Sunday, November 16, 2014

The New Great Game Round-Up #75

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.

Three months ago, Armenia and Azerbaijan were on the brink of all-out war after the worst clashes in years over the disputed Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan had left more than a dozen soldiers dead. Russian President Vladimir Putin brought both sides to the negotiating table to prevent a further escalation of the conflict and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev readily agreed to postpone the recapture of Nagorno-Karabakh, which fueled speculation that Baku had provoked the clashes for political reasons. Azerbaijan has shown a pattern of provoking such events in order to get the international community to devote more attention to the conflict. Moreover, the escalation of violence in late July/early August coincided with a crackdown on human rights activists and NGOs. After this short period of heavy fighting the situation calmed down and last month French President Francois Hollande hosted "constructive" talks between Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan. The two leaders agreed to continue the dialogue to find a negotiated peace to the Karabakh conflict but this week's downing of an Armenian helicopter doesn't bode well for the shaky peace process:
Azerbaijan shoots down Armenian helicopter
The armed forces of Azerbaijan shot down and destroyed an Armenian military helicopter in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on Wednesday, the defense ministries of both countries said.

The incident threatened to set off another cycle of violence between the two South Caucasus neighbors over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is part of Azerbaijan but along with some surrounding territory has been under the control of Armenian soldiers and local Armenian forces since a 1994 cease-fire.

Nagorno-Karabakh said the helicopter belonged to its armed forces and was on a training flight near the cease-fire line. All three crew members on board were killed, a high-ranking officer with the Nagorno-Karabakh forces told the AP. The officer was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to release the information.

Downing Of Armenian Helicopter Disrupts Shaky Peace Process

Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry alleged that "two military helicopters, performing combat maneuvers over the Azerbaijani positions, attempted to open fire at the positions of the Azerbaijani armed forces." Azerbaijani troops then returned fire and and brought down one helicopter. The spokesman of Nagorno-Karabakh's armed forces pointed out that the helicopter was not engaged in a combat operation but conducting a training flight as part of the ongoing joint Armenia-Nagorno-Karabakh military drills "Unity 2014", which involve about 17,000 soldiers and a large amount of military hardware. Artsrun Hovannisyan, the spokesman of the Armenian Defense Ministry, called Azerbaijani claims the helicopter attacked Azerbaijani troops "absurd" and he emphasized that the downed helicopter carried no weapons. Hovannisyan warned that this "unprecedented provocation" leads to an escalation of the situation and Armenia vowed to respond to the provocation:
Armenian helicopter downing: 'Grave consequences' warning

Armenia has threatened "grave consequences" after Azerbaijan shot down one of its helicopter in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

"This is an unprecedented escalation and the consequences for Azerbaijan will be grave," Armenian foreign ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovannisyan said.

A further statement from Armenia's foreign ministry accused the Azeris of a "criminal provocation" and of "gravely violating agreements reached at recent summits."

Armenian leader Sargsyan showed that he means business. One day after the helicopter was shot down and Azerbaijan "declared its airspace closed over the occupied territories," Sargsyan flew there anyway on a helicopter and Nagorno-Karabakh presidential press secretary David Babayan said "the airspace over Karabakh is really closed, but only for the Azerbaijani air force." Armenia's president and other high-level officials visited units of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army and attended the "Unity 2014" military exercises. Addressing the officers of both armies, Sargsyan stressed that there will be "redemption day" for Azerbaijan and he warned the Azerbaijani authorities that war against Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia will be "no flash mob." While almost everyone is wondering how and when Armenia will retaliate, Azerbaijan's Aliyev is also promising more military action:
Aliyev Hails Armenian Chopper Downing, Vows More Military Action

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev praised his army for the Nov. 12 downing of an Armenian helicopter that killed three crew members in the worst military incident between the two countries in 20 years.

Aliyev promised more armed responses to Armenian “provocations” in future during an “operational meeting” yesterday with his generals in the western Shamkir District, his office said.
The soldier who shot down the helicopter has been awarded and Baku is apparently more interested in "correcting" "wrong" media reports than in resolving the conflict. Aliyev's critics often accuse him of using high diplomatic tensions with Armenia as a cover to target and lock up political activists and the downing of the Armenian helicopter conveniently diverts attention from Baku's "crackdown on independent media and rights activists." Fortunately, Aliyev's friends in the West are not swayed by trifles, such as human rights abuses. Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, secretly flew to Azerbaijan this week to meet with his buddy Aliyev. The Queen’s second son has already met the Azeri President eleven times on official business in the past decade and his friendship with Aliyev and other controversial leaders cost him his post as the UK’s trade envoy in 2011. But "Air Miles Andy" was not the only noteworthy guest in Baku this week. Iranian Pesident Hassan Rouhani also travelled to the Azerbaijani capital a few days ago to hold talks with Aliyev and other senior officials. It was Rouhani's first visit to Azerbaijan since his election last year and the two neighboring countries agreed to boost cooperation in various areas despite their difficult relationship:
Iran, Azerbaijan ink five cooperation agreements during President Rouhani's visit

The Iranian and Azeri officials signed five cooperation agreements on Wednesday to expand ties in areas of economy, renewable energy, industry, communications, and transport, IRNA reported on Wednesday. The cooperation deals were signed at the presence of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev in Baku.
Prior to his trip to Baku, Rouhani stated that the Caucasus is Iran's "bridge" to Europe and Iran is also the Caucasus's bridge to the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
"This bridge and multilateral relations with the Caucasus and the Central Asia should be strengthened," he added.

Russia Sees ISIS Terrorists Everywhere

Azerbaijan is already positioning itself as a gas mediator between Iran and Europe but first of all Tehran has to reach a nuclear deal with the West, which looks unlikely to happen before the November 24 deadline. Judging from Rouhani's words, Iran wants to follow Russia's and China's lead and strengthen its foothold in the Eurasian Balkans. China, which boasts strategic partnerships with all five 'stans, focuses primarily on economic cooperation, whereas Russia also regularly tries to convince the local regimes of closer military cooperation. In recent months, Russian officials and pundits have used the threat of Central Asian ISIS fighters, who might return from Iraq and Syria, to this end. For example, Russian commentator Alexander Sobyanin argued a few weeks ago that the Central Asian jihadists are sponsored by U.S. intelligence and that they could be used to foment instability in Central Asia, creating a pretext for U.S. military presence in the region. One Russian lawmaker has now come up with a plan to prevent the long prophesied Islamist takeover in Central Asia:
Lawmaker Proposes 'Russian Foreign Legion' To Combat IS

Should Russia have a foreign legion, like France? A Russian lawmaker thinks such a concept could address the threat of the Islamic State (IS) group in Russia and Central Asia.

The proposal, by State Duma Deputy Roman Khudyakov of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) faction, comes amid growing fears over the influence of the IS in Russia and former Soviet Central Asian republics.

The Russian lawmaker said that a Russian foreign legion could guarantee stability in Central Asia, and oppose possible aggression from Islamic State militants operating in the region.

Khudyakov is known for his creative proposals for new legislation and his latest idea was not met with much approval but it demonstrates once more that the ISIS hype has reached Russia. Last week, Russian media reported that members of the so-called "GTA gang", which had terrorized Moscow motorists in recent months with a series of murders resembling the popular video game "Grand Theft Auto," were Central Asian migrant workers linked to ISIS. According to law enforcement officials, several of the detained gang members were set to travel to Syria to join ISIS. Interestingly enough, many of the Central Asians fighting in Iraq and Syria have been recruited while working in Russia and not in their home coutries. Russian officials are not only concerned about the spreading of radical Islam among Russia's Central Asian migrant workers but also about the plans of Western intelligence agencies with regard to ISIS. Especially Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has absolutely no doubt about CIA, MI6 & Co. pulling the strings behind the much-hyped terrorist group and the ongoing war of words between Kadyrov and ISIS entered another round a few days ago:
ISIS commander 'Omar the Chechen' allegedly killed

The Islamic State military commander "Omar the Chechen,” who threatened Russia with a jihadist onslaught, has been eliminated, said Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov. He posted a photo on Instagram which he says is proof.

“The enemy of Islam, Tarkhan Batirashvili, who called himself Omar Ash-Shishani ("Shishani" is Arabic for "Chechen"), has been killed," Kadyrov posted. "That will happen to everyone who will threaten Russia and the people of Chechnya. This will happen to everyone who sheds Muslims' blood."
Kadyrov's message was reported all around the world but it didn't take long before the Chechen leader deleted his post. As many people quickly pointed out, the photo posted by Kadyrov doesn't show Tarkhan Batirashvili's dead body and the same picture has been used on at least one previous occasion to "prove" the death of Kadyrov's new nemesis. Given the fact that his death was reported at least four times in recent months, Batirashvili seems to be following in the footsteps of Osama bin Laden and Kadyrov's previous nemesis Doku Umarov, who was "killed" about a dozen times before he eventually left the stage. Up until now, Western and Arab media have portrayed Batirashvili as the military genius of ISIS but his military prowess has recently been called into question. One former associate, who fought alongside Batirashvili in Syria, accused the ISIS leader of only knowing how to send mujahedin as cannon fodder but that is apparently the preferred strategy of ISIS anyway. Nevertheless, Kadyrov won't take any chances and will do his best to get rid of Batirashvili and the cannon fodder: 
Chechen Gets 2 Years in Prison for Battling Assad's Forces in Syria

A 22-year-old Chechen man has been sentenced to two years in prison for fighting in Syria's civil war, a news report said Tuesday.

Said Mazhayev, who prosecutors say went to Syria last November and fought alongside the Free Syrian Army until January, admitted his guilt in court, prosecutors told the Caucasian Knot news website.

Under Russian law, he could have faced up to 10 years in prison for taking part in an armed conflict in a foreign state. Ahead of the verdict, which was issued Monday, prosecutors had asked the judge to sentence Mazhayev to three years and two months in a penal colony.

China Sets Out To Bring Peace To Afghanistan, Xinjiang

There are hardly any Syrians left among the "Syrian rebels," as foreign fighters are pouring into Syria faster than ever. According to U.S. and British counterterrorism officials, "the growing number and variety of foreign fighters streaming into Syria is unprecedented in recent history." Lately, even fighters from the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), made their way to the battlefields of northern Syria. China is very concerned about the Syria-Xinjiang connection and the capture of a Chinese national fighting with ISIS in Iraq caused a great stir. It is unclear how many Uyghur insurgents have travelled to the Middle East but the emergence of ETIM fighters in Syria will reinforce Beijing's concerns in this regard. China has long avoided getting involed in conflicts like Syria or Afghanistan but the Chinese authorities have realized by now that they will have to bite the bullet sooner or later. As the NATO-led coalition forces are reducing their presence in neighboring Afghanistan, China is now trying to achieve what the U.S. and its allies failed to do: 
EXCLUSIVE - China seeks greater role in Afghanistan with peace talk push
China has proposed setting up a forum to restart stalled peace talks between Afghanistan and Taliban insurgents, the latest sign Beijing wants more of a say in its troubled neighbour's affairs as it frets about its own Islamist militant threat.
Documents seen by Reuters show that China put forward a proposal for a "peace and reconciliation forum" that Afghan officials said would gather representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the Taliban command.
China's proposal has not yet been formally announced because Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants more time to see whether the Taliban and Pakistan are willing to join in, according to his aides.
© Photo Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

China's "peace and reconciliation forum" was certainly high on the agenda during Ghani's recent two-day visit to Pakistan, where he met with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other top officials to ease relations between the two countries. Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to expand their bilateral trade to $5 billion but it remains to be seen if they will pull together when it comes to the peace talks. Beijing will definitely do its part to bring Islamabad to the negotiating table. Considering that the Taliban have previously endorsed China's growing role in Afghanistan, China may even have a chance of succeeding in restarting the peace process. Pakistan has only recently signalled its readiness to support China's fight against the "East Turkestan" forces and to cooperate more closely on Afghanistan: 
Pakistan says will help China fight Xinjiang militants
Pakistan will help China with its fight against extremists Beijing says are active in its unruly far western region of Xinjiang, the country's prime minister said on Saturday during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Pakistan Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif told Xi that his country would "continue to resolutely fight the East Turkestan Islamic Movement terrorist forces", China's foreign ministry said in a statement following the meeting in Beijing.

Pakistan will increase its coordination with China on Afghanistan too, so as to "jointly maintain regional peace and stability", Sharif said.
Of course, Pakistan's cooperation comes at a price. China promised its close ally billions of dollars in investment during Nawaz Sharif's trip to Beijing. Pakistan and China signed 19 agreements and memorandums mostly centered on the energy sector to the tune of over $40 billion. Amir Zamir, spokesman for Pakistan's ministry of planning and development, stressed that "there is no loan or aid for the energy projects, but pure investment by the Chinese." China spares neither trouble nor expense to push economic cooperation and to maintain stability in the region. Predictably, Washington's Uyghur exile groups are alarmed at all these deals because "Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Shanghai Cooperation countries’ deals means more heavy-handed repression of Uighurs." China won't be swayed by such concerns and continues its crackdown on illegal religious activities in Xinjiang:
China targets 'wild imams' in mass public sentencing

China has jailed almost two dozen people including "wild imams" who preach illegally in the western region of Xinjiang where the government says Islamists are waging a violent campaign for a separate state, Chinese media reported on Tuesday.

The 22 suspects were sentenced to prison terms ranging from five to 16 years at a mass public sentencing in Xinjiang on Monday, the state-controlled China News Service reported.

As well as the imams, or Muslim religious leaders, those sentenced included religious leaders who engaged in religious activities after being sacked, as well as those who broke the law while at their posts, it said.