JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
July 30, 2016
The fascist coup of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – for that is what it is – has thrown a large boulder into the boiling, muddy waters of the Middle East.
Turkey’s fellow Sunni Muslim neighbours are apprehensive that Erdogan’s massive purge of his opponents and grabbing of personal power will be accompanied by a reaffirmation of his support for radical Islam. This fear has already thrown off balance efforts by Saudi Arabia to build an Islamic Military Alliance among Sunni Muslim states to battle terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State, and to present a united front to the increasingly assertive Shia Muslim state of Iran.
Erdogan, meanwhile, appears to be oblivious of the wider implications of his actions following what he claims was an attempted coup on July 15 by army officers and others who follow exiled religious leader Fethullah Gulen. In the aftermath of whatever it was that really happened on Friday two weeks ago, Erdogan’s security forces have got about 15,000 people in detention, revoked the passports of nearly 50,000 people, and suspended more than 66,000 people from their jobs. Warrants have been issued for the arrest of 89 journalists.
Erdogan has reacted angrily to disquiet expressed by the United States and European government that his purge of the civil service, military, judiciary and educational establishment is out of all proportion to the coup threat, if, indeed, there was one.
“Instead of thanking this nation that quashed the coup in the name of democracy, on the contrary, you are taking sides with the coup plotters,” Erdogan said on Friday. He is especially upset that Washington will not immediately hand over Gulen, who has been in self-imposed exile in the U.S. since 1999.
In his speech Erdogan went further and suggested Washington might have been behind the failed plot in alliance with Gulen, who was the Turkish leader’s political ally until they fell out. Erdogan became suspicious of the popularity of Gulen’s vision of Islam among the military, judges and judicial officials, and in the education system where the cleric’s organisation operated many schools and colleges. Gulen has denied any involvement in whatever happened on July 15.
This is a major breech between Turkey and its partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, to which the Ankara government contributes the second largest military after Washington. And Erdogan’s actions in the last two weeks also put even further out of reach than they already are Turkey’s ambitions to join the European Union. Those negotiations are already stalled on most fronts, and if Erdogan reintroduces capital punishment, as has been widely hinted, his EU membership application will be torn up.
The most immediate effects, however, are on the three-cornered civil war in Syria, the occupation by the Islamic State of large areas of western Iraq and eastern Syria, and even the war in Yemen.
There was a strong indication on Monday this week of the dislocation among Arab Middle Eastern leaders. The 22 leaders of the member states of the Arab League were due to meet in Mauritania for their annual summit with the hammering out of a joint approach to the Syrian civil war high on the agenda.
It didn’t happen. Only eight Arab heads of state showed up, and those were all from irrelevant nations such as Somalia, Sudan, the Comoros, and Djibouti. The big boys, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, and Egypt, stayed away.
Following on from the upheaval in Turkey, this is a set-back to what had begun to look like positive moves among Sunni Muslims to build an alliance against violent radical Islam. In December last year Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, announced the formation of a 34-nation Islamic Military Alliance, which included Turkey and other Muslim countries as far away as Malaysia and Pakistan. The idea is to share intelligence on radical terrorist groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaida and its affiliates, and to train, equip and provide forces to fight together against these groups.
Significantly, the alliance does not include Iran, the leader of Shia Islam with strong links to the Shia majority in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia minority populations in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and most other Muslim countries.
The creation of this alliance was welcomed by the U.S., and it appeared to herald the healing of breeches between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular. Erdogan went to Riyadh and signed a far-reaching strategic co-operation agreement with the Saudi government. Then, in February this year, Saudi troops were sent to Turkey for joint exercises that for a while looked as though they might be a prelude to a ground invasion of northern Syria.
All this looked like a welcome repair in relations between Riyadh and Ankara, which had plummeted after the Arab Spring at the beginning of 2011. Riyadh accused Ankara of supporting the radical Muslim Brotherhood, which took power in Egypt before being removed by the military, and which is a major underground opposition movement in Saudi Arabia.
The rift widened when rebels in Syria rose up to try to oust the Shia President Bashar Assad, who is supported by Iran and Hezbollah. Riyadh, and many in Washington and the capitals of Europe, believed Erdogan was doing little to assist the moderate opposition to Assad, but was allowing arms, money and recruits easy transit to the Islamic State group and other ultra-radical Syrian rebels like the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front.
As well as doing much in recent months to shut off these channels, and stem the flow of war refugees to Europe, Erdogan has also restored relations with Israel. Previous co-operation with Israel ended in May, 2010, when Israeli special forces boarded a ship trying to break the blockade of the Palestinian Gaza enclave and killed nine Turkish activists.
Erdogan is also back on speaking terms with Russia after months of tense relations following the Turkish shooting down of a Russia warplane supporting the Assad regime’s forces.
But Erdogan’s purge since July 15, and much uncertainty about the future shape and direction of the Turkish government, overshadows all these advances.
The dislocation in the camp of Sunni Muslim nations comes as Iran, the champion of Shia Islam, is displaying growing self-confidence after last year’s deal with the United Nations, the U.S. and Washington’s allies ended the long-running dispute over Tehran’s nuclear development programme.
When all the underbrush of Middle East politics is cut away, the rivalry for influence between Tehran and Riyadh is the core fault line in the region. With sanctions lifting, much-needed investment beginning to flow in, and Tehran now able to expand its diplomatic reach and grip, Iran is flexing its muscles in the contest with Riyadh.
That has been most visible in Iran’s support for the majority Shia government in Iraq, and the military aid for Assad in Syria. Senior members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are advising Assad’s forces. Major military elements of Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy in Lebanon, are also fighting with the Syrian government army.
More recently, Iran has begun stepping up its support for Shia rebels who have control of large parts of Yemen, where Saudi forces are attempting to support the government. In reaction to all this, there have been attacks on the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. One of the reactions from Iran has been incursions by its military vessels into Persian Gulf waters claimed by Saudi Arabia and Gulf States. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have complained to the UN about these “repeated transgressions and assaults.”
The actions by Iran’s military, especially the elite IRGC, are propelled in part by domestic politics. Since “reformist” president Hassan Rouhani – “reformist” is a relative term in Iran – was elected in 2013 he has been in a slow-motion tussle for influence with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is not only the arbiter of religious life, but controls the military, the IRGC in particular.
The influence of the Guards Corp within the military establishment is set to rise with the appointment this week of a new chairman of the Armed Forces General Staff – the chief military advisor to the Supreme Leader – with close links to the IRGC. Major General Mohamad Hossein Bagheri’s background is in military intelligence, and that has implications for the ways Iran is likely to continue asserting its influence in the Middle East.
Bagheri is a strong advocate of fighting hidden, intelligence-driven wars. He is likely to push cyberware, the utility of which Iran is well aware after thousands of its uranium enrichment centrifuges were destroyed by the Stuxnet computer virus created by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies. Bagheri will probably also emphasise the use of clandestine operations of one sort or another against regional enemies and dissidents abroad. For example, he was behind an operation in 1995 when IRGC units went into northern Iraq to attack and destroy a base of the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party.
Bagheri has little history of contact or working with the civilian government, so he can be expected to take uncompromising stances against the Rouhani administration on matters such as military budgets and social reforms.
With Washington primed to take a harder stance against Iran after November’s U.S. election no matter whether it is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump who wins, the Middle East is set to continue to provide the world with more drama and intrigue than anyone needs.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016
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Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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