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Iran’s Influence Stems from US Policy and War Would Be a Monumental Disaster

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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When Corinth and Megara, both allies of Sparta went to war, Athens sensed opportunity and soon formed an alliance with Megara.  It precipitated the First Peloponnesian War (c 459 – 445 BC) and Athens soon turned the alliance into control of Megara.  When peace returned, so did Megara into the Spartan fold.  In 1941, Nazi Germany broke its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and launched the massive Operation Barbarossa against it.  In both instances, the violators paid dearly.  By the end of the Peloponnesian wars, a long saga, Athens had been reduced from its preeminence as the most powerful Greek state to a defeated vassal of Sparta.  We know what happened to Germany.  In one case it took over fifty years, in the other just four.

History may not repeat itself but here we are in the 21st century and another agreement is about to be broken.  Visiting leaders from France and Germany, UK’s Theresa May on the phone …. all have advised against such a course and all to no avail.  Donald Trump insists on pulling out of the Iran deal.  Every 120 days he is supposed to sign a waiver to lift sanctions related to the nuclear deal.  Signing in mid-January, he warned it would be the last time unless the agreement was changed.  The major European leaders have failed to dissuade him, and have now gone so far as for one to call his decision insane.  They are right for the consequences could be disastrous, particularly as Iran continues to fulfill its obligations under the deal which keeps a check on any development of nuclear weapons.

First for some background:  Starting with the US invasion of Iraq, the political order in the Middle East arranged by Britain and France post World War I quickly disintegrated.  National borders became porous, and state institutions severely stressed due to civil war or through non-state actors like ISIS — although the latter has been greatly weakened the ideology remains — and Syria has faced a multi-pronged insurgency.  Out of chaos rather than design, Iran has emerged a key player.

By offering help to Syria and Iraq and through aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran’s influence now extends over a wide swathe of the Middle East, from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.  Moreover, in Yemen, it has pinned down the Saudis in an expensive civil war against a popular (Houthi) rebellion to which it has provided a measure of support.

If this implies Iran is highly militaristic with a huge military budget, one could not be more wrong.  In 2016, the latest year for which figures are available, Iran spent $12.7 billion on defense whereas Saudi Arabia laid out $63.7 billion, about five times more.  So how has Iran succeeded in magnifying its influence?

Not surprisingly, it has been a blundering US, staggering around like a drunken giant trampling any semblance of order.  In the Iraq war, it overthrew a government and nation that was a countervailing force against Iran, and put in place an elected one which, given Iraq’s Shia majority, was Shia.  Some of the Shia leaders had sought refuge in Shia Iran from Saddam’s efforts to keep this majority at heel.  In this they had common bond with the Kurds up in northern Iraq, who fighting for an independent Kurdistan, had been gassed by Saddam.

The Shia government in Iraq now looks to Iran.  For example, last year the Kurds held a vote on independence from Iraq to form a separate Kurdistan.  The Kurds voted for independence laying open the real possibility of civil war.  It was Iran with its muscle in the region who dissuaded the Kurds, even forcing them to surrender Kirkuk, a city with a mixed Kurd and Arab population, to the central government.

Then Saudi Arabia’s rejection and organized boycott of Qatar left it little choice but to seek closer ties with Iran, with which it has common natural gas interests.  For Iran, it is a first foothold across the Gulf, right next door to Saudi Arabia’s oil,  which happens to be in a Shia-majority province.

In Lebanon, Iran has long supported its Shiite brethren, whose awakening dates to the 1980s Israeli invasion and its refusal to leave the South.  First forming Amal to protect their rights, this downtrodden minority is now the most powerful force in Lebanon, now well-known as Hezbollah.  It has been successful against Israeli arms twice.  First, in forcing them to eventually leave southern Lebanon in 2000 — Israel’s interest was the water from the Litani river — and a second time when Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006 and Hezbollah forced it to pay a high enough price that withdrawal became the sensible option.

Iran’s stock in Syria has soared both through the help given to Assad’s forces by Hezbollah but also through a substantial contribution by its revolutionary guards.  This battle hardened force in concert with the tough Hezbollah and the Syrian army form the ground forces to compliment Russian air power.  Together they have given President Assad victory and made Russia the arbiter in the region.  The alliance has also been helped by a disaffected Turkey, wary of US help for Kurds, and the antagonistic, fundamentalist, and now also threatening, Saudi Arabia, which has become close to Israel.

A harbinger of things to come was the Sochi meeting between Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the future of Syria.  The US was notable only in its absence.  Russia is now actively wooing Turkey, and any belligerence by the Trump administration towards Iran will only draw it too closer to Russia, perhaps even signing a defense pact, although Iran would prefer neutrality.

Aside from religious kinship and its use of proxies to protect itself from the Saudi bloc, Iran has also chosen to develop sophisticated missiles, a comparatively cheaper alternative to huge military expenditures.  These ensure an attacker will pay a heavy price, and is one good reason why Benjamin Netanyahu would rather the US do the dirty work while he continues to make inflammatory and deceptive speeches about Iran.  Unfortunately at present, the US is also exposed.  Worse, its vulnerability is in a region where Iran holds a better hand.  Moreover, a seriously destructive attack on Iran will bring back chaos to the whole region and sow the seeds for another ISIS and/or similar group(s) with the potential for exporting their philosophy to Europe and North America.

What this analysis shows is exactly what the Europeans have been telling Mr. Trump.  It makes sense to talk while maintaining the current deal.  “Jaw, jaw is better than war war,”  said a statesman (Churchill) whose bust occupies a prominent position in Trump’s office.

Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for Antiwar.com, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.

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Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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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

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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