Category Archives: Middle East

Book Review: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

Whilst I was in London last month, one of the books that I bought was “Prisoners of Geography” by Tim Marshall. Tim Marshall tells us how the leaders of the world are restricted by their geographies and how their decisions are influenced by it. It is a great book that looks at historical turning points of different nations and helps us understand why they behaved in a certain way. His book is divided into ten sections: Russia, China, USA, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and the Arctic.

The book contains a lot of anecdotes about each region.

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Russia:

Russia covers eleven time zones and, even now, it takes six days to cross it by train. Russians were fighting on average in and around the North European Plain once every thirty-three years. By 2004, just fifteen years after 1989, every single former Warsaw Pact state bar Russia was in NATO or the European Union. Russia is the biggest country in the world, twice the size of the US or China, five times the size of India, twenty-five times the size of the UK. Although 75 per cent of Russian territory is in Asia, only 22 per cent of its population lives there.

China:

Xinjiang is the largest province of China. It is the twice the size of Texas, and you can fit the UK, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium in it and still have room for Luxembourg. Xinjiang is too strategically important to allow an independence movement to get off the ground: it not only borders eight countries – thus buffering the heartland – but it also has oil and is home to China’s nuclear weapons testing sites.

Large-scale migration south to north can be expected, which will, in turn, give China more leverage in its relations with Russia.

China intends to become a two-ocean power. This is China’s way of reducing its overreliance on the Strait of Malacca, through which almost 80 per cent of its energy supplies pass.

USA:

By 1814 the British had gone and the French had given up on Louisiana. In 1867 Alaska was bought from Russia. Many US government foreign policy strategists are persuaded that the history of the twenty-first century will be written in Asia and the Pacific. Half of the world’s population lives there, and if India is included it is expected to account for half of the global economic output by 2050.

Western Europe:

There are unprovable theories that the domination of Catholicism in the south has held it back, whereas the Protestant work ethic has propelled the northern countries to greater heights.

France is the only European country to be both a Northern and Southern power.

Geographically, The Brits are in a good place. Good farmland, decent rivers, excellent access to seas and their fish stocks, close enough to the European Continent to trade and yet protected by dint of being an island race. There is a theory that the relative security of the UK over the past few hundred years is the reason it has experienced more freedom and less despotism than the countries across the Channel.

Africa:

We are all from Africa since that’s where homo sapiens originated 2,000 years ago. Challenge is the rivers ince parts of it navigable by shallow boats, but there are parts that do not interconnect, thus limiting the transportation of cargo. The ethnic conflicts within Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Mali and elsewhere are evidence that the European idea of geography did not fit the reality of Africa’s demographics.

About a third of China’s oil imports come from Africa. South Africa is one of the very few African countries that do not suffer from the curse of malaria, as mosquitoes find it difficult to breed there. Is it a coincidence that European colonialists chose to settle there and that South Africa is the biggest African economy today?

Middle East:

Prior to Sykes-Picot, there was no state of Syria, no Lebanon, nor was there a Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel, or Palestine. Lebanon’s most recent civil war lasted for fifteen years and, at times, it remains close to another one. Syria may suffer a similar fate.

The Mongols were the last force to make any progress through Persian territory in 1219–1221 and since then attackers have ground themselves into dust trying to make headway across the mountains.

Turkey granted its women the vote two years ahead of Spain and fifteen years ahead of France.

India – Pakistan:

There is an approximately 1,900 mile long border between the countries. Pakistan received just 17 per cent of the financial reserves that had been controlled by the pre-partition government.

In the spring of 2015, the two countries agreed to a USD 46 billion deal to build a superhighway of roads, railways, and pipelines running 1,800 miles from Gwadar to China’s Xinjiang region. This would make it possible to bypass the Strait of Malacca.

The Afghan-Pakistani border is known as the Duran line. Sir Mortimer Durand, the Foreign Secretary of the colonial government of India, drew it in 1893 and the then ruler of Afghanistan agreed to it.

Korea – Japan:

Satellite images and witness testimony suggest that at least 150,000 political prisoners are held in giant work and re-education camps.

The territory of the Japanese islands together make up a country that is bigger than the two Koreas combined, or in European terms bigger than Germany.

Latin America:

The Latin American population, including the Caribbean, is over 600 million, and yet their combined GDP is equivalent to that of France and the UK, which together comprise about 125 million people.

In 1914 the newly built, 50 mile long, American controlled Panama canal opened, thus saving an 8,000 mile journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans and leading to economic growth in the canal region.

The Texas-based geopolitical intelligence company stratfor.com estimates that Brazil’s seven largest ports combined can handle fewer goods per year than the single American port of New Orleans.

The Arctic:

The Arctic Ocean is 5.4 million square miles; this might make it the world’s smallest ocean but it is still almost as big as Russia, and one and a half times the size of the USA.

I highly recommend that you have this book on your bookshelf, as it will not only enhance your vision, but also make you understand where the world is going. Prisoners of Geography is the kind of book that you could easily go back to many times as a good source for references.

All the best from Singapore.

Sukru Haskan
Twitter: @sukru_haskan

 

 

 

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Israel – Turkey – GCC Union?

Whilst I was studying as an undergraduate in Turkey in 2003, I was asked by my professor to present an alternative plan to the EU for Turkey.

Back then, Turkey was struggling to start accession talks with the EU on the back of several issues.

My very basic plan then was to bring Turkey together with Israel and the GCC—the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE)— and I named this project Sukru’s Utopian Alliance.

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When I presented my plan, it received some attention from my fellow students and the professor, but I have to say that they were not truly fascinated by the idea.

While I was on holiday for two weeks 13 years later, my brain somehow started again to ponder on the same project, and this time I am more equipped to address the issues concerned.

When we look at the reasons for the foundation of the EU (formerly the EEC), we see that it was necessary to form bonds between European countries such as France and Germany to make sure that their economic interests were aligned in order to avoid another world war in the coming decades.

Even though the EU has suffered in the last couple of years, at least the aims of bringing economic interests onto one platform and preventing another world war have succeeded.

The EU does not want to allow Turkey into the Union, at least for the foreseeable future. The GCC and Israel have no chance of joining the EU since their lands are located entirely in the Middle East.

Turkey and Israel have long historical, economic and cultural ties. In fact, Turkey was one of the first countries to recognise Israel. Furthermore, Turkey has fairly good relations with the GCC. In this equation, Turkey can play a key role in bringing Israel and the GCC into a union.

The part of the equation which is clearly hard to solve is how can Israel and the GCC agree to be on the same economic platform?

From Israel’s point of view, the country has developed economically and reached around USD 40,000 per capita. This is a tremendous success without any natural resources. In the meantime, there is a continuous security threat which reduces the country’s true potential and Israel, like any other nation, does not want to fight continuously with its neighbours.

From the GCC point of view, the USA is already rapidly diversifying its energy needs and they are very likely not to need as much oil from the Middle East as is currently the case. We can already see the effects of this, as the USA does not show the same level of interest as previously.

If the GCC is not able to diversity its income sources, it faces a big potential economic threat. Places such as Dubai and Qatar are trying to achieve this diversity fast, but since human capital is mainly imported, I personally do not see the current system as sustainable.

And the GCC does not really function very well alone. Interestingly, there are also some internal conflicts. It is no secret that Qatar and Saudi Arabia do not get along very well.

Turkey has relatively cheap labour, massive land and a skilled white collar work force. Israel has a huge talent pool, where the proportion of university graduates in the country is the highest amongst the developed world. Furthermore, not only does it have a wealth of graduates, but it supports a culture with an entrepreneurial attitude.

The GCC has an extensive land area, and still valuable natural resources such as oil and gas, but it lacks human capital. These different parts of the equation can combine to help create an economic union to leverage their potential.

A potential union will not only help us to solve the conflicts between the countries quickly, but also could potentially draw people closer and help them to understand each other better.

I know it sounds like a utopia, but big achievements always grow from what many believe to be impossible.

Of course, we also need politicians with clear intentions, no hidden agendas and international support to establish this platform.

A project on this scale would be a stepping stone for the Middle East and the end of its bloody history.

So why not try?

Best regards from Singapore,

Sukru Haskan

 

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How EU lost Turkey?

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I was lucky to attend one of the most established schools in Istanbul, Nisantasi Isik Lisesi, from Kindergarten to High School.

The school was founded in 1885 in Thessaloniki by teacher Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; it then moved to Istanbul after some years, as the war made it impossible for the school to operate in Thessaloniki.

It is a secular and democratic school which has developed many successful businessmen, academicians, politicians and many other public figures in all walks of life.

As a consequence, I grew up in a secular and modern environment with European Turkish values. During my time at High School, this was not considered at all unusual. It was standard. We always felt that we were part of Europe.

When I graduated from High School in 2001, Istanbul had a population of less than ten million.

I would say Istanbul was just another European city in my childhood, with a mix of oriental and western history and some beautiful landmarks.

2005 was an important year for Turkish society, since Turkey’s accession talks were about to start. I remember attending many talks on this topic just before going to London for my postgraduate studies.

After completing my studies in London, I remember feeling that I was missing out on something important, as Turkey continued to grow at a tremendous rate and I was spending my time in London. Actually, many people shared my impulse and returned to Turkey between 2007 and 2011.

And then things started to change dramatically. The economy continued to perform relatively well, but the almost double digit growth was gone. In the meantime, the EU accession talks failed to get anywhere.

Out of 35 chapters, only one was closed. What did Turkey lack that Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and other countries did not?

France, Germany, Holland and Austria always looked upon Turkish accession to the EU with suspicion. Whilst they have some relevant points and valid concerns, I believe there was a degree of unnecessary prejudice against Turkey and even today, in 2016, this is a valid observation.

And now we are at this unpleasant juncture.

Even though, geographically, part of Turkey is in the European continent, Turkey is no longer looking towards the west. This is not the choice of Turkish politicians and the Turkish population, but it is a result of the relentless and baseless efforts of many EU countries.

This will undoubtedly have significant consequences for Turkey and the EU in the near future. In addition to this stretched relationship, it does not really help to have the EU parliament deciding on sensitive issues in Turkish internal politics, either.

Elif Safak, a famous Turkish novelist and the author of Bastards of Istanbul, published a new article in the Financial Times to appease my fellow British citizens, declaring that Turkey no longer wants to be more European, but actually less.

Today, the estimated population of Istanbul is around 17 million, and I keep asking:

Wouldn’t the EU be stronger and safer with a strong Turkey?

Wouldn’t it be a very good example for the rest of the Muslim world?

Wouldn’t Turkish accession prove that the EU is a multicultural and diverse society rather than a so-called Christian club?

There is no doubt that a lot of people will be affected by these decisions. Unfortunately, the most affected is the secular and modern Turk who has so far advocated European values and democracy. Some of these Turks have already left, and many of them are considering leaving the country.

It is painful to feel that you are being abandoned by the people and the institution that you have most trusted and supported throughout your life.

Best from Singapore.

Sukru Haskan
Twitter: @sukru_haskan

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EU Migrant Agreement with Turkey

On 18 March,  European Union and Turkey decided to agree to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.

I personally believe this agreement is a hall of shame statement for not only for European Union, but also for Turkey.

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If  you are a regular reader of my blog, you would remember that I have written a short piece on insincere EU attitude towards Turkey for many years and this is now another seal on the subject.

The EU and Turkey agreed that:

1) All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as of 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey;

2) For every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled to the EU;

3) Turkey will take any necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes for irregular migration opening from Turkey to the EU;
4) Once irregular crossings between Turkey and the EU are ending or have been substantially reduced, a Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme will be activated;

5) The fulfilment of the visa liberalisation roadmap will be accelerated with a view to lifting the visa requirements for Turkish citizens at the latest by the end of June 2016. Turkey will take all the necessary steps to fulfil the remaining requirements;

6) The EU will, in close cooperation with Turkey, further speed up the disbursement of the initially allocated €3 billion under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey. Once these resources are about to be used in full, the EU will mobilise additional funding for the Facility up to an additional €3 billion to the end of 2018;

7) The EU and Turkey welcomed the ongoing work on the upgrading of the Customs Union.
8) The accession process will be re-energised, with Chapter 33 to be opened during the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the European Union and preparatory work on the opening of other chapters to continue at an accelerated pace;
9) The EU and Turkey will work to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria.

We are facing the largest involutarily human movement since the World War II and the “civilised countries” are failing to do whatever they need to.

Instead they are very busy with pushing the dirt under the rug.

EU should adopt a more viable and smarter approach towards Turkey rather than simply dangling carrots.

I am wondering what would be the Turkish stance when the visa liberalisation for Turks will be delayed for whatever reasons in the coming months.

I want to finish my article by a great quote by Larry Brilliant.

“Civilizations should be judged not by how they treat people closest to power, but rather how they treat those furthest from power – whether in race, religion, gender, wealth or class – as well as in time”

All the best.

Sukru Haskan
Twitter: @sukru_haskan

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War in Syria

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Cartoon is originally published by The Economist

The war in Syria has been going for some time now.

Imagine there were no refugee crisis: would this kind of large scale crisis have bothered the developed world then?

The refugee crisis diverted attention to Syria as refugees started flocking into European territory through Turkey, and all of a sudden Europe had to welcome millions of refugees.

One should look at the root of the Syrian problem by looking into history. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British and French ruled the Middle East for a short period of time between 1923 and 1946.

Syria—built on the multi-ethnic, multi-religious/sectarian and, more importantly, the ethnic and sectarian differences of the administrative structure—has complex internal dynamics controlled by the collapsing authoritarian structures, which has resulted in a drift towards chaos and disaster.

In other words, Syria is a made up country where a line was drawn in the sand by the French to show its borders.

Even after 1946, France controlled minority groups in the country while Russia always kept Syria at arm’s length to have direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. As a matter of fact, Basher Asad’s father Hafez al-Assad allowed the Soviet Union to open a naval military base in 1971.

Currently many different parties are fighting in Syria and using the country as a place to exercise their own government policy. In brief, here is each country’s agenda.

Russia wants to make sure that it continues to access the Mediterranean through Syria.

Israel does not want the regime to change to an Islamic government where its sovereignty could be threatened through Golan Heights, as Syria is a neighbour of Israel.

Iran wants to make sure that the Shia population continues to live in the region peacefully.

Turkey generally believes that the northern part of Syria belongs to Turkey and there is a fear of a Kurdish state being built there.

France wants to continue to enjoy some privileges and have cultural and economic influence over the country.

The USA has become more serious about Syria since Russia officially got into the game. As there are no really significant natural resources there, such as oil, the US had no interest in the country in the beginning.

Saudi Arabia is flexing its muscles against Iran. Bear in mind what is going on in Yemen right now.

We have the Iraqi example from recent history in the region. After the war, stability could not be secured in the country, and therefore the transformation process is still in progress with no real deadline.

Elected governments must always be respected in any part of the world. For this reason, a secure election is needed in Syria to bring about a transformation. I personally do not see transformation without Assad, as there is no real counterparty other than Assad.

Would you like to deal with Free Syrian Army, YPG, Daesh or someone else as a counterparty or at least a somehow elected government?

Russia is definitely a game changer in the Syrian issue. The country’s involvement has only made a complex issue even more complex. There are a lot of questions and answers to be agreed upon unless we can move towards a solution in Syria.

  • What should happen to Assad?
  • How can we create a path for the immigrants going back to Syria after the war?
  • Will some groups that are fighting in Syria today get some concessions after the war?

Syria is now exporting terror to the outside world—Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Europe. The issue has to be resolved sooner rather than later.

These questions are complex questions with no definite answers. Only time will show us the outcome, and I hope it will not be a shameful landmark for humanity.

All the best from Singapore,

Sukru Haskan
Twitter@ sukru_haskan

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