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Turkish Brinkmanship Reaches A Dead End In Syria

It’s time to reclaim Syria’s road to recovery

Erdogan de facto supports al-Qaeda remnants while facing either humiliating retreat from or total war against Syria

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Syria’s main transport artery, the M5 highway, links Damascus with Aleppo. Image: iStock

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, neo-Ottoman extraordinaire, is not exactly inclined to commit seppuku, the Japanese act of ritual suicide.

But if not through the perspective of neo-Ottomanism, how to explain the fact he is de facto supporting al-Qaeda remnants in Syria while facing two unsavory options – a humiliating retreat from or total war against the Syrian Arab Army?

Everything about the slowly evolving, messy chessboard in Idlib hinges on highways: the imperative for the government in Damascus to control both the M5 highway between Damascus and Aleppo and the M4 highway between Latakia and Aleppo. Fully reclaiming these two crucial axes will finally turbo-charge the ailing Syrian economy.

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Very few players nowadays remember the all-important Sochi memorandum of understanding signed between Russia and Turkey in September 2018.

The Western spin was always about whether Damascus would comply. Nonsense. In the memorandum, Ankara guaranteed protection of civilian traffic on both highways. It’s Ankara that is not complying, not only in terms of ensuring that “radical terrorist groups” are out of the demilitarized zone, but especially on point number 8: “In the interests of ensuring free movement of local residents and goods, as well as restoring trade and economic ties, transit traffic along the routes M4 (Aleppo-Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo-Hama) will be restored before the end of 2018.”

Vast stretches of Idlib are in fact under the yoke of Hayat Tahrir al Shams (HTS), shorthand for al-Qaeda in Syria. Or “moderate rebels,” as they are known inside the Beltway – even though the United States government itself brands it as a terror organization.

For all practical purposes, the Erdogan system is supporting and weaponizing HTS in Idlib. When the SAA reacts against HTS’s attacks, Erdogan goes ballistic and threatens war.

The West uncritically buys Ankara propaganda. How dare the “Assad regime” take back the M5, which “had been under rebel control since 2012”? Erdogan is lauded for warning “Iran and Russia to end the support for the Assad regime.” NATO invariably condemns “attacks on Turkish troops.”

The official Ankara explanation for the Turkish presence in Idlib hinges on bringing reinforcements to “observation posts.” Nonsense. These posts are not meant to go away. On top of it, Ankara demands that the SAA should retreat to the positions it held months ago – away from Idlib.

There’s no way Damascus will “comply” because these Turkish troops are a de facto occupation body-protecting “moderate rebels” fighting for “democracy” who were decisively excluded by Moscow – and even Ankara – from the Sochi memorandum. One can’t make this stuff up.

Got airpower, will travel

Now let’s look at the facts on the ground – and in the skies. Moscow and Damascus control the airspace over Idlib. Su-34 jets patrol all of northwest Syrian territory. Moscow has warships – crammed with cruise missiles – deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The whole SAA offensive for these past few months to liberate national territory has been a graphic demonstration of top Russian intel – planning, execution, logistics.

What’s being set up is a classic cauldron – a Southwest Asia replica of the cauldron in Donbass in 2014 that destroyed Kiev’s army. The SAA is encircling the Turks from the north, east and south. There will be only one way out for the Turks: the border crossing at Bab al-Hawa. Back to Turkey.

Facing certified disaster, no wonder Erdogan had to talk “de-escalation” with Putin on Tuesday. The red lines, from Moscow’s side, are immutable: the highways will be liberated (according to the Sochi agreement). The neo-Ottoman sultan can’t afford a war with Russia. So, yes: he’s bluffing.

But why is he bluffing? There are three main possibilities. 1) Washington is forcing him to, pledging full support to “our NATO ally.”  2) The Turkish Armed Forces cannot afford to lose face. 3) The “moderate rebels” don’t give a damn about Ankara.

Option 1 seems the most plausible – even as Erdogan is being actually forced to directly confront a Moscow with which he has signed extremely important economic/energy contracts. Erdogan may not be a General Zhukov, but he knows that a bunch of jihadis and only 6,000 demoralized Turkish soldiers stand no chance against the SAA and Russian airpower.

It’s enlightening to compare the current Turkish predicament with the Turk/Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxy gang alliance when they were fighting the Kurds in Afrin.

Ankara then had control of the skies and enormous artillery advantage – from their side of the border. Now Syria/Russia rules the skies and Turkish artillery simply cannot get into Idlib. Not to mention that supply lines are dreadful.

Neo-Ottomanism, revisited

So what is Erdogan up to? What’s happening is Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood network is now managing Idlib on the ground – a fascinating repositioning gambit able to ensure that Erdogan remains a strongman with whom Bashar al-Assad will have to talk business when the right time comes.

Erdogan’s partial endgame will be to “sell” to Assad that ultimately he was responsible for getting rid of the HTS/FSA jihadi nebulae. Meanwhile, circus prevails – or, rather, a lousy opera, with Erdogan once again relishing playing the bad guy. He knows Damascus has all but won a vicious nine-year proxy war – and is reclaiming all of its sovereign territory. There’s no turning back.

And that brings us to the complex dynamics of the Turkish-Iranian puzzle. One should always remember that both are members of the  Astana peace process, alongside Russia. On Syria, Tehran supported Damascus from the start while Ankara bet on – and weaponized – the “democratic freedom fighter” jihadi nebulae.

From the 16th century to the 19th, Shi’ite Iran and the Sunni Ottoman empire were engaged in non-stop mutual containment. And under the banner of Islam, Turkey de facto ruled over the Arab world.

Jump cut, in the 21st century, to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who codified neo-Ottomanism. Davutoglu came up with the idea that eastern Anatolia did not end with the borders with Armenia and Iran but extended to the western coast of the Caspian Sea. And he also came up with the idea that eastern Anatolia did not end at the borders with Iraq and Syria – but extended all the way to Mosul.

Essentially, Davutoglu argued that the Middle East had to be Turkey’s backyard. And Syria would be the golden gate through which Turkey would “recover” the Middle East.

All these elaborate plans now lie in dust. The Big Picture, of course, remains: the US determined by all means necessary to prevent Eurasian unity, and the Russia-China strategic partnership from having access to maritime routes, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean through Syria via Iran.

The micro-picture is way more prosaic. It comes down to Erdogan making sure his occupying troops do not get routed by Assad’s army. How the mighty (neo-Ottoman) have fallen.

Trump Reinforces Republican Anti-Cannabis Bias…Look For Inevitable “Witch Hunt” To Eliminate Medical Marijuana

Donald Trump previously supported states considering marijuana legalization, but that could be changing.
Donald Trump previously supported states considering marijuana legalization, but that could be changing. (Alex Wong/Staff/Getty Images)

Analysts previously predicted Donald Trump might support marijuana legalization to boost his chances of re-election this year. Instead, the opposite has happened. The Trump Administration has proposed removing medical marijuana protections in the 2021 fiscal budget and leaked audio revealed the President’s belief that smoking weed makes you dumb.

Trump has done little to reverse this appearance of an anti-marijuana sentiment building in the White House. Rather, a top Trump campaign spokesman doubled down and said marijuana should remain illegal at the federal level. During an interview with Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS-TV, Marc Lotter, who serves as director of strategic communications for Trump’s 2020 campaign, was asked about the President’s stance on changing federal cannabis laws.

“I think the president is looking at this from a standpoint of a parent—a parent of a young person—to make sure we keep our kids away from drugs,” Lotter said. “They need to be kept illegal. That is the federal policy.”

This complicates what Trump stated during his 2016 campaign and time in the White House. Previously, Trump supported leaving marijuana legalization to the states and voiced support for the STATES Act, bipartisan legislation that would prohibit federal prosecution for those living in states with legal cannabis.

“I think the president has been pretty clear on his views on marijuana at the federal level. I know many states have taken a different path,” Lotter said.

It could also signal a change in political strategy from the president in the upcoming election. Outside candidates Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg, the Democratic presidential nominee will support legalizing cannabis at the federal level. Trump could see it as an advantage to position himself opposite of his eventual opponent. For now, Trump appears comfortable allowing himself being seen as someone who will uphold federal cannabis prohibition.

Said Lotter, “If he changes that, obviously that would be something I wouldn’t want to get out in front of him on that.”

The Fresh Toast is a daily lifestyle platform with a side of cannabis. For more information, visit www.thefreshtoast.com.

Copyright: © 2020 The Fresh Toast.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

Turkey Asks U.S. For 2 Patriot Missile Batteries, To Block Russian Air Support To Syrian Troops

US official confirms Turkey asked for Patriot missiles

Anonymous official says request was made ‘recently’
Kasim Ileri   |21.02.2020
US official confirms Turkey asked for Patriot missiles

WASHINGTON

The Turkish government recently asked the U.S. to deploy Patriot air defense systems on Turkey’s southern border, a U.S. official said Thursday.

“We’re aware of a request for Patriot systems but understand no decision has been made,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official said the request had been made “recently.”

Earlier in the day, citing a Turkish official in Ankara, Bloomberg reported that Turkey asked the U.S. to deploy two Patriot missile-defense batteries “to free it to punish any future attacks” by Syrian regime forces backed by Russia.

In the latest exchange between Turkish and Syrian regime forces Thursday, two Turkish soldiers were martyred and five injured in airstrikes on Turkish elements in Idlib, northwestern Syria, said Turkey’s National Defense Ministry.

In retaliation, Turkish forces neutralized more than 50 regime elements and destroyed five tanks, two armored personnel vehicles, two armed pickups and one howitzer, the ministry said on Twitter.

Responding to Turkish soldiers being martyred by Assad regime forces in recent weeks, Turkey has swiftly retaliated, neutralizing hundreds of Syrian troops and warning that it will not tolerate any Turkish soldiers coming to harm.

*Servet Gunerigok contributed to this story

NYT Publishes Opinion Letter From Taliban Leader Sirajuddin Haqqani Urging Support For New Peace Deal

I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop, the deputy leader of the Taliban writes.

By 

Mr. Haqqani is the deputy leader of the Taliban.

A man waving an Afghan flag during an Independence Day celebration in Kabul in 2019.
Credit…Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press

When our representatives started negotiating with the United States in 2018, our confidence that the talks would yield results was close to zero. We did not trust American intentions after 18 years of war and several previous attempts at negotiation that had proved futile.

Nevertheless, we decided to try once more. The long war has exacted a terrible cost from everyone. We thought it unwise to dismiss any potential opportunity for peace no matter how meager the prospects of its success. For more than four decades, precious Afghan lives have been lost every day. Everyone has lost somebody they loved. Everyone is tired of war. I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop.

We did not choose our war with the foreign coalition led by the United States. We were forced to defend ourselves. The withdrawal of foreign forces has been our first and foremost demand. That we today stand at the threshold of a peace agreement with the United States is no small milestone.

Our negotiation team, led by my colleagues Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Sher Mohammed Abas Stanekzai, has worked tirelessly for the past 18 months with the American negotiators to make an agreement possible. We stuck with the talks despite recurring disquiet and upset within our ranks over the intensified bombing campaign against our villages by the United States and the flip-flopping and ever-moving goal posts of the American side.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second from left, with members of a Taliban delegation in Russia in 2019.
Credit…Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

Even when President Trump called off the talks, we kept the door to peace open because we Afghans suffer the most from the continuation of the war. No peace agreement, following on the heels of such intensive talks, comes without mutual compromises. That we stuck with such turbulent talks with the enemy we have fought bitterly for two decades, even as death rained from the sky, testifies to our commitment to ending the hostilities and bringing peace to our country.

We are aware of the concerns and questions in and outside Afghanistan about the kind of government we would have after the foreign troops withdraw. My response to such concerns is that it will depend on a consensus among Afghans. We should not let our worries get in the way of a process of genuine discussion and deliberation free for the first time from foreign domination and interference.
It is important that no one front-loads this process with predetermined outcomes and preconditions. We are committed to working with other parties in a consultative manner of genuine respect to agree on a new, inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded.

I am confident that, liberated from foreign domination and interference, we together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.

We are also aware of concerns about the potential of Afghanistan being used by disruptive groups to threaten regional and world security. But these concerns are inflated: Reports about foreign groups in Afghanistan are politically motivated exaggerations by the warmongering players on all sides of the war.

It is not in the interest of any Afghan to allow such groups to hijack our country and turn it into a battleground. We have already suffered enough from foreign interventions. We will take all measures in partnership with other Afghans to make sure the new Afghanistan is a bastion of stability and that nobody feels threatened on our soil.

We are conscious of the immense challenges ahead. Perhaps our biggest challenge is to ensure that various Afghan groups work hard and sincerely toward defining our common future. I am confident that it is possible. If we can reach an agreement with a foreign enemy, we must be able to resolve intra-Afghan disagreements through talks.

Another challenge will be keeping the international community interested and positively engaged during the transition to peace and after the withdrawal of foreign troops. The support of the international community will be crucial to stabilizing and developing Afghanistan.

We are ready to work on the basis of mutual respect with our international partners on long-term peace-building and reconstruction. After the United States withdraws its troops, it can play a constructive role in the postwar development and reconstruction of Afghanistan.

We acknowledge the importance of maintaining friendly relations with all countries and take their concerns seriously. Afghanistan cannot afford to live in isolation. The new Afghanistan will be a responsible member of the international community.

More immediately, there will be the challenge of putting into effect our agreement with the United States. A degree of trust has been built through our talks with the American negotiators in Doha, Qatar, but just as the United States does not trust us completely, we too are very far from fully trusting it.

We are about to sign an agreement with the United States and we are fully committed to carrying out its every single provision, in letter and spirit. Achieving the potential of the agreement, ensuring its success and earning lasting peace will depend on an equally scrupulous observance by the United States of each of its commitments. Only then can we have complete trust and lay the foundation for cooperation — or even a partnership — in the future.

My fellow Afghans will soon celebrate this historic agreement. Once it is entirely fulfilled, Afghans will see the departure of all foreign troops. As we arrive at this milestone, I believe it is not a distant dream that we will soon see the day when we will come together with all our Afghan brothers and sisters, start moving toward lasting peace and lay the foundation of a new Afghanistan.

We would then celebrate a new beginning that invites all our compatriots to return from their exile to our country — to our shared home where everybody would have the right to live with dignity, in peace.

Sirajuddin Haqqani is the deputy leader of the Taliban.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

US/Taliban To Sign Reduction of Violence Agreement

Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah at the Council of Ministers on Monday said that the peace agreement between the Taliban and US has been “finalized.”

“The agreement between the Taliban and US has been finalized and the signing of the agreement is based on the reduction in violence over seven-days and then it will continue,” Abdullah said.

“It also an opportunity for the opposite side to show that they want peace in the country,” Abdullah said.

The US Special Representative for Afghanistan’s Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, tweeted updates about progress in the peace process, noting the reduction in violence agreement between the US and Taliban, but stressed that “success cannot be guaranteed.”

Khalilzad reported on Twitter that he had met with President Ashraf Ghani in Munich on Friday and held a series of meetings with leaders and representatives from different countries.

Khalilzad also mentioned a “prolonged and fruitful” trip to Doha before attending the Munich Security Conference.

During a meeting with President Ghani, Khalilzad said the two “spoke about the opportunity of this reduction in violence and the imperative of preparing for an inclusive Afghan peace process.”

“We urge all Afghans to seize the moment and end the misery of more than four decades of war,” Khalilzad said.

Khalilzad said he briefed leaders at the Munich Security Conference about the peace process and “also discussed next steps and committed to working together on the difficult and complicated road ahead.”

PRO-ISRAEL LOBBY CAUGHT ON TAPE BOASTING THAT JEWISH MONEY BUYS INFLUENCE IN WASHINGTON

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), participated in a panel discussion, at the 2018 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on Monday, March 5, 2018. (Photo by Cheriss May)(Sipa via AP Images)
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., participated in a panel discussion, at the 2018 American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference, in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 2018. Photo: Cheriss May/Sipa via AP Images

A DEBATE ABOUT the power in Washington of the pro-Israel lobby is underway, after Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., responded sharply to reports that Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was targeting both Omar and fellow Muslim Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan.

Omar quoted rap lyrics — “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” — to suggest McCarthy’s move was driven by the lobby’s prolific spending. Asked specifically who she was referring to, Omar responded, “AIPAC!”

The debate over the influence of pro-Israel groups could be informed by an investigation by Al Jazeera, in which an undercover reporter infiltrated the Israel Project, a Washington-based group, and secretly recorded conversations about political strategy and influence over a six-month period in 2016. That investigation, however, was never aired by the network — suppressed by pressure from the pro-Israel lobby.

In November, Electronic Intifada obtained and published the four-part series, but it did so during the week of the midterm elections, and the documentary did not get a lot of attention then.

In it, leaders of the pro-Israel lobby speak openly about how they use money to influence the political process, in ways so blunt that if the comments were made by critics, they’d be charged with anti-Semitism.

“Congressmen and senators don’t do anything unless you pressure them.”

David Ochs, founder of HaLev, which helps send young people to American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference, described for the reporter how AIPAC and its donors organize fundraisers outside the official umbrella of the organization, so that the money doesn’t show up on disclosures as coming specifically from AIPAC. He describes one group that organizes fundraisers in both Washington and New York. “This is the biggest ad hoc political group, definitely the wealthiest, in D.C.,” Ochs says, adding that it has no official name, but is clearly tied to AIPAC. “It’s the AIPAC group. It makes a difference; it really, really does. It’s the best bang for your buck, and the networking is phenomenal.” (Ochs and AIPAC did not immediately return The Intercept’s requests for comment.)

Without spending money, Ochs argues, the pro-Israel lobby isn’t able to enact its agenda. “Congressmen and senators don’t do anything unless you pressure them. They kick the can down the road, unless you pressure them, and the only way to do that is with money,” he explains.

He describes a fundraiser for Anthony Brown, a Democrat running for Congress in Maryland, as typical. “So we want the Jewish community to go face to face in this small environment, 50, 30, 40 people, and say, ‘This is what’s important to us. We want to make sure that if we give you money, that you’re going to enforce the Iran deal.’ That way, when they need something from him or her, like the Iran deal, they can quickly mobilize and say look, we’ll give you 30 grand. They actually impact,” Ochs tells the reporter.

Such a claim is not so different from what Omar was describing, and for which she was roundly condemned. In the wake of Omar’s tweets, the Washington Post, for instance, reported, “The American Jewish Committee demanded an apology, calling her suggestion that AIPAC is paying American politicians for their support ‘demonstrably false and stunningly anti-Semitic.’” (On Monday, Omar apologized for her tweets, but insisted that AIPAC and other lobbyist groups are harmful to U.S. politics.)

In the censored documentary, Ochs went on to describe a fundraiser hosted by Jeff Talpins, a hedge fund giant, as similar as well. “In New York, with Jeff Talpins, we don’t ask a goddamn thing about the fucking Palestinians. You know why? ’Cause it’s a tiny issue. It’s a small, insignificant issue. The big issue is Iran. We want everything focused on Iran,” Ochs says. “What happens is Jeff meets with the congressman in the back room, tells them exactly what his goals are — and by the way, Jeff Talpins is worth $250 million — basically they hand him an envelope with 20 credit cards, and say, ‘You can swipe each of these credit cards for a thousand dollars each.’”

Ochs explains that the club in New York required a minimum pledge of $10,000 to join and participate in such events. “It’s a minimum commitment. Some people give a lot more than that.”

AIPAC, on its own website, recruits members to join its “Congressional Club,” and commit to give at least $5,000 per election cycle.

Eric Gallagher, a top official at AIPAC from 2010 to 2015, tells the Al Jazeera reporter that AIPAC gets results. “Getting $38 billion in security aid to Israel matters, which is what AIPAC just did,” he notes at one secretly recorded lunch. “Everything AIPAC does is focused on influencing Congress.”

The film, called “The Lobby,” was produced by Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, and features hidden-camera footage obtained by the reporter, who posed as a Jewish, pro-Israel activist from Britain who wanted to volunteer with the Israel Project.

Outfitted with a luxury apartment in Dupont Circle, the reporter hosted multiple gatherings and otherwise socialized broadly within the pro-Israel community, winning the confidence of senior officials, who divulged insider details, many of which have been leaked and created international news.

A companion version of the film, which looked at the Israel lobby’s influence in the United Kingdom, did make it to air and was the subject of intense controversy. It exposed a plot by an Israeli embassy official in the United Kingdom to “take down” pro-Palestinian members of Parliament, leading to his resignation.

That film, however, included a snippet of footage from the United States. Officials here quickly realized that they, too, had been infiltrated. In the U.K., the Israel lobby lodged an official complaint claiming the series was anti-Semitic, but the U.K.’s communications agency rejected the claim, finding that “the allegations in the programme were not made on the grounds that any of the particular individuals concerned were Jewish and noted that no claims were made relating to their faith.”

Pro-Israel officials in the United States, rather than file an official complaint, exerted political pressure. A bipartisan group of 19 lawmakers wrote to the Justice Department requesting an investigation into “the full range of activities undertaken by Al Jazeera in the United States,” and suggesting that the organization be made to register as a foreign agent. Ultimately, Qatar bent to the pressure and killed the documentary.