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Why did Erdogan replace Davutoglu as Premier?

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Turkey, formerly Ottoman Empire, is the only Muslim country in Europe, and hence facing problems of entry into EU as a legitimate European nation.Turkey in recent times is facing serious problems and domestic crisis with bombs being exploded in the capital Istanbul. Even presidency and government found themselves in logger heads possibly on disagreements over certain domestic and foreign policy issues.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom western media accuse of authoritarian in outlook, believes a strong presidency can do away with the problems Turkey faces now.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan removed his trusted ally Ahmet Davutoglu as premier in a swift move essentially to strengthen his presidency and smoothen the government functioning without frictions within and to strike a balance on his own positions in domestic and foreign policy matters.

By replacing his increasingly powerful Prime minster Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish President Erdogan appointed on May 22, 2016 one of his most trusted allies Binali Yildirim, the transportation and communications minister to form Turkey’s new government, in a move seen to help consolidate his hold on power.

Binali Yildirim, a founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party was tapped to replace Ahmet Davutoglu who stepped down amid growing differences with Erdogan, including his wish to overhaul the constitution to give the largely ceremonial presidency executive powers.

The appointment of the 60-year-old politician Binali came hours after the ruling AKP party confirmed him as party chairman, and he immediately expressed allegiance to the Turkish leader, vowing to follow his path. New premier Yildirim has said he would work to legalize the “de facto” presidential system by introducing a new constitution to that effect.

Supporters credit Yildirim for his role in developing major infrastructure projects which have helped buoy Turkey’s economy and boost the party’s popularity. But critics, including the leader of the main opposition party, have accused him of corruption. Yildirim has rejected the accusation.

Diplomat Davutoglu

Davutoglu, a former diplomat and foreign minister, is an intellectual and the author of books on Turkish foreign policy and political theory. Erdogan is a former mayor of Istanbul and semi-professional soccer player, and analysts say he is increasingly intent on securing his own enduring power in the state.

Davutoglu was considered the more pro-European of the two leaders.

Former foreign minister of Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu who led the country’s foreign policy rather successfully has strong opinions on external affairs, especially on EU and Israel.

Regarded as a thoughtful and competent leader, Davutoglu replaced Erdogan as Prime Minister in 2014 more than a decade after the AKP came to power. Alongside Erdogan, Davutoglu was a key public face of the party when it won a comeback victory in the country’s November 2015 parliamentary election, five months after the AKP had shocked experts by losing its majority in a previous election.

Davutoglu, a one-time adviser to Erdogan and a former foreign minister, fell out with the president over several issues including the possibility of peace talks with Kurdish rebels, and the pre-trial detention of journalists accused of spying and academics accused of supporting terrorism. In his farewell speech, Davutoglu said resigning was not his wish but that he agreed to it to preserve the unity of the party.

Erdogan wants an executive presidency in Turkey to replace the current parliamentary system, a plan for which Davutoglu has offered only lukewarm support. His departure is likely to pave the way for a successor more willing to back Erdogan’s ambition of changing the constitution and strengthening the presidency, a move opponents say will herald growing authoritarianism.

Erdogan’s end goal is to consolidate enough popular support to switch to a presidential system. Davutoglu’s end goal is to consolidate his own power and be a successful prime minister.

Erdogan’s drive to tighten his grip on power has caused an increasingly open rift with Davutoglu, encompassing issues from relations with Europe to the pre-trial detention of government critics. As prime minister, the more moderate Davutoglu had been the formal head of government in Turkey, but he was widely regarded as governing under the long shadow of Erdogan, the more ambitious and ultimately the more powerful of the two. With the former prime minister sidelined, analysts say Erdogan has removed one of his only potential rivals for power within the state.

While the two politicians had been friends and allies for years, recent signs of tension between the two had become clear. The two had also publicly disagreed over whether to resume negotiations with Kurdish militants whom the Turkish military is fighting in the country’s southeast. Davutoglu himself wished to carve out an independent political space.

The two leaders cannot work together anymore. Erdogan is not satisfied with Davutolgu’s too soft and diplomatic style in the management of the country and in the management of certain issues between Turkey and Europe.

Regarded as a thoughtful and competent leader, Davutoglu replaced Erdogan as prime minister in 2014, more than a decade after the AKP came to power. Alongside Erdogan, he was a key public face of the party when it won a comeback victory in the country’s November 2015 parliamentary election, five months after the AKP had shocked experts by losing its majority in a previous election.

Ahmet Davutoglu resigned as Turkish Prime Minister in May in a dramatic move that clears the path for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to further consolidate his already extensive power. Davutoglu’s departure comes as Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials AKP) are preparing a campaign to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system of government with a presidential system, a shift that could cement Erdogan’s control of the Turkish state for years to come. “The fact that my term lasted far shorter than four years is not a decision of mine but a necessity,” he said, according to Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper. He said he would continue his friendship with Erdogan “until my last breath.” He added, “The honor of our president is my honor. His family is my family.”

Davutoglu’s departure comes as Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are preparing a campaign to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system of government with a presidential system, a shift that could cement Erdogan’s control of the Turkish state for years to come.

Challenges

The Turkish country is switching at least to a de facto presidential system, and therefore the next government under the next prime minister will have an even smaller independent political space than the Davutoglu executive. The leaders of two key opposition parties denounced the move as a power grab. At a news conference in Ankara, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the secular Republican People’s Party, which holds the second largest number of seats in parliament, told reporters, “All democracy supporters must resist this palace coup.”

The change in the government and party leadership comes at a time when NATO member Turkey is facing an array of security threats including renewed conflict with Kurdish rebels in the southeast, a wave of suicide bombings linked to Kurdish and Islamic State militants, as well as growing blowback from the war in neighboring Syria. The transition also coincides with growing tensions with the European Union over a controversial deal to reduce the flow of illegal migrants from Turkey to Greece, which Davutoglu helped broker.

In addition to bitter parliamentary politics, Turkey is also grappling with a lethal conflict with Kurdish insurgents, a wave of attacks by ISIS militants, and the presence of more than 2.7 million refugees who fled the civil war in neighboring Syria. But the sense of growing instability and violence may have actually helped cement the AKP’s grip on power. After losing its majority in the parliament, called the Grand National Assembly, in an election in June 2015, coalition talks failed. In the meantime, fighting resumed in the Kurdish-majority southeast and ISIS carried out a series of lethal bombings in the country. When voters returned to the polls, they restored the AKP’s majority.

Following the election, the government intensified the military campaign on Kurdish militants and also expanded what opponents say is a broad effort to restrict freedom of expression, including arrests and prosecutions of dissident journalists and academics. Erdogan’s critics argue that those and other measures signal an embrace of an increasingly authoritarian form of governance.

Recently, a parliamentary committee approved a bill that would strip lawmakers of judicial immunity, a measure that would clear the way for prosecutions of opposition leaders. Before the vote, members of the AKP and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) engaged in a physical brawl in the house of parliament.

When Davutoglu hinted in April at a possible willingness to resume of peace talks with Kurdish militants, Erdogan ruled out any negotiations, saying the government would continue battling the insurgents.

Drift

President Erdogan, frequently critical of the EU, has at times appeared to belittle Davutoglu’s progress, most notably efforts to win visa-free travel to Europe by June, the main prize in the eyes of many Turks. “During my time as prime minister it was announced this would come in October 2016

Erdogan, a political fighter hardened by a childhood in Istanbul’s rough Kasimpasa district, wants a robust presidential system as a guarantee against the fractious coalition politics that hampered Turkey in the 1990s. His opponents see a stronger presidency as a vehicle for his own ambition.

Such a system would have seen Davutoglu, a more mild-mannered academic and former diplomat who lacks Erdogan’s natural appeal to crowds, sidelined.

The two have governed in a strained alliance since Erdogan won the presidency in 2014 and Davutoglu replaced him as prime minister. Aides to Davutoglu had largely dismissed the tensions as matters of style rather than substance. But in the clearest sign yet of a power struggle, the authority to appoint provincial AKP officials was taken from Davutoglu last week. The move reduced Davutoglu’s hold over the party grassroots and cemented Erdogan’s influence.

On foreign relations, the two leaders have appeared at odds over the deal with the EU to stem the flow of illegal migrants from Turkish shores to the Greek islands, in return for which Ankara has been promised accelerated EU accession talks, visa liberalization and financial aid. The deal has been Davutoglu’s project, and its future may be less certain after his departure.

Davutoglu’s departure looms as Turkey faces mounting security challenges, with a Kurdish insurgency in its southeast and the spillover of the war in Syria on its southern border. The European Union is counting on Turkey to help stop migrants streaming into the continent under a landmark accord brokered by Davutoglu, and Washington is drawing on NATO member Ankara’s support in fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The lira weakened more than 4 percent to 2.976 to the dollar, its weakest since the end of February, as investors balked at the prospect of more uncertainty.

Observation

Davutoglu’s early exit as party leader and PM constitutes another episode that show that Erdogan’s dominance over the AKP and the executive is absolute and unchallenged. The new premier Binali Yildirim is also an experienced politician who knows how to balance the president and nation.

There is no clarity if Davutoglu opposed Constitutional amendment to make the presidency stronger or if he opposed any move to make over with Israel or EU.

However, certain steps by president Erdoğan shows eh wanted a free hand in deciding all s aspects of governance both on domestic and foreign fronts

After being stubborn for months, Turkey’s president Erdoğan has now apologized to Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, for the downing of a Russian fighter jet, opening a door to a detente between Moscow and Ankara after a bitter diplomatic row. Tayyip Erdogan said he hoped for a “quick” normalization in ties with Russia after he expressed regret over the downing of one of Moscow’s military jets. “I hope we can put behind us the current situation, which is detrimental to both countries, and advance towards a quick normalization,” he said in a dinner to break the Ramadan fast at his presidential palace in Ankara.

President Erdoğan also made positive gestures to appease Israel, forgetting what it did to the prestige of former Ottoman Empire by attacking its aidship bound for Gaza Strip with humanitarian aid and many peace workers on board on international waters. Turkey, under pressure from Israel and USA, announced the restoration of diplomatic ties with Israel after a six-year rupture and expressed regret to Russia over the downing of a warplane, seeking to mend strained alliances and ease a sense of tension and frustration.

With a possible rival now ejected from political life, Erdogan and his party are expected to continue with an existing plan to transform Turkey’s government into a presidential system. But Davutoglu’s resignation raises questions about the future of a controversial agreement between Turkey and the European Union to accept refugees denied entry to Greece in exchange for allowing some refugees to fly to Europe. Davutoglu was the architect of the agreement, which went into effect last month.

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Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’

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photo credit: tunisienumerique.com

On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.

Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.

As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.

The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year,  to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.

In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.

Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.

In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.

In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.

The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.

The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.

Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.

In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.

The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.

The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.

Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.

Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.

It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.

Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.

In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.

It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.

According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.

The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.

Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.

According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.

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Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War

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War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.

               The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

               International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.

Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?

               War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.

               While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.

               Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.

               The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.

               Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.

               Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.

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Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate

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A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.

Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.

As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.

The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.

The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.

The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.

The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s  co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.

To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.

China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.

To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.

A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.

It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.

On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.

They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.

Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.

“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.

The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.

They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.

Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.

Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.

“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.

“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.

Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.

“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.

Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.

The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.

“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.

The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas  J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.

By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.

There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.

That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies  as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.

Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.

The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.

The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.

Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.

Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.

“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.

An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.

Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.

The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.

Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.

China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.

China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”

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