Few days ago, Qatar signed an agreement with Turkey to establish a naval base which will include a training center for maritime patrols and monitoring.

In addition, 60,000 Turkish soldiers will be deployed across four military bases abroad in accordance with a new 2022 military plan set by the Turkish ministry of defense. Two of these bases are in Qatar. What is the purpose of these bases and why Turkey is interested in Qatar at this time?

Moving the base

Though there are some unequivocal political and security extents to Turkish foreign policy in the Gulf region, the overall motivation is economic after Qatar had shown a major challenge against the US. Once Washington started to abandon Doha after the June 2017 political rift, some figured out that the Americans would move their al-Udaid Base in Doha to another country.

This has been the opportunity for Turkey to restore its military presence in the region at the expense of others. The real justification is to protect Qatar from any external threats and to secure economic and investment interests for Turkish companies.

Whether Turkey would survive any political turmoil or near its borders, this is mostly likely based upon a number of factors. The first is if the Kurds in Syria resist the Turkish troops and cooperate with the Syrian army, the Turkish dream to have a foothold in Syria will fail.

The second is the military bases in Qatar, which were announced by both Ankara and Doha. The significance of the bases depends on the developments in the region. When Qatar announced that it has intentions to host World Cup 2022, Turkey announced its military and security presence in Qatar accordingly since 2015.

The reinforcement of Turkish army in Doha is viewed as a means to fill the vacuum of the American army when Washington takes the decision to leave the base

–Shehab Al-Makahleh

In the meantime, American military experts do believe that the US could have already begun to abandon Qatar, close the Air Force base, and started thinking of moving other countries in the Middle East region. Some believe that these countries would be Jordan, Oman or the UAE.

The reinforcement of Turkish army in Doha is viewed as a means to fill the vacuum of the American army when Washington takes the decision to leave the base. That is why the American Army built a military base in Nejev desert last year.

As Turkey has helped the US to expand and strengthen the al-Udaid base, this would facilitate the Turkish mission to replace the Americans when they leave. Since Qatari officials are increasingly cognizant that the US cannot pardon Qatar’s actions, Turkey has started paving the way for its forces to take the lead in Qatar.

Back in 2003, Qatar welcomed the headquarters to al-Udaid Airbase after the US Central Command vacated Prince Sultan Airbase in Saudi Arabia. Since al-Udaid is deemed the largest American overseas airbase, this justifies the big number of Turkish troops to be deployed in Qatar to replace the Americans as the base has two active runways.

Turkey seeks economic benefits

In November 2017, during his visit to Qatar, Turkish President Recep Teyyip Erdogan reiterated his country’s support for Doha militarily, politically and economically including the participation of the Turkish private sector in the implementation of the 2022 World Cup projects in Qatar.

Thus, the main reason behind Turkish military expansion in the region, chiefly the deployment of its troops in Qatar, is to undertake future projects as there are 30 Turkish companies carrying out projects in Doha in the construction sector. Because both Ankara and Doha have been mutually isolated, they are speeding up their bilateral relations, mainly in economic fields.

Turkish companies have won $8.5 billion tenders to construct infrastructural projects for World Cup 2022. Therefore, for the World Cup’s preparations that are under way, Ankara seeks more economic and investment opportunities in Qatar. Its military presence is the only a means that can secure Ankara gains these bids.

 Qatar has earlier announced that Turkish commercial corporations will be given priority for businesses during the World Cup.

However, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has its Plan B if Qatar fails to meet the criteria set by the federation, granting the country the right to organize tournament for three countries that have already applied for hosting the 2026 World Cup, namely the United States, Mexico and Canada. The decision about Plan B is expected to be taken in the end of June or September, according to reports.

In conclusion, the Turkish military presence in Qatar is not for the sake of bolstering bilateral relations, it is partly for fighting "any potential enemies" and also for economic benefits for the Turkish economy which is facing many hardships due to state of isolation of Turkey from many countries.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/03/18/Turkey-cements-economic-ties-with-military-base-in-Qatar.html

Published in Tribune
Thursday, 15 March 2018 23:16

Major powers step up battle for Africa

Rex Tillerson’s final overseas visit before Donald Trump fired him as US Secretary of State was to Africa, where many global and regional powers are coming into direct competition. Tillerson’s trip came within the framework of the American administration’s bid to secure its influence in Africa following the humiliation caused by President Donald Trump’s alleged comments, which badly affected Africa-US relations. Tillerson’s visit was also to compete with the Chinese and Russian influence in Africa, as the continent becomes like a tart that should be divided among these powers and some other less-developed regional players such as Turkey, Iran and some Middle Eastern countries.

Visits to the continent by Tillerson, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov all came just a few weeks before the African Union announces the huge Continental Free Trade Area, which is expected in April and will make the African economy and its markets a global economic bloc that all countries should take into consideration. The continent’s Gross Domestic Product will amount to about $3.5 trillion annually and the population is estimated to reach 1.3 billion by the end of 2018. Many African countries are also working hard to counter terrorism and eradicate corruption.

Statistics issued by the World Bank forecast that Africans will make up 40 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of its workforce by 2100. Africa will also continue to be a major natural resources and raw materials reserve. Economic and political experts believe that whoever controls Africa controls the world — after all, Africa is the bridge between America, Europe and Asia.

The visits of Russian, American, Turkish and Chinese officials to Africa stem from their readiness to help African states fight terrorism. This is one of the pillars Tillerson relied on in his tour. He wanted first to beautify the image and reputation of the US in Africa and to neutralize Russia and China on the continent, as many governments are geared toward enhancing economic as well as trade ties with Moscow and Beijing. This explains why Tillerson warned African governments not to ink arms deals with China or approve any military assistance from Moscow. 

Conflict and political rifts between the US, China and Russia are shifting to the fast-growing continent, where many new geopolitical and economic opportunities are available.

– Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

Tillerson also tried during his tour to erase, which was cut short by a day so he could return to Washington and face the music, to erase the tensions caused by Trump’s alleged remarks on African countries two months ago. He voiced his country’s commitment to supporting development and democracy, and to building bridges of trade and investment relations with the continent.

Over 30 percent of Chinese firms in Africa are in industrial fields, compared to only a small fraction of the American businesses operating there. However, 90 percent of American businesses in Africa are oil-related.

China has supported development in Africa without enforcing terms and conditions that would turn Beijing into a political dictator or an economic authoritarian. In short, the Chinese have adopted an approach that focuses on the establishment and development of infrastructure and transport projects across the continent. China’s projects include funding a $3.2 billion railway network in Kenya, which was inaugurated last year, and the construction of the African Union headquarters in the Ethiopian capital. This was fully built by the Chinese and handed over to the AU as a gift in 2012.

It is not only Ethiopia that the three great powers fight over, it is also Djibouti, where China has built a 750-kilometer railway connecting the coast with Addis Ababa. Security-wise, China has begun to expand its military presence in the Horn of Africa, specifically in Djibouti, to support anti-piracy efforts in East African waters. Beijing has also deployed 3,000 peacekeepers in Africa under the flags of the UN and the AU.

China’s growing presence in Africa prompted the now-fired Secretary of State to warn African leaders during his tour that, while welcome to accept Beijing’s assistance, they should “not forfeit any elements of your sovereignty as you enter into such arrangements with China.”

Turkey has also regarded Africa as an area open to expanding its interests, which are ambitious, but not up to the level of Chinese, American and Russian dreams. Turkey’s attitude toward Africa has been palpable in meetings between the sides since 2011, and has been crystallized in a military base in Somalia. Since 2003, Erdogan has undertaken many trips to Africa, the most recent of which last month saw him take in four major countries: Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, and Algeria. Turkey has greatly increased its embassies in Africa, while Turkish Airlines reaches nearly 50 destinations on the continent. Significantly, at the end of 2017, Ankara and Khartoum announced cooperation to rehabilitate the Sudanese island of Suakin — a former Ottoman era base on the Red Sea.

For Russia, Africa is a buffer zone against America's expansionist policies. Last week, Lavrov made a state visit to Zimbabwe as Moscow searches for an African foothold following the overthrow of former President Robert Mugabe. Lavrov began his African tour on March 6, Tillerson two days later. The Russian minister’s schedule included five sub-Saharan countries — Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, and Ethiopia — while the American took in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Nigeria, and Chad.

It seems that conflict and political rifts between the three major world powers is shifting to Africa, and that new geopolitical and economic interests are on the rise. This may ultimately ignite a new world war, but this time on the African chessboard.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1266261

Published in Tribune

The situation in Syria is heating up, as the international powers play an expanding geopolitical game on the Syrian chessboard. The sequence and timings of recent events raise many questions. The situation in Eastern Ghouta is developing in the same way it has for the past several months without attracting much attention from the international community. However, following continuous violations of the de-escalation zone by militants, targeting residential neighborhoods in Damascus, both Russia and Syria have intensified operations in the area.

The situation is aggravated by the presence of Al-Qaeda-linked groups and militants using civilians as human shields; a common tactic in civil wars.

The media reaction was started by activists on the ground, reporting through text messages and WhatsApp about the calamitous situation in Eastern Ghouta. However, it seems nobody was paying attention to the fact that Damascus is also populated by civilians, and the constant shelling of the city is causing death and destruction. It seems as if not all lives matter to the international community.

The international coverage of Eastern Ghouta shows how biased and subjective media coverage is compared to what Afrin is undergoing at present; just because Turkey, a Western ally and a NATO member, is acting against the Kurds, whom Ankara labels as terrorists. Thus, it is apparent that the West needs Ankara right now more than Turkey needs the West. This justifies why the latter does not denounce what the Turkish army is doing in Afrin, while blaming the Russian and Syrian armies for their role in Ghouta. Turkey looks the potential winner in the tug-of-war between Russia and the West, as both need Ankara in the war against terrorism. The losers here are the Kurdish people, as they appear to be mere pawns in the geopolitical game.

The entire international community bears responsibility for the conflict as, instead of solving the crisis, all the players prefer to engage in geopolitical games using their pawns on the ground.

– Maria Dubovikova

After long debates at the United Nations Security Council, the members unanimously voted for a resolution requesting a one-month armistice in Syria. As expected, the armistice is not working. The international media reported a probable chemical attack in the suburbs, after which the UK threatened to strike Damascus, as if Western powers have the right to strike any country they want. When the British and Americans invaded Iraq in 2003 after suspecting that Iraqis were producing biological and chemical weapons and long-range missiles, the reports were proven to be false. Launching such strikes on Syria now could bring about the same result.

The UK and the US are picky in their reporting. They forget how many people have been killed in Iraq or how many were killed recently in Deir Ezzor. They channel their news coverage to serve their own interests by distorting the image of other nations.

Attempts to ease the humanitarian status have been disrupted by militants. It is common knowledge that Ghouta is suffering from starvation and illnesses, and civilians, spending most of their time in basements, want to get out from the suburb. However, the militants do not let them out, forcing families (who reach the checkpoints, seeking to leave Ghouta for safety) to return. The rebels are using the civilians in their own media game and abuse them as human shields.

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson laid responsibility for the disastrous situation in Syria on Russia. His tone was clear, and the direction everything is now moving is becoming clear as well. It seems that American procrastination over a political settlement in Syria is aimed at partitioning the country. This violates the US-Russian agreement and thus Moscow will be forced to counter US efforts to divide Syria and will play the game until the end, including not allowing the Americans to have a base there.

Meanwhile, the risk of a clash between the US and Russia over Syria is on the rise. The consequences of such a scenario are hard to calculate, but Russia is undertaking diplomatic measures to avoid such risky developments. Moscow is calling on the Western powers to use their influence on the rebel groups. Russian demands are simple: Once the rebels stop shelling the city, the strikes will be stopped. The terrorist groups should also leave the area, as there is no way they will be accepted as a part of cease-fire talks or any agreement. Had this been achieved already, humanitarian missions could have gained access to the affected areas sooner. All of this can be achieved through international cooperation and the proper exercise of pressure on the militants on the ground.

The entire international community bears responsibility for the Syrian war, as all countries prefer to play geopolitical games instead of solving the crisis, using their pawns on the ground regardless of how many people are killed. All countries should stop being Machiavellian in their deeds and decline the motto “the end justifies the means.”

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1263946

Published in Tribune

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
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