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Middle East: From COVID-19 invasion to an epidemic of disintegration?

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The recent declaration of autonomy in southern Yemen and Khalifa Haftar’s declaring himself the ruler of all Libya once again drew the world’s attention to the phenomenon of separatism. This phenomenon is certainly not new, amply exemplified by events in Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol. In Europe, the problem is normally discussed and resolved on a legal basis, if not always peacefully. When it comes to Asia and Africa, the chances of legal settlement of such issues are even lower.

Back in the early 1990s, Bernard Lewis, a renowned expert on Islamic civilization, foresaw the breakup of a number of states in the Greater Middle East. Later, in 2006, Armed Forces Journal published the “future” map of the region, drawn up by the US military expert, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, who predicted the division of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite states and the emergence of a number of countries on parts of the territories of today’s Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The events of the largely foreign-influenced “Arab Spring” gave a strong boost to the centrifugal processes in the region. In some places it resulted in the downfall of political regimes, in others it led to their transformation. Armed conflicts flared up in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, which continue to this day and there are no guarantees that before very long these countries’ borders won’t change.

The start of the leap year 2020 was marred by the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, followed by an oil price collapse. According to the World Health Organization, the health care systems of developing countries are unable to cope with the pandemic on their own due to the lack of medical facilities, equipment, medical staff and even basic protective gear. While developed countries have allocated huge financial resources to check the spread of COVID-19, poor countries, most of which are struggling for survival, cannot afford the introduction of long-term quarantine, nor do they have enough money to assist their citizens. Moreover, the real picture of the spread of the coronavirus infection in developing countries remains pretty dim, meaning that the socio-political consequences of the pandemic for these countries can be disastrous.

The dramatic fall in oil prices has not only dealt a severe blow to the economies of the oil-producing countries, sharply choking off their budget revenues, but it also exacerbated the situation in the countries that survive largely on money transfers from their citizens working abroad and assistance from oil and gas-rich neighbors.

In addition, the region has enough old problems to deal with.

Yemen, which is a patchwork of various tribes and tribal unions, was established in its present form in 1990 as a union of North and South Yemen (or rather as a result of the annexation of the country’s southern regions by the North). According to the UN, the country experienced a genuine “humanitarian catastrophe” even before the advent of the coronavirus and collapsing oil prices.

Just four years after the unification, the so-called Democratic Republic of Yemen was proclaimed in the country’s south, but existed only a couple of months. In 2014, an armed conflict erupted (and still continues) among the northerners themselves – the Shiite group Ansar Allah and the central government. In March 2015, an international Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia joined the fight against the Iranian-backed Shiites. In addition, the central government has since 2007 been confronted by yet another secessionist organization, now in the south – the so-called Southern Transitional Council, which recently declared self-governance of the territories under its control.

Faced with such a disturbing reality, the governors of several provinces, including the most economically developed ones, stop making financial transfers to the state budget and host foreign ambassadors and foreign military delegations.

Iraq is a country characterized by significant ethno-confessional diversity with almost two-thirds of the population being Shiite Arabs, most of them pro-Iranian due to the fact that during the long reign of the Ba’athists (members of the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party – PASV, or Ba’ath), Shiite Arabs were not considered as 100-percent citizens of the country. During the 2003 intervention by a US-led international coalition, many Shiite organizations allied themselves with the Anglo-American forces. During the subsequent occupation of Iraq, the local administration assumed real power over the country’s Shiite south and to this very day the central government in Baghdad does not completely control the southern governorates.

During the 1960s, the Kurds, who predominantly lived in northern and northeastern Iraq, mounted an armed struggle for independence. The government’s brutal, including with the widespread use of chemical weapons, crushing of the movement in 1987-1989 made it absolutely inacceptable for many Kurds to keep living in the same country with the Arabs, even after Iraqi Kurdistan was granted the status of autonomy in the wake of Operation Desert Storm. The invasion by the Western coalition forces allowed the Kurds not only to establish a regional government, but also to phase out the local Arab population and occupy a number of oil-rich regions, which the Kurdish leaders said had been taken away from them by the regime of Saddam Hussein.

An independence referendum for Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which was an attempt to finally legitimize the Kurdish statehood failed however, even though an overwhelming majority of votes were cast in favor of independence. At that time, the prospect of an independent Kurdistan did not sit well with either Iran and Turkey (as it would sent a “wrong” signal to the Kurds living there), or the United States, who believed that the Kurdish state in Iraq could lead to the emergence of a pro-Iranian Shiite entity in the south, including in the strategic Basra oil field.

Today, Sunni Arabs fear (rightly or not) that the final withdrawal of US troops from Iraq will make them defenseless both against the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, leaving them one on one with Iran, which Iraq fought against during the war of 1980-1988.

The ethno-cultural makeup in Syria is equally diverse, with over 70 percent of Syrians being Sunni Arabs and about 15 percent – Shiites, including the Alawites, whose affiliation with Islam is questioned by many. After the country gained independence in 1946, Syrian army officers and members of the state bureaucracy were traditionally and overwhelmingly recruited from Alawites, much to the chagrin of the country’s majority Sunnis, many of whom still support the armed opposition.

In 1920, France carved up the mandated territory of the Middle East entrusted to it by the League of Nations into four zones: Greater Lebanon, the State of the Alawites, the State of Aleppo and the State of Damascus. The Jabal Druze State and the Sanjak of Alexandretta, which broke away from Turkey before WWII, were added the following year. However, France later ended its experiment on ethno-confessional division of the region, and the Alawite clan of the Assads, backed by the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party, has thus ruled Syria since 1963.

The “Arab Spring” all but destroyed Syria as an independent state, which survived only thanks to the political and military assistance of Russia and Iran.

The Kurds – the largest ethnic minority in Syria – live in the northeast of the country and make up about 10-12 percent of the population. After decades of discrimination (until recently, the Kurds did not even have Syrian citizenship), big and small revolts, Kurdish politicians, taking advantage of the chaos of the civil war, established regional authorities virtually independent of Damascus. Then, due to their support for the Western coalition fighting ISIL (ISIS, IS, Islamic State – a terrorist entity outlawed in Russia) and apparently heeding the advice of US instructors, the Kurdish groups, like Iraqi Peshmerga, occupied a number of the country’s traditionally Arab oil-bearing territories.

The Syrian Kurds are being sponsored by the United States, which is not going to cede to anyone its control neither over the territory, nor the local administration and militia, let alone the oil fields.

Syrian Turkmens (Turkomans) are a sizeable ethnic group, who are under the watchful care of Turkey.

For Christians (about 6 percent of the population) and Druze (about 3 percent), the threat posed by the Sunni Islamists borders on genocide, hence their unconditional support for the central government.

The territory of modern Libya consists of three historical provinces – Tripolitania (in the west), Cyrenaica (in the east) and Fezzan (in the south), which were united by Italy only in 1934. The country’s population is relatively homogeneous: the vast majority are Arabs, and there are also Berbers who live in the southwest, Tuaregs in the south, and Tubu in the southeast. The tribal organization of society plays a significant role in the socio-political life of the country.

Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years until he was deposed and killed in 2011. The country has virtually fallen apart as a result of a long-running war of all against all. There are two main rival political forces now existing in the country – the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar and based in the east of the country, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, with its headquarters in Tripoli. The opponents rely on the support of a various social groups, including Islamists, and divisions run along political, not national or religious lines.

Many analysts still see “a significant potential for the emergence of new centers of power.”

The long-term efforts by outside actors (primarily European countries and Russia) to set in motion the negotiating process have not yet yielded any tangible results. Khalifa Haftar recently announced the transfer of power in the country to the armed forces (i.e. to himself). The GNA assumed an equally implacable position, turning down an LNA-proposed truce for the duration of the holy month of Ramadan.

If the hypothetical disintegration of these four countries becomes real it would lead to a new spiral of degradation of the political situation in the region and to a further escalation of violence.

In the event of a collapse of Yemen, Iran will obtain a satellite in the form of the country’s Shiite north, but complicated logistics may hamper the provision of assistance to its newly-acquired ally. Riyadh will not tolerate Shiite statehood on “its” peninsula, and the military suppression of the Houthis will take long due to the Saudis’ low combat efficiency. Following the example of Djibouti, the country’s north and south will start selling land for  foreign military bases (oil reserves are depleted and you can’t live long off exporting fish, and this is about all the country can sell now), which could escalate tensions in the strategic region of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.

In Iraq, interfaith clashes and social protests that began after the main forces of the Anglo-American coalition were pulled out in 2011, have not subsided, to say the least. The Kurds are taking their time, but the 92 percent of the “yes” votes cast in the 2017 independence referendum means that sooner or later they will resume their drift away from Iraq. The country’s breakup into three parts would theoretically be beneficial to Iran as the southern governorate bordering on Saudi Arabia would have to move under Tehran’s control. The country’s Sunni center will find itself sandwiched between Iran, the Shiite south, the Alawite-ruled Syria and the Kurds, who hold a longtime grudge against their Arab fellow citizens. Under such circumstances, the Sunnis will have to look for other patrons – the United States (if, despite all Trump’s statements to the contrary, the Americans stay on in the region, and it looks like they will), Saudi Arabia or Russia. This choice will determine the future course of events in Mesopotamia.

In Syria, centrifugal processes are presently being determined by outside players: Americans support the Kurds, Turks – Turkomans and Sunni Arabs along the border, Iranians – their fellow Shiites, and Saudis back the Arab Sunni tribes in the east. The most likely candidates for secession are the Kurds, who, having expanded their controlled territory in northeast Syria, have actually linked up with the semi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan. So far, their political leaders haven’t been getting along with each other, but this may change if it meets the interests of Washington, which is sponsoring both.

Libya, meanwhile, is increasingly turning into an arena of proxy war, which the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are waging against Turkey and Qatar. The degree of hatred borne of many years of mutual extermination is going through the roof, making the prospects of a settlement close to nil. The country is actually fighting for oil and control over the flow of refugees, which, as the events of the recent years show, can be quite successfully used as a bargaining chip with Europe.

Many experts warn that any redrawing of borders in the region can bring about a chain reaction and even resuscitate the “Islamic international,” if under a different moniker. Meanwhile, the United States, as the Indian political scientist Brahma Chellaney put it, will not get rid of its addiction to interfering in the “chronically volatile Middle East.” And its policy over and over again turns out to be “spectacularly counterproductive.”  Well, it’s hard to disagree with.

From our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

Dr.Alon Ben-Meir

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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