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US plays Monopoly, Russia plays chess

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Americans see individual pieces of geopolitical real estate in isolation, like hotels on the Monopoly board, while the Russians look at the interaction of all their spheres of interest around the globe.

Syria is of no real strategic interest to Russia, nor to anyone else for that matter. It is a broken wreck of a country, with an irreparably damaged economy, without the energy, water, or food to maintain long-term economic viability. The multiethnic melange left in place by British and French cartographers after the First World War has broken down irreparably into a war of mutual extermination, whose only result can be depopulation or partition on the Yugoslav model.

Syria only has importance in so far as its crisis threatens to spill over into surrounding territories which have more strategic importance. As a Petri dish for jihadist movements, it threatens to become the training ground for a new generation of terrorists, serving the same role that Afghanistan did during the 1990s and 2000s.

As a testing ground for the use of weapons of mass destruction, it provides a diplomatic laboratory to gauge the response of world powers to atrocious actions with comparatively little risk to the participants. It is an incubator of national movements, in which, for example, the newfound freedom of action for the country’s 2 million Kurds constitutes a means of destabilizing Turkey and other countries with substantial Kurdish minorities. Most important, as the cockpit of confessional war between Sunnis and Shi’ite, Syria may become the springboard for a larger conflict engulfing Iraq and possibly other states in the region.

I do not know what Putin wants in Syria. I do not believe that at this point Russia’s president knows what he wants in Syria, either. A strong chess player engaging an inferior opponent will create complications without an immediate strategic objective, in order to provoke blunders from the other side and take opportunistic advantage. There are many things that Putin wants. But he wants one big thing above all, namely, the restoration of Russia’s great power status. Russia’s leading diplomatic role in Syria opens several options to further this goal.

As the world’s largest energy producer, Russia wants to enhance its leverage over Western Europe for which it is the principle energy supplier. It wants to influence the marketing of natural gas produced by Israel and other countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. It wants to make other energy producers in the region dependent on its good graces for the security of their energy exports. It wants to enhance its role as a supplier of military equipment, challenging the American F-35 and F-22 with the new Sukhoi T-50 stealth fighter among other things. It wants a free hand in dealing with terrorism among its Muslim minority in the Caucasus. And it wants to maintain influence in its so-called near abroad in Central Asia.

American commentators reacted with surprise and in some cases dismay to Russia’s emergence as the arbiter of the Syria crisis. In fact, Russia’s emerging role in the region was already evident when the chief of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar, flew to Moscow during the first week of August to meet with Putin. The Russians and Saudis announced that they would collaborate to stabilize the new military government in Egypt, in direct opposition to the Obama administration. In effect Russia offered to sell Egypt any weapons that the United States declined to sell, while Saudi Arabia offered to pay for them.

That was a diplomatic revolution without clear precedent. It is not only that the Russians have returned to Egypt 40 years after they were expelled in the context of the real world war; they have done so in tactical alliance with Saudi Arabia, historically Russia’s nemesis in the region.

Saudi Arabia has an urgent interest in stabilizing Egypt, and in suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi monarchy nightly views as a risk to its legitimacy. Saudi support for the Egyptian military against the Brotherhood is not surprising; what is most surprising is that the Saudi’s felt to involve Russia.

Although there are a number of obvious reasons for the Saudi’s and Russians to collaborate, for example controlling the jihadists in the Syrian opposition, we do not yet understand the full implications of their rapprochement. The Saudis leaked news that they had offered to buy $15 billion worth of Russian weapons in return for Russian help with Assad. Rumors of this kind should not be read at face value. They might be misdirection – but misdirection towards what?

Putin’s chessboard encompasses the globe. It includes such things as the security of energy exports from the Persian Gulf; the transmission of oil and gas through Central Asia; the market for Russian arms exports; energy negotiations now underway between Russia and China; the vulnerability of Europe’s energy supplies; and the internal stability of countries on or near Russia’s borders, including Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

For American analysts, most of this chessboard might as well be on the dark side of the moon. We see only what the Russians permit us to see. For example, Moscow first promised to provide Syria with the S-300 air defense system and then withdrew its offer. Saudi Arabia in early August let it be known that it was prepared to buy $15 billion of Russian weapons in return for considerations in Syria. A negotiation of some kind is underway, but we have no idea what kind of carrots and sticks might be involved.

What we may surmise is that Russia now has much greater capacity to influence events in the Middle East, including the security of energy resources, that it has at any time since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. For the time being, it is in Russia’s interest to keep its interlocutory guessing, and to enhance its future strategic options. Russia in effect has placed the burden of uncertainty on the rest of the world, especially upon major economies dependent on Persian Gulf energy exports.

President Obama evidently considers this arrangement beneficial to his own agenda. The president has no interest whatever in enhancing America’s strategic position in the world; his intent may be to diminish it, as Norman Podhoretz charged in the Wall Street Journal last week, and I argued five years ago. Obama is focused on his domestic agenda.

From that standpoint, handing over responsibility for the Syrian mess is a riskless exercise. American popular revulsion over foreign military intervention is so intense that the voters will welcome any measure that reduces American responsibility for foreign problems. Although the elite of the Democratic Party are liberal internationalists, Obama’s voting support has scant interest in Syria.

Public commentary on foreign policy is an exercise in frustration under the circumstances. Because America is a democracy, and substantial commitment of resources requires at least some degree of consensus, diplomacy was exceptionally transparent so long as America dominated the field. Think tanks, academia and the media served as a sounding board for any significant initiatives, so that important decisions were taken at least in part in the view of the public. That is no longer the case on Vladimir Putin’s chessboard. Russia will pursue a set of strategic trade-offs, but we in the West will not know what they are until well after the fact, if ever.

Further dimensions of complexity will arise from the eventual response of other prospective players, in particular China, but also including Japan. The self-shrinkage of America’s strategic position eliminates the constraint for Russia to choose a particular option. On the contrary, Russia can accumulate positional advantages to employ for particular strategic objectives at its leisure. And Putin will sit silent on his side of the chessboard and let the clock run against his opponent.

Putin may think that he is pre-empting a similar strategy on the part of the West. Fyodor Lukanov wrote on the AI Monitor website last March:

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.

Russia’s persistence on the Syrian issue is the product of this perception. The issue is not sympathy for Syria’s dictator, nor commercial interests, nor naval bases in Tartus. Moscow is certain that if continued crushing of secular authoritarian regimes is allowed because America and the West support “democracy”, it will lead to such destabilization that will overwhelm all, including Russia. It’s therefore necessary for Russia to resist, especially as the West and the United States themselves experience increasing doubts.

Russians typically assume that Americans think the way they do, gauging every move by the way it affects the overall position on the board. The notion that incompetence rather than conspiracy explains the vast majority of American actions is foreign to Russian thinking. Whatever the Russian leader thinks, though, he will keep to himself.

After 12 years of writing on foreign policy in this space, I have nothing more to say. The Obama administration has handed the strategic initiative to countries whose policy-making proceeds behind a wall of opacity. Robert Frost’s words come to mind:

As for the evil tidings
Belshazzar’s overthrow
Why hurry to tell Belshazzar
What he soon enough will know?

Or – as in Robin Williams’ old nightclub impression of then president Jimmy Carter addressing the nation on the eve of World War III: “That’s all, good night, you’re on your own.”

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Iran unveils new negotiation strategy

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Image source: Tehran Times

While the West is pressuring Iran for a return to the Vienna nuclear talks, the top Iranian diplomat unveiled a new strategy on the talks that could reset the whole negotiation process. 

The Iranian parliament held a closed meeting on Sunday at which Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian briefed the lawmakers on a variety of pressing issues including the situation around the stalled nuclear talks between Iran and world powers over reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The Iranian foreign ministry didn’t give any details about the session, but some lawmakers offered an important glimpse into the assessment Abdollahian gave to the parliament.

According to these lawmakers, the Iranian foreign ministry addressed many issues ranging from tensions with Azerbaijan to the latest developments in Iranian-Western relations especially with regard to the JCPOA. 

On Azerbaijan, Abdollahian has warned Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev against falling into the trap set by Israel, according to Alireza Salimi, a member of the Iranian Parliament’s presiding board who attended the meeting. Salimi also said that the Iranian foreign minister urged Aliyev to not implicate himself in the “Americans’ complexed scheme.”

In addition to Azerbaijan, Abdollahian also addressed the current state of play between Iran and the West regarding the JCPOA.

“Regarding the nuclear talks, the foreign minister explicitly stated that the policy of the Islamic Republic is action for action, and that the Americans must show goodwill and honesty,” Salimi told Fars News on Sunday.

The remarks were in line with Iran’s oft-repeated stance on the JCPOA negotiations. What’s new is that the foreign minister determined Iran’s agenda for talks after they resume. 

Salimi quoted Abdollahian as underlining that the United States “must certainly take serious action before the negotiations.”

In addition, the Iranian foreign minister said that Tehran intends to negotiate over what happened since former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA, not other issues. 

By expanding the scope of negotiations, Abdollahian is highly likely to strike a raw nerve in the West. His emphasis on the need to address the developments ensuing the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 could signal that the new government of President Ayatollah Seyed Ebrahim Raisi is not going to pick up where the previous government left. 

This has been a major concern in European diplomatic circles in the wake of the change of administrations in Iran. In fact, the Europeans and the Biden administration have been, and continue to be, worried about two things in the aftermath of Ayatollah Raisi taking the reins in Tehran; one is he refusing to accept the progress made during six rounds of talks under his predecessor Hassan Rouhani. Second, the possibility that the new government of Ayatollah Raisi would refuse to return to Vienna within a certain period of time. 

With Abdollahian speaking of negotiation over developments since Trump’s withdrawal, it seems that the Europeans will have to pray that their concerns would not come true. 

Of course, the Iranian foreign ministry has not yet announced that how it would deal with a resumed negotiation. But the European are obviously concerned. Before his recent visit to Tehran to encourage it into returning to Vienna, Deputy Director of the EU Action Service Enrique Mora underlined the need to prick up talks where they left in June, when the last round of nuclear talks was concluded with no agreement. 

“Travelling to Tehran where I will meet my counterpart at a critical point in time. As coordinator of the JCPOA, I will raise the urgency to resume #JCPOA negotiations in Vienna. Crucial to pick up talks from where we left last June to continue diplomatic work,” Mora said on Twitter. 

Mora failed to obtain a solid commitment from his interlocutors in Tehran on a specific date to resume the Vienna talk, though Iran told him that it will continue talks with the European Union in the next two weeks. 

Source: Tehran Times

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Shaping US Middle East policy amidst failing states, failed democratization and increased activism

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The future of US engagement in the Middle East hangs in the balance.

Two decades of forever war in Afghanistan and continued military engagement in Iraq and elsewhere in the region have prompted debate about what constitutes a US interest in the Middle East. China, and to a lesser degree Russia, loom large in the debate as America’s foremost strategic and geopolitical challenges.

Questions about US interests have also sparked discussion about whether the United States can best achieve its objectives by continued focus on security and military options or whether a greater emphasis on political, diplomatic, economic, and civil society tools may be a more productive approach.

The debate is coloured by a pendulum that swings from one extreme to the other. President Joe Biden has disavowed the notion of nation-building that increasingly framed the United States’ post-9/11 intervention in Afghanistan.

There is no doubt that the top-down nation-building approach in Afghanistan was not the way to go about things. It rested on policymaking that was informed by misleading and deceitful reporting by US military and political authorities and enabled a corrupt environment for both Afghans and Americans.

The lesson from Afghanistan may be that nation-building (to use a term that has become tainted for lack of a better word) has to be a process that is owned by the beneficiaries themselves while supported by external players from afar.

Potentially adopting that posture could help the Biden administration narrow the gap between its human rights rhetoric and its hard-nosed, less values-driven definition of US interests and foreign policy.

A cursory glance at recent headlines tells a tale of failed governance and policies, hollowed-out democracies that were fragile to begin with, legitimisation of brutality, fabrics of society being ripped apart, and an international community that grapples with how to pick up the pieces.

Boiled down to its essence, the story is the same whether it’s how to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan without recognising or empowering the Taliban or efforts to halt Lebanon’s economic and social collapse and descent into renewed chaos and civil war without throwing a lifeline to a discredited and corrupt elite.

Attempts to tackle immediate problems in Lebanon and Afghanistan by working through NGOs might be a viable bottom-up approach to the discredited top-down method.

If successful, it could provide a way of strengthening the voice of recent mass protests in Lebanon and Iraq that transcended the sectarianism that underlies their failed and flawed political structures. It would also give them ownership of efforts to build more open, pluralistic, and cohesive societies, a demand that framed the protests. Finally, it could also allow democracy to regain ground lost by failing to provide tangible progress.

This week’s sectarian fighting along the Green Line that separated Christian East from the Muslim West in Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war highlighted the risk of those voices being drowned out.

Yet, they reverberated loud and clear in the results of recent Iraqi parliamentary elections, even if a majority of eligible voters refrained from going to the polls.

We never got the democracy we were promised, and were instead left with a grossly incompetent, highly corrupt and hyper-violent monster masquerading as a democracy and traumatising a generation,” commented Iraqi Middle East counterterrorism and security scholar Tallha Abdulrazaq who voted only once in his life in Iraq. That was in the first election held in 2005 after the 2003 US invasion. “I have not voted in another Iraqi election since.”

Mr. Abdulrazaq’s disappointment is part and parcel of the larger issues of nation-building, democracy promotion and provision of humanitarian aid that inevitably will shape the future US role in the Middle East in a world that is likely to be bi-or multi-polar.

Former US National Security Council and State Department official Martin Indyk argued in a recent essay adapted from a forthcoming book on Henry Kissinger’s Middle East diplomacy that the US policy should aim “to shape an American-supported regional order in which the United States is no longer the dominant player, even as it remains the most influential.”

Mr. Indyk reasoned that support for Israel and America’s Sunni Arab allies would be at the core of that policy. While in a world of realpolitik the United States may have few alternatives, the question is how alignment with autocracies and illiberal democracies would enable the United States to support a bottom-up process of social and political transition that goes beyond lip service.

That question is particularly relevant given that the Middle East is entering its second decade of defiance and dissent that demands answers to grievances that were not expressed in Mr. Kissinger’s time, at least not forcefully.

Mr. Kissinger was focused on regional balances of power and the legitimisation of a US-dominated order. “It was order, not peace, that Kissinger pursued because he believed that peace was neither an achievable nor even a desirable objective in the Middle East,” Mr. Indyk said, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Indyk noted that in Mr. Kissinger’s mind the rules of a US-dominated order “would be respected only if they provided a sufficient sense of justice to a sufficient number of states. It did not require the satisfaction of all grievances… ‘just an absence of the grievances that would motivate an effort to overthrow the order’.”

The popular Arab revolts of 2011 that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, even if their achievements were subsequently rolled back, and the mass protests of 2019 and 2020 that forced leaders of Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon to resign, but failed to fundamentally alter political and economic structures, are evidence that there is today a will to overthrow the order.

In his essay, Mr. Indyk acknowledges the fact that “across the region, people are crying out for accountable governments” but argues that “the United States cannot hope to meet those demands” even if “it cannot ignore them, either.”

Mr. Indyk may be right. Yet, the United States, with Middle East policy at an inflexion point, cannot ignore the fact that the failure to address popular grievances contributed significantly to the rise of violent Islamic militancy and ever more repressive and illiberal states in a region with a significant youth bulge that is no longer willing to remain passive and /or silent.

Pointing to the 600 Iraqi protesters that have been killed by security forces and pro-Iranian militias, Mr. Abdulrazaq noted in an earlier Al Jazeera op-ed that protesters were “adopting novel means of keeping their identities away from the prying eyes of security forces and powerful Shia militias” such as blockchain technology and decentralised virtual private networks.

“Unless they shoot down…internet-providing satellites, they will never be able to silence our hopes for democracy and accountability again. That is our dream,” Mr. Abdulrazzaq quoted Srinivas Baride, the chief technology officer of a decentralised virtual network favoured by Iraqi protesters, as saying.

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Safar Barlek of the 21st Century: Erdogan the New Caliph

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Since the American’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, it became clear that everyone is holding his breath. That is exactly what Recep Tayyip Erdogan is doing these days. Ten years have passed since his war on Syria; however, he has, so far, reached zero accomplishments towards his 2023 dreams. As a matter of fact, Erdogan is in the worst position ever. His dream of becoming the new Ottoman Caliph began to fade away.

If we want to understand what is going on in his mind, it is crucial to follow Gas and Oil pipelines: He actively participated in the war on Syria because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refused to betray his Russian and Iranian friends by allowing the Qatari gas pipelines to pass through Syria then Turkey to reach Europe. Such a step would have empowered Turkey, opened a wide door for it to enter the gas trade industry, and would become the American’s firmed grip around the Iranian and Russian necks. 

He saw the opportunity getting closer as the war on Syria was announced. He imagined himself as the main player with the two strongest powers globally: the U.S. and Europe. Hence, his chance to fulfil the 1940s Turkish- American plan to occupy northern Syria, mainly Aleppo and Idlib, where he could continue all the way to al-Mussel in Iraq, during the chaos of the futile war on ISIS seemed to be reachable. By reaching his aim, Erdogan will be able to open a corridor for the Qatari gas pipelines and realize the dream of retrieving the legacy of the old Turkish Petroleum Company, which was seized to exist after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1925. 

Consequently, Erdogan announced his desire to establish a 15 km deep buffer zone along the Syrian borders and inside the Syrian territory. This is in fact, an occupation declaration, which will definitely enable him to reach the Syrian oil and gas fields. He even tried to offer the Russians a compromise that he would like to share managing these fields with them after Donald Trump’s announcement of withdrawing the American troops from Syria in 2018. 

It was clear since the year 2019, after attacking the Kurds in east-north Syria, that he has lost the Americans and European support in the region. Especially after inking the Russian missiles S400 deal against the American’s will. Then he supported Azerbaijan against Armenia, threatening both Iranian and Russian security. 

The situation was repelled with Iran when he recited a poem on the 11th of December 2020, which could have provoked the feelings of the Azeris and incited them to secede from Iran. On the 28th of February 2021, he even accused Iran of harboring the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. 

Now the situation is escalating again. A few days ago, the Iranian Army’s Ground Force launched the “Fatih Khyber” maneuvers in the northwest of the country near the border with Azerbaijan, with the participation of several Armored Brigade, 11th Artillery Group, Drones group, and 433rd Military Engineering Group, with the support of airborne helicopters. A major maneuver that indicates there is an escalation between Iran and Azerbaijan, which is taking place under Turkish auspices. The escalation is an attempt to threaten Iran’s security from the north.

When Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian nuclear scientist, was assassinated at the end of last year, the American newspaper New York Times described the deed as “the most brilliant work of the Mossad”. At that time, many resources revealed that the executors of the operation passed to Iran through Azerbaijan and were situated in Turkey for a while before moving. And now Iran has great concerns because of Azerbaijan hostess of active Israeli and American intelligence members. 

As Iran is going now to another stage of nuclear talks with G5+1, it is an opportunity for the American and Turkish interests to meet again, as Erdogan is pushing towards achieving a victory in the region, and the Americans are trying to create trouble to distract it. We know what the Americans want, but what matters here is what Erdogan wants. 

Erdogan wants to be a bigger participant in the Azeri oil industry. He wants to push Iran into aiding him to give him more space in the Syrian lands. He wants to be given a chance to save face and be granted some kind of victory in his “War on Syria”. It is his wars that he is leading in Libya, Sudan, the Mediterranean Sea, and now in Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. Erdogan was preparing himself to become the first of the new coming rein of the new Ottoman Sultanate in 2023. 

2023 is the date for two important occasions; the first is the Turkish presidential elections. And the second is the end of the Treaty of Lausanne 1923. Erdogan had high hopes that he would be able to accomplish a lot before the designated date. In involving Turkey in every trouble in the Arab country since the “Arab Spring” had begun. He has an agenda in each of them, from Syria to Libya, to the Mediterranean Sea, to where he seeks to preserve the Turkish right for expansion. 

Erdogan believed in building double alliances between Russia and Iran from one side and the United States through Turkey’s presence in NATO from the other, he can manipulate everyone to achieve his goal in Syria and secure the Buffer Zone. He started a policy of Turkification in northern Syria, which is against international law in occupied regions and countries. In addition, as he is still politically maneuvering to reach this goal, he is becoming more like a bull chasing a red carpet. He is backstabbing everyone, even his allies in Nusra.

Erdogan, the paranoid, has used every possible method to rally aggregations against local governments and authorities in each country as he built his alliances. In Syria, he played on sectarian differences to rally Sunnis and, in particular, on Muslim Brotherhood groups to build alliances against the current Syrian government. He imported terrorists from al-Nusra, armed them, and ideologically manipulated terrorists from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and the Chinese Xinjiang, into fighting in Syria in the name of Islam against the Alawites “regime”. He represented himself as the protector of Sunnis. In order to justify bombarding the Kurds, he was playing on nationalistic feelings.

In Libya, he played on empowering the Muslim Brotherhoods against other atheist groups, as he rates them. He empowered the al-Wifaq government along with the Americans to pave the way to dividing Libya, where the dirty international game almost tore the country apart using terrorist groups financially backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, i.e. Qatar. 

In Lebanon, he presented himself as the protector of the injustice Sunnis. Turkish intelligence paid around four million dollars to regroup Sunnis in Said and Tripoli. The same thing was going on with Hamas in Palestine in the name of the freedom of the Palestinians and their fight against Israel. In the Arab countries, Erdogan worked hard to be designated as the new Muslim leader and was very careful not to be perceived as a Turk but as a Muslim. And now the same game is going in Azerbaijan. 

Erdogan’s interference in Azerbaijan does not fall out of the American expected Turkish role. A few days ago, a congress member praised the important role Turkey is playing within NATO. It is not a language of reconciliation; it is a language of playing on Erdogan’s ego. Therefore, it is only fair to question the Turkish role in Azerbaijan, in particular to the relation between the two mentioned countries and Israel. 

Iran has been dealing with the two countries with tolerance, as neighboring countries, particularly Turkey, who is playing in this case on the nationalistic feelings of the Azeris in Iran to start trouble, in the least expression. It is clear, if the situation escalates with Azerbaijan, Iran would be walking through land mines. Therefore, it needs to be carefully leading its diplomatic negotiations. On the other hand, Iran knows, but it needs to acknowledge that as long as Turkey occupies one meter in northern Syrian, the region will never know peace and security. The first step to get the Americans out of Iraq and Syria will be to cut Erdogan’s feet in Syria, once and for all. 

In leading his quest for victory, Erdogan moved the terrorist around the region. Now he is filling Azerbaijan with these mercenary terrorists from the Arab region and center of Asia, just like the Ottoman when they dragged the compulsorily recruited soldiers from their villages and houses from all over the Arab countries to fight their war in the Baltic region. A dream that needs to put an end to it. The Syrians believe that it ends with ending the Turkish occupation in Idlib. However, it is important that their friends believe that too.

*The Safar Barlek was the mobilization effected by the late Ottoman Empire during the Second Balkan War of 1913 and World War I from 1914 to 1918, which involved the forced conscription of Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, and Kurdish men to fight on its behalf.

From our partner Tehran Times

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