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10 martie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 10 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. EUROPEAN UNION. Unitary European reaction to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threat with a new “migrant wave”. II. TURKEY / RUSSIA. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reached a cease-fire agreement for Idlib. III. UKRAINE. A new government. IV. ISRAEL. Parliamentary elections fallout. V. Developments to track this Week 11 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

I. EUROPEAN UNION. Unitary European reaction to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threat with a new “migrant wave”.

The European Union reacted unitarily to the emerging migrant crisis generated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: Brussels rejected Ankara’s blackmail and unconditionally supported Greece’s firm actions to forestall the migrants at its borders. Thus, Europe overruled part of its humanity (which was offering the possibility of blackmail from its adversary and by its friends alike), especially since such stance was in breach of the traditional European policy towards immigrants. Both the March 4th communiqué of EU internal affairs minister meeting, and that of the March 6th meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers unequivocally have stated: the EU is united and does not accept to be blackmailed by Recep Erdoğan with the migrant wave and yield to Turkey’s policy in Syria.

However, the European unity is not as solid as claimed: proposed solutions for solving the crisis are various, but the final decision will be unitary. Therefore, there are differences in views regarding the way Brussels should react to the migrant crisis: France has a tough approach and Germany a more balanced take (although both question the “tribute” paid to Ankara and the way this would be used). There are also divergences on the future package of general measures on this matter. Berlin insists, with solid grounds, on an emergency aid for Idlib refugees (but there are hurdles, not only in Idlib, but across Syria, see the debates in the United Nations fora). Of course, the range of reactions was complete: Austria’s firm “no to the migrants”, Hungary’s exaggerated “migrants are coming!” cry[1], and the call by certain countries to consider accepting some of the migrants (however, the great solidarity approach, sharing the migrants among EU nations, did not happen).

Even after having accepted a truce in Idlib, Recep Erdoğan did not stop the migrant wave initially triggered precisely in view of forcing the EU to support him against Putin. The Greek determination, unwaveringly supported by the Europeans, angered Erdoğan, although the European Commission (EC) raised the financial aid to Ankara. Turkish president took measures to increase the pressure at the Greek border, although he achieved the financial objective, and partially his political objective. What happened? Turkish police and special forces were sent to the Greek border to “push” the migrants westward[2]. However, these actions have slim chances of success, due to strong measures taken by Greece: Athens closed the borders and chased away the migrants with tear gas, it increased the frequency of land and naval patrols, arrested and deported those migrants who were able to cross the border, and kept the migrants at arm’s length by unorthodox denial measures: Athens closed land and maritime areas for artillery fire, which it conducted indeed. The EC accepted such measures and supported Greece by sending augmentation forces with the FRONTEX mission.

Recep Erdoğan’s challenge showed Europeans’ weak and strong points. However, they resisted the blackmail together, and this is the most important. For the European heavyweights, it is obvious that Erdoğan is no longer a political leader worth their trust. The problem is not only that Turkey led by Erdoğan has its way to Europe closed, as the differences between the two turn into a latent tension with multiple facets, but that Erdoğan fosters a stance blatantly hostile to the Europeans, from the position of a NATO nation leader[3]. Finally, what was more important happened: the EU reacted in unity and refused to yield to Erdoğan’s blackmail, thus showing that it stopped being a “political dwarf” responding softly to threats (although it was always an economic giant).

Next, we will see the results of Erdoğan’s negotiations with EU representatives, as chances are that an agreement is possible, based on Germany’s balanced and pragmatic position, matching the realities. Although the crisis is not over, we witness preconditions for an agreement meant to please Ankara and calm the EU, especially given that Erdoğan knows he jumped the gun by showing open adversity to the Europeans: although Erdoğan henceforth reacts softly, Turkey can only lose on the long run, especially in economy. The situation where Erdoğan’s policy dragged Turkey cannot continue without consequences, no matter how cautiously the Europeans would act. Ankara chose to behave as “friend to the enemies and enemy to the friends” (more precisely, the European NATO allies), but Turkey’s problem is neither within NATO, nor in Syria, not even in Moscow, but in Ankara, at home: politically speaking, everybody has suspicions, but nobody knows where Turkey is heading. Hence, the unpredictability of Ankara’s actions, which can only leave Turkey isolated in front of its adversaries whom Turkey… cooperates with.

Although Turkey’s predicament became European and grew more and more difficult to manage, this problem does not necessarily afflict Romania. For Bucharest, there are lessons to be learned from Greece’s and Bulgaria’s reactions, although each of them showed certain limits. Worth remembering, Greece intervened with real warships (not with planned assets), and Bulgaria played well in diplomacy, but it had to agree with Ankara, although Ankara was not right, just to get some understanding from Turkey[4].

II. TURKEY / RUSSIA. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reached a cease-fire agreement for Idlib.

The two autocrats reached an agreement which offers hopes for peace to Idlib province, at least for the moment. To the general relief, during the March 5th meeting between presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, agreed to cease fire in Idlib, establish a security zone along M4 highway and plan common patrols on this line of communication.

More precisely, the agreement stipulates: 1) all military actions will stop along the contact line in the Idlib de-escalation area, starting March 6th, 00.01 local time; 2) a 12-kilometer-wide security corridor along the M4 highway will be established (6 kilometers on each side, with topographic details to be decided within seven days, at minister of defense level); 3) combined Russo-Turkish patrolling after March 15th, on M5 highway, west of Saraqib (strategic town at the M5 / M4 crossroad, currently under Damascus control), between Trumba (2 kilometers west of Saraqib) and Ain al-Hawr.

In the agreement wording, the two parties, “guarantors” of monitoring the cease-fire regime in Syria[5], refer to the (breached!) agreements of Astana (May 4th, 2017) and Sochi (November 17th, 2018). Turkey and Russia reaffirmed their support for “Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” (what?) and the need to eliminate all terrorist groups, such designated by the UN Security Council[6]. The signatories “stressed the importance of prevention of further deterioration of humanitarian situation, protection of civilians and ensuring humanitarian assistance to all Syrians in need without preconditions and discrimination as well as prevention of displacement of people and facilitation of safe  and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their original places of residence in Syria”. Nicely put, yet cynical, as the two signatories are among the culprits.

Certain elements are more spectacular, as the agreement appeared as a defeat for Recep Erdoğan: 1) the M5 highway does not appear in this agreement, which means it is out of the scope, and Ankara agrees that M5 will remain under Damascus control; 2) the security zone is centered on M4 highway, essential line of communication for Damascus and its allies. It is north of the current contact line, which means that territories controlled by the rebels remain south of M4 and risk to be lost. However, there are also the Turkish observation posts (also south of M4, in fact located south of the current contact line). Therefore, Ankara maintains military presence in Damascus-controlled territory, with political advantages and military disadvantages stemming from this situation.

Nevertheless, Erdoğan achieved his objectives: 1) cease-fire, meaning there will be no further casualties among Turkish troops. Therefore, the danger disappears that Ankara’s military operation in Syria trigger domestic negative political reactions; 2) Damascus and Moscow’s offensive in Idlib stops, meaning that the true new wave of migrants will not cross into Turkey (not the one million Syrians massed near Turkish border). Consequently, Ankara protects its territory from a spreading of the Syrian humanitarian disaster (to its honor, Turkey already hosted more than three million Syrian refugees).

Ankara lacks NATO substantial support and the political effect of the fights in Idlib only hits Turkey: disposing of only limited proxy forces, Ankara had to send its own troops. In these circumstances, Erdoğan could not expect more. Despite the political issues (Turkish military intervention in the territory of another country), one should notice that Ankara’s military operation stopped an offensive by Damascus, supported with Moscow fire power, with disastrous humanitarian effects.

The manner Turkish military acted is remarkable, a true NATO force. In conditions of significant political and other kind of constraints, Turkish forces acted effectively: 1) they achieved local air superiority in Idlib, by Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) limited to few Syrian airfields, but also with Combat Air Patrols (CAP) conducted in Turkish air space. Turkish forces also continued drone attacks against Syrian mobile air defense systems (a good example is the destruction of a Pantsir S system operating with its radar on); 2) effective attacks by Turkish drones on Damascus artillery and armored vehicles; 3) precise artillery fire on Damascus troops. However, an important operational level objective was not achieved: in absence of capable infantry (Ankara did not engage infantry), control was lost on Saraqib, located at M4 / M5 crossroad, the linchpin of Damascus military disposition in the area. This military element has a significant political effect, as Damascus now has secured the fertile lands of Idlib province and the lines of communication North – South and East – West, near Idlib. It is true, these remain vulnerable to Turkish artillery fire and under rebel threat (hypothetical threat though, as rebels cannot defend themselves against Damascus troops). Moscow settled with threatening but did not interfering in combat, for various political and military reasons[7]. Russian approach was like “we do not guarantee Turkish troop security since they are entangled with the rebels” or “the air space above Idlib is closed”). 

In managing the Idlib predicament, the two autocrats reached an understanding, with Erdoğan conceding big in order to gain Russia’s acceptance of a Sunni Idlib unconquered by Damascus (although shrunk in territory), which allows Ankara to end a military operation which previously seemed to be long and unpopular. A cease-fire and a security zone along M4 (not one on M5 too, though!), secure at least a temporary solution, until the next crisis (later to be decided by the Kremlin and Damascus). By this truce, Erdoğan achieves a great domestic success: the true migration wave, of the Syrians displaced from Idlib province by Russian and Damascus bombardments, almost one million individuals, does not threaten the Turkish border anymore. It is now for somebody else, the West and the United Nations, to secure the minimal lifeline for these new refugees in the now reduced Idlib territory. 

We will see next how the situation in Idlib unfolds, and Putin’s decision about leaving or not the Sunni refugees, rebels, terrorists and all, in part of the fertile Idlib, as Moscow has control of the other part of fertile Idlib (we are in the middle of historical Fertile Crescent!), plus the M5 and M4 highways. Then, all this situation can be used to pressure the Europeans[8] by claiming the need of support for these refugees. It is now Turkey who will have to find a solution to dismantle the Idlib mix! And, of course, nothing about what Bashar al-Assad thinks.

III. UKRAINE. A new government.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy faced government difficulties in implementing reforms meant to relaunch Ukraine’s economy and encourage foreign sponsors / investors, but without fundamentally affecting the general situation (i.e. the interests of the haves, the oligarchs especially). Therefore, Zelenskiy decided to replace the government. What is concerning is that the Verkhovna Rada (the Parliament) dismissed the General Prosecutor for “lack of results in the fight against corruption” (really?). The new government intends to be more pragmatic, better adapted to “Ukrainian realities” (meaning those linked to the interests of current top dogs). This raises question marks regarding the new government’s capability to convince the West, and the IMF first (the IMF did not approve yet the Ukrainian loan next installment). The general impression is that Zelenskiy yielded to the oligarch pressure. In his dispute with Russia, the new Ukrainian representative obtained a symbolic success, which proves good communication with his Russian counterpart. Therefore, in the near future, a new prisoner exchange will be conducted between Ukraine and Russia (which is not part of the conflict!).   

On March 3rd, prime minister Oleksiy Honcharuk was replaced by his deputy Denys Shmyhal. Shmyhal is a pragmatic manager, who used to work for oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man (although he denied any direct relation with Akhmetov). Interestingly, Honcharuk was preparing a bill jeopardizing the interests of oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky (thus making impossible the repossessing of PrivatBank by Kolomoysky, who lost it by nationalization during Petro Poroshenko’s power, at the request of Ukraine’s foreign sponsors).

The reshuffle of ministers with economic and financial portfolios also raised some eyebrows, and questions rise about finalizing the bill on agricultural real estate. The foreign minister swapped chairs with the minister responsible for European integration, Vadim Prystaiko handed this office to Dmytro Kuleba; so, the foreign affair team remained the same. An interesting change appeared in the Defense Ministry, where Andriy Taran replaced the former combatant Andriy Zakhorodnyuk. Taran is a former military intelligence officer, former diplomat (defense attaché to Washington), who has a balanced position, perhaps too balanced (he served in various administrations at high level, and during the Donbass conflict he led the Joint Coordination Center). He seems to be a good solution for current situation, when peace negotiations are in sight.

Facing criticism, Zelenskiy felt pushed to publicly defend his government shake-up, which worried the West for fears that the new government would avoid continuing structural reforms[9]. Zelenskiy said: "We needed to react to the cabinet's effectiveness".

Rather worrisome, on March 5th, the Rada fired Ukraine’s General Prosecutor Ruslan Ryaboshapka, because the latter failed to prove effectiveness in the fight against corruption. In fact, his dismissal represents a step backwards in this endeavor, as he had open support from the United States and the EU for the measures he took. One of the most effective measures (and unpopular too)  was validating the prosecutors (before fighting corruption, we better check whether we are free of corruption and incompetence ourselves). However, Ryaboshapka did not rush to speed-up investigations of individuals of former power circles, those around former president Petro Poroshenko (including the investigation of the business where Joe Biden’s son has worked). Ryaboshapka accused Rada deputies of firing him for having attempted to implement the first true reform: “For 28 years, the prosecutor’s office was a source of personal enrichment for the elite and, as a result, the oligarchs in prosecutors’ uniforms”. This very statement is clashing with the Rada accusations against him.

In an international perspective, Zelenskiy has announced he gives a one-year ultimatum to Russia for reaching a peace solution regarding Donbass: "The government can spend one year on the entire agreement. Then it should be implemented. Any longer is prohibited". Although he is right on spending governmental resources for solving the Donbass conflict, Ukraine is not in the position to issue an ultimatum to Moscow, regardless Russia’s behavior (which is more and more visible).

In essence, President Zelenskiy, supported by the parliament (which is dominated by his party), made decisive changes for Ukraine’s near future. Zelenskiy presented this reshuffle as demanded by the lack of results in implementing reforms and fighting corruption, which is visible in the fall in his popularity from 80% to 50%. However, these changes reflect an adaptation of his policy to Ukrainian realities, with due positive and negative connotations: the new cabinet must be more pragmatic and implement reforms with smaller steps and harmonized with oligarch interests, not against them (in a country where oligarchs own 80% of properties, it is expected they had a significant political influence over state institutions). Western sponsors will likely not tolerate a significant reduction in reform pace; therefore, the new government will have to navigate between the western sponsors rock of and the hard place of oligarch interests. The Ukrainians can only play the role of keeping this government afloat, and hope that Kyiv will not crush between the mentioned rock and hard place. However, Zelenskiy, his party and team cannot forget the wave that brought them to power; therefore, they will seek to keep a balance among all interests of real state power houses (oligarchs, central bureaucracy, politicians and Parliament, force institutions and Justice, as well as public opinion most powerful voices – the press and the NGOs, followed by the electorate, which, however, remains… silent until the next elections).

The appointment of a new general prosecutor will clear what Zelenskiy wants to do in Ukraine’s prosecution tribe, and the new government will cast a light on its orientation during the upcoming negotiations with the IMF. Until then, we can assess the changes as a realistic step backwards. The question is whether this step was made for speeding up the reforms by adapting speed to road, or for seeking an illusory balance which can lead only to stagnation.

IV. ISRAEL. Parliamentary elections fallout.

The March 2nd parliamentary elections in Israel preserved the political deadlock. Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, Likud, won the battle, but has relatively small chances to win the war. Likud obtained the largest number of seats in the Knesset, and will be the first party invited to form a government, but it has not the necessary majority to form a government, even along the right-wing religious parties.

The election outcome was as follows: Likud, the main right-wing party, gained 36 seats, and its center-left rival, “White and Blue” gained only 33 seats. Together with its allies, the righ-wing parties, Likud has only 58 seats, far from the magical number of 61 (half plus one of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). “White and Blue” is far from such majority considering its possible alliance with Arab party Joint List (which obtained an impressive 15 seats). But “White and Blue” cannot bring the Joint List along to govern. The referee / king-maker is Avigdor Liberman’secular right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu, holding now seven seats in the Knesset. But Liberman announced it would not form an alliance with either Likud, as long as Likud is in alliance with the ultraorthodox parties, or with the center-left coalition, as long as it includes the Arabs: “We won’t move a millimeter from what we promised our voters”.      

Liberman stated five secular conditions with little chances to be accepted by Netanyahu’s coalition, but they were immediately accepted by the “White and Blue” leader, Benny Gantz. Anyway, a Liberman – Gantz alliance is little possible, as Yisrael Beiteinu cannot govern in a coalition supported by the Arab Members of Knesset. So, we are in the well-known deadlock.

There are potential maneuvers to try, the main problem being, along forming the government, Netanyahu’s very fate[10]. If Netanyahu gave up his desire to become prime minister, he would become a simple citizen indicted for corruption. Should that happen, an alliance beween Likud and “White and Blue”, perhaps with Yisrael Beiteinu participation, would become possible. Considering Netanyahu’s political weight, such option is little likely, except for the situation where he receives guarantees he would not be convicted and he would be granted a convenient place on the political stage, which seems equally little likely. Rumor has it that Netanyahu’s team would be preparing to “import” three parliamentarians from Likud’s political adversaries, but such menuver would deeply destabilize Israel’s political life. There is also information that Benny Gantz is preparing to pass a bill in the Parliament which would forbid the president from designating as candidate for prime minister a citizen who is indicted – exactly Netanyahu’s case. This would be the only possibility for the “White and Blue” to bring along Liberman and the Joint List Arabs. However, such possibility is low too, as Israel policy is conducted far from such extreme situations.

Bottom line, there is no viable solution in sight. We are only left to see Israeli ingenuosity at work for finding a solution for a future government, and for Netanyahu’s fate as well (his trial is to start soon).

V. Developments to track this Week 11 of 2020.

► SERBIA / KOSOVO. What was expected, did happen: the two presidents, Serbian Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovar Albin Kurti were received at the White House. Although they deny, most likely they were presented with a realistic roadmap towards solving the predicament (Kosovo recognition in exchange for a territory swap bringing Serbs north of Ibar river to motherland Serbia). Immediately, Vučić announced parliamentary elections in Serbia for April 4th. His party has significant chances to win these early elections, which will likely also represent a referendum allowing Vučić to negotiate and sign such historical solution.  

► IRAN. The IAEA warned that Tehran breached the denuclearization agreement. Even if, for the moment, the capitals around the world are busy with the Coronavirus, Tehran must pay attention to the reaction by the United States and the Europeans.

► UNITED STATES. Joe Biden is back in the saddle for Democrat Party nominalization in the race for U.S. presidency. He managed to bring the Democrats toward the political center and thus present a credible alternative to Donald Trump. His problem is not defeating Bernie Sanders, he will do that, but the way to defeat Sanders and take his electorate without leaving the center position which provides him hopes in the presidential elections. 

► AFGHANISTAN. Recent breaches of agreement seem to be only feeling moves by the three parties involved – the United States, the Taliban and the authorities in Kabul, in their attempt to establish the maneuver space where they can play with the other parties. The next test worth watching is about the unity in the Afghan legal government.

► NATO / TURKEY. On April 2nd – 3rd, the North-Atlantic Council in Foreign Minister format will take place, which might turn into a “Judgement Day” for Turkey, because Ankara’s behavior with its European allies is not appropriate for a NATO ally.

[1] Hoping to benefit this new crisis, quite a blessing for his policy, Viktor Orbán spread the false numbers issued by Ankara regarding the migrants heading west: “over 130 000”. False, and Viktor Orbán  knows that, but the truth does not count for Budapest too much, since his regime turned to a next level of autocracy building: censoring the press.

[2] They were young Afghan, Iranian, North-African economic migrants, because the true new refugees, the Syrians from Idlib, were not allowed to enter Turkey.

[3] It seems that everything started within NATO. In the North-Atlantic Council, Greece used its veto right for denying a declaration in support of Turkey (implicitly, for all Ankara’s policy in Syria), and the European heavyweights joined this “NO” opposed to Erdoğan’s attempts to squeeze a strong reaction in favor of his operation in Syria, implicitly one against Russia. Considering the geopolitical problem, the United States and the United Kingdom (not threatened by Erdoğan’s migration wave) tried a compromise solution but, considering the situation gravity, the European heavyweights did not concede. Nevertheless, there are Franco-British divergencies both regarding the EU reaction to Turkey’s intervention in Syria, and regarding Ankara’s policy in Libya.

[4] The EU fulfilled its financial obligations to Ankara, opposite to what Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Turkish officials had claimed, and Erdoğan’s decision was meant only to bring political concessions, not necessarily financial benefits from the EU. However, Brussels decided to supplement the money earmarked for aiding the refugees billeted in Turkey.

[5] What cease-fire, since both parties were directly involved in breaching it, especially Russia, who started the offensive in Idlib, along with Damascus troops? However, the guarantor status is dear to Moscow because it allows Russia to pose as referee, although it is part of the conflict. We’ve seen this movie. The term “guarantor” has a long history in conflicts where Moscow got involved, from Transnistria / Moldova to Syria.

[6] This does not match either Russian, or the Turkish designation. Thus, Syrian Kurds were designated by Ankara as being terrorists by deduction, not proofs, based on alleged links to PKK, although the United States (who designated PKK as terrorist organization, same as all NATO members) considers Syrian Kurds as trustful allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

[7] From a political point of view, Putin chooses to preserve his jeopardized friendship with Erdoğan, especially now, when he hopes to drive Ankara furthermore astray from the Europeans. From a military point of view, perhaps one reason was that Syrian Su 24s were easily downed – a clear signal about the limited survivability of this aircraft, intensely utilized by Russia in Syria). In fact, the Su 30 SMs were not used in combat against F-16 either, the outcome of such clash being maybe disappointing for Moscow. It is enough seeing how the so highly prized Pantsir S was so easily destroyed not only by the Israeli aviation, but by Turkish aviation too.  

[8] The admirers might ramble forever with “wise, pragmatic, balanced, intelligent, strategic-minded, diplomat, visionary, strong…”, but, for the sake of decency, they are asked refrain from adding “principled”, or “with a drop of humanity”. When talking about principles, we think about those principles so often mentioned by Moscow and stipulated in the UN Charter and those in the Russian Federation Constitution! Bashar al-Assad’s opinion does not matter, he is just a criminal dictator, an instrument, not the “sorcerer apprentice” who decides the fate of millions of Syrians. The consultation between Putin and al-Assad, which followed the agreement signed by Putin and Erdoğan, is just a show meant to consolidate the story about the “legality” of Russian intervention in Syria, in support of the “legal Syrian government”. Anyway, if it were for Bashar al-Assad, the solution is easy to be guessed: gassing or bombing the inhabitants of Idlib, they are Sunnis after all! “Legal and legitimate” decision, to measure the “legality and legitimacy” of his power.

[9] The West has legitimate fears, because these structural reforms attack the oligarchs’ basic economic existence: as any “post-Communist capitalist”, the oligarchs continue to prosper not from market economy rules applied to highjacked businesses, but from pilfering the state-owned economy through various machinations. Such combinations range from siphoning the banks where the government invested and pays the losses, in cases like PrivatBank, where the oligarch was the profiteer stakeholder, to directly pilfering state enterprises. Hence the concerns regarding the declaration that “Western nations had been allowed to appoint too many foreigners to the boards of the country’s state-owned companies”. Are they the Ukrainians worried about that, or just some Ukrainians, who cannot quietly and „legally” racketeer the Ukrainian state-owned economy anymore?

[10] The situation is complicated by personal issues, with Netanyahu’s team violently attacking Gantz, who was presented as an incapable and fickle man. This is simply impossible though, as Benny Gantz is the former Israel’s Chief of Defense (Head of Israel Defense Forces General Staff)! Also, Liberman accused Netanyahu’s family of having harassed his family.