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Russia’s new Middle Eastern role

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Russia has thrown a monkey wrench into Western plans for Syria by promising to deliver its top-of-the-line S300 surface-to-air missile system to the Bashar al-Assad government. Exactly when the missiles might arrive remains unclear; the last word from Moscow is that the missiles are not yet in place, which means the matter is up for bargaining.

It is humiliating for the West to trip over a game-changing Russian technology nearly a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The larger scandal is that the West lacks countermeasures against the Russian system, the result of misguided defense priorities over the past dozen years. If the United States had spent a fraction of the resources it wasted in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan on anti-missile technology, Russia would lack the bargaining chip in the first place. That’s spilt milk, however, and the pressing question is: what should the West do now?

The questions to ask are:

1. Is Russia a rational actor?
2. If the answer to the first question is affirmative (as the overwhelming majority of analysts believe), what does it have to be rational about?
3. Can the United States do anything in the foreseeable future to change the present regime in Russia?
4. If the answer to the third question is affirmative, then what do we want to negotiate with Vladimir Putin?

The right way to go about this, I believe, is to draw a bright line between Russia’s opportunistic meddling in Middle Eastern affairs and existential issues for the Russian state. Much as we may dislike the way the Russians manage their affairs, it isn’t within the power of the West to change the character of the Russian regime.

What does Moscow want in the Middle East? It has taken a more active interest in the region’s malefactors of late. Jean Aziz of Al-Monitor argues that Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov’s April 28 meeting with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon marks a turn in Russia’s relationship with the Hezbollah. Russia’s new alliance-that seems to be the right word-with the Lebanese terrorist organization implies a Russian commitment to carving out a sphere of influence.

On the other hand, Russia does not seem to want a full-blown alliance with the Iranian regime and its Syrian satrap. Iran is present suing Russia for failing to deliver the promised S300 system at the same time that Russia claims that it is sending the same system to Syria. Russia’s refusal to honor its contract with Tehran is a signal that the Putin regime would not be heartbroken if someone were to obliterate Iran’s nuclear bomb-making capacity. Russia has no interest in helping a fanatical regime deploy nuclear weapons on its southern flank.

On the other hand, Russia’s support for the Assad regime is a fact of life. Russia may enjoy the paralysis of the West in the region and seek to embarrass the United States and its allies, but that is a secondary matter. It also may want to demonstrate to the world that it doesn’t abandon allies the way that the United States abandoned former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Again, that is a minor matter. Russia’s interest in the outcome of the Syrian civil war stems from two critical interests.

The lesser of these is the naval supply station at Tartus, which supports the expansion of Russia’s naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. The more important concern is Russia’s fear of the Sunni jihadists who dominate the rebel opposition.

Russia has been fighting a brutal war against jihadists in the northern Caucasus for 20 years, punctuated by some of the most horrendous terrorist acts ever perpetrated, including the 2004 slaughter of 380 hostages on North Ossetia, mainly small schoolchildren. The term “paranoid Russian” may be a pleonasm, but in this case Russia has a great deal to be paranoid about. Caucasus terrorism spilled over into the United States with the Boston marathon bombing.

“In Russia, most analysts, politicians and ordinary citizens believe in the unlimited might of America, and thus reject the notion that the US has made, and continues to make, mistakes in the [Middle East]. Instead, they assume it’s all a part of a complex plan to restructure the world and to spread global domination,” wrote Fyodor Lukyanov on the Al Monitor website March 19.

Lukyanov, who chairs Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, dismisses this sort of thinking as a “conspiracy theory”. But he is quite serious in his account of the Putin government’s frame of mind. The Russian elite really think that the United States is creating chaos in the Middle East as a matter of geopolitical intent. Lukyanov wrote:

From Russian leadership’s point of view, the Iraq War now looks like the beginning of the accelerated destruction of regional and global stability, undermining the last principles of sustainable world order. Everything that’s happened since – including flirting with Islamists during the Arab Spring, US policies in Libya and its current policies in Syria – serve as evidence of strategic insanity that has taken over the last remaining superpower.

It is impossible to persuade Vladimir Putin that the Middle East policies of the past two American administrations were merely stupid, because Putin doesn’t believe that stupid people rule great powers. All the stupid people he met are dead. From the Obama administration’s vantage point, chaos in the Middle East is a matter for hand-wringing by the likes of anti-genocide crusader Samantha Power, now the designated ambassador to the United Nations. From the Russian point of view, it is an existential threat.

The ethnic Russian population is declining, and Russia well may have a Muslim majority by mid-century. If chaos envelops the Muslim world on its southern border, it may spread to Russia via the northern Caucasus. During the Cold War, America supported jihadis in Afghanistan and elsewhere to make trouble for the Soviet Empire (and properly so, because the Soviet threat to American security outweighed any inconvenience the US might suffer at the hands of jihadists). Russia is convinced that America still intends to promote jihad in order to destabilize its old Cold War opponent.

How should America respond?

First, the US should back the partition of Syria into a Sunni majority state and an Alawite rump state in the northwestern quadrant of the country, where the Russian navy station happens to be located. The Kurds should get autonomy, just like their Iraqi compatriots.

Turkey will object vociferously because it would advance Kurdish independence, which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan views the way Captain Hook viewed the crocodile. Too bad for the Turks: someone has to lose here, and it might as well be they. Partition is the only way to stop the civil war and avoid mass murder in its wake. Total victory by either side would be followed by massacres. The most humane solution is a breakup on the precedent of the former Yugoslavia. Assad can remain in power in a rump state where the Alawites will be safe from Sunni reprisals, and the Russians can keep their fueling station. One wonders why the “responsibility to protect” crowd in Washington hasn’t considered that.

Second, the US should use its influence with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to clean out the nastier jihadist elements among Syria’s Sunni rebels. It should also make clear to the Russians that it will not interfere with their counter-terrorist operations in the Caucasus, grisly as these might be.

Third, the US should attack Iran and destroy its nuclear weapons capability and key Revolutionary Guard bases (and perhaps a few other things; various American flag officers have they own list of druthers).

Neutralizing Iran is the key: it eliminates the pipeline of support from Iran to Assad and various terrorist organizations, and reduces them to obnoxious but strategically unemployed local players.

Russia evidently has fewer objections to an American air strike on Iran than on Damascus. It has signaled this as clearly as it can by refusing to deliver the S300 system to the Iranian regime while promising to deliver it to the Syrian regime. The bad news is that we cannot extract Russia from the region; America has made too many blunders in the region to turn the clock back.

The good news is that the problems occasioned by Russia’s enhanced role can be localized and contained. Basher al-Assad and his Alawite army bottled up in a redoubt would be an annoyance, not a strategic threat. A Sunni regime with a Kurdish autonomy zone in the remainder of the country would be susceptible to Western pressure to purge the more dangerous jihadists.

In fact, Russia has fewer objections to an American attack on Iran’s nuclear program and foreign subversion capacity than does the Obama administration. It is painful to read American conservative Jeremiads against the resurgence of Russian influence in the Middle East, when few American conservatives openly propose a strike against Iran. They are afraid that voters don’t trust them with guns after the poor results of the Iraq and Afghanistan nation-building campaigns.

It is much easier to rally the troops by shouting “The Russians are coming!” than to point out that the Obama administration’s ideological aversion to using force against Iran is the core problem. In fact, Putin’s position is more amenable to America’s strategic requirements than Obama’s, counterintuitive as that might sound.

More broadly, the US should draw a bright line between areas of the world where it has inviolable interests and areas subject to bargaining. It was a supreme act of stupidity to abandon the deployment of anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic as the Obama administration did in September 2009. Russia didn’t like it, but Russia is not supposed to like it. Showing weakness to the Russians merely elicits contempt. The US should make clear that ties of culture and blood link the Poles and Czechs to the American people, and that we will stand behind them no matter what.

Ukraine is a different matter. Russians comprise half the population of Ukraine, and Russia cannot walk away from them, nor from the rest of the 22 million Russians left outside the Federation in the so-called near abroad after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

As I reported in a 2008 essay (Americans Play Monopoly, Russians Chess, Asia Times Online, August 19, 2008), “The desire of a few hundred thousand Abkhazians and South Ossetians to remain in the Russian Federation rather than Georgia may seem trivial, but Moscow is setting a precedent that will apply to tens of millions of prospective citizens of the Federation – most controversially in Ukraine.”

America has no strategic interest in Ukraine. Nine years after the so-called Orange Revolution, the pro-Moscow Party of the Regions remains firmly in charge. The opposition is tainted with an ugly strain of anti-Semitism, as Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the American Center of Democracy, reported May 30.

The nationalists whom Washington backed in the heady days after the invasion of Iraq are not exactly the good guys. What we have learned from a decade of bumbling is that Russia can have Ukraine if it wants it badly enough, and that we really don’t want it anyway. Except for Hungary, Ukraine has the lowest fertility rate of any country in Europe. Its strategic importance will deteriorate along with its demographics.

The proposals above are stopgap measures to limit damage in a deteriorating situation. If the US really want to get Russia’s attention, it needs to do precisely what Ronald Reagan and his team set out to do in 1981: convince the Russians that America would leapfrog them in military technology. That means aggressive funding of basic research on model of the old DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). If Putin is persuaded that his residual advantage in surface-to-air missile technology has reached its best-used-by-date, he will be far more flexible on a range of negotiating issues.

I am painfully aware that the political environment is not conducive to this approach. That does not change the fact that it is what needs to be done.

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Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

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