“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.
Turkey’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Artsakh
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church has recently hosted a conference on international religious freedom and peace with the blessings of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.
Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founding president of the Walk of Truth, was one of the invited guests. She spoke about genocide and her own experience in Cyprus, warning of Turkey’s religious freedom violations. Hadjitofi also called for joint legal actions against continued ethnic cleansing and destruction of Christian cultural heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and other places by the Turkish government and its regional allies including Azerbaijan.
During the two-day conference, access to places of worship in war and conflict zones, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, and preservation of cultural heritage were among the topics addressed by many distinguished speakers. The conference paid particular attention to the situation of historic Armenian monasteries, churches, monuments, and archeological sites in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that have been under Azeri occupation since the 2020 violent war unleashed by Azerbaijan.
Hadjitofi presented about the situation of Cyprus, sharing her recent visit to the Cypriot city of Famagusta (Varoshia), making historic parallels between the de-Christianisation of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh by Turkey, and its allies such as Azerbaijan. See Hadjitofi’s full speech here.
Author of the book, The Icon Hunter, Hadjitofi spoke with passion about her recent visit to the ghost city of Famagusta, occupied by Turkey since 1974. Her visit coincided with the 47th anniversary of the occupation. She was accompanied by journalist Tim Neshintov of Spiegel and photographer Julien Busch as she made several attempts to visit her home and pray at her church of Timios Stavrou (Holy Cross).
Hadjitofi explained how her own human rights and religious freedoms, alongside the rights of tens of thousands of Cypriots, were violated when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan illegally entered her country and prayed at the newly erected mosque in her own occupied town whereas she was kneeling down in the street to pray to her icon in front of her violated Christian church. In comparison, her church was looted, mistreated and vandalized by the occupying forces.
Hadjitofi reminded the audience of the historic facts concerning Turks discriminating against Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. They also massacred these communities or expelled them from the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey, a process of widespread persecution which culminated in the 1913-23 Christian genocide. Hadjitofi then linked those genocidal actions with what Erdogan is doing today to the Kurds in Syria, and the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Turkey’s wealthy friends such as the government of Azerbaijan. She also noted that during her recent visit to her hometown of Famagusta, a delegation from Azerbaijan referred to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus as “Turkish land” and a “part of Greater Turkey”. This is yet another sign of Turkish-Azeri historic revisionism, and their relentless efforts for the Turkification of non-Turkish geography.
Hadjitofi called for a series of legal actions against Turkey and its allies, reminding Armenians that although they signed the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), they have not ratified it. She noted that it must be the priority of Armenians if they want to seek justice. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, neither signed or ratified the Rome Statute.
During her speech Hadjitofi also emphasized the need for unity amongst all Christians and other faiths against any evil or criminal act of destroying places of worship or evidence of their historical existence anywhere in the world.
In line with this call, the Republic of Armenia instituted proceedings against the Republic of Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with regard to violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
In its application, Armenia stated that “[f]or decades, Azerbaijan has subjected Armenians to racial discrimination” and that, “[a]s a result of this State-sponsored policy of Armenian hatred, Armenians have been subjected to systemic discrimination, mass killings, torture and other abuse”.
Hadjitofi said that “Armenia’s lawsuit against the government of Azerbaijan is a positive move in the right direction and more legal actions should be taken against governments that systematically violate human rights and cultural heritage. I’m also in the process of meeting members of the Armenian diaspora in Athens, London, and Nicosia to discuss further joint legal actions. But the most urgent action that Armenia should take is the ratification of Rome Statute of the ICC,” she added.
Other speakers at the conference included representatives of the main Christian denominations, renowned scholars and experts from around the globe, all of whom discussed issues related to international religious freedom and the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage.
Baroness Cox, a Member of the UK House of Lords and a prominent human rights advocate, was among the participants. She has actively defended the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia through her parliamentary, charity and advocacy work.
Meanwhile, the organizing committee of the conference adopted a joint communiqué, saying, in part:
” We re-affirm the principles of the right to freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international and regional human rights treaties. We claim this right, equally, for all people, of any faith or none, and regardless of nation, history or political circumstances – including for those Armenian prisoners of war still illegally held in captivity by Azerbaijan, for whose swift release and repatriation we appeal and pray, and for the people of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh whose rights to free and peaceful assembly and association necessarily implicate the sacred character of human life.”
On September 11, the delegates of the conference were received by the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, in his palace in Yerevan where they were thanked. The guests also visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial-Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), where Hadjitofi was interviewed on Armenian national TV. She said:
“I read about the Armenian Genocide and I am glad that more countries recognize it as such but I am disappointed that politicians do not condemn actions of Turkey and its allies in their anti Christian attitude towards Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh. I see an interconnection between the genocide and the adopted politics of Azerbaijan, when the ethnic cleansing takes place, when cultural heritage is destroyed, gradually the traces of the people once living there are eliminated and that is genocide”.
After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians
The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.
According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.
The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.
“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”
Scandal of Al Hol’s children
Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.
“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”
Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021.
Blockades and bombardment
The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.
“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.
In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.
Living in fear
In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.
At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.
Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.
Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.
The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”
Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants
The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.
“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”
IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking
A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?
The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.
Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.
When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.
Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible. Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.
Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.
The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.
It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.
“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.
I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.
Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.
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