Four things (Turkey-Syria; Biden-Iran; Transgender in Egypt; Saudi economy)
1. Turkey: Erdogan’s occupation policies may reveal limits of US-Turkish cooperation in Syria
The US may be reaching a cul-de-sac in seeking to realign its policies with Turkey in Syria. The obstacle is the same as it ever was: seemingly irreconcilable differences over the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey considers the YPG a “terrorist” group linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); the US values the YPG as the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a tried and true partner in defeating Islamic State in Syria.
Background: In October 2019, Turkish forces and Turkish-backed Syrian armed groups invaded and occupied Syrian border towns in northeast Syria, a military operation rather ironically called Peace Spring to end the “terrorist” threat from the YPG and provide a safe or security zone to resettle as many as 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent his troops in after a call with US President Donald Trump. In December, the Syrian military launched its own offensive in Idlib province in northwest Syria, in the process killing Turkish troops serving at outposts established there as part of the US-Russia “deconfliction” agreement signed in 2018. The result was Turkey had a two-front conflict in Syria, and no exit strategy.
Three bad-to-worse trends in Turkey’s occupation: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, perhaps benefiting in part from the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, is pursuing policies in Syria that are only serving to complicate US efforts to get US-Turkey relations realigned:
Population transfers: “Erdogan makes no secret of his intention to uproot Kurdish self-rule in northern Syria and change the demographic character of the region,” reports Fehim Tastekin. “Turkey has transferred hundreds of people to the northeastern Syrian town of Tell Abyad from the Turkish-controlled Operation Euphrates Shield region, stunning many families displaced from the town that have been hoping to return to their villages in the area, which fell under Turkish control during a military operation in November 2019. A new round of population transfers is reportedly underway.”
Cutting off water: “The Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria said Turkey and its Sunni rebel allies halted service at the Alok pumping station in the Turkish-occupied town of Ras al-Ain today, putting efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in the war-ravaged region at risk,” writes Amberin Zaman. “The stoppages have continued...despite two separate agreements struck with Russian mediation for Turkey to supply water in exchange for electricity from the Mabrouka power station, which remains under the control of the Syrian government and the autonomous administration. But Turkey keeps pressing for more and is apparently leveraging the spigot to that end.”
Undercutting US-backed intra-Kurdish dialogue: “Turkey has begun to openly signal its displeasure with US-backed peace talks between Syrian Kurdish rival groups,” Zaman writes in another scoop, “raising the specter of failure for the latest US attempt to fulfill what have so far proven irreconcilable goals: to pursue its partnership with the Kurds and to repair ties with its NATO ally, Ankara, which have been badly frayed because of it.”
Our take: Russian president Vladimir Putin is loving the leverage Turkey’s Syria quagmire gives him on Erdogan. Turkey faces a potential two-front war — with Syrian Kurds in the northeast and the Syrian government in the northwest. The 3.6 million refugees remain a strain on Turkey’s economy, even more so as a result of COVID-19. Putin’s proposed exit strategy for Turkey is some type of deal between Ankara and Damascus, and that displaced Syrians would eventually return to their original homes, not just the safe zone. So far, Putin’s strategy is at best a long shot; it fell apart in January when Turkish and Syrian forces exchanged fire and there were casualties around Idlib. Lots of bad blood makes any reconciliation between Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a stretch, and Erdogan does not want to burn his bridges completely with Washington. But Erdogan is boxed in. As we wrote in February, probably the only way to work out these irreconcilable differences in Syria is by US President Donald Trump working the phones with Putin and Erdogan. All three operate by personal connection, and the action only seems to move when they talk.
Read more: Elizabeth Hagedorn reports on remarks this week by US envoy for Syria James Jeffrey on Iran’s role in Syria. Last week we had the take here on why Iran’s perceived drawdown in Syria may be more tactical than strategic, in line with the comments by Jeffrey.
2. Top Biden adviser draws contrast with Trump on Iran...but admits sanctions “very effective”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic Party candidate for president, has made clear that if elected he would reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal) and begin negotiations on how to extend it.
Jake Sullivan, an adviser to Biden and former senior foreign policy adviser in the Obama administration, admitted in remarks at the Hudson Institute that “advocates and defenders of the [deal], myself included, thought that when the Trump administration pulled out and imposed unilateral sanctions, that those sanctions were not likely to be as effective, because the Trump administration wasn’t bringing the rest of the world along with them...That didn’t turn out to be true. Actually, those sanctions have been very effective in the narrow sense of causing deep economic pain on Iran.”
Sullivan added that restarting nuclear diplomacy with Iran “is a perfectly plausible available strategy and a far wiser course than basically demand Iran come out with its hands up...until you get to the brink of war.”
Bryant Harris has the report here, and also check out his story on how progressive groups are pushing the Biden campaign for changes in his campaign’s policy toward Israel.
3. Actor’s transgender son gets support in conservative Egypt
Hesham Selim, a prominent Egyptian actor, said on TV this month that his daughter, Noura, is undergoing a gender transition.
“In the conservative patriarchal society, few dare talk openly about gender transition because of the stigma attached to gender nonconformity,” writes Shahira Amin, but Selim’s revelation about his son generated support, especially among LGBTQ activists.
Read Shahira’s report here on the plight and formidable challenges facing Egypt’s transgender community.
4. Expat labor is Saudi Arabia’s biggest loser in post-COVID-19 economy
Karen Young provides a comprehensive assessment of the impact of budget reforms to be taken by Saudi Arabia as a result of falling oil prices and COVID-19. Here’s a sample:
“For the social contract, there is a reckoning that the future looks different. Average incomes will be lower. Young people will not live the way their parents did. And most young people might be content with that reality if they feel their social opportunities and freedoms continue to open under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's leadership.”
“What does survive from Vision 2030 is the restructuring of the labor market, as many foreign workers will lose their jobs and leave the kingdom, making room for more nationals to enter by necessity.”
“Economic hardship and a strong nationalist justification could play to the crown prince's strengths.”
This is just a sample – read the full article here.
In case you missed it:
Some clarity on Russia-Syria ties
Al-Monitor contributor Maxim Suchkov has a first-rate take on some perhaps premature speculation among analysts that Putin may be stepping back from Assad. “Saying that Moscow is having a change of heart at this very moment, let alone is willing to publicly broadcast this to Damascus, may be a bit premature,” Suchkov writes, “After all, it's not about Russia’s attitude toward Assad, it’s about the future of Russia’s presence in Syria and the pursuit of new pillars of this policy in the post-COVID-19 Middle East.”
Check out his article on the MEI blog here, and his many articles for Al-Monitor here.
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