With a view to better understanding what might happen in the future between the Shi’ite Republic of Iran and the Wahhabi and Sunni stronghold represented by Saudi Arabia, we need to examine a wide range of geoeconomic, political, ideological, strategic and military data and conditions.
Both geopolitical players, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia, may appear irrational to Western observers and decision-makers, but they are used to analyze their strategic equation down to the smallest detail.
Firstly, let us analyze the issue of oil prices and their geopolitical significance.
In principle, the oil price per barrel at around or below 30 US dollars should increase slowly, although Saudi Arabia has oriented and directed the rest of OPEC Sunni countries towards temporary overproduction, so as to further lower prices and damage Iran. And damage Russia, as well – a small simultaneous favor to the American friends which, however, is a very ambiguous token of friendship: at a price below 30 US dollars/barrel, the US shale oil is totally uneconomical and many US shale oil companies (reportedly 40%) are already on the verge of bankruptcy.
But none of OPEC members, let alone the US shale oil industry can go on – for a long period of time – with this pace of plant over-pumping, which reduces the life cycle of wells and leads to huge costs for crude oil storage, in a situation of low economic growth of oil consumers.
The United States have accepted this policy only to damage the Russian Federation, which has an economy still linked to the oil system.
If we look at data and statistics, in recent months Saudi Arabia has reached an extraction record level: 10.24 million barrels/day. And the more the economic crisis worsens, the more Saudi Arabia will be interested in pumping at full blast, so as to have the immediate cash and liquidity it needs.
Even Iraq, Kuwait and, oddly enough, Libya have increased the pace of their daily extractions. Apart from Iraq where oil is in Kurdish areas, they are the new region of Saudi hegemony – the conditioning to oil overproduction to destroy Shi’ite competitors and convince the United States to give up the shale oil extraction.
In geopolitical terms, the Sunni world tries to flood the Western markets with its oil, which will replace the oil of Iran and Shi’ite areas (including Iraq).
In the downward war of the oil barrel, the winner is the one that expels the opponent from the end markets – and this obviously tends to damage more the countries which are most dependent on oil flows.
Nevertheless, with so low oil barrel prices, all OPEC producing countries do not succeed in maintaining internal social peace, their military spending and their hard currency reserves.
With a view to earning an acceptable margin, Nigeria – for example – needs an oil barrel price equal to 122 US dollars. In order to survive, Venezuela – which now has a “Weimar-style” inflation – should price the oil barrel at 117 US dollars, while the Shi’ite Republic of Iran should charge an oil barrel price equal to 130 US dollars in order to cover costs and reach such an average margin of revenues as to allow the market allocation of the new capital in the domestic oil sector. The greater the damage by Sunnis, the greater the Iranian presence in proxy wars against Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Obviously the Western investors will take action in this regard, now that the sanctions against Iran have just been lifted.
Iran, however, will always have a primary oil customer, namely China, while all analysts forecast an increase in Iranian oil extraction this year and next year. If China is and remains the first customer of Shi’ite oil and if, together with Azerbaijan – where oil extraction is less expensive than elsewhere – it is connected with Iran, the damage caused by OPEC to Iran will be limited.
This year the Iranian amount of oil will be 3,133 million barrels but, with a view to taking advantage of the new post-sanction situation, the government plans to reach 550,000 bpd, with a program for increasing its daily production up to 4-7 million bpd within 2020. This means that Iran wants to conquer almost all Saudi Western markets.
Hence a struggle between the two rivals to retain the new markets conquered, by reducing prices, and a struggle to prevail in maintaining the internal balance of power at a time of budgetary constraints. Finally a struggle to prevail in keeping military spending high and, above all, pushing the regional opponent in as many regional proxy wars as possible – wars which exhaust forces, deplete resources and force the players to sell oil at any price just to “make money” and have cash available.
In order to better understand this issue and this situation, Algeria should sell its oil barrel at 130.5 US dollars; Kuwait at 54, Qatar at 60, Saudi Arabia – as we have already seen – at 106 and Russia at 100. Currently no one really earns on oil sales, and everybody is strongly damaged by low prices, including consumers.
Russia is playing its game in Syria also for this reason.
It does not want to cut production because it needs liquidity, but its wells are aging and “getting obsolete” quickly. The extraction of Siberian oil has been decreasing since 2007, while Russia needs capital to play the card of Arctic oil.
Hence the Sunnis need the US production to decline and the oil extracted by Iran and its Shi’ite allies not to reach Western markets at a reasonable cost, in large quantities and competitive with the Sunni oil.
Incidentally, it is precisely the Mesopotamia’s axis, where Syria is present, which is the major corridor of Shi’ite oil and, in many respects, of Russian oil.
Therefore the proxy war between Daesh/Isis and Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, backed by Russian forces, will last until the Saudi oil market stabilizes itself at an acceptable price which, according to the most informed and knowledgeable analysts, should be 80-90 US dollars per barrel.
The problem lies in that fact that – through regional wars – Saudi Arabia wants to avoid the Iranian oil benefitting from the same price increase.
Conversely, Iran wants to “retain” the Alawite Syria to secure the autonomous control of a channel for the transit of oil and gas not touching the Sunni-dominated areas.
The territories currently at war are and will increasingly be used as taps to be turned on or off so as to open or close the transit of their own or other countries’ oil.
Is this, however, the background of a direct confrontation between Sunnis and Shi’ites? Let us analyze the issue carefully.
Now that Iran is coming back onto the global economic scene, Saudi Arabia obviously wants to avoid the Shi’ite expansion into the Greater Middle East.
The 2011 uprising in Bahrain, in which a Shi’ite majority was brutally repressed by the Sunnis in power with the Saudi support, was probably the beginning of the final confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia for hegemony over the Middle East region.
The 2014 Shi’ite uprising in the Kingdom was then seen as a practice run for the likely Shi’ite secession in the Saudi universe, where the Al Hasa Shi’ite area was conquered by the Saudi security forces only in 1913, while the Shi’ites around Medina were eliminated later, in 1926.
In the Hejaz region there are still pockets of resistance to the Saudi Wahhabi fundamentalism, while – in the Eastern province of Al Islahiyyah – traditionalist groups, in good relations with the Shi’ites, have long been present and could unite the opposition to the Al Saud’s Kingdom, which has never succeeded in gaining fully hegemony over the Southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Osama Bin Laden’s hatred for the Royal Family dated back to long time ago and was related to his family’s origin from the Hadhramaut region, at the border with Yemen – a region which has never really submitted to the Al Saud family.
In other words, Iran, but also the Saudi Kingdom, has to manage Shi’ite or Sunni minorities or majorities in a situation in which, throughout the Middle East, States are actually falling apart or, anyway, hardly manage to face the severe threats posed to their survival.
Obviously, in this situation, each of the two major contenders tries to make the other collapse by initially destabilizing the peripheries of both areas of influence and, later, possibly hit the core of the enemy’s power, when the peripheral disintegration process is over.
Nevertheless Saudi Arabia is and will always be a Sunni-majority country, as Iran will always be a nation where the “Party of Ali” is almost completely present.
What about converting the enemy? It is a likely option. In Indonesia the Shi’ite refugees are forced to convert to the Sunni Islam line before having any other economic support, while Iran itself was converted to the “Party of Ali”, namely the Shi’a, only with the Savafid dynasty in 1501 – the same dynasty that rebuilt Iran as an independent State.
Formerly Shi’ism was widespread also in the areas of which the Iranian universe was composed within the Ottoman Empire, such as Dagestan and other Caucasus areas, which are now a stronghold of the Sunni jihad inside the area of Russian influence.
During that Savafid period also Azerbaijan was converted to Shi’ism, as well as most of Iraq, with the Shi’ite reconquest of Baghdad in 1624 which caused the destruction of the Sunni majority of its inhabitants.
Currently the number of fast conversions to Sunnism is remarkable also in Iran itself and it is obvious that the Iranian authorities regard this phenomenon as a deadly danger.
Furthermore the Wahhabi – and hence Sunni – Salafism is used in Iran as a tool for insurgency against the Ayatollahs’ regime.
The expansion of the Hezbollah linked to the Iranian “Revolutionary Guards”, from the Lebanon to Jordan, is a further factor destabilizing the Sunni universe.
In Iran, the Ayatollahs’ statements on the pan-Islamism which must characterize the Iranian policy have decreased for years. On the contrary all Sunnis are increasingly accused of being at the origin of the global jihad which, according to Iranian leaders, is targeted both against the West and against Imam Ali’s followers.
It is a zero-sum game which does not provide for a balance, except for the possible destruction of the areas through which both Sunni and Shi’ite oil transit – and this is the only reason why sometimes the war between the two Mohammedan traditions goes through slack periods.
In other areas, an expansion of conversions to the Shi’ite line is recorded as a tool of political fight against the local authoritarian regimes: in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, as well as in Islamic emigration or in the ancient Islamic Mohammedan communities in Canada or in the United States.
Both in the Saudi and Iranian cases, the expansion of conversions to either Islamic line is a direct tool for hegemony.
If this happens in the Middle East, the Shi’ite or Sunni conversions lead directly to the creation of minorities, sooner or later organized for the armed struggle, as currently happens in Yemen or in Syria.
Which is, however, the military potential of either lines of Koran interpretation and tradition?
Saudi Arabia increased its military spending by 14% in 2014, despite budgetary constraints, which is over 10% of its GDP.
If the pace of Saudi Arabia’s rearmament is maintained, and in the absence of new developments on oil markets, the Saudi military spending could lead to a severe economic recession in the Kingdom within 2017.
This is the reason why it is useful for the enemies of the Saudi dynasty to trigger off a small destabilization southward and eastward, as well as preserve the “small wars” in Yemen, in the Syrian Sunni area, as well as in Iraq or in the Pakistani Shi’ite areas in the near future.
In 2015 Iran spent 10 billion US dollars, 60% of which was allocated to the Revolutionary Guards.
Considering the Iranian specific situation and the economic crisis induced by a long regime of sanctions, the growth of military spending will be contained at around 10-15%.
If the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia turns into an open conflict, this will be the end of the Russian plans of regional hegemony to offset the US withdrawal. This could recreate a strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, in view of a new and more difficult Iranian regionalization after the lifting of sanctions.
In this regard, Israel maintains covered and highly confidential – albeit fruitful – relations with both Islamic contenders.
It is worth recalling, however, that neither Islamic country has an interest in giving up the project of “wiping out” the Jewish State and, in a future phase of confrontation, both Islamic countries could create a casus belli for encircling Israel from the North, from Sinai and the PNA Territories, where the Saudi presence is increasingly significant.
Hence we need to rebuild – with the help of the Russian Federation and the United States – a status quo in the Middle East entailing the definition of new and more rational borders, as well as negotiations on regional disarmament and a new Summit – along the lines of the old Madrid Agreements – resuming and following up the policy to make Israel safer, by recognizing a new great power status to Russia and a new NATO’s intervention doctrine in the region.
The Turkish Gambit
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
Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?
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.
Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around
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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