Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #109

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.

With the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine dominating the headlines, the latest escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has gone largely unnoticed. It all started on September 24, when Azerbaijani forces shelled Armenian villages in the northeastern Tavush region close to the border. Mortar and gunfire killed three civilian women, aged 41, 83 and 94, and wounded four other residents. It was the highest number of civilians killed in one day for quite some time. Moreover, targeting villages with mortar fire is not a common tactic and has only rarely been seen since the end of the war in 1994. As Armenia called on the international community to get involved and prevent a further escalation of the conflict, Azerbaijan tried to play the innocent by using Israel's tried and tested 'human shields' rhetoric. But it quickly became clear which side is provoking an escalation:
Four Armenian Servicemen Killed by Azerbaijani Fire

Four Armenian servicemen were killed today in an offensive operation launched by Azerbaijan on Sept. 25. Norayr Khachatryan (b. 1995), Robert Mkrtchyan (b. 1995), Harout Hakobyan (b. 1997), and Karen Shahinyan (b. 1997) of the Artsakh Armed Forces were killed in the Azerbaijani attack, announced the Nagorno Karabagh Republic (NKR) Ministry of Defense.

According to the Ministry, Azerbaijani forces used Turkish-made TR-107 rocket launchers in the attack. Intensive shelling reportedly took place on Sept. 24 and 25.

A day earlier, 83-year-old Parakavar resident Baydzar Aghajanyan and Berdavan residents Shushan Asatryan, 94, and Sona Revezyan , 41, were killed by Azerbaijani artillery fire targeting Armenian border villages in Armenia’s Tavush province. Four other residents were also wounded in the attack.

Azerbaijan Kills Armenian Grannies, Blames Armenia

True to form, after killing seven Armenians in two days, Azerbaijan accused Armenia of escalating the conflict in an attempt to derail negotiations between the countries' Foreign Ministers and the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group in New York. Ironically, that is exactly the strategy that Azerbaijan has been using time and again in the run-up to important meetings and negotiations. The OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs were not swayed by Baku's antics and urged the warring parties to accept an OSCE mechanism to investigate ceasefire violations. Armenia has already agreed to discuss the details of the mechanism and Azerbaijan is now under pressure to follow suit. The month of September has taken a turn for the worse for Baku. Two weeks ago, Azerbaijani officials were chuffed to bits, thinking that they have a golden opportunity to claim the moral high ground in the conflict with Armenia:
Armenian 'Activist' Defects To Azerbaijan

An Armenian man has defected to archrival Azerbaijan in a case that is sure to rankle in Yerevan.

Vahan Martirosian, who says he is the head of an NGO called Internal National Liberation Movement, told reporters in Baku on September 18 that he had requested political asylum in Azerbaijan. There is no NGO by that name in the official registry.

Martirosian slammed the policies of Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, calling them anti-Armenian, and said Azerbaijani media are the only source offering "truthful information" about the current situation in Armenia.
© Photo Azerbaijan Press Agency

Azerbaijani media is not exactly known for offering "truthful information" about anything but Martirosian went even further in his efforts to please his new hosts. The Armenian "activist" vowed to draw the international community's attention to the "criminal regime" of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and claimed that most people living in Nagorno-Karabakh would vote to join Azerbaijan if they were allowed to hold a referendum. Martirosian's strange Baku press conference perplexed not only the Armenian authorities but also the country's opposition and civil activists because they couldn't recall ever meeting him during protests in Armenia. Ruzanna Marguni, the woman who accused Martirosian of stealing $3,800 from her apartment before he left the country, described him as "a skillful fraudster." This being the case, Martirosian's defection is not the propaganda coup the Aliyev regime had been hoping for and it won't help to deflect attention from Azerbaijan's crackdown on journalists and human rights activists, which is once again causing tensions between Baku and the West:
Aliyev Goes On The Attack Against EU Values

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has thrown down the gauntlet in the face of criticism from the European Union, accusing the bloc of being "anti-Azerbaijani" and mocking European values amid the ongoing refugee crisis.

During a joint press conference with visiting Czech President Milos Zeman in Baku on September 15, Aliyev blasted a recent European Parliament resolution that condemned his country's human rights situation and called for the release of all political prisoners and imprisoned journalists.

Speaking earlier on September 15 at the opening ceremonies of a new school in Baku, Aliyev called on the country's youth to stay away from "foreign influence and the so-called Western values that our people do not share."​ 
Aliyev and Co. were furious about the latest "anti-Azerbaijani" European Parliament resolution. Baku responded by canceling the planned visit by a European Commission delegation and by suspending its participation in the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, an inter-parliamentary forum of the EU and its eastern neighbors which was established as part of the EU's Eastern Partnership initiative. Some Azerbaijani lawmakers have even called for rethinking Azerbaijan's participation in the Eastern Partnership. As usual, Baku's anger about "anti-Azerbaijani" activities is not only directed at Brussels but also at "some circles" in the United States. After cracking down on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) at the end of last year, the Aliyev regime is now going after Voice of America and other foreign media outlets. And last but not least, Azerbaijan continues its half-hearted campaign against the U.S.-backed Gülen movement, much to the joy of Turkish President Erdogan:
Azerbaijan deports Turkish citizens for Nur movement propaganda

Turkish citizens, suspected of promoting the Nur movement in Azerbaijan, were deported from the country.
 
The Yasamal district court fined Turkish citizens Sunkur Nurulla and Senol Miktat AZN 2000 under article #300.04 (violation of the law on religious freedom) of the Code of Administrative Offences.
 
Under the court decision, they were deported from Azerbaijan. In addition, 5 Azerbaijani citizens faced fine AZN 1500.

Tajikistan's Attempt to Prove IRPT-Nazarzoda Plot Backfires

If Aliyev eventually wants to get rid of the Gülen movement altogether, he can ask his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon for advice. Rahmon is currently demonstrating how to rid oneself of pesky opposition groups. Government forces had a hard time catching former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda but the Tajik regime is now making the best of the situation by using Nazarzoda's rebellion to crush the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) once and for all. To this end, they have come up with an elaborate plot linking Nazarzoda and the IRPT, putting even the most ludicrous conspiracy theories to shame. On September 17, Tajikistan's Prosecutor General's office set the stage with an official statement saying that IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri had ordered Nazarzoda to establish 20 small criminal groups. Charitable foundations of foreign countries allegedly provided the funding. This story is becoming more convoluted and more implausible day by day:
Tajikistan State Media Rants Undermine Uprising Account

In providing updates to its would-be insurgency and smears of the opposition almost daily, Tajikistan’s government has succeeded mostly in undermining its own credibility.

A dispatch circulated by Khovar state news agency on September 26 reaches new heights of implausibility. The story contends that the alleged renegade deputy defense minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda had plotted his uprising since 2010 in collusion with the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT).

Allegations that plotting should have been happening for so long at the highest level is at best an astonishing admission of incompetence by Tajikistan’s security structures. Alternatively, Dushanbe is spinning a yarn in full confidence that nobody within the country, including all the diplomatic stations based there, will dare to question its narrative.

International extremist organizations, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. and the EU have all featured in recent Tajik state media ramblings about the alleged Kabiri-Nazarzoda plot. Ironically, Washington has been remarkably silent on Tajikistan's crackdown and just showcased its support of the Rahmon regime by donating tactical equipment worth $260,000 to the country's OMON unit, which made headlines a few months ago when its commander defected to ISIS. Khovar lashed out at the U.S. nevertheless. Even Russian analysts, who are usually quick to blame unrest in Central Asia on the West and/or extremists, had to take flak because they dared to cast doubt on the government's narrative. Dushanbe's main problem is that the narrative doesn't stand up to scrutiny, as the Tajik authorities learned when they confronted IRPT deputy leader Mahmadali Hayit with a member of Nazarzoda's group:
IRP deputy leader confronted with member of Abduhalim Nazarzoda’s group

His defense lawyer, Jamshed Yorov, says Hayit was confronted with one of members of mutinous general’s armed group on September 22.

“The men said that Mahmadali Hayit and IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri allegedly met with General Abduhalim Nazarzoda on March 6 and drew the plan of attacks on the government institutions and distributed public positions among them,” they lawyer said.

“Hayit, however, managed to prove that there was no such a meeting. At that time, Hayit was at IRP’s head office to hold a post-election meeting. All accusations were rebutted,” Yorov noted.
Predictably, the Tajik authorities couldn't take the embarrassment. Jamshed Yorov's colleague Buzurgmehr Yorov, who is also defending the Islamic Renaissance Party, was pressured to abandon his clients and later detained after he refused to play along. Buzurgmehr's detention came shortly after the Prosecutor General's office formally charged the 13 arrested IRPT members with creating a criminal organization. They face between 15 and 20 years in jail if they are found guilty. As Buzurgmehr told RFE/RL's Tajik service before his arrest, the IRPT members deny having anything to do with Nazarzoda's rebellion and the creation of criminal groups. It appears that this won't stop the Tajik regime from prosecuting them. However, instead of putting all their efforts into destroying the IRPT, the Tajik authorities would be well advised to pay more attention to the alarming situation on the Afghan border:
Islamic Jihad Union claims to control areas along Afghan-Tajik border
The Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), an al Qaeda and Taliban-linked group that operates in Afghanistan, has claimed it controls large areas of the northern border with Tajikistan. While the IJU’s claim cannot be independently confirmed, the jihadist group released several photos of a small team of fighters purportedly crossing the Amu Darya River in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz.

It is unclear exactly where the crossing took place, but it likely occurred in the district of Qala-i-Zal, the only district in Kunduz that borders the Amu Darya River. The northern Kunduz districts of Imam Sahib and Dasht-i-Archi, which also border Tajikistan and the Panj River, are considered to be contested or controlled by the Taliban.

The IJU is an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which joined the Islamic State this past summer. The IJU swore allegiance to the Taliban’s new emir, and has been active in the Taliban’s “Azm” spring offensive.

Taliban Seize Kunduz as U.S. Mulls Drawdown Options 

As if the IJU's announcement was not worrying enough, the Taliban have been making significant progress in Kunduz province in the last few days. The provincial capital has been under siege for months and was already on the verge of falling to the Taliban earlier this year. After keeping the insurgents at bay during the summer, government troops eventually lost the fight for Kunduz on September 28, when the Taliban managed to take over the city. One of their first actions was to release 700 prisoners - most of whom were Taliban - from Kunduz city prison. New Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor lost no time in commenting on his first major victory and urged residents to cooperate with the city's new masters. As the world reacted with shock to the news, the Afghan government tried to play down the devastating defeat and vowed to retake the city but that is easier said than done:
Afghan Forces Seek to Regain Kunduz, Major Northern City, From Taliban

A day after the Taliban took their first major city in 14 years, a counterattack was underway Tuesday, but ground forces sent from other provinces to recapture the northern city, Kunduz, were delayed by ambushes and roadside bombs, officials said.

American forces carried out an airstrike outside the city Tuesday morning, said Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the United States forces in Afghanistan. He did not specify the target, but said the strike was carried out to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces.

Ghulam Rabbani, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, said ground forces from Kabul and the northern province of Balkh had been repeatedly ambushed by the Taliban on their way to Kunduz. Some of the reinforcements were waiting in nearby Baghlan to meet with the forces from Kabul, said Col. Abdul Qahar, an Afghan Army spokesman in the north.
© Photo AP

In addition to offensives in Kunduz and Helmand province, Taliban fighters have also been consolidating their grip on areas in eastern Afghanistan, where they just overran a U.S.-built military outpost on the Pakistani border. As discussed last week, warlord-turned-vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum succeeded in driving back the insurgents in Faryab province but his victory was short-lived. All in all, the security situation in Afghanistan is alarming, to the say least. To make matters worse, the Afghanistan branch of the Islamic State recently launched its first attack on Afghan security forces. Up until then, ISIS had largely focused on fighting the Taliban. The rise of ISIS in Afghanistan has not gone unnoticed and even the U.S. is now acknowledging the threat after initially playing down the issue. In light of the Taliban's largest victory in years and the rise of ISIS, the timing of General John Campbell's testimony before Congress about the U.S. "withdrawal" could hardly be any better:  
U.S., Allied Military Review New Options for Afghan Pullback

U.S. and allied defense officials, increasingly wary of White House plans to scale back the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, are reviewing new drawdown options that include keeping thousands of American troops in the country beyond the end of 2016, American and allied officials said.

The top international commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, has sent five different recommendations to the Pentagon and to North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials in Brussels, each with its own risk assessment, officials said.

Some officials worry that too large a cut could cause the Afghan government to come under increased pressure from the Taliban and other militants, officials said. Others believe a smaller force of several thousand Americans still could be effective at backing the Afghan government.
The options range from keeping the current U.S. presence of about 10,000 toops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 to continuing with the planned drawdown to a force of several hundred troops by the end of 2016. Taliban leader Mansoor has already announced his preferred option, the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. Washington is probably not going to consider this option and the continued presence of thousands of U.S. contractors is a non-negotiable matter, anyway. The only ones leaving Afghanistan currently in record numbers are Afghans, much to the dismay of the Afghan government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that he wants to tackle the problem by introducing a "combination of security and economic measures." He didn't specify which sort of measures he was alluding to but Kabul's social media campaign is definitely not going to stem the tide:
Afghanistan Tries To Stem Tide Of Migration 'Brain Drain'

"Don't go. Stay with me. There might be no return!"

That's the message Kabul is sending to Afghans thinking of abandoning their home country for a new life in the West.

The Refugees and Repatriations Ministry has launched a slick social-media campaign to get its message out, and doesn't pull any punches in its effort to dissuade Afghans from making the jump to Europe.

Graphics being circulated on Facebook and Twitter show that the ministry is using a healthy dose of stark images and guilt to urge Afghans to fulfill their patriotic duty and stay on to help rebuild their war-torn nation.