Monday, November 14, 2016

The New Great Game Round-Up: November 14, 2016

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.

Turkish-Russian Rapprochement bodes ill for NATO's Chechen 'Rebels'


Long before NATO member Turkey started flooding neighboring Syria with arms and fighters, the country already played a major role in destabilizing Russia's North Caucasus with a similar approach. Back in the day, the "Syrian rebels" were called "Chechen rebels" and NATO was doing its best to support them.

The Turkish government generously provided refuge to Chechen fighters and refugees, using them later as cannon fodder in Syria or as bargaining chips vis-à-vis Russia.

Turkey has long been a mecca for Russian-speaking jihadists, even before the Syrian conflict, but this could be changing very soon as a result of the recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement.

On October 26, Turkish authorities launched a nationwide counter-terrorism operation, raiding a total of 31 addresses in five provinces and detaining 81 people, including 60 foreign nationals.


Turkish newspaper Hürriyet described the detained suspects as "militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)" and said the operation was carried out "after receiving new information on a group that recruits militants and provides logistical support for the jihadists in Syria and Iraq."

According to the Russian news site rusvesna.su ("Russian Spring"), the operation was actually the result of "joint operative-investigative activities between Russian and Turkish intelligence" and targeted "representatives of the Crimean branch of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the North Caucasus wing of ISIS."

The detained suspects were primarily from Russia's North Caucasus and the post-Soviet states, causing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) to wonder whether Erdogan has decided to surrender the North Caucasus to Putin.

A security source told Russian Spring that Turkey's cooperation was a gesture of thanks for intelligence warnings about the attempted coup against President Erdogan in July of this year.

Neither Russian nor Turkish authorities have been willing to confirm reports claiming that Russian intelligence warned Erdogan of an imminent coup just hours before it happened.

As Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu stressed, Ankara "received unconditional support from Russia, unlike other countries" during this difficult time. Ever since, Erdogan has spared no effort to restore relations between Turkey and Russia "to the pre-crisis level and beyond."

Turkish-backed "Syrian rebels" in and around Aleppo have already suffered from the Turkish-Russian rapprochement and it seems that NATO's "Chechen rebels" are also facing uncertain times.

On November 4, Russia's LifeNews announced that Turkish police had detained eight North Caucasus fighters, including the prominent Chechen commanders Aslambek Vadalov, Tarkhan Gaziyev and
Mahran Saidov. A security source said the men fled the North Caucasus and joined the fight in Syria before moving to Turkey when it became too dangerous.

Upon hearing the good news, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov immediately issued a statement, praising Turkish President Erdogan and urging him to extradite Vadalov, Gaziyev and Saidov:
"Chechnya together with all Russian people hailed your decisive steps aimed at maintaining peace, stability, preventing a state coup and eradicating terrorism. The detention of dozens of dangerous criminals signals the firmness of your intensions. I make a request to you to allow the extradition of the gunmen."
A few months earlier, Kadyrov had already called on the Turkish authorities to crack down on Chechen terrorists hiding in Turkey after Turkish media identified Chechen "freedom fighter" turned Islamic State commander Akhmed Chatayev as the mastermind behind the June 28 Atatürk Airport attack. At the time, Kadyrov published a list of 12 Chechens that he wanted to see detained and extradited. Vadalov, Gaziyev and Saidov were on that list. 

The Chechen Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB) directorate for Chechnya had just offered a reward of 3 million rubles for the capture of Saidov shortly before Russian media reported his arrest. 

Erdogan won't be swayed by a few million rubles, but Russia's unconditional support over the coup attempt could prompt him to do something that seemed completely impossible only a few months ago.

The extradition of the prominent Chechen commanders would signal a significant shift in Turkish foreign policy, causing the United States to pay a heavy price for backing the wrong side on that fateful night of July 15.


Taliban Postpone Talks with Kabul after Pakistan's Warning

After Pakistan had not been invited to secret talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar, everyone was waiting for Islamabad's reaction.

According to a report by The Associated Press, the Pakistani government didn't take the news very well.

When a three-person Taliban delegation traveled from Qatar to Pakistan to brief Pakistani officials about the talks, they were given an ultimatum: Consult with Islamabad during the negotiations or have all top Taliban leaders leave Pakistan along with their families.

While the Taliban were weighing their options, Sayed Ishaq Gailani, a former MP and leader of the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan, told Pakistan's The Express Tribune that several Afghan political leaders were in contact with the Taliban office in Qatar, spearheading efforts to broker further meetings. Gailani complained about the "lukewarm" response from the Kabul government, saying: "The government is not yet cooperating with us, but we will continue our efforts."

According to Gailani, around 15 political and former mujahideen leaders are involved in the peace initiative. They approached China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, looking for a possible venue for talks with the Taliban. Turkey reportedly declined to host such talks in the current post-coup environment and Saudi Arabia's participation seems unlikely.

Nevertheless, Gailani and other Afghan leaders were very optimistic that peace talks with the Taliban's Quetta Shura would begin soon. "We had exchanged views and held talks with the Quetta Shura; the only issue is a proper venue which needs to be certified for the talks," Gailani stressed.

However, a few days later, The Express Tribune announced that the Taliban are not ready to hold talks with Kabul, quoting a Taliban source as saying:
"The Taliban representatives have wrapped up their nearly two-week visit and conveyed to Pakistani officials that they have not yet decided to enter into dialogue with the Kabul administration. The Taliban leaders insisted they could only say whether or not the group will join talks after two or three months."
It seems that the Taliban need more time to think about Islamabad's ultimatum and their next moves.

The Afghan government is lurching from one crisis to another and the situation on the battlefield is developing in favor of the Taliban. There is no need to make any rash decisions.

Moreover, it is not clear how Donald Trump's surprising election victory is going to affect the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

Both the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who recently signed a peace deal with Kabul, have called on Trump to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Judging by his cabinet shortlist, President Trump's foreign policy isn't going to be as isolationist as many people assume. But the rising number of dead Americans is making it increasingly difficult to sell the unpopular Afghanistan war to the American public.

According to a study carried out by Afghanistan's TOLOnews, October was the deadliest month in the past two years with more than 6,000 insurgents, nearly 500 security forces and more than 700 civilians killed.

Despite the disastrous security situation, Afghanistan may have to accomodate 1.5 million Afghan refugees by the end of 2016. Most of them return from Pakistan or Iran but the International Organization of Migrants (IOM) has also recorded an increase of 400% in the number of Afghans returning from Europe. The European Union (EU) wants to increase the number even further.

Tens of thousands of Afghans who have immigrated to Europe in the last year or two could be deported as part of a controversial agreement between the EU and Kabul, allowing the EU to deport an unlimited number of Afghan asylum seekers. The European Union had threatened Afghanistan with a reduction in aid, leaving Kabul no other choice but to agree to the deal. 


A recent report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Bank predicted that "additional returns from Pakistan, Iran, or Europe are likely to result in further secondary displacement, unemployment and instability."

15 years after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the situation is worse than ever before. The only ones that can afford to sit back and weigh their options are the Taliban.