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

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Iran Deal Worked: Here's How to Make It Even More Effective

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a bilateral meeting in Vienna, Austria, May 17, 2016.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
A year has passed since diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany) defied conventional wisdom and struck a deal aimed at both preventing Iran from getting the bomb and preventing it from getting bombed. At the time, the deal’s detractors were apoplectic; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “historic mistake” that would pave the way for Iran to obtain a bomb. But the world has not come to an end.  Iran is not the hegemon of the Middle East, Israel can still be found on the map, and Washington and Tehran still define each other as enemies. These days, voices such as Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, criticize the deal for having changed too little.

But a closer examination shows that it has had a profound impact on the region’s geopolitical dynamics. Only four years ago, the Iranian nuclear program was consistently referred to as the United States’ number one national security threat. Senior U.S. officials put the risk of an Israeli attack on Iran at 50–50, a confrontation that the United States would quickly get dragged into. A war that was even more destabilizing than the Iraq invasion was not just a possibility; it seemed likely.

Today, however, the talk of war is gone. Even the hawkish government of Netanyahu has gone silent on the matter. Former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a hawk in his own right, announced a few weeks ago that “at this point, and in the foreseeable future, there is no existential threat facing Israel. Thus it is fitting that the leadership of the country stop scaring the citizenry and stop giving them the feeling that we are standing before a second Holocaust.”

Moreover, members of the U.S. Congress who have recently visited Israel have also noted that Israelis are no longer shifting every conversation to a discussion about the Iranian nuclear threat. “I can’t count how many times I, and many members of Congress, were urgently and passionately informed that negotiation with the Iranian menace was wishful thinking and the height of folly,” Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) wrote after a recent visit to Israel. “And now? Nothing.”

The nuclear deal has thus halted the march toward war and Iran’s progress toward a bomb. And that certainly qualifies as significant change. To continue to argue that Israel and the region are not safer as a result of the deal would be to contend that Iran’s nuclear program was never a threat to begin with. That is a not a position that the Likud government in Israel can argue with a straight face.

Other criticisms of the deal centered on predictions that Iran would not honor the agreement. Yet the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that Iran isabiding by its obligations under the deal. Also not borne out have been prophecies that Iran’s regional policies would radicalize, that the deal would, as The Heritage Foundation’s James Phillips wrote, “project [American] weakness that could further encourage Iranian hardliners.” To be sure, Washington continues to view many of Iran’s regional activities as unhelpful and destabilizing, but those activities have not increased as a result of the nuclear deal. Hezbollah and Tehran’s posture toward Israel has, for instance, not become more aggressive than it already was. Any changes that have occurred have been rooted in regional developments—the Syrian civil war or the Saudi assault on Yemen—rather than the nuclear deal. Important developments in Syria, such as Russia’s broader entry into the war or Iran’s maneuvers on the ground, are divorced from the nuclear deal and directly tied to developments on the ground in Syria.

If anything, as the European Union’s foreign policy head, Federica Mogherini, told me last December, the deal paved the way for renewed dialogue on Syria, which offers a glimmer of hope to end the carnage there. “What we have now in Syria—talks bringing together all the different actors (and we have it now and not last year)—is because we had the [nuclear] deal,” she told me. And last month, U.S. Secretary Of State John Kerry stated that Iran has been “helpful” in Iraq, where both the United States and Iran are fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).

It is undisputable that outside of the nuclear deal, the relationship between the United States and Iran has shifted significantly since the breakthrough. That became abundantly clear in January, when ten American sailors drifted into Iranian waters and were apprehended by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—and were then promptly released. An incident that in the pre-deal era likely would have taken months, if not years, to resolve was now settled in 16 hours. Direct diplomacy between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif combined with a mutual desire to resolve the matter quickly made all the difference. The two countries had embarked on a path that could transform their relationship, and both were too committed to that path to allow the incident to fester. “I was afraid that this [the sailors’ arrest] would jeopardize everything, not just the implementation [of the JCPOA],” Zarif admitted to me.

But for relations to improve beyond the nuclear deal, moderate elements on both sides need to be strengthened by the deal. That is one area where the skepticism of the critics may have been justified. Rather than seeing the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gain momentum after the deal, the pushback from Iranian hardliners has been fierce. Those officials couldn’t prevent Iran from signing the agreement, but they could create enough problems to halt any effort to translate the nuclear deal into a broader opening to the United States. A swift crackdown against individuals and entities seeking to build bridges between Iran and the West had its intended effect: Confidence that the nuclear deal would usher in a new era for U.S.-Iranian relations quickly plummeted.

Moreover, challenges to sanctions relief has given hardline opponents of the deal in Iran a boost. Their critique of the agreement—that the United States is not trustworthy—seems to ring true since no major banks have been willing to enter the Iranian market. The banks’ hesitation, in turn, is mainly rooted in the fear that after the U.S. presidential elections, Washington’s political commitment to the deal will wane.

Neither Republican candidate Donald Trump nor Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton have signaled any desire to continue down the Obama administration’s path with Iran in general. Clinton has vowed to uphold the deal, but neither she nor Trump have made it crystal clear that they will protect the agreement from new congressional sanctions or other measures that would cause the deal’s collapse.

Clinton’s team has signaled that its priority will be to rebuild relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia and restore those allies’ confidence that the United States will counter Iran in the region. Meanwhile, the uncertainty around a Trump presidency needs no explaining. As a result, many banks deem the risk of entering the Iranian market too high due to the political challenges on the U.S. side. That has left Iranians without much in the way of sanctions relief, which is in turn costing Rouhani politically.

In other words, although the deal has been remarkably successful in achieving its explicit goals—halting, and even reversing, Iran’s nuclear advances while avoiding a costly and risky war with Tehran—its true value in rebalancing U.S. relationships in the Persian Gulf and creating a broader opening with Iran may be squandered once Obama leaves office. If Obama’s successor returns to the United States’ old ways in the Middle East while hardliners in Tehran stymie outreach to the West, these unique and historic opportunities will be wasted.

* TRITA PARSI is the author of the forthcoming book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Rebirth of Diplomacy. He is also President of the National Iranian American Council.

* This article was published first by the Foreign Affairs on 11 July 2016