Richard Whittall:

The Globalist's Top Ten Books in 2016: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer


Middle East Eye: "

The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer is one of the weightiest, most revelatory, original and important books written about sport"

“The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer has helped me immensely with great information and perspective.”


Bob Bradley, former US and Egyptian national coach: "James Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer (has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture."
Alon Raab in The International Journal of the History of Sport: “Dorsey’s blog is a goldmine of information.”
Play the Game: "Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
Andrew Das, The New York Times soccer blog Goal: "No one is better at this kind of work than James Dorsey"
David Zirin, Sports Illustrated: "Essential Reading"
Change FIFA: "A fantastic new blog'

Richard Whitall of A More Splendid Life:
"James combines his intimate knowledge of the region with a great passion for soccer"

Christopher Ahl, Play the Game: "An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football


Monday, October 28, 2019

Popular Protest: How effective is it?


By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

If there is one theme, beyond corruption and a host of economic and social grievances, that have driven protests -- large and small, local, sectoral and national – across the globe, it has been a call for dignity.

Reflecting a global breakdown in confidence in political systems and leadership, the quest for dignity and social justice links protests in Middle Eastern and North African countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria and Sudan to demonstrations in nations on multiple continents ranging from Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Haiti to France, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Pakistan and Hong Kong.

The global protests amount to the latest phase of an era of defiance and dissent that erupted in 201l and unfolded most dramatically in the Middle East and North Africa with the toppling of the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Of the four Arab nations, only Tunisia has produced a relatively successful transition from autocracy to a more democratic form of government.

Regional and domestic counterrevolutionary forces staged a military coup in 2013 to remove Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president from office, installing one of the country’s most brutal and repressive regime in its post-independence history.

Libya and Yemen are wracked by civil wars, fuelled by foreign intervention. Syria has been devastated by an almost nine-year long civil war between forces supported by outside forces that were determined at whatever cost to decide the fate of the country’s own popular revolt.

Like elsewhere in the region, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the largest anti-government demonstrations in the decade of his party’s rule, as well as a failed military coup in 2016, to reverse Turkish strides towards democracy and political pluralism.

The Middle East and North Africa’s retreat into more repressive authoritarianism and autocracy coupled with crackdowns of various sorts in Russia, China, Hong Kong, and Kazakhstan, to name just a few examples, has prompted analysts to wonder whether mass protest remains an effective way of achieving political change.

“Only 20 years ago, 70 percent of protests demanding systemic political change got it — a figure that had been growing steadily since the 1950s. In the mid-2000s, that trend suddenly reversed. Worldwide, protesters’ success rate has since plummeted to only 30 percent,” concluded New York Times journalists Max Fisher and Amanda Taub in a column exploring the roots of the current wave of discontent.

Mr. Fisher and Ms. Taub base their conclusion on a study by political scientist Erica Chenoweth that suggests that illiberals, authoritarians and autocrats have become more adept at thwarting protest using what she terms “smart repression.”

Yet, “smart repression” that involves in Ms. Chenoweth’s definitions efforts to ensure the loyalty of elites; greater brutality and violence by security and paramilitary proxies; enhanced censorship and criminalization of dissent; and depicting revolts as foreign-inspired conspiracies and forms of terrorism is at best an upgraded version of standard authoritarian and autocratic responses.

It’s hard to describe what is smart or more sophisticated about the repression involved in the military coup in Egypt and its immediate aftermath in which more than 1,000 people were killed; the arbitrary detentions of prominent businessmen, members of the ruling in family, religious figures and activists in what amounted to a power grab by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman; the mass detention of an estimated one million Turkic Muslims in re-education camps in China’s troubled, north-western province of Xinjiang; or the arrests of tens of thousands in countries like Turkey and Egypt.

What may provide a better explanation of the reduced effectiveness of protest may be the fact that for the first time since World War Two, the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism exceeds the number moving toward democracy as a result of what political scientists Anna Luehrmann and Staffan Lindberg have dubbed “a third wave of autocratization.”

Underlying that wave is the rise of a critical mass of world leaders that share a belief in illiberal, authoritarian and autocratic principles of governance and disregard human and minority rights in favour of a supremacist endorsement of the rights of an ethnic or religious group.

The rise of those leaders is in many ways the flip side of the protests. They often are political outsiders, men who may or may not be part of the elite like Donald J, Trump in the United States, Victor Orban in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines but project themselves as forces of change that will tackle the elites’ grip on power.

Aspects of their civilisationalism and reactionary nationalism has empowered and is supported to varying degrees by often opposed political forces that include far-right, anti-migrant and supremacist ethnic and religious groups as well as popular leftists, including some of the Democratic Party presidential candidates in the United States.

The result is a potential vicious circle in which civilizational attitudes, increasingly restricted democratic rights and greater repression marginalize ever more societal groups including significant segments of the middle class as well as minorities, who like in the case of Hong Kong, Iraq, Sudan  or the Rohingya, see their resilience hardened by perceptions of having northing more to lose. Violence on all sides of the divide increases with the risk of militants having a greater appeal.

The conclusions of Ms. Chenoweth, Ms. Luehrmann and Mr. Lindberg would bear that out. If protest is people’s only peaceful alternative in response to unresponsive governments and political forces, undermining the protests’ effectiveness narrows the choices to affect change.

From that perspective, the scholars conclusions would amount to a contemporary adaptation of writer George Orwell’s 1944 assertion that “all revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure.”

However, that may be prematurely jumping to conclusions despite what the scholars project trends.
To be sure, the jury is still out on whether the revolts in Tunisia and Sudan will produce enduring political change.

But eight years on from the Arab revolts in 2011, protesters. determined to secure recognition and their place in society, underline lessons learnt by no longer declaring victory once a leader is forced to make concessions or resign as in Algeria and Sudan and by transcending easily exploitable sectarian ethnic and religious divides like in Iraq and Lebanon, a mosaic of 18 carefully balanced sectarian groups.

Said Middle East scholar Hanin Ghaddar: “For the first time in a long time, Lebanese have realized that the enemy is within—it is their own government and political leaders—not an outside occupier or regional influencer… Political leaders have been unable to control the course of the protests, which are taking place across all sects and across all regions… What brought them together is an 

The realization that street power needs to be sustained until the modalities of transition are in place is key to enhancing the chances of protest retaining its effectiveness.

The future of protest as an effective tool depends similarly on perceptions of a common interest that transcends sect, ethnicity and class becoming part of the fabric of society.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Joining the global protest fray: Islamists march on the Pakistani capital



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

Pakistan, long viewed as an incubator of religious militancy, is gearing up for a battle over the future of the country’s notorious madrassas, religious seminaries accused of breeding radicalism.
Islamist-led protests also threaten to be a fight for the future of the government of prime minister Imran Khan.

The stakes for both the government and multiple Islamist and opposition parties and groups are high.

Pakistan earlier this month evaded blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, but only by the skin of its teeth.

Maintaining Pakistan on it grey list since June of last year, FATF warned the South Asian nation that it would be blacklisted if it failed to fully implement an agreed plan to halt the flow of funds to militant groups by February of next year when the watchdog holds its next meeting.

The warning was reinforced by a statement by FATF’s Chinese president, Xiangmin Liu. China has long shielded Pakistan from blacklisting.

“Pakistan needs to do more and faster. Pakistan's failure to fulfil FATF global standards is an issue that we take very seriously. If by February 2020, Pakistan doesn't make significant progress, it will be put on the blacklist.” Mr. Xiangmin said.

Pakistani officials acknowledged that Mr. Xiangmin’s comment underlined the seriousness of their country’s predicament but said it would serve as an incentive to push forward.

That is likely to energize Islamist opposition to Pakistani efforts to comply with FATF demands that would impose strict oversight on their funding and financing of social and cultural activities, including the operation of tens of thousands of religious seminaries.

A five-party Islamist coalition that demands "true Islamization" and the establishment of shariah law, led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the 66-year old head of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and a former member of parliament, organized a countrywide march scheduled to converge on the capital Islamabad on October 31.

Mr., Rehman said the march of up to one million people was a declaration of “war” against Mr. Khan’s government. He demanded the government’s resignation. His protest is likely to secure a degree of support from other major opposition parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

With government efforts to engage the opposition in talks to fend off the march on Islamabad going nowhere, both Pakistani security forces and stick-wielding Islamist volunteers clad in yellow uniform-like garb have been preparing for the march. Security forces have virtually sealed off Islamabad’s government district.

Pakistani media reported that authorities were also contemplating digging ditches along footpaths leading to Islamabad to prevent protesters from circumventing roadblocks by foot.

The Islamists were further energized by a controversial meeting last month on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly between Mr. Khan and George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist behind the Open Society Foundation.  The foundation was banned from Pakistan in late 2017 as part of a crackdown on non-governmental organizations.

Mr. Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust, and the foundation are globally in the bull’s eye of populist, ultra-nationalist and militant religious opposition to what they term ‘globalists’ and ‘cosmopolitans.’

The attacks, like in the case of the Islamist coalition in Pakistan as well as Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban and other nationalist and far-right forces, often take on anti-Semitic connotations.

Mr. Orban, who studied on a scholarship provided by Mr. Soros’ philanthropy, has charged the billionaire with secretly plotting to flood Hungary with migrants and destroy it as a nation.

Mr. Rehman, accusing Mr. Khan of being a “Jewish agent,” was particularly irked by the fact that the prime minister was believed to have asked Mr. Soros to assist in reforming Pakistani madrassas in a bid to counter radicalization and ensure that the seminaries adopt curricula approved by the ministry of education.

Greater government control of the seminaries would substantially weaken the significant street power of Islamist parties that often fare poorly in elections.

The emerging power struggle between Mr. Khan and the Islamists is in many ways an effort by the Islamists to force the military that long supported them to choose between them and the prime minister.

Mr. Khan is believed to have had military support in the electoral campaign that brought the former cricket player to office on a promise to end corruption and improve living standards.

Instead, a persistent economic crisis forced Mr. Khan to agree to a US$6 billion bailout by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that involves stark austerity measures.

The Islamists ability to march on Islamabad has some analysts suggesting that they would not be able to do so without at least a military nod.

Whatever the case, the march could not come at a more awkward moment for Mr, Khan.

Mr. Rehman hopes to capitalize on popular discontent as Pakistan struggles to overcome the economic crisis and seems unable to garner substantial international and Muslim support in condemning India’s withdrawal of the disputed area of Kashmir’s autonomy.

Earlier this week, police in Islamabad employed water cannons to disperse teachers protesting the fact that they had not been paid for months.

Complicating affairs is the fact that solving the economic crisis, confronting India in the dispute about Kashmir and meeting FATF’s demands are all intertwined.

Militants and others have degrees of financial manoeuvrability because much of the Pakistani economy remains unrecorded. In addition, despite crackdowns, various militant groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Mohammed remain useful proxies in battles over Kashmir. All of which mitigates against full compliance with FATF’s demands.

That is the murky playground in which Mr. Rehman and his Islamist alliance is seeking to stir the pot.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Thursday, October 24, 2019

NBN Book Review: Dark Shadows - Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan


Joanna Lillis

Dark Shadows

Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan

I. B. Tauris 2018

October 23, 2019 James M. Dorsey





Joanna LillisDark Shadows, Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan (I. B. Tauris, 2018) takes the reader on a penetrating, colourfully written journey into the recesses of a little known Central Asian nations on the frontier of tectonic shifts across Eurasia. Kazakhstan, a sparsely populated oil-rich former Soviet republic that shares borders with Russia and China that stretch thousands of kilometres, in which demographics amount to geopolitics, walks a tight rope in a world increasingly dominated by leaders who to varying degrees define their states in civilizational rather than national terms. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and stirring of unrest in two regions of Ukraine coupled with veiled threats uttered by Russian President Vladimir Putin raise the spectre of Kazakhstan’s worst nightmares. China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs, in its troubled north-western province of Xinjiang fuels long-standing public suspicion of Chinese ambitions and put the government between a rock and a hard place. Led for almost three decades until he recently stepped down, former Communist party boss Nursultan Nazarbayev has moulded Kazakhstan in his image: an authoritarian state with some trappings of democracy that increasingly are being curtailed. Lillis paints a compelling picture of a nation that is still grappling with the consequences of Joseph Stalin’s devastating disruption of its demography and identity as it seeks forge its path in a post-Nazarbayev era against the backdrop of big power jockeying for influence in the heart of Eurasia. With the keen eye of a journalistic fly on the wall and the ability to turn words into images, Lillis portrays a strategically important country at the crossroads of geopolitics that are likely to shape an emerging new world order.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Turkey and China tie themselves in knots over Syria and Xinjiang



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel and Castbox.

Turkey’s ambassador to China, Emin Onen, didn’t mince his words this week when he took his Chinese hosts to task for failing to support Turkey’s military campaign against a Kurdish militia in Syria.

Speaking in Turkish through a translator at a news conference at his Beijing embassy, Mr. Onen implicitly put China on the spot by calling on it to stand with Turkey in its fight against political violence.

In doing so, Mr. Onen was laying bare long-standing strains in Turkish-Chinese relations as well as contradictions that link Turkey’s long-standing refusal to fully recognize Kurdish rights to China’s brutal crackdown in its troubled, north-western province of Xinjiang.

Chinese officials have long sought to prevent Turkey from speaking out on the crackdown by  privately arguing in discussions with their Turkish counterparts that China’s massive effort to fundamentally alter the belief system of Turkic Muslims, packaged as a fight against political violence, was no different from Turkish attitudes towards the Kurds.

Turkey has justified its decades-old policy in predominantly Kurdish south-eastern Turkey and its more recent interventions in Syria as a struggle against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, and its Syrian affiliate, the People's Protection Units (YPG).

The PKK has waged an insurgency in south-eastern Turkey for more than three decades. Tens of thousands have been killed in PKK attacks and Turkish military operations.

The YPG, which has not been designated by either the US or the EU, served in recent years as the United States’ ground troops in the battle to defeat the Islamic State’s Syria-based Caliphate.

“What we hope for is that China, whether internally or externally, is an anti-terrorist nation. They are a member of the (United Nations) Security Council, so they should understand our present situation,” Mr. Onen said.

“Certainly, we know that China is a country that is fighting against terror ... We are also fighting against ... (political violence) and it’s one of the most important issues,” Mr. Onen went on to say.

Mr. Onen was responding to what amounted to a Chinese condemnation of the Turkish incursion into Syria when Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, urged “Turkey to halt military action and to return to the right track, resolving the issue with political solutions.”

China had earlier called on Turkey to “exercise restraint,” insisting that Syria’s “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity must be respected and upheld.”

The stakes for both Turkey and China are high.

Both are likely hoping that Russian execution of an enhanced ceasefire initially negotiated by US vice president Mike Pence on a visit to Ankara last week will enable them to avoid a further deterioration in relations. Russia took ownership of the Syrian process during talks on Tuesday between presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey, home to the largest Chinese Turkic Muslim exile community, and long a supporter of political and cultural rights for Uighurs, the predominant Turkic Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang, has on occasion breached the Muslim’s world’s wall of silence about the Chinese crackdown.

If Turkey, one of the Islamic world’s most powerful nations that competes with Saudi Arabia and Iran for leadership, were to revert to sustained criticism of the Chinese crackdown, it would make it more difficult for other Muslim states to maintain their silence or, in some cases, endorsement of Chinese policy.

It would ironically align Turkey with the United States, which last week imposed sanctions in a bid to force Turkey to halt its Syrian military campaign. The US, unlike the Muslim world, has been vocal in its condemnation of the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang.

Taking China to task on Xinjiang is risky business, certainly for a country that has seen its economy falter.

Turkey has been counting on China to help it resolve its economic problems.

China transferred in June on the eve of Turkish elections US$1 billion to Turkey as part of a Turkish lira-Chinese yuan currency swap. China, which sees Turkey as a key node in its Belt and Road initiative, has further pledged US$3.6 billion in funding for energy and telecommunications infrastructure projects.

Deng Li, China’s ambassador to Turkey, warned in March that public Turkish criticism of China’s Xinjiang policy “will negatively affect mutual trust and understanding and will be reflected in commercial and economic relations.”

Mr. Li issued his threat after Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his ministry spokesman, Hami Aksoy, in a rare expression of anti-Chinese sentiment used harsh language to condemn events in Xinjiang where some one million Turkic Muslims are believed to have been incarcerated in re-education camps and/or pushed into force labour.


Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on Turkey two months later to support China’s policy in Xinjiang in a bid to “safeguard the overall situation of the strategic cooperation between the two countries.”

The strains in Turkish-Chinese relations were put on public display in July when China’s state news agency Xinhua quoted visiting Mr. Erdogan as saying that people in Xinjiang “live happily.”


Chinese foreign ministry spokeswomen Hua Chunying, clearly believing that this time round it would be Turkey rather than China that blinks first, insisted on Tuesday that “we called on Turkey many times to stop its military action. We hope all sides will form a synergy to combat terrorism, advance the political settlement process of the Syrian issue, and jointly safeguard peace and tranquillity in the region.”

It’s a synergy built on sand as long as Turkey and China cloak their refusal to come to grips with minority rights in counterterrorism terms that are opportunistically called into question whenever they contradict their geopolitical ambitions.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Shaping a new world order: The Gulf and the greater Middle East stake their claim



Abstract

The 21st century’s Great Game is about the creation of a new Eurasia-centred world. It locks China, the United States, Russia, India, Japan and Europe into what is an epic battle. Yet, they are not the only players. Middle Eastern rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are key players too. As they vie for big power favour, they compete to secure the ability to shape the future architecture of Eurasia’s energy landscape, enhance leverage by increasing energy and oil product market share, and position themselves as the key nodes in infrastructure networks.

With China, Russia, the United States, India and Japan as the heavy weights, the Great Game is unlikely to produce an undisputed winner. Nor do key players perceive it as a zero-sum-game. The stakes in the game are about divvying up the pie and ensuring that China despite its vast resources, economic leverage, and first starter advantage in infrastructure linkages, does not emerge as the sole dominant power in Eurasia’s future architecture.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean and Castbox.

Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK's military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that "we don't want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People's Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Landing in Riyadh: Geopolitics work in Putin’s favour



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin lands in Riyadh this week for the second time in 12 years, his call for endorsement of his proposal to replace the US defense umbrella in the Gulf with a multilateral security architecture is likely to rank high on his agenda.

So is Mr. Putin’s push for Saudi Arabia to finalize the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system in the wake of the failure of US weaponry to intercept drones and missiles that last month struck key Saudi oil installations.

“We are ready to help Saudi Arabia protect their people. They need to make clever decisions…by deciding to buy the most advanced S-400 air-defence systems. These kinds of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack,” Mr. Putin said immediately after the attacks.

Mr Putin’s push for a multilateral security approach is helped by changing realities in the Gulf as a result of President Donald J. Trump’s repeated recent demonstrations of his unreliability as an ally.

Doubts about Mr. Trump have been fuelled by his reluctance to respond more forcefully to perceived Iranian provocations, including the downing of a US drone in June and the September attacks on the Saudi facilities as well as his distancing himself from Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu following last month’s elections, and most recently, the president’s leaving the Kurds to their own devices as they confront a Turkish invasion in Syria.

Framed in transactional terms in which Saudi Arabia pays for a service, Mr. Trump’s decision this week to send up to 3,000 troops and additional air defences to the kingdom is likely to do little to enhance confidence in his reliability.

By comparison, Mr. Putin, with the backing of Chinese president Xi Jinping, seems a much more reliable partner even if Riyadh differs with Moscow and Beijing on key issues, including Iran, Syria and Turkey.

“While Russia is a reliable ally, the US is not. Many in the Middle East may not approve of Moscow supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s beleaguered ally in Syria,” said Middle East scholar and commentator Mark N. Katz.

In a twist of irony, Mr. Trump’s unreliability coupled with an Iran’s strategy of gradual escalation in response to the president’s imposition of harsh economic sanctions in a bid to force the Islamic republic to the negotiating table appear to have moderated what was perceived as a largely disastrous assertive and robust go-it alone Saudi foreign and defense policy posture in recent years.

While everyone would benefit from a dialling down of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Mr. Trump’s overall performance as the guarantor of security in the Gulf could in the longer term pave the way for a more multilateral approach to the region’s security architecture.

In the latest sign of Saudi willingness to step back from the brink, Saudi Arabia is holding back channel talks for the first time in two years with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The talks began after both sides declared partial ceasefires in the more than four year-long Yemeni war.

The talks potentially open the door to a broader Russian-sponsored deal in the context of some understanding about non-aggression between the kingdom and Iran, in which Saudi Arabia would re-establish diplomatic relations with Syria in exchange for the Islamic republic dropping its support for the Houthis.

Restoring diplomatic relations and reversing the Arab League’s suspension of Syrian membership because of the civil war would constitute a victory for Mr. Al-Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran. It would grant greater legitimacy to a leader viewed by significant segments of the international community as a pariah.

A Saudi-Iranian swap of Syria for Yemen could also facilitate Saudi financial contributions to the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria. Saudi Arabia was conspicuously absent at last month’s Rebuild Syria Expo in Damascus. 

Mr. Putin is likely to further leverage his enhanced credibility as well as Saudi-Russian cooperation in curtailing oil production to boost prices to persuade Saudi Arabia to follow through on promises to invest in Russia.

Saudi Arabia had agreed to take a stake in Russia’s Novatek Arctic-2 liquefied natural gas complex, acquire Sibur, Russia's largest petrochemical facility, and invest an additional US$6 billion in future projects.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak predicted that “about 30 agreements and contracts will be signed during President Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia. We are working on it. These are investment projects, and the sum in question is billions of dollars.”

In anticipation of Mr. Putin’s visit, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), said it was opening its first overseas office in Riyadh.

RDIF and the kingdom's counterpart, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), are believed to be looking at some US$2.5 billion in investment in technology, medicine, infrastructure, transport and industrial production.

The Russian fund is also discussing with Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company, US$3 billion in investments in oil services and oil and gas conversion projects.

Saudi interest in economic cooperation with Russia goes beyond economics. Ensuring that world powers have an increasing stake in the kingdom’s security is one pillar of a more multilateral regional approach

Said Russian Middle East expert Alexey Khlebnikov: “Clearly, the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities have changed many security calculations throughout the region.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture