Archive for August 18, 2018

Hedging Bets: Turkey Courts Europe Amid Row With U.S. 

August 18, 2018

Source: Hedging Bets: Turkey Courts Europe Amid Row With U.S. – International news – Jerusalem Post

Turkish officials say they want to engage the EU and Erdogan held a phone called with German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week and met with French President Emmanuel Macron.

BY KRISTINA JOVANOVSKI/ THE MEDIA LINE
 AUGUST 18, 2018 16:25
Hedging Bets: Turkey Courts Europe Amid Row With U.S.

As Turkey retaliates against the United States in their ongoing dispute over the detention of an American pastor, Ankara is mending ties with the European Union in an attempt to limit the damage to its economy, analysts told The Media Line.

Turkey’s currency recovered slightly after the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan released various high-profile prisoners; this, after the lira plummeted to a new low last week when President Donald Trump increased tariffs on the import of Turkish aluminum and steel.

The head of Amnesty International’s Turkey branch, who was behind bars for over 14 months, was released on Wednesday. A day before, two Greek soldiers, who were detained in March after crossing into Turkish territory, were sent back to Greece.

Turkish officials say they want to engage the EU and Erdogan held a phone called with German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week and was to set to speak to French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday.

“I think that Turkey is so integrated into the global economic system that it has realized it cannot afford to have bad ties with both the United States and Europe,” Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, explained to The Media Line.

Cagaptay, author of The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey, said the release of the Greek soldiers was especially notable because Turkey, which has had rocky relations with Athens, would not have unilaterally made the one-sided move unless Erdogan felt it was crucial.

Indeed, the stakes are high for Turkey, as the country’s economic problems extend well beyond the current crisis with the US

The lira had already plunged over 20 percent this year before Erdogan was re-elected in June.

Last month, the central bank increased its 2018 estimated inflation rate from 8.4% to 13.4%.

The currency rebounded following the prisoners’ release, and following an announcement by Qatar, a strong Turkish ally, that it will invest $15 billion in Turkey’s economy.

The lira’s free-fall was likewise stemmed by the implementation by Turkey’s central bank of policies that make it more difficult to borrow money. Experts are concerned that the country’s economy is overheated and that businesses will have a harder time paying back massive debts.

The currency strengthened by over three percent against the dollar on Thursday before Turkey’s finance minister was set to hold a conference call with investors. However, it was still down 34 percent in 2018.

Turkey’s image abroad is especially crucial because much of its growth has been fueled by foreign credit. That makes its decreasing currency even more problematic because businesses will have to spend more in liras to pay back debts that were given in dollars or euros.

But while relations with the E.U. are improving, there are no signs so far that Turkey or the US are willing to back down.

Despite the release of the Greek soldiers and the Amnesty International chair, a court ruled on Wednesday to extend US pastor Andrew Brunson’s from house arrest.

On the same day, Turkey announced it would be increasing tariffs on some US imports.

Erdogan has also called for a boycott of US electronic products like iPhones.

The Turkish leader’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, wrote on Twitter, “We are fending off this economic coup attempt with the wisdom of the Turkish nation and the leadership of our president.”

The White House has said there could be more economic measures against Turkey if Brunson is not released. Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for over twenty years and led a small church in the southwestern coastal town of Izmir, was jailed for nearly two years following the failed 2016 coup. He is accused of having links to a group that Ankara says was behind the coup. The US says the charges are without merit.

On Wednesday, US Vice President Mike Pence tweeted, “Turkey would do well not to test [President Trump’s] resolve to see Americans who are wrongfully imprisoned in foreign lands returned home to the United States.”

Can Selcuki, an analyst with Istanbul Economics Research and former World Bank economist, believes that Erdogan could be forced to change course if the economic instability increases but, for now, has shown a clear unwillingness to make concessions to the US

“Despite the lira depreciation, he’s not backing down,” Selcuki told The Media Line. “I don’t know what the breaking point is.”

Elmira Bayrasli, who teaches international affairs with a focus on Turkey at Bard College, said that Erdogan is improving relations with Europe to increase confidence in the Turkish market.

She explained to The Media Line that Turkey’s economic growth under Erdogan was partly predicated on the fact that investors viewed him as a stabilizing force.

“The more he can show that he’s very interested in having relationships and he is the leader who can restore that stability, the better it’s going to be,” she concluded, By retaliating against the US, Bayrasli said that Turkey will give the perception that its cutting itself off from the largest economy in the world, which will be bad for Turkey’s financial markets and growing businesses.

However, it is not just Turkey that has something to lose in this crisis. The country is a vital NATO ally, bordering Syria and Iraq.

It makes Turkey both more susceptible to instability, as well as a geopolitically valuable.

The US used a military base in southeastern Turkey to launch air strikes against ISIS.

“I think the United States has a vastly huge interest in the stability and prosperity of Turkey,” Bayrasli said.

“Both sides need to climb down from their blustery rhetoric.”

Iranian-Backed ‘Sleeper Cell’ Militants Hibernating in U.S., Positioned for Attack

August 18, 2018

Source: Iranian-Backed ‘Sleeper Cell’ Militants Hibernating in U.S., Positioned for Attack

Iranian militants poised to attack U.S. homeland

Members of Hezbollah

Members of Hezbollah / Getty Images

BY: 

Iranian-backed militants are operating across the United States mostly unfettered, raising concerns in Congress and among regional experts that these “sleeper cell” agents are poised to launch a large-scale attack on the American homeland, according to testimony before lawmakers.

Iranian agents tied to the terror group Hezbollah have already been discovered in the United States plotting attacks, giving rise to fears that Tehran could order a strike inside America should tensions between the Trump administration and Islamic Republic reach a boiling point.

Intelligence officials and former White House officials confirmed to Congress on Tuesday that such an attack is not only plausible, but relatively easy for Iran to carry out at a time when the Trump administration is considering abandoning the landmark nuclear deal and reapplying sanctions on Tehran.

There is mounting evidence that Iran poses “a direct threat to the homeland,” according to Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee and chair of its subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence.

A chief concern is “Iranian support for Hezbollah, which is active in the Middle East, Latin America, and here in the U.S., where Hezbollah operatives have been arrested for activities conducted in our own country,” King said, referring the recent arrest of two individuals plotting terror attacks in New York City and Michigan.

“Both individuals received significant weapons training from Hezbollah,” King said. “It is clear Hezbollah has the will and capability.”

After more than a decade of receiving intelligence briefs, King said he has concluded that “Hezbollah is probably the most experienced and professional terrorist organization in the world,” even more so than ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Asked if Iran could use Hezbollah to conduct strikes on the United States, a panel of experts including intelligence officials and former White House insiders responded in the affirmative.

“They are as good or better at explosive devices than ISIS, they are better at assassinations and developing assassination cells,” said Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer who worked to counter Iranian influence in the region. “They’re better at targeting, better at looking at things,” and they can outsource attacks to Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah is smart,” Pregent said. “They’re very good at keeping their communications secure, keeping their operational security secure, and, again, from a high profile attack perspective, they’d be good at improvised explosive devices.”

Others testifying before Congress agreed with this assessment.

“The answer is absolutely. We do face a threat,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has long tracked Iran’s militant efforts. “Their networks are present in the Untied States.”

Iran is believed to have an auxiliary fighting force or around 200,000 militants spread across the Middle East, according to Nader Uskowi, a onetime policy adviser to U.S. Central Command and current visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

At least 50 to 60 thousand of these militants are “battle tested” in Syria and elsewhere.

“It doesn’t take many of them to penetrate this country and be a major threat,” Uskowi said. “They can pose a major threat to our homeland.”

While Iran is currently more motivated to use its proxies such as Hezbollah regionally for attacks against Israel or U.S. forces, “those sleeper cells” positioned in the United States could be used to orchestrate an attack, according to Brian Katulis, a former member of the White House National Security Council under President Bill Clinton.

“The potential is there, but the movement’s center of focus is in the region,” said Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Among the most pressing threats to the U.S. homeland is Hezbollah’s deep penetration throughout Latin America, where it finances its terror activities by teaming up with drug cartels and crime syndicates.

“Iran’s proxy terror networks in Latin America are run by Tehran’s wholly owned Lebanese franchise Hezbollah,” according to Ottolenghi. “These networks are equal part crime and terror” and have the ability to provide funding and logistics to militant fighters.

“Their presence in Latin America must be viewed as a forward operating base against America’s interest in the region and the homeland itself,” he said.

These Hezbollah operatives exploit loopholes in the U.S. immigration system to enter America under the guise of legitimate business.

Operatives working for Hezbollah and Iran use the United States “as a staging ground for trade-based and real estate-based money laundering.” They “come in through the front door with a legitimate passport and a credible business cover story,” Ottolenghi said.

The matter is further complicated by Iran’s presence in Syria, where it has established not only operating bases, but also weapons factories that have fueled Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s war on Israel.

Iran’s development of advanced ballistic missile and rocket technology—which has continued virtually unimpeded since the nuclear deal was enacted—has benefitted terror groups such as Hezbollah.

“Iran is increasing Hezbollah’s capability to target Israel with more advanced and precision guided rockets and missiles,” according to Pregent. “These missiles are being developed in Syria under the protection of Syrian and Russian air defense networks.”

In Iraq, Iranian forces “have access to U.S. funds and equipment in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and Iraq’s Ministry of Interior,” Pregent said.

The Trump administration has offered tough talk on Iran, but failed to take adequate action to dismantle its terror networks across the Middle East, as well as in Latin American and the United States itself, according to CAP’s Katulis.

“The Trump administration has talked a good game and has had strong rhetoric, but I would categorize its approach vis-à-vis Iran as one of passive appeasement,” said Katulis. “We simply have not shown up in a meaningful way.”