Erdogan-Putin: Ready to settle scores with the US and the West

Huffington Post
Raghida Dergham


When the tsar Vladimir Putin meets with the sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan next week in Moscow in the latter’s first foreign visit following the failed coup attempt, the Russian president will feel like a vindicated peacock before a cowering turkey. But they are both apprehensive men, concerned for their repressive authorities and powers. They are both afraid of the quagmires lurking for them: Erdogan in his vendettas in Turkey and Putin in his Syrian adventures. Aleppo will be present at the summit. The battle for the city is a fateful one and its outcome will be contingent in part upon the putative deal between the two enemies, now turned friends of necessity. The battle for Aleppo also has implications for Iran and her militias, the regime in Damascus, and Gulf capitals and their options after Erdogan’s about face on Russia amid continued American reluctance to offer serious support for Syrian rebels to survive the battle. Aleppo, a major Sunni city, is of invaluable importance for all players in Syria. But capturing it is no easy feat and may well become a predicament that exhausts the might of both Russia and Iran. Perhaps the goal is to turn gains on the ground into bargaining chips for the negotiating table and it is possible that these gains have been made easier by Erdogan’s coming concessions to Putin in Syria. However, there are tensions between the US and Russia at present, resulting from Moscow’s alleged meddling in US presidential elections and Moscow’s circumvention of john Kerry’s ambiguous understandings with his Russian counterpart Lavrov on the Syrian issue. Washington is also apprehensive about Moscow’s cooptation of the new Erdogan and sees it as a loss of a major card in the equation with Russia: Namely, Turkey’s membership of NATO which Washington wanted to use in negotiations on Syria. Today some equations may have changed yet some strategies remain the same and Aleppo is in the heart of all of them.

In February, I quoted in this column high level Russian sources as stressing Moscow’s insistence on the importance of winning in Aleppo, no matter the cost in favor of the regime axis. That is, Russia will not ease its airstrikes and support for the pro-regime ground offensive until victory is secured in Aleppo and the rebel supply lines to Turkey are cut off. Moscow believes that a full regime victory in Aleppo will boost its morale and allow it to resume the Russian-led fight against Islamic groups there Moscow designates as terrorists.

It was clear from the start of the year that Aleppo will be a vital milestone for Russian strategy, and that Russia will not stop its bombardment there for anything, be it the Russian-midwifed Vienna process, European reaction over more waves of refugees, or US reaction to the Russian ploy Washington is now sensing.

Some have strongly claimed that Iran is the key power behind the Aleppo offensive rather than Russia and that it was Tehran that persuaded Moscow of fighting the battle to advance its strategic objectives.

What is new here is the Turkish U-turn and its impact on Syria in general and the battle for Aleppo in general. There is even talk of a new tripartite axis as a result of Erdogan’s new course which started with him apologizing to Putin before the failed coup, and which is culminating with the visit to Moscow.

Indeed, in addition to this landmark visit, the Turkish FM has met with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif this week in what appears to be the precursors of the emergence of a Turkish Russian Iranian axis. Erdogan has changed the equation in Syria: in that he could concede Syria in return for consolidating his power in Turkey. He is also prepared to settle scores with the US and Europe through the Russian gateway.

In other words, Erdogan is prepared to offer Putin his ‘revengeful services’, mostly through Syria: by cutting off supply routes to the Syrian rebels; by joining the Russian-Iranian axis in Aleppo; and by reaching a deal on keeping in power Bashar al-Assad, who Turkey had long insisted — but no more — must step down.

Furthermore, Turkey can use the refugee card to destabilize Europe, especially if Turkey’s doors are opened without restrictions or checks on who is a refugee and who could be a terrorist claiming to be one. Turkey could escalate against the US and end cooperating with the coalition it leads against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. And there are many more ways Erdogan will not hesitate to deploy to secure his hold over power

Yet Erdogan, despite his heavy handed response to the coup and his assault on the constitution, the army, journalists, and judges, is a worried man. He is now facing a real coup of his own making. In truth, it may be too late now for him to save himself from inevitable revenge.

Yet until the summit takes place, all stakeholders impacted by Erdogan’s about turn must revisit their strategies especially in Iraq and Syria. This concerns the Gulf countries first and foremost; for if a Russian Turkish Iranian axis emerges in Syria, the matter will have grave consequences for them.

Some believe the fate of Assad is merely a bargaining chip for Russia. That the fate of Erdogan is fragile and his regional ambitions over. Or that Iran and her militias can never recover from the battle of Aleppo no matter the outcome. Regardless, however, what is happening in Aleppo and Syria is a fateful fork in the road for the country and all parties involved.

To be sure the cost of the war is too high even for the Russian army, now for the first time fighting against a major Sunni Arab force an open war on the latter’s own turf. This investment will be costly especially if the battle becomes protracted urban showdown.
Iran will also pay a heavy price in Aleppo if perceived as a Shia Persian force invading a major Sunni Arab city amid massacres with cover from its sectarian militias. The cost is too high whether an inconclusive victory or a protracted quagmire are the outcome.

Naturally Russia’s weight far surpasses Iran’s in the battle for Aleppo. But they have different goals there. Iran wants total victory, a goal linked to its expansionist strategy in Iraq Syria and Lebanon. But Russia may want different things: It may seek to shore up the regime with a limited victory as a negotiating tactic to impose its vision for a solution in Syria. With Erdogan’s U-turn, Russia may be in a position to impose a strategic blockade in Syria with implications for relations with the US.

These are all questions that are the key to understanding what is about to happen in Syria especially Aleppo. Erdogan’s visit to Moscow will shed some light but it is the duty of Gulf leaders to radically take stock of the Turkish developments and consider their options to avoid becoming de facto partners in the plots being woven at their expense, that is unless they want to be deliberately absent from their historic responsibility vis a vis Aleppo and Syria.

Why Russia doesn’t want Aleppo to fall

Al-Monitor
Yury Barmin


War-torn Aleppo has come into the spotlight again this week with rebels’ breaking through a weekslong siege by Syrian forces in a matter of days.

The initial success of President Bashar al-Assad’s siege, which clearly emboldened him, could have led to the fall of the second-largest city in Syria and has become a significant victory for the pro-Damascus forces.

This would have had major repercussions not only on the ground but also would have driven the monthslong diplomatic process to a complete standstill. The retaking of Aleppo by the Syrian government would essentially mean that Assad no longer needs to sit at the negotiating table with the opposition unless the opposition acknowledges its defeat.

US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia that if its recent safe-passage humanitarian operation in Aleppo is a “ruse” and that the city is in fact going to be depopulated only to be seized, it will damage US-Russia cooperation in Syria. The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee echoed Kerry’s view, saying humanitarian corridors are a way to sugarcoat Moscow’s real intentions.

Despite the Assad government’s claiming that thousands of civilians fled the eastern part of the city using the safe passage, according to other accounts, the number is barely above 100. With 250,000 civilians trapped inside the city, it is virtually impossible to accommodate all residents in government-controlled areas on such short notice. Having lived alongside the rebels for four years, locals fear being persecuted by the Syrian authorities if they flee and fear being labeled traitors by the opposition at the same time.

Moscow, however, is perfectly aware that the fall of Aleppo would bode ill for the US- and Russia-led diplomatic process and that the vast majority of civilians would not voluntarily leave the city for the unknown with no guarantees of safety. According to some sources, Russian aircraft did not participate in the siege of Aleppo, which could mean that the Kremlin has a different plan for Aleppo and that its retaking is not in the cards at the moment.

In Russia’s calculation, a besieged Aleppo could be far more valuable than an Assad-controlled one, both strategically and diplomatically. As long as a zero-sum fight for the city continues, Moscow plays a key role in the negotiations. All other issues, including Assad’s future in Syria, are pushed to the back burner because Aleppo is perceived as a stronghold of the opposition and its fall would symbolize the victory of Damascus, or, according to some experts, the end of the opposition movement against Assad altogether.

The official rhetoric from Washington, Brussels and Moscow seems to center around the need to alleviate the hardships of civilians in Aleppo and reduce the fighting; this draws international attention away from other contentious issues. The spotlight on Aleppo and a sense of urgency in dealing with the crisis clearly work in Moscow’s favor because the Kremlin is again calling the shots in Syria.

Time may be running out to deal with the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Aleppo. According to the Syrian-American Medical Society, in the event of a successful siege, fuel for bakeries would run out within weeks, and energy for hospitals within three to four months. The fate of local residents, who are no less than prisoners in the besieged city, will become the strongest argument if a new round of negotiations on Aleppo is going to take place.

The situation around the city is one of the major reasons why the so-called cessation of hostilities failed in the first place. Decision-makers in Moscow understand that the Syrian forces cannot go on forever repelling rebel attempts to break the siege, which is why negotiating another cessation of hostilities in Aleppo on its own terms would be a better option for Moscow than taking control over the entire city, because the fall of Aleppo would rid Russia of the strongest lever it has had in Syria against the United States and the opposition.

Freezing the conflict in Aleppo in its current form is a tactic out of Russia’s traditional operational playbook. Frozen conflicts have been successfully instrumentalized by Moscow in the post-Soviet Union space and have proved their effectiveness when it comes to manipulating the political process. Long-term examples of this can be found in Moldova and the South Caucasus, and more recently in Ukraine.

The United State figures prominently in Russia’s Aleppo equation for two reasons. First, the Kremlin feels that it negotiates with the United States from a position of strength in Syria; senior US officials have said several times that the White House has armed Kerry with very few instruments to match Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s flexibility at the negotiating table. It is hugely important for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be speaking on par with the United States as well as be setting his own agenda, something that has rarely happened since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Second, the publicity advanced by the Russian media surrounding the Syria campaign makes it appear that Washington’s campaign to diplomatically isolate Moscow has failed. A meeting on Aleppo that may soon take place in Geneva, in Russia’s view, serves to do just that, presenting Moscow as a peacemaker helping settle another crisis.

Fictionalizing Syria

The Cipher Brief

Ammar Almamoun


It is now almost six years since the Syrian Revolution began, and to this day, the concept of an “ideal” end state remains vague and out of reach. Will Syria become a democracy or will it remain a dictatorship? Will the country remain technically united but suffer from conflict between warring militias, or will it divide into smaller, autonomous regions along ethno-sectarian lines?

These questions are being asked for two reasons. First, the modern state – the regime of Bashar al Assad – has failed. The Syrian people felt forsaken by this dictatorship and its claims of secular prosperity so they revolted against it. However, because Syrians do not have a historical precedent or memory of a state before French colonial occupation, there is no clear idea or system to shape what will happen after the war ends.

Second, the Syrian opposition, with it’s incapability to provide a coherent program for replacing the regime and its institutions, has no clear cultural or practical revolutionary agenda to deconstruct the religious ideas that lead to fundamentalism or regain the trust of the people in the concept of a modern state. Even though they have Western support, moderate opposition actors are not really capable of  effecting actual change or shaping the future state. Instead of trying to recreate a Syrian identity that could form the basis of this state, they are lost in the short-term political process of promoting their own version of “the Syrian cause.”

These points help us to understand Syria today and, more importantly, what it means to be Syrian: what is missing and what is being added by Syrians in exile, and the factors that have created what could be called the “ideal victim” narrative, which stigmatizes Syrians in a way that induces sympathy.

They also help us to understand the ways that a new life in refugee host countries has reshaped Syrians’ awareness of themselves and helped create a new Syrian identity, one defined by troubled  relationships with host countries, life in camps, and the fact they no longer have a real life experience in Syria.

The “Ideal Victim”

For the past  six years, the media has shown Syrians as a product of the failure of humanity, where Syrians  gain their value as humans by how much their stories are being circulated in media, rather than the real life effect of the war. They are part of a victimization process that is being put forth by the media. This “victim narrative” manifests in two key ways.

First, we see images of Syrians crossing borders, seas, and drowning, which present refugees as a unified group of similarly distressed people who are waiting to reach the West, the land of freedom and well-being.

The second manifestation of this victim narrative is the “Syrian Survivor,” which we see in less prominent media reports about refugees who passed the International Baccalaureate tests, or did something else special, as if being a refugee and these modern Western achievements are mutually exclusive.

The victimizing aspect of this is that the appeal of these accomplishments doesn’t come from their inherent value as people. Instead, they derive their legitimacy from the word “refugee.” Rather than being just an administrative status, this word is becoming a sort of tool to gain sympathy and added  political value, which makes it even more difficult to define what is truly Syrian.

Indetermination

The idea of indetermination comes from literary criticism, and it describes the points of emptiness in a narrative, which readers have the chance to fill with their own experiences. In the Syrian narrative we see that Syrians, especially those who are growing up in camps or live outside Syria, have a huge problem relating to the country itself.

Their experience with Syria is limited so, for them, it’s just a set of fictional stories from their parents and the media. I say fictional because, after a while, memory naturally adds fiction in order to make experiences and events more “logical.” For this reason, accounts describing how Syria was, and how it will be, cannot always be trusted.

Eventually, this will lead us to a new generation of Syrians, who didn’t witness Syria but adapt a narrative that speaks to their “group” of Syrians –  one that can never speak to all Syrians.

The example of Palmyra prison and the brutality that the regime exercised there perfectly underlines this point. Media stories, folk tales, and literature  have given us – the generation that didn’t actually witness this brutality – stories of what occurred there, such as the novel “The Shell” by Mustafa Khalifa. But, once the prison was bombed by both the Syrian regime and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the generations to come are left only with past knowledge of what went on there.

We have no reference now about the prison, no solid images or facts. All we have are stories. Literature, novels, and folk tales that build small fragments of fact – documents and prisoner testimonies – into fictional works that try to explain the horrors of this prison. This is in direct contrast to places like Auschwitz in Germany, where the terrors of the concentration camp are vividly recorded in images, prison records, testimonials, and the evidence of the physical structure itself.

Thus, Palmyra prison and its destruction is a metaphorical example of how fiction has begun to play a role in constructing the future Syria, while simultaneously de-constructing its past in the absence of valid documentation.

Integration: the Grand Colonialist Narrative

Finally, one of the main issues related to refugees and their status in host countries is the concept of integration, which is flawed in two key ways.

First is inequality. The colonialist narrative of enlightened Europe tries to integrate refugees into society as if this narrative is supreme. It’s not only a way of helping new arrivals to adapt into the bureaucracy and institutions of the host state, which is logical, but it also sets two distinct value systems, one that is “right” and another which is “wrong.”

In part, this comes from a racist and colonialist point of view, which regards refugees as exotic creatures who need to be civilized, instead of considering them as people who come from different historical experiences, with their own values and worldview.

The second, and more dangerous, flaw comes from “refugees” themselves and their refusal to acknowledge the host country’s value system. Based on my personal experience, some Syrian refugees refuse the values of the “infidel” state and deny being part of it, because those values try to make them forget where they come from.

What is dangerous about this, is that it raises questions about the meaning of revolution in Syria and how it has actually changed the mentality of the Syrian people. Syrians should now be able to question old beliefs and create some kind of distance from the past in order to build a modern and free Syria that goes beyond the duality of regime/revolution as standards to judge and categorize people and thoughts. This will allow people to accept some of what the host country offers them.

An Alternative Narrative

What Syria needs now is an alternative body of culture – by culture I refer to the wider meaning of text, values, and images – in order to build a future Syria.

We need to create a body of thought that future generations can relate to; a coherent narrative that recognizes Syria as it is, instead of building a fictional “meta-Syria,”,which is romantic, victimized, and based on the denial of reality.

Most of all, we need to construct an honest narrative that represents all Syrians and their differences, one that Syrians now and in the future can relate to in order to regain their shattered identity. This will present a positive alternative to the images and texts of today, which only represent violence, loss, and values that are determined either by a relationship with the regime, the revolution, or violent fundamentalism.

Jean-Claude Juncker’s next big thing

Harry Cooper

Harry Cooper


The European Commission is quietly preparing to unleash a flood of policy initiatives to boost workers’ rights across the EU, rebooting plans by Jean-Claude Juncker that were kept mostly out of sight during the Brexit debate. 

With the U.K. preparing to leave, Juncker wants to give a new push to the “European pillar of social rights” — a proposal he first mentioned nearly a year ago. The measures, aimed primarily at the eurozone but with non-euro countries able to opt-in if they wish, include rules on the minimum wage and to protect gender equality — policies long considered out-of-bounds for Brussels.

As he fights for free trade deals and measures to boost economic growth and competitiveness, the Commission president also wants to add a “social” dimension to EU policy. Introducing the idea in his State of the Union address to the European Parliament last September, Juncker said he wanted to build a new EU social policythat “takes account of the changing realities of the world of work.” 

Juncker backed Belgium’s Marianne Thyssen, the European commissioner in charge of employment, social affairs and labor mobility, to push the initiative, and she’s spent the past few months gauging support for the possible changes in EU countries with NGOs, business groups and trade unions.

One door closes, another opens

The idea of boosting social protections got a mention in a 2015 report from the “Five Presidents” of the EU institutions on the future of the eurozone, with the leaders calling for the Union to aim for a “social triple A” rating in parallel with efforts to boost economic growth. The largest center-left and center-right political groups in the European Parliament also back elements of the initiative. 

But apart from that, little has been done on the plan since Juncker first raised it. During the months-long debate ahead of the U.K. referendum on June 23, the idea was kept under wraps for fear it would be seen as EU regulatory meddling in Britain. Meanwhile, European trade unions grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of action. 

Oliver Roethig, regional secretary of the service workers’ union UNI Europa, said some have wondered “to what extent this is all just talk.” As for the idea that Europe could earn “a social triple A” rating, Roethig said that right now “it is probably junk status.” 

The U.K. has long led opposition to attempts to introduce new social rights or employment legislation, such as on remuneration, parental leave, anti-discrimination and pension reform.

Peter Scherrer, deputy secretary-general of the European Trade Union Confederation, said that while Juncker is “personally committed to a social Europe,” the Commission has “so far … not delivered.”

While some may dismiss Juncker and Thyssen’s plans as a pipe dream, others say Brexit offers proponents of more EU action on social policy a unique political opening. The U.K. has long led opposition to attempts by the Commission to introduce new social rights or employment legislation, such as on remuneration, parental leave, anti-discrimination and pension reform. British Conservatives in particular have argued that the EU is not allowed to dictate to its member countries how they should run their social welfare systems.

Thyssen persevered anyway. In March, the Commission released a “preliminary outline” of the plan, proposing initiatives that include the introduction of eurozone rules on the minimum wage, new rights on “quality education and training” and measures to ensure gender quality and protection from discrimination. 

The outline argued that much of the legislation would be justified not only by provisions in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, but also in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. Although that charter has been anathema to British Conservatives, who say it would make U.K. judges subservient to a court in Strasbourg, other countries are less concerned.

With discussion of the topic taboo ahead of the referendum vote, the Commission did almost nothing to push it. But now Thyssen has seen her chance, telling a Cypriot newspaper in a July interview that she will put forward a “revision of the current rules on social security coordination in the coming months.”

Wage war

There’s a risk the Commission could push too far. It is seeking a role for itself on sensitive policy areas such as wages, pensions and unemployment benefits. Although the EU’s governing treaty expressly limits the ability of the Commission to act in these areas, it can “assist” governments should they wish to align social policy. Whether governments will take the Commission up on this offer remains to be seen. 

A Commission spokesperson suggested that a key aim of Thyssen’s consultation process, which will close at the end of the year, is to identify the appropriate legal form for any EU action. The official pointed out that rules on the minimum wage, for example, could be introduced via a so-called Council decision, whereby governments agree on a policy action without the Commission taking the central role that it does on most other legislation. In some ways, such an agreement is easier to reach, given that it keeps the European Parliament out of the equation, but on controversial areas such as social security, the likelihood of finding consensus is in doubt.

Proponents of the social pillar saw a positive sign that the political climate may be shifting in their favor after an agreement was signed in the days immediately following the U.K. referendum by business organizations, trade unions and, crucially, governments themselves. The statement called for “the promotion of dialogue between management and labor,” as well as “a strengthened involvement of social partners in EU policy and lawmaking.” 

Scherrer from the ETUC described the agreement as a “historic moment,” given that never before had governments recognized the role of “social dialogue” so clearly.

More importantly, it was seen as a departure for the Commission and for many European governments, whose dominant narrative for years had focused on boosting growth and competitiveness of EU businesses — what Scherrer calls “dangerous austerity.” 

Coupled with a Continent-wide decline in the fortunes of left-wing parties, the time for centralized wage bargaining, stronger protections for workers and guarantees for access to public services seemed to many to have passed.

But this fails to take into account broader political trends in Europe. Populist parties across the Continent (on the Left and Right) are adopting economic and social policies that seem more at home in mainstream social democratic parties. 

Supporters say that with the U.K. no longer able to block it, the EU is about to start legislating far more extensively in social policy than ever before.

One example is wages. In July, Thyssen batted away criticism from East European parliaments that her reform of EU rules on cross-border workers interfered too much with national wage policy. Her proposals seek to limit “social dumping” — the shipping of temporary, cheap East European labor westwards — on the grounds that this undercuts wage levels in the host country.

But the same countries who reacted so angrily to the proposal, such as Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic, are simultaneously demanding that Germany change its new minimum wage law, which they argue is destroying their trucking businesses.

That’s why the Commission is optimistic about its broader social agenda, with a spokesperson confirming that governments both in and outside the eurozone have signaled their support for the initiative. Supporters say that with the U.K. no longer able to block it, and a renewed commitment to the “social dialogue” between employers and trade unions, the EU is about to start legislating far more extensively in social policy than ever before.