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Where is the Saudi-Iran Relationship Heading?

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In trying to determine what the next stage for the Iran – Saudi relationship might be, one must first look at similar relations between other states to see if they might contain clues.

What do these other states share in common, what factors might be different, and how did these states approach these conflict areas in an effort to either mitigate the problems, eliminate them altogether, or to just simply accept that they exist and move forward peacefully? In reviewing which states could lend an insight into the Iran-Saudi conflict we must first identify some of the factors that contribute to the problem. The following are some of the sources of conflict that weigh into the relations between the two nations:

  • Religious sect differences
  • Desire for regional hegemony
  • History of armed conflict/invasion
  • Cultural differences
  • Presence of outside powers
  • Territorial disputes

Considering these factors, there are a number of state conflicts that qualifies in one or more of these categories. During the great colonization periods England, France, and Spain had numerous clashes over issues such as regional hegemony and territorial disputes. More recently we’ve seen clashes between Pakistan and India caused mainly by religious differences, Germany against other nations during the World Wars in its desire for global hegemony, as well as two Asian powerhouses (Japan and China) that center around a number of factors such as cultural differences, historical resentment, and territorial disputes. Of these conflicts, some evolved where the nations now work collectively on many fronts. Others continue with strained relationships marked by periods of armed conflict such as between Pakistan and India. And yet others exist still as an uneasy stalemate with periods of muscle-flexing and posturing but devoid of any real military confrontation.

Looking at the examples of England, France, Spain and ultimately Germany we see nations that have had long histories of armed conflict, resulting in clashes both on home soil as well as via proxies. This is very much like Iran and Saudi Arabia today. Yet now these European nations are almost completely at peace with one another and work in unison with one another to overcome regional issues covering economics, immigration, and security. How did these nations, once committed to the destruction of one another, overcome those obstacles to get to this point and could this hold relevance for Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Since the end of World War II the nations of Europe have enjoyed a long period of relative peace. One major factor working in these nations’ favor was, ironically, the existence of the Cold War and reliance on the United States for military protection. The existence of NATO helped keep the peace by keeping the Soviet Bloc out of Western Europe as well as limiting each individual country’s ability to pose a threat to its neighbors. Another major factor is certainly the deterrence factor of nuclear weapons. Both France and England possess nuclear capabilities so an outbreak of such warfare has the potential for dire consequences. Additionally, factors such as the new wealth these nations were unwilling to risk, democratic governments which were more accountable to the will of the people as opposed to an individual leader’s whims, and largely open borders that led to more transcultural understanding across all of Europe, all contributed to greater peace and less tension.

In Pakistan and India we see two regional powers that are largely at odds due to their religious and territorial differences, just as in the Iranian-Saudi conflict. Since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the two countries have engaged in numerous territorial, cultural and religious disputes, and as well as three instances of outright war. These disputes have mainly centered on the Kashmir region and again, like the case with Iran and Saudi Arabia, is the scene of local insurgents being used as proxies in the fight. Numerous periods of peace have occurred only to be broken by violent outbursts, such as the Mumbai terrorist attacks. A parallel can unfortunately be drawn to the mosque bombings inside Saudi Arabia, where they were ultimately attributed to Iranian-influenced groups inside Saudi territory.

In China and Japan we see regional powers with a long history of conflict that centers on their own desires for regional hegemony. What we also see that is similar to Iran and Saudi Arabia are factors such as territorial conflicts, economic conflict, the presence of US interests, and one nation claiming the cultural high road over the other. The presence of the United States in Japan and its deepening economic ties/interdependence with China helped to settle some of those military tensions, although they still do have areas of conflict over territorial claims. Economic transformation has basically shifted the tension from a once intensely military-based engagement to one more predicated on global positioning and diplomatic leverage. This is in fact a great positive sign of progress.

In 2006, after Prime Minister Abe assumed office in Japan, relations underwent a period of improvement as the two nations became more committed to high-level discussions. In an important symbolic gesture, Japan showed a willingness to admit and atone for some of its wartime atrocities against China. The two countries have also entered into joint ventures in oil and gas exploration, instead of competing for these resources inside disputed territorial areas. These two regional powers have grown to become two of the largest and most influential global economic powers. Their mutual economic interdependencies have provided a stable base upon which they are able to work on more productive overall relations. Economic collapse via war would be catastrophic to both nations so this interdependence has been a huge contributor in resolving differences.

At the moment the China-Japan case offers less hope for Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the present day one is hard-pressed to see economic opportunity building close interdependence between the two countries. The JCPOA accord may also end up only increasing tension over the short-term as Iran begins to gain greater global influence and establish more economic stability and prosperity for itself. This could engender a reflexive counter-balancing reaction from Saudi Arabia. Some would even argue it has already begun such economic strategies in the past two years by keeping the price of oil low. This is the opposite of what we have seen with China and Japan, where economic development on a global scale brought them closer together.

Analyzing these strategic conflicts shows that there are lessons to be learned that could lead Iran and Saudi Arabia along a path of conflict resolution. As is often the case, the devil is in the details. The presence and actions of a global superpower in the region (like the United States) can be an enabler of peace or an exacerbator of conflict. Trade and economic interdependence can break down prejudices and barriers and increase transcultural understanding, but that tends to be a slow process requiring patience from all parties involved. Communication and an element of trust, however, are essential across all of the conflict cases. If the opposing sides are unable to communicate, either through third parties or directly, then it becomes nearly impossible to develop the trust necessary to resolve issues. At the moment that still remains the biggest single obstacle between Iran and Saudi Arabia: a failure to communicate.

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Middle East

Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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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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Middle East

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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