Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Astana Talks – Low Expectations and Different Calculations | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In the aftermath of the New Year’s bloody terrorist attack in Istanbul, several official announcements were made, each with a different version as to what exactly happened and who the terrorist was. Unfortunately, it was clear though that there were many security deficiencies and Ankara was uneasy about admitting their serious nature.

In reality, the overall political and security circumstances surrounding the Istanbul attack are pretty bad; and what followed was even worse. The terrorist not only managed to escape (for a while), but there was a lengthy confusion about his true identity. On the other hand, if ISIS was – as usual – quick to claim responsibility for the attack in which 39 people lost their lives, an operation of such a magnitude poses more questions about: first, the politico-ideological identity of this extremist organization; second, the way it thinks, analyses and prioritises; and third, who the main beneficiaries from its crimes are, if not who those who choose, plan, and exploit them are.

It is obvious now that Turkey is going through a crisis; and even if its government is entitled to describe it as it wishes, and hold whoever it chooses responsible; this does not change the facts one bit.

Still, Turkey is not the only player ‘in crisis’, as there are quite a few regional and global movers and shakers dealing with Turkey that have political crises of their own. They include the USA, no less, as well as Turkey’s neighbours and its ‘dubious friends’ like Iran. However, the scene becomes ever more complicated after the US presidential elections’ earthquake resulting in Donald Trump’s taking over at the White House; bearing in mind Trump’s weird, ambiguous, contradictory and subjective approaches to Middle East issues. In preparation for the Trump era, Middle Eastern regional powers are also piecing together their policies during the next four years in the hope of exploiting the status quo, as tilted as it may be. The strategic American – Israeli alliance aside, all concerned realize they are dealing with an ‘unknown’ in Washington; while being aware that Trump’s first task will be re-establishing and cementing his relations with the Republican Party’s ‘establishment’, whom the electorate deserted in order to vote for him.

Only Israel, despite Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal problems, should feel assured that its main interests are not going to be adversely affected by the policies of the new US president. In the meantime, the appointments Trump has made smack of contradictions that do not point to smooth and consistent long term strategies. Even Russia, which we have heard a lot about playing an influential role in destroying the chances of Hillary Clinton – Trump’s Democratic challenger -, continues to relish his victory, and maintain good ties with his Secretary of State to be, Rex Tillerson. It may not stay reassured if Republican ‘hawks’ return to impose their foreign policy priorities on the president.

Iran, which has had a great return on its investment under Barack Obama, may not be so lucky with Trump. In fact, its relationships with Moscow and Tel Aviv may prove to be decisive on how the new master of the White House deals with it. Another factor may be how the internal situation within Iran unfolds, especially, as the IRGC get ever more belligerent and ambitious, the health of the ‘Supreme Guide’ Ali Khamenei remains under intense speculation, and the huge loss suffered by the PR savvy ‘Reformists’ with the death of the shrewdest operator and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Thus, if one considers that the Arabs have become relevant to Washington only as far as the War against Islamist Terror – indeed, Sunni terror – is concerned, Turkey remains in the eye of the storm. Going through terrorist attacks that targeted Turkey during the last 12 months, it has become obvious that several parties are keen to blackmail it, and push it to adopt certain policies, or destabilize it in order to facilitate a change of regime, either through the ballot box, a military coup, or aiding and abetting secessionist forces.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is aware of the challenges, and so far has confronted them through two ways:
1. Blaming his internal ‘enemies’, namely the Fethullah Gulen supporters and Kurdish secessionist rebels.
2. Going forward with his plans to establish a presidential system that gives him vast powers, replacing the current parliamentary system whereby parliamentary opposition can challenge him and slow down his initiatives.

This is how Turkish policies are shaping up; and although Erdogan is keen to accuse his internal ‘enemies’ of being behind most of the terrorist attacks – in addition to ISIS, of course – he surely realizes that Turkey is being targeted both as a regime and a political entity. This is why Ankara has threatened to prevent the International Coalition against Terror – technically speaking, the USA – from using Incirlik Air Base (southern Turkey) while Washington continues to generously support Kurdish militia across the Syrian borders. As for Washington, this support is a tacit blackmail to Ankara whose ‘Islamist’ line is widely viewed as a factor in encouraging religious ‘hawkishness’, leading perhaps to acts of terrorism.

On the other hand, neither Ankara nor Moscow regards their improving relations as a steady march towards broad-understandings let alone a fully-fledged strategic alliance. Here again, the Kurdish question is looking like being a means of blackmail. What has been emerging from the talks between the Turks and the Syrian opposition groups in Ankara preparing for Astana Talks (in Kazakhstan) shows too that Ankara finds itself in a difficult position brought about by Russia’s pressure and America’s abandonment; which has had an adverse effect on the Syrian opposition, and the Syrian uprising as a whole.
During these hours, a few days before Donald Trump takes over as president and the convening of the Astana Talks, Moscow has hijacked the international initiatives, with America’s blessing, while Turkey is under a political and terrorist siege and Iran is intensifying its military aggression, pre-empting any unwelcome change in Washington’s stances.