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.
The Turkish Gambit
The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon. One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.
The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria. Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps. The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.
Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian. After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families. About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.
How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question. Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently? For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.
There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter. Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes.
Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability. If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point. Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal: access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.
Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon. It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke. It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood. The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.
A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power. The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson. So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006. Now they are feared by Israeli troops.
To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump. Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past. It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving. If you go in, you will have to police the area. Don’t ask us to help you.” Is that subject to misinterpretation? It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office.
For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions. Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included. Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire. On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May. Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith. The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can. Where are they headed? Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.
Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences.
Author’s Note: This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org
Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?
On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.
It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.
Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.
Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.
Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.
It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.
Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around
Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.
Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.
But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.
The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.
The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.
It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.
The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.
It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.
Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK
Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.
Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.
The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.
If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.
The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.
The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.
The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”
The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.
Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”
Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.
The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.
A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.
The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.
In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.
Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.
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