The Middle East has undergone major vicissitudes following the “Arab Spring” demonstrations. The Mideast is one of the most important regions in the world and the stability of which is mandatory to peace and stability in the world. Since 2011, the Middle East has entered a state of uncertainty with many conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other states that are apt to witness internal wars.

Nowadays, tension is on the rise between Turkey and Egypt on energy resources in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, relations between Ankara and Cairo after Egyptian foreign ministry’s statement regarding Turkish rejection of the agreement signed between Cyprus and Egypt in 2013 rings an alarm bell. Egyptian statement reads: "Any attempt to prejudice or undermine Egypt's sovereign rights in its economic zones in the Middle East is rejected and will be countered.”

 Agreement equals access

The Egyptians believe that the agreement signed with Greek Cypriots gives Cairo access to an area in East Mediterranean that is of particular interest for hydrocarbon companies since the discovery of the huge Zohr gas fields in 2015, while Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Çavusoglu contested the deal, declaring that Turkish Cypriots had been unfairly prevented from claiming their “inalienable rights to the natural resources” around the island, and revealed Turkish plans to begin exploration in the area.

As long as Ankara does not recognize the demarcation of the border signed between Egypt and Cyprus in 2013, describing it as illegal, the region is once again turning towards a new approach of belligerence and rivalry. And the reason is gas politics. The same applies to the gas fields between Israel and Lebanon.

Such a sudden escalation of tension between Egypt and Turkey is a sign of a blow to the efforts to abate any militarization of the Mediterranean Sea as this would be the ignition for other regional and international wars.

Gas exploration

On February 5, 2017 the Turkish Foreign Minister announced that his country plans to start oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean soon in the areas at the continental shelf at latitudes 32, 16 and 18 degrees. The Turkish minister issued an implicit message to both Cairo and Nicosia, saying: “No foreign entity, company or even ship can carry out any illegal scientific research or exploration for oil and gas in the continental shelf of Turkey and the maritime region.” On the other hand, the Egyptian side sees its full right to defend its interests according to the agreement it deems perfectly legal. The Turkish government believes that the Greek Cypriot cannot unilaterally adopt laws regarding the exploitation of natural resources on behalf of the whole Cypriots.

The Eastern Mediterranean is expected to witness wars on gas and oil between Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and Greece in territorial waters. In July 2017, Ankara reacted strongly to the Greek Cypriots when they started to drill for gas. As a result, the Turkish army dispatched a frigate in the Eastern Mediterranean to monitor a drilling ship that is believed to have begun searching for oil and gas off in spite of Turkish government’s rejection, considering it as a hostile act.

When Egyptian president Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi paid a visit last November to Cyprus, he had talks with Greek Cypriot officials on gas and oil resources in the region. Tensions since then started to amount, with both Turkey and Egypt blaming each other of interfering in the other’s internal affairs. 

It is expected that Ankara would resort to legal proceedings to nullify the agreement because of what it called “violation” of the continental shelf. 

– Shehab Al Makahleh

 Nowadays, a drill ship is exploring for oil and gas in the region. Turkey sounds unhappy with the agreement between Italy, Greece and Israel to construct a gas pipeline from East Mediterranean to Europe at a cost of US$6 billion. This would ignite another tension, with Italy being party of it.

Why war is shimmering in the Mediterranean? 

Political differences are the preponderant factor determining relations between countries and intimidating to bring about instability and chaos to the region with acts of hostilities caused by race toward gas and oil reserves. The Eastern Mediterranean basin is one of the most affluent areas with natural resources, the most important of which is natural gas. An American study conducted in 2010 shows the gas reserves in this region are estimated at 345 trillion cubic feet. The region also contains 3.4 billion barrel of oil reserves. As long as there is no mutual cooperation between the countries concerned due to demarcation issue, any war would break out any moment and the region is becoming a time bomb.

What do Ankara and Cairo want?

It is expected that Ankara would resort to legal proceedings to nullify the agreement because of what it called “violation” of the continental shelf. The Turkish moves are likely to disrupt the efforts of Egypt and Greece to conclude a maritime demarcation agreement.

With regard to the economic crisis facing Egypt since 2011, Cairo is prudent to finish the demarcation issue with Greece and Cyprus in order to avoid any rift with Turkey. Since Cyprus has also signed another agreement with Israel, the ghost of war is chasing the countries in the Middle East. In the past, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was procrastinating to discuss the issue of gas and oil agreements with Greece and Cyprus until the dispute between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus is over as he was considering this conflict a “political headache.”

Gas diplomacy might seem germane regarding Israel’s ties with Arab neighbours. The state of suspicion between Israel and Arab neighbors would lead to skirmishes on this basin as it could be a strategic alternative to Russian Liquefied Natural Gas which is exported to Europe. This justifies why China and Russia are playing a pivotal role in Syria today which has a huge natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey are flaunting their emerging energy dexterity as a prospective weapon as each of them draws a plan to have the upper hand in the region and play a pivotal role in shaping the Middle East’s political scene.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/02/10/Gas-and-oil-diplomacy-in-Eastern-Mediterranean-prelude-to-regional-war.html

Published in Tribune

ey has sought to exploit the Qatar dispute with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to grab a historic opportunity in the region. The dreams of a strong, regional Turkey necessitates great financial capabilities that cannot be achieved in light of the decline of the Turkish economy and its suffering from several crises, especially with its strained relations with the USA. Thus, Turkish President Erdogan found his relations with Qatar and Russia a decisive solution to Ankara’s financial problems.

Turkey has maintained its footprint in the region and has expanded its influence in 2011, principally with the historical opportunity of the so-called "Arab Spring" in the Middle East, which was exploited by many countries including Turkey and Iran. As for Turkey, the Arab Spring has enabled political Islam Movements (Muslim Brotherhood) to jump to power in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and Ankara has become the major supporter of these movements. On the other hand, Iran has benefitted from the demonstrations in the Arab World to have a say in the region and to expand its influence as well.

Turkey has intervened vigorously in many regional crises in order to achieve its objectives and interests in the beginning with full support from the United States of America with which it has strategic relations until both Washington and Ankara had taken a new approach after Turkey had chosen to form its foreign policy that serve its own interests, deviating away from the course that was drawn for the country for many years.

Turkey's involvement in the Middle East has increased due to its effective use of soft power, such as the public debate between Erdogan and the then Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos a few years ago, the flotilla incident, and Turkey's support for some Arab demonstrations, including those of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt as well as Syria.

The Cold War has largely defined Turkey's strategic perspective vis-à-vis the Middle East in general and the Arab world in particular. Ankara's strategic perspective to limit the influence of the Soviet Union in the Middle East has been shaped. The Arab Nationalist trend was also a means of supporting the influence of the Soviet Union in the region. This view was formed according to the perspective of the Western Camp to ensure the flow of oil from the Middle East region in a safe way to world markets. At that stage, Turkey has adopted a Western Camp stand.

Two political tremors

Since the end of the 1980s, changes in Turkish politics have been clear as there have been international and regional transformation as well which had driven Ankara to change its foreign policy. This has affected Turkey's view of the Middle East after the end of the bipolar world in the aftermath of the Cold War. There were two political tremors that have affected the Middle East since 1980-1990s: The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf crisis.

Turkey was deeply affected by these tremors, and the Gulf War increased Turkey's interest in the Middle East. Everyone is aware of the importance of the region; mainly Iraq and Syria for Turkey. The Turkish government has started to consider how to develop a new vision that better serves its interests in the Middle East.

Turkey has abandoned its defense policy after 2011, years after the adoption of "zero problems" policy. The godfather of this policy is Ahmet Davutoglu, former Turkish prime minister. Turkey is no longer waiting for the problems of the region to come to its borders, but rather it is acting to defend itself as the Turkish foreign policy stipulates. Davutoglu said on October 19, 2016: "As of now we will not wait for problems, we will not wait for the terrorist organizations to attack us, but we will attack the areas where these organizations are hiding, and we will destroy their bases over their heads and we will uproots of all parties supporting them."

That is the policy adopted for their attack on Afrin and even beyond Afrin that would take them to Idlib and east to the Iraqi borders. Turkey saw the attack as the best way to defend itself and contribute to the formulation of new maps instead of being imposed on Ankara, especially after the attempted coup d'état in mid-July 2016. This has been the justification for the Turkish parliament to approve military operations outside Turkish borders, chiefly in Syria and Iraq for an additional year.

The Turkish moves in the context of the Turkish foreign defense policy, which Ankara has adopted recently to protect its national interests, are based on its belief that soft power is no longer effective to achieve its external ambitions, especially in light of the competition between regional and international powers. Therefore, Turkey has incepted to activate its military tools for several reasons as follows:

First, the desire to open up new markets for Turkish weapons. Turkish military industries rose in 2015 to reach $4.3 billion, of which $ 1.3 billion was exported. Second, the new military tool aims to strengthen its presence in the Arab region and Africa by controlling the international crossings to protect its economic interests and national security interests from any regional or international interventions or sanctions that would be imposed in the future on Turkey as a result of its foreign policies. Third, the other motive is the desire to participate in the international coalition against terrorism not only to counter the threat of terrorists near its borders, but to stop the expansion of Kurdish movements in Iraq and Syria for fear of independence.

Moreover, Turkey has the intention to besiege its enemies in their areas of influence and to cut off all logistic support for them that some regional and international powers are extending. Besides, Turkey is keeping abreast regional and international moves towards the region in order to limit its future negative repercussions on Turkish power, particularly in light of mounting Iranian and Russian dominance.

These Turkish accounts would put Ankara in the circle of friction with Russia and the US at a time the world is passing through a new type of Cold War and the Middle East is passing through its Cold War as well with many alliances and axes being formed. On the issue of the Kurds, Turkey has a spat with Washington regarding the future of the Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. While Ankara is moving to prevent the Kurds from strengthening their power and influence, especially in the areas near Turkish borders, Washington regards them as a key ally in its strategy to counter extremism and terrorism; this justifies why the Americans provide the Kurds with weapons and help train them.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/02/03/Turkish-foreign-policy-From-defensive-to-offensive.html

Published in Tribune

It is hard to believe that Western powers could ever have expected the invitation extended by Moscow to concerned parties to attend the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Sochi has become the hottest topic for Syrians and regional powers, along with the Astana conference and the UN-led Geneva gathering, both of which are of equal importance in the view of Russia.

However, suspicion has marred most Russian attempts to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. That is, in great part, due to the negative influence of Western media reports on Russia’s role in Syria and the wider Middle East, often accusing Moscow of attempts to destabilize the region.

Even now, the US State Department describes Sochi as “a one-time solution,” and it is close to impossible to predict the outcome of the talks.

More than 1,600 delegates will attend the Sochi congress, each calculating the risks and benefits of this ongoing, multiplayer geopolitical chess game.

That game, of course, includes Turkey’s current military operation in Syria's Afrin — which Turkey has named “Olive Branch.”

Russia, US and other regional players are concerned now with the post-Daesh and Al-Nusra era, and with the threat of global extremism expanding from Syria and Iraq. The Afrin operation prompts all parties to offer a clearer definition of the division of areas of influence and control in Syria in order to implement a realistic plan that goes beyond strategic and idealistic ambitions to determine the future of Syria.

“Operation Olive Branch” could not have been launched without the approval of Russia, which controls Afrin’s airspace. The operation shows how deep the rift between Turkey and its ally, America, has become, as Turkey has effectively engaged in a battle with US-backed Kurdish militias.

Through “Operation Olive Branch,” Turkey is sending a message to the Americans and Russians that it will not allow any threat along its borders. The military action is complicating an already tense and unpredictable situation. Regiments of the Free Syrian Army, who receive military aid from the US but are supportive of Turkey, are now reportedly threatening to combat US forces in Afrin. The more awkward that situation becomes, the more it benefits the Damascus regime and its allies.

Russia — or Vladimir Putin’s Russia as it effectively is now as one man holds the strings of the country’s military and political institutions — is not, as some Western media depict it, “playing both sides.” It is, like all the players in Syria, trying to see how best to serve its national interest, fearing that if the Americans support the Kurds in Syria and play on existing ethnic tensions there, Washington will then use the Kurds to oppose Russian interests in Syria.

Moscow is seizing every opportunity to strengthen its position and role in the Middle East.

– Maria Dubovikova

Russia’s alliance with the Syrian state and the Syrian army is strategic; Moscow will do its utmost to deny any country any influence on this relationship.

In politics, there are no ethics, no honesty and no sincerity; just interests. That is true of all countries in Syria.

Paul Ryan, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, recently said that the US and Russia currently “perhaps” share “tactical symmetry for a convenient moment, but not a strategic alliance.”

What Ryan meant is that Washington and Russia have very different aims in Syria. America’s goal, simply, is to finish off Daesh and retain alliances with other militias in order to combat Iranian influence in Syria. He made that clear when he later added: “What matters most to us in Syria is defeating (Daesh) and preventing Iran from having a land bridge and Hezbollah a foothold.”

Tension between Ankara and Washington has escalated in the past few days: Turkey has threatened to extend “Operation Olive Branch” as far as Manbij, which is located north of Aleppo and lies between Afrin and the Kurdish autonomous region, home to a regiment of American soldiers advising the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). US President Donald Trump’s call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did little to calm the situation.

Trump warned Erdogan of the “growing risk of conflict” between the two nations and reportedly promised to stop supporting the Kurds. Once given, the promise was almost immediately broken. Besides, it seems neither promise nor threat will dissuade Turkey from its course in Afrin.

This plays into Russia’s hands. Russia is seizing every opportunity to strengthen its position and role in the region. Russian tactics permit Moscow to stay above controversies in which Washington and even Turkey have become embroiled, enabling Russia to take the initiative in a number of activities in Syria.

The Afrin issue, then, could shape Syria’s future and the future of Turkish-American relations.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1234711

Published in Tribune

The Turkish military operation in Afrin in northwestern Syria has started, and future military operations are likely in Manbij and as far as the borders of Iraq as Turkey strives to expel the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers this organization to actually be the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), regardless of the name it is given by the Americans. 

Following the US announcement that it would form a border force of 30,000 fighters led by the Kurds — which was swiftly retracted — Turkey accused Washington of trying to protect the Kurdish people in order to divide Syria. Ankara viewed this number of fighters, which were to be led by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, as an existential threat to its security and stability and a step toward a future Kurdish state. 

Russia temporarily benefited from the US-Turkey conflict over the Kurds, as it had from the differences between Ankara and Moscow over the Syrian government, when Russia continued supporting the regime while Turkey backed the opposition. After the downing of the Russian jet fighter in 2015, Russia successfully used the Kurdish card against Erdogan to acquire more political concessions. 

There are two likely scenarios for the war in Afrin and the rest of the Syrian territory that the Turkish army is eyeing up: The first is a large-scale operation aimed at undermining the Kurdish control of Afrin. This would be similar to Operation Euphrates Shield in terms of preparation, assault and the participation of several departments of the Turkish army, as well as Free Syrian Army fighters.

The second is a limited operation aimed at taking certain areas from the hands of the PKK in order to keep its fighters away from the Turkish border. This requires isolating the Kurds, cutting their communication with the eastern cantons and preventing them from accessing the Mediterranean. 

International players are making their final moves on the country’s chessboard as Turkey aims to oust US-backed Kurdish fighters from northwestern region.

– Maria Dubovikova

There are many challenges facing the proposed Turkish plan. The first is the difference in Afrin’s terrain from the areas taken during Euphrates Shield, making this campaign more difficult and complicated. Moreover, Ankara is not satisfied with the long-term positions of Moscow and Washington. Ultimately this is a Turkish battle — or rather a battle for Turkey itself — but it will also affect the course of events in Syria.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that US “provocations” are a key factor that have complicated the situation in northwestern Syria and prompted Turkey to launch its military operation in Afrin. Russia labeled the US as irresponsible and said its actions would pose a threat to the peace process in Syria.

The Kurds blame Russia for betraying them, but they were trying to milk two cows at once as their relationship with the US threatened Russian interests and its project for the stabilization of Syria. US policies towards the Kurds are also a direct threat to Turkish national interests, with Kurdish separatism a cause of deep concern in Ankara. Additionally, Kurdish ambitions, fueled by the US, have become a threat to the integrity of Syria and the process of reconciliation. Thus Moscow found itself on the same side as Ankara. Before the Afrin operation, Russia and Syria both expressed their concerns, but now it is clear that the move was silently approved by Damascus and Moscow from the beginning. 

On Tuesday evening, Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone with Erdogan to discuss the situation. The sides expressed a solidarity and common vision, vowing to continue working to resolve the crisis based on the principles of preservation of territorial integrity and respect for the sovereignty of Syria. 

The situation in Afrin is changing not only the regional framework, but also the global one. The move by Turkey — a NATO member with close ties to Western nations — against a group backed, equipped and financially supported by the US takes them a huge step away from their former allies. This demonstrates Ankara's independence and alters their former path towards integration with the West. The ongoing situation will bring Moscow and Ankara closer to each other, pushing them to forge a more solid alliance. The West is unlikely to be able to stop Turkey from realizing its plans in the region, as any confrontation would definitely not play into their hands.

Despite claims the assault on Afrin may harm Syria, Turkey insists its operation is limited and will not affect the integrity of its neighboring country. However, the numerous interventions from various regional and international players have complicated the political and military scene in Syria after a glimmer of hope had started to appear at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The international players are now making their final moves on the Syrian chessboard ahead of any peace talks aimed at discussing a political settlement, draft constitution and interim government.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1232356

Published in Tribune

The Kurds after their setbacks in the aftermath of their independence referendum of 25th of September in 2017 in Iraq are facing another tragedy, but this time in Afrin in the western part of Kurdistan called Rojava. In reaction of a news that the United States intends to create a regular army or border guards strong of (30,000) soldiers in Syria, half of them from PYD forces to protect the border with Syria and Iraq from returning of Da’esh (ISIS) to Syria, led the Turkish troop movements.

On Sunday, January 21, the Turkish army’s land operations backed by pro-Turkish Free Syrian Army (estimated to be 25,000 soldiers declared by SFA) are participating in the operations and together control 4 Kurdish villages in Afrin and confirming that they have entered Afrin. The YPG stated that they have pushed back these forces in some districts and stopped their advancement into Afrin. Media sources are talking about Syrian government forces agreed YPG forces from “Sheikh Maqsoud” neighbourhood in Aleppo to pass through their controlled areas to Afrin. The Turkish Prime Minister announced that Turkey is aiming to create a “Security Zone” 30km depth in Afrin. Erdoğan declared that his goal is also to return back 3.5 million Syrian refugees to Syria through this operation.

All this is happening under a relative silence and acceptance of major players in Syria. Kurds believe that their friends have been “disloyal” to them, they gave a “green light” to Turkey and turned their back to Afrin and allowed the civilian population to be terrorized by Turkish bombardments. Despite non-stop bombardments of Afrin, still the Kurds are resisting. General Joseph Votel, the head of the Central Command of the US army declared that Afrin is not in the framework of their operations and is not of a great importance to them. Russia withdraw its forces from Afrin. There is a Turkish, Russian and Iranian understanding on these operations. Turkey has proven throughout the history its hostility to any Kurdish aspirations in Syria, in Turkey and elsewhere. Turkey does not want the emergence of a Kurdish federal entity on their border sympathetic or an extension to Turkish Kurds and Russia and Iran are concerned that an intensive arming of the Kurds are compatible with the new strategy of President Trump against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

US Secretary Tillerson and Pentagon officials declared that they take into consideration the Turkish concerns and they do not support PKK. The Turkish- American relations are at its worst. There is a serious tension in relations between Turkey and several European countries such as Germany, France, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Cyprus, Greece, UK, etc. The deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations and the antipathy between Erdoğan and Netanyahu also has additional implications on Turkey’s regional and international policies.

Diverse statements came out from Moscow; Russian Ministry of Defence considers Washington for being irresponsible in undermining the peace process in Syria in which Kurds are part of it and that US provoked Turkey by creating an army for the Kurds and armed them in violation to the unity and sovereignty of Syria which led to a violent reaction from Turkey and started its operations in Afrin. 

The Kurds do not see any justification for the Turkish aggression on Afrin and the Kurds of Syria. The (PYD) officials reiterated that they had not attacked Turkey, but in contrary Turkey since more than five years has been attacking the Kurds of Syria including the localities and orchards of Afrin. The Kurdish National Council of Syria (ENKS) a rival political formation to PYD regrouping several political parties and organisations of Syria, also strongly condemned the Turkish shelling of Afrin and other Kurdish areas and asks PYD for Kurdish unity, political reforms in Rojava, and calls the international community to act urgently to stop the Turkish aggression in Afrin and protect the civilian population, who will become the victims of such an aggression.

Observers believe that PYD has made ditches and tunnels and would use the Bosnian methods of city wars as PKK did it in Diyarbakir, Cizire, and Širnax in Kurdish cities of Turkey. On the other hand, Turkey seems to have chosen the Sri Lankan way of dealing with “Tamil Tigers”, to crash utterly its Kurdish opponents of PYD in Syria and PKK in Turkey, and refuses the Spanish-Basque, or Northern Ireland or Colombia-FARC peaceful approach to solve the Kurdish problem be it in Turkey or Syria. Kurds of Syria repeatedly reiterated its intention of good neighbourly relations with Turkey and that they have suffered from historical injustices in Syria and have no plans to carry out any hostile activities against Turkish territories, but Turkey considers them more as an offspring of PKK.

The Turkish attacks are widening in its scope in targeting both the Syrian Democratic forces and the civilians in Afrin, Kobani and beyond; meanwhile, the Turkish army is massing more of its troops with its tanks, artillery and another heavy armament on border areas of Afrin. the Turkish army has been shelling and bombing by artillery, mortars, and rockets a score of Kurdish villages and districts in Afrin and even some towns of Kobani as well as the triangle area between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq in Malikiya district in recent days. 

Afrin is inhabited by almost million people and it is a beautiful fertile and touristic Kurdish city, some 35-45km faraway from the Mediterranean sea, which gives it a special strategic position that makes Turkey nervous about Kurds to get one day a border with the Mediterranean sea providing the possibility of exporting Kurdish oil through the sea and might be used not only as a transport way for Syrian Kurdish oil but also Iraqi Kurdish oil and gas replacing the importance of Ceyhan pipelines. Syrians in general and the population in Afrin are fearful that their region’s demography will be changed and becomes another “Askandaruna” occupied by Turkey since 1930s.

Turks have sent (20,000) soldiers with heavy armament to the borders of Afrin from the north in addition to the Euphrates shield of (22,000) from the West composed mainly of pro-Turkish Syrian Free Army. 13 military formations among them Forces of Sultan Murad, Muhammad Al Fatih and the army of Al Nasr, etc...are ready to participate in the battle of Afrin. 

The attack on Afrin is to separate Afrin from Qamishlo/Hassakah and Kobani, but also to take over the oil fields, the fertile area of Eastern Euphrates and the Tabqa Dam of strategic importance. At least half of the oil fields of Syria are located in Kurdish areas and controlled by PYD administered cantons. On another hand, Turkey tries to separate the Kurds from border cities of Northern Kurdistan (South East of Turkey) which are situated along the border with Syria from Sirnax (Shirnakh) province to Shanli Urfa populated by a Kurdish majority and looks at Afrin and these border areas as a possible logistical way for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 

The coalition forces and many others do not share the Turkish opinion that Kurds of Afrin or of Syria have been a national security threat to Turkey. US armed and trained the PYD and SDF. The Kurds are the most reliable and efficient allies on the ground for the US in Syria. Lately, US expressed even more openly political support for the participation of the Kurds in Geneva meetings. Turkey used its veto against the PYD participation and accepted the ENKS delegates in both Geneva and Astana meetings. ENKS has had relatively good and accepted relations with Turkey and the Syrian Coalition of the Syrian opposition, but not without problems.

Kurds have had historically good relations with Russia and stood with Russians in many of its wars with the Ottomans. No doubt that Kurds are the weakest militarily in the equation but their long-time longing for their freedom is unbeatable, and they are very resilient despite all historical injustices, denial policies and genocides. Over 40 million Kurds in this world also have right to have a place under the sun and a corridor to live in it in peace and harmony with their neighbours. Kurds can be an element of stability and prosperity in the Middle East. Unitary states have failed. One hundred years of Sykes Picot’s forcible nation statehoods failed. Today almost the entire region is in a turmoil wasting their natural and human resources in unnecessary proxy and exhaustion wars.

Article published in Valdai club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/un-security-council-should-stop-a-bloodbath/

Image credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Published in Tribune

The specter of federalism is wandering the Middle East. On the political horizon, there are more and more federalization projects, where external and internal actors see the opportunity to get out of the cloaca of universal conflict with more and more countries and regions being created.

There is Yemen, where the number of projects of this kind has already exceeded a dozen; Syria, where a vigorous struggle for a new constitution unfolds and only the lazy does not participate; Iraq, where the Kurds recently showed the shakiness of the line between federalism and secession; Libya, where decentralization is the only chance to stop anarchy and chaos.

The most ambitious plans concern Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even Morocco. One country, Sudan, was dismembered, but this did not solve the acute internal problems of the two states that were created on the site of the former unified one.

The external actors, including those who do not even know where one  or another country is located, and who get ideas from tourist guidebooks (although we will have to wait for the return of tourism to the region), have begun drawing new boundaries with enthusiasm. They could be suspected of an ambitious desire to taste the glories of the famous apologists of colonialism, the Englishman Mark Sykes and the Frenchman François Georges-Picot, who forever left a mark in history, but with a bad taste. 

An array of political scientists have long been talking about the death of pan-Arab nationalism. Certainly, all sorts of unionist projects on the background of universal particularization seem to be out of fashion today, but how can disappear a nationalism that often only changes its face? The King is dead, long live the King! After all, it was Arab nationalism, and not the Sykes-Pico sweet couple, that created the system of states that existed in the Middle East, but recently suffered an ever-widening crack, unable to withstand the test of globalization. Even a new attempt against the sancta sanctorum, undertaken this time by the eccentric leader of the largest world power, the Arab character of East Jerusalem, is no longer strong enough to consolidate the Arabs as one would think, and even the Muslims, in the fight against the terrible threat of losing control over the sanctuary. I am sure that nationalism has not only not perished, but is preparing for a revival, although it can take new forms. Moreover, while a significant part of the local society will see in various sorts of unification projects a way to get rid of the internal conflicts that are destructive for the peoples, eroding their identity, these projects will remain unsinkable.

However, we will hope that the perverted-jihadist version of the Islamist unification project is disappearing into oblivion after the liquidation of its territorial base in Syria and Iraq. As for another radical version of the Pan-Islamic project, the Muslim Brotherhood, the rumors of its death may prove to be exaggerated.

Will the universal federalization ensure a successful way out of the crisis in the region that does not cease to amaze the world, or at least of those countries, which became classified as failed states? Perhaps this will happen. However, let us not downplay the risks that a radical change in the configuration of the state structure of any country brings, especially in the context of the traditional confrontation of unionism and particularism, Islamism and secularism. Anyway, such a restructuring should be carefully prepared, verified in all details, based on qualified expert knowledge. And most importantly, it must get the support of the population

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/middle-east-pandora-s-box-of-federalization/

Photo credit: Bilal Hussein/AP

Published in Tribune

Article by Shehab Al Makahleh and Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

As it is apparent now that Russia has succeeded to help the Syrian government to regain stability to the war-torn country by various military means and then politically through its capacities so far as successful mediator, Moscow continues to translate the accumulation of military achievements in the Syrian field at the table of political talks and within the circles of the regional and international powers, realising its political and military weight and influence to make the necessary moves at the Syrian level at suitable time to break through the stalemated Syrian political scene at all stages.

However, Moscow has used various tactics to manage the Syrian conflict by forcing political, economic and military pressure on the countries that were deemed architects for the demise of the Syrian government and the division of the country. Thus, Russia used its political manoeuvring to gain momentum and impetus to win in the battle before imposing itself as one of the key players in the Middle East region in spite of all pressure being exercised on Russia since the inception of its military intervention in Syria in September 2015. Moscow cannot ignore demands of its Syrian peace partners: Iran and Turkey who have concerns over the Kurdish participation in the meetings. This is why the Congress of Syrian peoples, or the Congress of national dialogue, which was planned to be held in the Russian city of Sochi on November 18, was postponed to a further notice, as Ankara voiced objection to the invitation of the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD) to the conference.

The decisions adopted at the seventh round of the Astana talks of the Russian initiative to hold a Syrian national dialogue conference  (Congress of the Peoples of Syria) to be held in Sochi hold the following messages:

First, the increasing role and influence of the Russian Federation in the complicated files within the map of the Middle East through proposals which formed alternatives to American ones which have failed in the region. As an indicative, this applies to the Syrian scene through flexible transition of Russia as a player from a warring party against terrorism to a peace dealer and guarantor. Such a conference is deemed a very important development as conflict in Syria is transitioning from military to political with the forthcoming defeat of Daesh.

Second, the approval of the guarantor states, Iran and Turkey, to adopt the Russian proposal, and the rush of Damascus without hesitation to announce its participation were quite indicative. Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs, David Satterfield, have made a stunning move by asking the opposition to participate effectively in all meetings and make crucial decisions to reach political solution. This indicates the approval of the stakeholders and the parties to the Syrian conflict to adopt the Russian vision or perspective - at least - in principle, although some regional powers are still rejecting such initiatives proposed by the Russian side. Though some observers are not upbeat with the conference; others consider it as a bail out from the current situation where there is no win-win in the Syrian conflict especially in some cities including the southern western parts and the northern eastern region.

Third, for the first time, political streams and Syrian social and ethnic components were invited to participate in such a conference which Moscow mobilised for even before announcing holding the gathering in Sochi at least in terms of the momentum of participation, which was shown by the list of invitations of 33 political Syrian components to participate in such an entitlement due to the failure of the international envoy to Syria, Stephan de Mistura, to implement the preamble of Resolution 2254 as a result of the international pressure exerted upon him and which turned him into non-neutral in his mission. Also this is coming from the understanding that none political process is possible without national reconciliation and without regional and international involvement with good intentions. Though this would not lead to instant solution to the current issue, but it would pave the way for future talks about the draft constitution, transition, and the future of presidential elections.

Fourth, the prelude to launching the so-called Sochi conference is an implicit declaration that the war in Syria is almost over. Strategically, Moscow may seek to withdraw the surplus of its forces, which have ended their counterterrorism mission throughout this month. The progress of Syrian army eastward the country and their coordination with the Iraqi army through the Russian Military office in Iraq and in Hmeimim would help strengthen the stand of the Syrian government in the coming dialogues and negotiations.

Fifth, the announcement by head of the Russian delegation to Astana, Alexander Lavrentiev, that the Syrian leadership's approval of constitutional reforms, and the formation of a national government, the achievement of national reconciliation and the battle against terrorism may be the most important headlines on the agenda of the Sochi Conference. Yet, some observers voiced their pessimism of the outcome of such a conference as Russia is considered dishonest broker or mediator.

Sixth, the consensus of the Syrians of various political and ethnic spectrums to modify the name of the conference proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin: “The congress of Peoples of Syria” refers to two parts: The consensus of most Syrians on the unity of their country and fear of division. The other part is the acceptance of the Russian leadership to amend the name of the conference means the fall of anti-Russian propaganda on charges of trust or occupation of Syria.

These meanings and facts, which force themselves strongly on the political scene, face concrete obstacles. The first is the international infuriation expressed by the international envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura by refusing to participate in the regulatory measures, but only "accepting participation as an observer on conditions he presented to the Russian side”. The second barrier is the extent of seriousness of the Turkish guarantor to adjust behaviour and obedience to the Russian will in terms of countering and fighting against terrorism of Al Nusra Front in Idlib and increasing the stabilisation of the de- escalation zones, without vetoing on the participation of any Kurdish party or power in Sochi conference. The third barrier is the acceptance of Riyadh Conference members to participate in the Sochi meetings who will be adhering to the ethics of negotiations in line with the variables on the ground in Syria, which means they have to relinquish some of their demands as new results have become in favour of the Syrian government and its allies.

Lack of clarity of the conflict map in the northeastern region of Syrian geography may constitute a new obstacle if the United States continues to push Syria's Democratic Forces (SDF) towards more recklessness that may impose a de facto direct connection between the Syrian army and its allies with Washington and its alliance. The Kurds irk both Iran and Turkey who are guarantors in Astana talks and it would be a very thorny mission for the Russians to bring them to the table along with Iranians and Turks.

Whether Sochi Conference will be reaching a formula of Syrian national consensus in isolation from external interventions or not, what is certain is that former Kremlin initiatives succeeded in thwarting those of other countries which were held at conferences outside Russian geographical boundaries. Thus, such a conference sounds successful even before officially kick-off, with the number of attendees and the agenda which would lead to a transition government and the announcement of the draft constitution before being announced with amendments in Geneva end of November.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/will-sochi-congress-be-the-way-out-for-the-syrian/

Published in Tribune
Friday, 28 July 2017 20:50

Syrian Conflict Moves Closer an End

Article by Shehab Al-Makahleh and Maria Dubovikova

Quiet meetings in Amman between the Syrian opposition and other parties are a step forward.

The Syrian conflict is moving closer to its end. Despite global expectations, the key settlement process is occurring on the ground and in closed talks, not in front of the media and, therefore, not manipulated by geopolitical players and games in Astana or Geneva. Such formats on the ground and in talks beyond closed doors prove to be more successful and fruitful than all the pomp covered by the media, which just recycles the message of “no outcome.” But through minor steps the greatest goals are achieved.

One of such talks was held recently in Jordan for three days between representatives of Syrian armed forces and officials from Jordan, the United States and Russia. The meetings discussed the logistics of the de-escalation zones in southwestern parts of Syria, and they demanded that Al Nusra fighters pull out from this area. This move would give the Syrian army and its allies, as well as Jordan and its allies, the impetus to control the eight-kilometer “pinnacle” that has been a thorny issue for the Syrian, Israeli and Jordanian armies.

The talks included 58 representatives of the Syrian rebel alliance, including the Free Syrian Army, who label themselves the “Southern Front.” The meeting also discussed moving some of these forces to Al Shaddadi Military Camp near Deir al-Zour in order to liberate it from the Islamic State (Daesh).

After the meeting with the Syrian opposition, Jordan has started to change its tone toward Syria and its regime. This fact can be inferred from the recent statements of Jordanian officials, stressing the kingdom’s great interest in southwestern Syria. Official statements on-record and off-record about the security and stability of this part of Syria show that the region is of strategic interest for Jordan and the whole Middle East — an implicit signal that there is no rejection of the current government or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A ceasefire control mechanism brokered by Russia, the US and Jordan in southwestern Syria is nearly ready, as Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs Mohammad Momani said following the Amman meeting on behalf of the Syrian opposition.

The Jordanians know very well that such phrases are aimed at approaching the nearest possible distance from the logic of the Syrian regime, which today prides itself with so many victories on the ground — recapturing many strategic locations that are deemed major victories, especially the “dubious melting away” of Daesh and the suspicious absence of other Islamic factions such as Al Nusra, which are supported by regional powers. The recent breakdown of many factions has led the Syrian armed forces to gain the momentum and to spread its troops into many parts of Syria, with the aim of liberating the whole country before the end of the year.

Assad has refused to demarcate the southern border by delineating an area of eight kilometers in southern Syria that would secure Jordan and Israel as well near the Nasseeb border crossing point. In other words, the Syrian president rejected the opening of the crossing point that would serve both Jordan and Syria. However, with Eid Al Adha approaching, the opening of the border indicates a gateway for cooperation, according to sources close to the president.

RUSSIA, TURKEY AND ISRAEL

More importantly, Jordan is investing its relatively “sophisticated communications” with Russia. In a closed-door meeting at the royal palace a few days ago, discussion about President Vladimir Putin described the Russian leader as a “trusted friend” and a “credible man.” Until now, Jordan has tried to reopen the Nasseeb crossing point, but President Assad has been “dodging” the issue for the past few months. With the agreement, Russia provided an opening for the Syrian leader to voice willingness to reopen the crossing point under certain security arrangements that will guarantee the eight kilometers. The whole area that will be the demilitarized zone in southern Jordan will include a 30-kilometer-wide strip in Syria running parallel to the Jordanian border.

Simultaneously, the Jordanian government held talks to reopen the Turaibeel crossing point between Jordan and Iraq. Turaibeel was closed after Daesh emerged in the eastern region of Iraq but now it is open, according to Jordanian officials. This fact is confirmed by Iraqi sources who said there are joint security and military operations nearby the Jordanian and Iraqi borders. Private meetings helped to set the stage for the Turaibeel reopening where cooperation is essential. The Jordanian official spokesperson confirmed the talks publicly a few days ago with regard to the reopening of the Turaibeel crossing point.

Jordan is also focusing on Turkey’s recent public position that a “terrorist group” should not be allowed to have a base in northern Syria, as this factor would threaten other safe or de-escalation zones in the country. The Jordanians now strongly believe that Amman has great interest in Syrian unity, and they pin high hopes on the tripartite deal with the Americans and Russians for a “long-term ceasefire” in southern Syria.

The tripartite deal has neutralized Israel as this agreement serves Israeli security as well; yet Israel is pushed away from the Syrian battleground and any Israeli intervention in Syria remains a constant possibility. However, there are multiple hidden indicators that determine the mechanism of monitoring the ceasefire, which will be announced in its final stages very soon as the Syrian predicament is reaching its finale.

Amman is struggling behind the scenes to put in place a mechanism that would be mandatory for all parties concerned to adhere to for a Syrian truce. The Americans believe the truce will eventually lead to the formation of a “Daraa region” within a Syrian federal system that will determine matters in the future Syria. The so-called long truce is called “a wide, low-tension zone” by the Russians.

At present, the Syrian government sounds very “cooperative” and in line with Russian demands. Recent battlefield successes mean the Syrians are keen not to waste the army’s efforts, and they want to strongly invest manpower into rebuilding Syria and to avoid military attrition in southern regions of the country, instead focusing on a magnet for Daesh: Deir al-Zour.

Overall, Jordan seeks to stabilize Syria now and supports the de-escalation zones scenario not only in order for the region to prepare for the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, but also to ensure Jordan’s share and role in any future regional and international arrangement in Syria’s south.

Jordanians believe they have the “winning card” as the closest and most connected to the bloc of Daraa tribes and to Druze tribes in Jabal Al Arab of northern Jordan. While it is possible to discern “differences” that must be monitored between all parties in any private and quiet arrangements in southern Syria, Jordan’s focus on a “ceasefire monitoring mechanism” is a realpolitik solution to secure the best possible military — and then political — truce by the borders of the Hashemite Kingdom.

Article published in Fair Observer: https://www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/syria-bashar-al-assad-jordan-russia-iraq-middle-east-news-01214/

Photo Credit: OBJM / Shutterstock.com

Published in Tribune

Diplomats from Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United States have begun a fifth round of Syria peace talks in Astana with the Syrian government and representatives of some Syrian opposition groups to help Syria move to the next phase of defusing tension in all area to restore the country’s peace and stability as the country has been locked in a vicious conflict since early 2011

In the middle of continued violence in Syria, the 5th round of the Astana talks is set to convene to further discuss the establishment of the four proposed de-escalation zones in Syria in Idlib, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and Daraa. This Astana meeting was preceded end of June by meeting by talks in Jordan involving U.S., Russian and Jordanian officials discussing a de-escalation zone in southwest Syria on the border with Jordan.

The July discussions will define the boundaries of the de-escalation zones, implement mechanisms by the three guarantor countries—Russia, Turkey and Iran— and will lead to the establishment of a new Syrian National Reconciliation Committee, that would split the other Syrian opposition groups.

The success of this round of talks depends on whether Russia succeeds this time in committing the parties involved in the Syrian conflict on the ground to the cease-fire as without a sustained cease-fire, no pathway to conflict de-escalation in Syria would be seen in the near future.

Sources to the 5th round suggest that monitoring over de-escalation in Syria be conducted from 2 monitoring centers — Jordanian and Russian-Turkish. In other words, the first will be Jordanian-Russia-US due to the meeting held in June between Jordanian, Russian and American security officials in Northern Jordan. This center will be in charge of the southern de-escalation zone. The second center will be in on the Turkish Syrian borders and it will be Russian-Turkish. These two monitoring centers would exchange information and suggest measures to prevent violations, such as military disengagement and any further military escalation on the borders with Jordan and Turkey to avoid any direct clash or skirmishes between the armies of these three countries which would deteriorate the situation to expand to the Israeli front.

As for the final declaration of the meeting, it will entail the formation of the National Reconciliation Committee of representatives of the Syrian authorities and local respected people, elder statesmen and opposition leaders. The commission would focus on all domestic issues, including security. It is expected that the committee would lead to the division of the Syrian opposition outside Syria.

Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations secretary-general's special envoy on Syria, who is taking part in the meetings of Astana, keeps calling on all parties to reach ceasefire and this would be a very good chance to bring peace to the war-torn country.

The meetings of Astana have paved the way for further deployment of Russian military to police the borders of de-escalation zones in Syria within two to three weeks after finalizing a deal with Turkey and Iran.
The details of the deal will be agreed upon by the three countries: Russia, Turkey and Iran in spite of some concerns about Iranian role in this process as voiced by the opposition.

In these talks there will be many Syrian opposition representatives

According to Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov, there will be nine representatives of Syria's armed opposition at the talks on July 4.

The meeting will be attended by Syrian envoy Bashar al-Jaafari, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hoessein Jaberi Ansari, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal, and the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Near East affairs bureau, Stuart Jones.

The fourth meeting in Astana in May was a breakthrough, as the three ceasefire guarantor states signed a memorandum on the establishment of four de-escalation zones in Syria without demarcation of these zones. Monitoring over the de-escalation zones is now the main topic on the agenda of the fifth meeting in the Kazakh capital.

The Astana meeting sounds to put an end to proxy wars in Syria as external military intervention—including arms and military equipment, training, air strikes, and even troops threaten to lengthen the conflict.

The Syrian Army, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Kurdish armed groups that are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including the People's Protection Unit (YPG), are fighting Daesh and Al Qaeda fighters to control more territory in Syria. The Astana meeting would help define the lines that each of the fighting parties would reach in this conflict before a final political settlement is set inspire of Russian and Iranian support to the Syrian government. The main objective of such conferences including Astana and Geneva are to reach ceasefire and then to avoid any direct confrontation between neighboring countries armies on one hand and the Syrian army and its allies on the other.

The ongoing instability has enabled the expansion of powerful radical elements and extremists to increase their influence and pose hiking threats to countries neighboring Syria: Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Israel.

The first round of Astana talks were held on January 23-24, 2017 brokered by Turkey, which backs the opposition, and Russia and Iran, which support Bashar al Assad.

Since the beginning of the war in Syria, more than 400,000 have been killed and more than 11 million displaced and fled the country to Jordan and Lebanon as well as Turkey seeking shelter.

Photo credit: AFP

Published in Tribune

The next round of Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, scheduled for July 10, will coincide with a fresh round of UN-sponsored talks in Geneva. These diplomatic efforts come as the situation on the ground is becoming more tense, with Russia and the US close to direct confrontation in Syria.

Russia, Iran and Turkey hope that a deal signed on May 4 to set up four safe zones in Syria will lead to a comprehensive cease-fire. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has proposed three issues to be discussed in parallel: Constitutional amendments, general and presidential elections, and the type of government. Yet none of the parties concerned are interested in the proposal, and they are continuing military action to gain the upper hand in any future talks.

At the end of April, Russia, Turkey and Iran established a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the proposed safe zones. As Daesh and Al-Qaeda lose territory in Syria, the government is gaining more, changing the political and military balance on the ground.

Decisive moments in Middle East history lie in the hands of three major powers: The US and its bloc, Russia and its bloc, and Turkey, which has strategic plans in Syria. With speedy efforts to liberate Mosul from Daesh, the main momentum will be in the belt extending from the Jordanian-Syrian-Iraqi borders in the southeast to Raqqa governorate, Daesh’s stronghold.

As the race to take over this area heats up, the outcome will determine the future of any independent Kurdish state there. The recent withdrawal of German forces from southeast Turkey to Jordan indicates that the Western alliance is trying to empty the region to make way for an independent Kurdish state. Ankara is striving to abort this project.

The deployment of Turkish special forces near the border with Syria a few days ago indicates that Ankara has a spat with the West over this region and its future. Meanwhile, Tehran’s recent mid-range missile strike against Daesh sites in Syria is a message that it will not allow any Kurdish state that encompasses part of Iran and thus endangers its national security.

So both Tehran and Ankara have a common enemy in the Kurds, and they will do their utmost to deprive them of an independent state between Iraq and Syria along Turkey’s borders. Meanwhile, the upcoming Astana meeting will discuss the four zones that will be free of armed conflict. This will pave the way for a settlement of the Syrian conflict, which has so far killed 400,000 people and displaced more than half the population.

The major difference between American and Russian efforts against terrorist groups is that Washington does not want to relinquish liberated areas to Damascus. Russia and the US are intensifying their competition in Syria despite their coordination over airspace to avoid clashes or accidents. Russia issued a warning after the recent US downing of a Syrian jet, calling it an aggression and a violation of the deal between Moscow and Washington.

Any development in southern Syria will be monitored by Israel, which will not allow terrorist groups near its border to be replaced by Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters, as evidenced by its recent attacks against Syrian government forces near the Golan Heights. Military achievements will determine the composition of a future Syrian government.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1121631

Photo credit: Reuters/ Yazan Homsy

Published in Tribune
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