Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #103

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.

Turkey's far-right National Movement Party (MHP) and its paramilitary youth wing, the Grey Wolves, have been leading the protests against "China's brutality in East Turkestan." Korean tourists and the Uyghur cook of a Chinese restaurant in Istanbul were the first ones to learn that Turkish ultranationalists don't flinch from using violence to protest China's "Ramadan ban" or other Chinese misdeeds. Even after Turkish police had to rescue the Korean tourists, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli tried to play down the recent wave of ultranationalist attacks and defended the attackers by pointing out that Chinese and Koreans both "have slanted eyes." While MHP-linked groups began openly printing death threats against Chinese, Beijing warned Chinese citizens traveling in Turkey to be on guard and stay away from anti-China protests. Amid rising tensions, Thailand further aggravated the situation by sending 173 Uyghur women and children to Turkey and then returning about 100 Uyghur migrants to China:
Thailand sends nearly 100 Uighur migrants back to China

Thailand confirmed on Thursday it had forcibly returned nearly 100 Uighur migrants to China, heightening tensions between Ankara and Beijing over the treatment of the Turkic language-speaking and largely Muslim minority.

"Thailand sent around 100 Uighurs back to China yesterday. Thailand has worked with China and Turkey to solve the Uighur Muslim problem. We have sent them back to China after verifying their nationality," Colonel Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, deputy government spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.
A group of more than 170 Uighurs were identified as Turkish citizens and sent to Turkey, and nearly 100 were identified as Chinese and sent back to China. Fifty others still need to have their citizenship verified.

China Reveals Explosive Information to Give Turkey a Warning

Predictably, Washington and its favorite Uyghur exile group lost no time in commenting on the matter. The U.S. State Department condemned Thailand's deportation of the Uyghurs and urged the Thai authorities "to allow those remaining ethnic Uighurs to depart voluntarily to a country of their choice." World Uyghur Congress (WUC) spokesman Dilxat Raxit drew attention to the pictures of Uyghurs in hoods saying that the pictures showed they had been "stripped of their dignity." Beijing vehemently denied allegations of mistreatment or torture and rejected the criticism coming from the United States. The Chinese government was not amused when more than 170 Uyghurs left Thailand for Turkey, where they were welcomed by Raxit's colleague Seyit Tümtürk, but when ultranationalists in Turkey learned of Thailand's decision to return some of the remaining Uyghurs to China, all hell broke lose:
Thai consulate in Istanbul attacked after Uighurs deported

Some 200 Turkish demonstrators stormed the Thai consulate in Istanbul in protest at the deportation of dozens of Uighur Muslims to China, reports said on Thursday.

The attack was the latest in a series of nationalist-tinted protests in Turkey during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan over China's treatment of the Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim Uighurs in the north-western Xinjiang region.

Nine people were arrested after the action at the consulate building in Istanbul late on Wednesday organised by a group calling itself East Turkestan Education Association, the Dogan news agency reported.
© Photo EPA

As previously highlighted, there is some evidence to suggest that the East Turkestan Education Association (ETESA) has been involved in recruiting Uyghurs for jihad in Syria. The Thai authorities surely know by now why the Istanbul-based Uyghur exile group has long been a thorn in Beijing's side. One day after the attack on the Thai consulate in Istanbul, another group of pro-Uyghur protesters attacked Thailand's embassy in Ankara and almost lynched a passing Asian tourist, assuming that the woman was Chinese, before attempting to break into the Chinese embassy. Turkish police eventually dispersed the protesters with pepper spray. Thailand immediately warned its citizens to "be on alert" and decided to close its embassy and consulate temporarily. While the Thai government tried to ease tensions by pointing out that it had rejected Beijing's request to return all Uyghur migrants held in Thailand, Turkey's state Anatolia news agency and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally conceded that media coverage of China's "Ramadan ban" does not correspond with reality:
Reports on Chinese practices in Xinjiang largely inaccurate, says Turkey’s Erdoğan

Many news reports on China’s alleged restrictions on Muslim Uighurs during the holy month of Ramadan do not reflect reality, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said, amid anti-Chinese demonstrations by Turkish nationalists over the treatment of the Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang region.

His words come amid a spike in attacks agains East Asian tourists in Turkey. Earlier on July 9, an Asian tourist was attacked by pro-Uighur protesters in Ankara as they assumed that she was Chinese.

“I call on the public to be careful on this issue. I request for people not to rise to the bait of provocateurs. Security of life and property of all of our East Asian guests, who come to our country for work, travel and living, is our honor,” Erdoğan said, while also urging Turkey’s security forces to be more careful on the issue.
Erdogan seems to live by the motto 'better late than never.' Luckily for him, no Asian tourists have been lynched in Turkey before he set the record straight. After being bombarded with countless misleading reports about China's "Ramadan ban," hardly anybody noticed it when China tried to counter the propaganda and it is to be feared that the recent admissions from Turkey will be overlooked as well. Understandably enough, Beijing is fed up with Ankara's behavior and decided to give the Turks a warning by shedding more light on Turkey's passports-to-Uyghurs scheme. Shortly after the latest attacks in Turkey, a Chinese official from the Ministry of Public Security explained to a small group of foreign reporters in Beijing why Thailand had identified some of the Uyghurs as Turkish nationals and why the West should think twice before criticizing China for repatriating Uyghur migrants:
China says Uighurs being sold as 'cannon fodder' for extremist groups

Uighurs from China's Xinjiang are being given Turkish identity papers in Southeast Asia by Turkish diplomats and then taken to Turkey where some are sold to fight for groups like Islamic State as "cannon fodder", a senior Chinese official said.

"Turkish embassies in Southeast Asia will give them proof of identity," Tong Bishan, division chief of the Ministry of Public Security's Criminal Investigation Department, told a small group of foreign reporters in Beijing on Saturday.

Tong said that hundreds of Uighurs had been given documents by Turkish diplomats, especially in Kuala Lumpur, and then allowed into Turkey.

Taliban Rift Threatens to Derail Afghan Peace Talks

According to the Ministry of Public Security, 13 of the 109 Uyghurs repatriated from Thailand had fled China after being implicated in terrorist activities and another two had escaped detention. After the damning revelations in January, China has now exposed Turkey's role in Uyghur smuggling and terror operations for the second time this year. But given the importance of the East Turkestan project for various factions in Turkey and the U.S., it is highly doubtful that this will stop the Turkish authorities from supporting their Uyghur "brothers." In addition to Turkey's meddling in Xinjiang, the volatile situation in neighboring Afghanistan is giving Beijing headaches as well. In recent months, China has pulled out all the stops to restart the Afghan peace talks. Obama's decision to slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan complicated matters but Beijing's efforts are apparently paying off after all:
Afghan Government, Taliban Begin Two-Days of High-Level Talks

Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives on Tuesday began two days of discussions in Pakistan, Afghan officials said, signaling a possible start to a formal peace process.

The meeting was one of the highest-level contacts between the two warring parties in recent years, offering hope that a formal peace process aimed at ending the long-running conflict could soon begin.

A senior Afghan official said U.S. and Chinese officials took part in Tuesday’s meeting as observers. Their attendance, together with Pakistan’s willingness to play host, is significant as it points to a broadening involvement of key players in a possible peace process. 
© Photo AP

Members of the Haqqani network also attended the peace talks. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described the meeting as a breakthrough because it was the first time that Kabul had sent an official team after several informal meetings between representatives from the two sides. While the Afghan delegation had the full backing of the Kabul government, the Taliban delegation had only been authorized by Taliban political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. His rival, battlefield commander Abdul Qayyum "Zakir," didn't approve of the meeting and threatened that he would either join ISIS with his men or set up another group if the talks continued. Considering that both delegations agreed to hold the next round of talks after the end of Ramadan, Mansour has to decide very quickly whether he wants to risk losing several thousand fighters to ISIS or end the peace process before it gets going:
Afghan Taliban seek ‘united national govt’

In a significant development that may lead to an elusive peace deal in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban have agreed to cease fire if Pakistan and China guarantee that a ‘united national government’ will be formed in the war-ravaged country.

The Taliban representatives made this offer during crucial talks with senior Afghan government officials in the popular tourist resort of Murree Tuesday night. Officials from Pakistan, China and the United States also attended the closed door talks, suggesting the latest process has the backing of major international players.


A senior government official familiar with the meeting told The Express Tribune that both sides exchanged a list of demands in an effort to take the process forward.
The Afghan side reportedly agreed to include the third-tier leadership of the Taliban in the government but the Taliban demand the inclusion of its first-tier leadership. As Kabul and the political leadership of the Taliban are inching closer to an agreement, the rift within in the Taliban could derail the peace talks at a crucial moment. If Taliban commander Zakir acts on his threats and leaves with his men, a peace deal won't be worth the paper it is written on. ISIS's Afghan affiliate, on the other hand, would certainly weclome this development. The group needs all the help it can get after losing several leaders in U.S. airstrikes. ISIS released an online audio clip to prove that its leader for Afghanistan, Hafez Saeed, was not killed along with his fellow jihadists but it is safe to say that the airstrikes have dealt a blow to Baghdadi's fans in Afghanistan. To make matters worse, Hezb-e Islami recently denied that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had called on his followers to support ISIS in the fight against the Taliban, as suggested by a statement circulating in Afghan media:
Hekmatyar's Afghan militants deny joining Islamic State

An influential Afghan militant faction on Monday denied reports that it had shifted loyalty to Islamic State's budding movement in the region.

A spokesman for Hizb-i-Islami, led by Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, said a statement that had circulated in Afghan media last week alleging Hekmatyar had thrown his support behind the ultra-hardline jihadist movement also known as ISIS was a fake.

"It was not true. None of us had issued any such statement in support of ISIS in Afghanistan against the Afghan Taliban," spokesman Haroon Zarghoon said.

India Eyes Central Asia as SCO Expands

Clashes between ISIS and the Taliban have been escalating in recent weeks, underscoring the deteriorating security situation in the country. The chaos in Afghanistan is frequently discussed when leaders from the region come together and the latest meetings in the Russian city of Ufa were no exception to this rule. Last week, leaders from the BRICS countries and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gathered in Ufa for two noteworthy summits. Host Vladimir Putin wanted to use the opportunity to show his former colleagues in the G-7 that all the talk about isolating Russia is just wishful thinking and in light of the expansion of the SCO, even Western media was forced to admit that the Russian President might have a point. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia and Nepal joined the organization as dialogue partners, Belarus was upgraded from dialogue partner to observer state and, most importantly, India and Pakistan began the accession process, which will be finalized at the SCO summit in India: 
India and Pakistan join Shanghai Co-operation Organisation

The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation has embarked on a big enlargement process that could transform the club that includes China, Russia and four central Asian countries into a security and economic grouping stretching from eastern Europe to southeast Asia.

SCO leaders decided on Friday to admit India and Pakistan as members and made Belarus an observer — a status that could eventually be upgraded to membership.

The expansion marks a big diplomatic achievement for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who hosted the summit in the southern Urals city of Ufa, as it allows him to demonstrate that western sanctions have failed to isolate Moscow internationally.
© Photo PTI

Both India and Pakistan hailed the emergence of a new economic axis and Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif stressed that Putin's "efforts will enhance the political and economic scope of the Eurasian belt." One of the major issues discussed in Ufa was using the SCO to link the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with China's Silk Road Economic Belt. The final document of the SCO summit made no mention of this plan but Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng told reporters shortly thereafter that China and the EEU will start negotiations on an economic partnership agreement "as soon as possible." As Russia and China are looking to join forces in Central Asia, India also wants a piece of the cake. The BRICS and SCO summits in Ufa were just a stopover for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who embarked on an extensive Central Asia tour on July 6. Modi's tour brought some interesting news but especially a report in the Daily Mail ahead of his Tajikistan visit raised a few eyebrows:
India wants to expand footprint in Central Asia: Modi to ask Tajikistan for lease of ex-Soviet airbase

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to ask Tajikistan for the lease of a former Soviet airbase that was refurbished by India in 2007.

Government sources told Mail Today that use of the Ayni airbase for the Indian Air Force, tops the agenda for discussion with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon when the prime minister arrives on a state visit on July 12.
India refurbished the base in 2007 but could not base fighters and helicopters there because of Russian pressure.
A Tajik government source immediately denied that the use of Ayni Air Force Base was on the agenda and there is no indication that Modi visited the base or that the issue was discussed. Given that both Dushanbe and Moscow have to agree to the lease, India's chances of using Ayni are slim anyway. Tajikistan was the last stop on Modi's Central Asia tour. Whereas security and counterterrorism cooperation were high on the agenda during his visits to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, talks in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan focused mostly on economic cooperation. One of the major projects discussed was of course the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. Although the TAPI countries are still looking for a consortium leader, Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow and others have claimed that the construction will start this year. No one seemed to take the unpredictable situation in Afghanistan into account but Modi has now cast doubt on the planned route of the pipeline [emphasis mine]:
PM Narendra Modi pitches for early implementation of TAPI gas pipeline project

Batting for early implementation of the USD 10 billion TAPI gas pipeline project, Prime Minister Narendra Modi today evinced India's interest in long-term investment in the energy sector in Turkmenistan as the two countries inked seven pacts and vowed to jointly combat terrorism in the region.

Calling TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) project as a significant initiative in relationship between the two countries, Modi said possibility of land-sea route through Iran for the pipeline should be explored.

The project was envisaged to take gas from Turkmenistan, which holds the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves, to India and Pakistan through Afghanistan.