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Remembering Syria: Iran struggles with potentially explosive environmental crisis

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Iranian leaders are struggling, three months after anti-government protests swept the Islamic republic, to ensure that environmental issues that helped sparked a popular uprising in Syria in 2011 leading to a brutal civil war don’t threaten the clergy’s grip on power.

Like Syria, Iran has been confronting a drought that has affected much of the country for more than a decade with precipitation dropping to its lowest level in half a century. Environmental concerns have figured prominently in protests in recent years, often in regions populated by ethnic minorities like Azeris, and Iranian Arabs.

Unrest among ethnic minorities, who account for almost half of Iran’s population, takes on added significance with Iran fearing that Saudi Arabia’s activist crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and the Trump administration’s antipathy towards the Islamic republic bolstered by the appointment of a hardliner, John Bolton, as the president’s national security advisor.

Mr. Bolton has called for regime change in Iran, aligning himself with a controversial exile opposition group, while Prince Mohammed is believed to have tacitly endorsed thinking about stirring unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities even if he has yet to decide whether to adopt subversion as a policy.

Iran has repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia in the past year of supplying weapons and explosives to restive groups like the Baluch and the Kurds.

Yet, concern about environmental degradation and its potential political fallout goes beyond fear that it could facilitate interference by external powers. Demonstrators in the province of Isfahan last month clashed with security forces after they took to the streets to protest water shortages. The protest occurred some three months after Iran was wracked by weeks of anti-government demonstrations.

The protest was the latest in a series of expressions of discontent. Anger at plans in 2013 to divert water from Isfahan province sparked clashes with police. The Isfahan Chamber of Commerce reported a year later that the drying out of the Zayandeh Roud river basin had deprived some 2 million farmers or 40 percent of the local population in the Zayandeh-Roud basin of their income.

“Over 90% of (Iran’s) population and economic production are located in areas of high or very high water stress. This is two to three times the global average in percentage terms, and, in absolute numbers, it represents more people and more production at risk than any other country in the Middle East and North Africa,” Al-Monitor quoted Claudia Sadoff, director general of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute, as saying.

A panel of retired US military officers noted in December that “since the 1979 revolution, the per capita quantity of Iran’s renewable water supplies has dropped by more than half, to a level commonly associated with the benchmark for water stress. Even more troubling, in large swaths of the country, demand for fresh water exceeds supply a third of the year. Fourteen years of drought have contributed to the problem, as has poor resource management, including inefficient irrigation techniques, decentralized water management, subsidies for water-intensive crops like wheat, and dam building. As a result, parts of the country are experiencing unrest related to water stress.”

By identifying water as one of the country’s foremost problems, the government recognized that mismanagement leading to acute water shortages risks becoming a symbol of its inability to efficiently deliver public goods and services.

The government has sought to tackle the issue by promoting reduced water consumption and water conservation, halting construction of dams, combatting evaporation by building underground water distribution networks, introducing water metres in agriculture, encouraging farmers to opt for less water-intensive crops, multiplying the number of treatment plants, and looking at desalination as a way of increasing supply.

With agriculture the main culprit in Iran’s inefficient use of water, Iranian officials fear that the crisis will accelerate migration from the countryside to urban centres incapable of catering to the migrants and, in turn, increase popular discontent.

A US study suggested in 2015 that decades of unsustainable agricultural policies in Syria; drought in the north-eastern agricultural heartland of the country; economic reforms that eliminated food and fuel subsidies; significant population growth; and failure to adopt policies that mitigate climate change exacerbated grievances about unemployment, corruption and inequality that exploded in 2011 in anti-government protests in Syria.

The Syrian government’s determination to crush the protest rather than engage with the protesters sparked the country’s devastating war, currently the world’s deadliest conflict<.

“We’re not arguing that the drought, or even human-induced climate change, caused the uprising. What we are saying is that the long-term trend, of less rainfall and warmer temperatures in the region, was a contributing factor, because it made the drought so much more severe.” said Colin Kelley, one the study’s authors.

“The uprising has…to do with the government’s failure to respond to the drought, and with broader feelings of discontent in rural areas, and the growing gap between rich and poor, and urban and rural areas during the 2000s, than with the drought itself,” added Middle East water expert Francesca de Chatel.

Adopting a different emphasis, Ms. De Chatel argued that demonstrations in Syria, despite the drought, would not have erupted without the wave of protests that by then had already swept the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and subsequently toppled the leaders of Libya and Yemen.

She asserted further that the protest movement-turned-war in Syria would not “have persisted without input and support from organised groups in Syria who had been planning for this moment for years and certainly since before 2006 or the start of the drought.”

For Iranian leaders, the threat is real irrespective of the difference in emphasis between Mr. Kelly and Ms. De Chatel. Former Iranian agriculture minister Issa Kalantari warned in 2015 that left unresolved the water crisis would force 50 million Iranians to migrate in the next 25 years.

In other words, the environmental crisis that drives migration and unemployment and fuels discontent risks political upheaval. Similarly, multiple groups and external powers have for years contemplated regime change in Tehran.

The issues that were at the core of the initial protests in Syria in 2011 – unemployment, corruption and inequality – were at the heart of Iranian anti-government demonstrations in December and January.

Despite a renewed focus on the water crisis, the government’s Achilles Heel could prove to be the fact that its response has included shooting the messenger who bears the bad news as environmentalists increasingly find themselves in the firing line.

Authorities arrested in January Kavous Seyed-Emami, a dual Iranian-Canadian nation who directed the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and six other environmentalists. It asserted two weeks later that Mr. Seyed-Emami had committed suicide in jail after confessing to being a spy for the United States and Israel.

Three more environmentalists were arrested a month later while Mr. Seyed-Emami’s wife was prevented from leaving Iran.

State TV subsequently reported that Mr. Seyed-Emami and his colleagues had told Iran’s enemies that the country could no longer maintain domestic agriculture production because of water shortages and needed to import food.

Said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based economist and political analyst: “Public opinion has become sensitized to environmental issues. So the government may see the organizations and institutions who work on environmental issues as problematic.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Turkey plays Khashoggi crisis to its geopolitical advantage

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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With Turkish investigators asserting that they have found further evidence that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed when he visited the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, Turkey appears to be leveraging the case to enhance its position as a leader of the Islamic World and reposition itself as a key US ally.

To enhance its geopolitical position vis a vis Saudi Arabia as well as Russia and Iran and potentially garner economic advantage at a time that it is struggling to reverse a financial downturn, Turkey has so far leaked assertions of evidence it says it has of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing rather than announced them officially.

In doing so, Turkey has forced Saudi Arabia to allow Turkish investigators accompanied by Saudi officials to enter the consulate and positioned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the kingdom’s saviour by engineering a situation that will allow the kingdom to craft a face-saving way out of the crisis.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering announcing that Mr. Khashoggi, a widely-acclaimed journalist critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who went into self-exile because he feared arrest, was killed in either a rogue operation or an attempt gone awry to forcibly repatriate it him back to the kingdom.

US President Donald J. Trump offered the Turks and Saudis a helping hand by referring this week to the possibility of Mr. Khashoggi having been killed by rogues and dispatching Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh and Ankara.

Mr. Khashoggi, seeking to obtain proof of his divorce in the kingdom so that he could marry his Turkish fiancé, visited the consulate two weeks ago for the second time after having allegedly received assurances that he would be safe.

Turkey emerges as the crisis moves towards a situation in which an official version is agreed that seeks to shield Prince Mohammed from being held responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and likely murder with its international status significantly enhanced.

Turkish leverage is further boosted by the fact that Saudi Arabia — its image in government, political and business circles significantly damaged by the crisis — and the Trump administration that wants to ensure that the kingdom’s ruling family emerges from the crisis as unscathed as possible, are in Ankara’s debt.

As a result, the denouement of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to alter the dynamics in the long-standing competition between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Islamic world.

It also strengthens Turkey’s position in its transactional alliance with Russia and Iran as they manoeuvre to end the war in Syria in a manner that cements Bashar al-Assad’s presidency while addressing Turkish concerns.

Turkey’s position in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia is likely to also benefit from the fact that whatever face-saving solution the kingdom adopts is likely to be flawed when tested by available facts and certain to be challenged by a host of critics, even if many will see Turkey as having facilitated a political solution rather than ensuring that the truth is established.

Already, Mr. Khashoggi’s family who was initially quoted by Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled media as backing Saudi denials of responsibility, insinuations that his fate was the product of a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, and casting doubt on the integrity of the journalist’s Turkish fiancée, has called for “the establishment of an independent and impartial international commission to inquire into the circumstances of his death.”

Turkey and Saudi Arabia differ on multiple issues that divide the Muslim world. Turkey has vowed to help Iran circumvent Saudi-supported US sanctions imposed after Mr. Trump withdrew in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear agreement.

Turkey further backs Qatar in its dispute with a Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance that has diplomatically and economically boycotted the Gulf state for the last 16 months. The credibility of the alliance’s allegation that Qatar supports terrorism and extremism has been dented by the growing conviction that Saudi Arabia, whether in a planned, rogue or repatriation effort gone wrong, was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

Mr. Khashoggi’s death, moreover, highlighted differing approaches towards the Brotherhood, one of the Middle East’s most persecuted, yet influential Islamist groupings. Saudi Arabia, alongside the UAE and Egypt, have designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Many brothers have sought refuge in Turkey with Mr. Erdogan empathetic and supportive of the group. A former brother, Mr. Khashoggi criticized Saudi repression of the group.

The Saudi-Turkish rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world was most evident in the two countries’ responses to Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his as yet unpublished plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Turkey emerged as the leader of Islamic denunciation of Mr. Trump’s move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognition of the city as Israel’s capital after Prince Mohammed tried to dampen opposition. Ultimately, King Salman was forced to step in a bid to clarify the kingdom’s position and counter Turkish moves.

No matter how Turkey decides to officially release whatever evidence it has, Saudi Arabia figures out how to respond and halt the haemorrhaging, and Mr. Pompeo holds talks with King Salman and Mr. Erdogan, Turkey is likely to emerge from the crisis strengthened despite its increasingly illiberal and increasingly authoritarian rule at home,

Turkey’s success is all the more remarkable given that it has neither Saudi Arabia’s financial muscle nor the mantle the kingdom adopts as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

A successful political resolution of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to earn it the gratitude of the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia, and its other detractors like the UAE who support the kingdom even if it may help it to regain popularity in the Arab world lost as a result of its swing towards authoritarianism, alliance with Iran and Qatar, and support for Islamism.

One immediate Turkish victory is likely to be Saudi acquiesce to Mr. Erdogan’s demand that Saudi Arabia drop its support for Kurdish rebels in Syria that Ankara sees as terrorists – a move that would boost Turkey’s position the Turkish-Russian-Iranian jockeying for influence in a post-war Syria. Turkey is also likely to see Saudi Arabia support it economically.

Turkey may, however, be playing for higher stakes.

Turkey “wants to back Saudi Arabia to the wall. (It wants to) disparage the ‘reformist’ image that Saudi Arabia has been constructing in the West” in a bid to get the US to choose Ankara as its primary ally in the Middle East, said international relations scholar Serhat Guvenc.

Turkey’s relations in recent years have soured as a result of Turkish insistence that the US is harbouring a terrorist by refusing to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the preacher it accuses of having engineered the failed 2016 coup; detaining American nationals and US consulate employees on allegedly trumped up charges, cosying up to Russia and purchasing its S-400 surface to air missile system, and aligning itself with Iran. Relations were further strained by US support for Syrian Kurds.

Mr. Trump, however this week heralded a new era in US-Turkish relations after the release of unsubscribeAndrew Brunson, an evangelist preacher who was imprisoned in Turkey for two years on charges of espionage.

Mr. Guvenc argued that Turkey hopes that Saudi Arabia’s battered image will help it persuade Mr. Trump that Turkey rather than the kingdom is its strongest and most reliable ally alongside Israel in the Middle East.

Said journalist Ferhat Unlu: “”Turkey knows how to manage diplomatic crises. Its strategy is to manage tensions to its advantage,”

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MbS: Riding roughshod or playing a risky game of bluff poker?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A stalemate in efforts to determine what happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is threatening to escalate into a crisis that could usher in a new era in relations between the United States and some of its closest Arab allies as well as in the region’s energy politics.

In response to US President Donald J. Trump’s threat of “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia is proven to have been responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance while visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia is threatening to potentially upset the region’s energy and security architecture.

A tweet by Saudi Arabia’s Washington embassy thanking the United States for not jumping to conclusions did little to offset the words of an unnamed Saudi official quoted by the state-run news agency stressing  the kingdom’s “total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether through economic sanctions, political pressure or repeating false accusations.”

The official was referring to the kingdom’s insistence that it was not responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and assertion that it is confronting a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The kingdom also affirms that if it is (targeted by) any action, it will respond with greater action,” the official said noting that Saudi Arabia “plays an effective and vital role in the world economy.”

Turki Aldhakhil, a close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and general manager of the kingdom’s state-controlled Al Arabiya news network, claimed in an online article that Saudi leaders were discussing 30 ways of responding to possible US sanctions.

They allegedly included allowing oil prices to rise up to US$ 200 per barrel, which according to Mr. Aldhakhil, would lead to “the death” of the US economy, pricing Saudi oil in Chinese yuan instead of dollars, an end to intelligence sharing, and a military alliance with Russia that would involve a Russian military base in the kingdom.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Aldhakhil was reflecting serious discussions among secretive Saudi leaders or whether his article was intended either as a scare tactic or a trial balloon. Mr. Aldakhil’s claim that a Saudi response to Western sanctions could entail a reconciliation with the kingdom’s arch enemy, Iran, would make his assertion seem more like geopolitical and economic bluff.

Meanwhile, in what appeared to be a coordinated response aimed at demonstrating that Saudi Arabia was not isolated, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt rushed to express solidarity with the kingdom. Like Turkey, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE have a track record of suppressing independent journalism and freedom of the press.

Ironically, Turkey may be the kingdom’s best friend in the Khashoggi crisis if its claims to have incontrovertible proof of what happened in the consulate prove to be true. Turkey has so far refrained from making that evidence public, giving Saudi Arabia the opportunity to come up with a credible explanation.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip “Erdogan wants to give Saudis an exit out of #Khashoggi case, hoping the Saudi king/crown prince will blame ‘rogue elements’ for the alleged murder, then throwing someone important under the bus. This would let Erdogan walk away looking good & prevent rupture in Turkey-Saudi ties,” tweeted Turkey scholar Soner Cagaptay.

The Saudi news agency report and Mr. Aldakhil’s article suggest that Prince Mohammed believes that Saudi Arabia either retains the clout to impose its will on much of the international community or believes that it rather than its Western critics would emerge on top from any bruising confrontation.

Prince Mohammed no doubt is reinforced in his belief by Mr. Trump’s reluctance to include an arms embargo in his concept of severe punishment. He may also feel that Western support for the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and reluctance to credibly take the kingdom to task for its conduct of the war was an indication that he was free to do as he pleased.

Prince Mohammed may have been further strengthened in his belief by the initial course of events 28 years ago, the last time that the fate of a journalist was at the centre of a crisis between a Western power and an Arab country.

At the time, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, similar to Mr. Trump’s inclination, refused to impose economic sanctions after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered the arrest, torture and execution of Farhad Barzoft, a young London-based Iranian journalist who reported for The Observer.

Since declassified British government documents disclosed that Mrs. Thatcher’s government did not want to jeopardize commercial relations despite its view of the Iraqi government as a “ruthless and disagreeable regime.”

The comparison between the Khashoggi crisis and the case of Mr. Barzoft goes beyond Western governments’ reluctance to jeopardize commercial relationships.

Mr Barzoft was executed months before Mr. Hussein’s military invaded Kuwait prompting US-led military action that forced his troops to withdraw from the Gulf state, crippling economic sanctions, and ultimately the 2003 Gulf War that, no matter how ill-advised, led to the Iraqi leader’s downfall and ultimate execution.

Prince Mohammed’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen, of which Mr. Khashoggi was critical in one of his last Washington Post columns, has tarnished the kingdom’s international prestige and sparked calls in the US Congress and European parliaments for an embargo on arms sales that have gained momentum with the disappearance of the Saudi journalist.

To be sure Saudi Arabia enjoys greater leverage than Iraq did in 1990. By the same token, 2018 is not 1973, the first and only time the kingdom ever wielded oil as a weapon against the United States. At the time, the US was dependent on Middle Eastern oil, today it is one of, if not the world’s largest producer.

More fundamentally, Prince Mohammed appears to show some of the traits Mr. Hussein put on display, including a seeming lack of understanding of the limits of power and best ways to wield it, a tendency towards impetuousness, a willingness to take risks and gamble without having a credible exit strategy, a refusal to tolerate any form of criticism, and a streak of ruthlessness.

“We’re discovering what this ‘new king’ is all about, and it’s getting worrisome. The dark side is getting darker,” said David Ottaway, a journalist and scholar who has covered Saudi Arabia for decades.

Mr. Hussein was public and transparent about Mr. Barzoft’s fate even if his assertion that the journalist was a spy lacked credibility and the journalist’s confession and trial were a mockery of justice.

Prince Mohammed flatly denies any involvement in the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi and appears to believe that he can bully himself out of the crisis in the absence of any evidence that the journalist left the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate of his own volition.

Mr. Hussein miscalculated with his invasion of Kuwait shortly after getting away with the killing of Mr. Barzoft.

Prince Mohammed too may well have miscalculated if the kingdom is proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Mr. Hussein’s reputation and international goodwill was irreparably damaged by his execution of Mr. Barzoft and invasion of Kuwait.

Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance has dealt a body blow to Saudi Arabia’s prestige irrespective of whether the journalist emerges from the current crisis alive or dead.

King Salman and the kingdom appear for now to be rallying the wagons around the crown prince.

At the same time, the king has stepped into the fray publicly for the first time by phoning Turkish president Erdogan to reaffirm Saudi cooperation with an investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate.

It remains unclear whether that phone call will pave the way for Turkish investigators to enter the Istanbul consulate as well as the Saudi consul general’s home and whether they will be allowed to carry out forensics.

The longer the investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate stalls, the more Saudi Arabia will come under pressure to put forth a credible explanation and the harder Western leaders will be pressed by public opinion and lawmakers to take credible action if Saudi Arabia is proven to be responsible.

A Saudi decision to act on its threats to rejigger its security arrangements and energy policy, even if overstated by Mr. Aldhakhil, in response to steps by Western nations to penalize the kingdom,  could prove to have not only far-reaching international consequences but, in the final analysis, also equally momentous domestic ones.

“Looks like #Saudi royal family is coming together to protect the family business. Eventually there will be internal reckoning with what transpired. Not now. Now is the time to save the family reign,” tweeted Middle East scholar Randa Slim.

Said former US State Department and White House official Elliott Abrams: “Jamal Khashoggi lost control of his fate when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Mohammed bin Salman must act quickly to regain control of his own.”

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Syrian Kurds between Washington, Turkey and Damascus

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The recent turmoil over Idlib has pushed the developments in Syrian Kurdistan out of political and mass media spotlight. However, it’s Idlib that will most likely host the final act of the drama, which has become known as the “civil war in Syria”.

The self-proclaimed Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), or Rojava, was formed in 2016, although de facto it has existed since 2012. Added later was the hydrocarbon-rich left bank of the Euphrates, which had been cleared of militants of ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), and now the jurisdiction of the unrecognized DFNS extends to almost a third of the country’s territory.

From the very start the main threat to the existence of this predominantly Kurdish quasi-state came for obvious reasons from Turkey, where Turkish Kurds were set on securing autonomy. In addition, the most influential political force in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the latter has officially been declared a terrorist organization and unofficially – a number one enemy – in Turkey.

In January-March 2018, the Turkish army, backed by the Arab and Turkomanen allies, occupied part of the territory of Rojava (canton Afrin). And it looks like Ankara plans to settle on these territories: recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that Afrin will be transferred to its residents “when the time comes” and that “this time will be set by us”. In the meantime, according to local media reports, the demographic situation in the canton is changing rapidly. Taking advantage of the fact that many Kurds left their homes at the approach of the Turkish army, the local (in fact, Turkish) administration is bringing in Arabs here, who, in many cases, are not Syrian Arabs.

Kurdish politicians, fully aware of the fact that amid Turkey, Iran and Syria maintaining statehood without outside assistance is hardly possible, opted for the patronage of Washington. And, as it seems, they lost.

In Syria, the Americans decided to replay the “Kosovo scenario”, by turning part of a sovereign state into a political structure, which is allied to them. Washington, which only recently excluded the People’s Protection Units (the armed wing of the Democratic Forces), from the list of terrorist organizations, argues, like Ankara, that its military personnel will remain in the region “for an indefinite period” to protect Kurdish territories from “aggression” on the part of Damascus. And from Ankara’s ambitions as well. But this is read between the lines.

All this enabled Turkey to accuse the United States of supporting terrorism and relations between the two countries quickly deteriorated into a crisis. As mutual accusations, occasionally supported by political and economic demarches, persist, the parties, however, are beginning to look for common ground. Talks on June 4, 2018 in Washington between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo resulted in a “road map” for the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from predominantly Arab Manbij, which Kurds regained control of from ISIL (an organization banned in Russia) two years ago. The next day, the Turkish minister announced that the Kurdish troops “… would retreat east of the Euphrates. However, this does not mean that we will agree that they stay there. ” On September 24, 2018, upon arriving at the UN General Assembly, Erdogan confirmed: Turkey will expand its sphere of influence in Syria, by including areas that are under control of the Kurdish armed units.

If Turkey does not change its rhetoric, then the assurances of the American authorities that the US troops will remain in Syria are intermingled with statements about the need for the withdrawal of its forces from this country. In any case, it is unlikely that the United States will choose to leave the region “to its own devices”. We can recall how Washington trumpeted the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan! But things haven’t budged an inch since then. The Afghanistan example demonstrates that the Americans will not move out of Syria that easily – they will not pull out in full, at least not of their own free will. US instructors and pilots will remain here “for an indefinite period.” But who will they care of and support? Here are the options:

Firstly, it could be a hypothetical “Arab NATO” with Saudi Arabia in the lead. But there are serious doubts as to the effectiveness of such a structure – even if we forget about the level of combat readiness of these kinds of coalitions (in Yemen, for example), Arab countries could unite only on an anti-Israeli platform. And that, as history shows, is unlikely to yield success. In addition to this, it is still unclear how Kurds, the majority of whom are not religious, will react to Wahhabi commanders.

Secondly, the United States could choose to strengthen the Arab sector of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (Rojava militia) at the expense of the Kurds. In mid-September, a number of media outlets, citing sources in the Syrian opposition, reported that Saudi emissaries had already suggested this option while meeting with leaders of the Arab tribes living east of the Euphrates. However, this development is also fraught with the Kurdish-Arab confrontation.

Thirdly, Washington persists in its attempts to improve relations with Turkey,  distancing it from Russia and Iran, and instruct it to “maintain order” in the region: the Americans did not intervene in the Operation Olive Branch and made concessions on Manbij. Even though this might seem strange amid the hostile American-Turkish rhetoric, military and political contacts between Washington and Ankara have been on the rise in recent months. Moreover, President Erdogan has already stated that he believes in an early improvement of relations with the United States despite the “inconsistency” and “economic aggression” of Washington.

Meanwhile, we need to remember that the US control over Kurds is far from unlimited. The “people’s protection units” are ideologically close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or could even be seen as its “branch” in Syria), and the PKK itself, grown on the Marxist ideas, would normally support the Soviet Union and “by inertia” – Russia. For this reason, the Americans have to threaten the Kurdish allies with a cessation of military and financial support. Reports say the US and Turkish troops are already operating in the Manbij area, having dislodged the Kurdish YPG militia from the area.

These threats, along with the self-withdrawal of the United States during the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops, have made Kurds doubt the reliability of their patron. The result is a move towards rapprochement with Damascus. In late July, the Kurdish leadership announced an agreement with the Syrian authorities on the creation of a “road map” for the formation of a decentralized Syria.

The Americans are not sitting idle either, though it looks like they have no concrete plan of action. Such a conclusion comes from Donald Trump’s somewhat incoherent answers to questions from a correspondent of the Kurdish media group Rudaw (09/27/2018):

Question: What are you planning to do for (Syrian – AI) Kurds?

Answer: We will offer them a lot of help. As you know, we are good friends to them, we fought shoulder to shoulder with ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), we recently defeated ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation). We accomplished this with the support of the Kurds. They are great warriors. You know, some nations are great warriors, and some are not. The Kurds are great warriors, they are a wonderful people. We are currently negotiating this.

Question: So what will you do to support them?

Answer: As I said, we will negotiate this, we have begun negotiations. The Kurds have helped us a lot to crush ISIS (an organization banned in the Russian Federation).

Most likely, the hot phase of the protracted inter-Syrian conflict is nearing its end, and the preferences of the Kurds will determine the outcome of future elections, a referendum, or another form of will expression of the Syrian people, when the political situation allows it. Moscow has always called for involving Kurds in the negotiation process and on ensuring their full participation in the life of post-war Syria. “Russia insists that Kurds should participate in the process to determine the post-conflict future of Syria on a parity basis with other ethnic and religious groups of this country,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama.

Until recently, Damascus did not particularly pedal negotiations with Rojava, but being aware that the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops was not in its interests, it has adjusted its approach to the self-proclaimed territorial entity. It looks like Syrian leaders have opted for softening their stance, which was previously set on the revival of the country on the basis of unitarism. Otherwise, an agreement with the Kurds will be nowhere in sight.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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