“Turkey has deep ties of friendship and fraternity with Qatar and the relations between the two countries have rapidly improved in all fields… Both countries are actively cooperating in solving regional problems.”
With these words the official website of the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs briefly describes the status of relations between Qatar and Turkey. These relations have influenced and will continue to deeply influence the evolution (or involution) of international relations in a wide region that goes beyond the classic borders of the geopolitical Middle East and stretches from Libya to the Caucasus, passing through Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean basin.
“Friends of hard times”: this is how the Turkish President, Tayyp Recep Erdogan, and the Emir of Qatar, the unscrupulous 40-year-old Tamin bin Hamad al-Thani, define themselves.
In fact, they must be good friends, considering that in 2018 the Turkish President accepted, without blinking an eye, the “personal” gift of a private jet plane worth 400 million dollars generously provided by his young and very rich ally, with whom he has maintained very close relations over the last decade, with face to face meetings on a monthly if not weekly basis.
The liaison between Turkey and Qatar has two very precise dates of reference: December 2010 and June 2017.
After the initial and limited unrest that broke out in Tunisia on the wave of protests against the rising cost of living and for greater democracy, also thanks to the sophisticated and incessant information (and disinformation) strategy of the TV station Al Jazeera, owned by the Emir of Qatar, the protests spread rapidly to Libya, Egypt and Syria producing upheavals and disruptions that still persist today.
The myth of the “Arab Springs” started thanks to Al Jazeera, and to the political short-sightedness and analytical superficiality of the U.S Department of State, led at the time by the “vestal” of politically correct, Hillary Clinton.
It wasAl Jazeera who inflamed the squares, streets and minds of the whole Arab and Muslim world, calling for rebellion against the “despots” and instilling in the West and in the Euro-American mainstream media the idea that behind the insurgency there was a genuine demand for democracy.
We realised (with difficulty) that things were not as the Qatari broadcaster reported, after a decade of bloody clashes, civil wars and authoritarian coups – all events that showed that the “Arab Springs” were nothing more than the attempt of the most backward part of Islam, gathered around the “Muslim Brotherhood”, to finally take power by overthrowing more or less authoritarian secular regimes, and to replace them with governments based exclusively on the Sharia, the Islamic law requiring the strictest compliance with the Qur’an precepts.
It was in that context that the special liaison between Erdogan and al-Thani developed and strengthened. Both of them realised that if they managed to take over the political leadership of the “Muslim Brotherhood” -which was disliked by the more moderate Arab governments in the Persian Gulf – they could become the new key players of Middle East geopolitics.
That prospect led Turkey and Qatar to support the short-lived rise of the “Muslim Brother”, Mohammed al-Morsi, to Egypt’s Presidency in 2012 and to intervene heavily in the Syrian crisis, with economic and military aid, as well as the support of propaganda (always with Al Jazeera at work) against the rebel forces opposing Assad’s regime that were rapidly hegemonized and dominated by the Syrian jihadist militiamen of Jabat Al Nusra and the Iraqi cutthroats of “Caliph” Al Baghdadi’s Isis.
Turkey and Qatar bet on Assad’s fall and the turning of Syria into an Islamic Republic that could support Turkey’s new hegemonic role in the region, financially backed by the very rich Qatar – a State that with its 300,000 inhabitants was unable to stand out faced with the hegemonic country of the Gulf, namely Saudi Arabia.
Things did not go as desired by the two “friends of hard times”. In Egypt the dreams of Morsi and the “Muslim Brotherhood” were shattered in 2013, faced with the reaction of the military led by General al-Sisi, while in Syria – thanks to Russia’s intervention – Assad still “reigned” even if only on the ruins of a country destroyed by a senseless and ferocious civil war that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths among civilians and the flight of over a million refugees.
The role played by Turkey and Qatar in the Middle East turmoil and the ambitions of the two allies to take the leadership and excel in the most sensitive region of the world, lead us to the second significant date in the relations between Erdogan and al-Thani, namely June 5, 2017. It was the day on which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt broke diplomatic relations with Qatar. A few days later they gave a very harsh ultimatum to Qatar imposing to minimize relations with the “Muslim Brotherhood” and close the military base of Tariq Bin Ziyad, occupied since 2014 by a contingent of Turkish armed forces. Otherwise very harsh sanctions would be imposed.
With a view to strengthening pressure, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates sent troops to the border with Qatar, stopped flights and land communications while, by decision of the Turkish Parliament, the Turkish contingent was further strengthened.
The sanctions against Qatar were very harsh and only a Turkish airlift could avert a severe food crisis for a rich but powerless people, faced with its neighbours’ siege.
The support provided by Erdogan to Qatar, during what was called the “Gulf crisis”, negatively and definitively marked relations between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, with strong repercussions on trade (a general boycott of Turkish goods was called for) and on the Turkish economy in general, which was negatively affected by the drop in exports throughout the region.
The unscrupulous activism of the Turkish leader, the profligate spending to back the airlift to Qatar and the military engagement in Syria put Ankara’s economy into crisis long before the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was felt in Turkey, with devastating effects on its people’s living standards.
Nevertheless, a boycott from the Gulf countries, threats of sanctions from Europe and substantial international isolation have not yet limited the adventurism of the Turkish President who, like an avid gambler, is raising the stakes on several tables in the hope of making up for his losses.
From Libya to Armenia, from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, the Turkish leader keeps on trying to play a leading role, with the support of his friends in Doha.
In Libya he sent his own Jabat Al Nusra Syrian soldiers and militiamen to fight alongside the forces loyal to President al-Sarraj, thus forcing his opponent, namely General Haftar, to stop last spring-summer’s offensive on Tripoli.
In Libya, Turkish interference caused the harsh reaction of the Egyptian President, al-Sisi, who warned Turks and loyalists not to cross the “red line” west of Sirte, threatening to send ground troops.
In the Mediterranean the crisis is open and far from a solution.
Turkey’s designs on the exclusive economic zones off the Turkish part of Cyprus and the Eastern Aegean islands for the exploration and exploitation of underwater gas are harshly and formally contested by Greece and France, while Al Sisi’s Egypt has even involved Israel in exploration projects off the Egyptian coast.
In the debate on the borders of gas exploration and extraction areas in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean basin, there is no clear position and commitment by Italy, despite the active presence of ENI in the area, left alone in the difficult Libyan and Mediterranean situation.
While the dossier on the independence of Syrian Kurds – strongly opposed by Turkey but supported by the United States – is still open, the only partial strategic success achieved by President Erdogan’s activism has been in Nagorno-Karabakh where, with Turkish military support, the Azerbaijani Muslims have defeated the Armenians on the ground, thus forcing them to surrender portions of territory inhabited by Christians.
However, the Turkish-Azerbaijani success has not been complete, as troops from the Russian Federation have been deployed on the ground, with the belligerents’ consent, to guarantee the truce. Hence a Pyrrhic victory, which still enables Vladimir Putin to control the disputed territory and keep on protecting the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh not only with diplomacy but also with his armed forces.
With Israel in the background, politically strengthened by the opening of diplomatic relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, forged under Saudi Arabia’s benevolent eye, the power relations from the Black Sea to Libya are taking shape and see the two “friends of hard times” becoming increasingly aggressive but probably even weaker.
Turkey imports 60% of the gas from Russia via Azerbaijan and, until it can exploit the deposits being explored on the Turkish shores of the Black Sea, it will not be able to push too hard with Russia, which has so far not responded to Turkish provocations harshly, but has certainly demonstrated with a Foreign Minister such as Sergey Lavrov that it does close its eyes or bow its head in front of a new Islamist crescent.
With America distracted by the paradoxical outcome of the Presidential elections and Europe prostrated by the health, economic and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is not surprising that international political adventurers such as Erdogan and al-Thany – who have not hesitated to support the worst representatives of Islamic extremism in the Middle East, North Africa, the Caucasus and even Europe – and the Qatar-Turkey axis have so far substantially held out despite the many debacles of their allies, due to the common front erected by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.
What is surprising is that these countries have anyway been left alone, with the exception of Russia, France, Egypt and Israel, to face an Islamist axis that would expect to continue to act undisturbed to the Southern borders of Europe and Italy.
Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war
After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.
This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies. This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.
A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.
First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib
Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*
The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.
The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.
Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.
As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.
But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.
This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.
To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.
The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.
For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.
Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.
Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.
The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.
Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.
* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
From our partner RIAC
Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed
No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.
The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.
Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.
Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.
The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.
In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.
The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.
For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.
Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.
The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.
If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.
The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.
If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
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