Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Misconceptions of Israeli-Gulf Cooperation

Prince Turki al-Faisal with Yaakov Amidror

Much has been made, particularly by Israelis, of the expanding horizons for collaboration between the Jewish state and Arab Gulf states. Israeli ministers and business people lose no opportunity to tout Israel’s interest in expanding ties of all sorts in a region viewed as a valuable market for Israeli industry and an intelligence gold mine.
Meetings that once were held in the dark are now on public display. Relations that were once conducted solely by intelligence officials now feature diplomats and the formal establishment of relations with countries such as the U.A.E. 
In a notable development, Saudi Arabia won key recognition from Israel—and Egypt and the United States—as a strategic partner in regional security in the Straits of Tiran. Such achievements expose not only the alluring prospects of such a dialogue, but also its enduring, critical limitations.
The nascent coalition linking Israel with the Gulf was born as a coalition of countries that are united by their common failure to dissuade Washington from its path of rapprochement with Iran.
Washington and Tehran just celebrated the one-year anniversary of the J.C.P.O.A., which remains the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. Saudis and Israelis looking to roll it back must contend with the fact that, in an era when the Middle East is shaking under their feet, the Iran deal represents a relative rock of stability and policy achievement unmatched elsewhere in U.S. efforts in the region. Washington’s relations with Tehran may not blossom, but they will be difficult to reverse—a fact that critically weakens the foundations of underlying Israeli-Gulf cooperation and limits the effectiveness of an ‘alliance’ based upon undermining the principal diplomatic and strategic achievement of your indispensable, superpower ally.
It is also true that one need only scratch the surface to reveal vital differences in Israeli and Saudi views on Iran itself. Israeli bluster aside, considered Israeli opinion and policy is far more sanguine about Iran than is the case in Riyadh.
Even at the height of concerns about an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Israel’s security establishment successfully tamed the wilder, undisciplined instincts of many in Israel’s political class. The generals have long understood the vitality of Israel’s strategic superiority and are prepared to accommodate an American-led deal with Tehran in a fashion that contradicts visceral Saudi opposition to the mullahs.
Such differences are apparent in other arenas as well. This is certainly the case concerning Syria, where the prevailing Israeli view is sympathetic to the Assad regime.  As a consequence of its understandings with Russia, agreed-upon limits have been set to Iranian and Hezbollah deployments—a display of realpolitik toward the Damascus regime that Riyadh is loathe to adopt.  
For Israel, its problems with Iran are of relatively recent vintage. In contrast, it retains a historic and strategic interest in limiting Arab power—an interest that stands in opposition to declared Arab objectives. Israel’s newfound Arab friends must be ready to address the unexpected, destabilizing pressures that will result from an Israel freed from any concern about constraining Arab power—in Palestine and Lebanon in particular.
In Lebanon, Israel and Gulf states have a shared antipathy toward Hezbollah, but there is no interest in Arab support for an Israeli military campaign in Lebanon or more improbably Syria.
Similar considerations illustrate the limits of Arab understanding of an aggressive Israeli policy toward Gaza.
Israel’s response to the Arab Peace Initiative is also an instructive case in point.
Long ignored by Israeli leaders—Ehud Olmert did not even bother to read it—Israel’s strategy is to pocket the historic promise of peace with the Arab and Islamic worlds as simply a basis for further discussion.
More broadly, Israel has turned the historic formula at the heart of A.P.I.—peace with Palestine is a gateway to rapprochement with the Arab world—on its head. “The Arab Peace Initiative,” explained Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal in a public discussion with former National Security director Yaakov Amidror, “is the formula that can bring us together. But the general [Amidror] sees otherwise. He wants us to start cooperating with Israel, and do whatever is done in that journey, and forget about the occupation of Palestine and various other issues that deal with the daily occurrences that are taking place on the ground in Palestine, whether it is expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, whether it is the roadblocks — all the issues that you are all aware of.”
Jordan is another useful example of both the advantages and built-in shortcomings of such an Arab strategy. Egypt and Jordan enjoy relations with Israel based upon signed peace treaties. Yet even this achievement has not been sufficient to shield either country from dramatic challenges posed by Israel.
There has been an indirect Israeli security umbrella over Jordan since Black September 1970. This protection, however, has failed to pay dividends for Jordan on the Palestine front. Indeed, in terms of national security threats, the prospect of a Palestinian retreat to Jordan—pushed by Israeli policy unfettered by Arab or international pressure—is a constant source of concern to Jordanian officials. And among Israelis, there is a long and widely held view that considers a Palestinian takeover of Jordan and the demise of the Hashemites to be an Israeli interest, and only a matter of time.
With Egypt, there are many indications that relations with Israel have never been closer. This honeymoon is fueled, however, by unprecedented national security challenges  suffered by Egypt in Sinai. Israel’s unilateral retreat from Gaza in 2005, its serial wars there since, and the attendant effort to force Egypt to assume the burden of Gaza’s welfare, illustrate the limits of their cooperation.
A long, long road has been travelled since the famous ‘three no’s of Khartoum’—no recognition, no negotiations, no peace—in the aftermath of the June 1967 war. The iron wall separating Israel from its Arab neighbors is indeed showing cracks, but the prospects for a turn from confrontation to cooperation is still hampered by real differences of interests and priorities.

* Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle East affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues. He has advised the World Bank on Israel’s disengagement and has worked for the European Union Coordinating Office for the Palestinian Police Support mission to the West Bank and Gaza. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi: A Syrian Hezbollah Formation

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi*

Fighters posing with the flag of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi. 

The Syrian civil war has seen the rise of a number of formations that promote the idea of building a native Syrian Muqawama Islamiya ('Islamic Resistance') and Hezbollah. Examples include Quwat al-Ridha (recruiting mainly from Shi'a in the Homs area), the National Ideological Resistance (based in Tartous/Masyaf area), the Ja'afari Force (recruiting mainly from Damascene Shi'a) and al-Ghalibun.

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (the Imam Mahdi Brigade), referring to the twelfth Shi'i Imam, is another group along these lines. For comparison, the National Ideological Resistance also has the label Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Mahdi Army).

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi appears to have at least two sub-components: the Imam Ali Battalion and the Special Operations al-Hadi Battalion. The al-Hadi Battalion claims at least two squadrons: the first led by "al-Saffah" and the second led by "Abu Ali Karar."

The information available on Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi through social media is patchy at best, but I was able to speak to the commander of the Imam Ali Battalion, who goes by the name of al-Hajj Waleed and is from Ba'albek in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.

According to al-Hajj Waleed (who is a member of Hezbollah), Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi was set up two years ago by Hezbollah and has recruits from all of Syria.

Of course, this latter assertion is a fairly standard rhetorical line. Private Facebook accounts run by those associated with Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi largely point to origins in western Syria.

The commander added that the group has participated in a number of battles, including Deraa, Quneitra, Ghouta, Aleppo and the Ithiriya-Raqqa route. Some of these operations (e.g. fighting in south Aleppo countryside and positions on the Ithiriya hills) have been mentioned on social media.

In total, Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi's contribution to the fighting in Syria seems similar in scale to that of the Ja'afari Force and the National Ideological Resistance. Al-Hajj Waleed gave his toll of killed ('martyrs') and wounded at 25 and 55 respectively.

Thus, the military capabilities of these groups should not be exaggerated, but it is apparent how Hezbollah is trying to project influence into Syria through the creation of multiple formations and brands in order to recruit Syrians.

* Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Turkey's Schizophrenic Civil War

By Burak Bekdil*

Turkey's July 15 coup, as cartoonist Assad Binakhahi suggests, was a gift for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It is amazing that the Crescent and Star never ceases to shock with the most unexpected insanity. The capacity to shock is a feature most observed at times of war. And Turkey is at war – a schizophrenic civil war.

The May 1960 coup was a conventional coup d'état but, like July 15, was outside the chain of command. So it was simply called a coup d'état.

March 1971 was called a "soft coup." September 1980 was a conventional coup – this time inside the chain of command. Some called it the "people's coup" after more than 90 percent of Turks approved its constitution and generals as their leaders.

Turkey had a "post-modern coup" in February 1997 and an "e-coup" (in reference to the anti-government, pro-secularist memorandum posted on the military's website) in April 2007.

If history will have to name the failed coup of July 15 the best way to recall it would be as the "absurd coup." The events of July 15 looked less like a coup and more like a Turkish opera buffa, a tragic one though, with the curtain closing with more than 200 people getting killed.

Fortunately, even an absurd coup can give an unruly nation a temporary sigh of unity. Pro- and anti-president Turks seem to have united - which is great - probably until they start firing at each other again, which is not so great.

With or without unity against any military intervention in the democratic system, absurd or not, the great Turkish divide is there and will probably deepen, exposing Turkey's hybrid democracy to further risks of "road accidents" of this or that kind.

Turkey's "war of religion" will not disappear just because the pro- and anti-president forces of the country have united against a coup attempt. It is a war of religion between the adherents of the same sect of the same religion.

It was not without a reason why the anti-coup crowds that bravely stood against the troops and their commanders did not mostly chant pro-democracy slogans when they took to the streets but rather passionately chanted "Allah-u Akbar" (God is the greatest).

They were there not to defend democracy in the word's liberal meaning. They were there to defend the man whom they view as the guardian of their faith, hence their readiness to kill or die, or to lynch the pro-coup troops, and a journalist who was just photographing the scene. Willing lynchers who defend democracy chanting Islamist slogans? Nice one.

Whether the perpetrators belong to the clandestine Gülenist terror organization or were a bizarre coalition of secularist and Gülenist officers, they were simply moronic thugs in military uniforms. Speaking to a "pro-democracy" crowd of fans who interrupted his speech with the slogan "we want the death penalty [back]," President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that the Gülenists had been secretly – and illegally - trying to capture the state over the past 40 years. And now they finally staged a coup.

The president was probably right. But he did not explain why he allied with them during the 37.5 years of the Gülenist campaign to capture the state – until he and the Gülenists broke up in December 2013. Remember his famous complaint: "Whatever they [Gülenists] wanted, we gave them."

This is the last act in the hundreds-of-years-long opera buffa of in-house fighting between various Islamist factions, not just Turkish. Despite the bloodshed and tragic scenes, like in any other Turkish opera buffa, it often can be amusing, too.

Newswires dispatched a story that said Saudi King Salman congratulated President Erdoğan for the return to "normality" – normality here must mean the defeat of undemocratic forces and return to the democratic regime. Hybrid or not, Turkey at least features a ballot-box (head-count) democracy. Let's hope one day King Salman's Kingdom too returns to normality.

·         * Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based columnist for the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News.

·         * This article was published first by Hürriyet Daily News on July 20, 2016

Monday, July 18, 2016

Islamic Finance Expanding Its Footprint In Oman

Recent regulations on sukuk (Islamic bonds) are helping drive growth in Oman’s Islamic banking sector, with sharia-compliant lenders gaining ground.

Image result for Islamic finance expanding its footprint in Oman

Growth of Islamic banking is far outstripping that of the conventional banking segment with Islamic banking assets up more than 62% year-on-year (y-o-y) at the end of March, according to a report issued by the Central Bank of Oman (CBO) in mid-May.

New rules released by the Capital Market Authority (CMA) in April regarding the issuance of sukuk should further broaden the segment’s base by encouraging corporate issues.

Rise in Islamic banking

Total assets held by Islamic banks and the Islamic banking windows of conventional lenders in March amounted to OR2.5bn ($6.5bn), compared to OR1.5bn ($3.9bn) one year earlier, according to the CBO.

This took the Islamic banking’s market share from 5.1% of the financial system’s overall assets in 2015 to 7.8% by March 2016.

Financing to the public and private sector is also on the rise, with sharia-compliant entities having extended OR1.93bn ($5bn) worth of financing as of end-March, up 58% over the OR1.2bn ($3.1bn) recorded in March of last year.    
Growth was also strong on a month-on-month basis, with assets held by Islamic banks and windows up OR100m ($260m) over February, deposits expanding by OR90m ($234m) and financing rising by OR80m ($208m).

For their part, sukuk are expected to play an important role in the country’s Islamic financial markets as they offer an alternate means of fundraising for local companies, according to Abdulaziz Al Balushi, group CEO of Ominvest, an Oman-based investment company.

“Growth in total sukuk issuance is driven by a number factors, including: fiscal deficits led by low oil prices  – necessitating government borrowing in the local and international markets, corporates seeking alternative funding options in the wake of tighter liquidity and Islamic financial institutions’ desire to grow their financing books,” he told OBG.

The growing penetration of sharia-compliant finance is in line with a forecast made by ratings agency Moody’s late last year.

In its November outlook on the Omani financial sector, Moody’s predicted the Islamic banking segment would continue to gain traction, with Islamic assets to account for between 10% and 12% of total banking assets within the next two years.

The sector will benefit from expansion in new lending and through the conversion of customers from conventional to Islamic banking services, the report said.

Conventional competition

In contrast with the performance of the Islamic segment of the market, assets of conventional commercial banks rose by 9.1% y-o-y to the end of March to OR28.6bn ($74.3bn).

While still a strong result, the pace of expansion of the Islamic segment indicates growing demand for sharia-compliant products in the marketplace.

Oman’s Islamic banking sector has two dedicated sharia-compliant banks, Bank Nizwa and alizz islamic bank, which both began commercial operations in 2013.

In addition, six of Oman’s seven domestic conventional banks have opened Islamic banking windows, giving them access to the growing market for sharia-compliant products.

New regulations to spur corporate sukuk

Looking ahead, the country’s Islamic financial sector stands to benefit from new regulations from the CMA that clarify requirements for issuing sukuk and provide a legal framework.

In particular, the new rules aim to provide greater transparency and protection to investors in sukuk transactions by building on existing codes covering company law and capital markets.

The regulations, which came into effect in mid-April, introduce a trust structure and terms for sukuk programmes, providing flexibility for corporations looking to raise money through sukuk.

Importantly, there are no restrictions on the amount of the sukuk based on the company’s capital.
The new regulations are expected to expand the range of investment instruments available in the sector, gradually generating greater investor interest, according to Sheikh Abdullah bin Al Salmi, executive president of the CMA.

“Companies have been waiting for this guidance, and there are a number of sukuk in the pipeline, which have been aided by the issuance of the first government sukuk,” Sheikh Abdullah told OBG.  “However, most corporations will likely wait a bit longer for the government to issue more in order to provide a benchmark for corporate bonds.” 

The CMA is hopeful that codifying sukuk requirements will further develop Oman’s Islamic financial sector and the broader capital markets by giving companies and investors a more stable fundraising platform.

“A vibrant fixed-income market is essential to the development, financial stability and diversification of the regional economy, including Oman,” Sheikh Abdullah said in early June. “This is also an integral part of the overall strategy of the CMA to enable the capital market to play its vital role as an alternative fundraising platform for companies in the economic development of Oman.”

* This report was published by Oxford Business Group on 26 June 2016

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Why Does Tunisia Produce So Many Terrorists?

The success story of the Arab Spring has made room for moderate secularists to flourish. But that’s a double-edged sword.

Why Does Tunisia Produce So Many Terrorists?  
People gather around flowers placed on the Promenade des Anglais on July 15 in Nice, France, after a terrorist attack the previous day.

We still don’t have all the details, but it would appear that the man behind the horrific terrorist attack in Nice, France, was Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old deliveryman and petty criminal. Bouhlel, who was killed by police at the scene, was a French citizen. But the detail that many terrorism experts immediately zeroed in on was his country of origin: Tunisia. That’s right: The country that is often hailed as “the success story of the Arab Spring” because it has actually managed to stick with democracy since the downfall of its dictator in 2011.

That Bouhel is Tunisian once again raises the question:

Why is liberal Tunisia, of all places, producing so many terrorists?

The experts have long since determined that Tunisia is a disproportionate source of recruits for radical Islamist causes. Despite the country’s relatively small population of 11 million, Tunisians are conspicuously over-represented among the fighters of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. According to recent estimates, 7,000 Tunisians have joined the cause — more than any other country, including much larger ones such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There are also, according to numerous reports, thousands of Tunisians training and fighting for jihad in Libya, Tunisia’s next-door neighbor, which has a strong Islamic State presence. (Indeed, the Tunisian authorities have boasted that they’ve prevented some 12,000 other potential jihadists from leaving the country for Syria since 2013 — a statistic hardly as comforting as they apparently would like it to be.)


Tunisian jihadists haven’t only been active overseas.Over the past few years they’ve staged several high-profile attacks on their own country. Since 2013, terrorists have assassinated secular politicianstargeted popular tourist sites (virtually shutting down an industry on which much of the economy depends), and engaged in myriad clashes with the police. In March, Libyan-based jihadists, presumably of Tunisian origin, staged a full-scale assault on the Tunisian border town of Ben Guerdane. Though local security forces coped pretty effectively with the attack, ultimately winning the battle, it was a worrying sign of the jihadists’ ambitions and aggressiveness.

All of this, needless to say, stands in rather stark contrast to Tunisia’s remarkable progress at establishing democratic institutions. The country has held several rounds of free and fair elections, and it now boasts a vibrant range of free media and civil society groups. When I visited a few weeks ago, I heard plenty of theories that attempted to explain why these new freedoms have coincided with so much extremist violence.

Some Tunisians told me that the collapse of the dictatorship in the 2011 revolution and the establishment of democratic institutions that followed had given jihadists new freedom to organize, travel, and share information.

Religious radicals, it was pointed out, can now openly watch satellite broadcasts of hard-line clerics streamed in from the Gulf. Others I spoke with, including some government officials, worry that the security apparatus was fatally weakened by post-revolutionary reforms — though that argument seems somewhat diluted by the government’s competent response to the Ben Guerdane attacks in the spring. Still others mentioned the failure of democratically elected leaders to address the country’s persistent economic malaise. Though the official unemployment rate is around 15 percent, it’s estimated to be double that for young people, who see correspondingly few opportunities for bettering their lives.

One thing that struck me the most about Tunisia, however, is just how secular and Western the country looks and feels — in ways that long predate the 2011 revolution. The country’s first post-independence leader, President Habib Bourguiba, who took power in 1956, was a staunch admirer of Turkey’s legendary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Like Ataturk, he was a radical secularist who imposed a modernizing agenda, including women’s rights and Western-style education, while ruthlessly suppressing the forces of traditional religion. 

He was notorious for expressing his contempt for the veil, which he called that “odious rag.” Even today one rarely sees men or women in traditional Islamic clothing in Tunis and many other parts of the country — a striking contrast to neighboring Libya, where hijab-wearing women are a common sight.

The problem, of course, is that pushing traditional religion to the side doesn’t mean that everyone is going to agree. Aggressive modernization almost always incites a backlash — and so it has gone in Tunisia, where those with an inclination to traditional Islam have often ended up feeling marginalized in their own country.

A very similar dynamic took hold in Turkey, under Ataturk and his heirs. There, though, a gradual opening of the political landscape in the late 20th century allowed Islamists to channel their ambitions into electoral politics, embodied by the rise of current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Bourguiba and his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, allowed for no such expression of alternative opinions; the organizers of Tunisia’s leading Islamist party, Ennahdha, returned from exile only after the 2011 revolution. Other Tunisians who gravitated to Islamist politics sought more radical outlets. Some joined al Qaeda, while others assumed prominent roles in the war in Iraq.

It was one of those veterans of the Iraqi jihad, a man named Boubaker al-Hakim, who later played a key role in organizing the attacks on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Like Bouhlel, the attacker in Nice, he was also a French citizen — a reflection of the darker side of Tunisians’ long and intimate obsession with their former colonizer. For elite Tunisians, France is the country of their aspirations. For less privileged Tunisian migrants, stuck in menial jobs and relegated to the fringes of society, France is the place that constantly reminds them of their second-class status — symbolized by its institutionalized contempt for their “backward” religion.

In the case of such people, it’s easy to see how recourse to radical Islam is as much a matter of identity politics as it is of religion. Indeed, judging by the reports coming in from Bouhlel’s acquaintances and neighbors, he appears to have been motivated as much by a generalized sense of frustration and rage as by ideology.

In short, Tunisia’s paradox — the jarring dichotomy between burgeoning liberalization and brewing jihad — should remind us once again that the plague of Islamist terror isn’t reducible to simple causes. The fact that Tunisians have been dominated by strongly secularizing regimes for the past 60 years might well help to explain why democracy has taken root with such surprising success since 2011. But it also seems clear that that same modernizing trend has fueled an intense backlash among traditionalist Muslims, often to radical effect. The fate of Tunisia, and its much-lauded democracy, will now depend on how well the country can figure out how to bridge the gap.

·         * Christian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in conjunction with the London-based Legatum Institute. A former reporter at Newsweek, he's also the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at theNational Interest.

·        *  This article was published first by Foreign Policy on 15 July 2016 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Turkey’s ‘Deep State’ Has a Secret Back Channel to Assad

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently patched up ties with Russia and Israel. Are a couple of nationalist politicians laying the groundwork for a deal with Syria’s strongman?

Istanbul - CEREN KENAR*

Turkey’s ‘Deep State’ Has a Secret Back Channel to Assad
Turkish Premier Minister  Binali Yildirim

In the past month, Turkey has worked to turn two old rivals into new friends. On June 27, Turkish officials announced a deal normalizing relations with Israel after a six-year rift in the wake of the deadly Mavi Marmara incident. That day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also expressed regret to Russia over the downing of a Russian warplane in November 2015, which paved the way for the two countries to patch up their relationship. 
The fate of Syria looms large over Turkey’s foreign-policy “reset.” 
Could Ankara also extend an olive branch to its greatest enemy: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime?

Turkey cut all diplomatic ties with Syria in September 2011, after Assad refused to institute reforms to defuse the growing protest movement against his rule. Since then, Turkey has been supporting the Syrian opposition, which aims to topple the Assad regime, and hosting more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees on its soil. A small, left-wing nationalist political party now claims that the rising refugee crisis, Russia’s heavy-handed military campaign in Syria, and a powerful Syrian Kurdish militia’s land grab in the northern part of the country leave Turkey no choice but to engage with the Assad regime. In fact, the leaders of that party already claim to be passing messages between Turkish and Syrian government officials.
The Homeland Party (Vatan Partisi), a nationalist movement with an anti-Western and anti-American platform, is chaired by Dogu Perincek, a well-known socialist politician in Turkey; its vice chair is Lt. Gen. Ismail Hakki Pekin, the former head of the Turkish Armed Forces’ Military Intelligence. Perincek and Pekin told Foreign Policy that they had meetings with members of the governments of Russia, China, Iran, and Syria during the last year and conveyed messages they received during these visits to high-ranking Turkish military and Foreign Ministry officials.

Perincek and Pekin — a socialist leader and an army general, respectively — may seem like something of an odd couple. Their political collaboration started in prison, as both men were detained in 2011 in relation to the Ergenekon case, which alleged that a network belonging to the “deep state” was plotting a military coup against the elected government. Both men share a staunch Kemalist political outlook based on a very strict adherence to secularism and Turkish nationalism, as well as an “anti-imperialist” outlook that makes them wary of American and Western influence over Turkish politics. In 2016, the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned convictions in the Ergenekon trials, ruling that the “Ergenekon terror organization” did not exist at all and that evidence had been collected illegally.
Perincek and Pekin first met Assad in Damascus in February 2015. During this meeting, Perincek said, both parties agreed on “the need of Turkey and Syria to fight separatist and fanatical terror groups together.”
Pekin and other retired senior Turkish officers who are also members of the Homeland Party, Rear Adm. Soner Polat and Maj. Gen. Beyazit Karatas, subsequently visited Damascus three times. Pekin said that during these visits — which took place in January, April, and May — the delegation met with several of the most influential security chiefs, diplomats, and political officials in the Syrian government. They included the head of the Syrian General Security Directorate, Mohammed Dib Zaitoun; Ali Mamlouk, the head of the National Security Bureau; Foreign Minister Walid Muallem; Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad; and Abdullah al-Ahmar, assistant secretary-general of the Syrian Baath Party.
The main theme of these meetings, according to Pekin, was “[h]ow to prepare the ground for Turkey and Syria to resume diplomatic relations and political cooperation.”
According to the retired Turkish army general, his meeting with Mamlouk, Syria’s powerful security chief, reached directly to the top of the state.

 “Mamlouk would often ask permission to go to the next room to talk to Assad directly on phone” Pekin said.

Pekin said that he debriefed senior Foreign Ministry and military officials after each visit, and that he has sensed a gradual change in Turkish officials’ attitudes over the past 18 months. “In January 2015, Turkey was not ready to change its policy,” he said. “However, during my last visit I observed that they [Foreign Ministry officials] were more open and flexible about that issue.”
A senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official confirmed that he met Pekin, yet vehemently denied that Turkey was negotiating with the Assad regime.
“Yes, we listened to Pekin,” the official said. “We listen to millions of people, even truck drivers, who say they possess sensitive information about conflict zones. But there was no exchange in these meetings whatsoever.”
But Pekin and Perincek believe that the growing power of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has carved out a large autonomous area in northern Syria along the Turkish border, could persuade Turkish officials to come around to their argument. The PYD is closely affiliated with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Ankara.
The two leaders of the Homeland Party argue that Turkey and the Assad regime are bound by this common enemy. “Bashar Assad told us that the PYD is a traitor organization, a separatist group. He said he will not tolerate such a separatist group in Syria, and he had no doubt that the PKK and PYD are the pawns of the U.S.,” Perincek said. “I heard him say this with my own ears.”
Pekin and Perincek said that the PYD is receiving important support from the United States, and made the case that the only way to counteract this is to build ties with other regional countries — including Assad’s regime. “Turkey is fighting against the PKK at home, yet this is not enough,” he said. “Turkey has to cut the foreign support to the PYD and fight against them to defeat the PKK. To cut the foreign support to the PKK, Turkey has to collaborate with Syria, Iraq, Iran, [and] Russia.”
At least some Turkish government officials might be sympathetic to that line of argument.
“Assad is ultimately a killer. He tortures his own people. But he doesn’t support Kurdish autonomy. We may dislike one another, but we pursue similar politics with that regard,” an unnamed senior official with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) told Reuters on June 17.
However, several senior Turkish officials rejected the claim that Turkey is changing its stance against the Assad regime. One official told Foreign Policy that the idea of Turkey collaborating with the Assad regime against the PYD was “ludicrous.” The official asked rhetorically: 

 “Assad cannot protect his own neighborhood — how can he help us fight the PYD, which he empowered against Turkey and the Syrian opposition?”
But the Syria issue isn’t the first time Perincek and Pekin claim to have delved into diplomacy — they say they also played a role during the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia.
“A group of businessmen close to Erdogan approached us to improve ties with Russia,” said Pekin, who visited Russia in December immediately after the downing of the Russian warplane. Pekin’s group introduced the businessmen to Alexandre Dugin, an ultra-nationalist Russian philosopher close to the Kremlin, who explained that the Russians expected some gesture that would amount to an apology. Perincek claimed that Alparslan Celik, the Turkish citizen who Russia alleged killed the pilot of the downed jet, was arrested immediately after this meeting. “We made a significant contribution to this [reconciliation] process and both parties, Turkey and Russia, wanted us to be a part of it.”
Presidential sources said they have no information concerning such a meeting.
Asked whether the Homeland Party acts as an interlocutor between Turkey and Syria, Perincek said, “We don’t take directions from anyone.” Pekin and Perincek refrained from using the term “mediator” to define their work — instead, Pekin said, “We lay the groundwork.”
“There are a lot of people within the AKP, especially around Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who see that being enemies with Syria and Russia is not sustainable,” Perincek said. “In fact, this is why the new cabinet was formed.”
Indeed, Turkey’s foreign-policy shifts toward Russia and Israel corresponded with a political shift in Ankara. After long-standing disagreements with Erdogan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu resigned on May 4. He was replaced by the Binali Yildirim, who signaled that he would not pursue the policies of his predecessor.
“We will continue to improve ties with our neighbors,” Yildirim told AKP’s Politics Academy on July 11. “There is no reason for us to fight with Iraq, Syria, or Egypt, but we need to take our cooperation with them further.”
The power balance among different security actors in Turkey has also been changing. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Turkish Army is regaining leverage over politics, as the Kurdish issue and regional security threats escalate. For decades, the Turkish Armed Forces exerted direct control over democratically elected governments and staged four coups to protect its political privilege. The military lost influence under the AKP government — but the ugly divorce between the AKP and the Gulen Movement, which split in late 2013, has empowered the old establishment. While the Gulenists used to have a powerful influence in state institutions, he said, “these people are being replaced with those who are loyal to the republic, nation, and against religious brotherhoods.”

A senior AKP official said that there had been “some unfortunate incidents in the past” between the government and the army, but that the relationship was now healthy. “[C]oordination between the army and government has been intensified during the last several years,” the official said.
The Turkish Army is known to be wary of the country’s policy against Assad. A senior government official, who used to be among the makers of Turkey’s Syria policy, said that the government wanted to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria, but that the Turkish Army resisted this decision as early as 2011.

“From the very beginning the Turkish Army was in favor of keeping friendships, good relations, and cooperation with Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Russia,” Perincek said.
Presidential and Foreign Ministry sources strongly deny rumors that Turkey is shifting its Syria policy, saying the removal of the Assad regime remains a priority for Turkey. Other observers, however, have noticed a change in emphasis in Ankara’s stance toward Syria: Abdulkadir Selvi, a veteran journalist with the Turkish daily Hurriyet, makes the case that Turkey is transitioning from an “era of idealism,” embodied by Davutoglu’s term, to what government supporters will promote as an “era of realism.” In this new era, Selvi argues, the Turkish government will continue criticizing the Syrian regime — but also expend less effort to topple Assad and cooperate with actors who want to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish corridor in northern Syria.

As Selvi argues: “The territorial integrity of Syria is now more important for the Turkish state than the fate of the Assad regime.”
·         Ceren Kenar is an Istanbul-based journalist working for the Turkish daily Türkiye.

·         This article was published first by Foreign Policy on 12 July 2016