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Near East, a bird's eye view


   The Islamization of Turkey by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AK Party government is in rapid progress.  Two terrorist movements, one of Iranian origin and one affiliated to Al Qaeda are protected by the authorities from judicial inquiries. The Iranian inspired Tawhid-Salam (Jerusalem Army) network with ties to high AKP government officials was monitored by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and the U.S. Consulate.  After three years of surveillance, in July 2014, the Istanbul Prosecutor's Office abruptly decided to drop the case, and the lead prosecutor was reassigned in an orchestrated move understood as a cover-up of a highly sensitive probe.

"In a bizarre, twisted and large crackdown on media in Turkey, a prosecutor has accused screenwriters, leading journalists and police investigators of defamation of an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group called Tahşiyeciler, (roughly translated as annotators)"  wrote Today's Zaman on December 15, 2014.  "Editors who published reports on the group, columnists and scriptwriters who wrote about it and police investigators who investigated it were all charged with attempts to topple the Turkish government by defaming a group with clear ties to an al-Qaeda network in Turkey." 

   Tough stuff, barely noticed abroad. Better notice has been taken of the government's drive to upgrade the Imam-Hatip schools. Institutions originally created to educate students for future service as (state appointed and salaried) imamsthe Imam-Hatip schools became popular among pious families. In his earlier role as premier, Erdoğan saw to it that the diploma of these religious schools would be considered equivalent to public high school diplomas. That opened for Imam-Hatip school students a shortcut to college and university.

   Recently, the government has -- without consulting parents and teachers --  begun to transform scores of high schools into Imam-Hatip schools, entailing a comprehensive change of the curriculum.  If the government succeeds in changing most or all secular high schools into Imam-Hatip schools, Turkey will breed generations of ignorant mullahs and hodshas believing in the creation and knowing little beyond the Quran and the Hadiths.  With generations of Imam-Hatip school alumni Turkey would in all likelihood not be able to maintain its present standard of living.

   In addition, President Erdoğan insists that all young Turks should learn the old Ottoman language, a mix of Turkish, Arabic and Farsi, written in Arabic letters, abandoned for almost a century. 



   In the territory formerly known as Syria only two recognizable entities are existing: the Assad government area and the Islamic State area. The remaining part is carved up in a multitude of fiefdoms with daily changing borders, alliances and denominations. Former Syria has become an international battlefield with thousands of foreigners fighting on all sides.  The Assad government, originally based on the secular Baath party, has in practice become a Shiite government propped up by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia which is more effective than the government's military. In addition to Iranians, Lebanese and Iraqis, some Shiite Houthis from Yemen are fighting for Assad.  Also, Russians have reportedly been spotted among Assad's military advisers.

   The IS continues to attract foreign jihadis and  newly converted foreigners in large numbers, although passage through Turkey has become a bit more difficult. Still, IS apparently finds it difficult to  "absorb" the arriving volunteers. All opposition groups are afraid of spies among the foreign jihadis. They screen them thoroughly and send them quickly to the battlefield to test their determination to sacrifice themselves. The alleged execution of a hundred or more potential mutineers from Europe by IS has reverberated in the Internet which has also seen reports of recent shortages of funds for salaries and bottlenecks in the supplies of food, electricity and other essentials. The inability to take the beleaguered Kurdish town of Kobane, plus some military setbacks in Iraq, have dented the image of an invincible IS.

   Assad's government and the IS, however, continue to coexist in several ways. Foreign volunteers in the IS are reportedly frustrated if they are called to fight other opponent militias instead of sacrificing themselves in the battle against Assad.  The government air force focuses its bombing raids on areas held by smaller opposition groups and leaves the fight against the IS mainly to the U.S. led coalition. Assad and the coalition have effectively harmonized their bombing schedules: the Syrian air force flies in the mornings, the coalition planes prefer afternoons and nights.

   In the private sector, good old Syrian merchant mentality can overcome even the steepest religious and political hurdles: Damascus based investors are said to be operating oil rigs and refineries in IS territory in a profit sharing arrangement.



   War ravaged Mesopotamia is enjoying the stability of a stalemate. The IS does not seem to be powerful enough to attack Baghdad and the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbela.  While the American-trained Iraqi army is still riddled by corruption, absentee soldiers and little fighting spirit, the IS is faced by fierce Shiite militias. Iran has left no doubt that it will intervene if the holy places in Iraq are in danger.

   For lack of a military power, the government is unable to attack the IS and drive it out of Anbar province. With considerable human sacrifice, some progress was achieved by the Kurdish Peshmerga militia which was originally badly outgunned by the IS and is now receiving training and some modern weaponry and equipment.



   After four turbulent years, Egypt is enjoying a return to normalcy. The protests by Muslim Brothers and secular minded students have subsided under heavy government pressure;  public attention is again focused on mundane problems of daily life: bread, fuel, electricity. Copts are restoring their mob-ravaged churches. The government is busy mending fences: ties with the strongest supporters of ousted President Morsi -- Qatar and Turkey --  are about to be re-established. Jailed Al-Jazeera journalists who allegedly supported Morsi are about to be freed.  In pursuit of its sharp anti-Brotherhood policies, Cairo continues to treat Syrian refugees harshly because most of them are suspected to be Islamists driven out by President Assad;s forces.

   The population is watching how the military government will handle the country's huge economic problems. Unsustainable levels of bread, gasoline and heating oil subsidies need to be lowered without exposing millions of Egyptians to hunger and throttling traffic. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates cannot continue for years to fill the coffers of the government.

   A new tourist boom is badly needed but terror groups like Gamaa Islamiyah know too well how fragile tourism is.

   With the domestic situation pretty much under control, the government is now looking across borders, taking an active interest in Egypt's traditional area of influence: eastern Libya.



   The country still has two parliaments and two rival governments. Allies of the secular minded General Khalifa Haftar are running the eastern government at Benghazi. The gemeral who wants to free Libya of all Islamist militias is supported by Egypt and the Emirates. According to unconfirmed reports, Egypt's air force has even bombed some of Haftar's opponents in the Cyrenaica.

   At the same time, the Islamist counter government in Tripolis receives support and arms from Qatar and Turkey. The U.N. has apparently been successful in brokering a ceasefire in Benghazi between Haftar and his enemies. However, most news of this kind have a short shelf life  in Libya. The country is in danger of sliding into a full scale proxy civil war on behalf of external powers.



   The three countries -- Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco -- are trying to stabilize their domestic situation by limiting the influx of refugees, especially from Syria and sub-Saharan Africa. Libyan refugees are generally treated well whereas Syrians are for similar reasons as in Egypt considered potential troublemakers. Immigrants from Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Chad and Eritrea are not welcome because they tend to stay if they cannot make the passage to Europe. Also, they are suspected of not being economic or political refugees but members of  criminal gangs or Qaeda-affiliated terror militias.

   Tunisia, after it got rid of the Islamist Ennahda government, is finally taking notice of the large numbers of young people who left the country, encouraged by imams and Ennahda, to fight in Syria, mainly for IS and al-Nusra. Hundreds of Tunisians have already returned from Syria, expecting to be praised as heroes in the fight for Islam. Instead, they find themselves to their great surprise under scrutiny by secret service and police who want to find out how dangerous they are.



   With proxy wars going on or developing in Syria, Iraq and Libya, the picture these countries present is deeply troubling. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are the powers most active pulling strings behind and partly even before the scenes.

   Saudi Arabia seems to be playing with the highest stakes: the IS could serve as a precursor of a Saudi takeover of Syria and northern Iraq. Some observers believe the IS has been created by the Saudis. Instead, the group heading IS seems to have been founded in American prison camps in Iraq. By imposing sharia law  in IS territory, the caliphate is in fact preparing the population for a future under Saudi rule. It is no secret that the majesties in Riad always considered Syria an ideal territory to be added to their kingdom. But the rather secular attitude of the population and the Western habits of urbanites and middle class in Syria seemed an unsurmountable obstacle for Saudi colonialist dreams.

  The IS is now suppressing the secular habits of the population, enforcing its own interpretation of sharia law and forcing women to wear black niqabs or burqas, thus preparing not only parts of Syria but also of Iraq for eventual Saudi domination.  A risky gamble for sure, but with American support and tough Kurdish fighters, who knows?

  Iran has thus far been relatively reluctant to get involved. Although Iranian officers are leading Iraqi government troops and  some Iranian units have been seen in Iraq, Tehran still resists the temptation of turning the tables in Iraq with a full scale military intervention.  Another regional power showing remarkable restraint is Israel, Apart from some skirmish with Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, it is passively watching the unfolding drama around it.

  Egypt is only slowly awaking after years of internal turmoil and remains rather passive while another power of similar size, Turkey, has become the champion of the Muslim Brothers' cause. While doggedly supporting whoever is fighting Assad in Syria and Haftar in Libya, Turkey continues to mourn the loss of Morsi in Egypt. So bitter is Turkey's disappointment with Assad's and his allies' failure to hand Syria over to the Islamists of Ankara's choice that any  group fighting Assad -- including IS and al-Nusra -- can count on Turkey turning a blind eye to their activities or providing open support. Some observers -- notably Kurds --  even suspect that Turkey has territorial ambitions in Syria, especially as regards Kurdish settled border zones.

Ihsan al-Tawil

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