MESOP TODAYS COMMENTARY : MICHAEL RUBIN (AIE) ASKS QUESTION & GIVES NO ANSWER / “So what is NATO to do? Turkey poses a problem the defensive alliance hasn’t experienced in its nearly seven decade existence: What to do when the enemy is internal rather than external.”?

Can NATO Survive Turkey? – By Michael Rubin (AIE)

2017-02-24 06:01 GMT –  It has become a staple of diplomatic rhetoric that, whatever problems the United States has with the current government in Turkey, diplomats must ameliorate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan because Turkey is too important to NATO and also a staging ground in any operations against the Islamic State.

Certainly, that is the position of the new administration.

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The Syrian Regime’s Ambivalence Towards President Trump

MESOP NEWS BACKGROUNDER : MEMRI February 21, 2017  – Special Dispatch – No. 6794

Based on statements by Syrian regime officials, chiefly President Bashar Al-Assad himself, and on articles in Syrian government and pro-government press, the regime’s attitude towards U.S. President Donald Trump is characterized by ambivalence. On the one hand, regime officials have thus far expressed cautious optimism regarding the future of relations between the countries out of a desire to maintain good ties with a U.S. administration they see as different from its predecessor and more in line with Russia regarding the Syrian crisis. On the other hand, articles in the official Syrian press did not hold back their criticism of President Trump, particularly after his call to establish safe zones for refugees in Syria.[1]

This report will review the Syrian regime’s position on the Trump administration, as can be gleaned from statements by Assad and articles in the Syrian government and pro-government press:

Assad Welcomes Trump Statements On Combating Terrorism, Calls Syrian Safe-Zone Plan Unrealistic

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MESOP DOCUMENTS & PROSPECTS : Middle East Forum Plans Out a “White House Commission on Radical Islam”

News from the Middle East Forum – February 22, 2017

PHILADELPHIA – February 22, 2017 – Six months ago, Donald Trump announced his intention to “establish a commission on radical Islam” early in his presidency, designed to investigate and explain the “core convictions and beliefs of radical Islam,” identify “warning signs of radicalization,” and expose “the networks in our society that support radicalization.”

In an effort to aid President Trump in implementing this pledge, the Middle East Forum has prepared a comprehensive plan (view online here or download here) for a White House Commission on Radical Islam.

Written by Christopher C. Hull, a former congressional staffer, the plan centers around:

· Structure: To be successful, the commission must consist of members selected by the president and have the power to subpoena documents, compel testimony, and grant immunity.

· Personnel: The commission should include a mix of experts on political violence, radical Islam, and technology; elected officials and members of the military, law enforcement, intelligence, and diplomatic communities; Muslim reformers; and victims of radical Islam.

· Mandate: The commission should expand on Trump’s commitment to explain the core convictions of Islamists, expose their networks, and develop new protocols for law enforcement. In addition, it should examine how to cut off resources flowing to Islamists; how to deny them use of the Internet; how to prevent them from crossing our borders; and how to prevent political correctness from impeding the fight against radical Islam.

· Implementation: To be effective, the commission must coordinate with federal agencies to gather data, draft executive orders and legislation, provide supporting documents, prepare requests for proposals, recommend personnel, and work out budgets.

The Forum plan emphasizes that the overall goal of the White House Commission on Radical Islam should be to bring the American people together around a common understanding of their adversary and how it can be defeated.

The Middle East Forum is dedicated to promoting American interests in the Middle East and protecting the West from Middle Eastern threats. It does so through intellectual, activist, and philanthropic efforts.

For more information, contact:
Laura Frank, Communications Director




US not persuaded to ditch Syrian Kurds

Fehim Tastekin writes this week that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s expansive goals for Syria include a “Manbij and Raqqa in a three-phased operation. First will be setting up a ‘terror-free safe zone,’ which must also be covered by a no-fly zone. Second, Arabs and Turkmens will be settled in the safe zone. Finally, a national army will be established through a ‘train and equip’ program.”

Erdogan’s top priority remains the defeat of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union party (PYD), which Turkey links with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it considers a terrorist group. Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield in August to break the influence of the PYD and PKK, as well as the Islamic State (IS), in northern Syria.

Erodgan’s war against the Syrian Kurds seems to be the cause of irreconcilable differences with the United States over Syria. The US counts on the YPG as the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), its key on-the-ground partner in Syria. US plans for an attack on Raqqa, IS’ ‘”capital” in Syria, reportedly depend on the SDF for the first assault wave.

Amberin Zaman reports that a high-level Turkish delegation led by Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Umit Yalcin mostly failed in its appeal for the United States to ditch the SDF in meetings with US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, former national security adviser Michael Flynn before he resigned, CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph L. Votel and others in Washington last week.

“Sources familiar with the substance of the exchanges told Al-Monitor on strict condition of anonymity that Turkish demands that the United States drop its plans to free Raqqa with the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), labeling them terrorists, elicited a frosty response,” Zaman writes. “The stiffest demurral came from Votel, the sources said. ‘He explained his position like a soldier would, it was quite tough,’ one source observed. During the encounter, CENTCOM officials reminded the Turks that having talked about putting Turkish boots on the ground for Raqqa as an alternative to the YPG, the Turkish General Staff had yet to present a blueprint detailing Turkey’s operational plans and precise contribution. The Turks got their most sympathetic hearing in the White House, the sources added, declining to elaborate.”

The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the US reliance on the SDF is the result of Turkey’s failure to provide alternative forces. Erdogan still seeks to leverage the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) association with an array of armed groups, most of which are Turkmens and others that are Salafi in orientation, to be the backbone of a security force for northern Syria.

Tastekin’s analysis underscores the questionable capacity of these forces. “Although some recent successes in the field have again made the militias attractive, what is not at all transparent is the true strength of the diverse groups,” he writes. “There is no reliable data about them, giving the impression that the usefulness of a motley group of militiamen may be overblown. The potential Erdogan had set his eyes on is melting away with their endless internal squabbles. Many groups associated with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) now clash with groups that have allied with Ahrar al-Sham, which is gaining prominence among religious factions. Some groups fighting under Ahrar al-Sham have already decided that joining Euphrates Shield is against their interests. In other words, receiving support from Turkey does not guarantee that they will become Turkey’s soldiers.”

Tastekin adds that “looking through the photographs and videos of the al-Bab operation, it is hard to see an effective force in the making. It is impossible to avoid the impression that these are armed hordes that open fire haphazardly and are ill-disciplined, untrained and inexperienced. The TSK had to revise its strategy at al-Bab because of this serious deficiency. While the TSK thought it would suffice to provide fire support with armored operations and air attacks, soon it had to push its elite commando units to the front lines. Today, these units are directly clashing with IS.”

Tastekin also explains Erdogan’s shifting, and questionable, rationale for a safe zone in northern Syria. “For a long while, Erdogan cited the scenario of a potential refugee flow from Aleppo to justify his safe zone idea. But the civilians evacuated from eastern Aleppo did not come to Turkey as he had been forecasting. Those who came to Idlib under Turkey’s protection are military groups and their families. Thus, the pretext of a potential refugee flow lost its validity. … There are even signs that the refugee movement now is not from Syria to Turkey but from Turkey to Syria. … Local sources Al-Monitor spoke to said this was not yet a mass movement of people, but there are families who have been going back since the Syrian army took over Aleppo.”

The high price of “no” in Turkey

Pinar Tremblay reports, “Saying no can have a high price tag for ordinary Turks as pressure builds in the days leading up to an April 16 referendum on constitutional amendments designed to widely expand the president’s powers.”

“Their fear is warranted,” Tremblay writes. “Several AKP members, including Cabinet ministers and the prime minister, have indicated multiple times that saying no is what terrorists would do. The most worrisome statement came Feb. 12 from Erdogan himself. When asked about current polls, Erdogan was unhappy. He said, ‘It is too early to gauge the health of the polls’ because he had not yet started actively campaigning. Erdogan told the press, ‘April 16 will be the answer to July 15 [the day of the coup attempt]. Those who say no will be siding with July 15.’ … Despite all the public pressure, some brave individuals have taken the risk — and paid the price. … There have also been multiple stories of brutality and intimidation of those who attempt to join rallies or refuse to distribute pamphlets, or who simply tell others that they plan to vote against the referendum. There has been so much of this talk that people have started questioning if the vote will be done through open or secret balloting, and whether those who dare to say no will be taken into custody after they vote.”

Russia “patient” on US plans for Syria

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis ruled out, at least for now, military cooperation with Russia in Syria.

“We do not — or, are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level, but our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground or a way forward where Russia,” Mattis said at a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Maxim Suchkov writes, “At this point, Russia isn’t pinning all its hopes for Syria and beyond on potential cooperation with the United States. Moscow continues to engage with a number of regional players and intra-Syrian factions, calculating its own challenges, opportunities and further moves. Yet the United States remains a critical go-to player. While the Kremlin continues to promote its interests via other means, it will wait patiently until the Trump administration gets a sense of how to best approach Russia.”

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MESOP NEWS INDEPTH : Iranian concepts of warfare: Understanding Tehran’s evolving military doctrines

February 2017 –   J. Matthew McInnis –  Key points

  • The year 2016 appears to be an inflection point at which Iran recognized its need to move toward a more conventionally offensive and expansionist concept of warfare. This could include foreign bases and air, land, and sea power projection capabilities.
  • Despite this shift, Iran still primarily focuses military doctrine on defense, deterrence, and asymmetric warfare because they remain both hindered by weak offensive military capability and driven by high perceptions of threat from the US and regional adversaries.
  • New resources from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and future United Nations weapons sanctions relaxation may encourage further expansion into conventional offensive capabilities. However, threat perceptions, particularly from potential clashes with regional rivals or direct conflict with the US, will be the more dominant factor in the extent to which Iran reorients toward offensive warfare.

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The Fourth Political Theory – Pro-Kremlin Russian Philosopher Dugin: The Alternative To Liberalism Is ‘Returning To The Middle Ages’

During an interview with the Russian Orthodox-nationalist Tsargrad TV station, pro-Kremlin philosopher Alexander Dugin explained the Fourth Political Theory.[1] Dugin classified three political theories in order of appearance that characterized the 20th century: liberalism (the first theory), communism (the second theory), and fascism (the third theory). Fascism emerged later than the other major political theories and disappeared before them. The alliance between the first political theory (liberalism) and the second political theory (Communism) and Adolf Hitler’s geopolitical miscalculations were responsible for the third political theory’s demise. Fascism’s disappearance cleared the battlefield for the first and the second political theories whose Cold War dual created a bipolar world that lasted nearly half-a-century. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union signaled the victory of the first political theory (liberalism) over the second (socialism). Thus, by the end of the 20th century, liberalism remained the only theory standing.

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Further Response to Roy Gutman: Balancing the Picture


Further Response to Roy Gutman: Balancing the Picture  – 13 Feb 2017

By Aymenn Jawad Al-TamimiIn his reply to my comments on his recent piece for The Nation, Roy Gutman takes exception to my supposed challenge to his “professional integrity.” I should thus begin by emphasizing that I did not intend my piece to be calling professional integrity into doubt: opinions and definitions may differ, but for me doubts about professional integrity would only be an issue if I were accusing him of outright invention, deliberate and malicious manipulation of evidence or something similar. It is not my contention that he engages in any of these things, and such accusations must always be carefully considered before being put forward. Rather, a bias for a particular side, while problematic, need not have malevolent intent behind it. Bias can arise innocently and unconsciously. It can be driven, for example, by honest empathy and anger about the sufferings of civilians at the hands of a particular group or side.

Gutman proceeds to complain that my assertions regarding his bias read like an attempt to “discredit the entire content” of his article. Such a reading of my response fails to take into account my prefatory point that Gutman raises some valid points for discussion. The fact that I talked about these points on a general level- e.g. in noting there are serious issues to be raised about displacement of Arab populations by the YPG- is not the same as not engaging with them at all. I even provided a link to a report by a human rights monitor to give examples of specific cases.

On the broader issue regarding the inference that I am supposedly attempting to discredit the entire content of the article, I should also add a clarification regarding the Seymour Hersh comparison: the point is not to claim that Gutman and Hersh are exactly equivalent (for one thing, as Gutman correctly points out, Hersh based his claims about the 2013 chemical weapons attack on anonymous former intelligence officials): rather, the point is that winning a Pulitzer Prize does not make one’s reporting impervious to questioning. As it happens I don’t believe Hersh is maliciously motivated in his biases either. But again, the idea is not to say that none of Gutman’s claims merits being taken seriously.

So, in response to Gutman’s questions about whether abuses and war crimes have been committed by the YPG, the answer is yes, and that should not come as a surprise to anyone. There is regrettably little or no accountability on the ground in Syria for abuses and war crimes committed by all sides, and a comprehensive reckoning is unlikely to occur for the foreseeable future.

Thus, I do not have a problem with whether Gutman reports on bad aspects of the YPG, and the PYD party with which it is affiliated. I was taking specific issue with uncritical relaying of more dubious narratives that reflect lines promoted by Turkey and the Syrian opposition. In the case of his article for The Nation, I was touching in particular on the supposed IS-YPG collusion pattern.

In this context, I should note that Gutman is upset about my reference to a 2012 article he wrote for McClatchy on the testimony of a claimed PKK defector, yet he does not address the specific problem I raised. It is certainly true that “obtaining the debriefing was an example of journalistic enterprise,” as Gutman says. But journalists cannot simply relay debriefings and intelligence reports without appropriate critical scrutiny, as we have seen happen all too often in recent times with cases like U.S. intelligence reports in the run-up to the Iraq War, and even more recently the raw intelligence dossier on the alleged Trump-Russia connections and supposed dirt the Russians have on Trump that can be used to blackmail him.

In a similar vein, the debriefing Gutman reported on has sensational allegations regarding PKK approaches towards religion. As I have already pointed out, the association of Zoroastrianism with fire worship is a calumny against the Zoroastrian religion. To relay the allegations without critical comment is irresponsible, considering the historical persecutions of Zoroastrians by Muslims and that a common Islamist militant talking point against the PKK and “Kurdish militias” is that they are heretics and apostates. Undoubtedly there are some PKK and YPG members who could not care for religious belief and/or are completely secular, but what evidence is there besides the testimony of this debriefing that the PKK and its sister affiliates promote Zoroastrianism and teach fire worship?* It was the fact that these claims were relayed by Gutman without appropriate consideration that made me see a reflection of bias at work (again, I should stress, not necessarily malicious in intent).

Turning more specifically to the contents of his article for The Nation, Gutman takes issue with my account of the fighting over the Tel Hamis area. In his response, he offers an account from a certain Abu Ahmad who says the YPG waited three days before entering without firing a bullet. Again, there is no problem in offering this account per se, but it also has to have the caveat analytical note that it is ultimately second hand, and an effort should be made to try to obtain other accounts for comparison (e.g. testimonies of YPG fighters, open source data from the time).

As for what I wrote about Tel Hamis, on a technical note, I will begin by pointing out that Gutman is off the mark regarding some of the death notices I initially cited. Two of the death notices are for fighters killed in February 2015 prior to the 27th of that month: the Australian , and if he reads the original posts more closely, Hussein Masoud’s brother. Regarding my own wording, by ‘extended campaigns,’ I meant bouts of fighting that took place over multiple months in the wider area. One can criticise me for geographic imprecision, but it is important to remember in speaking of Tel Hamis that we mean not just the town/village by that name but also the wider area (cf. references in Arabic to mantaqat Tel Hamis and rif Tel Hamis). Of course, not every day meant intense clashes and battles. Indeed, in the Syrian civil war, much of what goes on in terms of engagements between various sides can appropriately be described as ribat (frontline maintenance etc.). On a given day there might be no fighting at all: a mere gunshot or two and/or firing mortar rounds. Then a flare up may occur. In relation to the Tel Hamis area, one example of a flare up occurred in September 2014, as the YPG launched an offensive that claimed the capture of multiple villages. During this flare up multiple YPG fighters were pronounced to be ‘martyrs’ . Here is another example of clashes reported in late December 2014 in the Tel Hamis area, with at least four YPG fighters reported to have been killed at that time.

It may well be that when Tel Hamis as a town/village finally fell to the YPG in February 2015, there was no grand or major battle to accompany it. However, to overlook all that happened in the time between IS solely becoming responsible for that wider frontline against the YPG after it destroyed the rebel factions in Hasakah province and the YPG capture in February 2015 is painting a highly misleading picture. It is also highly misleading to overlook the prior rebel-IS cooperation against the YPG on that front, which resulted in many YPG fighters being killed in late 2013/early 2014. Thus it can be seen how the fighting between IS and the YPG in the Tel Hamis area reflects continuity. Likewise we must note the reports of fighting and casualties in the wider area that occurred following February 2015. I thus stand by my original ‘travesty of the truth’ comment, having elaborated more fully here what I meant.

A somewhat similar case for what would constitute a misleading picture would be to note that the village of Dabiq fell out of IS hands without a grand final battle despite the village’s symbolic importance to IS, while overlooking the long war of attrition that occurred between the rebels and IS prior to that, also featuring episodes of ribat and calm juxtaposed with flare ups. Or again, note the case of Jarabulus I mentioned in my previous piece.

Can casualty figures and losses be exaggerated in reports? Of course. Yet the narrative of Gutman’s sources paints a very implausible picture that is designed to promote a line of some kind of IS-YPG collusion. To buy into it would mean supposing all those clashes etc. that occurred in the wider area over multiple months were a mere farce/fabrication. Thus, here we have an encapsulation of the job of journalists and analysts: weigh up the contrary accounts and try to come to a judgement that accounts for the various lines of evidence available. In the specific case of the Tel Hamis area village of Husseiniya mentioned by Gutman, who also points out that Amnesty International cited residents as saying that no clashes occurred in the withdrawal from that village, it is perfectly possible to accept that testimony, and the subsequent destruction of property by the YPG, without supposing a conspiracy of some kind as pushed by Gutman’s sources.

To bolster the collusion narrative, Gutman had cited in his original piece a certain Mudar al-Assad as saying that there are hundreds of examples of the YPG-IS pattern of the latter taking a village from rebels and then turning it over to the YPG without a fight. It would be interesting to see specific naming of those hundreds of cases, if that is really the case.

I draw the line here in this discussion. I stand by my initial assessment while reaffirming that I am not questioning Gutman’s professional integrity. Similarly I reject notions of supposed anti-Kurdish prejudice on Gutman’s part and other personal attacks on him. However, a serious debate about the YPG and its relationship with the U.S. must be based on reasoned consideration of the evidence, taking into account the benefits the partnership has brought in blunting IS while also noting the human rights abuses and the PKK connections and understanding why there are Turkish concerns. Looking forward,  seemingly intractable land disputes similar to those we observe in Iraq between the Kurdish and Arab actors will mar the Syrian landscape for a long time even if IS were completely removed. There will be no easy resolution.

*- (Appendix note: PKK and Zoroastrianism): While it is important to note the lack of evidence for the PKK promoting the Kurds’ religion as Zoroastrianism and teaching fire worship, there is an interesting strand of thought within Abdullah Ocalan’s writings that idealizes Zoroaster as a figure who promoted equality and care for nature, thus trying to link him to Kurdish ethnic and cultural heritage. This contrasts with a depiction of Islam as a vehicle of Arabism. On the other hand, Ocalan also wants to praise certain aspects of Islam, equating the rise of the religion historically with bringing about feudal system that constitutes an improvement over the supposed ancient slave civilization, while presenting Muhammad as a figure embodying revolution that becomes corrupted. These arguments, as Matthew Barber points out to me, partly reflect Ocalan’s views of history according to his Marxist ideology and political worldview as well as a desire not to be too offensive to the pious sensibilities of fellow Kurds.

In any event though, Ocalan is ultimately an atheist, and does not promote the idea that Kurds should practise the Zoroastrian religion and formally identify as Zoroastrians, let alone engage in fire worship, though some Kurds who do identify as Zoroastrians seem to be partly influenced by Ocalan’s idealization of Zoroaster. The kinds of nuances in Ocalan’s views and their impacts are obscured by silly polemic as conveyed by that supposed PKK defector.

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MESOP TODAYS OPEN DEBATE : Yes, Syrian Kurds Have Committed War Crimes – Roy Gutman Responds to Aymenn Tamimi

Posted: 12 Feb 2017 08:52 PM PST

Roy Gutman Responds to Aymenn al-Tamimi on “Have the Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?” – By Roy Gutman – @Roy_Gutman

Any journalist covering a controversial topic like alleged war crimes can expect a hostile response from the subject of the story, but it’s extremely rare in my experience for a specialist in the field to respond to a major journalistic investigation by challenging the reporter’s professional integrity.

The report I wrote for the Nation on Feb. 7, the first of two parts, details the pattern of mass expulsions and political suppression by the ruling People’s Protection Units or YPG that has led to the flight of an enormous number of Arabs and Kurds from the region.

Mr Tamimi’s statements that the “author’s bias for the Syrian opposition and Turkey has been evident for years” and that he “uncritically relays dubious testimony that a far-minded journalist would have subjected to appropriate scrutiny” reads like an attempt to discredit the entire content of my story.

It calls for evidence.

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MESOP NEWS DOCUMENTS : Official Russian Draft Proposal For A New Syrian Constitution

During the peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana (January 23-24), Russian diplomats circulated to the Syrian opposition a draft constitution for Syria. However, the Syrian opposition rejected the draft. On January 27, during a meeting with the Syrian opposition in Moscow, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented: “There is much idle talk about the draft constitution that was circulated at the Astana meeting. I would like to clarify the matter again, hopefully, for the last time. The draft we presented was an attempt to bring together and identify the common elements in the ideas expressed by the Syrian Government and the opposition, including those who are present here, over the past few years when we maintained contact and tried to find a way out of the Syrian crisis.

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Have the Syrian PKK/PYD  Committed War Crimes?

By Roy Gutman –  – 2017-02-07 – Akcakale, Turkey — The Kurdish militia that supplies the ground troops in the US air war against the Islamic State has been a systematic violator of human rights in the area it controls in northern Syria, causing the displacement of tens of thousands of Arabs and even more massive flight by Kurds from the region.

A six-month investigation shows that the militia, reportedly under the strong influence of Iran and the Assad regime, has evicted Arabs from their homes at gunpoint starting in 2013 and subsequently has blown up, torched, or bulldozed their homes and villages. The Nation interviewed more than 80 Arabs and Syrian Kurdish refugees in the region as well as militia officials, former militia members, former Syrian government officials, political activists, and officials in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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