The Middle East Channel

Iraqi Forces Battle Militants in Ramadi and Fallujah

Iraqi government forces are continuing to battle al Qaeda linked militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who have controlled parts of the Anbar province cities of Ramadi and Fallujah for several days. Iraqi air forces reportedly launched a strike on Ramadi Sunday killing up to 34 people. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has appealed to residents to force out insurgents from Fallujah so "their areas are not subjected to the danger of armed clashes." Iraqi troops have surrounded the city, and dozens of families have fled the area. Fallujah, 40 miles west of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, is a highly symbolic city for Sunni Muslims and was the site of fierce battles between U.S. troops and insurgents in 2004. Recent violence was sparked last week after Iraqi police broke up a Sunni protest. Iran has offered to provide Iraq with military equipment and advisors, but ruled out deploying troops.

Syria

Fighting has continued Monday between Syrian rebel groups in the northern Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Clashes were sparked on Friday after residents accused ISIL militants of killing a popular doctor. According to opposition activists, ISIL began pulling out from al-Dana and Atma in Idlib province Sunday, as fighters from al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham entered. Fighting between ISIL fighters and brigades from the Islamic Front spread into Raqqa and Tal Abyad Sunday night. In Aleppo, ISIL forces threatened to leave the city to government forces unless rival fighters stop their attacks. Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Council said it would not participate in the Geneva II peace conference set to begin in Switzerland on January 22, claiming the Assad regime has not been committed to the goals of the original Geneva talks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for the first time alluded to Iranian involvement in the peace talks on Syria. While he said Tehran should not take a formal role in the conference, there might be ways it could "contribute from the sidelines."  

Headlines

  • In a second day of protest thousands of African migrants in Israel are marching to embassies demanding recognition as refugees as the U.N. criticizes the Negev "open" detention facility.
  • Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he is not opposed to the retrial of hundreds of military officers convicted of a coup plot.
  • Al Qaeda commander in Lebanon Majid al-Majid, suspected of involvement in the November attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, has died of kidney failure while in custody according to officials.
  • The condition of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continues to deteriorate, according to doctors.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed optimism after three days of peace talks and thanked Saudi Arabia for its support for U.S. efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Arguments and Analysis

'Why Iraq's Most Violent Province Is a War Zone Again' (Ned Parker, Time)

"On the eve of national elections, scheduled for April 30, Anbar province is in chaos. The instability is likely to spread beyond Anbar and affect the rest of Iraq. That risks disrupting the upcoming election in Sunni regions, where violence is likely to be smoldering between different Sunni factions and al-Qaeda, and among the different Sunni groups running for parliament. The tense relationship between Maliki and the general Sunni population is also likely to fuel unrest.

There is not a Sunni region in the country now that is not enmeshed in strife. To the north, Nineveh province is seen as a stronghold of al-Qaeda fighters, while to the east of Baghdad, Diyala province has witnessed fighting between Sunni and Shiite armed groups, causing an uptick in internal displacement. The conflict in Sunni regions is creating an atmosphere of perpetual crisis that could tip the country into civil war or be used by Maliki as a justification to stay in power after what is expected to be a closely fought election. The more chaos, the greater the chance for al-Qaeda-linked fighters to hide among the population and reap chaos.

Hopes for stability in Iraq become more elusive by the day. Even as the U.S. government rushed surveillance drones and hellfire missiles to Iraq last month to help Maliki combat al-Qaeda, the complicated battlefield and conflicting motives of both the government and Sunni tribes makes it that much harder for the Obama Administration to find a policy that will offer a solution to Iraq's growing al-Qaeda problem and sectarian woes. The province that cost so many American lives is once more the crucible of a country riven by violence."

'US drone attacks in Yemen protect no one but Al Qaeda' (Farea Al Muslimi, The National)

"In many parts of Yemen, it is not Aqap that is feared, but America. Not long ago, I visited the area of Khawlan, a 30-minute drive from Sanaa, where a US missile struck a vehicle full of passengers, killing everyone, including a local schoolteacher. He'd been with his cousin, the driver, who had picked up other people as a normal fare ride. How were the cousins to know that these people were on the US kill list? Children were waiting in the classroom for two hours the next morning before the news came that their teacher, Ali, was dead. Now, whenever teachers are late for class, students at the school become terrified that the US may have killed them.

US drones also undermine the legitimacy of America's valuable ally in Yemen, president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. In August, Mr Hadi visited the US, and while meeting with CIA director John Brennan a drone was fired into his hometown of Abyan. The president's return to Yemen was followed by days of intensive drone strikes across the country. Mr Hadi then publicly defended the drone strikes -- all of which made him look like more of an American stooge than a man of his people. Mr Hadi is already in an uphill battle to prove himself to Yemenis, as regional and western powers had selected him as the only name on the ballot to replace former president Ali Abdullah Saleh."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

-/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Fire and Brimstone: Turkey's Prime Minister Isn't Backing Down, Corruption Charges Be Damned

Threatened by a corruption scandal that has embraced the inner circle of his government, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hurling fire and brimstone at long-time enemies, one-time allies, and maneuvering to end a graft investigation that has challenged his decade-plus grip on power. Yet beyond that blind fury, Erdogan is gaining a firm upper hand against the investigation that has exposed his government, cracking down on an influential religious movement opposing his rule, and is almost certain to retain a strong electoral advantage when Turks head to the polls later in 2014.

Turkey's political landscape was rocked by an anti-corruption investigation in December 2013, when police arrested the sons of three government ministers, the head of a state bank, and other figures linked closely with the prime minister. The three implicated ministers soon announced their resignations, an earthquake intensified by one departing cabinet member's call on Erdogan to join them in resigning.

Erdogan has instead doubled down, replacing his cabinet and launching a campaign of partisan denunciations and base-rallying stump speeches. Dismissing the case as "an assassination attempt disguised as an investigation," he and pro-government pundits have variously laid blame on the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, as well as on Israel and murky forces as far afield as the Vatican.

Much of Erdogan's withering criticism has been reserved for his one-time ally. Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who leads a substantial Turkish following from self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, once helped underpin the Islamic coalition that brought Turkey's ruling party to power. But after a murky, years-long power struggle, Erdogan is accusing Gulen of using the judiciary and police -- which the prime minister and many secular Turks claim are controlled by Gulen -- of striking back against his rule. "We will reach into your caverns," Erdogan recently declared, promising to reveal and punish an "illegal gang operating within the state."

As Erdogan searches for enemies within and abroad, however, his biggest enemy is increasingly himself, according to newspaper columnist Cengiz Aktar. "Erdogan doesn't seem to have a plan, he is simply following his instincts, fighting back against everyone," said Akdar. "He's looking more and more alone as this case develops."

But it would be a mistake to discount Erdogan. A keen political street fighter, the prime minister has, in his 11 years in power, survived challenges from Turkey's coup-minded military, weathered a court case which nearly closed his party in 2008, and in 2013 successfully -- if brutally -- put down countrywide protests against his rule. During Turkey's summer of mass street demonstrations, Erdogan was roundly criticized for his conspiracy theory-laden, go-for-broke attempt to discredit protesters. But the strategy worked: national support for demonstrators remained low, and polls registered no noticeable decline in support for Erdogan. 

The strategy may work yet again, said Murat Sari, managing director of Konsensus Research & Consultancy. "Erdogan remains in a strong electoral position in the coming year. There isn't hard evidence that support for his party is dropping yet," he said, predicting that Erdogan's polling numbers will be threatened only "if there are consistent revelations of corruption over the coming year."

Erdogan, however, appeared this week to be edging closer to halting the graft case in its tracks. On January 2, Erdogan's son, Bilal Erdogan, flaunted a court summons over the investigation, while police remained in open defiance of a week-old court order for a second round of arrests. On December 27, prosecutors ordered the arrests of Bilal and dozens of other Erdogan-linked figures, and have complained that the prime minister has directly interfered by ordering police not to cooperate. "The moves against this case are in bold defiance of the rule of law," said a representative from Turkey's High Council of Judges and Prosecutors. It may be of little wonder that police are refusing to act: Ankara has removed over 700 police officers from their posts since the beginning of the investigation, reshuffling nearly 300 of them in the last week alone, the Turkish daily Taraf claimed this week.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has additionally proposed new legislation that may also impede investigations. One recently introduced bill would deprive the Council of State, Turkey's highest court, of its right to veto an executive order. That measure comes after the court shot down an executive order commanding that Turkey's police notify Ankara before launching a criminal inquiry. Another bill up for parliamentary debate next week seeks to add a new cadre of judges to the Council of State, effectively "court packing" the defiant legal body.

If the prime minister succeeds in containing the judiciary, the Gulen movement -- which owns Turkey's largest circulation newspaper, Zaman, and other significant media holdings -- is likely to battle on. It has fought a long-simmering conflict with Ankara over its turn away from Israel and toward Arab Spring states, its negotiations for peace with Kurdish separatists, and above all, its move to close a vast, Gulen-owned network of prep schools that fund the movement. Last month, Gulen denounced the government for removing police from the investigation, declaring in a sermon, "let God bring fire to their houses, ruin their homes, break their unities."

The confrontation looked set to escalate further on January 2, when the government opened the first official investigation over the influence of the Gulen movement over the country's judiciary. That would heap even more strain on the unity of Erdogan's AKP, which has seen four Gulen-alligned deputies resign in the past month. The conflict has driven speculation that, as elections near, Gulen-aligned prosecutors will leak evidence of government corruption to further discredit the government. "In the coming months, we well see the sewer pipes bubbling up," speculated political analyst Soli Ozel.

Alleged evidence of government wrongdoing already seems well in the public domain. Police claim to have found $4.5 million worth of cash-stuffed shoeboxes in the home of state lender Halkbank's CEO, as well as an undisclosed amount of cash in the bedroom of Baris Guler, the son of Turkey's interior minister. Corruption allegations span from money laundering that enabled $120 billion worth of gold transactions with sanctions-hit Iran, to misallocation of funds in the health ministry, and widespread bid-rigging in the county's massive public housing contracts. Corruption in the latter would almost certainly implicate the prime minister, who personally oversees the state housing authority. The now resigned urban minister, Erdogan Bayraktar, hinted at that possibility shortly after stepping down, telling a state broadcaster that "the majority of construction plans in the current investigation were carried out with the approval of the prime minister."

But there are several reasons the allegations may prove less damaging. In 2013, Bayraktar admitted before parliament that the government's housing authority had already witnessed tens of millions of dollars worth of graft, explicitly implicating KC Group, one government-favored company. The revelation failed to cause public outrage or lead to an official investigation. Many Erdogan supporters cite corruption as an inevitable cancer of Turkish politics, regardless of the leader. "Corruption is the nature of the state. Power means corruption," said Yakup Erenler, a geriatric who lives in the workaday Istanbul neighborhood of Kasimpasa, where the prime minister spent his own hardscrabble youth. In the Bosporus-side district of Karakoy, Hamdi Soganci said he supports the AKP as "the greatest anti-corruption party in Turkish history." When AKP came to power in 2002, it swept legions of petty "mafia" and extortionists from Istanbul's streets. "Today nobody can take your money just because you have a business or want to park a car on their street." Politics, he emphasized, is local.

Erdogan's greatest defense may lay in his opponents' lack of offense. Turkey's wooden-headed opposition parties have failed to capitalize on current corruption scandals to gain in the polls, and Gulen supporters are highly unlikely to find an alliance with Turkey's secularists or ultra nationalists.

If Erdogan has a clear rival, it is President Abdullah Gul, who has warned in recent days that the government must have "respect for the rule of law" and defended the rights of an independent judiciary. Both Gul and Erdogan are widely expected to run for president this year, and Gul maintains a higher public approval rating than Erdogan. But if Erdogan thinks he may lose the race, he still has other options, said political analyst Ozel. According to Ozel, the prime minister could annul a party bylaw that forbids him from serving a fourth term as prime minister, rush forward parliamentary elections, and cling to power through the prime ministry.

"It's undeniable that Erdogan is going to face more and more opposition in the coming months," said Ozel. Erdogan, however, is sure to keep a tight grip on the power he has. "This is going to be a battle that is unnecessarily long, bloody, and ugly. In the end, the victim will be Turkey's democratic institutions."

Noah Blaser is a journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey. Follow him on Twitter: @nblaser18.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images