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The Lebanese crisis

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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On November 4 last, during the great “purge” within the Saudi elite, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri,  resigned claiming that his life was in danger. He was paying a visit to Riyadh and the interview released made us implicitly understand that some change was possible.

 Saad Hariri, son of Rafik, the politician and businessman linked to Saudi Arabia – who had been assassinated with a high-potential bomb on February 14, 2005, along with 21 other people – rose to power last year in the framework of an agreement envisaging Michel Aoun, a Christian liked by Hezbollah and Syria, as President of the Republic.

 Just on November 4, in his abovementioned interview with the Saudi television, Hariri had harshly criticized Iran and President Aoun had called him by phone to “ask for his resignation”.

 However, Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, had been elected with the consent of Saudi Arabia.

 It should be noted that on the same day, the Houthi – namely the  Yemen’s Shiite rebels – launched a long-range missile targeted to Riyadh.

 The Houthi Shiite rebels had already fired approximately 120 missiles against Saudi Arabia, but so far no one had yet reached the capital city.

 Saad Hariri has a complex relationship with both the Saudi and the Iranian and Shiite universe.

 In 2010, when he had first been appointed Lebanese Prime Minister – before some US leaders – he had often criticized the Saudi pressures  designed to put an end to the Lebanese dispute with the Syrian regime.

 Saad Hariri seemed to be very independent from Saudi Arabia and Iran. He probably thought that the latter might be useful to rebalance the Saudi influence on the Lebanon.

  Hence everything seemed obvious: Saudi Arabia did not want to trigger the fuse in Syria and wanted to avoid  destabilization in the Lebanon – inevitable after the destabilization of the Syrian regime. Finally Saudi Arabia did not accept Iran’s expansion among the Houthi and, however, deemed that all those points of tension could be easily controllable if kept separate one another.

 It is by no mere coincidence that in January 2011 – just in the year of “Arab Springs” – Saad Hariri was removed from office a few minutes after a photo opportunity with Barack Obama.

 Hariri resigned on November 4 last, in view of political elections scheduled for next May.

 Saad Hariri’s political party can win on the basis of a fundamental criterion – namely the refusal to accept Hezbollah further expansion in the Lebanon, which is increasingly widespread among Sunni voters – while currently Hariri seems to be ever closer to the Lebanese Shiite “Party of God”.

 Nor should we forget about Saad’s scarce personal and political resources, now used up in years of election, propaganda and party welfare.

 It is hence evident that, currently, Saudi Arabia no longer needs a buffer State such as the Lebanon, where to create large-coalition governments with Iranian agents but, if anything, it wants the political and territorial collapse of the Lebanon and its fragmentation between pro-Saudi areas and Shiite-controlled areas.

 Furthermore Saudi Arabia has softly let it know that it wants to replace Saad Hariri with his brother Bahaa, who – in a mix of business and politics – is closer to the new equilibrium imposed by the Crown Prince on the Saudi power elite.

Hence we are faced with a cold regional war between Shiites and Sunnis, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in which both major contenders move their minor allies on the Middle East chessboard, with the United States supporting Saudi Arabia – without realizing what is really happening – and Russia, the new actual global player in the region, having stable relations with Iran, winning in Syria, maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia and dealing with Turkey to solve the Kurdish issue.

 Nevertheless if Iran has also to deal with tensions in the Lebanon, defending the political and military power of Hezbollah – “Imam Khomeini’s beloved creature” – it cannot maintain the same economic and military standing in Syria, nor even support the Houthi rebellion with the same forces as in the past.

 It is a proxy war – hence the strategic equation is based on the possibility of consuming the opponent’s resources by  diverting them from the true targets they intend to hit.

 Iran wants Yemen because it is a way for strategically controlling – on the same territory of the Arabian  peninsula – the Sunni Kingdom and the commercial lines going to the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal.

 Saudi Arabia wants Lebanon, or part of it, to put pressures  on the Syrian borders and disrupt the line Iran is  building to connect – south of Syria – the Iranian borders with those between Syria and the Lebanon.

 It is a connection that – under the supervision of the Russian Federation – enables Iran to reach the Mediterranean safely and control its indirect borders with the Sunni Kingdom.

 That is the reason why Saudi Arabia wants Saad Hariri to pay the bill just now: a few days ago the Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs said that the Lebanese Sunni leader “did not do enough” to “drive Hezbollah back into the caves”.

 Furthermore the “Party of God” has no intention of clashing directly with Saudi Arabia but, over the next few weeks, it could repeat the action against Israel which, in 2006, won wide consensus for Hezbollah in the Lebanon.

 In this case, the elections should be won with a war, forcing also Hariri and the other small Sunni political parties to come to terms with the Shiites of Southern Lebanon, who now hold and control the Armed Forces and most of bureaucracy.

 Looking to the tendencies of those who vote for Hariri’s “Future Movement” political party -Tayyar Al Mustaqbal  -it can be noted that there is an anti-Shiite polarization and an explicit rejection of Saudi’s “protection” for the Lebanon.

 The May elections in the Lebanon will be won by those who will be able to emphasize national independence and a new welfare State project.

 Ironically, according to what ascertained in 2014 by the Hague International Tribunal, it was precisely Hezbollah to organize the attack on Rafik Hariri, the first real destabilization act in the Lebanon.

 However, as said by the Russian nobleman who, after the destruction of his family by the Bolsheviks – agreed to work as Head of the Russian Protocol at the Versailles Conference: “If your mother dies knocked down by a tramcar, this does not mean that you should stop catching  it”.

 Meanwhile, after Saad’s resignation – obviously forced by a Saudi Kingdom that could not accept that in the most stable Saudi-friendly government in the Lebanon there were two  Hezbollah ministers – the Lebanese political offer is distorted and made more complex.

 Obviously the Shiite group will try to form a new government, which will have an unstable majority.

 In this case, Saudi Arabia will force the Shiite group to unintentionally destabilize its own country.

 Unless the “Party of God” starts a campaign against the Jewish State, which would distract attention from the internal political equilibria and shift it to external warfare  and would enable the Shiite group to be supported by the great majority of Lebanese people.

 Hence, while Syria is now part of the Iranian axis, Saudi Arabia wants Lebanon – possibly the whole of it – to seal the Shiite hegemony in the Syrian cul de sac between Turkey, Israel and, precisely, Saudi Arabia.

 The French President, Macron, discussed the Lebanese issue carefully in his visit to Dubai on November 9 last.

On the one hand, he underlined the French effort for achieving the Lebanon’s unity and stability while, on the other, he fears Iran’s ballistic missile program.

 They should have thought about it before, when the P5 + 1 signed the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, considering that the ICBMs – although not having nuclear warheads – may be fatal in a war confrontation.

 The US nuclear weapon psychosis has prevented from thinking about other threats, not less serious than the nuclear  ones.

 Obviously any Western country confining itself to the rhetoric of “dialogue” or trivial equidistance and renouncing to claim its specific national interest, is doomed to “come to ruin”, as the disarmed prophets described by Machiavelli.

 What could we do instead?

  For example, we could define a series of points on the Persian Gulf coast where to deploy an International Force, which should regionalize and curb the conflicts in the area,  up to making them become irrelevant.

 Moreover, with his resignation, Hariri could reaffirm his allegiance to the new course of the Saudi monarchy inaugurated by the Crown Prince while, as already noted in a previous article, Saad’s company – namely Saudi Oger – was harshly hit by Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s recent sanctions.

 Accepting the Saudi dictates to rescue himself and his “property” – just to use again  Machiavelli’s language – is a rational and understandable choice, also considering that  elections in the Lebanon are very costly.

 Nor can we rule out that, by putting pressure on the Lebanese Shiites, Saudi Arabia wants to create the conditions for an agreement with Iran in an area that is for them much more useful than the Lebanon, namely Iraq, a necessary ally for oil and an inevitable bulwark in the regionalization of Bashar el Assad’ Syria.

  Regionalization that could also be useful to Iran.

 Therefore the “Party of God” may choose to accept a compromise on the Lebanese government to defuse the confrontation with Saudi Arabia or it may create a broad front with other religious-social minorities and relegate Saad and hence the Saudis to the opposition. It may also accept a “technocratic” government that would bring the Lebanon to the May elections in a situation where everyone is hands-free – hence also Iran and Saudi Arabia.

 Nor can we rule out that Hezbollah wants to continue the alliance with Saad, thus putting the Saudi political operations in the Lebanon in difficulty.

 Meanwhile – and by no mere coincidence – this year the Lebanese government has adopted the State budget for the first time since 2005.

 A budget which is not the budget of a country undergoing an immediate financial crisis.

 The public deficit is supposed to be 5.2 billion US dollars and it should be recalled that the Lebanese lira is pegged to the US dollar at a fixed exchange rate.

 A projected deficit of 9.54% of GDP, while the GDP is expected to grow by 2.2% in 2017 with a still tragic debt / GDP ratio of 149%.

 Both the crisis of migrants from the Syrian border (so far a million and a half people) and the clash for the distribution of resources among the various political and religious areas are the reasons why public spending has sky-rocketed over the last four years.

 This makes us think that, in the future, Iran or Saudi Arabia will be interested in funding the Lebanese public debt in exchange for political and military favours.

 Finally there is a ridiculous absence of the European Union, which now thinks that foreign policy is a luxury.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Israel’s new Global Strategy

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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If we want to study Israel’s political and military positions, we must at first analyse Syria.

For Israel the problem in Syria is Russia, although it is apparently Iran.

In fact, one of the de-escalation areas is in the Golan Heights  and certainly the Jewish State does not like that Iran and Hezbollah can easily and quietly operate in the Golan area, even without warlike acts but under the protection of Russia, which is also the guarantor of the whole area.

In particular, the Israeli government wants the Russian Federation to never intervene in favour of Iran.

However, if Iran and the Shiite forces leave Syria, Russia’s control to ensure Syrian stability will weaken and probably even crumble.

Hence Israel wants Russia and even Syria to push Iran away from Syria, by threatening a real war on Syrian soil, along with the United States.

The United States and Israel could overthrow Assad and, in any case, remove Russia from the area, and hence from the Middle East. This is one of Russia’s primary aim, i.e. to stay in the Greater Middle East and in the Mediterranean region with strong and decisive power. But would the United States accept this anti-Russian operation? I do not think so. The United States would initially participate and later move away, after having completed the first operations successfully. After the first headlines on the New York Times, it would go back home. The United States either takes possession of an area for twenty years -as was the case in Afghanistan – or confines itself to quick strategic operations.

In the current Syrian situation, however, will the United States still be a reliable partner for Israel, apart from the possible war?

Probably not. The United States already has its Kurds who, after the US withdrawal from Syria, immediately decided to fall into Assad’s arms, with a view to opposing Turkey.

Furthermore, what would be the configuration of the Syrian-Iranian system after this attack on the Syrian Baathist regime? Probably more dangerous than it is today.

A great coalition is needed to destroy Shiite Iran’s  hegemonic designs, certainly with the United States, but also and above all with Islamic partners, not only Saudi Arabia.

Russia would never accept such a project.

Russia wants to avoid not only the stabilization of current Syria, which, in fact, is now a Russian client State, but also a new war in the Greater Middle East.

Hence Israel’s friendship with Russia is possible and desirable, but the only true and realistic possibility of containing Iran within Syria, or on the Israeli borders, is anyway to strongly isolate the Shiite power within Assad’s area, which may also be Russia’s goal.

This also in view of strengthening Russia’s increasingly close relations with Saudi Arabia, a fierce competitor and opponent of Iran, which could be decisive in a post-war reorganisation and reconstruction of Syria.

Hence any realistic strategy for harshly containing Iran must be based on a preliminary agreement between Russia and Israel.

Moreover, it should be recalled that Russia absolutely needs the Jewish State at economic, technological and strategic levels.

These are some of the topics I had the opportunity of discussing openly and frankly with my friend Moshe Ya’alon, when I recently presented the Israeli edition of my latest book in Jerusalem.

Hence a preventive war on Syria to destroy the Iran-Hezbollah axis? Probably so. I also believe that, in all likelihood, there could be a substantial military disregard and disinterest of Russia, which would thus no longer have many contacts with a dangerous oil competitor, namely Iran, which has very different oil and gas policies from Russia.

Not to mention, however, that Saudi Arabia is already making its war in Yemen, certainly with a view to avoiding the pressure of a Shiite group such as the Houthi, but also and above all to taking possession of the new (huge) oil reserves of Kharkhir and Najran – apart from the fact that currently 60% of Yemeni oil is already “stolen” from Saudi Arabia, through former Yemeni President Mansour Hadi.

Obviously the clash in Yemen also regards control over the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, through which 3,800 million barrels of Middle East crude oil transit.

Syria, however, is still a big, polymorphic country, which has always been politically unstable and, in any case, with Christian minority areas -Druze and Shiite or para-Shiite areas – that could turn out to be too hard a nut to crack in view of waging the blitzkrieg, the lightning war that has always been in the style of the Israeli strategic thinking.

Moreover, given the current presence of many Iranian armaments in the Lebanon and, probably, in the Golan Heights, a very quick attack should be based on an extremely careful analysis of the positions and forces of Shiite groups by the Israeli intelligence services.

Anyway, a quick attack should avoid Israel’s countermove on its Northern borders.

Hence, to date the only logical operation would be to define a Syrian geopolitics shared with Russia, which has parallel interests and controls the Shiite forces on the field.

Indeed Russia is looking for a reliable ally to counter Iran’s territorial claim on Syria itself.

The agreement signed by Israel with the USA and Russia, at the end of July 2018, also enabled Israel to accept the presence of the Syrian army on the Golan border, albeit over eighty kilometres away from the boundary line.

This implies that the Israeli Armed Forces will not wage  war to undermine Russia’s prospects and Syrian operations outside the borders with Israel. A clear  acceptance of Russian protection over Assad’s armies.

The United States has now abandoned its Southern client States, namely the “democratic jihadists”, if any, which is a sign of the clear US inability to think in a strategically correct way.

In fact, both Russia and Israel know that the Syrian clash is a war that can affect the whole world, not just the Middle East. It is not the usual story of “democracy” against “terrorism”.

The Syrian clash has been the trigger of a possible world war.

The United States has instead interpreted the war in Syria as a mere war on terror, a sort of geopolitical tranquilizer.

Obviously Israel has greatly strengthened its positions in the Golan area, but will it be enough? I do not think so.

The possibility for Iran (which funds and trains also the Islamic jihad south of Israel) to start a regional clash against the Jewish State also from the Gaza Strip is such as not to allow excessive confidence in the current status quo.

Meanwhile, in Asia there is Israel’s economic, but also political opening.

Obviously Israel’s motivation lies in the fact that Asia will be the dominant region at economic, but also at political and military levels.

Hence the opportunity – to be seized in the near future – of a geopolitical connection between China and Israel, which could easily influence also the Greater Middle East.

Except for Singapore and Burma, all Israeli official relations with the Asian countries date back to the period following the collapse of the USSR.

Trade with China and the other Asian powers is already significant: in fact, it amounts to 15 billion US dollars.

Considering the current trade tensions between China and the USA, the relationship between China and Israel could become crucial, especially in the high-tech field.

There is also a project at stake, i.e. the Med-Red, a Eilat-Ashdod railway line that could be a terrestrial alternative to the Suez Canal, with very noticeable strategic effects, which are barely imaginable today. Chinese investment would be relevant in this respect, considering the geographical and political symmetry of Red-Med with the New Silk Road.

While the EU – with its current trade laws, substantially punishing the Jewish State – remains a substantially enemy area, Israel is opening to Asian trade – and China’s, in particular – which largely replaces trade with the EU.

These economic facts have wide strategic implications:  unlike the old “Rhine” Europe, not reached by the new “Silk Road”, Israel is connecting to Central Asia’s great development area and hence is slowing down its ties with the USA and, even more, with Europe, which is now hypocritically anti-Semitic.

Asia is therefore a sort of insurance policy – also at geopolitical level – of the Jewish State against the West, which will be ever less friendly in the future.

In any case, Israel can always open up preferential channels in the East, if they are closed in the West.

Nevertheless the Jewish State does not certainly want to diminish its relations with the USA and Europe today, although its relations with the East will certainly increase, including those having a security nature.

Hence if the relations with the USA cool down, even from a political viewpoint, Israel could establish good contacts with India while, due to its excellent relations with Iran, China may not be Israel’s exclusive partner in the East.

Again at regional level, a long-term – if not definitive – solution to the Palestinian issue could be useful.

If the borders between the Jewish State and the PNA are not made safe, that strategic link will always be used as a thorn in the flesh against Israel, which will never become a global player unless it quickly gets rid of the old geopolitical memories of so many regional wars.

How can we resolve tension with Palestine, which could be exploited in the future by anyone who wants to weaken the Jewish State?

The solution of placing the PNA in Jordan’s hands is not very rational.

The Hashemite Kingdom has not the economic, and probably not even the military, strength  to swallow the whole Palestinian area up.

Jordan can certainly become an element of control over the Palestinian territories, but nothing more.

The solution of the State to be built, however, has now failed and certainly not because of Israel.

Hence what could be the solution? We could think about an area controlled and economically supported by Islamic countries – pro quota – but certainly not by Iran.

I see no other possible options.

It is certain, however, that the strengthening of good economic relations with Egypt, Jordan, even with Saudi Arabia, would be useful also for solving the Palestinian issue.

Another fact to be considered is the strategic superiority of the Jewish State in the field of active and passive cybersecurity, which can harshly remove many tensions before they arise.

Certainly, for the Jewish State, cyberwarfare gives the possibility of weakening the infrastructural and protective networks of the enemy so as to make it unable to fight.

It is also certain that Israel is a world leader in this sector, but it must always keep up, because the pace of change in this field is very fast.

Nevertheless cyber-mercenaries are also coming – and there will much work here.

Obviously, although the excellence of the Israeli cyberstrategy is well-known, we shall keep and further improve it and, above all, target and direct remote operations – even temporarily – against new enemies and adversaries, never targeted before.

Enemies change, but it is good to never trust eternal friendship.

It will be good, however, to currently move away from the Western model of the “showbiz society”, which does not make young people focus on technical, scientific, rational and historical education and training – as today happens also in Israel- and go back to of our parents’ and grandparents’ model, with better education and hence more effective “nationalization of the masses” also in the Armed Forces.

We also need to invest even more in schools and universities although Israel has not yet reached the disastrous situation of many European countries and, above all, of Italy.

It will also be very useful to improve the relationship between universities and the productive and military system.

This is very difficult, but I really believe that the Jewish State will succeed once again.

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Inside the Beltway: Iran hardliners vs Iran hardliners

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Alarm bells went off last September in Washington’s corridors of power when John Bolton’s national security council asked the Pentagon for options for military strikes against Iran.

The council’s request was in response to three missiles fired by an Iranian-backed militia that landed in an empty lot close to the US embassy in Baghdad and the firing of rockets by unidentified militants close to the US consulate in the Iraqi port city of Basra.

“We have told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor,” Mr. Bolton said at the time.

Commenting on the council’s request, a former US official noted that “people were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”

Then US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, like Mr. Bolton an Iran hawk, worried that military strikes would embroil the United States in a larger conflagration with Iran.

The request, moreover, seemed to call into question US President Donald J. Trump’s promise to America’s European allies that he would rein in Mr. Bolton who has a long track record of advocating military action against Iran.

Months before joining the Trump administration in the spring of 2018, Mr. Bolton drafted at the request of Mr. Trump’s then strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, a plan that envisioned US support “for the democratic Iranian opposition,” “Kurdish national aspirations in Iran, Iraq and Syria,” and assistance for Iranian Arabs in the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan and the Baloch who populate the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Baluchistan province.

Frustrated by the Trump administration’s failure to respond to his suggestions, Mr. Bolton published the memo in December 2017.

Almost to the day two years after the publication and two months before the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Mr. Bolton asserted in a policy speech in Cairo, that the United States had “joined the Iranian people in calling for freedom and accountability… America’s economic sanctions against the (Iranian) regime are the strongest in history, and will keep getting tougher until Iran starts behaving like a normal country.” Mr Bolton was referring to harsh US sanctions imposed in 2018 by Mr. Trump after withdrawing the United States from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Bolton’s plan stroked with Saudi thinking about the possibility of attempting to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities. The thinking was made public in a November 2017 study by the International Institute for Iranian Studies, formerly known as the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies, a Saudi government-backed think tank.

The study argued that Chabahar, the Indian-backed Iranian deep-sea port at the top of the Arabian Sea, posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.” Pakistani militants claimed in 2017 that Saudi Arabia had stepped up funding of militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite fighters.

Mr. Bolton’s memo followed an article he wrote in The New York Times in 2015 headlined ‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran’ at the time that President Barak Obama was negotiating the international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Bolton argued in the op-ed that diplomacy would never prevent the Islamic republic from acquiring nuclear weapons. “The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed,” Mr. Bolton wrote.

The memo was written at about the same time that Mr. Bolton told a gathering of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e-Khalq that “the declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran” and that “before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran.”

While Mr. Bolton has remained outspoken even if he has been careful in his wording as national security advisor, other past advocates of military action against Iran have taken a step back.

Mike Pompeo has since becoming secretary of state hued far closer to the Trump administration’s official position that it is pursuing behavioural rather than regime change in Iran. But as a member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Pompeo suggested in 2014 launching “2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity.”

While the Trump administration has largely explained its hard line towards Iran as an effort to halt the country’s missile development, roll back its regional influence, and ensure that the Islamic Republic will never be able to develop a nuclear weapon, Mr. Bolton has suggested that it was also driven by alleged Iranian non-compliance with the nuclear accord.

“Report: Iran’s secret nuclear archive ‘provides substantial evidence that Iran’s declarations to IAEA International Atomic Energy Agency) are incomplete & deliberately false.’ The President was right to end horrible Iran deal. Pressure on Iran to abandon nuclear ambitions will increase,” Mr. Bolton tweeted this month, endorsing a report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

Based on Iranian documents obtained by Israel, the report identified an allegedly undeclared Iranian nuclear site. “Documentation seized in January 2018 by Israel from the Iranian ‘Nuclear Archive’ revealed key elements of Iran’s past nuclear weaponization program and the Amad program more broadly, aimed at development and production of nuclear weapons. The material extracted from the archives shows that the Amad program had the intention to build five nuclear warhead systems for missile delivery,” the report said.

Similarly, Mr. Bolton this month told Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu on a visit to Jerusalem that “we have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons. The United States and Israel are strategically committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.”

Mr. Bolton’s assertion contrasted starkly with then Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ assessment in his 2017 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community that “we do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

Mr. Bolton’s hardline position within the Trump administration could be cemented if Iran were to decide that upholding the nuclear agreement no longer served its interest. Anti-agreement momentum in Iran has been fuelled by the European Union’s seeming inability or unwillingness to create a financial system that would evade US sanctions and facilitate trade with Europe.

Mr. Bolton’s hard line has also been bolstered by the imposition of European Union sanctions on Iran’s ministry of intelligence and two individuals on charges of plotting to kill leaders of an Iranian Arab separatist movement in Denmark and the Netherlands.

An Iranian abrogation of the nuclear agreement would likely lead to a reshuffle of the Iranian cabinet and the appointment of hardliners that would in turn bolster Mr. Bolton’s argument that the Iran issue has to be resolved before the United States can militarily truly disengage from the Middle East and South Asia.

Hardliners like Mr. Bolton may have one more development going for them: Disillusionment in Iran with the government of President Hassan Rouhani is mounting.

The disappointment is being fuelled not only by the failure of the nuclear accord to drive economic growth and the government’s mis-management of the economy and inability to take on nepotism, vested interests such as the Revolutionary Guards and the growing income gap accentuated by the elite’s public display of ostentatious wealth, but also the fact that Mr. Rouhani appears to have lost interest in reform and implementing change.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Rouhani´s second term has been extremely ignorant (about the demands) of the twenty-four million people who make up Iranian civil society. Most of the reformists believe that he no longer wants to interact (with the reform movement). All that concerns him is to emerge from the remaining two years (of his second term) undamaged, and thus maintain his privileged spot in the pyramid of power,” said Abdullah Naseri, a prominent reformist and adviser to the former president Mohammad Khatami. Mr. Naseri was referring to the 24 million people who voted for Mr. Rouhani.

A reformist himself, Mr. Khatami warned that “if the nezam (establishment) insists on its mistakes… (and) reform fails, the society will move toward overthrowing the system.”

The roots of Mr. Bolton’s thinking lie in a policy paper entitled US Defense Planning Guidance that has been in place since 1992. The paper stipulates that US policy is designed “to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources under consolidated control be sufficient to generate global power.” The paper goes a long way in explaining why the US and Saudi Arabia potentially would be interested in destabilizing Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities.

Iran scholar Shireen Hunter suggests that squashing Iran’s ambition of being a regional and global player may be one reason why senior Trump administration officials, including Mr. Bolton, Mr. Pompeo and Rudolph Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, alongside the Saudis support the Mujahedin e-Khalq even if its domestic support base is in question.

“The MEK was willing to support Saddam Hussein and cede Iran’s (oil-rich) Khuzestan province to Iraq. There is no reason to think that it won’t similarly follow U.S. bidding,” Ms. Hunter said referring to the Mujahedeen’s support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Mr. Bolton appeared to be fortifying what amounted to the most hard-line approach towards Iran in an administration that was already determined to bring Iran to its knees by elevating Charles M. Kupperman, a long-time associate and former Reagan administration official, to deputy national security adviser.

Mr. Kupperman, a former Boeing and Lockheed Martin executive, previously served on the board for the Center for Security Policy, a far-right think tank advocating for a hawkish Iran policy founded by  Frank Gaffney, a former US government official who is widely viewed as an Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist.

Similarly, Mr. Trump, reportedly on Mr. Bolton’s advice, hired this month Richard Goldberg as the national security council’s director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction.

As a staffer for former Senator Mark Kirk, Mr. Goldberg helped write legislation that served as the basis for the Obama administration’s sanctions regime on Tehran prior to the nuclear deal. He went on to work for the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which advocates a hard line towards Iran.

Earlier, Mr. Bolton hired Matthew C. Freedman, who in March 2018, together with Messrs. Kupperman and Bolton registered the Institute for a Secure America as a non-profit organization on the day that Mr. Trump announced Mr. Bolton’s appointment as national security advisor.

A long-standing Bolton associate and one-time member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, Mr. Freedman worked in the 1980s and 1990s as a foreign lobbyist with Paul Manafort, who managed Mr. Trump’s election campaign for several months and was last year convicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between the campaign and Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Messrs. Bolton, Kupperman and Freedman also established in 2015 the Foundation for American Security and Freedom to campaign against the Iran nuclear deal.

David J. Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who wrote a definitive history of the National Security Council described Mr. Bolton as a man “who has never crossed a bridge he hasn’t burned behind him, who is surrounding himself with what appears to be a second-tier group of advisers who have spent a disproportionate amount of time on the swamp side of things — as consultants or working on his extreme political projects.”

Said journalist and political commentator Mehdi Hasan: “You underestimate John Bolton at your peril… In 2003, Bolton got the war he wanted with Iraq. As an influential, high-profile, hawkish member of the Bush administration, Bolton put pressure on intelligence analysts, threatened international officials, and told barefaced lies about weapons of mass destruction. He has never regretted his support for the illegal and catastrophic invasion of Iraq, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. Now, he wants a war with Iran.”

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Syria’s Kurds: The new frontline in confronting Iran and Turkey

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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US President Donald J. Trump’s threat to devastate Turkey’s economy if Turkish troops attack Syrian Kurds allied with the United States in the wake of the announced withdrawal of American forces potentially serves his broader goal of letting regional forces fight for common goals like countering Iranian influence in Syria.

Mr. Trump’s threat coupled with a call on Turkey to create a 26-kilometre buffer zone to protect Turkey from a perceived Kurdish threat was designed to pre-empt a Turkish strike against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that Ankara asserts is part of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish group that has waged a low-intensity war in predominantly Kurdish south-eastern Turkey for more than three decades.

Like Turkey, the United States and Europe have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Turkey has been marshalling forces for an attack on the YPG since Mr. Trump’s announced withdrawal of US forces. It would be the third offensive against Syrian Kurds in recent years.

In a sign of strained relations with Saudi Arabia, Turkish media with close ties to the government have been reporting long before the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul that Saudi Arabia is funding the YPG. There is no independent confirmation of the Turkish allegations.

Yeni Safak reported in 2017, days after the Gulf crisis erupted pitting a Saudi-UAE-Egyptian alliance against Qatar, which is supported by Turkey, that US, Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian officials had met with the PKK as well as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey says is the Syrian political wing of the PKK, to discuss the future of Syrian oil once the Islamic State had been defeated.

Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu Agency reported last May that Saudi and YPG officials had met to discuss cooperation. Saudi Arabia promised to pay Kurdish fighters that joined an Arab-backed force US$ 200 a month, Anadolu said. Saudi Arabia allegedly sent aid to the YPG on trucks that travelled through Iraq to enter Syria.

In August last year, Saudi Arabia announced that it had transferred US$ 100 million to the United States that was earmarked for agriculture, education, roadworks, rubble removal and water service in areas of north-eastern Syria that are controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces of which the YPG is a significant part.

Saudi Arabia said the payment, announced on the day that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the kingdom, was intended to fund stabilization of areas liberated from control by the Islamic State.

Turkish media, however, insisted that the funds would flow to the YPG.

“The delivery of $100 million is considered as the latest move by Saudi Arabia in support of the partnership between the U.S. and YPG. Using the fight against Daesh as a pretext, the U.S. has been cooperating with the YPG in Syria and providing arms support to the group. After Daesh was cleared from the region with the help of the U.S., the YPG tightened its grip on Syrian soil taking advantage of the power vacuum in the war-torn country,” Daily Sabah said referring to the Islamic State by one of its Arabic acronyms.

Saudi Arabia has refrained from including the YPG and the PKK on its extensive list of terrorist organizations even though then foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir described in 2017 the Turkish organization as a “terror group.”

This week’s Trump threat and his earlier vow to stand by the Kurds despite the troop withdrawal gives Saudi Arabia and other Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt political cover to support the Kurds as a force against Iran’s presence in Syria.

It also allows the kingdom and the UAE to attempt to thwart Turkish attempts to increase its regional influence. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have insisted that Turkey must withdraw its troops from Qatar as one of the conditions for the lifting of the 18-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state.

The UAE, determined to squash any expression of political Islam, has long led the autocratic Arab charge against Turkey because of its opposition to the 2013 military coup in Egypt that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and the country’s first and only democratically elected president; Turkey’s close relations with Iran and Turkish support for Qatar and Islamist forces in Libya.

Saudi Arabia the UAE and Egypt support General Khalifa Haftar, who commands anti-Islamist forces in eastern Libya while Turkey alongside Qatar and Sudan supports the Islamists.

Libyan and Saudi media reported that authorities had repeatedly intercepted Turkish arms shipments destined for Islamists, including one this month and another last month. Turkey has denied the allegations.

“Simply put, as Qatar has become the go-to financier of the Muslim Brotherhood and its more radical offshoot groups around the globe, Turkey has become their armorer,” said Turkey scholar Michael Rubin.

Ironically, the fact that various Arab states, including the UAE and Bahrain, recently reopened their embassies in Damascus with tacit Saudi approval after having supported forces aligned against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for much of the civil war, like Mr. Trump’s threat to devastate the Turkish economy, makes Gulf support for the Kurds more feasible.

Seemingly left in the cold by the US president’s announced withdrawal of American forces, the YPG has sought to forge relations with the Assad regime. In response, Syria has massed troops near the town of Manbij, expected to be the flashpoint of a Turkish offensive.

Commenting on last year’s two-month long Turkish campaign that removed Kurdish forces from the Syrian town of Afrin and Turkish efforts since to stabilize the region, Gulf scholar Giorgio Cafiero noted that “for the UAE, Afrin represents a frontline in the struggle against Turkish expansionism with respect to the Arab world.”

The same could be said from a Saudi and UAE perspective for Manbij not only with regard to Turkey but also Iran’s presence in Syria. Frontlines and tactics may be shifting, US and Gulf geopolitical goals have not.

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