “all terrorists”, as well as the beginning of a ceasefire regime in Idlib as from March 6, and the establishment of a ‘security corridor’ along the Syrian M-4 motorway, six kilometres to the right and six kilometres to the left of the road axis; c) finally, there was the introduction of joint Turkish-Russian patrols, again along the M-4 motorway, in Idlib, in the direction controlling the Latakia-Aleppo axis.

 Regardless of what happens to the Sochi agreement, the clash between Turkey and Russia is therefore very unlikely.

 Neither Turkey nor, even less, Russia want to open a Syrian front where they would inevitably enter de facto marginalized from Syria.

 A new war for hegemony in North-Western Syria between Russia and Turkey would be a very hard blow for both economies, which are now increasingly interconnected. By clashing with Turkey, the Russian Federation could lose an easy access to the Dardanelles and its own Syrian bases, as well as to the Bosphorus.

 Moreover, Russia does not want to upset a NATO country like Turkey, which is now a maverick in the Atlantic region. An incalculable advantage position for Russia.

 On its part, however, Turkey cannot do without specific support also from the United States, especially if obtained outside the North Atlantic Treaty region.

 This means Turkey’s future concessions to the United States in the Eastern Mediterranean region and Turkey’s involuntary delicate hand against the PKK and other Turkish organizations (all offspring of the PKK, however) that are still essential on the ground for the United States (and Israel). 

 Currently, however, many executives of CIA, the Pentagon and the vast U.S. intelligence community do not even hide the desire to put an end to Erdogan’s regime.

 Certainly the new Turkish Sultan is “scarcely democratic”, but if the United States were to test the approach of all its Middle East traditional allies in this regard, obviously the only democratic country would be Israel.

  It will not be easy for the United States to define its future regional alliances, but the situation of relations between Turkey and the United States is today increasingly ambiguous and, in any case, very tense.

 Only the most brilliant people within CIA are worried about not exasperating tempers, so as to avoid Turkey agreeing definitively with Russia irremediably against the United States.

The idea of some North American intelligence executives is also to push Turkey into reckless military adventures in Syria and, possibly, also in Libya – a distant area, but very much correlated with Syria – to eventually create a Turkish Vietnam and then leave Erdogan’s regime in the hands of the increasingly angry and impoverished Turkish crowds. A hope more than a strategic idea.

 A vast program- as De Gaulle would have said – but anything is possible, even the U.S. planners’ dreams, if you are in the Middle East.

 At this juncture, there is a key question. Can Assad alone control the stability of his Syria, after a victory which means, above all, the persistence of Russian protection over the old Ba’ath regime and also the inevitable support of the covert or non-covert military structures of Iran, which wants, above all, to create a stable terrestrial continuity towards the Lebanon and border with Israel, with its military and signal intelligence (SIGINT) stations?

 Currently – after having changed and made the strategic framework much more insecure, with an ineffective stability of the U.S. positions in Syria and Turkey’s definition of the agreement with Russia, as well as the strong permanence of the ever stabler Assad’s regime, in the rest of Syria – the Turkish forces have approximately 20,000 soldiers in the Idlib area.

 The deployment of Erdogan’s forces in Idlib includes his five special forces, which depend only on the Chief of Staff and not on the classic territorial chain of command of the Turkish Armed Forces. It also includes some armoured units, light infantry units, i.e. real commandos, and the 5th Brigade, specialized in paramilitary operations and mountain warfare.

 Hence nothing to do with a Military Police that deals with an agreement on the M-4 motorway line.

 The dozens of thousands Syrian or para-Syrian migrants, who want to push towards Europe, in the direction of Greece and then the “Balkan route”, are always supported by the Turkish Armed Forces themselves, who do not want civilians standing in the way between them, Assad’ Syria, Russia and the other players in the Syrian war, especially Iran.

 Clearly Turkey does not want even the United States. If anything, Erdogan wants the financial support of the E.U., which, as usual, is terrorized of the obvious result of a war it has recklessly supported.

 Hence, currently, the feeble agreement that Turkey and Russia reached in Sochi – which, indeed, served their most basic strategic interests – no longer holds, except for the wise malice of both statesmen.

 It has even been said that recently Russia has sought the support of the Emirates and of Saudi Arabia (currently it is more difficult, after the fall of OPEC+) so as to break the stalemate with Turkey, while it is known that none of the powerful countries of Jazeera, namely the Arabian Peninsula, likes the Turkish strategic behaviour.

 Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have begun to support, with money and weapons – the weapons that the new E.U. IRINI mission naively seeks at sea – the Libyan “rebels” of Cyrenaica, against the pro-Turk Tripolitanians, supported by the naivest part of the international community and, above all, by the Muslim Brotherhood that, instead, is not naive at all.

 Obviously, however, Syria’s final victory at Idlib would never be accepted by Turkey, which would probably react with a limited but very harsh counteroffensive, capable of turning the Idlib area not into a Turkish enclave, to be used as a bargaining chip with Syria, but into a real Turkish area.

 Furthermore, the Syrian economic crisis has not permitted an acceptable reconstruction in the areas of the Idlib region brought back to the Syrian regime or to Russia. This has also led to further revolts and provided induced support to the old jihadist networks that are fierce and still rich in liquidity.

 It is also possible that the great push of Syrian and para-Syrian migrants – of various ethnic origin and political nature – is not viewed too negatively by Russia, which could thus favour those ethnicist and right-wing forces which now permanently support Russian strategic goals in the now brain-dead Europe.

 Hence what should we do? Should we support the Idlib Strip as an area of permanence and support – with E.U. money – of the over three million additional migrants – something that is now physically impossible?

 Where could the E.U. money be found, in the midst of a COVID-19 financial emergency?

 Meanwhile, until the Idlib issue is solved, Assad’ Syrian regime is not stable and hence not capable of facing the great business of the country’s reconstruction, without the others’ strategic “teeth”.

Certainly – for what foreign policy agreements are worth – the Adana Agreement of 1998 still applies between Syria and Turkey. It dealt with the Province of Hatay, as well as the issue of water, essential for both countries, not to mention the Syrian recognition of the PKK as a “terrorist organization” and, therefore, the subsequent and immediate expulsion of the PKK leaders, especially Abdullah Ŏcalan, from Syria. 

This is something we Italians remember fairly well. Therefore, between 2004 and 2010, the relations between Turkey and Syria were excellent.

 The two countries also signed the beginning of a High Level Strategic Cooperation Council in September 2009, with an immediately subsequent free trade agreement between them.

 That agreement was immediately extended to the Lebanon and Jordan, besides the two first signatories – hence the old Levant Quartet. When the war, which had begun as the Syrian “Arab Spring”, became radicalized, and both global and regional elements entered Syria, Turkey changed its observation point, mainly with reference to the strong presence of Iranian and, in any case, Shi’ite forces organized by Iran.

 This was also connected to the proven substantial U.S. lack of interest in Syria, and above all its sole support for the various Kurdish political-military organizations – which, indeed, has never been the only one for the Kurds.

 Since the beginning of tensions in Syria in 2014 – especially thanks to the local organizations of the Muslim Brotherhood, often connected at the time to the U.S. networks, as in Egypt – Turkey had clear and very simple goals in mind: the management of the inevitable humanitarian crisis, in which it was directly and inevitably interested; the fall of Assad’s regime; a proxy war against Iran; the elimination of Daesh, competing with the Turkey-manipulated jihadist organizations on the ground, and the final marginalization of the entire Kurdish area.

 Currently there are approximately 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Therefore, Turkey’s goals are currently to stop further migrant flows, as well as to support those already there, and finally keep its very safe borders with Syria in view of avoiding further migrant flows.

 At that juncture, once the clash in Syria had started, Turkey saw both the Kurds and Daesh arrive at its borders.

 Later, in 2011, when the “Arab spring” broke out in Syria, Turkey explicitly advised Assad to start a radical reform of the Ba’athist regime in view of maintaining internal stability.

 Certainly, today, with the penetration of Russian and Iranian security apparata into Assad’s regime, the fall of Ba’ath and the Assad dynasty – a desire never hidden by Turkey – is much more difficult to achieve. Furthermore, Russia has an economic and oil agreement with Turkey that is worth the entire survival of the Turkish AKP regime.

 One of Turkey’s primary plan to topple Assad, and hence free Syria from Russia and Iran and turn it into a dépendance of Turkish geopolitics, was to try to unite all the forces opposing Assad into a single “front”.

 The Turkish support also applied to the Astana talks, where Turkey supported the opposition against Assad, including jihadists, and, above all, sought peace in Syria with a view to sending its 4 million migrants back to their Syrian homes and in the rest of the world.

From this viewpoint, we can better understand the Turkish operations Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Olive Branch in 2018, both designed to avoid the Daesh penetration into Turkey and the Kurds’ arrival in Ayn-el-Arab and Afrin.

 As already seen, however, the real punctum dolens of Turkey’s regional geopolitics is the possible “Shiazation” of Syria, while Turkey would like to have the entire Syria or, at least, its Sunni-majority parts, hegemonized by Turkish interests.

 The Turkish Forces’ and Intelligence Services’ penetration into Idlib has also this meaning: at first, we take our area of influence, then we will decide to negotiate with Bashar al Assad, but from a position of strength.

 It should be recalled that the first aspect of the 1979 revolution in Iran was the expansion of Islamic radicalism, which immediately spread to both Sunni and Shi’ite countries.

 The second strategy, which is currently still pursued by Iran, was instead pan-Shi’ism.

 After the predictably unfortunate “Arab Springs” that the United States invented to defuse the sword jihad by reactivating the militancy, including the religious one, with a bottom-up and rank-and-file approach, with the results we could well imagine even before, Iran no longer uses pan-Islamism, but only pan-Shi’ism.

 Since 1980, however, Turkey has carved out its geo-informative role of defender of the West against pan-Islamism and, above all, against the great Shi’ite insurgency organized by Iran, which has also strengthened the never well clarified relations between the AKP, Erdogan’s party, and the Muslim Brotherhood which, at the beginning of the “Arab Springs”, was also the primary instrument of the U.S. operations in the framework of the great change regime planned by Langley in the Arab-Islamic world.

 Certainly Iran has its very strong Shi’ite identity, which mobilizes and strongly motivates all its proxies, in Syria as in the rest of the world. Also Turkey, however – especially after Operation Olive Branch, has created its myth: a “democratic and pluralistic” Syria, i.e. without the Assad dynasty in power, but still maintaining the political and territorial unity of the Syrian Republic.

 In other words, Turkey still envisages the silent division into zones of influence, possibly favouring Russia, which maintains the TurkStream project, the bilateral gas pipeline leaving from Anapa, in the Russian region of Krasnodar, crossing the Black Sea and arriving at the Turkish station of Kiyikoi.

 A clearly strategic pipeline since it strengthens Russian-Turkish ties and hence favours Turkey’s substantial moving away from NATO. It also avoids Russia’s transit through the dangerous and unstable Ukraine, which will hence become more a problem for the West, which has opposed Russian operations in the region, than for Russia.

 Let us, however, analyse the current Turkish military operations in Syria. The Turkish military action began on October 9, 2019, with attacks on the Kurdish area of Tall Abyad and Sere Kaniye, which were carried out also thanks to the help of some jihadist groups connected with the MIT, the Turkish secret service.

 Still today, it is an area of Turkish hegemony, obtained in a territory previously controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish initiative and involving Christian (Assyrian) and Arab (Sunni) troops.

 Well before the SDF, however, much of the territory occupied by Turkey was previously held by the so-called Caliphate of Raqqa.

 Another Turkish goal was to militarily separate the Syrian Kurds – who are often mostly on the Syrian-Turkish North-Western border – from their fellow countrymen in Iraq and, all the more so, in Turkey.

 In addition, Erdogan’s Turkey plans to relocate at least 2-3 million Syrian refugees or refugees coming from Syria (who are the largest share) already present in Turkey.

 A solution that has already caused two problems. All migrants come from North-Western Syria and, hence, they are not homogeneous with the Turkish stability projects in the region. There is also the danger of giving room and bases for action to Turkey’s traditional enemies: the Syrian Democratic Forces; some remnants of the “Caliphate”, that, especially in its last phases, had close relations with the Turkish Intelligence Services; some Kurdish areas well armed from their supply lines, which go mainly from South-Eastern Syria to the whole Northern border.

 Just think that, in 2013, there were also confidential talks between the Chief of MIT and the Turkish Foreign Ministry and the leaders of all the Kurdish forces, in view of reaching a stable agreement. Those negotiations, however, were harshly disrupted by Turkey.

 In the meantime, the E.U. is obtusely undertaking to paying Turkey to stop migrants at the beginning of the “Balkan route”, which is, however, largely used both by Syrian migrants and by the majority migrant flows passing through Syria.

 Indeed, the E.U. support for all the U.S. and Franco-British democratist follies, aimed at bringing free elections and secular democratic systems throughout the Middle East, has been a unique case of strategic masochism, i.e. paying the same Turks who destabilize North-Western Syria and then asking Europe to pay the bill for what they have done precisely to the designated victims, namely the powerless Europeans.

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Middle East

Resisting Lockdowns: Bringing Ultra-conservatives into the fold

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The Coronavirus pandemic points a finger not only at the colossal global collapse of responsible public health policy but also the importance of balancing exclusionary religious practices and social cohesion.

While government negligence allowed an Evangelist prayer meeting to drive the spread of the virus in France, lagging social cohesion coupled with politicians’ politicking put ultra-conservative communities in Israel and Pakistan in the disease’s driver’s seat.

The resistance to public health policies of ultra-conservatives, who pay the price with high infection rates, takes debate about social cohesion beyond European efforts over the past two decades to restrict ultra-conservative Muslim and, to a lesser degree, Jewish practices in a bid to prevent the fringes of society turning into breeding grounds for militancy and political violence.

Various European governments have sought to impose social cohesion by banning women’s face covers, forcing people to shake the hand of someone of a different gender, restricting foreign funding for religious institutions and calls for outlawing Muslim and Jewish rituals for the slaughter of animals.

Post-Kemalist Turkey under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the only democracy to move in the opposite direction, was the exception that confirmed the rule. 

While European nations banned hijabs and niqabs, Mr. Erdogan, as part of his effort to Islamicize society, lifted the ban in universities and government offices, demolishing a pillar of French laicist-inspired Kemalism.

The issues of social cohesion and political violence took centre stage in February in a Dutch parliamentary inquiry that  investigated “unwanted influence of unfree countries.”

The parliamentary group grilled a controversial Salafi imam with questions that implied that the cleric was undermining social cohesion and enabling militancy with advice to his community to avoid intermingling with non-Muslim Dutchmen and to look the other way when walking past a church.

Critics charged that the inquiry by focussing exclusively on ultra-conservative Muslims and Turkish nationalist moves to control Dutch Turkish mosques was putting the Muslim community, that accounts for five percent of the Dutch population, on the defensive.

Israeli efforts to combat the coronavirus have highlighted similar social cohesion issues with ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, a city near Tel Aviv, that are among the Jewish state’s foremost virus clusters. Authorities put Bnei Brak this week in lockdown.

Initial government reluctance to enforce the closure of schools and synagogues as well as social distancing among the ultra-orthodox, who account for 12 percent of Israel’s population of 8.6 million, was seemingly motivated by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s fear that he would alienate religious parties that support his effort to form a new post-election government.

Mr. Netanyahu has recently been twice in quarantine, once after having been in face-to-face contact with his ultra-orthodox advisor, Rivka Paluch, who tested positive, and a second time after his health minister, Yaakov Litzman, a prominent member of the ultra-orthodox community, contracted the disease.

It took the disease to persuade Mr. Litzman that harsher measures were needed.

Mr. Litzman, discussing the virus. insisted last month that “we are praying and hoping that Messiah will come by Passover, it’s the time of redemption. I am sure that the Messiah will come  just like he took us out of Egypt.”

Mr. Litzman and Ms. Paluch’s initial resistance to tough public health measures suggests that ultra-orthodox assertions that lack of information explained ultra-orthodox resistance was not the only reason for the failure of to comply with government policy.

To be sure, ultra-orthodox Jews frequently live in a world of their own that centres on prayer and religious learning. Many do not have television, access to the internet or listen to mainstream radio broadcasts. They rely on community news sheets.

Add to that the fact that proposed public health measures disrupt ultra-orthodox life.

Like Muslims, ultra-orthodox Jews congregate several times a day for prayers. Unlike Muslims, Jews require for certain prayers a quorum of at least ten adult men. The government’s closure of rituals baths, moreover, means that couples are banned from intimacy or sleeping in one bed.

Furthermore, ultra-orthodox interactions with more secular Jewish society are few and far between. Members of the community often speak Yiddish, rather than Hebrew, a language that in their view is reserved for prayer in the absence of the arrival of the Messiah.

Like recent ultra-orthodox funerals, recent mass gatherings in Pakistan, Malaysia and India of Tablighi Jamaat, a transnational ultra-conservative Muslim movement, have turned into hubs from which the coronavirus has spread.

Former Israeli justice and religious affairs minister Yossi Beilin could have been speaking about the Tablighi when he summed up the ultra-orthodox Jewish view as ‘keep praying together. Whatever you try doing will not change anything, because the disaster is a God-given phenomenon, and only begging God may change things for the better.’’’

An Evangelist pastor in Florida, Reverend Rodney Howard-Browne, who was arrested for organizing Sunday church services in defiance of emergency orders, echoed Mr. Beilin’s rendition of attitudes among some  ultra-conservatives.

“We are demonized because we believe that God heals, that the Lord sets people free, and they make us out to be some kook,” Mr. Howard-Browne said.

With governments across the globe having failed to prepare for or counter the coronavirus from day one, Israel and Pakistan are in good company So is France, where a week-long Evangelist gathering in the city of Mulhouse kickstarted the virus’ spread in the country.

Members of the congregation said they knew nothing about the virus’ threat. Indeed, the French government had at that point failed to issue proper warnings and take the kind of measures that potentially could have blunted the virus’ devastating impact.

The upshot of Israel’s travails, the Dutch inquiry that at times resembled an inquisition, Pakistani hesitancy to impose public health measures on an influential religious group, and French negligence constitute in essence government failures on two counts: The failure to read the writing on the wall with regard to the virus and the failure to work with ultra-conservatives to bring them into the fold.

Talking about the ultra-orthodox, Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute appeared to put the onus on ultra-conservatives.  “The main question towards the future is whether within the community there will be voices…that will say: ‘We want to protect our community, but we also belong to the state,’” Mr. Malach said.

If the emergence of ultra-conservative communities as virus clusters says anything, it is that waiting for ultra-conservatives to raise their voice isn’t good enough. The coronavirus demonstrates the price of not reaching out to ultra-conservative communities and establishing two-way channels of communication.

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