Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 20 – 27 December 2013

Conflicts Forum

Change in the region continues apace:

Turkey:  Whilst no one should underestimate PM Erdogan’s sheer, brutal pugilism and ruthlessness to stay in power, the AKP undoubtedly has entered upon a serious crisis. Underlying this unfolding scandal – which ostensibly is about allegations of cabinet corruption, official ‘cover-up’, and political interference with the work of prosecutors and the police investigating these claims of corruption – is a bitter rift that has opened up between PM Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen. (Gulen’s Sufi-orientated social and educational network has a wide popular base, but also has penetrated deep inside the Turkish system.  It some ways, it resembles a masonic network of allied individuals, working towards a common cause.  Gullen’s ability to mobilise at a popular level was – and is – quite crucial to the AKP’s ability to keep power).  The gathering storm in the relations between the Islamic currents represented by Gulen and the Ikhwani and Conservative wings of the governing coalition burst with the earlier stories (aired in the US and Israel against the Intelligence chief Hakan Fidan) to the effect that he had betrayed an Israeli spy ring to the Iranians.  Fidan is a very close confidant to Erdogan – and the latter, suspecting that the stories had been planted by Gulen in order to weaken him (Erdogan), immediately launched a purge of officials suspected of being Gulenist sympathisers.

Now (over Christmas), Turks were surprised by the sudden resignation of three ministers, whose sons were suspected of corruption (linked to the awards of major construction projects). What most shocked people was when the Environment and Urban Planning Minister made his harshly worded resignation statement through the NTV news channel instead of using the semi-official state news agency, which would have been more usual. (It is reported that NTV and other channels withheld his statement for several hours – fearing Erdogan’s wrath and retribution.)

Bayraktar said that he had been pressured to submit his resignation “to save the prestige of the government,” adding that the prime minister should also quit because most of the amendments to construction plans mentioned in the corruption investigation were made on Erdogan’s orders. Bayraktar – who was in charge of the massive Public Housing Project Administration (TOKI) – also stated that Erdogan had pressurized ministers to issue a “declaration to comfort the prime minister”, adding that Erdogan had given the final “go ahead” to all the key decisions associated with the accusations. In addition, he said he was forced to sign a “declaration of resignation” aimed at “relieving the prime minister and his government.”

What has further deepened the unfolding crisis is that within hours of the arrests of the three ministers’ sons (together with other AKP officials), five police chiefs leading the investigations were summarily dismissed and replaced by others – and the two prosecutors, leading the investigations, were likewise dismissed and new prosecutors named.  More police chiefs were then fired by Erdogan on the following day: he ordered the removal of more than 150 police chiefs, including in Istanbul, and around 400 law enforcement officers linked to the corruption investigation.

At a party meeting on Dec. 25, Erdogan called the corruption operation nothing but an “international plot supported by some “collaborators within the country that aim to sow discord in Turkey.”  This is standard conspiracy fare from Erdogan, but the language clearly suggests that he believes the investigations were inspired by Gulen.  Gulen, who lives in the US, is also claimed in AKP circles, to be an American ‘tool’ – and, unsurprisingly, the American Ambassador then came under an orchestrated and concerted assault by the pro-government press – with Erdogan personally joining in, to warn the unnamed (but clearly identifiable) Ricciardoni that even a US Ambassador can be expelled.  Other media report that US patience with Erdogan is running thin, and note angry US officials warning unofficially that these continuing insinuations by Erdogan of US plots against him will not be tolerated.

In sum, Erdogan now faces a severe threat to his position: for the first time the corruption allegations touch him personally: he is at war with the Gulen movement, without which it will be hard for the AKP to retain power in future elections; he is increasingly at odds with Washington (over various issues); his cabinet re-shuffle was intended to eliminate all challenges to his authority, but is generally regarded as a further signal of AKP decay; he is confronted with an alienated judiciary and police force – and a Turkish public shocked by recent revelations.  It will be a harsh test: the more defiant and aggressive Erdogan becomes (his habitual reaction), the more he will lose public sympathy.  A resumption of last summer’s public demonstrations might exacerbate the crisis to the point of putting the government at risk (already the stock market has taken fright).

Saudi Arabia: Apparently small moves: but ones pointing suggestively to a bigger move to follow (and thepossibility ultimately of an inter-family clash). The King has just appointed his son Mesha’al to be governor of Mecca. The king’s sons are now across the key commands of the kingdom. They are deputy governor of Riyadh, Commander of the 100,000 strong praetorian National Guards, Governor of Makkah, President of the Saudi Red Cross, and deputy foreign minister.   This looks like preparation towards a decision on the succession: and one in favour of one of the king’s sons (possibly Mutaib).  King Abdullah promoted Prince Mutaib this year to be the first minister of the national guard, elevating command of the kingdom’s elite security force to the level of a ministry, and placing his son in the cabinet. The Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) which was commanded by Abdullah from 1962 until 2010, and in the course of his half century of command, Abdullah lavished on it the best weapons and equipment that money could buy, and turned it into the strongest military force in the country, larger and better led than the regular army.  Effectively the king’s sons, now holding both Mecca and Riyadh and commanding the elite SANG, are in a position to block any direct challenge for the Crown mounted by (America’s favourite) Mohammad bin Niaf – were he and his faction (who command the interior ministry security forces) to attempt to impose ‘facts on the ground’ in any succession struggle.

Syria: Firstly, the Syrian Army has been making progress across all fronts – with many areas (albeit some smaller and some larger) returning to government control through negotiation; secondly, Western nations, meeting recently in London have made it clear to the Syrian opposition that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue – according to one senior member of the Coalition who is close to officials from Saudi Arabia; and thirdly, (and a signal that this conflict is nearing some sort of conclusion) is the following:Damascus (reports Russia Today) has signed a major oil and gas deal with Russian company Soyuzneftegaz which allows for offshore drilling, development, and production to take place in Syria’s territorial waters for the first time.  The deal permits the exploration of 2,190 square kilometers in the Mediterranean. The costs, which are estimated at around US$90 million, will be covered solely by Soyuzneftegaz.  The contract covers oil exploration in Block no. 2 of Syria’s territorial waters, which stretches between the cities of Tartous and Banyas.  Oil Minister Suleiman Abbas said that the contract covers 25 years, over several phases:  “During the first stage, which envisages research and initial prospecting, the contractor is expected to invest 15 million,” said a spokeswoman for Syria’s natural resources ministry. “Then, during test drilling, the contractor will further invest $75 million to make at least one test well,” she added, as quoted by RIA Novosti.  In the event that the test drilling shows the site has commercial-scale reserves of oil and gas, the Russian company would build the necessary infrastructure to develop the field and extract the resources, the spokeswoman added.

Lebanon:  Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah has warned in a speech (hinting at hard intelligence information) that Lebanon faces a concerted assault by external sources [unnamed, but which in the context of his address, suggest Saudi Arabia] which go beyond periodic suicide bombings (such as that of 27 Dec) – and border skirmishing along the Beka’a.  He also made it plain (subsequently reinforced by Sheikh Naim Qassem) that Hizbullah will not accept Michel Suleiman’s extension as President, nor the prospect of a ‘neutral’ or ‘de-facto’ government being formed – which excludes March 8th representation.

Egypt: Societal polarization procedes: Not only has the Muslim Brotherhood been declared a terrorist organization, but any activity in support of it (such as demonstrating in support of President Morsi, or protesting against the military junta) will be deemed a criminal offence carrying a five year term of imprisonment (at minimum).  MB spokespersons have responded that planned protests nonetheless will continue, as they have been these past few days.  In addition, prominent Secularists and Leftists, who have been complaining that General Sisi’s take-over is not compatible with the aspirations of the revolution, areincreasingly being arrested and imprisoned.


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