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Understanding Arab-Islamic Politics: Advocating the Case of the Political Culture Approach (A)

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The chronicles of human history are mainly the struggle between despotic, oppressive governments, on the one hand, and freedom from tyranny and the aspiration to achieve civil rights and freedoms, on the other; between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and liberal democracy.

In the words of Fukuyama, the twentieth century witnessed the world attacked by convulsions of ideological violence in the struggle of democratic liberalism, first against the remains of absolutism, and afterwards against Bolshevism and fascism. The end of the century witnessed the victory of Western liberal democracy. The world had not only reached “the end of ideology”, but also “the end of history.”

Thus, Marshall McLuhan’s vision, as early as 1964, regarding “the global village”, took on form and content with its outstanding expression being the tremendous spread of the social media and the communications and news networks. Society has reached “the Mac-World” as a cultural phenomenon. Moreover, the gaps between “high politics” – which deals with war and peace – and “low politics” which deals with social-economic issues and human welfare, are being progressively narrowed. This is the basis for the argument that the cultural borders between human societies have been blurred, and local cultures are now subject to the profound influence of the global culture.

However, is this the real situation? If “the end of history” has arrived, and democracy is victorious, why are there still so many wars between states, and so many tyrants threatening to bring about the destruction of humankind? If the cultural borders between human societies have become blurred, why is there an increase in fanatic nationalism? Why have ethnic conflicts and separatist uprisings multiplied?

Why is there still a First, Second, Third and even a Fourth World? Why is the division between the North and the South in effect and even more intense? And above all, why is Huntington so right in his analysis that in every place where Islam and Arabs are found, violence as well as internal and external wars are likewise found?

Indeed, the world reality is far from the optimistic, globalization vision, and it is doubtful whether cultural boundaries have been blurred. Hostility, rancor, violence, and global dangers have not vanished. National and state interests have not only converged but have partly moved further apart. Unfortunately, Islam confronts and viciously fights all other world’s civilizations, and as Huntington refers to Islamic boundaries are borders of blood.

The end-of-history and the globalization approaches are based on two perceptions that are not necessarily accurate: first, has the state really become obsolete as a central focus of reference, and is it losing its power and its sovereign control? Secondly, has the growth in importance of cross-border economic forces and transnational players really diminished the significance of conflicts between states over territory? Has geo-economics replaced geo-politics? It is not only doubtful whether the world at the twenty-first century is more stable and quieter, but it is sure that Islamic religious ideology takes advantage of the power vacuum that has been created to control and to subdue the civilized world, and to bring it to the Islamic 7th century desert.

The data is crystal clear. Over 90 percent of world terrorism and over 70 percent of world violence is purely Islamic, and the countdown continues rising up. This is enough without any doubt to put Islam to where it belongs. In 2015 there were 452 cases of homicide bombings alone. All of them where Muslims. From September 11 to April 2016 there were more than 28,000 terrorist acts alone, in which hundreds of thousands of people victimized.

In the last 70 years 14 million Muslims were massacred by other Muslims. There is not even one state around the world that is not confronted by Islam, by Jihad violence and terrorism, or by Da’wah, the preaching to Islam and the diplomacy of deceiving the infidels, or by Hijrah, massive huge immigration and birth-rate demography. Isn’t it enough to label Islam to where it belongs? Islam has never been all over its 1400 years, even for one day, a religion of peace.  

The interesting phenomenon is that there is a broad consensus that there is a distinct Japanese, or Chinese, or Hindu, or African-Tribal cultures, and, a distinct Arab-Islamic culture of great power and influence. We even teach these characteristics as a variegated cultural difference on the anthropological level, however, at one and the same time, we deny the cultural difference on the political level and disavow its importance on the level of behavioral insight.

But in our understanding, the gaps between Western and Arab-Islamic culture are so deep and qualitative that it determines everything. There is ample scientific and empirical clear proofs that without understanding the cultural ideological spectrum there is a huge deficiency in the ability to qualitatively analyze the Middle East and Islamic world. The denial to use culture as a scientific tool on the racial grounds and as a part of politically correct approach is not only stupid but largely contributes to the lack of understanding in fact the large ignorance that determines our behavior.

The world may have turned into a small village in many aspects, but political culture, which is also influenced and shaped by religion, dictates gaps in behavior and attitudes and creates deep political differences, which are difficult to bridge over.

Indeed, the widespread use of modernization and technology does not necessarily blur the behavioral boundaries and certainly not the cultural ones. Such is the case of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The tremendous petro-dollar riches they have accumulated have not changed the traits of the traditional anarchistic tribal society as a pre-medieval community. The capacity to purchase every technological innovation and the state of the art of Western means has not at all changed their societies’ way of life and tribal-clan structure.

In the West, those who do not understand this cultural phenomenon are astounded and full of wonder at how these states perpetuate their traditional way of life, and at the same time, prevent Westerners from leading their regular way of life and demand from them consideration for their religious and cultural values while staying there.

A no less severe phenomenon is that Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars in buying many research institutions throughout the world, and finances universities and researchers in the West, just in order to glorify its own cultural values. It finances, in fact buys communications media outlets, public opinion and lawyers firms throughout the Western world. It spends billions of dollars in maintaining internet sites of high quality in English and Arabic, which are meant to uphold its own anachronistic tribal values and the features of traditional Islam. And it has worked to prevent antagonism against itself, as a society hostile to Western culture.

Above all, Saudi Arabia is Enemy Number One of the modern, democratic international system. It finances, aids, supports, and consolidates most of the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organizations and groups throughout the world. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia aspires to restore the Islamic past to the future of modern, human society. Modern life and the Western technology that it uses have not changed Saudi society. The cultural structure has remained congealed in tribal anarchy; hence, the Western conception of change and transition to modernity has no chance either of flourishing or of even becoming established in Arab-Islamic political culture.

The central argument which we are expounding, is that there are wide gaps between various cultures, which are expressed in profound differences in ways of life and social structure, chiefly between Western political culture and Arab-Islamic political culture, and this influences patterns of political and behavioral activity. These gaps constitute a basis for flaws of thinking, distorted perceptions, and failures of policy. These factors, which are shaped and fostered in the various cultures, bring about strategic surprises and mental blindness (visual agnosia) and lead to the march of folly and disasters.

We may diagnose the phenomenon with the concept of “mirror image”. This expresses a personality system, which causes one to perceive an adversary’s thinking as matching one’s own. You look at your adversary and see his conceptions and mental images as matching your own set of values and beliefs. But in practice, you see yourself reflected in the mirror, and you attach to your adversary operational evaluations and defining positions that are exactly the same as your own.

Let’s take the issues of war and peace through the lenses of the “mirror image.”

You estimate that your conceptions, strategic definitions, and certainly your operational means, are your adversary’s as well. You and he aspire to peace, and you and he strive in the same direction and in the same trends by means of peace. And you are sure that you and he understand peace in the same parameters, and all that is needed is good will on both sides to end the war and to march into peace.

It is clear to you that your good will expresses the same boundaries as your adversary’s good will. Therefore, matters are absolutely understood by both sides, and the way to ending wars and establishing peace leads down the same path. You estimate that the political circumstances and the historical conclusions lead both you and your adversary to the same operational evaluations.

You and your adversary have arrived at the same situation after having tried everything, hence you both have the firm opinion that the shared aim in sitting down together for talks and discussions is to arrive at successful political arrangements, which you both understand according to the very same parameters.

And why is this absolutely clear and taken for granted? Because you and your adversary both understand that both of you have paid a high human and economic price, that you are both ripe for negotiations and political arrangements that will bring about peace and coexistence.

However, do both sides really aspire to peace in like manner? Do they both define the longed for peace in a symmetrical manner? Are they ready for an arrangement as a consequence of the same operational conclusions? Are they both politically exhausted and socially tired that their only conclusion is ending the war and reaching peace?

Our intention is to stress that “the mirror image” distorts the perception of reality, and muddles positions. From here the way is short to strategic surprises and shameful failures and national disasters, which might bring states to the verge of extinction.

We all know that the outer objective world is not the internal subjective world, still we do not translate it operatively in the political realm and we totally ignore the cultural dimension. We so much want to believe our adversary resembles us in our mutual aspirations and the means to achieve them that we literally erase behavioral boundaries and resist any other information to enter our minds.

But what if your adversary is different from you culturally and his conceptual definitions and political beliefs are different from you? What if what is for you moderate is in Islam the opposite? What if Bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are extremists according to your views, while they are moderate according to Islam? What if those who follow the Islamic commandments are moderate true believers according to Islam while their behavior and acts put them on the extreme line of the spectrum according to Western values and beliefs? What if to kill, to butcher, to slaughter, to decapitate, to terrorize and to hate the infidels and all other inhumane acts are totally unacceptable according to Western moral values, but are in fact part of Islamic commandments to its believers to follow?    

Indeed, we do not understand consciously and we do not want to contend conceptually with a problem so deeply unprecedented in history. This is not a nightmare that would fade away, rather this is a horrible plague, a contagious virus that spread all over the world aspiring to critically change it. We all watch and read and listen to the words clearly declared by Muslims: ‘we will win over you, we will subdue you, just because you love life, while we love death,’ and we still continue to ignore.

We all watch and read and listen to the voices clearly say that the is occupying the entire world and bringing it under Islamic rule, because it is the destiny of Islam to solely rule the world, and that the Shari’ah is the only constitution under which humanity must accordingly live and still continue to pretend everything is just find and the Muslims will accommodate and assimilate.  

The political cultural approach is a sensitive filter for understanding the deep gaps between the positions and conceptions of the parties. To illuminating the flaws and the lack of cultural insight one may consider the remarks of the Israeli journalist Doron Rosenblum, who related to the throwing of stones from Lebanon from the border toward Israel by Prof. Edward Said, the author of the notorious Orientalism:  

Perhaps the most famous intellectual today…to join the latest trend, in which masses from all the Arab states stream to the Lebanon-Israel border in order to spit, to curse, and to throw stones at Israel?… Why do the Arab masses really stream precisely to the place from where we withdrew to the last centimeter; precisely to the point where there is no occupation and no territorial claims; precisely to the place where we raised our hands; precisely there they stream to express their bottomless hatred [which has] no end or purpose; precisely to there of all places?… And in true astonishment one may ask, what are your intentions? Is it because of the past or because of the future? Or is it just because of hatred and inertia?

Doron Rosenblum, ignorant and lacking in insight as to the meanings of the cultural gaps, does not at all understand that precisely in the place where Israel had definitively withdrawn, it was transmitting a message of great weakness, and the reaction was total hostility and lack of inhibition by the Arab masses, intellectuals, and politicians. He does not understand that in Arab-Islamic political culture, weakness is not accepted as magnanimity in victory, but precisely the opposite: the continuation of warfare. He does not understand there is no quit pro quo in Arab-Islamic political culture and if you retreat and give up there is no mutual reaction from Arab-Islamic side. In the Middle East, everything is right and acceptable but weakness and failure. And Rosenblum does not understand that the stone expresses the cultural dimension in its ancient usage, disavowing by stoning to death.

The Free World leaders make their work easy: they fight against the symptom and not against the real issue. They declare fighting terrorism, Jihad, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, but not the ideological-religious sources that motivate them. That is why they fail time and again and Islam continues in its march of victory. Bernard Lewis has tried to explain this in his research, What Went Wrong.  

How is the cultural phenomenon expressed? Why is it so elusive, despite its being known and understood to scientific research? Norman Dixon in his Our Own Worst Enemy examined the psychology of failing leaderships. He directed attention to the phenomenon that the leadership invests its resources in two activities: denying objective reality by a wishful thinking approach, and rationalization of mistaken behavior when reality proves the leaders were wrong and their actions are proven mistaken.

Various scientific disciplines deal with national perceptions and images, how beliefs and values influence activity and leaders’ reactions. The concept of belief systems include terms such as “the image”, “the operational code”, “cognitive map”, that link between the actor’s psychological and operational environments. These are set of lenses through which information is received. Yet, the literature concerning misperception focuses on the psychological accounts of why individuals interpret the world in the way they do, rather the belief systems focuses of how the individuals see the world and act accordingly.

Robert Jarvis explains how misperceptions and misconceptions determine our behavior. People make decisions according to their interpretation of the information they get without studying and analyzing it. People stick to political based conceptions and ignore any contradictory information. Importantly, people with higher education are less open to change their political views, even less readiness to assimilate contradictory information.

Part of the explanation for this phenomenon is the “cognitive dissonance” approach, advanced by Leon Festinger, in his The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. That is, there is unwillingness to accept what may contradict one’s values, conceptions, positions, and beliefs. Instead of checking one’s own values and actions, a person’s mind is closed to any unacceptable development, and he refuses to admit his mistakes or his failed evaluations. From comes conceptual fixation and closed consciousness.

This also leads to visual agnosia, even willful blindness. People observe only what they want to observe. People believe in what suits their views and values and people tend to follow the optimistic side of human behavior. This is likened to a man’s reaction to threatening information that contradicts his conceptions and values, or that fundamentally contradicts his policy. The immediate reaction is refusal by way of disbelief that the threat will be realized, a phenomenon that leads to being unprepared. The problem is if we are all infected with this syndrome. Leaders are supposed to think in terms of the nation as a whole, and their responsibility is higher and more concrete. Leaders with a great deal of self-confidence will display more indifference to risks, and will not deploy to face threats and dangers. This might lead to war.

Those whose self-confidence and experience are low might sharpen crises and again be drawn into war as a result of failure to make proper responses. In any event, inaction on the part of leaders, or superfluous action, is a recipe for national disasters. Barbara Tuchman referred to this, pointing out that throughout history governments have taken positions opposed to the interests of their peoples. A leadership’s capacity to perform is extremely poor, and precisely those leaderships had an existential influence on the fate of peoples and states. Wars break out not necessarily because of failure to perceive a developing reality, but as failures of leadership, and their inability to analyze ongoing phenomena because of their aspiration to force their will on reality.

What characterizes political leadership is folly, closed minds, and stubborn blindness, which are a source of self-deception that does not learn from experience, as they continue to evaluate their own political path as correct, and practice a mistaken policy.20 Moreover, leaders aspire to invent the wheel anew, rather than basing themselves on orderly thinking, systematic policy, and long-range plans, preferring self-deception and conceptions determined in advance. Lastly, they totally disregard contrary signs and signals, and are incapable of pausing to examine the policy in effect in light of developing reality, out of the estimate that there is no alternative to their policy.

When we discuss the issue of culture, the political leadership has decisive influence. The manner of its behavior and conduct is not necessarily understood. Leaders, like society in general, do not act in accord with “logical”, defined parameters. This stands out particularly on the issue of contending with matters that are important to deal with as against urgent matters. Leaders are busy, first of all, with “the politics of oblivion”, which means not dealing with controversial, problematic matters, which resemble booby traps from the standpoint of the potential problems they enfold.

Second, when these problems reach their desks nonetheless, they seek to postpone dealing with them by a “policy of delay”. Third, when the problems pop up again, and dealing with them cannot be put off any longer, leaders adopt a “policy of committees”. They set up an investigating commission to examine the situation in the hope that the situation will change before it has concluded its work.

Fourth, when the investigating commission finishes its work and presents its recommendations, the leaders practice a “policy of file away and do nothing”, or set up a commission to implement the recommendations, which buries the matter. In any event, time is a variable of critical importance, and a major trait of their activity.

Why do we deal with these aspects? Because leaders continue not to learn, and stubbornly persist in not drawing lessons, even when strategic failure cannot be ignored and proves them wrong. This is the politics of permeability and closed minds, hence also, their inability to mold another policy, based on national interests and taking into account their own responsibility. National disasters are the next stop.

Tuchman quotes the historian of Philip II, king of Spain, who was “more closed minded than all the kings”, so that no failure of his policy could challenge his absolute faith that his policy was excellent. Indeed, unlike accidents, it must be understood that national disasters do not develop overnight, but as a consequence of a series of faults and mistakes in political assumptions. This involves events that are cognitively dissonant, that are ignored or the existence of which is denied; flaws of processing information or correctly dealing with it; and incapacity to control events.

The first duty of leaders is to examine whether it is possible to attain goals, and whether they are realistic. The more that they are not realistic the more leaders mislead their own people and present it with “surprises” and failures. What is not realistic will not be realized, no matter how splendid it is, and no matter how much it is defined as a historical breakthrough. What is important is to stay with reality, with the possible, and with what can be achieved, after deeply probing study and research, deliberation, and obtaining reliable intelligence. Anything that is not based on these foundations might end up as a national disaster.

The most responsible attitude for leadership is to know when to stop, to examine issues frankly, and to admit mistakes. Flimsy foundations of a policy will not stand in place, even if they are mended with splendid patches. What cannot be mended will collapse in disaster. On the other hand, leaders very much love to make reforms, and to declare a new national policy, or a revolutionary strategy that they have drawn up. The problem is that it is not enough to show that a certain situation is bad. It is necessary to be sure that the problem has been properly described, and that the solution proposed will lead to improvement of the situation.

For that reason, common sense, judgment, avoidance of comprehensive solutions that have not been properly checked must all be avoided, and always there must be a willingness to stop and examine the situation anew. Successful leaders are those who act responsibly, but who also admit failure. A major reason why leaders become irresponsible is because they become confused between the unreasonable and the impossible to achieve. What they perceive as unreasonable is not taken seriously in shaping policy.

Indeed, the most dangerous mental defects are laziness of thought, which means lack of readiness to contend with complex, unknown reality, and lack of operational patience, which leads to infatuation with theories that apparently explain everything, instead of practicing political judgment and taking national responsibility. The most important expression of this in the words of the ancient sages is, “Think first before you act.” There is nothing more important nor lesson more instructive for political leadership than this maxim. Indeed, intelligent, considered policy is expressed by “Think first before you act.” (Literally: “the end of an act begins with a thought”) Another insight is in the statement “Noah built the ark before the deluge.” Before the deluge, always before the deluge. Disasters have to be dealt with before they occur, not after they have taken place.

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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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What will Middle East gain from US’ “retreat”?

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Throughout the year, American commentators have been sounding alarm over the weakening of the US positions in the Middle East. Optimists say Washington has intentionally been “cutting down on its commitments”. According to pessimists, America is quickly losing credibility amid an acute crisis of trust in its relations with its closest allies. Some of these allies are even working to harmonize relationships with Washington’s geopolitical rivals, or are looking for common ground to strike with those who are officially deemed “US enemies”.

Experts say the policy of the Trump administration in the Middle East should be more consistent, both in conceptual and personnel terms. This policy should be devoid of any sudden or drastic moves which could only undermine trust between the United States and the Gulf countries, Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Foundation said in February. Over the past six months, there have appeared sufficient grounds to believe that Iran “is gripped by fear and experiences a sense of despair in the confrontation with the United States.” However, the White House’s current policy on Tehran, which is lacking clear vision and trustworthy strategy, is sowing more and more seeds of distrust between America and its Sunni allies. This schism is the very “fundamental geostrategic success” that Iran has “sought to achieve over the past 40 years.” Now, Tehran sees more and more “opportunities and advantages” for itself, wrote Kenneth Pollack, an expert with Foreign Policy, at the end of September.

From 1991 to 2010 the United States enjoyed “incontestable supremacy in the Middle East. Even on the eve of the “Arab Spring”, most states in the region depended on America for help and “understanding” in many vital issues. However, the results of the Middle East policy of recent years are disappointing, Dennis Ross and Dana Stroul from the Washington Institute for Middle Eastern Policy say. The recent moves taken by the Trump administration, starting from the US withdrawal from the “nuclear deal” in May last year, which aimed at forcing Iran to make concessions, have “fallen through.” The attempt to reduce Iran’s activities in the region to zero by tightening sanctions, which, according to the White House, were to deprive Tehran of resources to pursue a full-fledged foreign policy, “did not work to effect.” If President Trump had actually managed to “isolate” anyone in the region, then it is not Iran, but the United States. Experts believe that the ambitious statements that have been made by Washington on a daily basis were not supported by convincing action, political or military. The White House’s flagrant reluctance to defend its allies deepens the gap between America and its partners in the Gulf Region. In addition, the policy of ill-thought sanctions led to the alienation of the European allies as well, without whom pressure on Tehran makes no sense.

Donald Trump strongly disagrees with such criticism, emphasizing that his foreign policy is based on “pragmatism” and “objective interests”. Concerning the Middle East, these words can be understood in at least two different ways. On the one hand, the current US administration believes that “cooperation” implies, first of all, the promotion of the “monetization” of the alliance, which was unequivocally announced in the Trump National Security Strategy in December 2017. Allies and partners are required to “contribute” by allocating more funds for the purchase of American weapons.

On the other hand, domestic oil production in the US has increased significantly in recent years, primarily due to the introduction of shale oil extraction technologies. As a result, America is rapidly turning “into a major competitor” of oil and gas suppliers from the Middle East. The presence in Washington’s regional policy of many Cold War – era features, including the dominance of ideology and the division of countries into “friends” and “foes,” may also have a new, extremely unpleasant interpretation for the Persian Gulf states. What is meant is Washington’s attempts to breathe new life into maintaining (or formal strengthening – despite the apparent setbacks, for example, of the concept of “Arab NATO”), a political architecture in which the region is divided into warring blocs. Given the situation, the deeper the region plunges into the chaos of destabilization, the easier it will be for the United States to deprive Saudi Arabia of its current status as the “regulator” of the global oil market.

Meanwhile, the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape is becoming ever more polycentric as more and more countries of the region demonstrate their intention to “stand for their interests”. In this context, the Trump administration’s obsession with the “Iranian threat” is causing ever more bewilderment among some Arab allies, as Tehran, for its part, has put forward and supported initiatives to alleviate regional tensions. According to IRNA, on September 23, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced proposals “to ensure the safety of navigation in the region” and promote interstate cooperation in the Persian Gulf. The project, known as the “Hormuz Peace Initiative”,  encompasses “both security and economic issues.” “All countries of the Persian Gulf are invited to participate in a new format of regional dialogue,” –  the Iranian president said.  On October 1, Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani welcomed a statement made the day before by Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, that he was ready to start a dialogue between the two countries.

Six months ago, Riyadh, as well as Bahrain, unconditionally supported the US line for a tough confrontation with Iran. However, serious doubts were voiced by  leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Qatar. Kuwait, Qatar and Oman even came up in favor of diplomatic methods of resolving disagreements with Iran. In recent months, this policy has also been backed by the UAE. However, on September 14, a number of Saudi Arabia’s major oil infrastructure facilities came under a massive attack by drones and cruise missiles. Saudi Arabia and the US “have no doubts” that Iran is behind the attack. A lot will be clarified after the results of an inquiry by the international commission are made public: the publication of evidence that proves Tehran’s direct involvement in the attack could become a casus belli for the Saudis.

In this case, America’s Arab allies will be waiting for the White House’s reaction, which puts the Trump administration “in a pretty difficult position”. Whether part of the leadership in Riyadh is ready to go all-in and strike at Iran on their own, in the hope that the United States will not be able to stay away in case of a new war in the Gulf, will become a relevant issue again. However, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated a “weakness of its army” in Yemen. And the blow against the Saudi oil refining facilities, whoever was behind it, has raised the question of the effectiveness of American means of control of regional airspace, as well as the combat readiness of the air defense system based on American technology. The absence of a clear and decisive reaction from Trump can ruin the authority of the United States, both in the Gulf countries and in the entire Middle East Region. In addition, this may have a negative effect on American voters. Meanwhile, “… America cannot and does not want to wage a war against Iran”.

Russia’s position is aimed at resolving disagreements and potential conflicts in the Middle East through negotiation with the participation of all parties involved. In a recent interview with International Affairs Chief Editor Armen Oganesyan, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov expressed hope that “the crisis involving Iran will be settled without a new outbreak of conflict”. According to Ryabkov, Moscow believes in the triumph of common sense in the region,  which is being torn by several conflicts. In early October, in response to questions from the Valdai Discussion Club, the head of Russian diplomacy Sergey Lavrov  dwelled on Russia’s vision of the challenges facing the region. “Undoubtedly, security must be ensured in the Persian Gulf, but Iran has proposals that are not directed against anyone, they are not exclusive, they invite all countries to join forces.”

Russia, in turn, has come up with a proposal to begin a comprehensive and constructive dialogue on the concept of a Collective Security Treaty for the Persian Gulf with the prospect of its expansion to the entire Middle East. Addressing the participants in the Valdai Forum on October 3, President Vladimir Putin recalled how Moscow “together with partners of the Astana format” had brought together the interested countries in the region and the international community to launch a political settlement in Syria. The negotiations were joined by the United States. President Putin paid tribute to “President Trump’s courage and ability to take extraordinary steps”. The crisis involving the Korean Peninsula dissolved very quickly, he said, once the US administration moved from head-on confrontation to dialogue. The Syrian settlement  “may become a kind of model for resolving regional crises. And in the vast majority of cases, it will be the diplomatic mechanisms that will come handy. The use of force is an extreme measure, a forced exception,” –  President Putin emphasized. Moscow advocates convergence of efforts to address common threats. The latest initiative, which is based on this principle, is the idea of creating an organization “for security and cooperation, which, in addition to the Gulf countries, could comprise Russia, China, the USA, the EU, India and other countries concerned as observers”.

According to optimistic-minded American observers, the US leadership’s demonstration of restraint and caution on the use of force can have positive consequences – it could prompt countries of the Middle East to seek diplomatic solutions . But is Washington ready and able to “seize on the chance” and join international efforts to launch an extensive dialogue of all regional countries concerned? Up to now,  the Trump administration has demonstrated the potential to weaken, or even completely destroy,  multilateral institutions and formats, rather than create or support them. In the end, it is the “credo” of unilateralism that is behind the US doctrinal documents and foreign policy practice.

The Middle East faces a long and difficult search for solutions if it wants to successfully address many internal problems, which, in most cases, are knotty, to say the least. The process of overcoming the consequences of the “crises of the decade” will take years. Considering this, the Middle Eastern states will have to play an ever greater role in resolving regional problems. Contributing to this  will be the weakening of the former hegemon, which has been increasingly hinging on the use of force in recent years.  Russia’s return to the Middle East for securing a balance of strength will make it possible to avoid the detrimental consequences of underestimating the international dimension of threats coming from a number of regional conflicts. In addition, it will encourage a departure from the counterproductive policy of forming artificial “division lines”. 

From our partner International Affairs

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