During the last months of the year which is drawing to a close, in a world distracted by the Covid 19 pandemic, the U.S. Presidential elections and Brexit, geopolitics has recorded important evolutions probably destined to radically changing the scenarios in the Middle East and its Asian neighbouring areas.
The main protagonists of these changes have been fighting each other with weapons and words for seventy years but, with unexpected political and strategic realism and using the confidential channels of “back bench diplomacy”, they have achieved a turning point that it is not a big leap to define as historic.
After decades of conflict, Israel and the most important countries of the Arab-Muslim world have not only initiated a political-diplomatic dialogue – unthinkable until a few months ago – but also a series of joint operations with the aim of isolating the common enemy, namely the Iran of Ayatollahs, and secretly working together to redefine the set-up of a region that for decades has been a major source of instability at global level.
In a matter of weeks, under the careful direction of Donald Trump and the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, Israel established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and the Kingdom of Morocco.
At the same time, it resumed dialogue and relations – interrupted since 2009 – with Turkey, a country that due to the adventurism of its President, Tayyp Recep Erdogan, was on the verge of international isolation as, in a short lapse of time, it had made more enemies than it could reasonably manage.
In the small “thirty years’ war” opposing Christian Armenia to Muslim Azerbaijan for the control of the disputed Christian region of Nagorno- Karabakh, the resumption of Turkish-Israeli relations and the new relations between Israel and the Arab Emirates had a decisive impact on the resumption of the armed conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis who, on September 27, resumed shooting each other.
The clashes saw the defeat of the Armenians thanks to the essential contribution provided to the Azerbaijani armed forces by the drones that President Erdogan made available to the Azerbaijani Turkmen “brothers”, which led to the quick defeat of the Armenians, somehow saved by the providential intervention of Russia, which guaranteed the armistice between the parties and the control of the ceasefire lines.
Actually, according to reliable Israeli diplomatic sources, the decisive turning point in the brief but violent September conflict was the technology secretly supplied – with Turkey’s consent – by Israel to Azerbaijan, thanks to which Turkish drones could carry out decisive strikes against Armenian armoured forces.
This technology features modern field sensors and, above all, electronic instruments capable of tracing the terrain topography in the most minute detail. They are ultra-modern means which, according to sources, have enabled Azerbaijan to easily hit its opponents and Israel to experiment – on a terrain very similar to neighbouring Iran’s – war technologies that will be very useful if and when the conflict with Iran moves from words to deeds.
The collaboration between Israel and Azerbaijan has been largely the result of the work carried out by the Israeli intelligence ret service, the Mossad, which for several years has not only been conducting intelligence operations in Azerbaijani territory against Iran, but has also been promoting the supply of sophisticated military technology to the Azerbaijani armed forces, thanks to which the Azerbaijani military doctrine has been modernized – in mentality and tools – to such an extent as to make the small Azerbaijani army an agile, efficient and deadly war machine.
Therefore, while Turkey supported Azerbaijan by supplying drones and Syrian mercenaries returning from the conflict against Bashar Al Assad, Israel secretly provided tools and advice that turned out to be essential for the outcome of the brief but bloody conflict.
After all, thanks to the Mossad’s work, Azerbaijan has been enriching itself with war technology and modern military culture for years.
Since 2010, thanks to cooperation in the field of intelligence, Azerbaijan has managed to sign a contract with the Israeli Elta System, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), for the creation of a “Digital Terrain Model” (MDT) of the whole Nagorno-Karabakh, an accurate representation of the Armenian enclave’s mountainous terrain resulting from the interaction of a set of tools (from satellite imagery, to radar surveys and human “sensors” on the ground) that enabled the Azerbaijani armed forces to quickly settle accounts with Armenian opponents.
In addition to the drones supplied by Turkey, a secret and essential contribution was provided by the Israeli Harop “kamikaze drones”, produced by IAI and equipped with guidance systems governed by Artificial Intelligence.
The Harop drones were sent to Azerbaijan from the Israeli military base of Ovda for all six weeks of the conflict and enabled the Azerbaijani forces to locate with millimetre precision the positions of the adversary forces in a mountainous and difficult terrain such as Karabakh, providing the missile and artillery batteries with essential and timely information. The Harop drones operated, with intelligence and guidance, not only in support of Turkish drones but also of Israeli Sky Striker drones, produced by Elbit System of Haifa, and Azeri Orbiter drones, built under a partnership between the Azeri company Azad System and the Israeli Aeronautic Defence System.
Therefore, while by supporting the Azerbaijani Turkmen Muslims, Israel has taken advantage of the six weeks of conflict to test weapons and systems on a terrain very similar to Iran’s and, at the same time, to resume the underground dialogue with Turkey, the latter – according to very reliable sources – is even trying to repopulate the areas of Nagorno- Karabakh left by the Armenian refugees with Syrian militiamen and their families.
The Turkish intelligence service (MIT), which has been involved since last October in the clandestine transfer of several hundred militiamen of the “Sultan Murad Division” from Syria to Karabakh, has recently asked the Syrian militiamen to settle with their families – specially brought from Syria – in the houses left by Armenians not only to militarily guard the territory, but also to populate an area traditionally inhabited by Armenian Christians with Turkmen Muslims (as the Syrians of Murad are).
While in the areas disputed between Armenians and Azerbaijanis the political-military understanding between Israel and Turkey is strengthening (it should be recalled that Turkey was the first and for many decades the only Muslim nation to recognize the State of Israel), in other areas Israel’s new “companions on the road”, the United Arab Emirates, are playing a game that could bring them into conflict with Turkey.
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Najan – through the Emirates’ International Golden Group – finances the activities of the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary and mercenary organization that Russian President Putin has deployed in Libya in support of General Khalifa Haftar, leader of Cyrenaica and arch-enemy of the Tripoli rulers supported by Erdogan’s Turkey.
The strategic vision of the Emirates’ Crown Prince is designed to opposing – always and everywhere – the “Muslim Brotherhood”, i.e. the fundamentalist Salafist sect which for years has been trying to destabilize the secular Arab governments of the whole Middle East.
The “Muslim Brotherhood” is not looked unfavourably by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan who, after imposing an Islamist drift on his country, has collaborated with branches of the “Brotherhood” in Syria and continues to support – in Libya – the “Misrata Brigades”, composed of Islamist militiamen close to the “Muslim Brotherhood” that support Al-Sarraj’s government in Tripoli.
It is the hatred towards the “Muslim Brotherhood” that has pushed the Emirates to provide armoured vehicles to Christian Armenia in the conflict with Muslim Azerbaijan and has led Prince Zayed Al Najaf to maintain – with Israel – that the “Brotherhood” is more dangerous than Iran and therefore must be fought in every region.
The Emirates supply Russian, Chinese and North Korean armaments to all their regional and extra-regional protegés.
Under the benevolent gaze of Russia and France and the worried one of the new U.S. Administration, Abu Dhabi has largely supplied General Haftar’s forces in Libya, by sending MI-24P helicopters, SA-3 missiles and Russian T 72 tanks to Benghazi from Belarus.
The activism of the Emirates’ Crown Prince worries and annoys Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who sees his dream of making Turkey the only counterpart of the Muslim world with the West – as a hegemonic power in the region and a compulsory point of reference for its relations with NATO and Israel – moving ever farther away.
The Turkish dream, however, is bound to create problems and tensions in the short, medium and long term.
Why is Melih Bulu Seen as a Pro-AKP “Trustee” Rector?
The new year started under the shadow of social tensions triggered by Melih Bulu’s appointment to the rectorate of Bosphorus University by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Professor Melih Bulu had founded the Sarıyer district organization of the incumbent AK Party in 2002. Bulu who in 2015 became a candidate for being a deputy from AK Party could not gain nomination to run in the elections. Bulu also worked as a rector in two private universities before: İstinye University and Haliç University.
On December 31 2020, Bulu was the rectorate of Haliç University. The abrupt appointment of Bulu as the rector to Turkey’s most prestigious university prompted a major outrage since the move was regarded as a direct interruption of academic freedom.
Melih Bulu’s appointment to the rectorate of Bosphorus University caused a large unrest among Bosphorus students, graduates and scholars. In addition, people coming from different sectors of society who are critical of Erdoğan administration have also joined the “anti-Bulu” protest campaign on social media. After Bulu’s appointment, Bosphorus University students protested the appointment on social media by using the hashtag #KayyumRektörİstemiyoruz (“We don’t want a trustee rector”). For a couple of days, students of Bosphorus University have been making protests calling Bulu to resign. However Bulu posted an announcement on his Twitter account saying that he will embrace everyone and he is very excited and happy for his new duty.
After Bulu’s appointment, not just his political identity affiliated with AK Party was put under debate but also his academic background was put under scrutiny as well. Allegations of plagiarism against him broke out especially on Twitter. Bulu defined these allegations as “slander” and argued that this was the literature survey part of his PhD thesis and said, “I did not write some parts between quotation marks. We did not have something written available. There were different citation rules but I put it in the bibliography section.”
According to the Global Academic Freedom Index Turkey has only 9.7 points out of 100 and it is in the rank of 135 out of 144 countries. Turkey is in the similar level with Syria and Turkmenistan.
In previous weeks, journalist Cüneyt Özdemir hosted Bulu in his live Youtube programme and in live broadcast, Bulu saluted the students from the window of his office at rectorate building while the students yelled asking for his resign and this act of Bulu caused surprises and ironies on social media. Amid this environment, on January 5, a group of Bosphorus University academics staged a peaceful protest by standing with their backs to the rectorate building during the handover ceremony for Bulu. The academics of Bosphorus University made a public statement underlining that this appointment is a practice introduced for the first time after the 1980s military tutelage.
Their full statement is as follows:
“’We don’t accept, we don’t give up!’
On January 1, 2021 at midnight, an academic outside Bogazici University community was appointed as rector, which is a practice introduced for the first time after the 1980s military tutelage.
This is yet another case of many ongoing anti-democratic practices since 2016, aiming at abolishing rectorial elections. We do not accept it as it clearly violates academic freedom and scientific autonomy as well as the democratic values of our university. We refuse to compromise the principles the University Senate officially stated in 2012:
1. To enhance scientific research and social development, it is indispensable that universities be free from any pressure or influence from a person or an institution and not be used as a political tool.
2. For academic freedom, it is imperative that decision-making processes be delegated to democratically elected academic administrators and boards. All academic administrators including the Rector, Deans, Directors of Institute, Directors of Schools and Department Heads can be appointed only after being elected by the university community.
3. As universities are autonomous constitutional establishments, it is vital that university instructors and/or university boards decide on academic programs and research policies, which is an essential prerequisite for scientific freedom and creativity.
We strictly adhere to the principles above and we pledge to follow them up with all the other members of our university community.”
On the other hand, police forces detained more than 20 university students in home raids after the protests against the appointment of Bulu. In the mainstream pro-government media actors’ coverage of these events, it is argued that the detained people are not students, but they are members of illegal organizations whereas Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the Republican People’s Party’s current provincial president in Istanbul rejected this and argued that they are students.
According to Althusser (1971), the modern state keeps the authority and control through two main systems: Repressive State Apparatuses & Ideological State Apparatuses. One of areas concerning the ideological state apparatuses is known as education. In this regard, Erdoğan’s appointment of Bulu can be seen as a step of using ideological state apparatuses.
Morocco Increases Pressure on Hezbollah by Arresting One of its Alleged Financiers
At a time when global attention is focused on the fight against the pandemic and the global effort to vaccinate populations, terrorist organizations and organized crime are trying to take advantage of the situation to carry out operations to finance their operations. In this context, Morocco’s announcement of the arrest of an alleged international con man linked to Hezbollah is considered a success for the Moroccan security services.
According to an official statement relayed by the Moroccan Official Agency, a suspect was arrested last Wednesday by the National Brigade of the Judicial Police (BNPJ). The 57-year-old Lebanese national is linked to the Hezbollah movement, an organization supported by Iran and considered as a terrorist group by the United States, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. During the search conducted by the Moroccan police force, following intelligence and investigative work carried out by the Directorate General of Territorial Surveillance (DGST), investigators found European passports – French and Italian – as well as identity documents listed in the Interpol database as stolen. The suspect was taken into custody and brought before the King’s Prosecutor in order to continue the investigation, in partnership with Interpol and the countries involved in the alleged identity document thefts.
U.S. Recognition of Moroccan Sovereignty over Western Sahara
Moroccan authorities believed the suspect used these false identities to present himself as holding important roles in multinational corporations to defraud victims with promises of juicy deals and quick profit. While it is unclear at this stage of the investigation whether the international swindler intended to raise funds for Hezbollah, the arrest comes at a particularly crucial time for Morocco, following the recognition by the United States of America of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara on December the 10th, and the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israël. After this recognition, The US announced a 3 billion dollars investment plan to help Morocco boost its economy and development, as well as the opening of a regional office of its “Prosper Africa” initiative. Moreover, this Sunday, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker came to Western Sahara on the 9th of January to inaugurate a U.S. consulate in the coastal city of Dakhla, alongside the Moroccan minister for foreign affairs, Nasser Bourita.
Morocco Broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 2018
Since 2018, Morocco has vigorously denounced Hezbollah’s alleged links with the Polisario Front separatist movement, and broke diplomatic relations with Tehran in the process, as explained by the Think-Tank Atlantic Council . Although both Iran and Hezbollah immediately refuted Morocco’s accusations regarding the organization’s alleged links with the Polisario Front, Rabat continued to increase its pressure and has since taken substantive action to curb the actions of the organization’s agents. In March 2017, Kingdom arrested at the Casablanca airport Kassem Tajjedine, described by the Americans as the main financier of the organization. The latter was wanted for fraud, money laundering, and financing of terrorist activity, according to Reuters. Tajjedine was extradited to the US where he was sentenced to five years in Prison, and was released on July 2020 as part of a secret US-Iran deal.
Morocco is considered a stable country in North Africa, both on the political and economic level, as well as an important Hub for doing business in Africa and Europe. Over the last twenty years, the Kingdom had a steady growth rate of its GDP at around 4% and built top-class infrastructures, including the largest African port in Tangiers, 2000 Miles of Highway, a High-Speed train between Tangiers and Rabat, and the largest solar station of Africa in the south of the country.
Egypt’s search for a fig leaf: It’s not the Handball World Championship
Hosting major sports tournaments can confer prestige on a country, but in the case of Egypt, the 2021 Handball World Championship will do little to repair its relations with the US, Italy and states in the Gulf, argues James M. Dorsey in this analysis.
Egyptian general-turned president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi sees the 2021 men’s handball world championship in Cairo and Alexandria as an opportunity to put his best foot forward at a time when Egypt’s relations with its closest regional and global partners are encountering substantial headwinds.
Successful hosting of the championship, the first to involve 32 rather than 24 competing teams, would also serve to counter criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Egyptian health minister Hala Zayed recently admitted that many more Egyptians contracted the virus than the government has so far reported. A successful hosting would further put a crown in the feather of Egyptian-born International Handball Federation (IHF) president Hassan Moustafa.
Egypt has put strict pandemic-related precautionary heath measures in place for the tournament from the moment teams, officials, and journalists arrive at Cairo International Airport. The measures apply to training, lodging and media arrangements as well as the transport to and from hotels and the championship’s four designated match venues. Egypt is determined to ensure that the championship does not turn into a spreader of Covid-19.
That concern prompted the IHF and Egyptian authorities at the last minute to shelve a plan to allow fans into the four venues that include the Cairo Stadium Sports Hall, the New Capital Sports Hall in Egypt’s newly built desert capital east of Cairo, the Dr Hassan Moustafa Sports Hall in Giza, and the Borg Al Arab Sports Hall in Alexandria.
The IHF said the decision was taken “considering the current COVID-19 situation as well as concerns that have been raised, amongst others by the players themselves.”
Critics charge that Egypt is hosting the tournament even though it seems unable to meet the basic requirements of medical personnel who are on the frontline of the fight against the pandemic.
Doctors and nurses have protested against the high number of infections in their ranks because they lack access to sufficient personnel protection equipment and are threatened with imprisonment if they fail to report to work despite the risk to their lives.
Symptomatic for Mr. Al-Sisi’s brutal crackdown on any kind of criticism, several doctors have been arrested on terrorism charges for voicing their grievances.
Putting aside the fact that the impact of a handball tournament pales when compared to the prestige of hosting a mega-event like the World Cup or the Olympic Games, the handball tournament is unlikely to provide much of a fig leaf for Mr. Al-Sisi’s hardhanded repression of anyone voicing an opinion but his sycophantic supporters.
That is particularly true for the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden that has not only promised to emphasize human rights in its foreign policy but also needs to do so in its bid to repair America’s image and restore its credibility, severely damaged by four years of Donald J. Trump, widely viewed as an authoritarian who undermined foundations of democracy.
Similarly, the tournament will not change perceptions in Italy and much of Europe that hold Mr. Al-Sisi’s intelligence service and law enforcement responsible for the kidnapping, torture and killing of Giulio Regeni.
A 28-year-old postgraduate student at Cambridge University, Mr. Regeni had been researching Egypt’s independent unions before he went missing in late January 2016. His body was found in a ditch so badly mutilated that his mother could only identify her son by the tip of his nose. He reportedly had sustained a broken neck, wrist, toes, fingers, and teeth before his death, while initials were carved into his severely burned and bruised skin.
Relations between Egypt and Italy last month deteriorated further when Egypt’s public prosecution closed its investigation into Mr. Regeni’s murder, rejecting Italian prosecutors’ findings that accused four Egyptian security officials of responsibility for his death.
Mr. Al-Sisi’s abominable human rights record may not be of concern to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia but equally the tournament will do little to repair cracks in his relationship with the two Gulf states, his main financial backers.
In a move that will not have gone unnoticed in Gulf capitals, Egypt anointed the newly opened, Qatari-owned St. Regis hotel on the banks of the Nile River in Cairo as one of the tournament’s key logistics nodes, including its media center.
Qatari Finance Minister Ali Sharif al-Emadi landed in Cairo last week to inaugurate the hotel hours after a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit lifted a 3.5-year long Saudi-UAE led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar, in which Egypt as well as Bahrain participated. Mr. Al-Emadi was the first Qatari Cabinet official to visit Egypt since the boycott was imposed in 2017.
Showcasing the hotel was meant to counter-intuitively signal to Saudi Arabia and the UAE Egypt’s concern that reconciliation with Qatar involved far too many concessions, including dropping demands for the closure of Qatar’s state-funded, freewheeling Al Jazeera television network and a halt to support of political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt was forced to reluctantly agree to lifting the boycott even though it accepted continued Qatari investment and Qatari gas supplies over the last 3.5 years.
Egypt also felt sidelined by the UAE and Bahrain’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. The move deprived Egypt of its role as Israel’s primary official diplomatic conduit to the Arab world at a moment that the Al-Sisi regime is seeking to put its best foot forward in anticipation of Mr. Biden taking office.
Mr. Al-Sisi’s concerns are compounded by Emirati support for Ethiopia with which he is at odds over the construction of a dam on the Nile that threatens Egypt’s water supply; the UAE’s growing influence in neighboring Sudan; plans to link the UAE and Israel through a pipeline that would compete with Egypt in selling gas to Europe; and Emirati interest in the port of Haifa that could create an alternative to the Suez Canal.
All of this could undermine Egypt’s position as a key pillar of US Middle East policy and persuade the US to further shift the focal point of its broader Middle East and North Africa policy to the Gulf.
Mr. Al-Sisi has sought to pre-empt an incoming Biden administration by releasing prisoners, highlighting his good relations with Egyptian Christians, and hiring US lobbying firms to plead his case to the Biden camp as well as Capitol Hill.
Hosting a handball world championship is a minor maneuver in the mountain that Mr. Al-Sisi is trying to move, particularly one that Mr. Trump tarnished by describing the Egyptian leader as “my favorite dictator.” That is a label a handball tournament is unlikely to alter.
Author’s note: This article first appeared on Play the Game
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