Sunday, September 14, 2014

The New Great Game Round-Up #66

The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

When the heads of state and the heads of government of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gathered in Wales last week for the 2014 NATO summit, Western media made a big fuss about the underwhelming meeting hailing it as "one of the most important summits in NATO's history" but when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held a historic summit in Tajikistan one week later, it did not even make the news in the West. Although the heads of state of the SCO are not exactly on the same page when it comes to Ukraine, they found common ground and they also agreed on a number of other issues. In a swipe at Washington, the SCO leaders condemned any unilateral buildup of missile defense systems and, most importantly, they finally approved the documents for the admission of new members:
SCO approves new procedure for joining organization

The leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have approved a new procedure for joining the organization, RIA Novosti reported. 
Memorandum on the obligations of a State wishing to join the SCO was signed after the meeting of the Council of the Heads of the Member States of the SCO in Dushanbe Sept. 12. 
New admission rules will allow including India and Pakistan into the SCO at the next summit in 2015. India and Pakistan have already applied for full membership in the organization.
© Photo RIA Novosti

SCO Counts On India, Pakistan In Dealing With Afghan Chaos

India and Pakistan lost no time in filing formal applications for full membership and Iran is eager to follow suit but the Iranians will have to wait until the sanctions are lifted. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev expressed his hope that Tehran will be able to reach a nuclear deal with the West by November 24 so that Iran's SCO status can be upgraded as soon as possible. At the moment, the priority of the Chinese-led organization is to grant India and Pakistan full membership. This would enable the SCO to deal more effectively with the mess in Afghanistan and Beijing also expects progress in its fight against the 'three evil forces' of this step. India is not adverse to strengthening anti-terrorism cooperation in the region but it remains to be seen what Pakistan has in mind in this regard. Be that as it may, Chinese President Xi Jinping made it perfectly clear that the SCO will focus on safeguarding regional security and stability:
Chinese president proposes anti-extremism treaty, urges joint efforts to combat internet terrorism

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday called for joint efforts to fight extremism and internet terrorism among the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

He suggested the SCO members launch consultation on an anti-extremism convention and initiate studies on a mechanism for actions against internet terrorism.

"(We) should take it as our own responsibility to safeguard regional security and stability, enhance our ability to maintain stability, continue to boost cooperation on law enforcement and security, and improve the existing cooperation mechanisms," said Xi.

The stability of the region is of the utmost importance to the Chinese government, as the country "is spreading its wings to the west" toward Central Asia. Therefore, China is boosting its military aid to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two 'stans with the weakest military. Kyrgyzstan and especially Tajikistan have been singled out as the states, which are particularly threatened by a spillover of violence from Afghanistan. However, lately the 'Afghan spillover' has primarily caused trouble along the Afghan-Turkmen border. When Afghan President Hamid Karzai told the SCO summit that "the terrorism safe havens are located outside Afghanistan", his Turkmen counterpart was probably dumbfounded given that Taliban fighters are now regularly attacking Turkmen border posts and wreaking havoc in Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan:
Turkmen-Afghans confront Taliban on their own

Ethnic Turkmens in Afghanistan continue to battle Taliban units that have made an unwelcome appearance near the Afghan-Turkmen border.

"In the Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan, where about 2m people live, we're seeing a considerable Taliban buildup," Turkmen the MP told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)'s Turkmen service. "They seriously complicate the security situation and make life worse for the locals."

Foreign fighters – including some affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and others from Pakistan and the Caucasus – are a large part of the Taliban force in the north, Faryab Governor Muhammadullah Batash said.
While the presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah are still quarrelling over the outcome of the fraudulent Afghan election, the country descends into chaos. Taliban and IMU fighters are not only threatening Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan but also other parts of northern Afghanistan, for example Kunduz province. Interestingly enough, the senior IMU leader who is now leading the fight in Kunduz was freed time and again by the Afghan government at the direction of President Hamid Karzai after being detained several times. Tajik leader Emomalii Rahmon would probably like to ask Karzai a few questions regarding this since the Taliban offensive in Kunduz does not bode well for neighboring Tajikistan, which is also alarmed at the situation in Afghanistan's Badakhshan province:
Six soldiers killed in bomb blast in northeastern Afghanistan

At least six government troopers have been killed and a few more injured in a bomb blast in Afghanistan's northeastern province of Badakhshan.

Local police said on Monday that the soldiers were killed when a roadside bomb went off near their convoy.

China, Russia Keep A Very Close Eye On The Islamic State

Besides the fighting in northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan is keeping a very close eye on the activities of the Islamic State (IS). When wannabe-Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appointed a Tajik jihadist as "emir" of IS stronghold Raqqa a few weeks ago, the Tajik government immediately denounced the appointment. If the Tajik authorities were serious about stemming the flow of Tajik fighters to the Middle East, they would shut down the Saudi embassy in Dushanbe, which is reportedly the "headquarter for recruiting, organizing and leading the terrorists in Tajikistan to send them to Syria and Iraq", but this is obviously not going to happen. According to some estimates, more than 200 Tajiks are among the countless foreign IS fighters. Even some jihadists from China have apparently joined the terrorist group:
'Capture' of Chinese national fighting with ISIS gives China jitters

"URGENT," read the Iraqi News headline of its September 3 posting. "First Chinese ISIS fighter captured in Iraq says Ministry of Defense."

The Iraqi Army has captured an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighter from China, the Baghdad-datelined report said. Two pictures accompanied the report: one showed the captured militant in fatigue pants and a bloodied shirt, lying on the ground; another showed him escorted by an Iraqi soldier, his face seemingly swollen.

If true, he would be the first Chinese national to have been caught fighting with ISIS militants.
© Photo Iraqi Ministry of Defense

Although it remains unclear if the captured Chinese national is actually Uyghur, this will certainly reinforce Beijing's concerns about the IS-Xinjiang connection. Wu Sike, China's special envoy for the Middle East, had already warned a few weeks ago that some extremists from Xinjiang have gone to the Middle East for training and that some may have joined the Islamic State. This issue was also raised during the recent SCO summit in Dushanbe. Zhang Xinfeng, the head of the SCO's Regional Anti-Terrorism Agency, emphasized that "China and its Central Asian neighbors face increased terrorism threats as their citizens return home after fighting in Iraq and Syria." Xinfeng could have mentioned Russia as well considering the message sent by IS fighters to Russian President Putin:
‘This message is to you, Vladimir Putin’: ISIS threatens ‘to liberate Chechnya and Caucasus’

Islamic State jihadists in Syria have made a video threatening to bring the Russian republic of Chechnya into their self-proclaimed caliphate, after capturing Russian-made planes in Syria. The viral video drew an angry response from the Chechen leader.

“Those bastards have nothing to do with Islam. They are enemies of Muslims everywhere,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Kadyrov also intimated that IS “took orders from their handlers in Western security services.”
As usual, Kadyrov hit the nail on the head. A few days before the IS jihadists made this ridiculous video, Iran's Fars News Agency, referring to an "informed source close to Kremlin officials", reported that Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) had warned the Kremlin that the United States might use IS forces to open a new front against Russia in the North Caucasus or in Central Asia. Iranian officials are positive that the media-hyped terrorist group is taking orders from Washington and there is some evidence to support this assertion. According to Russian experts, the Islamic State has already branches in Russia. It remains to be seen if the threat is real or if this is just part of the IS fear-mongering, which has reached worrying levels. So far, the Russian authorities did not have any problems in dealing with veterans of the Syrian conflict:
Dagestani native gets 4 years of jail for fighting in Syria

The Khasavyurt City Court has sentenced Shamil Nurmagomedov, a native of Dagestan, to 4 years of jail for joining Syrian militants, according to spokesman of the Dagestani Supreme Court Zarema Mamayeva, ITAR-TASS reports.

Nurmagomedov was detained in Khasavyurt in December 2013. In July 2013, he entered Syria, was trained and took part in fights with the governmental forces in July-November.

Georgia To Host NATO Training Center

One high-profile leader of the Islamic State is certainly in favor of "liberating Chechnya and the Caucasus." In contrast to most IS leaders, Georgian jihadist Tarkhan Batirashvili aka Abu Omar al-Shishani was not groomed at U.S. military prison Camp Bucca in Iraq but in the Caucasus, where he fought a few times against those evil Russkies. Given Georgia's key role in Washington's plans, the curious career of Batirashvili is not so surprising after all. FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds emphasized last year the significance of Georgia as NATO-CIA training center for Arab and North African military elites and NATO's proxy in the South Caucasus is set to play an even bigger role in this regard in the future:
NATO Chief Lays Out Package to 'Bring Georgia Closer' to Alliance

Package that NATO plans for Tbilisi at the summit in Wales this week will include establishing “a defense capacity building mission” and training center in Georgia, more Georgian participation in NATO exercises and “occasionally” NATO military exercises in Georgia and expanding NATO liaison office in Tbilisi, according to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

“Without going into too many details, I can mention some of the headlines,” Rasmussen said.

“Fourth, we are also considering the establishment of a military training center in Georgia again with the particular view to engaging NATO partners – that [training center] might also be of regional dimension.”
© Photo NATO

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili was satisfied with the 'substantive package', which is meant to console the Georgian leadership for the disappointment of having been denied a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Georgia immediately after the NATO summit to demonstrate support for Georgia, strengthen military ties beween the two countries and, most importantly, to sell a few American military helicopters. If it were not for Georgia's chase of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, relations between Tbilisi and Washington could hardly be any better:
Georgia: The Saakashvili Chase Continues at Sea

The Georgian government may not be aware of it, but its attempts to catch the ex-president increasingly resemble Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Though Saakashvili and his entourage ardently deny it, Georgian officials claim that border guards at the Greek vacation island of Samos on September 1 briefly detained a yacht carrying the ex-president and “other Georgian citizens.”

Georgian prosecutors asserted that they had alerted the Greek police about the menace approaching their shores, but the Greek authorities released Saakashvili for lack of an international arrest warrant. Georgian Ambassador to Greece Davit Bakradze claimed that the boat arrived from Turkey, and was detained for four hours. Also on board allegedly was Saakashvili's friend, the former governor of Georgia's seaside region of Achara, Levan Varshalomidze. 

Georgia’s general prosecutor’s office said it has yet to convince Interpol to place the former Georgian president on the organization's international search list.
Predictably, the U.S. State Department voiced its concerns over "the risks that politicized prosecutions would pose for Georgia’s democracy." But Washington's criticism fell on deaf ears in Tbilisi. Saakashvili tried to distract attention away from the piling criminal charges by calling on the Georgian government to support Kiev in its struggle against Russia. Given that Georgia is now preparing to send "humanitarian aid" including military helmets and bulletproof vests to Ukraine, Saakashvhili will have to come up with a new strategy and some Georgian officials are convinced that the former president is about to attempt a coup:
Georgia's Waiting for a Coup...Again

This time, 29-year-old Georgian Interior Minister Aleksandre Chikaidze claims he has it on good authority that ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili and his legislative minority, the United National Movement (UNM), are plotting to destabilize the country, provoke the police, manipulate sensitive topics such as the bad economy or the Russian threat, and then seize power as Georgia descends into “chaos and anarchy.”

In a September 10 interview with a local tabloid, Chikaidze asserted that Saakashvili has recruited 500 agent-provacatuers — and some non-profit groups, as well — to bring the plan to life.

But this isn’t just the one-off of a minister known for his verbal gaffes. Now, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has gotten into the act, too, claiming that the threat is for real and the government won’t stand for it. The police have even launched an investigation.