Turkey’s Coup against Press, own Generals over Arms Supplies to Syrian Militants

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Turkey has jailed two very prominent journalists for publishing video last May of a January, 2014, Turkish intelligence convoy of weapons to Syrian militants. When I say prominent, I mean prominent. They are Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul. Cumhuriyet (“Republic”) was founded in 1924 and is center-left in its orientation. So this would be like the FBI carting off Dean Baquet of the New York Times for reporting on CIA shipments of T.O.W. missiles to Salafi rebels in Syria. The journalists are charged with espionage and belonging (!) to a terrorist organization– charges fantastic on the face of it.

Meanwhile, the Syrian army is charging that Turkey has vastly increased arms shipments to rebels in Syria since last week’s shootdown of a Russian fighter jet, and is receiving smuggled gasoline and antiquities in payment.

The Turkish government has now also arrested several senior generals who, acting on a tip, were the ones who in January 2014 ordered the search of trucks allegedly carrying arms to rebels in Syria– on which Cumhuriyet reported. Huriryet writes: “Istanbul Deputy Chief Prosecutor İrfan Fidan interrogated Ankara Gendarmerie Regional Commander Maj. Gen. İbrahim Aydın, Brig. Gen. Hamza Celepoğlu and Ret. Col. Burhanettin Cihangiroğlu on Nov. 28 and sent them to court appealing for their arrest on Nov. 29.”

Hurriyet explains:

“On Jan. 19, 2014, a convoy of trucks on their way to cross into Syira was stopped by gendarmerie forces upon suspicion that they were carrying military material to rebel groups fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The incident turned into a big news story when the gendarmerie forces detained the intelligence officers and confiscated the trucks.

President Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, reacted harshly over the case, accusing sympathizers of US-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen in the judiciary and the security forces of undermining the government. He said the Gulen movement was responsible for the halting of the trucks, as well as the Dec. 17-25, 2013 corruption cases that he claimed had tried to bring down the government . . .

The government says the case of the halted trucks is evidence of the Gulenists’ “anti-national” behaviour, as it claims that the trucks were carrying assistance to Turkmens fighting in Syria against both al-Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). When Dundar and Erdem published their story as fresh evidence in the case, despite courts ruling to restrict media coverage of the incident upon the government’s request, they made President Erdogan furious. Prosecutors soon opened cases against them.”

So this case has to do with the 2013-2014 campaign of the secretive religious-Right Gulen faction within the Turkish government to bring then-PM Tayyip Erdogan (now president) into disrepute. Gulenists had made damning recordings and collected documents when they were still partners with Erdogan and a constituent group inside the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan weathered the charges against him in the eyes of the public, and his party just won enough seats to rule without seeking a coalition with any other party.

That Turkey and the Gulf oil states have been supporting hard line fundamentalist Salafi groups in Syria such as the Army of Conquest (an al-Qaeda-led coalition) is an open secret. That Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) has been smuggling gasoline and kerosene from the refineries it captured, in part to Turkey, is another open secret.

So why is the AKP government waging a war on the press and its own generals to cover up this activity?

My guess is that Erdogan is having prosecutors send a signal to journalists and military men that acting on or revealing further Gulenist leaks will not be permitted. Perhaps he fears that the Gulen movement has more dirt on him than it has already brought out and just wants to forestall its becoming public. He may also be attempting to put all activities of the MiT (the Turkish CIA) out of bounds for the press and the Turkish military.

But the focus on that January, 2014, military shipment is also suspicious. Erdogan claimed that it was humanitarian aid going to the Syrian Turkmen in the north of Syria. But the inspection of the gendarmerie and the video released by Cumhuriyet demonstrate that the trucks were carrying weaponry. Cumhuriyet reported that the cargo comprised a thousand mortar shells, 50,000 bullets for machine guns and 30,000 heavy artillery shells. — Is the problem that it wasn’t going to Turkmen at all but to some group so radical that Erdogan would be embarrassed if it were known he was supplying it?

While Turkey is roiled by a war on journalists (the editor-in-chief of the conservative Muslim newspaper Zaman, which allegedly has ties to the Gulen movement, has just also been arrested, for insulting Erdogan), the arms flowing through the country are allowing the Salafi fighters to withstand the Russia air campaign south and east of Aleppo.

In a headache for President Obama, his Syrian Democratic Forces (a coalition of Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Christian militias) have been kicked out of some villages south of Aleppo by another set of American clients, the Falcons of the Mountain (Suqur al-Jabal), who are hard line religionists and hate the Kurds as secular leftists allied with christians. Al-Qaeda in Syria is also taking territory in the Aleppo area, opportunistically benefiting from Russian and regime attacks on Daesh there.

Turkey supports the Turkmen and the Army of Conquest despite the membership of al-Qaeda in the latter, against the Kurdish YPG. Russia is said to be helping the Kurds.


Related video:

Euronews: “Turkey: two journalists jailed over Syria smuggling reports”

Turkey reels as Putin imposes Stiff Economic Sanctions

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Russian sanctions announced by President Vladimir Putin on Saturday could have a severe impact on the Turkish economy. It is not clear whether President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu did not expect this severe a reaction to the shoot-down of a Russian fighter jet, or whether they believe that Turks will rally around the flag and gladly suffer the economic consequences.

In retrospect is seems clear that Erdogan was extremely vulnerable to a Russian economic boycott, which has now begun. Turkish growth in gross domestic product was expected to accelerate from 3% per year now to 4% per year in 2017, an expectation that may now have been foiled.

Putin had some 90,000 Turkish workers in Russia fired, and more or less forbade Russian tourism in Turkey beginning Jan. 1.

Here are some significant economic facts:

* Russian – Turkish trade is worth over $30 bn a year

*Turkey got 54.76 % of its natural gas from Russia in 2014

*Turkey is the fourth-largest importer of Russian oil and oil products

* 3.3 million Russian tourists visited Turkey last year, dropping about $3 bn. on the country; they were 10% of all tourists. That money just evaporated.

* Turkey needed the tourism income to offset its poor balance of trade. That is, the disappearance of the Russian tourists will put powerful downward pressure on the Turkish lira, hurting Turkish consumers and businesses that import goods from abroad.

* Another million Russians came to Turkey last year for other reasons, including business, and likely they won’t be coming back.

* These Russian visits to Turkey were facilitated by visa-free travel, which Russia just abrogated (likely Turkey will reciprocate).

* Russia was set to build Turkey’s first nuclear reactor, a project that has probably just been mothballed.

* Turkey had sent 5% of all its exports to Russia in 2013, valued at $7 bn., and Turkey imported over $26 bn. worth of goods from Russia last year.

Turkey has lots of trade and investment partners and won’t collapse under the weight of Putin’s sanctions or anything. But that they could shave a point or two off growth in coming years is plausible, and that will mean a lower standard of living for many Turks. Will they blame Erdogan? Stay tuned.


Related video:

New China TV: ”
Putin approves sanctions against Turkey”

Abortion Clinics, White Christian Terrorism and GOP Candidates

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Americans are more at risk from violence by armed white Christian fanatics than they ever were from Muslims.

Abortion clinics have been targeted for violence by fundamentalist Christians of a violent bent for decades. In 2009, Dr. George Tiller was relentlessly shot to death by Scott Roeder, who insisted that the good doctor was satanic because he performed abortions. Dr. John Britton was murdered in 1994 on similar grounds. A strain of Christianity in the United States has never accepted Roe v. Wade, which made it a woman’s right to have an abortion. Not accepting it for oneself is a matter of conscience, and there is nothing wrong with that. But not accepting it for other people is a form of coercion aimed at depriving them of a legal right.

Deploying violence against people to halt abortions is the textbook definition of terrorism, which in the 1990s the Federal Code sensibly defined as non-state actors using violence against civilians to achieve a political aim. Much violence and coercion at Planned Parenthood (only 3% of its activity has to do with abortion) is inspired by Christian fundamentalism.

On this point, Christian ultra-conservativism agrees with the point of view of the Malik school of law among Muslims. In essence, Christian terrorists are attempting to move the United States on the below map away from a modern European norm, where abortion is elective up to a certain point in pregnancy, to an Afro-Asian and Maliki Muslim norm where it is often forbidden except to save the mother’s life (or not even then).


There are four legal schools within Sunni Islam, the Maliki, Hanbali, Shafi’i and Hanafi. Ironically, the Hanbali, Shafi’i and Hanafi schools of Sunni Islam allow abortion, the Hanafi until day 42, and the Shafi’i until 4 months– and so they are more liberal on this issue than much Evangelicalism or Roman Catholicism. The Qur’an, like the Bible, doesn’t mention the issue.

Even mainstream GOP politicians (and apparently most of the presidential candidates) now want to ban abortion even in cases of rape or where the mother’s life is in danger, exalting the rights of the fetus and its father over that of the adult woman. Marco Rubio recently switched to this extreme position. Carly Fiorina famously melted down over a figment of her imagination — a video she said depicted a Planned Parenthood abortion wherein the aborted fetus was still alive, a video that does not exist (and what she may be referring to was probably footage of a miscarriage and certainly not at PP). I.e., the Republican Party is now to the right of conservative, Maliki Morocco on the abortion issue, which is planning to make the procedure legal in cases of rape or incest.

If a Muslim came on American television and fulminated against abortion on the basis of a videotape that does not exist, one can imagine the reaction– and that person would now be being accused of incitement, which most commentators will avoid doing to Fiorina. If a Muslim shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic, he’d be sent to Gitmo and the US military would go on alert. There is a double standard for anti-abortion terrorists because they tend to be white Christians.

What Christian and Muslim absolutists on abortion cannot accept is that women will have abortions one way or another, and making them illegal just drives them underground and makes them much more harmful to all concerned. In Morocco, it is estimated that there are 600-800 illegal abortions every day, which take a toll on women’s physical and mental health. That is roughly 2.2 million illegal abortions every decade in that country. Unlike states such as Texas, which have found ways of closing almost all abortion clinics in the state, Morocco is actually somewhat liberalizing its law.

More like the conservative US position is Saudi Arabia. Wikipedia notes:

“Abortion in Saudi Arabia is only legal if the abortion will save the woman’s life or if the pregnancy gravely endangers the woman’s physical or mental health.[1] In Saudi Arabia, any approved abortion requires consent from three physicians as well as the patient and her husband or guardian.[1] If an abortion is performed on a woman for any other reason, the violator may be required to pay blood money to the fetus’ family.[1] Laws explicitly deny abortion to families who fear financial instability or an inability to provide the child with education.”

The same Christian fundamentalists who fulminate most loudly against “sharia law” (medieval Muslim canon law) are perfectly happy to impose their own, Christian sharia on secular American society. Some of them are willing to deploy violence to that end, making them religious terrorists. But on this issue, there increasingly isn’t much difference between the American Republican Party and the Wahhabi clerics in their Riyadh madrasas. In both cases, religious, theological doctrines are being made the basis of public law, which is un-American and actually unconstitutional (the First Amendment refers to that as Establishment of religion, which it forbids).

Top Ten differences between White Terrorists and Others

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Reprint edn.

1. White terrorists are called “gunmen.” What does that even mean? A person with a gun? Wouldn’t that be, like, everyone in the US? Other terrorists are called, like, “terrorists.”

2. White terrorists are “troubled loners.” Other terrorists are always suspected of being part of a global plot, even when they are obviously troubled loners.

3. Doing a study on the danger of white terrorists at the Department of Homeland Security will get you sidelined by angry white Congressmen. Doing studies on other kinds of terrorists is a guaranteed promotion.

4. The family of a white terrorist is interviewed, weeping as they wonder where he went wrong. The families of other terrorists are almost never interviewed.

5. White terrorists are part of a “fringe.” Other terrorists are apparently mainstream.

6. White terrorists are random events, like tornadoes. Other terrorists are long-running conspiracies.

7. White terrorists are never called “white.” But other terrorists are given ethnic affiliations.

8. Nobody thinks white terrorists are typical of white people. But other terrorists are considered paragons of their societies.

9. White terrorists are alcoholics, addicts or mentally ill. Other terrorists are apparently clean-living and perfectly sane.

10. There is nothing you can do about white terrorists. Gun control won’t stop them. No policy you could make, no government program, could possibly have an impact on them. But hundreds of billions of dollars must be spent on police and on the Department of Defense, and on TSA, which must virtually strip search 60 million people a year, to deal with other terrorists.


Related video:

Wochit News: “Colorado Planned Parenthood Shooting Leave 3 Dead”

Did Turkey send a deliberate message to Russia & was the US involved?

By Deniz Çifçi | ( Your Middle East ) | – –

Two Turkish F-16 fighter jets shot down a Russia warplane . . . This will most probably have serious consequences in both countries, on their relations, and will also influence regional balances, particularly on the Syrian crisis. 

Turkey justifies its actions by explaining that despite ten warnings within five minutes, the Russian warplane violated Turkish airspace. Russia rejected the accusation stating that their warplane was almost 1 km inside the Syrian territories. Airspace violation, if this was in fact the case, excuses Turkey’s reaction when considering its rules of engagement. Nonetheless, taking into account both countries’ close economic relations and Russia’s power both in the region and international relations, shooting down a Russian jet cannot be explained only by Turkey’s airspace violation or rules of engagement. Such a case holds deeper political connotations and will have certain severe consequences. 

Since the onset of the uprising in mid 2011, both Turkey and Russia have been intensively involved in the Syrian crisis, taking opposing roles. Previous to this, Turkey had a close co-operation with Bashar al-Assad, which developed as Turkey softened its water policy on the condition that PKK activities would be banned in Syria. However, with the outset of the Syrian crisis Turkey was one of the first and main countries that supported the Syrian opposition. 

For instance, in all its capacity, Turkey has started to back a number of Syrian opposition groups, including extremist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. During the conflict between ISIS and the Kurds, Turkey shut their eyes to ISIS activities, including the crossing of recruiters and logistical supplies across the border. Although this strongly damaged Turkey’s image in international relations, for Turkey it most probably would be worth it if Bashar al-Assad would be ousted and the Kurds lose their territorial control. 

Russia, on the other hand, regards continuance of the Bashar al-Assad regime as a necessity for its political and military interests within the region. Since the beginning of the crisis Russia has therefore provided political, logistical, intelligence and military support to the Syrian government. This split in Turkey and Russia’s Syrian policy has pushed both countries against each other and further intensified Russia’s airstrikes against ISIS as well as some moderate oppositional groups. Siding with the US, Turkey wanted Russia to attack only ISIS and not Syrian oppositional groups.


Turkey further amounted its warnings over Russia’s airstrikes on Bayirbucak Turkmen groups (Turkish-speaking ethnic group), which were also involved in the Syrian opposition. Turkmen groups are Turkey’s main allies in the Syrian opposition. Although Turkey didn’t show much interest toward these groups when they were oppressed by Hafez al-Assad, it closely associated itself with them as the situation in Syria began to escalate, providing them with all types of support including weapons. The Turkmen groups have relatively low numbers and are quite dispersed, however Turkey still regards them as an actor in the Syrian opposition. Due to a common ethnicity Turkmen groups also provide conditions for Turkey intervening in the region particularly Kurdish areas. 

Although the above-noted dynamics are crucial, Turkmen groups’ geographical location and their challenge to the Kurds territorial establishment are most significant to Turkey. Most of the Turkmens reside in the Kurdish territories with a high concentration in the Jarablus region, which is currently under ISIS control and cuts the geographic connection between the two Kurdish cantons, Kobani and Afrin.

“Turkmen groups are Turkey’s main allies in the Syrian opposition”

Turkey deems the formation of a Kurdish line in Northern Syria as a threat to its security and wants to prevent the formation of a Kurdish autonomy or corridor (from Qamishli to Afrin) at all costs. For that reason, Ankara wants to place Turkmen and some Syrian opposition groups in the Jarablus region with the aim of wiping out ISIS from the region. This will prevent the two Kurdish cantons – Afrin and Kobani – from merging and as a result halting the creation of a Kurdish line. 

In contrast to Turkey’s policies, Russia has developed warm relations with the Kurds, mostly politically but also by endorsing the Kurds’ struggle against ISIS in the media. It can be argued that it was Russia that announced the Kurds’ Kobani resistance to the world. Moreover, unlike Turkey, Russia did not show a strong opposition to a Kurdish Corridor formation. It even considered it as a step for the creation of a democratic Syria and a means for eliminating extremist groups. It seems that Russia would also allow the Kurdish Democratic Union Party – which is a party Turkey regards as a PKK-affiliated group – to set up their office in Russia. Signalling Russian recognition of the PYD. 

Considering all of the mentioned factors together, it can be debated that Turkey’s harsh opposition to the Assad regime, severe challenge to the establishment of a Kurdish Corridor, and its close association with Turkmen groups strongly influenced and shaped its Russia policy in Syria. The incident therefore could be regarded as a message to Russia. However, considering Russia’s regional and international power, Turkey’s stance raises another question: did the US also want to send a message to Russia through Turkey? The US has also criticized Russia’s airstrike against Syrian moderate opposition groups and has demanded it to confine its attack only to ISIS. 

On the other hand, due to Turkey’s NATO membership a military reaction may not come from Russia, but relations between both parties will definitely be strained. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, in reaction to the downing of its warplane claimed that Russia was “stabbed in the back.”  Putin also accused Turkey of co-operating with ISIS: “The loss of our aircraft comes in the context of our fight against terrorism. But today’s loss was a blow in the back by the accomplices of terrorists”. He added that Turkey “is one of the main sources of funding for the terror group.” These are no doubt serious claims, and if Russia is able to prove them Turkey will face harsh consequences in international law.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries will most likely turn tense. For instance, Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has cancelled his planned visit to Turkey today and has warned Russian tourists in Turkey. Russia could also potentially intensify its attacks on certain Turkey affiliated groups in Syria, as well as developing relations with the Kurds, which of course will irritate Turkey. 

In addition to all of these factors and consequences, economic relations between the two can also be negatively influenced. Russia is Turkey’s largest energy supplier, particularly of natural gas. As a result of today’s incident, it is likely that Russia will restrict its supplies to Turkey, which in the long run will greatly damage the Turkish economy.

Dr. Deniz Çifçi is a Middle East analyst at the Centre for Turkey Studies in London.

Reprinted with kind permission from Your Middle East


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Ukraine Today: “Russia-Turkey War of Words: Erdogan warns Russia not to ‘play with fire’”

Posted in Russia,Turkey | 6 Responses | Print |

Annual Informed Comment Fundraiser: Support Indie Journalism

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

It is that fundraising time of year again, folks. This year everyone who contributes $100 or more to Informed Comment by Paypal will receive a signed copy of the paperback version of my recent book, The New Arabs. Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor has kindly agreed to send them out for me off the Paypal addresses, so occasional glitches of the past should not recur. Thank you to all of my supporters for your generosity and your encouragement of an independent press!

Look, we also need support in the amounts of $5 and $10. If you liked or benefited from something you saw here, and can’t afford an average of $10 a month, then a one-time smaller contribution is still welcome (and essential). Isn’t IC worth as much as one or two lattes per year at a coffee shop? The site is stronger if all fans participate. If everyone who appreciates Informed Comment donated even a small amount, we could turn it into a media giant.

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2015: A Year of Crises

2015 was a year full of tragedy and triumph with regard to Middle Eastern themes, and Informed Comment has been there with solid analysis widely recognized as unique and as key to understanding these events. I write a column daily. Don’t ask me how. In some large part, it is because I don’t want to let you down.

Regular readers know that what they get here is not the Main Stream Media accounts by all-purpose pundits unfamiliar with the region, by retired officers paid under the table by arms corporations to promote conflict, by loud-mouthed casino moguls too rich to be told by their staffers that they are making fools of themselves, or by lobbyists not required to reveal their organizational pasts or on whose payroll they serve. I have argued back against wild allegations about Muslims and the Middle East made by the US political class, at a time when many journalists politely interviewed them without challenging their bigoted and inaccurate assertions. This site has been unafraid to take unpopular or controversial stands– against NSA snooping, against Climate denialism, against hatred of our Muslim brothers and sisters, against the statelessness and victimhood of the Palestinians, against casual warmongering of the Lindsey Graham ilk, against racism of any sort. Unlike those other outlets, it is a little unlikely that this site will be supported by right wing billionaires, and so if you want it to continue, it is up to you.

And what a year it was. President Obama and the UN Security Council concluded a deal with Iran to restrict that country’s nuclear enrichment solely to making fuel for reactors, setting off a colorful struggle with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the GOP Congress, which Mr. Obama won. Russia entered the Syrian war. Tunisian democrats won a Nobel Peace prize. Saudi Arabia and allies bombed Yemen back to the stone age. Turkey had two elections, the first with a pluralist outcome and the second with an ominous authoritarian one.

Paris was struck twice by terrorists trying to induce a clash of civilizations, and my urging of people not to take the bait in “Sharpening the Contradictions” was one of the more popular things I’ve ever written. In November, when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet, my analysis of why went viral and gained me lots of fan mail, such as a message from a prominent political scientist who said it was the best offering of context he’d seen. I had given a keynote at a conference in Turkey in mid-October, and used my time there to try to get a sense from locals of the current political situation. Informed Comment readers’ contributions always pay part of my expenses on a trip like that, and enable me to do what I do.

This is a sign I saw in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, which had been hit by an unprecedented bombing earlier in October, denouncing terrorism on the part of civil society organizations, including labor unions; it was a reminder that beyond geopolitics, this kind of violence is a struggle for working people of all kinds:

“We Curse Terrorism!”

What we do for our Readers

Afraid of missing the best in analysis of Middle East issues? Be sure to sign up for delivery of the daily postings by email so you don’t miss even one. My aim is to be even more comprehensive, and to provide insights on world developments not found elsewhere that challenge lazy conventional wisdom and inside-the-beltway tunnel blindness. I seek to provide visitors with one-stop access to high quality curated sources for research on the Middle East, including maps and key documents and translations. That endeavor obviously requires resources, and the more we have the more we can do. Your support allowed me to pay guest columnists and syndicators for some of our more popular entries this year.

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In our pages, we’ve had eyewitness accounts from Egypt, Israel, Gaza, Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, and searching, critical opinion pieces on politics and Islam. And, I’ve continued to give you an interpretive essay every day of the year on what I think is the most important or interesting story of the day. (Those who like the old weblog view and are mainly interested in my essays can still find it here (click on the underlined text).

We were up to 5 million page views last year at the server, from four and a half the year before. Informed Comment also has a big presence in social media. Twitter impressions for the most recent quarter alone were 5.1 million. Of course, we can’t track email circulation, and likely as many readers or more see posts that way as via Twitter or Facebook. I’m proud to say some 45 percent of our readers are women, and 60 percent of you are 34 and younger. (We’ve got the key demographic!) But remember, these impressive circulation figures are not generating any income and don’t pay the bills.

Fans will want to know that this fall there appeared a paperback edition of my new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East,

which has been widely and favorably reviewed and which makes an excellent holiday present for your friends and relatives :-)!

Philosophy and Mission of Informed Comment

Despite rising costs of maintaining this site, years ago I decided that I did not want to put Informed Comment behind a firewall and charge a subscription fee for it. That just isn’t who I am. In my own view, there has been a long crisis between the United States (and perhaps much of the West) and the Muslim world that I felt a duty to attempt to interpret and analyze for both publics, not just for well-heeled elites. More recently issues have arisen such a climate change and the energy and water crises, which have a great deal to do with the Middle East and South Asia, my areas of expertise. This is a democratic blog, for the people and in dialogue with the people, for the common weal.

Travel and Field Reporting in 2015

Although I have some research funds from my university, there are categories of expense it does not cover, and my ability to go spontaneously to the region when there are important developments is enhanced by your subscriptions (academic fellowships have to be plotted out at least a year in advance, which is too inflexible for my style of academic journalism). Also, I do some pro bono speaking and traveling for, e.g. peace groups, and you support those expenses, too. Your support gives me the determination and courage to go on. Visits to the region this year included a trip to Istanbul in January, to Doha, Qatar, in May, and to Ankara in October. The trip to Qatar was for the annual Aljazeera Forum, and I got to meet and hear movers and shakers in the Arab world there, gaining a sense of the politics behind our headlines. I also gave a presentation, in Arabic, arguing that sectarianism is a symptom and not a cause of the social conflicts in the region. My conference in Ankara had in-depth presentations on the plight of the 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, giving insight into why some of them risk life and limb to try to flee to Europe.

Juan in Doha, May ’15

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Plans for 2016

For 2016, we will continue to explore and develop the potentials of this magazine-format Informed Comment, to make sure it is the best possible resource on the contemporary Middle East.

I have several projects at Informed Comment for which I’d like to ask those who can to support. These plans continue to serve the larger goal of promoting understanding between the West and our neighbors in the Middle East. I will also continue to follow energy issues and climate change as these unfold, with their implications on the US, Europe, and the global South.

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All those who donate $100 or more will receive a signed copy of my recent book, The New Arabs. Some kind readers give more than once a year, but if you want the book, consider making a single larger donation. All those who donate will become part of an Informed Comment supporters club who will receive my occasional private newsletter with some big picture political analysis and a Golden Lion beside their name.

Smaller contributions are also very much appreciated! Paypal is convenient for small contributions and crowdsourcing is now the name of the game.

Independent Media

Your donation helps me keep Informed Comment independent and prolific. Together we keep independent media alive. I would like to thank all my readers and contributors again for your support in 2015 and look forward to an even more productive 2016 together. Thank you for supporting our independent thinking and dialogue!

As French Pres. Hollande meets Putin, France considers alliance w/ Syrian Army

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

French President Francois Hollande met Thursday with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow, in his marathon search for a “Grand and Unique Coalition” against Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) in Syria. One of the sticking points between France and the US on the one side and Russia on the other is the fate of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his Baath regime.

At the same time, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius gave an RTL radio interview Thursday in which he said that in order to fight Daesh,

“There are two series of measures: aerial bombardment . . . and ground troops, which cannot be our own, but rather must be the forces of the Free Syrian Army (opposition), the Sunni Arab forces, and –whiy not?– the forces of the regime.”

This position is 180 degrees from the one France had adopted in 2011 and held to until the 11/13 Paris terrorist attacks by Daesh.

Yves-Michel Riols writes in Le Monde that:

‘In declaring before Congress that the struggle against IS [Daesh] is now the priority for French action, the chief of state backed away from the position of Paris that had considered, until now, that no campaign against the jihadists could be conceived unless there was a clear vision of removing Bashar al-Assad. “French movement on this issue has consisted of revising its priorities so as not to have them pose an obstacle to rapprochement with Russia,” observes Camille Grand, director of the Foundation for Strategic Researdh.’

If so, Fabius went way farther toward mollifying Putin than did Hollande, who continued to insist that al-Assad has no future in Syria. Moreover, contrary to what Grand said above, France had done nothing against the radical vigilantes (“jihadists”) in Syria at all until September, but rather was sending in arms and money to help hard line Salafi groups overthrow the Baath government, likely in close coordination with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies.

That is, Fabius and to a lesser extent Hollande are revealing a 180 degree pivot away from prioritizing overthrowing al-Assad to prioritizing instead overthrowing Daesh in al-Raqqa province, their Syrian power base.

At the press conference in Moscow, Putin replied to Hollande’s overtures by agreeing that there should be a grand coalition against terrorism, but said he wanted it placed under the aegis of the United Nations. He said he was ready to cooperate with President Obama’s anti-Daesh coalition in Syria but that incidents such as the Turkish government’s shoot-down of a Russia fighter jet are “totally unacceptable.” He said that Russian participation would depend on that incident not being repeated, since, he remarked, Russia doesn’t really need to partner with anyone, whether with a state or a coalition.

Putin argued that the Syrian regime is the ideal partner to have in a fight against Daesh. Hollande could not agree.

Putin did say, however, that he could envisage cooperating with non-Daesh groups. Capital writes that he ended this way:

“With regard to the attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis on 13 November, as well as the destruction of a Russian Airbus over Sinai on 31 October, he [Putin] spoke of a “common tragedy.” “We are united in our will to find and punish those who committed [these attacks],” he said.

Le Monde cautions, however, that Hollande hasn’t really had much luck in forging his grand coalition. President Obama is suspicious of Russia’s strategy of shoring up al-Assad first, against al-Qaeda-led coalitions of rebels and against Free Syria Army units (supported by the CIA), before taking on Daesh in a serious way.


Related video:

Euronews: “Putin and Hollande agree on greater cooperation over Syrian air strikes”

Putin: Turkey supports Radicalism & We may have to Respond, hence Tourism Ban

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday explained his rationale for asking Russian tourists to leave Turkey, and it is ominous. He anticipates that there may be further “incidents” between Turkey and Russia over Syria policy, and that Moscow may be constrained to “respond.” In that case, Putin does not want large numbers of Russian tourists in Turkey lest they become hostages.

At the same time, Russia refused to back off its bombing campaign in support of the Syrian Arab Army in northern Latakia province. It flew 12 bombing missions up there, in the same area near the Turkish border where the plane was shot down on Tuesday. The air missions were in support of infantry fighting al-Qaeda in Syria and Turkmen militias in the Kurd Mountain and Turkmen Mountain regions of northern Latakia.

Putin’s remarks were of a somewhat different tenor than those of his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who said that Russia has no intention of going to war with Turkey over the downing of an Su-24 fighter jet, continues to seek good relations with Turkey, and was not being vindictive in instituting a tourism ban. On the other hand, the foreign ministry site does say he dressed down his Turkish counterpart.

Putin said,

Question: Yesterday, the Foreign Ministry gave the recommendation that Russian tourists should not travel to Turkey. What is your view on this recommendation, given that hundreds of Russians are holidaying in Turkey?

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: We don’t have much choice. After such a tragic event as the downing of our plane and death of our pilot, we have no choice but to take such measures. The Foreign Ministry is right to warn our citizens about the dangers.

You see, the problem goes beyond the tragedy that happened yesterday. It is a much deeper problem. We see, and not only we, but people all around the world see that Turkey’s current government has been following a domestic policy of quite conscious Islamicisation throughout the country for a number of years now.

Islam is one of the world’s great religions and it is one of Russia’s traditional religions. We support Islam and will continue to do so. But the problem here is one of support for more radical currents, which creates an unfavourable environment that is not so evident at first glance.

After what happened yesterday, we cannot rule out the possibility of other incidents. If such incidents happen, we will have to respond one way or another. Our citizens in Turkey could face substantial risks, of course, and the Foreign Ministry has a duty to say this.”

Putin stressed that the Russian government “supports Islam” and that the faith is one of Russia’s ‘traditional religions.’ But, he said, the Turkish government is supporting a radical strain of the religion.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of president Tayyip Erdogan is not in fact a movement of radical Islam, and it has promoted relatively few policies that could be characterized as specifically Islamic. In the last decade, it functioned as a center-right party that had a strong religious constituency and promoted pluralism. In the past three years, however, Erdogan has acted more and more dictatorially and has deployed a strident religious rhetoric. He has been accused by his enemies of supporting fundamentalist and even radical Muslim movements abroad. It is hard to judge the accuracy of these charges, which involve covert operations inherently designed to be opaque to the public.

In any case, Putin’s answer to the question about ceasing Russian tourism in Turkey is disconcerting. It seems clear that he thinks it entirely possible that there will be more hostilities, and that the next time he may reply more forcefully, in which case he doesn’t want a lot of Russian citizens sunbathing on the beach at Antalya.

Putin said that both pilots of the downed jet had been recovered, contrary to initial reports. He said he intends to install S-300 anti-aircraft batteries a the Russian base in Latakia Province in a bid to avoid a repeat of the shoot-down of the Russian plane. But note that this step implies that it might be Turkish planes that are shot down if they enter Syrian airspace (which apparently they do all the time).

The foreign ministry site makes Lavrov sound more forceful than did his news releases, as well:

“Lavrov expressed indignation at Turkey’s unfriendly actions. It was stressed that, by shooting down the Russian aircraft that was out on a mission as part of the antiterrorist operation of the Russian Aerospace Forces and had not breached the boundaries of Turkey’s airspace, the Turkish leadership in effect took the side of ISIS. By all appearances, the action was premeditated and planned in advance, and moreover it pursued quite clear objectives. In this connection, the minister recalled Turkey’s participation in ISIS’ illegal trade in oil, which goes though the area where the aircraft was brought down, as well as the terrorist infrastructure deployed there, arms and ammunition depots and control centres. Lavrov particularly noted that this step would have serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations and would not go unanswered.”

Accusing Turkey of siding de facto with Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) is pretty serious. But then the current situation is pretty serious.


Related video:

AFP: “Putin backs advice for Russians not to travel to Turkey”

This Year Thanksgiving overlaps Paris Climate Summit: Let’s be Thankful we can Do Something

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

Reprint edn.

The popular story about Thanksgiving is an environmental parable that we would do well to remember today. It was a harvest festival in 1621, participated in by the 50 (out of 100) survivors at Plymouth Plantation and 90 Native Americans. Some of these latter, such as Squanto, had shared with the undocumented aliens arriving in Wampanoag territory their local techniques of fishing and corn farming. In some subsequent years, droughts threatened the colony.


The pilgrims faced a harsher climate than had Leif Erikson when he came to North America during the European medieval warming period. From 1550 to 1850, temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere fell by an average of about 1.3 degrees F (1 degree C.). This fall in temperature was exacerbated in the 1500s and 1600s by a slight decrease in atmospheric carbon of 6 to 10 parts per million. Stanford University geochemist Richard Nevle has argued that the great die-off of Native Americans, who were exposed to European diseases for which they had no antibodies, contributed to this decrease of carbon dioxide and fall in temperature. They ceased burning trees for fuel, and the forests recovered, with millions of new trees absorbing CO2.

Science News explains:

“By the end of the 15th century, between 40 million and 100 million people are thought to have been living in the Americas. Many of them burned trees to make room for crops, leaving behind charcoal deposits that have been found in the soils of Mexico, Nicaragua and other countries.

About 500 years ago, this charcoal accumulation plummeted as the people themselves disappeared. Smallpox, diphtheria and other diseases from Europe ultimately wiped out as much as 90 percent of the indigenous population.

Trees returned, reforesting an area at least the size of California, Nevle estimated. This new growth could have soaked up between 2 billion and 17 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air.”

That is, the cold winters that challenged the English immigrants (and which they played down in their letters back home) had in part been caused by the very European influx of which they were a part!

From about 1750, however, Europeans started substantially increasing their burning of wood and coal so as to drive steam engines and make the industrial revolution. In that year, there were roughly 278 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and it was relatively cold. Today there are over 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere and it is on average over 2 degrees F. (1.5 degrees C.) warmer now than then.

If the Pilgrims faced Coldworld and its weather and agricultural challenges, today we face Hotworld. Just as they looked to the Native Americans for cues on how to survive in that cold environment, we should look at indigenous peoples’ current environmental initiatives to understand how to avoid heating the earth more than the further nearly 4 degrees F. that we already certainly will. (4 degrees F. is a global average, including the oceans, and some places will experience a much greater increase in heat than that).

Native Americans in Canada largely oppose tar sands oil extraction, which is highly polluting and ruinous of water supplies. The Sioux in South Dakota are saying that the Keystone XL pipeline for dirty tar sands oil must not run through their land, by treaty with the US.

I wrote last year:

The Moapa Paiutes are celebrating the advent of solar power and the beginning of the end of coal power in southern Nevada.

They are having a solar plant built on tribal lands, which will allow them meet their own needs and to sell electricity to Los Angeles. Best of all, they can envision the closing of the dirty coal plant that has given them respiratory diseases.

“Southern Nevada’s Moapa Band of Paiutes are calling for the closure of the Reid Gardner coal plant and a transition to clean renewable energy future for Nevada. On Earth Day 2013, they organized a 16-mile “Walk from Coal to Clean Energy”. The walk celebrated the tribe’s efforts to retire the polluting Reid Gardner coal plant that adjoins their tribal lands, and also their success in developing the largest solar project on tribal lands in the nation, which will begin construction later this year. The walk began at the coal plant and ended at the solar site – a powerful symbol of change for Nevada and the nation.”

The Sioux and the Paiutes are our modern-day Squantos, teaching us how to live sustainably in a North America they have inhabited for thousands of years longer than have Euro-Americans. The Pilgrims, despite their conviction of European superiority, were humble enough to learn what they could from the natives, which was the only way they could survive. Can we be as humble, today?

We can make our Thanksgivings greener and greener in coming years.

We can make sure our homes are insulated, which will cut down on our fuel costs and carbon production, and will make them more cozy for guests.

We can put solar panels on our homes to generate electricity to run the television and other appliances for our family and guests.

Those who go to church, synagogue or mosque on Thanksgiving can make sure that their religious edifices are powered by solar panels. A temple that burns fossil fuels is paying dues to the devil, not glorifying the God of wisdom who commands good stewardship of earth.

We can drive to the homes of our family and friends for the dinner in electric cars or plug-in hybrids, fueled from the rooftop solar panels (which are falling steeply in price). If we fly, we can buy carbon offsets or eat vegetarian often enough to make up for it (solar-powered and biofuel-powered airplanes are around the corner).

We can lobby our electric utility to turn to wind turbines, as Iowa and Texas increasingly have, which supplements the solar generation. 27.4% of Iowa’s electricity comes from wind. Not all states are equally blessed with its wind resources. But Michigan, e.g., does have promising wind generation areas in the Thumb and on the Lake Michigan shore, which it has quite shamefully done almost nothing with.


We can avoid beef, the most carbon-intensive protein (not so hard, since who eats beef on Thanksgiving?) and can try to buy local produce to prepare the meal.

Some will say these steps are not enough; but they are more than most Americans have undertaken and would be a good start.

Thanksgiving in the American popular tradition hasn’t only been about being thankful for food abundance. It has been gratitude for survival and adaptation in an alien clime. We are all now entering an alien clime, of a warming globe– a world hotter than it has been since the mid-Pliocene some 3 million years ago, when the seas were 25 yards/ meters higher and the northern hemisphere 10-20 degrees hotter than now (it had 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere too). Survival and adaptation require us now to change a lot of habits and become sustainable, and ASAP. Like the Pilgrims, half of whom died in their first year, we face an emergency.

Why did Turkey dare shoot down a Russian Plane? The Proxy War in Syria

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Turkish government decision to down a Russian jet operating in the north of the Syrian province of Latakia is breathtaking in its boldness. Russia may no longer be a superpower, but it is a nuclear-armed great power. The newly elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his mentor President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey can rule without the help of any other party in parliament, and seems determined to double down on its policy of intervening in Syria.

The Davutoglu government risks substantial economic harm. Russian tourism has boosted the Turkish economy, and Russia was planning an important gas pipeline through Turkey as well as the building for Ankara of a nuclear power reactor. All those activities have just been cancelled, and tour operators in Russia are looking for other tourist markets after pressure from the Putin government. Russia is attributing the attack to an attempt by Turkish officials to protect gasoline smuggling routes from Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) to Turkey, but the geography of the shoot-down tells against this interpretation. This was near al-Qaeda territory in the northwest, not Daesh territory in the northeast, and the issue is arms smuggling, not oil smuggling.

Turkey has backed a range of Muslim fundamentalist groups in northern Syria in hopes of eventually overthrowing the Baath government of Bashar al-Assad. Turkey is also afraid of the leftist Kurds of northern Syria, which are accused of attempting to ethnically cleanse Arab and Turkmen villages that stand in the way of their establishing land bridges between the three major Kurdish cantons of northern Syria. The People’s Protection Unites (YPG) or leftist Kurdish militias have already linked two of these cantons, defeating Daesh in order to do so. The third, Afrin, is separated from Kobane by a set of Arab and Turkmen villages north of Aleppo.

But there are also Turkmen villages in the north of Idlib province west of Aleppo, and in the north of Latakia province to the west of Idlib. Turkmen populations in those provinces have organized militias and have joined rebel groups fighting the al-Assad government. Some of them have sometimes tactically allied with the Jabhat al-Nusrah, al-Qaeda in Syria, against government troops.

The Turkmen in the north of Latakia province live in an area called Turkmen Mountain near the Turkish border, including the sub-districts of Rabia and Qastal Maaf. The Turks call this area Bayirbucak. It is alleged that Turkey and the CIA are sending weapons for the rebel groups through Turkmen Mountain. Rabia is just southwest of the Idlib city of Jisr al-Shughour, which fell to al-Qaeda and its allies in late April. This city is a potential launching pad for the conquest of Latakia Province by hard line Salafi groups who are hand in hand with al-Qaeda.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 4.46.26 AM
Via Google Maps

One of Russia’s current strategic goals is to keep Latakia Province from falling to the rebels. Latakia contains a crucial port of the same name, as well as the Tartous naval facility leased to the Russians. Latakia is heavily Alawite, the Shiite group that is a mainstay of the al-Assad government.

Russia appears to have been attempting to cut off a smuggling route for CIA weapons such as T.O.W. anti-tank missiles through Jabal Turkmen by attacking the Turkmen militias of northern Latakia Province, in the interests of shoring up the al-Assad government there. This attack may also have been intended to panic Turkmen populations into fleeing over the border into Turkey, thus removing a power base for Turkey on the Syrian side of the border and removing a group that would aid al-Qaeda and its allies in Jisr al-Shughour to move west.

The Turkish press has been extremely exercised about this Russian campaign against the Turkmen in Rabia and Jabal Turkmen more generally, and some newspapers appear to have foreseen the attack on the Russian jet.

The centrist Milliyet wrote (BBC Monitoring trans.): “The picture has totally changed in Syria. Russian jets have hit and Al-Asad’s Hezbollah-supported troops have started an operation to expel Turkmens from Bayirbucak. Was that a calculated move? Al-Asad’s intention is to widen his sphere of influence by taking control of the Turkmen region with Russia’s support… The more Ankara says that Al-Asad will go, the stronger Al-Asad makes his position.”

The centrist, pro-government Turkish newspaper Sabah wrote on Tuesday, according to BBC Monitoring, “Now, attacks conducted by the Russia-Iran-Asad alliance against Turkmens have been added to that. The aim is clear: to draw Turkey into the war or to weaken its hand at the table. There are some other intrigues as well.”

The religious-Right Yeni Safak wrote (BBC Trans.): “Turkmen Mountain? It is Turkey’s ‘red’ line! No-one should assume that Turkey is just watching and waiting. So many things are being done behind the scenes! We will soon see them. Ankara will not be deterred by Turkey’s enemies!.. What is going on is an ‘unannounced world war’! Briefly, independent Muslim Turkey is putting up a vital fight against the Crusader-Zionist alliance!”

This paper seems to see Putin’s Russia as an Eastern Orthodox Christian power allied with Israel against Turkmen populations. (None of this is true). Its sources appear to have predicted to it Turkey’s dramatic response to the Russian campaign. The center-right Turkiye compared the Russian campaign against Jabal Turkmen as a “Second Gallipoli,” referring to Winston Churchill’s hope of taking the Gallipoli Peninsula in WW I and then marching right up to the then capital, Istanbul, thus cutting the war in the eastern Mediterranean short. The British empire was thwarted in this plan by a strong Ottoman defense and use of machine guns and artillery. Turkiye is hearkening back to WW I, when Russia attacked eastern Anatolia!

Source: Quotes package from BBC Monitoring, in Turkish 24 Nov 15

We may conclude that Russia’s targeting of Turkmen, an ethnic group that speaks a language similar to that spoken in Turkey, raised nationalist hackles in Ankara. But in addition, these Syrian Turkmen are religious, just as is the leadership of the ruling AKP in Turkey. And, further, they are a linchpin for Turkish, American and Saudi intervention in Syria, since they appear to be among the arms smugglers getting munitions to the rebels against the al-Assad government. Although the CIA maintains that these weapons only go to some 45 “vetted” groups that are not extremists, they in fact get into the hands of al-Qaeda and its allies, grouped as the Army of Conquest, as well. Russia must defeat the Army of Conquest and protect the Alawites of Latakia if it is to achieve its war aims in Syria, and appears to have decided to begin by blocking Turkmen smuggling. The Turkmen had their revenge, claiming to have killed one or both of the pilots who ejected from the downed fighter jet and also taking down a Russian helicopter that attempted to rescue them. [Update: Russia later rescued both pilots, who are actually unharmed.]

Russia and Turkey are now fighting a proxy war in Syria, and have been all this fall. As of yesterday, they are not just using proxies, but are directly in conflict with one another.

Turkey and the Turkmen are carving out a sphere of influence in northern Syria and are insisting that Russia recognize it. How severe the conflict becomes depends in part on how Russia responds to this setback for its war aims. It also depends on whether Turkish goals are more ambitious, to help the al-Qaeda-led Army of Conquest take Latakia. If Jabal Turkmen is a red line for Turkey, Latakia port is a red line for Russia. Red lines have a way of turning into hot wars.