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Webinar: How will we minimize conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean?

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One of the biggest online events for this year with the theme: “How will we minimize conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean?was held by the Region of Western Greece and EuropeDirect Patra, on Thursday 25 February 25 2021, organized by the Deputy Governor of Entrepreneurship, Research and Innovation of Western Greece, Fokion Zaimis, with representatives at a very high level, from Greece and abroad. Specifically, the countries represented were Greece, Turkey, Sweden, the USA, Italy and Brussels through elected representatives, MEPs, MPs, lawyers, International Relations Specialists, political scientists, diplomats, senior officials, academics, journalists and representatives of European and international networks.

Opening the event the Deputy Governor of Entrepreneurship, Research and Innovation of Western GreeceFokion Zaimis said: “The Eastern Mediterranean, the cradle of ancient civilization and the crossroads of major economic and commercial routes has been and is the focus of many conflicts from antiquity to the present day. I warmly thank all the participants in today’s international event for conflict prevention in the Eastern Mediterranean in cooperation with Europe Direct and CPMR. Critical and serious issues emerged from completely different starting points and perspectives. Regional government has an important role to play in communication, trade and economic relations, tourism, environment and the consolidation of relations of mutual respect and trust between the communities of Mediterranean countries. The goal is the progress and prosperity of the citizens and what unites us is much more than what divides us”.

The Regional Governor of Western Greece Nektarios Farmakis highlighted: “It also proves in this way that regional government is able to organize and contribute to national or supranational issues and this is something very important, because it proves that it is not limited to the house and is not only trapped in its daily life but also looks at our world with a broader look. Knowing what is happening in the wider area ultimately concerns the regional government. I firmly believe in diplomacy and the possibility of international cooperation that can shape self-government strengthening the national diplomacy and strategy”.

The MEP (epp) Manolis Kefalogiannis, stated: “A very important initiative of the Region of Western Greece with many distinguished guests from Greece and abroad on an important issue concerning the conflict and the reduction of conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean. It really concerns a dominant issue at this time because we have a neighbor Turkey and President Erdogan who are behaving like riots in the wider region violating every concept of law, every good neighborly relationship and creating tensions in the wider region. We must respect, in accordance with international law, the decisions of the United Nations, the decisions of the European Union, always guided by good neighborly relations, always with respect to the international law of the sea, resolve any disputes in a spirit of peace, cooperation and relations as befits a country such as Turkey, a country that is part of the European family “.

Particularly honorable was the representation of NATO through the speech of a senior official, Dr. Nicola De Santis, Head of NATO Public Diplomacy, presented by Theodosios Georgiou, President of the Greek Association for Atlantic and European Cooperation, who highlighted, among other things, the role that Regions can play in security and cooperation. Dr. Nicola De Santis spoke about the important role that NATO plays in the challenges and what security prospects in the Eastern Mediterranean, explained the principles of the Alliance, pointed out the important role played by citizens through their demands, security as a necessary condition for development, as well the consultations and cooperation proposals promoted by NATO.

Speaking about the institutional-legal framework, the Ambassador (ad.hon.) and former Ambassador of Greece to Washington, Alexandros Mallias, pointed out: “It is exactly one year since the operation of violating the borders of Greece in Evros. The invasion and occupation of Cyprus, the aggressive moves against Greece and the constant official provocations, the strategic intervention of Turkey in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh are violations, incompatible with Article 1 of the NATO Statute. So this is an ally behavior that allows NATO rivals to question the consistency between declarations, principles and actions. The goal of Mr. Erdogan’s policy is not sound in the negotiations to ensure the terms of an honest peace that will ensure relations of cooperation and good neighborliness. On the contrary, its goal is the forced adaptation of Greece to the expectations and conditions of Turkey. Therefore, it does not have a short-term character. It is no coincidence that Mr Erdogan is systematically calling for a revision of the Lausanne Treaty. At the same time, Ankara aims to nullify the trust of Greek citizens in its political leadership”.

The business framework was set by former Minister of Culture & Tourism, Pavlos Geroulanos: “One can not ignore the provocation of Turkey and its willingness to create tension in the region. Obviously we can not discuss any cooperation as long as we have such a deployment of Turkish troops in the Aegean Sea. The basis of cooperation is with countries that have strong diplomacy, economy and army. Only when you can stand on yourfeet can you impose peace in an area.”

Dimitrios Kairidis,  Professor of International Relations and MP (North Sector of Athens, New Democracy), explained why Turkey, a country with special structural elements, is a particularly destabilizing factor for the wider Mediterranean region.

Suleyman Ozeren, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor, George Mason University talked about forced Migration, Refugee Crisis and the Abyss of Securitization in Turkey, which consist really concerning issues. He referred that Turkey is not only a country of entry for many refugees, such as Syrian people who were considered guest in the beginning, but also a country of exit for many Turkish people due to law and democracy issues. In this context he made some policies recommendations.

The representation of ELIAMEP (Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy) was also particularly honourable by Thanos Veremis, Vice President of the Boardand Emeritus Professor (Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Athens, History, International Relations) who expressed strong concerns about Greek-Turkish relations.

An important parameter in international relations regarding the value code that each country has, every citizen, put the Ottoman, Turkologist, Associate of the Laboratory of Turkish & Eurasian Studies and Lawyer at the Supreme Court, Dr. Dimitris Stathakopoulos stating: “We have common interests with Eastern Mediterranean, but we also have different quality characteristics which our value codes and the historical memories we have prevent us from resolving the existing issues in a sense of” associations “. Because we start from a different historical basis and it is by no means self-evident that we perceive International Law or conventions in exactly the same way. The Turks believed and believe, for example, that Greece liberated not Greek territories, but conspiracy theoristically conquered new countries. He sees Greece as an ungrateful part of the Ottoman Empire which made a “stop”, not a Greek revolution “, and added that” we can get along with Turkey, but the logic of Turkey does not allow us to agree, since it does not want cooperation with equals”.

Matthew Crosston, Ph.D., Professor, Director of Academic Transformation Office of the Provost, Bowie State University, Executive Vice Chairman and Author at  Modern Diplomacy.eu talked about the Hydrocarbon Hybrid War asan untangling conflict in the Eastern Med. He pointed the problem of missing information in western and eastern media regarding the real  situation, as well as the vision of Turkey to be an energy hub.

Through this event besides presenting the current situation in the wider Eastern Mediterranean region, the opportunity was given to identify those points that complicate the situation and views were expressed from different perspectives within a democratic, multicultural and pluralistic context that seeks to find cooperation solutions through dialogue, democracy, human rights and the peaceful coexistence of peoples.

The event was also attended by the honorable speakers:

  • Mitat ÇELİKPALA, Vice Rector, Professor, Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, Department of International Relations, Kadir Has University
  • Emmanouil Karagiannis, Associate Professor, Department of Defense Studies, King’s College London
  • Ioannis Mitsios, Political Scientist, International Relations Specialist, M.A. Northeastern University, Boston
  • Giorgos Alexakis, Vice Governor on European and International Affairs at Region of Crete, Vice-President of CPMR & EUROMONTANA
  • Theodoros Louloudis, Publisher of “Peloponnisos” Newspaper, Member of the Organizing Committee of the Regional Growth Conference,
  • Annika AnnerbyJansson, President of Region Skåne, Chair of the CPMR’s Task Force on Migration Mamangement
  • Dimitrios Triantafyllou, Professor, Department of International Relations, Kadir Has University
  • Dimitrios Rizoulis, Journalist, Director of the newspaper “Dimokratia”.

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Developments on Korean Peninsula risk accelerating regional arms race

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A week full of missile tests; this is the current environment on the Korean Peninsula. On Wednesday, North Korea fired two rounds of ballistic missiles into the East Sea while South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just a few hours later. Wednesday’s tests follow a week of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the consequences of which can be felt beyond the two Koreas.

North Korea ramps up tensions

According to North Korean state-run media reports, the reclusive state carried out a series of successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend while referring to the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance”. Calling the weapon ‘strategic’ may imply a nuclear-capable system. Although North Korea is banned from using ballistic technologies due to U.N. Security Council resolutions, these same rules do not apply to cruise missiles.

Despite the tests, Washington maintained its position to resume dialogue with the North and “to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization,” US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim said on Tuesday. Still, the US Indo-Pacific Command did acknowledge the cruise missile launches and said the tests highlight the “DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community.”

China reacted to the test by calling for restraint by all relevant parties and for a ‘dual track’ approach to be followed involving “phased and synchronized actions to continuously advance the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.”

North Korea then upped tensions further by conducting yet another missile launch on Wednesday. This test marked the first time the DPRK launched a missile off a train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which they referred to as the “Railway Mobile Missile Regiment”. According to Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the missiles were believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The location of the landings don’t seem to be a coincidence as earlier that day North Korean state media had criticized Japan’s newly unveiled defense budget, referring to the country as a “war criminal state”.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strongly condemned the latest tests, calling North Korea’s behavior “outrageous” and a “threat” to “the peace and security of our country and the region”. The US State Department also called the tests “a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” while emphasizing the Biden administration’s commitment to trilateral diplomacy and cooperation with Japan and South Korea.

What’s more, North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, according to a report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month. The report stated that “The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern” while adding that “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”

In July, North Korea warned of a “major security crisis” in protest against the combined summertime military exercise between South Korea and the United States. This increase in rapid missile testing seems to be the result of North Korea’s dissatisfaction with both Seoul and Washington’s actions over the last few months.

South Korea joins in on the missile testing

Although the international community is used to hearing about North Korean missile tests over the years, what is much less common is to hear about a missile test conducted by the South. Hours after the North fired its missiles, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong—the sister of leader Kim Jong Un— was quick to respond to the tests the same day, warning of the “complete destruction of inter-Korean ties” and criticized Seoul’s “illogical, antiquated and foolish attitude”, according to North Korean state media.

Through the test, South Korea became the first country without nuclear weapons to launch an SLBM. Besides the SLBM, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that the ROK military had also developed other new missiles, including a supersonic cruise missile to be deployed in the near future, and a new ballistic missile that has “overwhelming counterattack capability” by firing a larger warhead. Indeed, South Korea’s arms industry has grown exponentially over the last two deacades and continuous to expand rapidly. According to he SIPRI arms transfer database, South Korea rose from the 31st ranked arms exporting country in 2000 to number six in 2020.

Besides South Korea, Japan is also beefing up its military capabilities. Last month, Japan’s Defense Ministry sought a record $50 billion annual budget that would entail the largest percentage jump in spending in eight years. China was quick to criticize the move, accusing Japan of “trying to find excuses to justify their decision to increase military spending,” On the other hand, Japan blames China for “unilaterally changing the regional status quo,” affecting “the security of the Taiwan Straits, but also Japan’s security.”

The missile tests conducted by both Koreas this week further exacerbates the security situation in the region, negatively impacting far beyond the peninsula alone. The recent developments also don’t bode well for improving inter-Korean relations or US-DPRK ties. Diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea have been stalemated ever since the 2019 Hanoi Summit fell apart. So far, Biden has only verbally expressed interest in resuming talks, but is unlikely to do so unless North Korea makes concrete commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Inter-Korean relations are also unlikely to improve in the near future, given the time constraints. South Korea’s President Moon has roughly six months left in office, and it is unlikely significant diplomatic progress can be made in this timeframe.

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HTS enters Turkey’s plot against the Kurds

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Ever since Turkey entered the 2017 Astana agreement with Russia and Iran Ankara has been relentless in its efforts to sell the international community the idea of absolute necessity of Turkish military presence in North-East Syria to support the moderate opposition and deter the Assad government.

The Astana meetings that followed the initial agreement indeed resulted in making Turkey responsible for the state of the Syrian opposition in Idlib and Aleppo provinces but – and there is always a but when it comes to the decade-long Syrian conflict – Ankara’s mission was never defined as ‘support’ of the opposition. Instead, Turkey volunteered to perform an arduous task of separating moderate Syrian armed groups from those who were considered radical and posed a potential security threat on both regional and global levels. This process, dubbed ‘delimitation of the Syrian opposition,’ is hardly any closer to completion now than before raising the question of the extent of Ankara’s ability – and intention – to fulfill its pledge.

Shared goals

Turkey’s insistence on supporting the moderate opposition conveniently combines with the recent attempts of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is de-facto dominant power in the Idlib de-escalation zone, to recast the image of the group. Although HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the UN and a number of global powers al-Joulani made a number of high-profile media appearances to promote the group’s vision of the future of Syria and confirm that its ambitions are confined to national scale only.

Talking to the Turkish version of The Independent al-Joulani spoke against any foreign military presence in Syria, making no special mention of the Turkish army. Meanwhile in Idlib, a position of the Turkish military located next to those of HTS is a common, even natural occurrence. This co-existence of regular armed forces and radical terrorists is not affected neither by hard evidence of HTS involvement in committing war crimes, nor even by the fact that HTS is listed as a terror group by Turkey’s authorities.

Shared enemies

In his interview to The Independent al-Joulani has also touched upon the position of the Syrian Kurds, another key axis of Turkey’s policy in Syria. Commenting on the current developments in Afghanistan the HTS leader suggested that the aftermath of the US surprise withdrawal from Kabul will also have an impact on the Kurds or, as he put it ‘the US-backed enemies of the Syrian revolution.’ He also accused the Kurds of conducting attacks in living quarters in the areas of the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” operations carried out by the Turkish military in Northern Syria.

HTS has never been in direct confrontation with the Kurds. However, al-Joulani’s words highlighted his open hostility towards the Kurdish administration, that, as the HTS leader purports, is only able to control a huge swath of Syria and maintain relative stability thanks to the US support. This Kurdish dream will crumble as soon as the last US plane takes off from the Syrian soil, according to al-Joulani.

Does this opinion reflects Turkey’s intention to put an end to the ‘Kurdish threat’ should the US withdraw from Syria? The events in the Afghanistan provide enough evidence to conclude that it’s entirely possible. Indeed, such concerns have been expressed in a number of articles authored by both local and international analysts.

The bottom line

Turkey’s regional policies and HTS leader’s statements confirm that Ankara seeks to transform HTS into a bully of sorts. The group’s primary task would be to exercise pressure on other armed units to facilitate the delimitation process orchestrated by the Turkish authorities. As the US grip over the region gradually loosens and HTS control over Syria’s north-west tightens thanks to its efforts to achieve international recognition with the tacit support of Turkey, the Kurds are facing an uncertain future. Moreover, close coordination between Turkey and HTS harbors negative consequences not only for the Kurds but rather for all of Syria.

To prevent this, the international community must intervene and deny HTS the opportunity to position itself as a part of the moderate opposition and gain the right to establish legitimate administrative bodies. Otherwise Syria will face law-twisting terrorists running their own statelet with all the support that Turkey is able to provide as a prominent regional power.

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To include or not include? China-led SCO weighs Iranian membership

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The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may help Iran reduce its international isolation. At least, that’s what the Islamic Republic hopes when leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gather in Tajikistan next weekend.

Members are admitted to the eight-member China-led SCO that also groups Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, by unanimous consensus. Iran, unlike its rivals in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has long had observer status with the SCO.

The Gulf states have so far kept their distance to the China-dominated regional alliance created to counter the ‘evils’  of ‘terrorism, separatism, and extremism” so as not to irritate their main security ally, the United States.

Acceptance of the Iranian application would constitute a diplomatic coup for Tehran and Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi. Mr. Raisi, a proponent of closer relations with China and Russia, is expected to make his first appearance on the international stage at the SCO summit in Dushanbe since having assumed office last month.

Iranian officials hope, perhaps over-optimistically, that SCO membership would help them counter the impact of harsh US sanctions. Ali Akbar Velayati, an international affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has advised the Raisi government to look East towards China, Russia and India asserting that they could “help our economy to make progress.”

Similarly, it is not clear that membership would substantially reduce Iran’s international isolation or significantly improve its existing relations with other SCO members. What membership would do is effectively give Iran a veto should Saudi Arabia and the UAE choose to seek more formal relations with the SCO in response to a reduced US commitment to their security. The SCO is expected to grant Saudi Arabia and Egypt the status of dialogue partner at its Dushanbe summit.

Gulf confidence in the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor has been rattled by the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan as well as the recent removal of the most advanced US missile defence weapon, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia  as Yemeni Houthi rebels were successfully hitting targets in the kingdom.

China and Russia have in the past been reluctant to entertain full Iranian membership because they did not want to upset their delicately balanced relations with both Iran and its detractors. Policymakers, in the wake of Afghanistan, may figure that the two-year application process will give them time to prevent upsetting the apple cart.

To be sure, Tajikistan, in anticipation of a Taliban victory, first publicly promoted Iranian SCO membership in late May.

Zohidi Nizomiddin, Tajikistan’s ambassador to Iran, told a news conference in Tehran “that Iran to become a major member is among plans of the Shanghai Organization and if other countries are ready to accept Iran, Tajikistan will also be ready.” Tajikistan opposed Iranian membership in the past, accusing Iran of supporting Islamist rebels in the country.

Mr. Nizomiddin’s comments have since been supported by reports in Russian media. “There is a general disposition for this, there is no doubt about it,” said Bakhtiyor Khakimov, Russia’s ambassador at large for SCO affairs.

Russian analyst Adlan Margoev noted that “the SCO is a platform for discussing regional problems. Iran is also a state in the region, for which it is important to discuss these problems and seek solutions together.”

The Tajik and Russian backing of Iranian membership raises tantalizing questions about potential differences within the SCO towards dealing with the Taliban. Iran and Tajikistan, in contrast to Russia and China that have praised the Taliban’s conduct since the fall of Kabul, have adopted a harder, more critical attitude.

Nonetheless, Russia has in recent weeks held joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan near the Tajik-Afghan border. Russia further promised to bolster Tajikistan by supplying weapons and providing training.

Tajikistan is believed to support Tajik rebels in the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan that last week lost a potentially initial first round of fighting against the Taliban. It remains unclear whether the rebels will be able to regroup. Tajiks account for approximately one-quarter of the Afghan population. As the

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently awarded posthumously Tajikistan’s third-highest award to two ethnic Afghan Tajiks, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary father of current Tajik rebel leader Ahmad Massoud, and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, for their contribution to ending a devastating civil war in the 1990s in the Central Asian country.

Tajikistan and Iran agreed in April to create a joint military defence committee that would enhance security cooperation and counter-terrorism collaboration.

Iran recently changed its tone regarding Afghanistan after the Taliban failed to include a Hazara Shiite in their newly appointed caretaker government. Hazaras, who account for 20 per cent of the Afghan population, have reason to fear Taliban repression despite the group’s protection last month of Shiite celebrations of Ashura, the commemoration of the Prophet Moses’ parting of the sea.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, took the Taliban to task for  “ignoring the need for inclusive government, foreign intervention and the use of military means instead of dialogue to meet the demands of ethnic groups and social groups that are the main concerns of the friends of the Afghan people.” Mr. Shamkhani was referring to alleged Pakistani support for the Taliban in the battle for Panjshir.

Supporters of Iranian membership may figure that affairs in Afghanistan will have been sorted out by the time the application procedure has run its course with Afghanistan well on its way towards reconstruction. That may prove to be correct. By the same token, however, so could the opposite with an Afghanistan that is wracked by internal conflict and incapable of controlling militants operating from its soil.

The SCO may in either case want Iran to be in its tent to ensure that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, as well as regional powers Russia and India, are seated at one table. Mr Margoev, the analyst, argued that “just like other countries in the region – (we should) sit at the same table with Iran and not call it a guest from outside.”

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