Friday 23 June, 2017 Update: Riyadh’s List of Demands

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The economic and diplomatic blockade imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia and a select group of its allies is two and a half weeks old. Neither side has made much of an effort to alleviate the crisis. In fact, Doha and Riyadh seem to have used the time to dig their heels in even deeper. Attempts at mediation by Kuwait and other regional nations have resulted in nothing substantial. Vociferous Turkish support for Qatar, though self-serving, has served only to stoke the flames of anger and suspicion in Riyadh even more. The crisis has taken a back seat to other global matters and crises over time. The prime reason for this has been Saudi Arabia’s failure to present and explain its grievances with Qatar to the rest of the world.

As of today, however, that has changed. Today the Saudis delivered an ultimatum to Qatar, laying out in detail the terms Doha must agree to for the blockade to be lifted. The terms are heavy-handed, to say the least. The list of thirteen points include stipulations that Qatar shut down al-Jazeera, minimize its ties with Iran, remove Turkish troops from Qatari soil, and break off its relationship with groups that the Saudis and their anti-Qatari coalition consider to be terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has been given ten days to comply with the terms or else face undefined consequences.

Essentially, this is a list of demands, not so different from what a criminal gives to police when he finds himself barricaded with hostages. In that respect, this crisis has a few similarities with a hostage situation. The Saudis intentions here are as crucial as their actions. Riyadh could have made the terms so imposing in order to create room for negotiation and meet the Qataris somewhere in the middle. But the ultimatum could also be entirely straightforward and sincere. The Saudi terms do appear to mirror the laundry list of complaints that Riyadh, and its allies, have compiled against Qatar.

That being said, the demands are not reasonable by any stretch of the imagination. Western nations are treading carefully through this diplomatic minefield, especially the United States. The US wants to see this crisis resolved amicably, as Washington understands that the longer it goes on, the greater the chance that Qatar will eventually align itself with Iran. At the same time, it wants to see the grievances between Qatar and its Gulf allies and neighbors resolved once and for all.

 

Sunday 11 June, 2017 Update: Kuwaiti Mediation Makes Headway

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Kuwait’s attempt to mediate the regional crisis involving Qatar and some of its neighbors is bearing fruit.  Today, Kuwait announced that Qatar is ready to sit down and listen to the grievances and claims of its fellow Gulf States, and Egypt.  The crisis began when several Arab nations announced they are severing diplomatic ties with the tiny emirate over Qatar’s alleged support of select terrorist groups, some of which are backed by Iran. Saudi Arabia, the leader of the effort, closed its border with Qatar and sealed off air, sea, and land contact, essentially isolating the smaller nation. Since last Monday, Qatar has begun to feel the pinch of the imposed isolation. The Qatari stock market has fallen 8% on fears of food, medicine, and other goods shortages coming in the near future if the crisis continues. Qatari Airlines, the largest air carrier in the region has suspended flights to Saudi Arabia and other nations that have taken similar actions against it.

As last week went on, the rift appeared to deepen. Qatar remained defiant, refuting the Saudi claims and not making any moves which could be construed as admitting guilt. From outside the region, a number of nations urged caution and offered to serve as mediators to bring both sides to the table. It is best, however, that Kuwait’s offer is the one being acted upon. This dispute is largely ‘in-house’ and should be resolved by the Gulf states. Kuwait’s first attempt at mediation last week failed. However, with the crisis showing no signs of ending in the near future, Qatar is using Kuwait’s second attempt to gain some breathing room. The fact that it is willing to sit down and hold discussions is a step towards an eventual reconciling the broken relationship with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and other nations.

The world has taken notice of the situation and concern is growing. The consensus is that a swift end to the situation is beneficial for all involved parties, especially before an outside nation attempts to use the crisis to its own benefit. Iran is the first nation that comes to mind. However, Turkey is another nation that has made alarming moves, especially its very vocal support of Qatar. If the second Kuwaiti mediation falls apart, do not be surprised if Turkish support becomes more substantial in the coming days.

Monday 17 April, 2017 Update: Turkey Votes ‘Yes’ On Constitutional Referendum

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On Sunday as the Christian world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Turks across the world were voting on a historical constitutional referendum which, if passed, would grant Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a host of new powers. By late last night it became clear the ‘Yes’ vote would carry the day, propelling Erdoğan to a close, yet potentially decisive victory. If the referendum is implemented entirely, Turkey’s government will shift from a parliamentary democracy to one that is dominated by a strong executive president. The president will no longer be held accountable by Turkey’s parliament, control the judiciary, have broad budgetary power, and the ability to shape the executive branch of government as he sees fit. This morning, many are wondering just what the results of the vote will mean for Turkey’s future.

Before that question is considered, the results of the referendum have to be certified and digested. The vote count was close with the ‘Yes’ camp receiving 51%. Opposition leaders are calling for large number of potentially problematic ballots to be reviewed, and there are widespread reports of voter intimidation and voting irregularities across Turkey to be investigated. It is unlikely an investigation will happen though. Turkey’s electoral body has ruled the vote valid.

That act will do nothing to change the fact that the referendum results could usher in a new period of political instability for Turkey. In the nation’s largest population centers, the majority of citizens voted ‘No.’  Protests have already broken out in Istanbul and other cities and there have been clashes between Turks opposed to Erdoğan and his supporters.

Outside of Turkey, there is uneasiness about the new role of Erdoğan and the chance that the secular Turkey of the past will forever vanish. European politicians are spending a great deal of time this morning debating what the referendum results will mean for Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, and how it will affect the migration crisis. Concerns about Erdoğan directing Turkey away from Europe and toward a closer relationship with Russia need to be addressed. That particular possibility, should it come to reality, has the potential to disrupt the balance of power in Europe and the Middle East.

With the Easter Holiday coming to a close, and North Korea quite possibly calming down for a short period, the opportunity will be taken this week to discuss Turkey at length.

Turkey’s Perilous New Year

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2016 was a horrendous year for Turkey, one marked by terrorist attacks and political instability. Turks were fervently hoping that 2017 would bring peace and security to their rattled homeland. Unfortunately, it does not appear that will be the case. Little more than an hour past midnight on 1 January, a single gunman stormed into Reina, a crowded nightclub in Istanbul, and opened fire with an assault rifle type of weapon. 39 people were killed and 70 wounded in the attack. A manhunt is still underway for the gunman, though his identity is expected to be revealed very soon. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. In a released statement ISIS said the following:  “In continuation of the blessed operations that Islamic State is conducting against the protector of the cross, Turkey, a heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday.”

Turkey is in a state of emergency right now, facing security threats from multiple directions. This is the third major terrorist attack in the past month. ISIS has been responsible for many of the attacks, though Kurdish militant groups have been active on the terror front too. Turkey’s deepening involvement in the Syrian conflict has produced a third avenue of danger for the nation. In December, an off-duty police officer, apparently acting independently, assassinated the Russian ambassador at an art museum in Ankara. The motive of the attack was revenge for Russia’s part in the fall of Aleppo and an attempt to disrupt relations between Ankara and Moscow.

The attack did not change Turkey’s involvement in Syria or damage its relations with Russia. Shortly after the assassination, a ceasefire agreement was announced in Syria. One that Turkey and Russia will play a major role in.

The almost constant stream of terrorist attacks has degraded what little political stability remains in Turkey. The purges and crackdown initiated by President Erdogan have strengthened the hand of the government immensely while damaging the freedoms of many Turks. To counter significant backlash for this, Erdogan has promised increased security and a wider war against terrorism. The Turkish moves in Syria are a part of this effort and should there be a coordinated effort on the part of the United States and Russia against ISIS in the near future, Turkey will play a major role in it.

Sadly, none of this is keeping Turkish citizens at home very safe. Erdogan stated, accurately I believe, that these attacks are an effort to destroy morale and create chaos but they will only bring the country together. To reach that goal, Erdogan needs to formulate a more cohesive strategy for contending with terrorism on the domestic front. It is also quite essential for him to acknowledge the reality that his efforts since the coup attempt in July have made his nation less safe.

The factors which have fused together to lock the Middle East in destabilization are all active in Turkey at the moment: terrorism, the migrant crisis, and now the rise of authoritarianism. Erdogan should be scrutinizing the events in the region since the Arab Spring in order to ensure that he learns from the mistakes made by his counterparts in Cairo and elsewhere. Time will tell whether or not he does.

 

Thursday 29 December, 2016 Update: Syrian Ceasefire Deal Signed

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According to the Russian and Turkish governments, the Syrian government and opposition rebels have agreed to the ground rules for a ceasefire in the conflict. Both sides have also agreed to peace talks that could potentially bring an end to the almost six year long civil war. The truce does not include ISIS or a host of other terrorist groups now operating inside of Syria. Efforts against ISIS will continue, and a joint US-Russian effort against Islamic Militants is expected to begin sometime after the inauguration of Donald Trump in late January. Turkey and Russia will be the guarantors of the ceasefire, effectively cutting out the United States and other nations that oppose Assad from having influence over what postwar Syria will look like. The US played no part in the negotiations which led to the ceasefire. Turkey itself is staunchly opposed to Bashir al-Assad remaining in power. However, for the time being it appears that Ankara is willing to live with him remaining in Damascus.

The fall of eastern Aleppo made it clear to opposition rebels that their political and military options were now severely limited. The rebels no longer had a strong presence in any of Syria’s largest cities, and the incoming US president will not be resupplying them or supporting their efforts to remove al-Assad any further. Faced with these new realities, the rebels became more pragmatic and sat down with the Syrian government to compromise.

Whether the truce holds and leads to more formal peace talks remains to be seen. Quite honestly, ceasefires in Syria seem to have a history of being made simply to be broken. But this time around, a ceasefire benefits all parties involved, at least for the moment.