Iran is in a deep social and economic crisis. Despite its foreign policy successes in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, the Iranian regime has failed its citizens at home. Since December, 2017, the people in Iran took to the streets to protest the economic situation, corruption, nepotism, mismanagement and democratic deficit in the country. From that time on, the protests have been taking place on a weekly, if not daily, basis with protesters chanting slogans like “Death to Khamenei”, “Let go off the country” etc. Amid nation-wide protests in Iran, the Trump administration on 8 May withdrew the US from JCPOA, a deal which allegedly prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons in return for easing sanctions regime on the country. By withdrawing from the deal, the US brought back the sanctions and started what it called “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. While the current economic crisis is largely Iran’s own making, the re-imposition of US sanctions by the Trump administration has hugely worsened the situation. Since then, Iranian currency, the rial, has lost more than 70% of its value, inflation skyrocketed over a night, and purchasing power of Iranians has been continuously diminishing. All this increased internal pressure on the Ayatollahs. It is justifiably believed that the regime is now much more vulnerable to an internal pressure than ever before, which may ultimately dethrone the theocratic government.
Amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran, the Trump administration held a conference in Warsaw, Polish capital. The conference is said to be aimed at “changing Iran’s behavior” in the Middle East, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it mildly. Despite American denials, the US is currently pursuing a “regime change” in Iran, and Warsaw Conference was a part of this policy to build an anti-Iran Coalition that consolidates the impression that the world is lining up behind Trump’s hardline approach to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although the Trump administration was correct to withdraw from the Iran deal, which did never address the threat Iran’s growing ballistic missile arsenal poses on the regional and global security, and start its “maximum pressure” campaign on the Islamic Republic, which is obviously aggressive and malign actor in the Middle East, the regime change policy would not be a wise policy to employ in order to successfully contain and confront Iran. There are certain reasons for the US to not pursue a dangerous regime change in Iran.
Firstly, the peace is too fragile in Iran. If the regime falls, it is highly likely that Iran without a strong central government will potentially end up in a protracted civil war. This will further destabilize not only Iran, but also the whole of the Middle East, which is definitely not in the very interest of either the US or its allies. Historical records show that when the central government weakens in Iran, the periphery of the country tries to gain more autonomy and even independence. In its turn, this causes more bloodshed and destabilization in the country. Among others, the Kurds are the most likely minority that will take up arms in the event of a massive disobedience in Iran. The Kurds, led by the founder of Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran – Qazi Muhammad, established the Mahabad Republic in 1946 with the help of Soviet Union. So, there is no reason for them to not try doing the same again when the circumstances allow them. The Beluchis, the Iranian Turks and others will follow the suit, which will make Iran falling into a pure Hobbesian state of anarchy. From both ethical and strategic perspectives, watching Iran sliding into a devastating civil war is definitely not in the interests of the West.
Second reason is that if Iran gets destabilized and slides into a civil war, the massive amount of Iranians will possibly try to flee the country. Since European Union is the most likely destination for them, the new wave of millions of refugees will knock the doors of the EU via Turkey, who are already burdened by the inflow of millions of Syrian refugees. Considering the rise of far-right and mostly pro-Russian parties throughout Europe, the influx of millions of refugees would certainly face a backlash from the populace and empower illiberal parties in Europe. Furthermore, Turkey, which is a strategically important NATO ally, would be destabilized, too. Turkey currently hosts about 4 millions of Syrian refugees. However, the public has been increasingly hostile towards the refugees, resulting in clashes between the locals and Syrians from time to time. Moreover, Iran prevents Afghan refugees from reaching Europe as well. Therefore, if it falls, not only Iranians, but also Afghans will easily reach Europe. Considering the fact that the civil war in Syria with its 26 million population shook the EU, a new civil war in Iran with its 80 million population would completely change political landscape of Europe. In this sense, the destabilization of Iran benefits neither the US nor its vital allies in Europe.
Thirdly, Iran may turn to be a launching pad for radicalized Shias, who will blame the West and Sunni Gulf Monarchies for the fall of Islamic Republic. For this matter, they will want to take revenge. Considering the fact that Iran has the largest arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles in the Middle East, these missiles could easily fall into the hands of highly radicalized Shia militias and terrorists, who would be eager to take a revenge from the West. This would immediately put the US, Europe and American allies in the Middle East at a serious risk. Historical records show that this has a high possibility to happen. For example, after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the country turned to be safe haven for Al-Qaida and other Salafi terrorists. In fact, it was the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 that led to the establishment of Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. Therefore, the US should be careful not to make the same mistake in Iran, which may lead to the establishment of Shia version of so-called “ISIS” in Iran.
In sum, to make things clear, Iran is a malign actor in the Middle East, and damaging Western interests any place, where it is possible. Therefore, it should be confronted and contained in order to make sure the Islamic Republic does not threaten American allies in the region and outside of it. Iran must also be prevented from gaining nuclear technology. Furthermore, the US has a moral and strategic obligation to make sure that Iran, one of the main backers of murderous Assad regime, does not turn the Levant region into a Shia front to wage a full-fledged war on Israel and threaten its Jewish population with total annihilation. However, this should be done in a way that does not threaten America’s other allies in both Europe and the Middle East. Therefore, the US should fear a “regime change” in Iran rather than cheering it.
Syria: 10 years of war has left at least 350,000 dead
A decade of war in Syria has left more 350,200 people dead, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the Human Rights Council on Friday, noting that this total was an “under-count of the actual number of killings”.
These are a result of a war that spiralled out of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Based on the “rigorous work” of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), she said that the tally, which includes civilians and combatants, is based on “strict methodology” requiring the deceased’s full name, the date of death, and location of the body.
People behind the numbers
In the first official update on the death toll since 2014, Ms. Bachelet informed the Council that more than one in 13 of those who died due to conflict, was a woman – 26,727 in all – and almost one in 13 was a child – a grim total of 27,126 young lives lost.
The Governorate of Aleppo saw the greatest number of documented killings, with 51,731 named individuals.
Other heavy death tolls were recorded in Rural Damascus, 47,483; Homs, 40,986; Idlib, 33,271; Hama, 31,993; and Tartus, 31,369.
“Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights”, reminded the High Commissioner.
“We must always make victims’ stories visible, both individually and collectively, because the injustice and horror of each of these deaths should compel us to action.”
More accountability needed
Her office, OHCHR, is processing information on alleged perpetrators, recording victims civilian or combatant status and the type of weapons used, Ms. Bachelet said.
To provide a more complete picture of the scale and impact of the conflict, the UN agency has also established statistical estimation techniques to account for missing data.
The High Commissioner explained that documenting deaths complements efforts to account for missing people and that her office has been helping the families of the missing, to engage with international human rights mechanisms.
Given the vast number of those missing in Syria, Ms. Bachelet echoed her call for an independent mechanism, with a strong international mandate, to “clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people; identify human remains; and provide support to relatives”.
No end to the violence
Today, the daily lives of the Syrian people remain “scarred by unimaginable suffering”, the UN human rights chief said, adding that they have endured a decade of conflict, face deepening economic crisis and struggle with the impacts of COVID-19.
Extensive destruction of infrastructure has significantly affected the realization of essential economic and social rights, and there is still no end to the violence.
“It is incumbent upon us all to listen to the voices of Syria’s survivors and victims, and to the stories of those who have now fallen silent for ever”, the High Commissioner concluded.
Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds
The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.
It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.
The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.
Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.
Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.
Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.
There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.
The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.
This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.
The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.
Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga
The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.
Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.
Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.
By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.
The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.
Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.
This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.
The Central Asia factor
These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.
Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.
Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).
The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.
“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.
All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.
As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.
Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.
Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.
This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.
Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.
In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.
Restoring balance with the West
Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.
Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.
This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.
However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.
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