25 August 2016

ISIS Creation Myth Revisited

As my long time readers will remember, I have always maintained that ISIS was an artificial monster put together by Qatar (and Saudi Arabia) to create a Sunni heartland out of the broken pieces of Iraq and Syria with a mission to allow Qatari pipeline to take its natural gas to Europe.

A country I baptized Pipelineistan, borrowing a term coined by Pepe Escobar.

I have also been unwavering in my belief that Saddam's officers played a critical role in its creation.

I was one of the first voices on the Internet to mention Izzat Ibrahim al Douri and his Naqshbandi Army (JRTN). He used to be the Vice-Chairman of Saddam's Chief of General Staff and, after the invasion of Iraq, he was the only one who managed to elude coalition forces.

In due time, he formed and commanded the Naqshibandi Army, a formidable force that enabled ISIS to reproduce the myth that they invaded Mosul, a city of two million people, with only 800 black-clad scary fighters.

And no mainstream media outlet has ever questioned the absurdity of that claim.

The heavy lifting was done by the Naqshbandi Army and al-Douri pulled them away just in time for ISIS' photo op for the media. And everyone lapped it up.

I also mentioned Haji Bakr, a.k.a. Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a colonel in Jihaz Al-Mukhabarat al Amma or Iraqi Intelligence Service, who was Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's chief deputy until his demise in 2014.

That is him on the left in his colonel uniform.

There was a long expose about him and his role in recruiting Baghdadi in 2010 as the face of a new organization in Der Spiegel.

The article included his notes about how to structure ISIS, and, surprise, surprise, they were along Mukhabarat lines.
From the very beginning, the plan was to have the intelligence services operate in parallel, even at the provincial level. A general intelligence department reported to the "security emir" for a region, who was in charge of deputy-emirs for individual districts. A head of secret spy cells and an "intelligence service and information manager" for the district reported to each of these deputy-emirs. The spy cells at the local level reported to the district emir's deputy. The goal was to have everyone keeping an eye on everyone else.
It also included a detailed blueprint about how to take over small towns through a series of well-designed tactics.

Once his identity and role became public some analysts claimed that, by that time, Haji Bakr was no longer a Baathist but a later convert who genuinely believed in the Jihad. Well, something important was missing from the personal possession of the deputy emir of the most Salafist organization in history.
When the men later learned who they had killed, they searched the house, gathering up computers, passports, mobile phone SIM cards, a GPS device and, most importantly, papers. They didn't find a Koran anywhere. [my emphasis]
Clearly, Haji Bakr and a small number of Baathist officials were on the lookout for a Jihadi organization they could take over and use to regain power.
In 2010, Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir and later "caliph," the official leader of the Islamic State. They reasoned that Baghdadi, an educated cleric, would give the group a religious face.

Bakr was "a nationalist, not an Islamist," says Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi, as he recalls the former career officer, who was stationed with Hashimi's cousin at the Habbaniya Air Base.
There is one more intriguing element in Haji Bakr's story. Lately, mainstream media has been claiming that Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a thug with anger management issues, was the evil mastermind behind the creation of ISIS. The problem with that theory is that Zarqawi, a Jordanian by the way, was killed in 20006 and never met Baghdadi when he was alive.

But do you know who he met? Haji Bakr.
Bakr went underground and met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Anbar Province in western Iraq.
Despite all this evidence, you probably never heard of Izzat al-Douri or Samir al-Khiflawi, a.k.a. Haji Bakr. It makes a much better copy if you have a scary and shadowy Jihadi organization with amazing military prowess and extraordinary expansion powers.

A week ago, an important piece was posted on Foreign Policy's website. And they followed it up with two more on the same subject.

I highly recommend the series as it provides a firsthand account of a critical transition in ISIS' history. It tells the story of how ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) first became ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham) in 2011 and emerged as IS (Islamic State) in 2013 by taking over most of the Jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria.

In 2011, a Jihadi named Abu Ahmad, witnessed a week-long meeting in a northern Syrian town called Kafr Hamra. This is right after Osama bin Laden was taken out.

The meeting was called by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the then ISIL and was attended by the Emirs of Jihadi groups in the region, including Abu Ahmad's Emir Abu al-Atheer, and Omar al-Sishani, the infamous Chechen commander born as Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili to a Christian Georgian family.

Abu al-Atheer is the guy in circle and next to him is Omar al-Sishani. They are both dead now.

There were two senior representatives of Al Nusra Front as well. But apparently, their emir al-Julani was absent.

From our perspective, there are two interesting bits in that story.

The first one is how Baghdadi maneuvered to push al Qaeda into the dustbin of history and managed to replace the late Osama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri as the baddest Jihadi leader in the world.

All he had to do apparently, was to sip his Pepsi and announce calmly that Zawahiri asked him to tell everyone in attendance to pledge their allegiance to him because he was going to become the new Caliph.

Bewildered, the emirs in the room wondered if he could corroborate that? He and his deputy, Haji Bakr said, well, if you don't believe us, ask him.

It was a boldface lie because they knew that, in the aftermath of bin Laden's death, there was no way to communicate with Zawahiri. He was in deep hiding.

So, the Jihadi leaders agreed to pledge allegiance to Baghdadi, provided that they get Zawahiri's confirmation in due course. By the time they could get an answer from Zawahiri, many months later, it was too late, Baghdadi was able to claim the allegiance of perhaps 80 percent of Syrian Jihadis.

In other words, ISIS and its leader got rid of the most formidable Islamist terrorist organization in the world with a simple but well-calculated lie, which took advantage of Bin Laden's recent demise. This does not strike me as a Salafist move, more like intelligence tradecraft.

The second interesting point was Baghdadi's and his deputy's insistence to form a dawla or state. The other well-groomed folks around the table were deeply skeptical of this idea.
Throughout its existence, al Qaeda had worked in the shadows as a nonstate actor. It did not openly control any territory, instead committing acts of violence from undisclosed locations. Remaining a clandestine organization had a huge advantage: It was very difficult for the enemy to find, attack, or destroy them. But by creating a state, the jihadi leaders argued during the meeting, it would be extremely easy for the enemy to find and attack them. A state with a defined territory and institutions was a sitting duck.
But Baghdadi was adamant.
Creating and running a state was of paramount importance to him. Up to this point, jihadis ran around without controlling their own territory. Baghdadi argued for borders, a citizenry, institutions, and a functioning bureaucracy.
Now, when you think about it, the Jihadis were right. The whole idea of being a terrorist is to terrorize other people in their territory. If you have one too, they will come and retaliate against you. There is absolutely no justification of having a territory unless that territory means something important.

In the meeting, Baghdadi justified it as a magnet for Muslims around the world. We now know that, out of 1.7 billion, fewer than 30 thousand accepted the call. We also know that, as predicted, it became a magnet for Russian and American bombs.

This is why I argued from the beginning that the only way to explain ISIS and its efforts to create a state is the massive revenues attached to Qatari pipeline. Nothing else makes sense.

To put it a tad simplistically, if Assad had said yes to that project, we might not have heard of Baghdadi.

Pipelineistan also explains the involvement of Saddam's officers. They were there to build and control a whole new state.
Alongside or within IS’ aim to devise a "pure" Islamic society is a Baathist plan to run a meticulously calculating state able to monopolize power, control territory and eradicate potential threats through brutality and terror. Baathist influences are evident in the nature of IS terror operations — extensive security and spy networks, hierarchical bureaucracies, battlefield tactics and elaborate financial and logistical networks — similar to those used by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his Baathist circles for 35 years in Iraq.
And also the presence of Baathists in senior positions within IS structure.
Baathist influence continued in ISIS and IS, even if the group's character changed over time. By late 2014, 18 of 19 members of the IS cabinet were Sunni Arab Iraqis with one Iraqi Turcoman, and included former Baathist military officers, former Baathist security officers or Sunni Arab tribes from western Iraq. High-level IS commanders also represent former high-ranking Baathist officers in Iraq as well as Syria.
If you want to believe that these previously atheist folks had converted en masse and became deeply pious, that is fine by me. In that case you can also believe that this is a seriously Salafist organization which is aiming to create a genuine Caliphate.

But either way, I have to tell you that this "genuine" Islamic State has run its course.

As Pipelineistan is no longer viable, ISIS is no longer needed.

It will linger on as a digital Caliphate and a terrorist organization, as it it too late to put the genie back into bottle.

But the state will soon disappear.

12 August 2016

I Love the Orange Man

The GOP is terrified of Donald Trump, as he is exposing their big secret.

A few months ago, I wrote extensively about Nixon's Southern Strategy and how the dog whistle he invented has been useful for the Republican Party. In American politics, dog whistle refers to messages whose racist and sexist undertones can only be heard by the party faithful.

You know, Willie Horton.

Ostensibly it was about furlough policy, but to the GOP voters it was a confirmation of their belief that most African Americans are violent criminals.

The beauty of thinly veiled racism is that when someone objects to it and this is reported, all GOP politicians have to do is to scream about liberal bias in the media. The bias is rubbish of course, but they repeated it so often that everyone believes it. Including the journalists.

This way, they stoke their racist constituencies and get them to vote in greater numbers. At the same time, they shut up any potential criticism of their institutionalized racism and sexism.

This is what Trump has been doing, except he is not using dog whistle. Everyone knows what he says and what he means. It is out in the open.

This is how he outdid all his rivals during the primaries. They were all as bigoted as The Donald, if not more, but they continued to hide behind images and vague references.

Not the Orange Man.

If they talked about the dangers of, wink-wink, nudge-nudge "Islamist terrorism," he called all Muslims terrorists, offered to block the entry of all people of that faith and to register and put under surveillance those already inside.

If they mentioned illegal immigration, he called all Mexicans in America killers, rapists and criminals and suggested to kick them all out and build a wall to prevent them ever coming back.

There are literally hundreds of examples. Which brings me to the contract he put out on Hillary Clinton a couple of days ago.

The GOP has been attacking Hillary Clinton with every imaginable crime, including murder, theft, and corruption. Whitewater took a full decade of relentless investigation to only find a stained blue dress. But their conclusion was not that there was no crime but rather, as a super villain, she covered up her crimes too well.

The latest is the Republican Congress' obsession with the Benghazi incident. The investigated it many times and despite their best efforts they came up with nothing. Yet, throughout their Convention they chanted "lock her up" on every occasion.

But The Donald outdid them again.

He sais this a couple of days ago
 "Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks.

"But the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know." 
It is crystal clear that he is not talking about voting. It is a contract. Shoot her, he says.

And I am sure there are literally millions of right wing nut cases who would kill her gleefully if they thought they could get away with it.

The party establishment is mortified. They are fine with the sentiment, they don't want it said out loud.  Here is an example how they normally proceed.

A retired navy captain who support Trump said this about the Gold Star family incident:
“He should have kept his mouth shut, and the Democratic Party should not have stood Mr. Khan up and let him do that,” Mr. Farnan said. Of Mr. Trump’s reaction, Mr. Farnan said: “I’d have much more appreciated it if he just said, ‘We’re thankful for your son’s service. We’re thankful for you as parents for raising him and bringing him to our country, and that’s wonderful.’”
Think about it for a second. He is not saying Trump was wrong. In fact, the only culprit is the Democratic Party for giving those unsavory Muslims a platform. No, it was just that Trump should have kept his mouth shut and should never have said what he and the rest of the Republicans were thinking.

That was the Republican way and this is what Trump altered completely.

What is worse for the leadership is the fact that he says all these outrageous things and no one is turning away. Far from it, he cruised through the primaries and destroyed well funded rivals with great name recognition like Jeb Bush. His rallies attract tens of thousands of people. And in May, when he finally started fund raising in earnest, in one month he raised $51 million. Tellingly, 94 percent of that amount consisted of donations under $200.

Thanks to Trump's Tourette syndrome, everyone can see that, after decades of watching Fox News and listening to Rush Limbaugh and other wingnuts, the Republican electorate is largely an angry, ignorant, racist and sexist mob.

There is no hiding that fact anymore.

Do you want visual proof?

When the BBC reported the "shoot her" speech, they added a clip of a man, "who assumed a look of disbelief" they said.

Except, it is not a look of disapproval or dismayed shock. The man is surprised but he is not turned off. And the woman he looks at is laughing encouragingly.

It is at the beginning of the clip, go ahead and look at it yourself. That is the bearded man with gray hair on the right side of the screen. He is well aware that such notions are not to be stated this clearly. That is the disbelief part.

But he is clearly giddy. In case you don't feel like watching video, this is the freeze frame one second after "wow, did he just say that?" moment.

See the beaming expression.

They love the Orange Man.

And because of that, so do I.

Now everyone knows who the Republicans are.

07 August 2016

Turkey: What is Next?

If you read my previous post, you know that the botched coup was extraordinarily beneficial to Turkey's bombastic President Tayyip Erdogan.

You also know that, when it happened, he was already changing his strategy and he was about to introduce a radically different new approach.

Given his lightning speed in drawing up lists of people to eject and issuing countless edicts to re-structure the state apparatus, people assume that he must have been behind the coup. I have no idea who knew what beforehand but I think he was able to move this quickly because he was already preparing these sweeping changes.

The coup helped enormously by increasing his popularity and nullifying any attempt to question his measures. In the post coup hysteria, if you simply wonder how a coup that supposedly included nearly half of the generals and admirals of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) failed so spectacularly, you are immediately branded a traitor and a Gulenist.

And you end up losing your job or liberty or both.

If my hypothesis is correct and these changes were being planned in the months preceding the coup, the same changes should permit us to see what is next.

Pater Familias

In the short run, that is, in the next couple of months, Erdogan will take the necessary measures to solidify his hold on power. In fact, he may no longer need an executive presidency as he is already in that position. With a supremely malleable Prime Minister in place, why bother with a public debate on a constitutional amendment?

Mind you, he would handily win any referendum or get a two thirds majority in Parliament should he decide to pursue that option.

But is much more effective to say, look at me, the terrible Islamists that we all hate (now) wanted to kill me and my family just two weeks ago.

Moreover, as he no longer needs his polarizing rhetoric and aggressive posture, he can now re-brand himself as a benevolent "father of the nation" type of President.

To be sure, while the purge continues, he will likely keep his distance from HDP and its charismatic leader Demirtas. He may even try to get rid of him. It depends on how the whole process unfolds.

But once his power is consolidated and his pater familias image firmly in place, he will extend an olive branch to Turkey's Kurds and will start a new peace process.

And he will offer them goodies, like rebuilding their destroyed cities (by Gulenists, as we now conveniently learned) in an effort to convince them to support him instead of HDP.

Incidentally, this is not just part of the new benevolent Sultan discourse but also a strategic necessity. Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) lost a little over 45 percent of its senior officers (149 out of 325 generals and admirals) in the last two weeks. It is completely demoralized and humiliated after pictures of its soldiers beaten up by bearded Islamists. Its esprit de corps, something every army needs to function properly, is gone.

The coup attempt eroded the fundamental trust that should exist between those who give orders and those who execute them. Not to take sides, but a battle hardened guerrilla force like the PKK would run circles around such a demoralized and weakened military force.
For a country fighting militant Kurds affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in earnest, and at least pretending to fight the Islamic State, those are devastating losses.
These expulsions will also determine the future character of TSK.

A Turkish military analyst predicts a more Eurasian and less Atlanticist army in the future:
It is almost assured that the institutional identity of the TSK will be less Atlanticist but more of a Eurasian character. But the real tension will be the sustained and hard ideological debates between strong secularists who want TSK's return to its factory settings and those who advocate more Islamization.
This might have important repercussions for Turkey's membership in NATO, especially if the government is planning to form alliances with other Eurasian powers.

A New Axis of Evil?

Where is David Frum when you need him?

I think the moves before and after the coup indicate that Erdogan will align himself with Putin.

Before the jet downing incident, they were great buddies and rumored to have been business partners through third parties.

They are both viewed with suspicion and hostility by the US and EU.

Putin annexed Crimea and is threatening to grab a sizable chunk of Ukraine. He singlehandedly changed the course of the Syrian civil war and left the US and the region's Sunni powers to play defense. He proved that he can strike rapidly and create military buildups in no time, seriously worrying NATO commanders.  His foreign policy is confrontational and he plays hardball on all issues.

For his part, Erdogan blackmailed the Europeans by pushing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to their gates. As Turkey's prospects of EU adhesion are practically nil the EU has no leverage. He enraged Obama with his support to ISIS and his veiled threats to close off Incirlik airbase. Recently, there have been many, many, many calls to expel Turkey from NATO. Or at least remove the nuclear bombs from the base.

While such an expulsion is rather unlikely, the reaction shows that, from the Western perspective, Putin and Erdogan are two peas in a pod.

Secondly, a confluence of events has just made their alliance mutually desirable.

As I explained previously, Erdogan realized that he was outmaneuvered by Putin in Syria and had no choice but to dump the Sunni alliance and its massive ISIS-led Pipelineistan project. And he knew that he needed an alternative, like Russia's Turkish Stream.

Coincidentally, Putin's Baltic Stream 2 project that would link Gazprom's natural gas to Germany is running into difficulties with the EU. Poland has just announced that it is seriously examining whether the proposed pipeline is against EU competition rules as it is likely to reinforce Moscow'a total domination of EU's energy market.
A decade ago, Russia enlisted former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to help it build a pipe across the Baltic from Russia to Germany, sidestepping Ukraine: Nord Stream. Then Russia tried to build another pipeline, “South Stream,” across the Black Sea from Russia to Bulgaria, also bypassing Ukraine, but that was quashed by the European Union in 2014. Then, Moscow invented the idea of a “Turkish Stream,” another proposed Black Sea pipe, one landing in Turkey, outside of Brussels’s reach. 
This project was shelved last year but now it is back on the front burner and it will give Putin another method of delivery should Baltic Stream 2 gets entangled in Brussels politics.

The Putin - Erdogan rapprochement and their shared Eurasia perspective will likely involve greater cooperation with Iran.

One of the signs that Erdogan's new playbook was in the offing was the recent change in Iran Turkey relations.

In March 2016 the then Prime Minister Davutoglu went to Tehran with five ministers and dozens of businesspeople. And he was greeted with fanfare.

Two weeks later Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif visited Turkey. And two weeks after that, it was Rouhani's turn to visit Erdogan.

In fact, in early July, Zvi Ba'rel writing in Ha'aretz wondered if the burgeoning  Turkey - Russia reconciliation wouldn't leave Turkey stuck between ISIS and Iran.

Well, not if Turkey was planning to dump ISIS and Pipelineistan.

As I noted in my previous post, Zarif and Rouhani were quick to offer their support to Erdogan on the night of the coup, whereas Saudi King waited two days for a phone call (and it took Obama four days). Clearly, everyone knew where Turkey was headed.

The coup was beneficial in that respect as well. Now, everyone is reporting that it was the Gulenists who sabotaged Turkey - Iran bilateral relations. And pious Sunni supporters of AKP who should have been alarmed by this new situation given the traditional hostility between these two sects are fine with it since it was allegedly opposed by Gulen.

So far, I mentioned how the coup was good for Erdogan and how it facilitated his new strategy.

But there are downsides to his new playbook and I believe he will be in trouble much sooner than this rosy picture suggests.

Erdogan has three serious problems.

Everyone is pointing to the massive bureaucratic expulsions with some mixture of awe and fear. What they forget is that purging is easy but finding replacements is much harder.

Finding Replacements

As I noted, the army is no longer the military force of a regional superpower. It "lost 87 of 198 army generals, 30 of 72 air force generals, 32 of 55 navy admirals, seven of 32 in the gendarmerie general command, and the only coast guard admiral."

The question is, how and where do you find officers to take over? What is ironic is that, contrary to government claims, Gulen supporters are mostly in the lower echelons of the army. As a very knowledgeable analyst noted:
At time of the attempted putsch, Gülenists already had an established presence in the military, even if they still accounted for only a minority of the officer corps as a whole. In addition, the Gülenist presence was pyramidical, with a considerably higher concentration in the lower ranks – particularly amongst officers who had been commissioned after the AKP came to power
Which means the government will either inadvertently promote quite a few Gulenists to senior positions or find replacements from outside the military. The only available source is the previously jailed Sledgehammer and Ergenekon officer pool. And they were targeted at the time for being staunchly secular Kemalists.

Heads, you get Gulenists who hate you with a passion, tails, you get Kemalists you persecuted who hate you with a passion.

Great choice.

The  replacement problem is even worse for the civilian bureaucracy, judiciary, police and school teachers. So far, over 60,000 people were expelled from their positions. Replacing them with AKP loyalists from vocational religious schools (known as Imam Hatip schools) is a recipe for disaster but this is what the government will do to ensure their loyalty.  As an observer put it:
Yet more damage is certain as less educated, miseducated, and uneducated AKP militants move into key government positions vacated by the dismissal or arrest of supposed Gulenists.
It's the Economy Stupid

The famed Anatolian Tigers who were behind the AKP's spectacular economic success are largely Gulenist. In the last few years, they were denied credit, subjected to long tax audits and prevented from bidding on state contracts. After the coup, there are reports of arrests and forcible closure of business. And Erdogan has just vowed to choke off Gulen-linked businesses.
Before the failed coup, the Turkish authorities had already seized Islamic lender Bank Asya, taken over or closed several media companies and detained businessmen on allegations of funding the cleric’s movement. (...) 
The chairman and several executives from Boydak Holding, a prominent family-run conglomerate with interests from furniture to energy, have also been detained, as has the chief of Turkey’s biggest petrochemicals firm Petkim.
In this new environment, foreign companies are reviewing their investment plans.
“Investment plans are being put on ice. Given the current emergency legislation new investment is not advisable,” said Anton Boerner, head of Germany’s BGA trade association, adding concern about Turkey’s credit ratings had also made investment more expensive.
Ominously, in recent months, a long list a large companies left the Turkish market. They include, Best Buy, Virgin Megastore, Printemps, River Island, Motivi, Promod, Uterque, Kenneth Cole, Habitat, La Senza, Tesco, C&A, Industrie Denim and most recently the German retailer Douglas.

There is a marked decline in foreign industrial companies operating in Turkey, as their numbers went down from 153 in 2009 to 125 in 2015.

The steady decline of exports since 2012 is continuing with the first quarter of 2016 showing a 8.4 percent decrease compared to the same quarter in 2015.

Erdogan's belligerent posture and accusations towards the US might lead rating agencies to downgrade Turkey's rating to junk status. Moody's refrained from doing so a few days ago but the future in uncertain and markets are already pricing Turkey's debt below its current rating.

ISIS Lurking

Finally, there is the possibility of renewed terror attacks by ISIS.

ISIS is now cornered. They outlived their usefulness and their future is bleak. Between Russian backed Syrian forces and US backed Kurdish militia, they have steadily lost ground in recent months. They lost their supply routes to Turkey and were kicked out of several towns they had occupied early in the hostilities.

If Russia and the US escalate their respective bombing missions in Syria, as the leader of the band of idiots formerly known as Al Nusra Front was afraid and if Erdogan facilitates their efforts, as I suspect, he might face a serious terror campaign by the thousands of ISIS militants currently in Turkey.

As you know, these folks think nothing of blowing themselves up. And from their last attempt at Istanbul airport, we know that they are quite capable of mounting bloody operations.

Besides finishing off the tourism sector for the foreseeable future, such a sustained campaign would destabilize the country and damage the economy.



Erdogan has just announced that he was backing the return of the death penalty. Since Merkel, Juncker and senior EU figures already warned him that this would stop Turkey's adhesion bid in no uncertain terms, this only means that Erdogan has no interest in EU membership.

When you combine this with his post-coup complicity accusations directed at the US, you can see that he is contemplating a Eurasian future for Turkey.

Even NATO membership may now be in play.

05 August 2016

Turkish Coup Attempt: The Bigger Picture

My first reaction to the botched coup in Turkey was to lament the inevitable power grab that was going to follow it.

And in the first week or so, President Erdogan, moving ever so swiftly, ordered the expulsion or arrest of tens of thousands of military officers, civilian bureaucrats, school teachers and judges and prosecutors. 142 newspapers or media outlets were closed and many journalists were incarcerated. And scores of schools and universities were shuttered.

Things looked bleak as Erdogan seemed on his way to becoming Dear Leader.

Then I started thinking about the big picture and it dawned on me that there was perhaps a different playbook than the obvious but facile Erdogan=Sultan equation and the sinister false flag conspiracy theories surrounding this event.

Here is my contrarian take.

But first a short background for those who are joining us late.

The Middle East Playbook

When I first started this blog over five years ago, my primary focus was to introduce the new American playbook for the region. I suggested that the US was aiming to stabilize the Middle East by solving the Palestinian and Kurdish problems.

After all, roughly 70 percent of the world's oil and natural gas was going through this region. And stabilizing and controlling this hub meant controlling the energy needs of rising powers like China and India and also placing a check on the transactions of oil and gas selling countries like Russia and Iran.

But after the Iraq debacle, they wanted to do this through regional actors and their soft power.

Enter Turkey.

Erdogan was on board in exchange for Turkey being the pipeline hub of the region, Turkey was a regional superpower and the AKP government had already improved relations with most of its neighbors, erasing unpleasant memories of the Ottoman Empire.

Moreover, as an economically successful and moderate Islamist regime, it provided a convincing alternative to Saudi style Salafism. Fethullah Gulen was the theological voice of this moderate Islam and his intelligent and highly educated followers became the technocratic cadres of the AKP government. It was a match made in heaven.

In 2009, Erdogan's well-timed and well-choreographed outbursts against Israel made him the darling of Arab masses overnight. He was on his way to becoming the leader of the Sunni Muslim world.

Shortly after that, Erdogan started a peace initiative with Turkey's Kurds and cultivated extensive economic ties with Northern Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government.

It looked like America's plan was on track.

Pipelineistan and the Birth of ISIS

However, sometimes in 2011, something went terribly wrong.

When approached by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to sign off on a natural gas pipeline, which was supposed to take Qatar's gas from its North Dome field to Europe through Turkey, Bashar al-Assad, with strong arm-twisting from Russia, who did not appreciate competition to Gazprom in that market, said no.

Worse still, he simultaneously agreed on an alternate gas pipeline that would take Iran's South Pars (the other side of Qatar's North Dome) natural gas to Europe through Iraq, Syria and the Mediterranean, bypassing Turkey completely. This pipeline was immediately nicknamed Shia Pipeline to underline its sectarian and supposedly anti-Sunni nature, and it proved to be a colossal mistake for Assad.

Immediately after the Shia Pipeline was announced, Erdogan made a spectacular U-turn and became an implacable enemy of Assad. Qatar and Saudi Arabia began to finance the Syrian uprising and Sunni militias to dismantle Iraq and Syria and create a Sunni heartland that I dubbed Pipelineistan. The first breakout group was the Al Nusra Front, which introduced the blueprint that was later adopted and perfected by ISIS, to establish itself as the foremost Salafist group there.

And when the Sheikh of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani proved too squeamish to move to the next level, he abdicated (which never happens willingly in the Middle East) and his son Tamim bin Hamad al Thani green-lighted ISIS takeover in late 2013.

As you can glean from my previous posts, ISIS appeared with $4 billion in the bank, a couple of movie studios, several software development units, deep social media presence and the most slick marketing apparatus since Goebbels. And their initial military apparatus was provided by the Naqshibandi Army established by Saddam's Baathist officers.

Not exactly your regular Salafist outfit.

Erdogan Off the Reservation

Erdogan quickly aligned with this Sunni project and began to provide material and logistical support to ISIS.

He also stopped the Kurdish peace initiative in Turkey and began to distance himself from the American playbook.

Knowing he was off the reservation, in December 2013, Gulenists in the police and judiciary leaked audio tapes of damning conversations establishing the corruption that is at the heart of Erdogan government. In the ensuing survival struggle, Erdogan became a free agent.

Erdogan's friendly relations with KRG continued but he became a staunch enemy of Syrian Kurds primarily because they were in the way: the proposed pipeline was to pass through Syrian Kurdistan known as Rojava and Erdogan simply would not allow it.

In fact, if Turkish Air Force did not shoot down a Russian fighter jet last November, I am convinced, Erdogan was getting ready to enter Syria to create a buffer zone, more like a corridor in Western Kurdistan. The strange downing incident made this all but impossible.

By mid-2016 Erdogan was completely isolated as he had alienated every major power in the world. He blackmailed European Union with refugees, he turned Putin into a foe, destroying the tourism sector and jeopardizing Turkey's exports and he angered the US by assisting ISIS and hampering coalition campaign against them.

Actually, the Obama administration was so sick of him using the Incirlik airbase as leverage, they quietly moved a large chunk of ISIS operations to Iraqi Kurdistan and there are reports that they are building five new bases in KRG territory.

Besides global powers, Erdogan managed to insult the Egyptian President, Israeli Prime Minister, Jordan's King Abdullah and practically everybody who is somebody in the Middle East.

At home, polarization was at break point, with him goading the opposition every day, suing anyone who contradicted his views and jailing journalist who dared to express a dissenting opinion. A civil war was raging in the Southeast. The economy was in tatters.

Then something very unexpected happened.

Erdogan, the combative and belligerent man who has always refused to apologize to anyone and for anything sent an abject letter of apology to Putin for the downing incident. Something he vowed he would never do.

Then, after years of anti-Semitic rhetoric about Israel, he declared that he was resuming diplomatic relations with the Jewish State.

In both instances, the announcement came with a singularly curious addendum. In the Russian case, the previously cancelled Turkish Stream natural gas project was back on, with Erdogan and Putin meeting in Moscow on 9 August to announce it.

And Israel proposed a natural gas pipeline that would carry the Southern Mediterranean natural gas through Turkey.

A week later, the botched coup happened.

A New Middle East Playbook Featuring Erdogan

When you look at this larger picture, you can see that the events before and after the coup represents a major break with the past playbook.

For one thing, the abrupt about-face and the subsequent rapprochement with Russia means the Qatar gas pipeline is no longer a viable project.  This is a sine qua non condition for Russia. It is what motivates their Syria policy and all their efforts to bolster Assad's government.

In that sense, I expect Turkey to re-align some of its foreign policy priorities according to Russian and Iranian perspectives.

Tellingly, regional actors seem to be quite aware of this distinct possibility: Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs Jawad Zarif was tweeting his country's support while to coup attempt was unfolding and President Rouhani called Erdogan right away to show his support. Whereas Turkey's Sunni ally Saudi Arabia congratulated him two full days after the attempt was suppressed.

If you take the Qatar deal off the table, you will make thorny issues like trying to destroy the Syrian Kurds and supporting ISIS pointless.

That means Erdogan could now work more closely not only with Russia but also the US in their fights against ISIS and other Salafist terror groups.

That is not all.

Around the time Erdogan approached Israel and Russia with an olive branch, his government began sending conciliatory signals to Egypt, the other Sunni power in the region.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim sent a conciliatory message to Egypt in a speech July 11, expressing Turkey’s desire to improve relations. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu raised the possibility of restoring commercial and economic ties and suggested holding a ministerial level meeting to reach a solution that serves the interests of both nations.
After years of heaping insult on Egyptian President Al-Sisi, it will take some time to fix that relationship but the about-face is remarkable.

Even more stunningly, two days before the coup, Turkish Prime Minister announced that he was ready to normalize ties with Syria.
Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on July 13 that his country wants to normalize ties with Syria. "I am sure that we will return (our) ties with Syria to normal. We need it", he said in a televised address. 
"It is our greatest and irrevocable goal: Developing good relations with Syria and Iraq, and all our neighbors that surround the Mediterranean and the Black Sea", Yildirim noted. 
This was so surprising that the day of the coup, the Economist ran a story entitled: "Turkey is suddenly making friends, not enemies."

Suddenly, indeed.

A Softer Approach in Turkey

In Turkey, Erdogan is now presenting himself as a caring and understanding leader who almost died at the hands of shadowy terrorists just two weeks ago. Gone the angry Dear Leader foaming at the mouth.

Let's just look at some of his steps after the coup attempt.

First, he told to Al Jazeera that he was shelving his executive presidency plans and Turkey was going to remain a parliamentary democracy.

Then, he withdrew his thousands of insult and lese majeste law suits.

And he postponed indefinitely the investigation of Members of Parliament whose legislative immunity had previously been lifted.

On July 24, AKP and the main opposition party CHP had a joint rally in Taksim Square, a venue that had been closed to opposition parties since the Gezi incidents in 2013.

The following day, Erdogan hosted the leaders of the opposition at his presidential palace.
On July 25, Erdogan invited CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and the chairman of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, to his palace to listen to their views on the coup attempt and its aftermath. He snubbed the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), but Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said later in the day the HDP was welcome to come on board in a joint parliamentary effort, agreed to with the CHP and the MHP, for several constitutional amendments.
Also "there are rumors that Demirtas could be invited to the president’s next meeting with party leaders."

[T]he Justice and Development Party (AKP) hung a giant portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on the facade of its headquarters in Ankara, which left many stunned, given the Turkish Islamists’ aversion for the man who abolished the caliphate and founded modern Turkey as a secular republic.
My Turkish friends were speechless.

The coup also gave Erdogan license to turn Fethullah Gulen into a perfect scapegoat.

The two pilots that downed the Russian plane, well, they were just arrested for being Gulenist and suddenly what happened in November is no longer the government's fault.

The civil war that claimed thousands of lives and destroyed several Kurdish cities in the Southeast, why, it was the nefarious work the Gulenist of course. The commander of the Second Army was one of the first to be arrested. Poor AKP government had no idea of what was going on in that region.

What about the pilots who bombed a Kurdish village in December 2011 (the Roboski incident) and killed 34 people? Until a week ago, the government blamed the victims and continually harassed them. Thanks to the coup attempt, they now know that the pilots who murdered those poor souls were Gulenist.

They are in custody and a new investigation is underway.

So the obvious question at this point is "What is next for Erdogan?"

That is the subject of my next post.