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Breaking with the past: China hints at greater political engagement in the Middle East

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China is contemplating greater political engagement in the Middle East in what would constitute a break with its longstanding effort to avoid being sucked into the region’s myriad conflicts and a bid to counter mounting US pressure to force Gulf states to curtail relations with the People’s Republic.

Prominent Chinese scholars, close to the government in Beijing, have increasingly hinted in recent weeks at a possible policy change in public statements and writings. The hints come as the reliability of the United States as a regional security guarantor is increasingly being questioned.

They also coincide with mounting tensions between the United States and China that have sparked US pressure on countries it considers allies, partners and/or friends to limit their technology cooperation with the People’s Republic.

Scholars Sun Degang and Wu Sike, in the most explicit indication of a possible policy shift, argued in an article published this month in a respected Chinese journal, that the Middle East was a “key region in big power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in a new era.”

Messrs. Sun and Wu suggested that Chinese characteristics would involve “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution.

The scholars said Chinese engagement in Middle Eastern security would seek to build an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and the containment of differences.

The article followed remarks by Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), widely viewed as China’s most influential think tank, suggesting that China’s interest in the Middle East was waning.

“For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant backburner of China’s strategic global strategies … Covid-19, combined with the oil price crisis, will dramatically change the Middle East. (This) will change China’s investment model in the Middle East,” Mr. Niu said.

Analysts read Mr. Niu’s comments as advising Gulf states that increasingly are walking a tightrope between Washington and Beijing to dial down tensions with Iran to a degree that differences become manageable.

That would have to involve some kind of regional agreement on non-aggression that would include rather than exclude Iran as outlined in a Russian proposal to rejigger the Gulf’s security architecture that has been cautiously endorsed by China.

“Beijing has indeed become more concerned about the stability of Middle Eastern regimes. Its growing regional interests combined with its BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) ambitions underscore that Middle East stability, particularly in the Persian Gulf, is now a matter of strategic concern for China,” said Mordechai Chaziza, an expert on China-Middle East relations.

Chinese and Russian preference for a rejiggering of the Gulf’s security architecture based on a regional non-aggression pact stroke with options being weighed by the Trump administration.

“One option that was considered recently is a mutual pact of non-aggression… Its not a new idea… In (19)95 something similar was tried between Saudi and Iran. It kept the peace for quite some years,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, a prominent Atlantic Council scholar who served as senior director for the Gulf on President Donald J. Trump’s National Security Council.

Mounting tension between the United States and China makes it more urgent for Beijing to act on its concerns.

Senior Trump administration officials as well as those like Ms. Fontenrose, who recently left government service, are laying out how the United States wants its Middle Eastern partners to structure their relationships with China.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker recently said the United States had advised its Middle Eastern partners to take “a careful look at investment, major contracts and infrastructure projects.”

He warned that certain engagements with China could “come at the expense of the region’s prosperity, stability, fiscal viability and longstanding relationship with the United States.”

Ms. Fontenrose cautioned that “the Middle East has got to understand that this is the way the US sees that part of the world and that if you become their best friend…then that’s going to be a challenge to our relationship… Today, there doesn’t appear that there is any room for nuance or any grey space. Its a us or them.”

A recent US decision to no longer allow dependents to accompany US personnel assigned to the Gulf was intended to send the region a message.

The message, Ms. Fontenrose said, was: “We’re not going to invest in you that strongly. We’re not going to send families out for years if you in effect are going to become best friends with our greatest adversary.”

Serving and former US officials said pressure on Gulf states was likely to mount and could involve US ultimatums and quid pro quo responses.

Our partners “need to know what our red lines…and what that means. If you do purchase this, we will withdraw this,” Ms. Fontenrose said.

Greater Chinese political engagement that could contribute to a reduction of regional tensions would first and foremost serve to protect Chinese interests.

China, however, also appears to be debating whether it could help countering US efforts to force Gulf states to restructure their relations with the People’s Republic.

That is likely to be a long shot in an environment in which the United States appears to have opted for confrontation and in which distrust and suspicion rather than search for common ground is the name of the game.

Writing in Chinese Communist party newspaper Global Times, Wei Zongyou, a scholar who studies the United States, suggested recently that “the future trajectory of China-US relations depends on how the two interact rather than the US one-sidedly. China can still seek strategic initiatives.”

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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Middle East

Turkey signals sweeping regional ambitions

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A nationalist Turkish television station with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dug up a 12-year-old map that projects Turkey’s sphere of influence in 2050 as stretching from South-eastern Europe on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and Libya on its southern shore across North Africa, the Gulf and the Levant into the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Buoyed by last year’s Azerbaijani defeat of Armenia, TGRT, a subsidiary of Ihlas Holding, a media and construction conglomerate that has won major government tenders, used the map to advance a policy that has long constituted the agenda of some of Mr. Erdogan’s closest advisors.

The broadcasting of the map, first published in a book authored by George Freidman, the founder of Stratfor, an influential American corporate intelligence group, followed calls by pan-Turkic daily Turkiye, Ihlas’ daily newspaper that has the fourth-largest circulation in Turkey, to leverage the Azerbaijani victory to create a military alliance of Turkic states.

In a country that ranks only second to China as the world’s foremost jailer of journalists, Ihlas Holding media would not be pushing a pan-Turkic, Islam-laced Turkish regional policy without tacit government approval at the very least.

The media group’s push reflects Turkish efforts to capitalize on the fact that Turkey’s latest geopolitical triumph with Azerbaijan’s Turkish-backed victory is already producing tangible results. The military victory has positioned Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey, as an alternative transportation route westwards that would allow Central Asian nations to bypass corridors dominated by either Russia or Iran.

Turkmenistan, recognizing the changing geopolitical map, rushed in January to end a long-standing dispute with Azerbaijan and agree on the joint exploitation of Caspian Sea oil deposits. The agreement came on the heels of a deal in December for the purchase from ENI Turkmenistan of up to 40,000 tonnes of petroleum a month by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR).

The agreement could boost the completion of a Trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline (TPC) that would feed into the recently operational Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), bypass Russia and Iran, and supply Greece and Bulgaria via the former Soviet republic.

Last month, Azerbaijan agreed with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to develop the Lapis Lazuli transport corridor that would link the war-ravaged country to Turkey. At about the same time, Kazakhstan began exporting copper cathodes to Turkey via Azerbaijan in a first step intended to capitalize on the Caucasian nation’s position as a transit hub.

Azerbaijan and Turkey’s newly found advantage has rung alarm bells among Russian and Iranian analysts with close ties to their respective governments even though the TGRT broadcast may have been primarily intended to whip up nationalist fervour at home and test regional responses.

Russian and Iranian politicians and analysts appeared to take the broadcast in that vein. Nonetheless, they were quick to note that Friedman’s projection includes Russia’s soft underbelly in the northern Caucasus as well as Crimea while Iranians took stock of the fact that the Turkish sphere of influence would border on Iran to the north, south and west.

Turkey and Ukraine have in recent months agreed to cooperate in the development of technologies with military applications related to engines, avionics, drones, anti-ship and cruise missiles, radar and surveillance systems, robotics, space, and satellites. Turkey has refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, home to Crimean Tartars, and criticized Russian support for Ukrainian rebels.

Most Russian commentators sought to downplay the significance of the map, leaving Andrei Krasov, deputy chairman of the defence committee of the Russian parliament’s lower house to warn that “if they (the Turks) want to test the strength of the Russian spirit and our weapons, let them try.”

With Iran excluded from TGRT and Stratfor’s projection of Turkey’s emerging sphere of influence, Iranian officials and analysts have largely not responded to the revival of the map.

Yet, Iran’s actions on the ground suggest that the Islamic republic has long anticipated Turkish moves even though it was caught off guard by last year’s Azerbaijani-Armenian war.

For one, Iran has in the past year sought to bolster its military presence in the Caspian Sea and forge close naval ties with the basin’s other littoral states – Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

Viewed from Tehran, TGRT’s broadcasting of the Stratfor map was the latest in a series of provocative Turkish moves.

They include Mr. Erdogan’s recital of a nationalist poem while attending a military parade in Azerbaijan that calls for reuniting two Iranian ethnic Azeri provinces with the former Soviet republic and publication by state-run Turkish Radio and Television’s Arabic service of a map on Instagram, depicting Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan with its large population of ethnic Arabs as separate from Iran.

The Instagram posting came days after the disclosure that Habib Chaab, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, or ASMLA, had been kidnapped in Istanbul by an Iraqi Kurdish drug baron in cooperation with Iranian intelligence and transported to Iran.

While senior Iranian officials talked down the Turkish provocations, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency left little doubt about what Iran’s true sentiments were.

“Those who have greedy eyes on the territories this side of the Aras River had better study history and see that Azerbaijan, specifically the people of Tabriz, have always pioneered in defending Iran. If Iran had not helped you on the night of the coup, you would have had a fate like that of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi,’ protesters chanted in front of the Turkish consulate in Tabriz, the capital of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

The protesters were responding to Mr. Erdogan’s poem recital and referring to the failed military coup against him in 2016 as well as the toppling of Mr. Morsi in 2013 in a takeover by the Egyptian armed forces.

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Middle East

Notes on Turkish Politics (5): The Need for a Vibrant Civil Society

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This is the last piece of my “Turkish politics” article series. In this piece, I will try to address the role of civil society in Turkish political life and democracy in a brief way.

The role of civil society is very important in shaping the democratic institutions and processes in a polity. Turkish political culture has long been characterized by having a weak civil society and strong state mechanism. As noted in my earlier piece titled “Notes On Turkish Politics (I): Strong State Tradition”Turkey has a “strong state tradition” as first stressed by distinguished Turkish academic Metin Heper. The non-state units and grass-roots movements have been weak in Turkish political life due to a number of reasons which also lead to democratic erosion.

Civil society is related with autonomous social units and organizations like voluntary associations, private companies, private associations etc. These social units or organizations that make up civil society are based on the principle of recognition of basic human and civil rights. It is known that civil society is seen as one of the basic social bases of  liberal democracy.

The historical background of Turkey from the very beginning of the Republic experienced an evident antagonism between the state and the society. The military, the high bureaucracy and some academics along with some particular media actors used to show a certain amount of distrust towards the society until the multi-party politics.

In the post-1980 period, a revival of civil society was witnessed. Turkey went through important changes in the 1980s as the free market economy policies were accepted. One of the most important consequences of this change was the development of the systems of communication and information and this development empowered civil society actors as well. Turgut Özal has been one of the influential political elites paving the way for the strengthening of Turkish civil society. Özal challenged Kemalist state tradition to some degree. As an extension of Özal’s liberal policies, a free market economy was formed and legal obstacles to political freedom were also removed by abolishing Articles 141, 142, and 163 of the 1982 Constitution, which prohibited the free expression of thought (Çaha, 2001).

The 1990s witnessed a military intervention and this “post-modern” coup narrowed the arena for civil society associations and certain identities like that of Islamic identity were vilified by the state elites.

In the early years of the AK Party rule (up until 2010 referendum) Turkey saw positive developments in terms of democratization and this played a positive role for civil society as well. However, in the last years, Turkish civil society has begun to weaken once again. A recent example of this is Turkey’s NGO bill that was introduced in late 2020. In a news article published by Duvar English, the warnings of Human Right Watch were addressed. According to HRW, the bill introduces “annual inspections of nongovernmental groups, which will severely affect their activities since the inspections frequently last months and reduce the group’s capacity to operate. It introduces severe fines if the Interior Ministry deems a group’s online fundraising unlawful.”

In one of my articles titled “Turkish Political Culture and Civil Society: An Unsettling Coupling?” published in 2011, I wrote the following about the relationship between civil society and political culture for Turkish context:

“The Turkish case indicates that the advancement of civil society is closely related to the function of and the role of state. The governance of state in accordance with the rule of law and its neutrality is necessary for the advancement of a competitive social environment where social groups can freely compete. Also, it is important to note that there is almost a direct relationship between civil society and democracy.”

Turkey needs a vibrant civil society to have a working democracy and of course civil society is only one piece of the prerequisites for democracy!

Cited resources

  • Burak Begüm, 2011, “Turkish Political Culture and Civil Society: An Unsettling Coupling?”  19264 (dergipark.org.tr) (Access Date: 20.02.2021)
  • Çaha Ömer, 2001, “The Inevitable Coexistence of Civil Society and Liberalism: The Case of Turkey”, Journal of Economic and Social Research 3, 2.
  • Duvar English, (Dec. 24, 2020), “Turkey’s NGO bill threatens civil society, says HRW” Turkey’s NGO bill threatens civil society, says HRW (duvarenglish.com) (Access Date: 20.02.2021)

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Middle East

The Influence of Persian Racism on Status of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran

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Language is the carrier of the people’s culture and is one of the fundamental national identity elements.  Therefore, the culture and identity of the nation can strengthen by the powerful and widespread language. Reinforcing the language needs official and systematic support. Otherwise, in the age of informational technology and communication, the languages spoken by a small group of people may disappear under the influence of powerful languages and cultures widely used by influential ethnics and nations worldwide. Indeed, the fade or thrive of native languages depends on the government, socio-economic development, and cultural context. Deliberately, racist states fulfill the assimilation policy to decay the other native languages to reinforce imposed language. They mobilize all their resources to implement this policy by resorting to military and security forces. Iran is a diverse society with several ethnicities, languages, and cultures. In order to Persianization of the other non-Persian people like Turk, Arab, Kurd, Baloch, Lor, Persian-centered government performs the racist politics against them across the country. Turk ethnicity is the largest ethnic group in Iran that has been subjected to Persian racism and internal colonization since 1925.

There are no accurate statistics about the number of Turkish ethnicity members in Iran because the authoritarian racist Iranian state has not allowed independent censuses, and statistics are mostly based on estimates. According to the Ethnologue, more than 38 percent of Iran’s population are Turks, mainly Azerbaijani Turks who live in the northwest of Iran, and that region is known as South Azerbaijan. Since 1925, with the beginning of the Pahlavi regime, people with Turkish identity and other non-Persian ethnic groups have been deprived of primary rights like education to the mother language. This racist process has aimed to indicate and impose the language, history, culture, and identity of the Persian ethnic group as the only authentic and superior for all Iranians. Since establishing the Pahlavi regime in Iran, assimilation and alienation of Turkish ethnic groups have been continuing, and widespread protests for racist policies have not succeeded, and Turk activists’ peaceful actions have not sustained the Iranian regime from its inhumane racist behavior. Turks do not have any right to promote their culture and language. Turkish children must educate in Farsi, and all official correspondences have to be in the inflicted language. Since the formation of the Pahlavi monarchy, approximately the name of more than 500 areas like village, city, river, lake, and forest has been changed from Turkish to Persian terms. Furthermore, depriving Turk children of learning and education in their mother language is one of the main reasons for high illiteracy rates, the decline in academic performance, and a sense of humiliation of those children compared with Persian children. That racist ideology has accompanied most scholars, academicians, writers, journalists, poets, thinkers, teachers, and intellectuals’ support, and it has reached the Persian society sphere. They humiliate Turks in their writing, interviews, newspapers, and particularly in state media. For example, they analogized the Turkish people to cockroaches with feeding on toilets in the state-run Iran newspaper in May 2006 that sparked extensive protests in various Turkish cities, especially Tehran; dozens of protestors were killed and injured, hundreds of demonstrators detained and sentenced to long prison terms. Consequently, the policies that have been implemented against the Turks in Iran since the commencing of Pahlavi monarchy have been a linguistic and identity genocide for the benefit of strengthening the Persian language culture and identity. Because in their thought, Turkish language, culture, and identity are significant threats to the existence and expansion of the Persian language and culture and could jeopardize the territorial integrity.

Simultaneously, with linguistic assimilation and identity alienation policies, Persian-oriented colonial plans against the Turks have been plotted after the Raza Khan coup. Based on colonial policies, every year the bulk of the country’s budget flowed to the Persian regions to create prosperity and establish manufacturing companies and industrial centers. For instance, the comparison of Ardakan located on the desert in central Iran and Varzegan surrounded with copper and gold mines and forest represents that Ardakan is provided with many factories, but Varzegan is deprived. Overall, most Persian regions are in a good situation regarding welfare amenities, prosperity, and workplaces compared with non-Persian areas. Besides, the Turkish regions’ colonialization causes severe desperation and migration of Azerbaijani Turks to the Persian regions who confront with humiliation by racist society with a high level of supremacy. Under such conditions, they become more assimilated into the Persian language and culture and alienated from their original identity. Indeed, economic colonialization, assimilation, and alienation policies are positively correlated in Iran and reinforce each other against non-Persian ethnic groups.

Despite the repression atmosphere and oppressive politics of governing apparatuses in Iran, South Azerbaijan National Movement activists continue their peaceful struggle against the racist Iranian government’s colonial policies. In contrast, the Islamic Republic security forces raid demonstrations and activists’ homes, detain them, and sentence them to long prison terms by holding arbitrary trials on baseless and false accusations like “Propaganda against the regime”, “acting against national security” and separatism.  For instance, Abbas Lesani is a famous Azerbaijani activist who was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for his legal activities such as demanding education in the mother language at schools by the Ardabil appeal court. The supreme court of Iran rejected his objection and upheld the appeal court decision. Therefore, Azerbaijani Turk activists’ initial demands are establishing the schools in the Turkish language and ending the economic discrimination, which has hindered the equitable development of the Turkish-populated areas in Iran.

     Although the linguistic assimilation, alienation, and systematic racist activities of the government to eradicate the language, culture, and identity of the Turkish society in Iran have caused the Persianization of different generations during the last century, with the awakening and spontaneity of Turks, Turkish language and culture are a critical requirement to retrieve their ethnic identity. Moreover, their national values, beliefs, culture, and identity are embedded within the language. For this reason, education in the mother tongue can play vital role for the extrication of the Turks from the bondage of Persian colonialism. Also, it can neutralize the adverse effects of racist policies against these oppressed people. However, denial, repression, and government oppression have led to an increase in identity-seeking in the Turkic-speaking regions, especially in South Azerbaijan, and it intensifies exponentially over time. The Director-General of the Civil and Personal Status Registration office recently talked to the media that 40 percent of the people names in East Azerbaijan province are in Turkish. Despite official restrictions, it demonstrates that activities to revive the Turkish language, culture, and identity continue between Azerbaijani Turks and other tribes with Turkish identity throughout Iran. On the other hand, the Iranian government’s racist policies against the Turks have intensified ethnic divisions and divergence among the Turks, and the denial policy and repression cause a gradual reduction in their desire for territorial belonging to Iran.

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