Headline of last issue of Turkey's Zaman before government takeover
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have taken separate steps to break free from Washington’s dictates on the Syrian issue and show their resistance to Russia’s highhanded intervention in Syria. They are moving on separate tracks to signal their defiance and frustration with the exclusive pact between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin which ostracizes Riyadh and Ankara on the Syrian question.
Turkey in particular, saddled with three million Syrian refugees (Jordan hosts another 1.4 million), resents Washington's deaf ear to its demand for no-fly zones in northern and southern Syria as shelters against Russian and Syrian air raids.
Last year, President Reccep Erdogan tried in desperation to partially open the door for a mass exit of Syrian refugees to Europe. He was aghast when he found that most of the million asylum-seekers reaching Europe were not Syrians, but Muslims from Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan, in search of a better life in the West. Most of the Syrians stayed put in the camps housing them in southern Turkey.
Even the Turkish intelligence agency MIT was hard put to explain this setback. According to one partial explanation, organized crime gangs of Middle East dope and arms smugglers, in which ISIS is heavily represented, seized control of the refugee traffic heading to Europe from Libya, Iraq and Syria.
This human traffic netted the gangs an estimated $1 billion.
Turkey was left high and dry with millions of Syrian refugees on its hands and insufficient international aid to supply their needs. No less painful, Bashar Assad was still sitting pretty in Damascus.
Finding Assad firmly entrenched in Damascus is no less an affront for Saudi Arabia. Added to this, the Syrian rebel groups supported by Riyadh are melting away under continuing Russian-backed government assaults enabled by the Obama-Putin “ceasefire” deal’
The oil kingdom’s rulers find it particularly hard to stomach the sight of Iran and Hizballah going from strength to strength both in Syria and Lebanon.
The Turks threatened to strike back, but confined themselves to artillery shelling of Syrian areas close to the border. While appearing to be targeting the Kurdish YPD-YPG militia moving into these areas, the Turkish guns were in fact pounding open spaces with no Kurdish presence. Their purpose was to draw a line around the territory which they have marked out for a northern no-fly or security zone.
Saturday, March 5, President Erdogan proposed building a “new city” of 4,500 square kilometers on northern Syrian soil, to shelter the millions of war refugees. He again tried putting the idea to President Obama.
The Saudi Defense Minister, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman put together a more high-risk and comprehensive scheme. Its dual purpose is to hit pro-Iranian Hizballah from the rear and force the two big powers to treat Riyadh seriously as a player for resolving the Syrian imbroglio.
The scheme hinged in the cancellation of a $4 billion Saudi pledge of military aid to the Lebanese army, thereby denying Hizballah, which is a state within the state and also dominates the government, access to Saudi funding. But it also pulled the rug from under Lebanon’s hopes for combating ISIS and Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, which have grabbed a strip of Lebanese territory in the northern Beqaa Valley.
The Saudi action, by weakening the Lebanese military and its ability to shore up central government in Beirut, risks tipping Lebanon over into another civil war.
The London Economist commented that this Saudi step against Lebanon seems “amateurish.” Under the young prince (30), “Saudi Arabia sometimes acts with bombast and violence that makes it look like the Donald Trump of the Arab World,” in the view of the magazine.
But the Saudi step had a third less obvious motive, a poke in the eye for President Obama for espousing Iran’s claim to Middle East hegemony. Resentment on this score is common to the Saudi royal house and the Erdogan government.
As a crude provocation for Washington, the Turkish president ordered police Friday, March 4, to raid Turkey’s largest newspaper Zaman, after an Istanbul court ruling placed it under government control.
The newspaper released its final edition ahead of the raid declaring the takeover a "shameful day for free press" in the country. A group of protesters outside the building was dispersed with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons.
Zaman is owned by the exiled Muslim cleric Felhullah Gulen, who heads the powerful Hizmet movement, which strongly contests Erdogan government policies. A former ally of the president, the two fell out years ago. In 1999, after he was accused of conspiring to overthrow the government in Ankara, Gulen fled to the United States.
Today, the exiled cleric runs the Hizmet campaign against the Turkish president from his home in Pennsylvania, for which he has been declared a terrorist and many of his supporters arrested.
The takeover of Zaman was intended both as a blow by Ankara against Muslim circles opposed to the Erdogan regime and as an act of retaliation against the United States, for harboring its opponents and sidelining Turkey from Obama administration plans for Syria.
Oddly enough, the Turkish president finds himself in a position analogous to Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi, who is at war with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which enjoys Obama’s support.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has his own dilemmas. Struggling to keep his balance while walking a tight rope on the Syrian situation between Israel’s longstanding ties with Washington and handling the Russian tiger lurking next door, he is in no hurry to welcome Erdogan’s determined overtures for the resumption of normal relations.
Turkey is in trouble with both major world powers and, after living for five years under hostile abuse from Ankara, Israel does not owe Erdogan a helping had for pulling him out of the mess.