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Big power competition in the Eastern Mediterranean: Is Trump missing the point?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Trump administration decision to sanction two key Turkish officials in retaliation for the continued detention of an American cleric coupled with unqualified support for Israel and the adoption of a backseat in Syria threatens to further undermine US influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, a key part of the world in which Russia, Iran, China and an increasingly anti-American, Eurasia-focused Turkey are gaining the upper hand.

Crisis in Europe, spurred in part by the Eastern Mediterranean’s export of millions fleeing civil war in Syria, highlights the risks inherent to US abandonment of the region and single-minded focus on support of Israel.

The risks are magnified by the fact that the region remains a jihadist heartland and a playground in the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional hegemony. Potential instability is enhanced by Israel’s determination to deprive Iran of a permanent military presence in Syria and unresolved Palestinian and Kurdish national aspirations.

“The United States needs a holistic and integrated approach towards the Eastern Mediterranean that will stabilize Europe and shift the regional balance in the Middle East back towards the United States. Resolving the Syrian conflict is essential for Eastern Mediterranean stabilization, and developing an appropriate policy approach toward an increasingly antagonistic and anti-democratic Turkey is the key to solving the Syria puzzle and re-anchoring the region toward the Euro-Atlantic community,” said a report published this week by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

If the sanctioning of the Turkish ministers of justice and interior in response to the two year-long detention of pastor Andrew Brunson on charges of supporting Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, whom Turkey holds responsible for the failed 2016 military coup, is any indication, the Trump administration is in no mood to engage constructively in a bid to reverse its diminished influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The administration, adding insult to injury, announced the sanctions on the same day that the Senate approved a defense bill that prohibits the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey until the Pentagon reports on the state of Turkish-US relations, including the impact of Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile system.

Spinning the US actions as part of a conspiracy to undermine Turkey’s economy at a time that the Turkish lira has dropped dramatically against the dollar, pro-government media pronounced Turkey’s alliance with the United States dead and called for an end to US access to the Incerlik air base in the southeast of the country.

Vowing to take retaliatory action, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish foreign ministry adopted both a defiant and hurt tone in their response to the US sanctions imposed at a time that Turkish-Russian relations face an uncertain future.

In the short term, the sanctions and increasingly strained relationship with the United States make Turkey more dependent on Russia.

They also constitute an obstacle to the United States’ ability to exploit potential opportunities to shift the balance of power in the region in its favour.

Russian-Turkish interests are likely to diverge once Syria moves to regain control, of Idlib, the dumping ground for rebels and jihadists, including those that hail from the Caucasus and Central Asia, evacuated from areas elsewhere retaken by Syrian military forces.

Russia has been seeking to stave off a Syrian military offensive that would create yet another humanitarian crisis by attempting to negotiate a solution with Turkey and rebel groups.

Idlib is but one potential flashpoint in Turkish-Russian relations. Both Russia and Syria see the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia viewed by Turkey as a terrorist extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as important to resolving Idlib. YPG representatives have been travelling to Moscow, where the group was allowed to open an office in 2016.

Syrian Kurdish representatives have met in recent weeks with the government of president Bashar al-Assad to negotiate the future of Kurdish areas that Turkey wants to wrest from Kurdish nationalist control. They reportedly reached agreement on sharing oil revenues from two Kurdish-operated oil fields.

Recent remarks by Russia’s Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, did little to ease Turkish concerns.

“The Kurds will take part in the Syrian Constitutional Committee anyway. Their representatives will be included in every faction: opposition groups, the government’s delegation and civil society. We ask everyone to abstain from dividing the Kurds into pro-Turkish, pro-Russian or PYD and YPG categories, the latter of which is viewed negatively in Ankara,” Mr. Lavrentiev said referring to the political wing of the YPG, the Democratic Union Party, by its initials PYD.

A Russian-backed resolution of a three-decade-old dispute over the rights of Caspian Sea littoral states – Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan — set to be signed on August 12 paves the way for construction of an oil pipeline to Europe that could undermine Turkish hopes of becoming an alternative energy corridor that bypasses Russia.

Moreover, Russia this month began delivering arms to Armenia, whose borders with Turkey and Iran are guarded by Russian troops against the backdrop of reports that Turkey was planning to establish a military base in Nakhichevan, a landlocked autonomous region that is separated from Azerbaijan by a strip of Armenian territory.

Russian officials fear that Turkish and Azerbaijani military moves in Nakhichevan could fuel Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In its report, CSIS argued that the United States has a strategic interest in reasserting itself in the Eastern Mediterranean as a means of preserving European unity and security; stabilizing the Middle East; countering projection of power by Russia, Iran and China, and confronting challenges by numerous non-state actors.

Describing the Eastern Mediterranean as a theatre of big power competition that threatens US and trans-Atlantic interests, the report, maps out a detailed strategy for US re-engagement.

The United States, “must make hard choices and embrace realistic goals, however unattractive, to reinvigorate US diplomatic, economic and security engagement in the region. This will involve addressing and reconciling seemingly incompatible US policies towards Syria and Turkey that can only be bridged through active created and sustained diplomacy backed by ongoing military engagement,” the report said.

The US sanctioning of the Turkish ministers suggests that the mood in the Trump administration is a far cry from the kind of approach the report envisions.

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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Middle East

The Iran Question

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Will there be war with Iran?  Will there not be war with Iran?  The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there.  The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered.  Imagine the mess if it was blown up.

There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive.  The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber.  If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense.  It is what Iran has done.  Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided. 

As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force:  some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target.  Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses.  In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system.  It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400.  Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s.  The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally.  The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.

Iran has friends in Europe also.  Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal.  She is mustering the major European powers.  Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome.  President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture.  In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job.  In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.

So there we have it.  Nobody wants war with Iran.  Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.

Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war.  Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission.  It won’t.  The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton.  He wants war.  A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off. 

In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans.  The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Iran’s game just started

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By announcing that Iran will begin keeping its excess uranium and heavy water, the Islamic Republic now sends a firm and clear message to the west, exactly one year after U.S. president, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from its nuclear deal with Iran. 

At this point, it seems that Iran has made a wise decision. Over the last year, the European troika has not only done anything to revive the nuclear deal or bring any kind of benefit to the Iranian nation, but they have actually backed up U.S. by developing new plans to undermine Iran’s “missile work”, and diminish its “power in the region” as well as its “nuclear technology”.  

As stated in clauses 26 and 36 of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if the other side fails to meet its obligations, Iran is entitled to partially or completely end its commitments as well. So, Iran’s recent decision could be analyzed both on legal and strategic terms. 
However, it seems that the strategic aspects of Iran’s decision are even more important than its legal aspects. This decision is strategically important because it stops Washington and European troika to carry out their anti-Iran scheme, a dangerous scheme that they actually started devising when Trump took the office in 2017.  

At the time, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president played a major part in carrying out the west scheme. A scheme based on enforcing Iran to keep its “nuclear promises” and stay committed to a “distorted nuclear deal” while “U.S. had abandoned the deal”, and at the same time, trying to “diminish Iran’s power in the region” and “reduce its missile activities”. 

All other actions of Europeans toward Iran were also simply targeted at carrying out this major plan, including how they constantly changed their strategies toward Tehran, and how Germany, U.K. and France intentionally delayed in launching the alternative trade mechanism (Instex) with Iran.  

Now, Iran’s decision to keep its Uranium and heavy water is definitely in compliance with JCPOA, and more importantly, it will seriously undermine the “American-European” joint plan against Iran. This also explains why French government was so distressed by Iran’s new nuclear strategy and had such a quick reaction, considering that Emmanuel Macron, the French president and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister both have had important roles in carrying out the American-European anti-Iran scheme. 

At any rate, what is clear now is that the game has just started! And the Iranian political system and specially the foreign ministry have a great mission to run this game wisely.  

In following days, the European troika might want to force Iran into changing its decision by threats such as reviving the European Union sanctions against Iran or even taking Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council (so that Trump administration can meddle in Iran’s affairs). But, it is time for Iran political system to be adamant in its decision.  

The Iranian Foreign Ministry should clearly ask the Europeans to choose one of these options, either Iran will “further reduce its commitments to the nuclear deal” or the Europeans should do something practical to “protect the rights of Iranian nation”. 

It is also necessary that the Iranian political system reveals the American-European joint anti-Iran scheme to the people so that the true nature of Europeans is showed to Iranians. In that case, Europe and specially the European troika will completely lose their reputation.    

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Why the Algerian popular movement has succeeded until now?

Sadek Hadjal

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Authors: Sadek Hadjal and Samar Sahki

Ten factors and mechanisms adopted by both Algerian people and its army have made popular movement remain in its proper peaceful path

Since February 22, 2019, the Algerian popular movement has calmed anger on the streets every Friday demanding the departure of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his regime. The last decade of the 20 years of his mandate was characterized by a high-level of corruption and mismanagement, especially, after his illness. Although after the resigned of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, people have continued to march demanding the complete change of the old regime.

Until now, after nearly 11 weeks, the Algerian popular movement has succeeded in achieving several goals without violence, giving a good image for Arab region witnessed the same events after a huge popular movement in 2011, called “the Arab spring”. but unlike what is happening today in Algeria, the so-called  “Arab spring” led to a bloody and dangerous consequences for the Arab countries – civil wars, military interventions, displacement, illegal immigration, proxy wars in the context of international and regional rivalry-.

The success of the Algerian Popular Movement reflects a great deal of intelligence and awareness between the Algerian demonstrators on one hand, satisfaction, wisdom and professionalism of the Algerian military in dealing with the situation on the other hand. Certainly, the two parties in Algeria -the demonstrators and the military command- have benefited from the events of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, which unfortunately led to disastrous results in most Arab countries. As well as what was known by “black decade” that Algeria witnessed in the 1990s.

In order to learn lessons from these events, the Algerian elites organized many international and national academic seminars, discussed several doctoral dissertations at universities, and produced many television programs to analyze the causes of these bloody events and to discover the best ways to avoid similar events, based on the reject of all kinds of external intervention as a main idea in any discussion.

There is a method both the Army and the demonstrators have relied on to success until now, which is characterized by:

From the side of protestors, they have focused on:

1 Avoiding the confrontation with military and police officers, unlike what happened in “Arab spring” countries.

2.Trying to coax the military and police officers to be with their side through the slogans.

2.Avoiding acts of violence and vandalism by keeping protests pacific.

3. Reject any religious, ethnic, or political group or party or symbols to represent them.

4.Focusing on pragmatic demands that have nothing to do with ideological discourses.

5.Refuse any external intervention whatsoever, whether there was supporting the movement or against it.

From the other side military command has focused on:

1.Not aligning against the popular movement. Otherwise, we would face a disaster situation may be more than what happened in some Arab countries.

2.The Army interference to align with the popular movement, but after confirming that there is no political solution on the horizons and that the situation could get worst.

3.The commitment of Military command by the constitution; which means passing a message that there is no intention to a military coup.

4.Not taking any step unless the popular movement demands it strongly and forcefully through the slogans carried every Friday. So that the steps taken by the Army won’t be in doubt, critic, or exploitation.

5.Provide guarantees to judges to do their work against corrupt people.

By these ten factors, the Algerian popular movement succeeded to achieve fifty percent of Goals (isolated Bouteflika and arrested the most famous symbols of the old regime on corruption charge). Now, the rest of the Goals are more difficult to achieve than the first one. The next step will focus on how to achieve a democratic system that results in accountability and empowers people to control the ruler. Whatever; until now the Algerian popular movement presents a Successful model can the rest of Arab societies benefit from.

What next:

To realize the rest of the goals, the Algerian popular movement and the Army must keep these ten mechanisms but also avoid any confrontation between them. Today there is a controversy between the two sides about the next stage; the Military command wants to hold quick presidential elections as soon as possible under Article 102 of the constitution because according to its view, any political solutions out of the constitution can lead to chaos. But the question here is who ensure that elections will be democratic under the same faces of the old regime and rules (election law for example). in return, there are a lot of citizens insist on carrying out a transition period to get rid of all old regime symbols in order to ensure presidential elections based on international standards, rather than the elections under the old regime symbols (the interim president Ahmed ben salah, and the current government of Noureddine Bedoui). But the question here is who leads this transition period? If the answer was through elect representatives, so who organize and ensure the transparency of these elections! The transition period will create a constitutional vacuum that possibly leads to chaos and that’s why Military command don’t wanted .

Algeria now is in front of a big constitutional and political dilemma, there are solutions but to maintain all possible solutions, we must avoid any confrontation between citizens and the military command. Of course, the popular movement has all the right to pressure and demand what it looks appropriate as a solution but without entering in confrontation with the military, because, in the end, the military has played a positive major role until now.

Algeria has the ability to overcome the current state crisis and emerge from the events of the popular movement as a regional force because it has a new generation of educated and ambitious youth, a well-equipped military force with experience in the field of counter-terrorism, and large energy reserves of oil and gas.

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