How Syria and natural gas are pushing Israel and Turkey back together


After years of false starts, Israeli negotiators went to Geneva last week for talks aimed at ending a long-running conflict with a regional adversary.

It’s not the Palestinians. It’s Turkey.

Once a key partner of Israel, Turkey in recent years has been a thorn in its side. It supports Israel’s foes, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan often uses international forums as opportunities to slam the Jewish state – particularly its treatment of Palestinians.

But in December, Israel and Turkey began negotiating a full restoration of ties after nearly six years of downgraded relations. Here’s what happened between the former allies, why things are improving now – and why some Israeli analysts are still skeptical the Turkey-Israel impasse will be resolved.

Turkey used to be Israel’s closest ally in the Middle East.

Turkey recognized Israel shortly after its founding in 1948, and over the course of the 1990s the countries built strong defense ties. Both relatively secular, pro-Western democracies and minorities in an Arab-dominated Middle East, the two countries established regular dialogue between their defense ministries, conducted joint military training exercises and signed weapons deals. Israel sent assistance to Turkey after a massive earthquake in 1999.

Things deteriorated after Erdogan’s election and a crisis followed Israel’s killing of nine Turks trying to break the Gaza blockade.

Relations started souring in 2002, when Erdogan’s Islamic AKP party won national elections and aligned the foreign policy of Turkey in favor of the Palestinians while cooling ties with Israel. Diplomatic relations broke down completely after the May 2010 flotilla incident, when the Mavi Marmara ship manned by Turkish activists tried to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Israeli forces landed on the ship and killed nine activists in the ensuing melee.

Turkey demanded Israel apologize for the incident, but Israel declined. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador, withdrew its envoy to Israel, suspended military cooperation with Israel and excluded Israel from NATO exercises.

Now Turkey needs a friend in a disintegrating region.

Netanyahu apologized to Erdogan in a 2013 phone call brokered by President Barack Obama, who was wrapping up a visit to Israel at the time. In December 2015, the sides entered talks aimed at restoring full diplomatic relations, and last week a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations met with Erdogan.

The negotiations followed a bad year for Turkey. Syria’s civil war has thrown the country into crisis, exacerbating its conflict with Kurds at home and leading some to accuse Turkey of supporting the ISIS terror organization, which is fighting Kurdish forces in Iraq. Turkey also has taken in some 2 million Syrian refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

Turkey is also facing tensions with Egypt over Turkish support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed in Egypt, and tensions with Russia following Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane in November. Restoring ties with Israel could give Erdogan a rare regional win.

“The regional challenges Turkey has with Russia, from Egypt, with the Kurds,” said Alon Liel, Israel’s charge d’affaires in Turkey in the 1980s, is giving Turkey “second thoughts about the Israel issue.”

Israel wants someone to buy its natural gas.

Israel wouldn’t mind strengthening ties with one of its few Middle Eastern trading partners. Patching the Turkey relationship also would reopen the door to military exercises with NATO.

But Israel’s main motivation isn’t about war and peace, experts say; it’s economic. For months, Netanyahu has been pushing to enact a controversial program that would allow drilling in Israel’s giant offshore gas fields, which the prime minister says is essential for the national security of Israel. A deal with Turkey could both restore it as an ally and make it a large buyer of Israeli natural gas. That would be a boon for Netanyahu – and a potential bonanza for the gas companies.

But Gaza could be the obstacle to a renewed alliance – again.

Relations between Turkey and Israel collapsed over Gaza, and Gaza could keep them apart – natural gas or not. Turkey hosts part of the leadership of Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza, and has harshly criticized Israel for its blockade of the coastal strip.

As part of the deal, Turkey has demanded that Israel lift or ease the blockade. Israel, in turn, has demanded that Turkey expel Hamas’ leaders. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who has voiced pessimism about the deal, also demanded that Turkey convince Hamas to return the remains of two Israeli soldiers.

Speaking in Greece in January, Yaalon also accused Turkey of buying oil from ISIS terrorists and said Ankara “enables jihadists to move backwards and forwards between Europe and Syria and Iraq and to be part of the ISIS terror infrastructure in Europe.”

A Turkey detente also could backfire for Israel. In recent years, Israel has bolstered ties with Egypt led by Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, who last week met with a Presidents Conference delegation in Cairo, as well as Greece and Cyprus – all Turkish rivals. Retaining Greek and Cypriot support is especially important, Liel said, because they act as Israeli allies in the European Union.

It may not be worthwhile, he said, to risk those ties for a detente with a Turkish government that has spent the past seven years denouncing Israel.

“Erdogan is an unpredictable player,” Liel said. “There’s a concern that if they sign with him today, and there’s a war in Gaza in four to five months, he’ll make trouble.”

Israel wary of continued conflict in Syria


It’s been seven years since Israel and Syria were in talks mediated by Turkey.

Those negotiations in Ankara were premised on de-coupling Damascus from its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah and dislodging Israel from the Golan.

Neither side could envision paying the price required to seal a deal, and shortly after the talks ended, then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (now president) began to nurture a personal animosity against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad that only grew as Syria’s conflict turned sectarian and Israel went hard after Hamas in Gaza.

As the Syrian uprising got serious in 2011, Moscow presented itself as the mediator between Jerusalem and Damascus. Russia’s enhanced commitment to a presence in Syria may be the penultimate strategic legacy of this bloody chapter in Levantine history.

Details of the Damascus-Jerusalem interchange are outlined in the report by Seymour Hersh published earlier this month in the London Review of Books. The essay focuses largely on the debate inside Washington over the risks and rewards of arming the increasingly sectarian rebels, some of whom had clear al-Qaida antecedents.

Hersh writes that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) served as a conduit for United States intelligence to the Syrian government, since it was in Jerusalem’s interest to have Assad’s army instead of Islamist rebel battalions operating on the northern side of the Golan Heights. Hersh also writes the Kremlin relayed an offer from Assad to Netanyahu to resume talks over the territory.

It’s now known that Israel rebuffed the offer and moved to deepen its cooperation with Jordanian military intelligence, which was simultaneously supporting and monitoring the al Nusra Front in the southern Syrian governorates of Suwyeda, Daraa and Quneitra. It looked as if Assad was losing his grip, and the IDF took a realpolitik stance toward the rebels.

Gains by insurgents led the regime to deploy chemical weapons against the pro-rebel township of Ghouta in August 2013 and in the suburbs of Aleppo in March 2013.

At around this time, former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas made an impolitic comment to The New York Times.

“Let them both [sides] bleed, hemorrhage to death: That’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria,” Pinkas said in an article that found a consensus in Israel for a “limited strike” against regime targets.

But the quote has been cited multiple times to bolster a line uniting supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, pro-Assad “leftists” and basic meat-and-potatoes anti-Semites to charge that a blood-thirsty “Israel wants the civil war in Syria to continue.”

Of course, it’s not just Pinkas’ cynical sound bite that drives the “Israel likes this war” trope. To advance their territorial claims, the Golan annexationists in the highest political echelons promote the notion that Syria will never again be reassembled.

This case was made explicitly by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the Herzliya Conference in June and even floated by the prime minister when he met U.S. President Barack Obama in November.

But the prime minister must know there is no room for the Americans to “think differently” about the Golan, especially now that there’s actually a chance that the powers playing in the Syrian sandbox are ready to push their clients to the negotiating table.

Beyond the bluster, Israel and, more importantly, Israelis, demonstrated consistent unease over the destabilizing consequences of the war in Syria, an anxiety stemming from self-interested security concerns [ranging from DAASH to Hezbollah] and genuine humanitarian revulsion toward the carnage at their doorstep. 

A memo written this week by former Israeli National Security Advisors Yaakov Amidror and Eran Lerman gives a good glimpse into what Israel’s security establishment really thinks about Syria. Here’s what they said:

1) The continuation of the Syrian civil war poses a threat to Jordan and thus to Israel.

2) DAASH feeds off of the sectarian conflict in Syria, and chaos there makes al-Nusra look like moderates compared to what DAASH leader Al-Baghdadi and his followers have on offer.

3) Expanded operational territory for Hezbollah fighters is problematic.

4) Ultimately, Israel’s borders are more secure when state actors are on the other side — instead of terror groups.

Concrete signs of this policy are documented in the consistent Israeli lobbying for increased U.S. allocations to help Jordan deal with the Syrian refugees. Israel is concerned that these refugees neither starve in Jordan during the short term, nor settle there in the long term. It’s clearly not in Israel’s interest that an additional million radicalized Sunnis show up in Jordan.

So, logically, the new Damascus “blood libel” doesn’t match strategic thinking in the real Israel.

The shameful inability of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu to do something for the Palestinians of the besieged Yarmouk Refugee Camp is a moral stain on both. The Syrian war has put the spotlight on the 1948 refugees and their descendants, and neither Jerusalem nor Ramallah can ignore this constituency indefinitely.

But the assistance provided by Israeli field hospitals to rebel fighters in the north and the volunteers of IsraAID on the Greek islands and in the Balkans to Syrian asylum seekers is well-known and appreciated by refugees and the exiled opposition leaders.

It is accepted that Israel shares intelligence on DAASH with the Russians, as well as the Jordanians.

 And of course they keep the Hashemite and Saudi courts briefed on Hezbollah and the Iranians.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin and Netanyahu navigate practical understandings over who can do what in Syria, it’s very clear that this war has aligned Israel to the Sunni Arab states to its east.

This week, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said his government “was striving to maintain Syria as a unified nation inclusive of all sects.”

Petroleum politics and the perceived U.S. detachment from the Middle East have paved the way for an unprecedented Riyadh-Moscow dialogue.

It is Russia that will have to engineer a stage-left exit for Hezbollah and Iran if she wants to keep her assets in a transitional Syria and maintain credibility with the Sunni states.

“Saudi Arabia is ready to pay any price to bring down the Assad regime,” an exiled leader of the Assyrian Christian Community whose family has suffered from the ravages of both the Damascus government and Islamist fighters told the Jewish Journal.

“Israel’s interest is to satisfy the Sunni Arabs, and that means they, too, want to see a negotiated end to this war.”

Russia and Turkey refuse to back down in row over jet downing


Russia sent an advanced missile system to Syria on Wednesday to protect its jets operating there and pledged its air force would keep flying missions near Turkish air space, sounding a defiant note after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet.

Underscoring the message, Russian forces launched a heavy bombardment against insurgent-held areas in Latakia on Wednesday, near where the jet was downed, rebels and a monitoring group said.

The United States and Europe both urged calm and continued dialogue in telephone conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a sign of international concern at the prospect of any escalation between the former Cold War enemies.

The downing of the jet on Tuesday was one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member and Russia for half a century, and further complicated international efforts to battle Islamic State militants in Syria.

President Tayyip Erdogan made no apology, saying his nation had simply been defending its own security and the “rights of our brothers in Syria”. He made clear Turkish policy would not change.

Russian officials expressed fury over Turkey's action and spoke of retaliatory measures that were likely to include curbing travel by Russian tourists to Turkish resorts and some restrictions on trade.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described it as a planned act and said it would affect efforts towards a political solution in Syria. Moscow would “seriously reconsider” its relations with Ankara, he said.

Jets believed to be Russian also hit a depot for trucks waiting to go through a major rebel-controlled border crossing with Turkey, Bab al-Salam, the head of the crossing said.

Syrian jets have struck the area before, but if confirmed to have been carried out by Russia, it would be one of Moscow's closest air strikes to Turkish soil, targeting a humanitarian corridor into rebel-held Syria and a lifeline for ordinary Syrians crossing to Turkey.

DO NOT WANT WAR

But the Russian response was carefully calibrated, indicating Moscow did not want to jeopardize its main objective in the region: to rally international support for its view on how the conflict in Syria should be resolved.

“We have no intention of fighting a war with Turkey,” Lavrov said. Erdogan also said Ankara had no intention of escalating tensions with Russia.

In Paris, where deadly attacks on Nov. 13 claimed by Islamic State prompted France to step up its aerial bombing of the militant group in Syria, President Francois Hollande expressed concern over the war of words between Ankara and Moscow.

“We must all work to make sure that the situation (between Russia and Turkey) de-escalates,” Hollande told a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Hollande was due to discuss Syria and the fight against Islamic State with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.

Putin said an advanced weapons system would be despatched to Russia's Khmeimim air base in Syria's Latakia province.

“I hope that this, along with other measures that we are taking, will be enough to ensure (the safety) of our flights,” Putin told reporters, in an apparent warning to Turkey not to try to shoot down any more Russian planes.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was forced to fly missions close to the Turkish border because that was where the militants tended to be located. Russian operations would continue, he said.

MUTUAL RECRIMINATION

Turkey said the downed jet had encroached on Turkish air space and was warned repeatedly to change course, but Russian officials have said the plane was at no time over Turkey.

The crew ejected, and one pilot was shot dead by rebels as he parachuted to the ground. A Russian marine sent to recover the crew was also killed in an attack by rebels.

The surviving pilot was quoted by Russian agencies as saying the crew “knew the region like the back of their hand”, that they did not fly over Turkish air space, and that there were no visual or radio warnings from Turkey.

The Turkish military later released what it said was an audio recording of a warning to a Russian fighter jet before it was shot down near the Syrian border. A voice on the recording can be heard saying “change your heading” in English.

The Turkish military said it had explained the rules of engagement that led to the downing of the jet to Russian military attaches and had tried to rescue the pilots.

At a business event in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey had made a “huge effort” to prevent such incidents but that the limits of its patience had been tested after repeatedly warning Russia about air space incursions in recent weeks.

“Nobody should expect us to remain silent against the constant violation of our border security, the ignoring of our sovereign rights,” Erdogan said.

Turkey has been angered by Russian air strikes in Syria, particularly those near its border targeting Turkmens, who are Syrians of Turkish descent.

TRADE TIES

Russia made clear it could target Turkey economically.

“The direct consequences could lead to our refusal to take part in a whole raft of important joint projects and Turkish companies losing their positions on the Russian market,” Medvedev said in a statement.

Russia is a major exporter of grain and energy to Turkey, and sends over four million tourists each year to Turkish resorts, second only to the number of German tourists.

The Russian government has already said it will discourage Russian tourists from traveling to Turkey, though the immediate impact will be limited because Turkey is now in the off-season.

But while Russia may mothball deals with Turkish firms and curb imports of Turkish goods, it is unlikely to let the fallout affect energy exports that are the core of their economic relationship.

“Erdogan is a tough character, and quite emotional, and if Russia pushes too far in terms of retaliatory action, I think there will inevitably be a counter reaction from Turkey (like) tit-for-tat trade sanctions, perhaps extending to things like the Russia nuclear deal,” said Nomura strategist Timothy Ash.

“But I think there is also a clear understanding that any such action is damaging for both sides, and unwelcome. The ball is in Russia's court now,” he wrote in a note.

Surviving crew member of Russian jet says no warning from Turkey


The surviving crew member of a Russian warplane shot down by Turkey said on Wednesday the plane received no warnings from the Turkish Air Force and did not fly over Turkish air space, Russian news agencies reported.

Turkey shot down the Russian plane near the Syrian border on Tuesday, saying it had violated its air space, in one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member country and Russia for half a century.

Navigator Konstantin Murakhtin was rescued by Russian and Syrian special forces after ejecting from the plane but the pilot was shot dead by rebels as he parachuted to the ground.

“There were no warnings, either by radio or visually. There was no contact whatsoever,” TASS quoted Murakhtin as saying at a hospital in the Syrian province of Latakia, where Russia has an airbase.

“If they wanted to warn us, they could have shown themselves by taking a parallel course. There was nothing. And the missile hit the tail of our aircraft suddenly, we did not see it in time to do an anti-missile maneuver.”

Ankara has said the plane was repeatedly warned to change course after encroaching on Turkish air space but Moscow has denied that its warplane flew over Turkish territory.

Murakhtin also said his jet did not leave Syrian airspace.

“I could see perfectly on the map and on the ground where the border was and where we were. There was no danger of entering Turkey,” he was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Turkey downs Russian warplane near Syria border, Putin warns of ‘serious consequences’


Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday, saying the jet had repeatedly violated its air space, in one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member country and Russia for half a century.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the plane had been attacked when it was 1 km (0.62 mile) inside Syria and warned of “serious consequences” for what he termed a stab in the back administered by “the accomplices of terrorists”.

“We will never tolerate such crimes like the one committed today,” Putin said, as Russian and Turkish shares fell on fears of an escalation between the former Cold War enemies.

Each country summoned a diplomatic representative of the other and NATO called a meeting of its ambassadors for Tuesday afternoon. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov canceled a visit to Turkey due on Wednesday and the defense ministry said it was preparing measures to respond to such incidents.

Footage from private Turkish broadcaster Haberturk TV showed the warplane going down in flames, a long plume of smoke trailing behind it as it crashed in a wooded part of an area the TV said was known by Turks as “Turkmen Mountain”. 

Separate footage from Turkey's Anadolu Agency showed two pilots parachuting out of the jet before it crashed. A deputy commander of rebel Turkmen forces in Syria said his men shot both pilots dead as they came down.

A video sent to Reuters earlier appeared to show one of the pilots immobile and badly wounded on the ground and an official from the rebel group said he was dead.

But a Turkish government official told Reuters the pilots were believed still to be alive and that Ankara was working to secure their release from Syrian rebels. 

Russia's defense ministry said one of its Su-24 fighter jets had been downed in Syria and that, according to preliminary information, the pilots were able to eject. “For the entire duration of the flight, the aircraft was exclusively over Syrian territory,” it said.

The Turkish military said the aircraft had been warned 10 times in the space of five minutes about violating Turkish air space. Officials said a second plane had also approached the border and been warned.

“The data we have is very clear. There were two planes approaching our border, we warned them as they were getting too close,” another senior Turkish official told Reuters. 

“We warned them to avoid entering Turkish air space before they did, and we warned them many times. Our findings show clearly that Turkish air space was violated multiple times. And they violated it knowingly,” the official said.

A U.S. military spokesman said it was an issue between the Turkish and Russian governments and that U.S.-led coalition operations in Syria and Iraq were continuing “as planned”.

In Washington, an official said the United States believed the incursion probably lasted only a matter of seconds before the jet was downed. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the incident was still being investigated.

RUSSIA TARGETS TOURISM

Russia's decision to launch separate air strikes in Syria mean Russian and NATO planes have been flying combat missions in the same air space for the first time since World War Two, targeting various insurgent groups close to Turkish borders. 

Russia’s military involvement in Syria has brought losses, including the downed jet and the bombing by militants of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt. But there is no sign yet that public opinion is turning against the operation in Syria and the Kremlin said it would continue.

Instead the Kremlin, helped by state-controlled television, has used these reverses to rally public opinion, portraying the campaign as a moral crusade that Russia must complete, despite indifference or obstruction from elsewhere.

A U.S. official said U.S. forces were not involved in the downing of the Russian jet, which was the first time a Russian or Soviet military aircraft has been publicly acknowledged to have been shot down by a NATO member since the 1950s. 

The incident appeared to scupper hopes of a rapprochement between Russia and the West in the wake of the Islamic State attacks in Paris, which led to calls for a united front against the radical jihadist group in Syria.

Russia's main stock index fell more than two percent, while Turkish stocks fell 1.3 percent. Both the rouble and lira were weaker.

Lavrov advised Russians not to visit Turkey and one of Russia's largest tour operators to the country said it would temporarily suspend sales of trips.

SHOT AS THEY FELL

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was briefed by the head of the military, while Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was due to report on the incident to NATO ambassadors. He also informed the United Nations and related countries.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the warplane crashed in a mountainous area in the northern countryside of Latakia province, where there had been aerial bombardment earlier and where pro-government forces have been battling insurgents on the ground.

“A Russian pilot,” a voice is heard saying in the video sent to Reuters as men gather around the man on the ground. “God is great,” is also heard.

The rebel group that sent the video operates in the northwestern area of Syria, where groups including the Free Syrian Army are active but Islamic State, which has beheaded captives in the past, has no known presence.

A deputy commander of a Turkmen brigade told reporters on a trip organized by Turkish authorities that his forces had shot dead both pilots as they descended. A U.S. official said the pilots' status remained unclear.

“Both of the pilots were retrieved dead. Our comrades opened fire into the air and they died in the air,” Alpaslan Celik said near the Syrian village of Yamadi, close to where the plane came down, holding what he said was a piece of a pilot's parachute. 

In a further sign of a growing fallout over Syria, Syrian rebel fighters who have received U.S. arms said they fired at a Russian helicopter, forcing it to land in territory held by Moscow's Syrian government allies.

Turkey called this week for a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss attacks on Turkmens, who are Syrians of Turkish descent, and last week Ankara summoned the Russian ambassador to protest against the bombing of their villages.

About 1,700 people have fled the mountainous area due to fighting in the last three days, a Turkish official said on Monday. Russian jets have bombed the area in support of ground operations by Syrian government forces.

Uncertainty grips Middle Eastern markets


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

The impact of the Middle East’s ongoing woes on the region’s tourism businesses has been well documented. The industry’s standing has been tarnished not just by continuing conflicts, but also by repeated terrorist attacks against foreign tourists in a number of countries in the region. What has been less discussed is the downturn in the Middle East’s industry, business, and inter-regional commerce.

Syria, the focal point for much of the violence in the region, was described by the World Bank as a “lower middle income country,” with agriculture and petroleum exports making up the bulk of its trade in 2010. Five years later, its economy has been characterized as anywhere between collapsed and as a ‘war economy’. But the country is hardly the only state whose financial position is hugely affected by the sectarian conflict raging in, and across, its borders.

In a research paper for the World Bank published last year, Elena Ianchovichina and Maros Ivanic described how the impact of the war has been felt chiefly by Syria and by Iraq. With stretches of its western provinces captured by the Islamic State, including areas of oil production, it is hardly surprising that Iraq has suffered large scale economic regression. Ianchovichina and Ivanic also discussed a second tier of affected countries — Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — neighboring Syria and Iraq, who have taken in the bulk of the war’s refugees.

Despite the scale and the length of the conflict the economic repercussions onto global markets have not been large, Jason Tuvey, a Middle East economist at Capital Economics Research Company, told The Media Line. Syria’s economic output was far more relevant to its direct neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan, than to global markets, Tuvey said.

As well as a loss of trade both countries have borne the brunt of Syria’s refugee exodus. Lebanon has taken in so many Syrians that refugees are now 25% of the population and in Jordan the Zaatari refugee camp is so crowded as to constitute the country’s fourth largest city, the economist explained.

Turkey too has taken in large numbers of refugees but is more financially stable than the two smaller host nations.

Whether or not Syria’s reduction in trade has adversely affected the broader Middle East the war is still hampering the region’s economy due to the uncertainty it produces, Colin Foreman, news editor at MEED Middle East Business Intelligence, told The Media Line. Similar to the early years of the Arab Spring – the pro-democracy protests that took place throughout the Middle East in 2011 – the Syrian war creates uncertainty in Middle Eastern markets, Foreman said.

The difference is that in 2011 petroleum prices were stable, so uncertainty actually benefited exporting nations, whereas now the cost of a barrel of oil is low and so the market is more adversely affected, the editor explained.

Conflict in Syria is not the only cause of this situation as political turmoil in Egypt and war in Yemen also add to the uncertainty, Foreman said.

Escalating the uncertainty yet further is the Islamic State (ISIS). “The situation in Syria has deteriorated particularly since mid-2014 with ISIS taking a foothold,” Foreman argued. This has led to the refugee crisis and to a significant downturn in the value of the Iraqi oil industry, the editor suggested.

Tuvey was not as sure that the impact of the Islamic State was felt strongly on Iraqi oil exports. “In Iraq most of its oil fields are in the south away from ISIS – Iraq has actually been increasing its oil production over the last year or so,” he explained.

He went onto suggest the current price of petroleum may be limiting the damage ISIS can cause to global markets.

“It has not had an enormous impact because we’re now in an era when we have a huge glut of oil – ten years ago it might have been more concerning,” he said.

Crowded skies over Syria


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

In response to the Paris terror attacks that have so far claimed 129 lives and wounded 300 more, French warplanes have for the first time attacked Islamic State (ISIS) targets inside of Syria.  Until now, France had limited its attacks to Iraqi airspace, matching the policy of a number of its coalition partners.

However, with the skies over Syria increasingly full of combat aircraft, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of which factions on the ground are being bombed, let alone the safety of coalition air craft. Analysts suggest that despite being the focal point for fear and anger among Western media, ISIS might not even be on the receiving end of the majority of airstrikes launched from the Syrian skies.

Air strikes against fighters in Iraq and Syria can generally be linked to three main thrusts: attacks against forces battling the Assad regime and carried out by Russian and Syrian jets; targeting of Kurdish groups by the Turkish military; and the anti-ISIS strikes by the United States-led coalition. To add to the confusion, some of the US coalition partners operate in Syrian airspace while others only conduct sorties over Iraq.

“The coalition does not target non-ISIS (groups), but the US, Russia and Turkey do to various degrees,” Chris Woods, founder of the nongovernmental organization Airwars, told The Media Line. The US has conducted attacks against other groups, in particular the Al-Nusra Front, which the Americans conduct outside the coalition framework, Woods explained. Al-Nusra is the official affiliate of Al-Qa’ida in the Syrian Civil War and are rivals to the Islamic State. But these attacks are a small part of the operations reported by the coalition, roughly 30 attacks out of the more than 8,000 conducted, Woods said.

Yet, Russia is conducting a far higher proportion of strikes against groups other than ISIS. “Russians are targeting ISIS in places like Raqqa and Idlib but primarily it looks like only 1 out of 5 attacks are targeting the group,” Woods, whose organization monitors airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, said.

Previously the US State Department has accused Russia of avoiding targeting ISIS and instead hitting moderate Syrian opposition groups.

The majority of attacks by the Russian air force are against Ahrar Al-Sham and Al-Nusra, and have not targeted ISIS, Nikolay Kozhanov, a fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center and a visiting fellow at Chatham House in London, told The Media Line. But, he stressed, this was for legitimate tactical reasons on the ground and not to push a Russian agenda. “The (Syrian) government and ISIS have quite a limited frontline with each other…(and) even if they are more targeting Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra, this is a good thing because these guys are no better than the Islamic State,” Kozhanov argued.

Ahrar Al-Sham, one of the many factions fighting on the ground in Syria, is estimated to comprise upwards of 10,000 fighters. The group has been seen as jihadist in nature with links to the Qatari government, but has apparently attempted to rebrand itself in order to become more palatable to Western backers. Ahrar Al-Sham fought against the Islamic State, which they have said represents a threat to the people of Syria.

Like the US, Turkey is a member of the anti-ISIS coalition but conducts its own unilateral operations. The majority of these strikes take place in Iraqi airspace and target the PKK, Chris Woods explained. The PKK, or the Kurdish Workers Party, is a left-wing Kurdish independence movement that has fought an armed conflict with the Turkish government since 1984. Ankara was accused of using the premise of striking at ISIS in order to target the group which is based in northern Iraq, and of ignoring the threat that ISIS represents in order to do so.

Yusuf Kanli, a journalist with Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News disagrees. He told The Media Line that on the contrary, the Turkish government does recognize the threat from ISIS, citing the suicide bombings in Ankara last month which were attributed to the Islamic State. As many as one hundred people were killed in the explosions.

But the government’s position is confused, Kanli suggested. “On the one hand, Turkey is a part of the anti-ISIS coalition and collaborating in every way possible in fighting that extremist group. On the other hand, we all know that that group is exporting oil through the (Turkish) private sector,” the journalist explained. Turkey’s border with Syria has previously been one of the main supply routes for the Islamic State through which weapons and foreign fighters from Europe have reportedly travelled. Oil revenues represent an important source of income for the Islamic State since it captured key petroleum infrastructure in Iraq and Syria.

While ISIS is recognized as a threat by the [Turkish] government, the Kurds are still considered “the real problem,” Kanli said, as “their objective is to carve out a Kurdish state along Turkey’s border.”

After Syria coordination talks with Israel, Russia beckons to Turkey, U.S.


Russia ended high-level military talks with Israel on Wednesday with a call on other countries, including a suspicious United States and aggrieved Turkey, to coordinate operations in Syria.

The two countries discussed how they can avoid accidentally clashing while operating in Syria. Israel has been worried that Russia's deployment there, which includes advanced anti-aircraft units and warplanes, could lead to unwanted confrontation.

The talks followed a meeting in Moscow between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin at which the two men agreed to set up teams as Russia stepped up military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia's most senior diplomat in Israel said on Wednesday that Israel had no reason to fear Russia's presence or actions in Syria.

“Russia will not take any action that will endanger Israel's national security,” Alexey Drobinin, minister-counsellor at the Russian Embassy, told Israel Radio in an interview in Hebrew.

The Russian delegation was led by First Deputy Chief of General Staff General Nikolai Bogdanovsky, who met his Israeli counterpart, Deputy Chief of Staff Major-General Yair Golan.

The swift emergence of face-to-face contacts between Israeli and Russian generals was in stark contrast to the tenser ties between Moscow, Washington and Ankara.

U.S Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Wednesday that the United States would not cooperate militarily with Russia in Syria, although it was willing to hold discussions to secure the safety of its own pilots bombing Islamic State targets in Syria.

Turkey, also a neighbour of Syria, has complained of repeated violations of its airspace. Ankara summoned Russia's ambassador for the third time in four days over the reported violations, which NATO has said appeared to be deliberate and “extremely dangerous”.

Drobinin said Russia was starting similar military talks with Turkey and he hoped these would take place too with other countries, including the United States.

“We have a full understanding of Turkey's worries and we think that the right way to allay these fears is to allow professional soldiers to have in-depth discussions. Such a proposal has been made and I think that we are now at the start of such talks between the Russian and Turkish armies,” Drobinin said.

“It is important that there should be such talks between Russia and all the countries who are interested in exchanging intelligence and operational information … including the United States,” he added.

Israel has attacked Syrian armed forces and arch-foe Lebanese Hezbollah, a Damascus ally, during the four-year civil war in its hostile neighbour. It says it holds the Syrian government responsible for any spillover of violence.

“I think it is a good opportunity to meet and exchange information and to take steps that will allow (the countries) to operate on matters that interest them,” Drobinin said.

Russia took Israeli interests into account, not least because of the large Russian-speaking community of over a million who have emigrated to the Jewish state since the mid-1980s, he said.

“We understand that Israel has national security interests and we take these into account when we formulate our regional policies. There are over a million former Soviet citizens living in Israel and we need to take this into account,” he said.

Jewish-Israeli man stopped from joining Islamic State


A Jewish-Israeli man who planned to join the Islamic State was apprehended in Turkey and returned to his parents.

Turkish authorities apprehended the man, 21, whose family members arrived in Turkey and traveled back to Israel with him on Tuesday, according to the Times of Israel. The man had planned to cross from Turkey into Syria, Haaretz reported, citing Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

The family had contacted the Foreign Ministry to ask for assistance in returning the man to Israel. He reportedly is under the legal guardianship of his family, according to Haaretz.

The family had been in touch with the man over the Internet and became concerned about his intention to enter Syria and join ISIS.

At least 35 Arab-Israelis have tried to join or have joined ISIS or other Syrian rebel groups, according to reports.

A Canadian-Israeli Jewish woman who joined Kurdish forces in their fight against the Islamic State, Gillian Rosenberg, returned to Israel in July after training and fighting for about eight months.

Kurdish fighters seen as primary target of Turkey’s Erdogan


Following a devastating Islamic State (ISIS) linked attack on a Turkish town near the Syrian border, the Erdogan government has launched a campaign primarily targeting the Kurdish fighters who are ISIS’s most effective opponents, essentially terminating the peace process with Turkey’s Kurds.

Following the July 20 bombing that killed 32 young Turks in the small town of Suruç on their way to cross the border to help rebuild Kobane after it was re-taken from ISIS control, two Turkish police officers were found shot to death in their apartment in nearby Ceylanpınar. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) claimed responsibility, accusing the officers as well as the caretaker Justice and Development Party (AKP) of collaborating with ISIS, and announcing an end to peace talks with the government.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded with his own declaration of the end of peace talks with the Kurdish rebels.

“I don’t think it’s possible to continue the peace process with those who continue to take aim at our national security and brotherhood in this country,” Erdoğan said in a public address in Ankara on Tuesday.

In response to the bombing in Suruç and the killings in Ceylanpınar, the government launched airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and the PKK in northern Iraq, and made over 1,000 arrests of ISIS and PKK members and supporters in Turkey. But critics accuse the AKP of focusing mostly on PKK supporters.

“It’s very clear from the military campaigns conducted by the Turkish state that the priority is the PKK, it’s not ISIS,” Istanbul-based analyst and security expert Gareth Jenkins tells The Media Line.

On July 23, Turkish tanks shelled ISIS forces in Syria, and the next day three fighter jets hit three ISIS targets. But Jenkins says that soon after, a far larger attack was launched against PKK targets in northern Iraq, with 75 Turkish jets hitting 48 targets. Since then no ISIS targets have been hit, but many more PKK targets in northern Iraq and Turkey have been attacked.

“With the campaign against ISIS, the objective appears to be deterrence, and to push ISIS away from the Turkish border close to Kilis. What we’re seeing against the PKK is an attempt to destroy the organization,” Jenkins says.

At the same time, arrests in Turkish cities have been overwhelmingly directed toward PKK supporters and other government critics.

“At least 80 per cent [of the arrests], as far as I can work out, are actually Kurds or leftists. Probably 85 per cent,” Jenkins estimates.

Mesut Yeğen, a sociology professor and Kurdish issues expert at Istanbul Şehir University, says the government’s campaign has little to do with ISIS. “Basically the AKP is trying to limit the power of the Kurdish Movement in general, in Syria and in Turkey,” he tells The Media Line.

AKP officials have repeatedly said there’s no difference between the PKK and ISIS, a claim which has infuriated millions of Turkey’s Kurds and damaged Kurdish support for the party.

“To equate [the PKK] with ISIS is completely unfair,” says Aliza Marcus, author of a book about the PKK, over the phone from Washington DC. She points out that the group hasn’t targeted civilians in many years and the attack on the police officers in Ceylanpınar was very uncharacteristic, a claim that every analyst The Media Line spoke to echoed.

Many Kurds switched their votes from the AKP to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) during the general election in June. The HDP crossed the 10 per cent threshold to enter parliament, which prevented the AKP from being able to form a government. Now the AKP rules as a caretaker government since the parties in parliament have so far failed to form a coalition.

The HDP, which is separate from but heavily influenced by the PKK, is now being targeted by the AKP and other parties.

Far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head Devlet Bahçeli called for the HDP to be shut down, and President Erdoğan wants HDP members to lose their parliamentary immunity so they can “pay the price” for links to “terrorist groups.”

The HDP’s co-chair and public face Selahattin Demirtaş welcomed the idea of stripping parliamentary immunity, asking the AKP to do the same. “Are you in? Let’s strip [our] immunity all together if you are not afraid of it,” he said at a parliamentary meeting.

Demirtaş in fact denounced the PKK’s killings of police officers and soldiers.

“They should not have been killed. Nobody should be killed […] I do not find a motive or justification,” he told Turkish daily Radikal. “The PKK acts should stop. The state’s operations should stop.”

 “He’s done more than any other Kurdish nationalist politician to distance himself from the PKK,” says Jenkins.

AKP Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç made a statement asking why HDP members weren’t among those killed in the Suruç bombing, evidently implying that they were behind it. However, two HDP members did die in the bombing, including Ferdane Kılıç, her son Nartan; and Duygu Tuna. Three HDP supporters also died in an ISIS-connected bombing of an HDP election rally in Diyarbakır in June.

Soli Özel, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at Istanbul Bilgi University, says attacking the HDP, the most moderate element of the Kurdish movement, could have devastating consequences.

“My real concern is how far the government will take this effort to de-legitimize the HDP, which after all does have 80 seats in parliament,” he says. “The real task is to maintain them in the political space. If we lose that, then anything can happen, I think.”

Aliza Marcus says the peace process is impossible without the PKK, who she says “the overwhelming majority of Kurds” support.

“The PKK is a necessary part of this. Erdoğan himself recognized this two years ago,” Marcus says, referring to previous talks between the government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.

“The problem is that Turkey hasn’t really seriously engaged with them,” Marcus says. “There’s just been letters back and forth and meetings, but there hasn’t been an actual organized negotiating process where the two sides can really see where they can reach agreement and where they can’t.”

Professor Özel says that President Erdoğan is a major hindrance to peace. “The president has no intention of picking up the peace process where it was left off.”

Marcus is equally pessimistic. “It does seem like Erdoğan has decided that there’s nothing more he wants to give Kurds.”

Jenkins thinks the renewed fighting between the PKK and the government is pointless. “This appears to be motived by short-term political goals. It’s not going to solve anything. It’s going to deepen the wounds already in Turkish society. It’s going to result in more people being killed.”

He says the main threat is street violence. “The great fear is that we get an increase in ethnic clashes […] between Kurdish and Turkish nationalists on the streets. And I think that risk is now quite high.”

Jenkins believes the only road to peace is a political solution. “The PKK cannot win militarily and it cannot be defeated militarily. Ultimately there has to be some negotiations, and I think everybody rational knows that. Certainly people in the Ak Party [AKP] also know it.”

Marcus predicts the fighting will only increase Kurdish support of the PKK. “Recruitment will certainly go up.”

Meanwhile the United States and Turkey concluded a deal in which the US can use bases on Turkish soil to strike ISIS and an “ISIS-free zone” is to be established in northern Syria along the Turkish border.

“Anything ISIS-free is a good idea, but the real question is, is it a plausible idea? Who’s going to replace them?” asks professor Özel. “If the groups that replace them are just a degree away from what ISIS is like, then does it really make a difference? And how are you going to do it without boots on the ground? I really don’t know.”

The plan is to give control of the safe zone to “moderate rebels,” but the most moderate and militarily effective group in the region is likely the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian offshoot of the PKK that US forces have been working closely with but which Turkey considers a major threat.

The Turkish government “doesn’t particularly like that the PYD operates alongside American forces and has good relations,” says Özel.

The PYD and activists accused Turkish forces of shelling their fighters near Kobane and attacking a nearby village on Monday, an incident the Turkish government, which says it’s not targeting the PYD, said it would investigate.

The other “moderate” force the US and Turkey may be thinking of is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but Özel says that group would be a poor choice to control a safe zone in Syria.

“The Free Syrian Army is something that exists by-and-large in name only. I don’t think it’s a very successful or competent fighting force,” he says.

NATO members expressed solidarity with Turkey’s campaign against IS and PKK militants during an emergency meeting called by Turkey on Tuesday, but cautioned the government to use “proportionate” force and to preserve the peace process.

Turkey to let Iraqi Kurds reinforce Kobani as U.S. drops arms to defenders


Turkey said on Monday it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce fellow Kurds in the Syrian town of Kobani on Turkey's border, and the United States air-dropped arms to help the Kurds there resist an Islamic State assault.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey was facilitating the passage of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, themselves fighting Islamic State in Iraq. He stopped short of saying whether Ankara backed the U.S. air-drop of weapons.

Turkey's refusal to intervene in the fight with Islamic State has frustrated the United States and sparked lethal riots in southeastern Turkey by Kurds furious at Ankara's failure to help Kobani or at least open a land corridor for volunteer fighters and reinforcements to go there.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington had asked Ankara to help “get the peshmerga or other groups” into Kobani so they could help defend the town, adding he hoped the Kurds would “take this fight on”. The European Union also urged Turkey on Monday to open its border to allow supplies to get through to residents of Kobani.

If the reinforcements come through, it may mark a turning point in the battle for Kobani, a town where Syrian Kurds have struggled for weeks against better-armed Islamic State fighters trying to reshape the Middle East.

Speaking in Indonesia, Kerry acknowledged Turkish concerns about support for the Kurds, and said the air drop of supplies provided by the Kurdish authorities in Iraq did not amount to a change of U.S. policy.

The battle against Islamic State, a group also known by the acronym ISIL that has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq, was an overriding consideration, Kerry indicated.

“We understand fully the fundamentals of (Ankara's) opposition and ours to any kind of terrorist group, and particularly, obviously, the challenges they face with respect to the PKK,” he told reporters.

But he added: “We cannot take our eye off the prize here. It would be irresponsible of us, as well as morally very difficult, to turn your back on a community fighting ISIL.”

Ankara views the Syrian Kurds with deep suspicion because of their ties to the PKK, a group that waged a decades-long militant campaign for Kurdish rights in Turkey and which Washington regards as a terrorist organization.

'A CRISIS MOMENT'

Kerry said both he and President Barack Obama had spoken to Turkish authorities before the air drops “to make it very, very clear this is not a shift of policy by the United States”.

“It is a crisis moment, an emergency where we clearly do not want to see Kobani become a horrible example of the unwillingness of people to be able to help those who are fighting ISIL,” he added.

Iraqi Kurdish official Hemin Hawrami wrote on his Twitter feed that 21 tonnes of weapons and ammunition supplied by the Iraqi Kurds had been dropped in the small hours of Monday.

U.S. Central Command said U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft had dropped weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to allow the Kurdish fighters to keep up their resistance in the town, which is called Kobani in Kurdish and Ayn al-Arab in Arabic.

The U.S. military said on Monday that among the six U.S. military air strikes conducted against Islamic State militants near Kobani on Sunday and Monday was one that destroyed a stray bundle of supplies from a U.S. air drop in order to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.

The main Syrian Kurdish armed group, the YPG, said it had received “a large quantity” of ammunition and weapons.

A 'POSITIVE IMPACT'

Redur Xelil, a YPG spokesman, said the arms dropped would have a “positive impact” on the battle and the morale of fighters. But he added: “Certainly it will not be enough to decide the battle.”

“We do not think the battle of Kobani will end that quickly. The forces of (Islamic State) are still heavily present and determined to occupy Kobani. In addition, there is resolve (from the YPG) to repel this attack,” he told Reuters in an interview conducted via Skype.

Welat Omer, one of five doctors in Kobani, told Reuters by telephone that he and his colleagues had received medicine and were distributing it to patients. That included drugs for children and the elderly and materials for operations.

“This medicine will only be enough for five days. We want them to send more, because we have many patients,” he said.

The United States began carrying out air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq in August and about a month later started bombing the militant group in neighboring Syria.

But the resupply of Kurdish fighters points to the growing coordination between the U.S. military and a Syrian Kurdish group that had been kept at arm's length by the West due partly to the concerns of NATO member Turkey.

The Turkish presidency said Obama and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had discussed Syria, including measures that could be taken to stop Islamic State's advances, and Kobani.

The spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) peshmerga fighters said the Iraqi Kurdish region was ready to send backup forces to Kobani and planning was under way.

“There are efforts and we are prepared to send some backup forces either by land or air,” said KRG peshmerga ministry spokesman Jabar Yawar. He said the forces were not en route.

But one Kurdish official in Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed doubt any fighters would be deployed to Kobani as they battle Islamic State at home.

Washington has pressed Ankara to let it use bases in Turkey to stage air strikes, and a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said the country's airspace had not been used during the drops on Kobani.

Kobani is one of three areas near the border with Turkey where Syrian Kurds have established their own government since the country descended into civil war in 2011.

Reporting by Mohammad Zargham, Arshad Mohammed and Warren Strobel in Washington, Tom Perry in Beirut, Seda Sezer in Turkey, David Brunnstrom in Indonesia and Dasha Afanasieva in Suruc, Turkey, Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir, Isabel Coles and Ned Parker in Iraq, and Adrian Croft in Luxembourg; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Anna Willard, Peter Cooney and Howard Goller

Turkey says Syria security leak ‘villainous’ as YouTube blocked


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday denounced as “villainous” the leaking of a recording of top security officials discussing possible military action in Syria to the video-sharing site YouTube.

Turkish authorities ordered a shutdown of the site.

Erdogan's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the posting, an audio file with photographs of the officials involved, a “declaration of war” – an apparent reference to an escalating power struggle between Erdogan and rivals.

The anonymous posting followed similar releases on social media in recent weeks that Erdogan has cast as a plot by his political enemies, particularly a Turkish Islamic cleric based in the United States, to unseat him ahead of March 30 elections.

But it took the campaign to a higher level, impinging on a highly sensitive top-level meeting of security officials.

“They even leaked a national security meeting,” Erdogan said at a campaign rally. “This is villainous, this is dishonesty … Who are you serving by doing audio surveillance of such an important meeting?”

Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the recording.

The account posted what it presented as a recording of intelligence chief Hakan Fidan discussing possible military operations in Syria with Davutoglu, Deputy Chief of military Staff Yasar Guler and other top officials.

Speaking to reporters in Konya, Davutoglu confirmed the meeting took place and said: “A cyber attack has been carried out against the Turkish Republic, our state and our valued nation. This is a clear declaration of war against the Turkish state and our nation.”

Turkish authorities said they had taken an “administrative measure” to impose a block on YouTube, a week after they blocked access to microblogging site Twitter.

Erdogan has been the target of a stream of anonymous internet postings suggesting his involvement in corruption. He denies the allegations and accuses a former ally, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, of unleashing a campaign to undermine him ahead of Sunday's elections.

Gulen, who has a large network of followers in the police, denies any involvement in the postings and in police graft investigations impinging on Erdogan and his family. Erdogan denies graft allegations.

The foreign ministry said the recording was of a crisis management meeting to discuss threats stemming from clashes in Syria and that elements of the recording had been manipulated. The leakers would face heavy punishment, it said.

“It is a wretched attack, an act of espionage and a very heavy crime to record and leak to the public a top secret meeting held in a place where the most delicate security issues of the state are discussed,” it said in a statement.

The conversation appears to centre on a possible operation to secure the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, in an area of northern Syria largely controlled by militant Islamists.

Ankara regards the tomb as sovereign Turkish territory under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. About two dozen Turkish special forces soldiers permanently guard it.

“NATIONAL SECURITY ISSUE”

Turkey threatened two weeks ago to retaliate for any attack on the tomb following clashes between militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda breakaway group, and rival rebel groups in the area, east of Aleppo near the Turkish border.

“An operation against ISIL has international legitimacy. We will define it as al Qaeda. There are no issues on the al Qaeda framework. When it comes to the Suleyman Shah tomb, it's about the protection of national soil,” a voice presented as that of foreign ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu says.

When the discussion turns to the need to justify such an operation, the voice purportedly of Fidan says: “Now look, my commander, if there is to be justification, the justification is, I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land. That's not a problem. Justification can be created.”

The foreign ministry said it was natural for state officials to discuss defending Turkish territory.

“In the meeting it was confirmed that Turkey would take necessary steps decisively to protect the security of our personnel at the Suleyman Shah tomb and Turkey's will to defend it in the face of an attack was reiterated,” the statement said.

A source in Erdogan's office said the video sharing service was blocked as a precaution after the voice recordings created a “national security issue” and said it may lift the ban if YouTube agreed to remove the content.

Google said it was looking into reports that some users in Turkey were unable to access its video-sharing site YouTube, saying there was no technical problem on its side.

The ban on Twitter had already sparked outrage in Turkey and drawn international condemnation. Shortly after the YouTube move, the hashtag #YoutubeBlockedinTurkey was trending globally, although some users defended the latest government decision given the sensitive nature of the recordings.

Reporting by Daren Butler, Ece Toksabay, Can Sezer and Evren Ballim in Istanbul; Tulay Karadeniz, Orhan Coskun, Humeyra Pamuk and Jonny Hogg in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Andrew Roche

Turkey’s Erdogan to push Obama on Syria after bombings


Turkey's prime minister will push President Barack Obama for more assertive action on Syria during a visit to Washington this week, days after car bombs tore through a Turkish border town in the deadliest spillover of violence yet.

The bombings in Reyhanli, which killed 50 people on Saturday, and activists' reports of a massacre of Sunni Muslims in a Syrian coastal town have incensed Recep Tayyip Erdogan, already critical of the slow international response to the conflict.

The risk of Syria's chaos spreading will top the agenda in Erdogan's talks with Obama on Thursday, but the wide-ranging meeting with one of Washington's Middle Eastern allies is also expected to cover Turkey's nascent reconciliation with Israel and its deepening energy ties with Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey has thrown its weight heavily behind the two-year uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, allowing the rebels to organize on its soil and sheltering 400,000 refugees.

But Ankara resents a sense that Western allies are cheering it along while offering little in the way of concrete support.

“Of course Syria will be our main topic … We will draw a roadmap. Turkey has been damaged more than any other country,” Erdogan told reporters before boarding his plane to Washington.

Saturday's bombings in crowded shopping streets, which Ankara blamed on “an old Marxist terrorist organization” with direct links to Assad's government, brought home the reality of Syria's chaos spreading to Turkish soil.

Washington sees Turkey, which shares a 900 km border with Syria and has NATO's second-largest army, as key to planning for a post-Assad Syria and is expected to push for Erdogan's support in arranging a proposed peace conference also backed by Moscow.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he expected the conference to be held in early June, although Western leaders including Obama have dampened expectations that a civil war, estimated by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights to have killed over 94,000 people, can be doused soon.

Assad's government has said it wants specifics before it decides whether to take part, while Syria's main opposition coalition has said it will meet in Istanbul on May 23 to assess whether it will join.

“Our objective is to ensure Assad cedes power to a transitional authority. We are hoping that what (Russian Foreign Minister Sergei) Lavrov and Kerry announced will be within those parameters,” a senior Turkish government official said.

Turkey long advocated a no-fly zone to create safe havens within Syria but the idea failed to gain much traction among Western allies. It has since said it favors greater support to the opposition over military intervention, though some Turkish officials said a no-fly zone could come back under discussion.

Erdogan and Obama are also expected to confer on any evidence of chemical weapons use by Assad's forces, which the U.S. president has warned would be a “red line”, as well as possible deeper U.S. engagement in the conflict.

Turkey has been testing blood samples from casualties, which Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who will also be in Washington, said last week indicated chemical weapons use.

Washington has said in recent weeks it is rethinking its long-standing opposition to arming the rebels, although there has been no word on when a decision might be made.

ENERGY DEALS

Turkey and the United States have a long history of military and strategic cooperation but ties have often been prickly.

Erdogan and Obama will discuss a host of other regional issues, from Turkey's thawing relations with Israel to its energy deals with Iraq, as well as the division of Cyprus, split between a Turkish north and Greek Cypriot south since 1974.

“The visit is an opportunity for the leaders to coordinate on a broad and substantive agenda, including Syria, Iraq, Middle East peace, Iran and countering global terrorism, among others,” a White House official said.

Turkey is not the deferential U.S. ally it once was, its long-standing alignment with Washington has eroded under the decade-old leadership of Erdogan, who has carved out an increasingly assertive and independent role on the world stage.

Its caustic rhetoric on Israel, gold sales to Iran – meant to be under the choke of U.S. sanctions – and deepening energy ties with Iraqi Kurdistan, to the chagrin of the central government in Baghdad, have all been sticking points.

Before leaving for Washington, Erdogan – who will be accompanied by Energy Minister Taner Yildiz – said Turkey had agreed with Kurdistan's regional government and U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil on terms for oil exploration.

Kurdistan is pushing ahead with plans to build its own oil export pipeline to Turkey, despite objections from the United States, which fears it could lead to the break-up of Iraq.

An energy official in Ankara said Turkey could open a neutral escrow account to help share the revenues.

“If the U.S. administration gives the green light, Turkey could take a step forward in this,” the official said.

Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Matt Spetalnick and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Alison Williams

Syrian rebels increasingly frustrated


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Gazing out at the rubble which was all that remained of a four story apartment complex in the city of Azaz just south of the Turkish border, 41 year old bricklayer Khalid Jaza’iri did not see much to be optimistic about. 

“The regime is slaughtering us, we are no longer making progress and the world gives us only words when we need bullets,” he told The Media Line sadly.

With the Syrian government reversing losses on the battlefield and showing willingness to defy the international community by employing chemical weapons, Syrians in rebel controlled territory are increasingly losing hope they will emerge victorious in the country’s revolution. And Western nations’ empty promises have only reinforced their belief that they have been abandoned to bear the brunt of the regime’s fire power. 

Recent comments by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that “arming the rebels – that’s an option,” have done little to alleviate the skepticism Syrians feel after two years of false hopes. They charge that American officials offer only encouraging words followed by inaction.

“His bold statements mean nothing to us,” complained 31 year old Muhammad Mosuli, an unemployed driver to The Media Line. “We heard the West’s assurances of water in the desert only to be given sand.”

Syrians are particularly exasperated with an American administration that makes promises it cannot keep. President Barack Obama asserted in August that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” Rebels believed the Americans had drawn a line in the sand. 

But after American intelligence agencies declared that the regime used chemical weapons, President Obama backtracked, leaving even his most diehard Syrian supporters crestfallen.

“If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence,” the president said last week, “then we may find ourselves in the position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”

Today, Syrians have lost all hope in America’s courageous declarations.  “Where is Obama after (Syrian President Bashar) Al-Assad used the most vile weapons against us?,” asked 24 year old Samir Anwar in the city of Tel Rifa’t. “We don’t expect anymore from America,” he said, plopping falafel balls in a deep fryer.  “We are alone in this war.”

It is a fight that is increasingly turning against the rebels.  After entering Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, last summer, the opposition was confident that it could topple the regime by the end of the year.  Today, though, the battle is deadlocked with each side hunkering down behind its sandbags.

Worse, the regime has begun to go on the offensive.  Last week it made a big push to dislodge rebel forces in the central city of Homs.  News of the regime’s battlefield gains has people in Azaz worried.

“People here are beginning to say that the war will never end,” admits 34 year old activist Rashid Hawrani.  “Some say living with the regime is better than living in rubble with no bread and no electricity.” 

It is a far cry from the optimism Azaz’s residents expressed last summer when they dislodged regime troops and withstood punishing air attacks that reduced large swaths of the city to little more than ornate piles of stones.  Control of the town allowed the rebels to seize the border crossing with Turkey, facilitating the transportation of aid.

Azaz still bustles with aid convoys, activists and foreign journalists.  But the enthusiasm and confidence have given way to gloom as once beaming faces have been replaced by looks of dejection and melancholy.

“Back then, we were jubilant,” Jaza’iri says within sight of a destroyed tank.  “But now, I see nothing to be optimistic about.  We are losing hope.  We are losing our souls.”

Fearful Syrian voters will keep Assad in power, Hezbollah deputy leader says


Syrian President Bashar Assad is likely to run for re-election next year and win, with Syria remaining in military and political deadlock until then, said the deputy leader of Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, who predicted a year ago that Assad would not be dislodged from power, said the Syrian leader would win a vote because his supporters understood that their communities' very existence depended on him.

“I believe that in a year's time he will stand for the presidency. It will be the people's choice, and I believe the people will choose him,” said the bearded, turban-wearing Shi'ite cleric, speaking carefully and deliberately.

“The crisis in Syria is prolonged, and the West and the international community have been surprised by the degree of steadfastness and popularity of the regime.”

Citing rifts among Assad's foes inside and outside Syria, as well as disagreements among world powers over Assad's future, Qassem said any talk of political solutions was futile for now.

“It will take at least three or four months” for any such solution, he said in a meeting with Reuters editors. “Maybe things will continue until 2014 and the presidential election.”

The two-year-old revolt against Assad is the bloodiest and most protracted of the Arab uprisings. At least 70,000 people have been killed and the violence has stoked tensions across the Middle East between the two main branches of Islam.

Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah have supported Assad, whose Alawite sect derives from Shi'ite Islam. The mainly Sunni rebels are backed by Sunni powers Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Some Western leaders have long predicted Assad's imminent demise, but Qassem said he was likely to be re-elected in 2014.

BLACKED-OUT WINDOWS

Wearing brown robes and a white turban, he spoke in a windowless office in Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold.

Journalists were driven to the undisclosed venue in a car with blacked-out windows, a security precaution in violence-prone Lebanon. Three Hezbollah leaders have been assassinated in the past two decades; the group blames Israel for the killings.

Hezbollah, the most accomplished military force in Lebanon, fought Israel to a standstill in a 2006 war and, with its mainly Shi'ite and Christian allies, now holds a majority of cabinet seats in Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government.

Mikati has tried to insulate his country from the fighting in Syria but Lebanese Shi'ites and Sunnis have both been drawn into the fighting. Hezbollah denies accusations that it has sent its forces into Syria to fight alongside Assad's troops.

Despite significant and sustained rebel gains, Qassem said the Syrian authorities had scored a string of military successes since insurgents launched attacks in Damascus a few months ago.

“The regime has started winning clearly, point by point,” he said. “And the tensions among the countries supporting the armed (rebel) groups have become clearer.”

Assad's forces still control central Damascus and large parts of the cities of Homs, Hama and Aleppo to the north. But they have lost swathes of territory in the rural north and most of the eastern towns and cities along the Euphrates River.

In such areas, the Syrian military relies heavily on missiles, artillery and air strikes to pin back rebel advances.

RISK OF DISINTEGRATION

Qassem said Syria only had one viable option: “Either they reach a political solution, in agreement with President Assad … or there can be no alternative regime in Syria,” he said.

Asked whether Syria might fall apart, he replied: “Everything is possible.”

Syria's population includes Christians, Shi'ites, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis as well as majority Sunnis who include mystical Sufis and secularists as well as pious conservatives.

Qassem portrayed authorities as fighting to protect that diversity in the face of hardline Sunni Islamist rebels. “The regime is defending itself in a battle which it sees as an existential fight, not a struggle for power,” he said.

Assad also faced international opposition from countries trying to break the “resistance project,” a reference to the anti-Israel alliance of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, he added.

Israel, which diplomats and regional security sources said bombed a convoy in Syria two months ago carrying weapons which may have been destined for Hezbollah, has warned that military action may be needed to stop Iran's nuclear programme.

Israel and Western nations suspect Iran is seeking atomic weapons, a charge it denies. Israel says a “clear and credible military threat” against Iran is needed to halt Tehran's work.

But Qassem said the United States was reluctant to get dragged into a “costly” conflict with Tehran.

“It would not halt Iran's peaceful nuclear programme but would just delay it for a few years,” he said. “In return America's interests in the region and those of its allies and Israel would be in great and unpredictable danger.”

Washington's caution over Iran had echoes in what he said was its equivocal position towards Syria.

Although the United States says it provides only non-lethal aid to the rebels, Qassem said the presence of U.S.-made weapons in Syria proved it had at very least given approval for third countries to ship arms to Assad's opponents.

But the prolonged fighting had put Washington in a dilemma about whether to “follow the political path” instead, he said.

“America has lost its way over the steps it wants to take in Syria. On the one hand it wants the regime overthrown, and on the other it fears losing control after the regime falls.”

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Suicide bomber kills guard at U.S. embassy in Turkey


A far-leftist suicide bomber killed a Turkish security guard at the U.S. embassy in Ankara on Friday, officials said, blowing open an entrance and sending debris flying through the air.

The attacker detonated explosives strapped to his body after entering an embassy gatehouse. The blast could be heard a mile away. A lower leg and other human remains lay on the street.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said the bomber was a member of the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), a far-left group which is virulently anti-U.S. and anti-NATO and is listed as a terrorist organization by Washington.

The White House said the suicide attack was an “act of terror” but that the motivation was unclear. U.S. officials said the DHKP-C were the main suspects but did not exclude other possibilities.

Islamist radicals, extreme left-wing groups, ultra-nationalists and Kurdish militants have all carried out attacks in Turkey in the past. There was no claim of responsibility.

“The suicide bomber was ripped apart and one or two citizens from the special security team passed away,” said Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

“This event shows that we need to fight together everywhere in the world against these terrorist elements,” he said.

Turkish media reports identified the bomber as DHKP-C member Ecevit Sanli, who was involved in attacks on a police station and a military staff college in Istanbul in 1997.

KEY ALLY

Turkey is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East with common interests ranging from energy security to counter-terrorism and has been one of the leading advocates of foreign intervention to end the conflict in neighboring Syria.

Around 400 U.S. soldiers have arrived in Turkey over the past few weeks to operate Patriot anti-missile batteries meant to defend against any spillover of Syria's civil war, part of a NATO deployment due to be fully operational in the coming days.

The DHKP-C was responsible for the assassination of two U.S. military contractors in the early 1990s in protest against the first Gulf War and launched rockets at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul in 1992, according to the U.S. State Department.

Deemed a terrorist organization by both the United States and Turkey, the DHKP-C has been blamed for suicide attacks in the past, including one in 2001 that killed two police officers and a tourist in Istanbul's central Taksim Square.

The group, formed in 1978, has carried out a series of deadly attacks on police stations in the last six months.

The attack may have come in retaliation for an operation against the DHKP-C last month in which Turkish police detained 85 people. A court subsequently remanded 38 of them in custody over links to the group.

“HUGE EXPLOSION”

U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone emerged through the main gate of the embassy shortly after the explosion to address reporters, flanked by a security detail as a Turkish police helicopter hovered overhead.

“We're very sad of course that we lost one of our Turkish guards at the gate,” Ricciardone said, describing the victim as a “hero” and thanking Turkish authorities for a prompt response.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the attack on the checkpoint on the perimeter of the embassy and said several U.S. and Turkish staff were injured by debris.

“The level of security protection at our facility in Ankara ensured that there were not significantly more deaths and injuries than there could have been,” she told reporters.

It was the second attack on a U.S. mission in four months. On September 11, 2012, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American personnel were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The attack in Benghazi, blamed on al Qaeda-affiliated militants, sparked a political furor in Washington over accusations that U.S. missions were not adequately safeguarded.

A well-known Turkish journalist, Didem Tuncay, who was on her way in to the embassy to meet Ricciardone when the attack took place, was in a critical condition in hospital.

“It was a huge explosion. I was sitting in my shop when it happened. I saw what looked like a body part on the ground,” said travel agent Kamiyar Barnos, whose shop window was shattered around 100 meters away from the blast.

CALL FOR VIGILANCE

The U.S. consulate in Istanbul warned its citizens to be vigilant and to avoid large gatherings, while the British mission in Istanbul called on British businesses to tighten security after what it called a “suspected terrorist attack”.

In 2008, Turkish gunmen with suspected links to al Qaeda, opened fire on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, killing three Turkish policemen. The gunmen died in the subsequent firefight.

The most serious bombings in Turkey occurred in November 2003, when car bombs shattered two synagogues, killing 30 people and wounding 146. Part of the HSBC Bank headquarters was destroyed and the British consulate was damaged in two more explosions that killed 32 people less than a week later. Authorities said those attacks bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda.

Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul, Mohammed Arshad and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Stephen Powell

Sixty-five found executed in Syria’s Aleppo, activists say


At least 65 people were found shot dead with their hands bound in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Tuesday in a “new massacre” in the near two-year revolt against President Bashar Assad, activists said.

Opposition campaigners blamed the government but it was impossible to confirm who was responsible. Assad's forces and rebels have been battling in Syria's commercial hub since July and both have been accused of carrying out summary executions.

More than 60,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Syrian war, the longest and deadliest of the revolts that began throughout the Arab world two years ago.

The U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday the fighting had forced more than 700,000 people to flee. World powers fear the conflict could increasingly envelop Syria's neighbors including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, further destabilizing an already explosive region.

Opposition activists posted a video of a man filming at least 51 muddied male bodies alongside what they said was the Queiq River in Aleppo's rebel-held Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood.

The bodies had bullet wounds in their heads and some of the victims appeared to be young, possibly teenagers, dressed in jeans, shirts and trainers.

Aleppo-based opposition activists who asked not to be named for security reasons blamed pro-Assad militia fighters.

They said the men had been executed and dumped in the river before floating downstream into the rebel area. State media did not mention the incident.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which says it provides objective information about casualties on both sides of Syria's war from a network of monitors, said the footage was evidence of a new massacre and the death toll could rise as high as 80.

“They were killed only because they are Muslims,” said a bearded man in another video said to have been filmed in central Bustan al-Qasr after the bodies were removed from the river. A pickup truck with a pile of corpses was parked behind him.

STALEMATE

It is hard for Reuters to verify such reports from inside Syria because of restrictions on independent media.

Rebels are stuck in a stalemate with government forces in Aleppo – Syria's most populous city which is divided roughly in half between the two sides.

The revolt started as a peaceful protest movement against more than four decades of rule by Assad and his family, but turned into an armed rebellion after a government crackdown.

About 712,000 Syrian refugees have registered in other countries in the region or are awaiting processing as of Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency Said on Tuesday.

“We have seen an unrelenting flow of refugees across all borders. We are running double shifts to register people,” Sybella Wilkes, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Reuters in Geneva.

On Monday, the United Nations warned it would not be able to help millions of Syrians affected by the fighting without more money and appealed for donations at an aid conference this week in Kuwait to meet its $1.5 billion target.

Speaking ahead of that conference, Kuwait's foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah said on Tuesday there was concern Syria could turn into a failed state and put the entire region at risk.

Aid group Médecins Sans Frontières said the bulk of the current aid was going to government-controlled areas and called on donors in Kuwait to make sure they were even-handed.

MISSILES

In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, insurgents including al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters captured a security agency after days of heavy fighting, according to an activist video issued on Tuesday.

Some of the fighters were shown carrying a black flag with the Islamic declaration of faith and the name of the al-Nusra Front, which has ties to al Qaeda in neighboring Iraq.

The war has become heavily sectarian, with rebels who mostly come from the Sunni Muslim majority fighting an army whose top generals are mostly from Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Assad has framed the revolt as a foreign-backed conspiracy and blames the West and Sunni Gulf states.

Fighting also took place in the northern town of Ras al-Ain, on the border with Turkey, between rebels and Kurdish militants, the Observatory said.

In Turkey, a second pair of Patriot missile batteries being sent by NATO countries are now operational, a German security official said on Tuesday.

The United States, Germany and the Netherlands each committed to sending two batteries and up to 400 soldiers to operate them after Ankara asked for help to bolster its air defenses against possible missile attack from Syria.

Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Kuwait, Sabine Siebold in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens

Syrian clashes intensify near Turkey border


NATO said on Tuesday it had drawn up plans to defend Turkey if necessary against any further spillover of violence from Syria's border areas where rebels and government forces are fighting for control.

Rebel suicide bombers struck at President Bashar Assad's heartland, attacking an Air Force Intelligence compound on the edge of Damascus, insurgents said. Activists living nearby said the bombing caused at least 100 casualties among security personnel, based on the ambulances that rushed to the scene.

“Assad…is only able to stand up with crutches,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, once a close ally of Assad, told a meeting of his ruling AK Party.

“He will be finished when the crutches fall away.”

Erdogan, reacting to six consecutive days where shells fired from Syrian soil have landed on Turkish territory, has warned Ankara will not shrink from war if forced to act. But Ankara has also made clear it would be reluctant to mount any major operation on Syrian soil, and then only with international support.

Syrian forces and rebels have clashed at several sites close to the Turkish border in the last week. There has been no sign of any major breakthrough by either side, though activists said rebels killed at least 40 soldiers on Saturday in a 12-hour battle to take the village of Khirbet al-Joz.

It was not clear whether the shells landing on the Turkish side were aimed at Turkey or simply the result of government troops overshooting as they attacked rebels to their north.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels the 28-member military alliance hoped a way could be found to stop tensions escalating on the border.

“We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary,” he said.

Just outside Hacipasa, a village nestled among olive groves in Turkey's Hatay border province, the sound of mortar fire could be heard every 10-15 minutes from around the Syrian town of Azmarin. A Syrian helicopter flew high over the border.

Villagers used ropes and small metal boats to ferry the injured across a river no more than 10 meters wide into Turkey. On the Syrian side, men wearing surgical masks and gloves tended to the wounded on mats laid on the ground.

“They are burning houses in the town,” said Musana Barakat, 46, an Azmarin resident who makes frequent trips between the two countries, pointing at plumes of thick smoke in the distance.

“There are rebels hiding in and around the town and they are going to make a push tonight to drive Assad's forces out,” he said, a Syrian passport sticking out of his shirt pocket.

A crowd gathered around a saloon car, the blood-stained body of a man who had been pulled wounded from the fighting slumped across its back seat. Those with him said he had been rescued alive but died after being brought over the border.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said on Monday the “worst-case scenarios” were now playing out in Syria and Turkey would do everything necessary to protect itself.

Gul and Erdogan, in seeking Western and Arab support, have repeatedly warned of the dangers of fighting in Syria spilling over into a sectarian war engulfing the entire region.

Turkey's chief of general staff General Necdet Ozel flew by helicopter to several bases in Hatay province on Tuesday, part of Turkey's 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria.

U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will go to Syria soon to try to persuade President Bashar al-Assad's government to call an immediate ceasefire.

SUICIDE BOMBERS

The militant Islamist group al-Nusra Front said it had mounted the suicide attack on the air force intelligence building in Damascus because it was used a centre for torture and repression in the crackdown on the revolt against Assad.

“Big shockwaves shattered windows and destroyed shop facades. It felt as if a bomb exploded inside every house in the area,” said one resident of the suburb of Harasta, where the compound was located.

But much of the fighting in the 18-month-old uprising has concentrated around the border area.

The shelling of the Turkish town of Akcakale last Wednesday, which killed five civilians, marked a sharp escalation.

Turkey has been responding in kind since then to gunfire or mortar bombs flying over the border and has bolstered its military presence along the frontier.

“We are living in constant fear. The mortar sounds have really picked up since this morning. The children are really frightened,” said Hali Nacioglu, 43, a farmer from the village of Yolazikoy near Hacipasa.

A mortar bomb landed in farmland near Hacipasa on Monday.

Unlike the flat terrain around Akcakale, the border area in Hatay is marked by rolling hills with heavy vegetation. Syrian towns and villages, including Azmarin, are clearly visible just a few kilometers away.

“It's only right that Turkey should respond if it gets fired on but we really don't want war to break out. We want this to finish as soon as possible,” said Abidin Tunc, 49, a tobacco farmer also from Yolazikoy.

NATO member Turkey was once an ally of Assad's but turned against him after his violent response to the uprising, in which activists say 30,000 people have died.

Turkey has nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees in camps on its territory, has given sanctuary to rebel leaders and has led calls for Assad to quit.

Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Adrian Croft in Brussels, John Irish in Paris; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Daren Butler and Ralph Boulton

Turkish president says ‘worst case’ unfolding in Syria


Turkish President Abdullah Gul said on Monday the “worst-case scenarios” were now playing out in Syria and Turkey would do everything necessary to protect itself, as its army fired back for a sixth day after a shell from Syria flew over the border.

Gul said the violence in Turkey's southern neighbour, where a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad has evolved into a civil war that threatens to draw in regional powers, could not go on indefinitely and Assad's fall was inevitable.

“The worst-case scenarios are taking place right now in Syria … Our government is in constant consultation with the Turkish military. Whatever is needed is being done immediately as you see, and it will continue to be done,” Gul said.

“There will be a change, a transition sooner or later … It is a must for the international community to take effective action before Syria turns into a bigger wreck and further blood is shed, that is our main wish,” he told reporters in Ankara.

Turkey's armed forces have bolstered their presence along the 560 mile border with Syria in recent days and have been responding in kind to gunfire and shelling spilling across from the south, where Assad's forces have been battling rebels who control swathes of territory.

Turkey's Chief of Staff, General Necdet Ozel, travelled to the southern city of Adana and was due to inspect the region patrolled by Turkey's 2nd Army, which protects the border with Syria, the military said on its website.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the escalation of the conflict along the Turkey-Syria border, as well as the impact of the crisis on Lebanon, were “extremely dangerous”.

“The situation in Syria has dramatically worsened. It is posing serious risks to the stability of Syria's neighbors and the entire region,” he told a conference in Strasbourg, France.

Ban said U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi would be heading back to the region this week.

IMMEDIATE RESPONSE

The exchanges with Turkey mark the most serious cross-border violence in Syria's revolt against Assad, which began in March last year with peaceful protests for reform and has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones.

“From now on, every attack on us will be responded to immediately. Every attack that targets our sovereignty, our security of life and property will find its response,” Turkish government spokesman Bulent Arinc said after a cabinet meeting.

Parliament last week authorized the deployment of Turkish troops beyond its borders although government officials said the move was meant as a deterrent rather than a “war mandate”.

“Turkey will decide itself when the situation necessitates acts mentioned in the motion the parliament passed last week. Nobody should think war will follow a parliament approval … but we are more sensitive about our independence and sovereignty than most countries,” Arinc said.

Fighting further inside Syria also intensified on Monday.

Syrian government forces advanced for the first time in months into the rebel-held Khalidiya district in the besieged central city of Homs, one of 12 districts they have been bombarding for days.

“They have occupied buildings that we were stationed in and we had to evacuate,” a rebel fighter told Reuters by Skype.

Skirmishes on the Syrian side of the border have been escalating and it is unclear who fired the shells that have crossed into Turkey.

Damascus has said it fired into Turkey accidentally, but has failed to live up to pledges made last week, after a Syrian shell killed five civilians in the Turkish town of Akcakale, to ensure no more ordnance flies across the border.

Turkey launched its latest retaliatory strike on Monday after a mortar bomb fired from Syria landed in countryside in the Turkish province of Hatay some 150-200 meters inside the district of Hacipasa, a Turkish official told Reuters.

TRUCKS PATROLLING

Further east, Syrian rebel sources in Raqqa province, which borders Akcakale, said they had seen five Turkish army trucks full of soldiers patrolling the Turkish side of the border.

NATO member Turkey was once an ally of Assad's but turned against him after his violent response to the uprising, in which activists say 30,000 people have now died.

Turkey has nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees in camps on its territory, has allowed rebel leaders sanctuary and has led calls for Assad to quit. Its armed forces are far larger than Syria's.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at the weekend that a potential leader in an interim Syrian government could be Vice-President Farouq al-Shara.

Reports in August said Shara, a former foreign minister who was appointed vice president six years ago, had tried to defect to neighboring Jordan, but Syrian state media subsequently said he had never considered leaving.

“The opposition is inclined to accept these names. Farouq al-Shara has the ability to understand the system of the last 20 to 30 years,” Davutoglu told the state broadcaster TRT.

“Farouq al-Shara did not get involved in the recent incidents, the massacre, in a very wise and conscientious attitude. But perhaps there is nobody who knows the system better than al-Shara.”

Reporting by John Irish in Paris, Mert Ozkan in Ankara, Daren Butler in Istanbul and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Jon Hemming

Israel says Syrian mortar strike was attack on NATO


Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said on Thursday a deadly Syrian mortar strike on a Turkish town had to be considered an attack on a member of the NATO alliance.

Israel is technically at war with Damascus and occupies the Golan Heights that it seized in the 1967 war and later annexed, but it has generally taken a cautious line on the uprising in its Arab neighbor.

“One has to say that according to the NATO treaty, it was an attack on a member of NATO, and that means France,” Meridor told reporters during a visit to Paris, referring to France's membership of NATO.

Syria and Israel have not exchanged fire in three decades, and a parliamentary briefing in July by the Israeli armed forces chief about the risk of “uncontrollable deterioration” in Syria were interpreted by local media as a caution against opening a new fighting front with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Meridor said he did not want to go into details about the incident but said the deaths in Syria had to end.

“Syria is in a horrible situation, a civil war. Each day men, women and children are being killed and it must be stopped,” Meridor said after meeting France's foreign and defense ministers.

“We are in a process that isn't finished. We don't see the end for now.”

Turkey's government on Thursday said “aggressive action” against its territory by Syria's military had become a serious threat to its national security and parliament approved the deployment of Turkish troops beyond its borders if needed.

Immediately after the incident, Ankara, which has the second-largest army in NATO, called a meeting of the organization's North Atlantic Council.

Syria has apologized through the United Nations for the mortar strike in Turkey and said such an incident would not be repeated.

Israel has been particularly worried that Hezbollah, the Iranian-inspired Shiite militia in neighboring Lebanon, may gain access to the chemical weapons should Assad's grip slip amid a 18-month-old insurgency.

Assad, from the minority Alawite sect, considered an offshoot of Shia Islam, has close ties both with Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah, which was originally set up to oppose Israel.

“The alliance with Iran is extremely worrying (for us). Iran on one side, Hezbollah on the other, with Syria in the middle. For us, it's very important that this unholy alliance is broken,” Meridor said.

“If the Assad regime were to fall, it would be a vital strike on Iran,” he said.

Reporting By John Irish

The Arab Spring springs surprises


When a popular uprising started in Tunisia less than two years ago, it took the world by surprise. Not many observers had anticipated the outbreak, let alone the success, of popular uprisings in a region far better known for the longevity of its tyrants and despots.

Contrary to what some analysts have stated, the region loosely known as “the Arab world” had in fact seen important, albeit failed, uprisings: the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolt against Hafez Al-Assad’s regime in Hama, Syria, was brutally put down in 1982. The mass uprisings in both the northern and southern parts of Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991 were crushed just as mercilessly by the Saddam Hussein regime.

This time, however, it was different. The Tunisians succeeded with breathtaking speed in overthrowing Zine El-Abidine’s dictatorial and corrupt regime. But what turned those events into something really unique in the modern Arab world was the domino effect which followed. Shortly after the Tunisians won their battle with their government, there ensued a confrontation between the Egyptians and their own government. Before long, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to step down. The ripple effect of those cataclysmic developments was subsequently felt in other Arab countries, such as Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and, later, Syria.

Despite the apparent similarities noted in the Arab rebellions taking place in the Middle East, there were nevertheless some notable differences in the way the uprisings happened in the aforementioned Arab countries: the relatively benign dictatorships-Tunisia and Egypt- collapsed much more easily than did the far more ruthless tyrannies in Libya and Syria. One reason may be that Zine El-Abidine’s regime in Tunisia was caught napping by the sudden nature of the revolt in that country. And while Hosni Mubarak’s regime had some forewarning of the possibility of similar developments taking place in Egypt, this was not early enough for members of the Egyptian political elite to successfully contain and defuse the situation.

By contrast, the Qaddafi regime had ample time to prepare for such an eventuality, and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad had even more time than Qaddafi’s to brace itself for a similar insurgency occurring in Syria. Coupled with the horrifically brutal nature of both of these regimes, the spread of the “Arab Spring”, as it came to be known, lost momentum. Despite some initial successes achieved by anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya, the tide was turned fairly quickly as Qaddafi’s forces rallied to roll back the rebels’ advance speedily and efficiently. Before long, Qaddafi’s fighters had overcome the rebels in Zawiya, laid siege to Misrata, and beaten the eastern region’s rebels from near Sirte, his own birthplace, all the way back to my own city, Benghazi. Terrified and thrown into panic by the merciless, ruthless nature of Qaddafi’s threats and his declared intention of vindictively seeking out his enemies “street-by-street, alley-by-alley, house-by-house”,  France, along with the United Kingdom and, after some hesitancy, the United States successfully obtained the Arab League’s consent to a possible aerial intervention in Libya in order to protect civilians from what looked like a potentially hair-raising massacre not very different from what had happened in Srebrenica in the ex-Yugoslavia back in the 1995. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States also succeeded in persuading reluctant members of the United Nation’s Security Council, most notably Russia and China, of the need to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The French, the British, and the Americans also took advantage of the wording of UN Resolution 1973, especially one of the points authorizing all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, to justify the active, pre-emptive aerial attacks against the Qaddafi regime. The famous French air attack on Qaddafi’s lethal forces on the outskirts of Benghazi in March 2011 achieved the goal of preventing a large scale massacre of civilians in that city. Consequently, Qaddafi’s forces quickly retreated all the way back to Sirte. Buoyed up by such speedy withdrawal, the eastern rebels advanced just as speedily all the way to an area not very far from Sirte, while exuding their newly-found confidence that the Qaddafi regime would crumble in few weeks or less.  That, of course, did not materialize, and the Libyan conflict entered thereafter a phase of prolonged stalemate which lasted for many months before the Qaddafi regime collapsed in the city of Tripoli and Qaddafi himself was captured and killed near his hometown of Sirte in October 2011.

Once the Syrian people saw what was happening in other Arab countries, and how France, the United Kingdom, and the United States were striving for intervention in the Libyan conflict, they plucked up enough courage to launch mass protests against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. This began when protesters called for the “Friday of Dignity” and Syrians initiated their first serious challenge against their own government. Unlike the Libyans before them, the Syrian protesters did not want outside intervention and were intent on fighting the Assad regime alone. When it gradually dawned on the Syrian rebels that overthrowing Bashar Al-Assad’s regime was not as feasible as they had imagined, they little by little started to have second thoughts concerning the idea of requesting external armed involvement.

Nonetheless, this time the situation in Syria was significantly different from the Libyan situation: First, both Russia and China objected to outside intervention à la Libyan case. Second, important regional players such as Iran, along with organizations like Hizbollah in Lebanon, backed up the Syrian regime and reportedly propped it up with arms, financial, personnel, and diplomatic support. Third, despite the longtime enmity between Israel and Syria, the Israelis, and quite a few of their American supporters, balked at the idea of Syria being run by an actively anti-Israeli, perhaps theocratic, government should the Assad regime disintegrate. After all, both Bashar Al-Assad and his father before him often barked at Israel, but they never did much biting. The anxiety concerning a possible Islamist takeover in Syria was compounded by the early results of regime change in the Arab Spring: Major Islamist successes in Tunisia and Egypt, and significant Islamist influence in Libya’s post-Qaddafi politics, scared outside powers which feared that, yet again, the “Arab Spring” in Syria could very well lead to an “Islamist winter”.

The differences between Libya’s situation and that of Syria did not emerge only in terms of geopolitical dynamics, but also extended to include internal differences: To an extent far greater than the national makeup of Libya, Syria’s is a mosaic of various religions, sects, and ethnic groups: Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Armenians, Turkmen, Circassians, Muslims, Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and so forth. These groups had been held together by Hafez Al-Assad and later his son Bashar. If the son’s regime were to collapse, it is not inconceivable that this might bring about the fragmentation of the country, resulting in extensive massacres. The relations between Muslims and Christians in Syria are already very tense, as are many of those between Syria’s other ethnic and sectarian groups. But the Syrian regime’s most-intensely feared scenario is the fate of the Alawite minority, to which Bashar Al-Assad belongs. The end of their tight grip on power could very easily become a prelude to their mass murder at the hands of other groups, especially the Sunnis who have long resented being governed and oppressed by the Alawites. This is one of the most important reasons why the Bashar Al-Assad regime is fighting tooth and nail to hold on to power: what is at stake is not merely the regime’s survival, but above all that of the whole Alawite sect.

Having previously worked for several years as a university professor of political science, I am fully aware that forecasting in the area of international politics is a very difficult undertaking; there are far too many unknown quantities and variables involved for this to be easily doable. All the same, it does look at the moment as if the Syrian situation will continue to be a war of attrition, with neither side being able to gain the upper hand in a decisive and conclusive manner. One is then left wondering whether this might lead to yet another “Lebanon”.


Husam Dughman’s family was both educated and liberal.  They heroically stood up to the Qaddafi regime and endured the dire consequences. This gave him a first-hand experience of what dictatorship, bigotry, and intolerance are about, and what kind of price has to be paid in order to stand up to them.  Coupled with his experience of religious intolerance, Mr. Dughman resolved to fight against zealotry, hate, and extremism, come hell or high water. Thus, the idea for Tête-à-tête with Muhammad began to germinate in his mind.

Husam Dughman was born in Libya and educated in Libya and the U.K. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in Political Science from the University of Kent at Canterbury, where he won several awards for academic excellence and graduated with a First Class with Honours. In 1993, Mr. Dughman returned to Libya and was successful in securing a position as a university professor of Political Science. Due to political reasons, he left his university position in 1997 and subsequently worked in legal translation. He immigrated to Canada in 2002, where he has been helping new immigrants with their settlement.

Dughman’s new book, Tête-à-tête with Muhammad, is available for purchase at Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, as well as other online booksellers.  To learn more visit: http://www.husamdughman.com

Syrian minister: Thought downed Turkish plane was Israeli


Syria shot down a Turkish plane believing it was an Israeli plane, a Syrian government minister said.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi told a Turkish news channel Wednesday that the confusion stemmed from the fact that both Israeli and Syrian fighter planes largely are American-made.

The plane was downed last week; a second Turkish plane was downed several days later on June 22.

“As you know there is a country called Israel there and as you know this Zionism country’s planes are very similar and because they both are from the same factory, from the U.S., maybe Syria thought it was an Israeli plane,” Zoebi told the Turkish A Haber channel on Wednesday, according to The Associated Press. He said his government did not want to spark a crisis with Syria.

Turkey said its entrance into Syrian air space was an error and apologized, CNN reported.

Russia says downing of Turkish plane not provocation


Russia said on Tuesday Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish warplane should not be seen as a provocation and warned world powers against using the incident to push for stronger action against Damascus.

It was Moscow’s first reaction to Friday’s downing of a Turkish military aircraft by Syrian air defenses, which gave a new international dimension to the worsening conflict in Syria.

Turkey’s NATO allies condemned Syria’s action as unacceptable but stopped short of threatening any military response. Turkey also plans to approach the U.N. Security Council.

“It is important that what happened is not viewed as a provocation or a premeditated action (by Syria),” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.

Moscow repeated its calls for restraint, warning that any political escalation would be “extremely dangerous” and threaten international efforts to salvage a moribund six-point Syrian peace plan drawn up by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

“Once again, we call on all sides to act exclusively in the interests of such an agenda (the peace plan) and not to take steps that go beyond its limits,” the ministry said.

“We believe that the best course of action is restraint and constructive interaction between the Turkish and Syrian sides in order to clarify all the circumstances of the incident.”

Syria provides Moscow with its firmest foothold in the Middle East, buys weapons from Russia worth billions of dollars, and hosts the Russian navy’s only permanent warm water port outside the former Soviet Union.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would attend a meeting on Syria that Annan is trying to arrange on Saturday but suggested it would not produce results without the participation of Iran, a close Syrian ally.

“Iran must be present. Otherwise the circle of participants will be incomplete and will not gather everybody who has influence on all Syrian sides,” Lavrov told reporters, on the sidelines of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Jordan.

Annan has also said Iran should attend, but diplomats say the United States, Saudi Arabia and others objected to the idea.

Putin later on Tuesday also voiced support for involving Iranian officials in talks seeking an end to the violence, saying it would be “counterproductive” to neglect Syria’s neighbor in negotiations to resolve the conflict.

“The more Syria’s neighbors are involved in the process the better because almost every neighboring country has some influence on some forces inside the country,” Putin said.

“It is better to involve Iran in this conflict resolution, receive its support,” he said.

Russia has used its power of veto in the U.N. Security Council to shield Syria from harsher international sanctions over Damascus’s crackdown on the 16-month-old revolt.

Moscow has backed Annan’s plan, insisting it is the only way to end the bloodshed in Syria and arguing firmly against any kind of military intervention.

So far Annan’s attempts to get the Syrian opposition and government to begin talks aimed at ending the conflict have failed, but he is pushing for a meeting of key regional players and permanent U.N. Security Council members in Geneva on Saturday, hoping to kickstart political negotiations.

Reporting by Gleb Bryansky in Amman and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow, editing by Andrew Heavens

Arab League cracks down on Syria


The Arab League stepped up sanctions against Syria over its violent suppression of a popular revolt.

The Cairo-based umbrella group of Arab countries, which last month expelled Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, announced a travel ban Thursday against 17 Syrian VIPs. Assad himself was excluded from the blacklist, but his brother Maher, Syria’s second most-powerful leader, was included.

The Arab League sanctions compound punitive measures imposed on Damascus by the European Union over its almost yearlong crackdown on a Syrian uprising that in recent months has taken on aspects of a civil war. Thousands of Syrians have been killed in the revolt.

Turkey, a NATO power and Syria’s neighbor and biggest trading partner, also has curtailed dealings with the Assad regime. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has urged Assad to step down, saying he risked sharing the fate of the slain Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The world’s largest Muslim body, the Organization of Islamic Conference, on Wednesday urged Syria to “immediately stop the use of excessive force” against its citizens.

30 reported dead in Syria even as Turkey joins global condemnation of Assad regime


Syrian forces killed at least 30 civilians in tank assaults on Tuesday and moved into a town near the Turkish border, activists and witnesses said, even as Turkey’s foreign minister pressed President Bashar Assad to halt assaults on protests against his rule.

The Syrian National Organization for Human Rights said 30 civilians were killed by tank assaults in the countryside around the city of Hama and in a town near Turkey.

The Organization, headed by dissident Ammar Qurabi, said in a statement that 26 people were killed and dozens wounded when troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles overran Soran and other villages north of Hama, the focus of a 10-day assault to crush street protests against Assad’s autocratic rule.

Four people were also killed in Binnish, around 30 km (19 miles) from the border with Turkey, in a similar attack on the town that has witnessed an escalation in protests demanding the removal of Assad during the fasting month of Ramadan, the organization said.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Turkey to UN: We seized illegal Iran arms shipment en route to Syria


Turkey has informed a UN Security Council panel that it seized a cache of weapons Iran was attempting to export in breach of a UN arms embargo, according to a document obtained by Reuters on Thursday.

Security Council diplomats said the report of the seizure from an Iranian cargo plane reflected positively on Turkey, which some U.S. and European officials say has taken a lax approach to implementing international sanctions against Iranian financial institutions.

The report to the council’s Iran sanctions committee, which oversees compliance with the four rounds of punitive steps the 15-nation body has imposed on Iran over its nuclear program, said a March 21 inspection turned up the weapons, which were listed as “auto spare parts” on the plane’s documents.

Read more at Haartez.com.

Israel’s Arab neighbors may hold key to summit’s success


As the Annapolis peace parley rapidly approaches, some of the Arab and Muslim players expected to play a key role in creating conditions for a favorable outcome are proving to be more of an obstacle than an asset.

Egypt, Syria and Turkey have been complicating efforts to hold what the United States envisions to be a tipping point in the long-dormant peace process.

On Tuesday, one of those nations seemed to reverse course: Egypt threw its support behind the peace conference after Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Syria, however, has proven more of a problem. If Annapolis is supposed to trigger a process of reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world, it is imperative that Syria attend. But Syrian leader Bashar Assad said he has no intention of coming to Maryland unless a much clearer offer of a deal with Israel is put on the table.

Complicating matters further are strains between Israel and Turkey, which reportedly is trying to mediate between Jerusalem and Damascus.

The difficulties on the Palestinian track could be helped by a Syrian presence in Annapolis. Although Assad says he has yet to receive a serious offer, he went to Turkey on Tuesday for regional talks that were to include discussion of Israel. Assad told the Tunisian daily al-Shuruq that the Turks have been mediating between Israel and Syria for the past six months.

Just two weeks ago, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan came to Jerusalem after visiting Damascus. Before that the Turks initiated a failed back channel involving former Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Liel and Syrian-American Abe Suleiman.

Ironically, some Israelis believe the chances of accommodation with Syria are greater in the wake of the reported Israeli air strike last month against an alleged Syrian nuclear facility. Top Israel Defense Forces generals believe there now is a real chance for a dialogue with Syria, and Israel should explore it.

In farewell interviews, the outgoing deputy chief of staff, Maj.-Gen Moshe Kaplinsky, argued that detaching Syria from the Iranian-led “axis of evil” was a vital Israeli and American interest.

At one point, the Turkish mediation effort seemed hampered by strains in ties between the country and Israel. The Turks were angered by Israeli planes flying over their airspace during the reported operation against the Syrian nuclear facility, as well by what they saw as Israeli influence on U.S. Jewish groups lobbying for congressional legislation to recognize the Armenian genocide.

Although the visit to Israel this week of the Turkish chief of staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, seems to indicate business as usual, there are major concerns in Israel about Turkey’s geopolitical alignment. The fact that Ankara is now ruled by an Islamist government and president, and seems to be gearing up for military action against the Kurds in northern Iraq, raises questions about its position within the moderate pro-Western camp.

Just as the Western camp would like to pluck Syria from the axis of evil, Iran is making renewed efforts to draw Turkey away from its Western orientation.

As important, Israel and the United States had hoped that Egypt, the key moderate Sunni nation in the region, would encourage the Palestinians and other regional protagonists to make peace with Israel the way it did in 1979.

Instead, Israeli officials have been complaining that Egypt has been playing a negative role, turning a blind eye to the unimpeded smuggling of weapons across the Egyptian border to Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip. The Israelis said this was creating a major military threat that could scuttle the November gathering even before it began.

For months, tons of explosives and weapons have been flooding across the porous Egyptian border with Gaza, Israeli officials say. Dozens of Palestinian terrorists also have been slipping back into Gaza through Egypt after training in Iran, Syria or Lebanon.

Before the Hamas takeover in Gaza in June, there was a semblance of border control. Now, Israel says, the Egypt-Gaza border has become a “smugglers’ highway.” So great is the increase in smuggling that Israel says it constitutes a “strategic threat” both militarily and politically.

In mid-October, Israeli officials fired off an urgent message to Washington: “The smuggling of weapons and terrorist experts,” they said, poses “a real threat to the holding of the Annapolis conference.”

The nightmare scenario is this: The smuggling encourages Hamas to launch rocket attacks on Israeli urban centers, drawing Israel into a large-scale military operation in Gaza and pushing Annapolis off the agenda.

This week, however, the Egyptians announced they had uncovered new tunnels to Gaza. Three Palestinians found inside one of them were arrested, and bombs, bullets and drugs found inside another were confiscated.

Israel foresees two major military problems if the smuggling remains unchecked: The introduction of longer-range rockets and the industrial wherewithal for Hamas to produce its own missiles on a grand scale. This would give the terrorists in Gaza the capacity to threaten Israel in the southern and central regions of the country in very much the same way the Lebanese-based Hezbollah does in the North.

Israeli officials also are concerned by Egyptian attempts behind the scenes to effect reconciliation between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ moderate Fatah movement and Hamas.

“Egypt is working against everything we are all trying to achieve,” senior Israeli officials complained recently to the Americans. “We are organizing a summit, trying to strengthen Abbas, and they are strengthening Hamas.”

The Egyptians see things differently. They claim Israel is to blame for the difficulties in the run-up to Annapolis.

“There are people in Israel who are trying to prevent prior agreement on the core issues, without which the conference will fail,” the Egyptian Foreign Minister Gheit charged.

Gheit softened his tone somewhat after meeting Tuesday with Rice, who had come to the region to get the agenda back on track.

Rice has three main goals: To bring Israelis and Palestinians closer to agreement on a statement of principles, to impress Israeli government hard-liners of the need to go forward and to get Israel and Egypt back on the same page.

One thing is clear: In the run-up to Annapolis, the geopolitical stakes are rising.


Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Report.