This Thanksgiving weekend in the United States we highlight three key trends from Al-Monitor’s reporting in the Middle East:
• The Islamic State may be relocating to Turkey, and Ankara is not ready for the challenge.
• Iran’s hard-liners are benefitting from US support for protests against fuel hikes.
• The US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces may not be ready or able to shut down oil trade with the Syrian government.
Turkey: return of the 'jihadi highway'?
The Trump administration, according to a White House fact sheet this month, considers Turkey a “critical partner in the fight to annihilate the ISIS caliphate,” and that its “continued engagement remains essential in ensuring ISIS is never allowed to reconstitute.”
But is Turkey up to the task?
"Turkey — the logistics lifeline of jihadi movements in Iraq and Syria — has failed to clear its own backyard of jihadi threats,” writes Fehim Tastekin. “There are credible indications that the Islamic State (IS), after losing its territorial dominance in Iraq and Syria, has designated Turkey as its next reorganization base.”
Tastekin cites reports by senior Iraqi intelligence officials that IS leaders are in the midst of shifting operations to Turkey, after being driven out of Iraq and Syria by US-led coalition forces. A US Special Forces operation Oct. 27 led to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killing himself while under fire by US troops.
The United States and Turkey have increasingly focused on shutting down foreign exchange and financial networks in Turkey linked to IS and other terrorist networks, and imposing sanctions on individuals and companies linked to these networks.
Turkish security units have tried to break these networks in recent months, reports Tastekin. “They raided 37 addresses and detained 22 people Sept. 19. The operation revealed that IS operatives in Syria and Turkey used a computer program called al-Haram for money transfers. Turkish security determined that these companies were operating in the Turkish provinces of Istanbul, Ankara, Gaziantep, Adana, Mersin, Hatay, Sanliurfa, Antalya, Ankara, Izmir, Kayseri and Konya.”
That Turkey has been a logistical and financial pipeline for Islamist groups operating in Turkey is nothing new. Kadri Gursel called out Turkey back in 2014 for the "two-way jihadi highway" that allowed al-Qaeda-linked groups and IS to build its presence in Iraq and Syria. As Gursel wrote at the time, “[The] rational response to this new situation would be for Ankara to forget its impossible obsession with toppling the Damascus regime, and work with its Western allies to prioritize security measures to protect its citizens from al-Qaeda terror.”
Tastekin concludes this week, “Haphazard policies and flawed legal processes enable IS members to escape, hide and move as they want in Turkey. IS has further obtained more room to maneuver due to Operation Peace Spring and the subsequent deterioration of stability east of the Euphrates. … The regrouping of IS cells in Turkey poses a threat to the entire world. Ankara is aware that its mistakes in combating IS pose a danger.”
Iran: US stance toward protests encourages Iran's hard-liners
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has expressed US support for Iranians demonstrating against a 50% increase in fuel prices on Nov. 15, saying that the United States “stands with the people … in their struggle against an oppressive regime that silences them while arresting and murdering protestors.”
Pompeo said Washington has received 20,000 messages from Iran despite Tehran’s crackdown on the internet, and that he believes all came from inside Iran.
Amnesty International reports that 143 Iranians have been killed and 7,000 arrested by the government.
The reduction in Iran’s fuel subsidy is likely a direct result of US sanctions, which are having a devastating impact on the Iranian economy. The International Monetary Fund projects that Iran’s economy will decline by 9.5% this year.
The US position backing the protesters appears to be a windfall for hard-liners in Iran, including in foreign policy, as some who opposed the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal had warned last year.
“Open support for the protests has just reinvigorated the Islamic Republic’s official narrative that the real goal the United States pursues through maximum pressure is not to bring Iran to the negotiating table but to cause “regime change” in the country,” writes Hamidreza Azizi. “Therefore, any kind of diplomatic engagement with the United States would be meaningless and Iran should instead proceed with its policy of ‘maximum resistance.’”
In a Nov. 27 speech, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lauded the Basij, the volunteer paramilitary group linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that deals with internal security, for quashing the protests, which he labeled a conspiracy linked to "global arrogance [the United States] and Zionism [Israel].”
And, ominously for Iran’s next step in Iraq and Lebanon, Khamenei compared the Basij experience to the positions of the Iran-linked Popular Mobilization Units (Iraq) and Hezbollah (Lebanon) militias for similarly confronting the plots of the "domineering powers."
Azizi explains that Iranian conservatives see “a golden opportunity to put the burden of the economic problems on Rouhani” and sideline moderates. “They accuse Rouhani of mismanaging the implementation of the recent increase in gasoline prices, which resulted in the public anger. As a result, Rouhani’s main focus in his remaining time in office will be expectedly shifted toward managing domestic challenges, with less time to follow up on his recent regional diplomatic initiatives, such as the Hormuz Peace Endeavor. Rouhani raised the initiative in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September as a basis for solving the problems between Iran and its Arab neighbors. Meanwhile, Iran’s Arab rivals, especially Saudi Arabia, may now have even less incentive to enter into a meaningful dialogue with a weakened Rouhani.”
Can US, SDF shut down smuggling of Syrian oil?
The Trump administration is leaving several hundred troops in eastern Syria to partner with the primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to protect Syrian oil east of the Euphrates against IS. The United States also considers its hold on the oil as leverage against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The US partnership with the SDF may not end the sale and smuggling of oil from these fields to the Syrian government, Dan Wilkofsky writes. “The tangled web of business interests and middlemen involved in purchasing and transporting the oil is difficult to identify let alone regulate. More importantly, the SDF has sold crude to government brokers since 2018, even as it targeted smugglers earlier this year; the SDF has only become more dependent on the government after it was left by its US backers to face Turkey’s October offensive alone.”
“Any deliberate cutback in oil sales, if it occurs, is likely to be an SDF attempt to push the uncompromising central government to negotiate in good faith,” Wilkofsky adds.
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