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Turkey’s Safe Zone in Northern Syria and International Law

Turkey’s Safe Zone in Northern Syria and International Law

By Ahmed E Souaiaia*

Abstract: Mere hours before Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, visits with his Russian counterpart in Sochi, his government clarified the purpose of its invasion of Northern Syrian. The Turkish government frames its intervention as partly humanitarian, partly security missions. Considering that Erdoğan has called for such a “safe zone” as early as 2015, the political purpose of the “safe zone” can hardly be ignored. More significantly, the legal status of the proposed “safe zone” must be assessed. In this brief note, I examine the Turkish claims and weigh them against legal standards. Continue reading

An Alternative Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Ramadan

An Alternative Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Ramadan

For Immediate Release
May 26, 2017

Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Ramadan
On behalf of the American people, I would like to say to my fellow Muslim Americans and  all Muslims around the world,  Ramadan Karim. 
During this month of fasting, many Muslims will find meaning and inspiration in acts self-control, charity, reflections, and prayers that strengthen our communities.  At its core, the spirit of Ramadan strengthens awareness of our shared obligation to care for the vulnerable, to forgive, and to give to those in need who are suffering from poverty.
This year, Ramadan begins while the world mourns the innocent victims of barbaric terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom and Egypt, acts of depravity that are directly contrary to the spirit of Ramadan.  The world mourns these victims as it has mourned tens of thousands of victims, 82-97% of whom were Muslim, killed in the last five years alone. Such acts only steel our resolve to defeat the terrorists and their perverted ideology.
I extend my best wishes to Muslims everywhere for a blessed month as you observe the Ramadan traditions of charity, fasting, and prayer.  May God bless you and your families.



Mother to Trump: My daughter’s death will not be used to further this insane persecution of innocent people

Mother to Trump: My daughter’s death will not be used to further this insane persecution of innocent people

The mother of a slain British backpacker wrote a scathing letter to Trump after her daughter’s killing in Australia appeared on the White House’s list of 78 underreported terror attacks.

“My daughter’s death will not be used to further this insane persecution of innocent people,”  Rosie Ayliffe said.

This White House does not have a problem with terrorism if the perpetrators are not “radical Islamic extremists” Just as the administration was implementing its Muslim Ban, a mosque in Canada was attacked, killing seven people. The administration did not even comment on it, let alone condemn it.
The attack was ignored by the White House although the Canadian government classified it as an act of terror.

absent: Western journalists second hand reporting on the Syrian war and the propaganda against the Syrian government

absent: Western journalists second hand reporting on the Syrian war and the propaganda against the Syrian government

Eva Bartlett is an independent writer and rights activist with extensive experience in Syria and in the Gaza Strip, where she lived a cumulative three years (from late 2008 to early 2013). She documented the 2008/9 and 2012 Israeli war crimes and attacks on Gaza while riding in ambulances and reporting from hospitals. From June-August 2016, she visited Syria for her fifth time. On her sixth visit, in October and November, she returned independently again to Syria, for one month, during which time she visited Aleppo twice. 
She shares her findings and thoughts about Western media coverage of the war on Syria in this event.

Saudi Mufti used ISIL’s favorite weapon, takfir, to declare Iranians non-Muslim

Saudi Mufti used ISIL’s favorite weapon, takfir, to declare Iranians non-Muslim

Proving the point raised by critics of Saudi religious figures who often use religion to silence dissenters, the Grand Mufti of the kingdom took a page from ISIL’s book and issued a fatwa declaring all Iranians kuffar (non-Muslim) after the leader of that country accused the rulers of the kingdom of negligence when managing Hajj. More than 450 Iranian pilgrims died last year-2015, among thousands more mostly from Africa and Asian countries, and no credible investigation was conducted to reassure pilgrims and punish those found guilty of negligence. The Kingdom established a committee headed by the crown prince, who is also the interior minister, the institution that is overseeing Hajj. In a sense, the rulers established an investigative committee headed by the same person accused of incompetence. Even so, the committee, still, has not published its findings.
Instead of addressing the issue, the Mufti, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, used religion and issued the exclusion decree, takfir, labeling Iranians “non-Muslim, majus, who worship fire.”

Perhaps realizing the gravity of this practice, the kingdom announced that the Mufti will not be giving the sermon in the pilgrimage this year, a first in more than 30 years.

Assad and Erdoğan said to be preparing for face-to-face meeting in Russia

Assad and Erdoğan said to be preparing for face-to-face meeting in Russia

Assad and Erdoğan in 2009
It has been reported for sometime now that Turkish and Syrian intelligence officials have met on many occasions. Now, some sources are revealing that those meetings were not just about coordinating efforts to combat common threats to both countries, namely the Kurdish separatist, but to arrange for political leaders to meet. 
Turkey broke all diplomatic relations with Syria mere days after the start of the peaceful protest movement in Syria. Because of the lack of open channels of communication, the two countries relied on third parties to reach out to one another when necessary.
Earlier this year, some media outlets reported that Algeria played a key role in opening a communication channel between Syria and Turkey. Now, new reports are suggesting that Russia, after the surprising meeting between Erdoğan and Putin, is working behind the scene not only to transmit information between the two countries, but also to arrange for a meeting that will bring together Assad and Erdoğan in Russia. Importantly, the meeting is significant in that it will be part of a plan that could end the civil war in Syria.
Reportedly, the plan is based on some ideas from the Geneva and Vienna meetings, but more specific in terms of the fate of Assad and his role beyond the transition period.
The proposed plan will call for a unity government that will include members of the “moderate” opposition groups, with Assad still in charge of key ministries during a transition period. After about 18 months, a period during which the constitution will be amended, new presidential and parliamentarian elections will be held, in which Assad may choose to run. However, should he run and win, it will be his last term. Some of the opposition fighters will be absorbed into the Syrian army and officers who deserted  but did not take part in the war will be re-instated. Assad must work towards reconciliation by declaring a new amnesty for these officers who are now residing in Turkey with their families.
These are extraordinary events should they actually come true. But given the steps taken by Erdoğan when he apologized for shooting down the Russian jet near the Turkish-Syrian border, it is not at all impossible to see him take steps to reconcile with the Syrian government. After all, given that his troubles with Russia were over Syria, his normalizing of relations with Putin will be meaningless without addressing the main issue that caused the crisis with Russia in the first place.
It is clear by now that Turkey after the failed July 15 coup is very different from the pre-coup Turkey, albeit under the same president.

Will Erdoğan abandon Islamist armed groups now fighting in Syria?

Will Erdoğan abandon Islamist armed groups now fighting in Syria?

It is established that the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the party he founded, the AKP, are primary supporters of armed groups fighting the Syrian government. The AKP-led Turkish government opened its borders for Islamist fighters from all over the world to join the war against Assad’s forces.  It provided them with training, money, and weapons. The Turkish government also hosted the families of the Syrian fighters. 
Although its support went to all groups fighting the Syrian government because it prioritized the overthrow of Assad over all other matters, including fighting terrorism, the Turkish government offered special support to Islamists including al-Nusra Front and ISIL. It did so for sectarian and ideological reasons, but also for practical reasons: ISIL and al-Nusra were the strongest fighting groups in Syria and Assad’s government cannot be ousted without them. 
Five years later, and when Russia threw its military weight behind Assad, the Turkish government came to the realization that Assad is, and will remain, for the near future at least, a “key actor” who would play a role in any political solution for the Syrian crisis. That is when Erdoğan decided to adjust his strategy and work with Russia, instead of against it, to preserve some level of influence over the future of Syria. 
Syria is important for Turkey because of their shared problems and concerns: the status of the Kurdish people in both countries forced them to work together in the past, and will force them to work together in the future. In other words, Turkey has no choice but to remain engaged in dealing with the Syrian crisis. 
Adjusting the Turkish strategy will necessarily have significant effects on Turkish relations with Islamist fighters in Syria. Will Turkey abandon them?
The answer can be drawn from Erdoğan’s history. He is a very skilled politician who is willing to sacrifice old alliances in favor of better ones. If his alliance with Islamists becomes a burden, Erdoğan will dump them. Consider his alliance with Fethullah Gülen for proof.
Part of the credit for AKP and Erdoğan’s rise to power goes to the role played by Gülen and his movement. Yet, a decade later, when Erdoğan wanted to consolidate his power, he took steps to control that movement and its institutions. Gülen became aware of Erdoğan’s thirst for more power and he resisted him covertly at first. Erdoğan decided to bring him home where he can better control him. So on June 14, while speaking at a public event organized by a Gülen organization, he issued a public invitation, telling Gülen “it is time to come home.” Gülen, perhaps aware of the risks, tearfully declined the invitation on June 16, saying, in essence, not yet.
Four years later, Gülen stands accused by Erdoğan of being the mastermind of the failed military coup. Had Gülen accepted the invitation then, he would be in prison now, without creating a diplomatic and legal crisis with the U.S. administration, which is refusing to extradite him at this point.
Erdoğan, is the kind of politician who knows how to survive and will do whatever it takes to not just survive, but reverse losses and thrive. For this reason, Erdoğan is not only capable of abandoning his Islamist fighters in Syria, he could launch a military campaign to eradicate them altogether, and throw their Turkish supporters in prison. Justifying such actions will not be that difficult either. Terrorist attacks, like yesterday’s, are enough to turn the Turkish public against all Syrian opposition fighters and create a new path toward reconciliation with a Syrian government with or without Assad.

Kurds One Hundred Years after Sykes-Picot

Kurds One Hundred Years after Sykes-Picot

by Mohammad Ali Dastmali*

About one hundred years have passed since the conclusion of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and now neither Sykes is alive nor Picot.

Britain’s Sir Mark Sykes and France’s François Georges-Picot started a saga through conclusion of a short and apparently simple agreement, which later on affected the lives of many peoples and nations in the Middle East and became a turning point for determining the fate of Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Palestinians and other people in the Middle East.

Now, in the modern times in which unlike one hundred years ago, Britain and France are not big global powers, as was the case in the time of Sykes and Picot, and the United States, Russia and regional powers are more determining and more powerful than others, Kurds have decided to change the situation in their own favor. The question is “when there is talk about Kurds objecting to Sykes-Picot’s approach to borders and political structure in the region, does it represent the dynamic and consolidated demands of all Kurds in the region?” The answer is no, because unlike past decades, Kurds, and in clearer terms, Kurdish parties in four countries of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, are not of the same opinion when it comes to necessity of independence and secession, and establishment of a common geographical unit. They are not only discordant in practice, but do not even support such an ideal in their slogans. The following points are noteworthy in this regard:

1. In Iran, due to many reasons, including special bonds that exist between Kurdish people and the Iranian society in general, extreme weakness and withering away of various anti-government parties, the fact that such parties do not enjoy strong political and popular base, and also due to religious and other differences, Kurds are not on course to raise any protest or rise against the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

2. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as the most important political and military Kurdish group in this country, has chosen such a course that its jailed leader has frequently announced there is no need for Kurds to seek independence and establish a government of their own. On the other hand, at least during the past year, this party has become so weak and has suffered such heavy casualties that it cannot practically have a serious say in this regard. Also, it is not unlikely that judicial immunity of PKK lawmakers at Turkey’s national assembly would be revoked in the next coming months as a result of which the way would be paved for leaders and other effective members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is the most important legal institution affiliated with the PKK, to go to jail. At the same time, the PKK has not been able to take its name off the list of international terrorist groups and, as such, does not enjoy international legitimacy.

3. In the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, the situation is quite different and there is the highest preparedness and willingness to build an official, separate and independent Kurdish entity among political parties in this region. Masoud Barzani is the vanguard in this regard and is doing his best to take this case to a final positive closure during the period of his political and personal life. Of course, there are serious differences among various Kurdish parties in Iraq, which follow different nationalist, leftist, Islamist and social democrat approaches, over a variety of issues and interests, but when it comes to the necessity of dismantling the Sykes-Picot Agreement and form an independent Kurdish government in Iraq, all of them are unanimous and even if there is a difference in this regard it is about such marginal issues as the timetable and ways of achieving this goal.

4. In three Kurdish regions of Syria, that is, in Jazira, Kobani, and Afrin, political and military institutions affiliated with the PKK have full control over the power reins. They enjoy a special geographic and defensive position as a result of which, with the exception of Daesh and other terrorist and Takfiri groups, they can cooperate with the United States, Russia, Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and even Iran and others. Although this group of Kurds is still on Bashar Assad’s side in line with an unwritten agreement, they have raised certain claims about how to manage these regions, which have not been accepted by the government in Damascus. As a result, during the latest conflicts in Syrian city of Hasakah, more than 10 armed man affiliated with Assad’s army were killed by Kurds and more than 100 Syrian soldiers were taken into captivity by Kurdish defenders. Therefore, if the scenario, which seeks to oust Assad from power, is put in gears, Kurds in these regions would seek to establish a political structure, and even if it would not be an independent state, it would not be anything less than the current structure in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region either. However, even if Assad remains in power, Syrian Kurds would not go back to the past situation.

What if the Iraqi Kurdistan Region declares independence?

It is possible that in order to declare their independence, Kurds would not wait for permission from the United States, Europe, Iraq, Iran and other regional countries forever, and may face these countries with fait accompli. In view of the current situation in Iraq and the country’s ailing government, it seems that not only there would be no firm opposition in the face of such a possibility, but it is even not improbable that part of Shia political institutions and a large portion of Sunnis would agree to it. In the meantime, let’s not forget that in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Kurds enjoy such facilities and important drivers for independence as military and defensive power in the form of the Peshmerga forces, relative economic power based on the region’s oil and gas reserves, as well as official international relations and political experience. In recent years, Kurds have proven in Iraq and Syria that they have no problem with non-Kurdish citizens in their region, but can also make them a partner to their political and executive power by giving big concessions. It should be also noted that serious threats posed by the Daesh Takfiri terrorist group and dangerous measures taken by this group in Iraq and Syria, in addition to serious fight against Daesh by Kurds have all created a new situation in the region, which makes resilience toward and interaction with Kurds look like a wise and logical option.

It may seem strange, but it is very unlikely that a sudden declaration of independence by Kurds in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region would elicit sharp international reactions. Now, one must wait and see whether the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, especially the Kurdistan Democratic Party and its leader Masoud Barzani, would accept such a risk, or prefer to listen to their consultants and neighbors and defer the implementation of the secession scenario to a later time.
* Expert on Turkey Affairs

Why have many Syrians voted for Bashar al-Assad and what is the U.S. administration’s alternative to elections it does not particularly like?

Why have many Syrians voted for Bashar al-Assad and what is the U.S. administration’s alternative to elections it does not particularly like?

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Syrians vote, June 3, 2014.

Most Western governments and some observers argue that the elections that took place in Syria on June 3, 2014 were not legitimate because not all Syrians were able (or willing) to participate, they were held under war conditions, and Syrians were coerced into voting for the current president. These would be reasonable arguments if they were consistently applied. A brief examination of similar cases and relevant facts reveals that this is not the case.

First, U.S. administrations have overseen numerous elections and produced national constitutions under war conditions and in the middle of sectarian strife in Afghanistan and Iraq. Administration officials have often argued that even under these circumstances, elections and referendums are necessary to instill democratic tradition, isolate extremists, and legitimize governments. Are these functions of democracy not applicable in Syria?

Second, 56 percent of Egyptian voters did not take part in the recent elections that endorsed former military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Moreover, al-Sisi came to power after overthrowing a president who was legitimately elected by higher voter participation and who faced stronger challengers. Yet the U.S. administration, the rulers of Saudi Arabia, and many Western governments readily embraced al-Sisi despite his weak mandate, the extraordinary events that preceded the elections, and the harsh measures (introduced under his watch) that stifled dissent and criminalized journalists and members of the opposition.

Third, contending that Syrians voted the way they did because they were fearful and coerced is an insult to all Syrians, both those who voted and those who did not vote. Such a contention depicts them as cowards, incapable of making proper decisions without outside help. Syrians, who have been living under extreme conditions for more than three years now, could have chosen to stay at home (as some did) instead of risking their lives to put a dot of ink on a piece of paper. After all, most Syrians knew that Bashar al-Assad would win and that the West would not recognize the results. But many Syrians, for a myriad of reasons, wanted to vote for al-Assad. It is important to remember that earlier studies commissioned by NATO and Western entities predicted that Assad would win by about 60 percent, which explains why elections were not part of any political solution supported by the Western governments. Instead, they favored a negotiated power transfer to an opposition coalition that represents less than 4 percent of the population.

There are many reasons why Syrians enthusiastically thronged polling stations inside and outside Syria to vote for al-Assad, some literally with their own blood instead of ink. With instability, civil wars, and weak governments resulting from short-sighted Western meddling, it is understandable that many people in the Middle East prefer to spite the U.S. and its rich Arab allies by voting for the person most disliked by the West.

Instead of considering the actual facts and motives, U.S. administration officials, the French government, and rulers of some of the Gulf States continue to ignore the will and welfare of the Syrian people without providing credible alternatives. They claim that Bashar al-Assad is out of touch and has lost legitimacy. Let’s consider some specifics.

On the same day the Syrian government announced the results of the presidential elections in which 88% of Syrian voters, with 73% turnout, elected Bashar al-Assad, Secretary Kerry arrived in Lebanon. Speaking in Beirut, he declared that “the elections [in Syria] are non-elections. A great big zero… Nothing has changed between the day before the election and after.”

Ironically for someone who described President Assad as out of touch with reality, Kerry was speaking in a country that has had no president for two weeks now (a situation that may persist for months), was without any government for more than ten months, and whose lawmakers decided to give themselves a 16-month extension of their term (presumably will now end in November 2014). That willful cognitive dissonance is symptomatic of Western governments’ utter failure to present a credible alternative even as they criticize the governments and governmental processes of countries they do not like. Moreover, some of the countries they are propping up as acceptable models are not even functional, let alone democratic and stable.

First, Iraq, which just held its first post-U.S. occupation legislative elections, continues to struggle with security, economic, and political challenges. Because of the strange power-sharing arrangement introduced under the watch of Western occupation forces, Iraq has a parliament deeply divided along sectarian, ethnic, and ideological lines, making it difficult to form a strong and stable government in the near future.

Second, Libya, “freed” from Qaddafi’s grip three years ago by an alliance between Qatar (which financed and armed rebel groups) and NATO (which provided the airpower) is facing its own civil war, pitting secular military generals against Islamist armed groups, some of whom are affiliated with al-Qaeda. Moreover, instability and availability of all kinds of weapons in the hands of all kinds of armed groups are threatening the stability of neighboring countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria—three countries with fragile governments and strong presence of al-Qaeda affiliates.

Third, other Arab allies of the U.S. are exemplars of tyranny and authoritarianism, not responsible governance. These allies include countries like Bahrain which continues to abuse peaceful protesters, Saudi Arabia which criminalizes dissent and jails human rights activists, and Qatar which imprisons poets and abuses foreign laborers and immigrants. None of these countries have held elections—farcical or otherwise. Those three countries in particular have no tradition of representative governance and some of their religious authorities have even decreed that elections are proscribed based on their interpretation of Islamic law.

Historically, the U.S. administration and its main regional ally, Saudi Arabia, have promoted custom-made, top-down controlled models of governance where they balance power by rewarding warlords and ethnic and religious factions with tools that paralyze governments instead of making them functional. The 1989 Ta`if Agreement, which changed the power-sharing formula in Lebanon, and the constitution of Iraq, inked under the watch of U.S. forces, are good examples of tightly tailored political tools that cannot allow for the emergence of governments empowered by the people. Instead, these tools produce regimes that are dependent on regional or international backers.

All this ultimately shows that U.S. foreign policymakers are willing to support anti-democratic and ultimately unstable governments instead of investing in, and accepting the consequences of, participatory democracies. Though the U.S. may not like the short-term outcomes of developing democratic processes, it is in everyone’s long-term interest to stop purposefully undermining—whether by intentionally booby-trapping or by rejecting the legitimacy of—those political processes.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Is Ukraine becoming for the West what Syria has been for Russia?

Is Ukraine becoming for the West what Syria has been for Russia?

Riding the wave of protests known as the Arab Spring, many Syrians rallied to demand more political and civil rights. Without the hesitancy that characterized their initial reaction to the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt, Western administrations and some of the Persian Gulf regimes immediately threw their support behind the protesters. Assad’s regime belonged to the so-called non-moderate Arab governments and the protesters offered the West and its allies an opportunity to overthrow it. They formed the “Friends of Syria” group, now consisting of only eleven nations, to provide the opposition with all needed support, including deadly arms, to achieve that goal. After three years of brutal war, Syria’s economy and society are severely damaged and its allies, mainly Russia, China, and Iran have invested a huge political, economic, and military capital to help the Syrian government survive. The Friends of Syria claimed that Assad became illegitimate because he killed Syrians. Assad claimed that he was fighting armed terrorists and thugs.

Now fast-forward to 2013. 

In November of last year (2013), in Ukraine, President Yanukovych’s cabinet voted to abandon an agreement on closer trade ties with EU in favor of economic co-operation with Russia. Reacting to this decision, tens of thousands of people attended a demonstration in Kiev. In early December, protesters occupied Kiev city hall and Independence Square. 
To shore up support for Ukrainian government, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to buy out $15 billion of Ukrainian debt. Protesters grew more violent and by the end of February 2014, more than 90 people were killed including dozens of police and security personnel. Consequently, President Yanukovych left Kiev only to be deposed by the parliament, a move he rejected as illegal. Russia, in the meantime, declared the new regime in Kiev illegitimate and moved to annex Crimea and build its troops along the border threatening to move in should Russia speaking minorities in eastern Ukraine be harmed.

Taking their cues from Crimeans, many eastern Ukranians launched their own protest movement, taking over government buildings and military installations, and demanding a new constitution that would grant them more autonomy. Kiev reacted by sending more troops. The next steps will determine if Ukraine falls into prolonged armed struggle, like Syria, or reach a political settlement. 

If all parties have learned anything from the Syrian crisis, they should know that a Syrian style conflict, which will be essentially another proxy war, will create another global humanitarian and economic crisis. The outcome of the proposed quartet (Russia, U.S. Ukraine, and the EU) meeting, should it happen, will provide more clues about the direction of this crisis.  Should they ignore the similarities between the crises in Ukraine and Syria, Ukraine will be for the West what Syria has been for Russia in the last three years: political and diplomatic vortex.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.
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