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Slavoj Žižek: We need to talk about Turkey

The so-called “war on terror” has become a clash within each civilisation, in which every side pretends to fight Isis in order to hit its true enemy.

There is something weird about the solemn declarations that we are at war against the Islamic State – all the world’s superpowers against a religious gang controlling a small patch of mostly desert land... This doesn’t mean that we should not focus on destroying Isis, unconditionally, with no “but...”. The only “but” is that we should REALLY focus on destroying it, and for this much more is needed than the pathetic declarations and appeals to solidarity of all “civilised” forces against the demonised fundamentalist enemy.

What one should not engage in is the usual left-liberal litany of “one cannot fight terror with terror, violence only breeds more violence”. The time is now to start to raise unpleasant questions: how is it possible for the Islamic State to survive? As we all know, in spite of formal condemnation and rejection from all sides, there are forces and states which silently not only tolerate it, but also help it. Recently as the fierce clashes between Russian army and Isis terrorists raging across the war-torn Syria, countless number of Isis injured fighters enter the Turkish territory and are being admitted in the military hospitals.

As David Graeber pointed out recently, had Turkey placed the same kind of absolute blockade on Isis territories as they did on Kurdish-held parts of Syria, let alone shown the same sort of “benign neglect” towards the PKK and YPG that they have been offering to Islamic State, Islamic State would long since have collapsed, and the Paris attacks would probably not have happened. Instead, Turkey was not only discreetly helping IS by treating its wounded soldiers, and facilitating the oil exports from the territories held by IS, but also by brutally attacking the Kurdish forces, the ONLY local forces engaged in a serious battle with IS. Plus Turkey even shot down a Russian fighter attacking Isis positions in Syria. Similar things are going on in Saudi Arabia, the key US ally in the region (which welcomes the IS war on Shiites), and even Israel is suspiciously silent in its condemnation of Isis out of opportunistic calculation (Isis is fighting the pro-Iranian Shia forces which Israel considers its main enemy).

The deal between the EU and Turkey anounced at the end of November (under which Turkey will curb the flow of refugees into Europe in exchange for a generous financial help, initially 3bn) is a shamelessly disgusting act, a proper ethico-political catastrophe. Is this how the “war on terror” is to be conducted, by way of succumbing to the Turkish blackmail and rewarding one of the main culprits of the rise of Isis in Syria? The opportunistic-pragmatic justification of this deal is clear (is bribing Turkey not the most obvious way to limit the flow of refugees?), but the long-term consequences will be catastrophic.

This obscure background makes it clear that the “total war” against Isis should not be taken seriously – they don’t really mean it. We are definitely dealing not with the clash of civilisations (the Christian west versus radicalised Islam), but with a clash within each civilisation: in the Christian space it is the US and western Europe against Russia, in the Muslim space it is Sunnis against Shias. The monstrosity of the Islamic State serves as a fetish covering all these struggles in which every side pretends to fight Isis in order to hit its true enemy.

 

 

Editor's note, 9 December: This article originally included a statement that was falsely attributed to the head of Turkey's National Intelligence Organization Hakan Fidan, supposedly from an interview given to Anadolu Agency, the country’s state-run news agency. Anadolu Agency would like to make clear that no such interview was given by Mr Fidan to Anadolu in which Mr. Fidan “condemned Russian military intervention in Syria, accusing Moscow of trying to “smother” Syria's Islamist revolution... Isis is a reality and we have to accept that we cannot eradicate a well-organised and popular establishment such as the Islamic State; therefore I urge my western colleagues to revise their mindset about Islamic political currents, put aside their cynical mentalité and thwart Vladimir Putin's plans to crush Syrian Islamist revolutionaries,” as stated in the original article. We have removed the statement. We apologise to the Anadolu Agency for this error. A further statement from AA appears on its website.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.