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Passions over Syria rage on

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The twists and turns of political developments in the Middle East largely stem from the rivalry between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. While Iran seeks greater influence in countries with significant Shiite populations, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are sparring on one territory, both claiming leadership in the Sunni world: Turkey by “birthright,” and Saudi Arabia – by the “right of the strongest,” i.e. of the most economically advanced actor boasting the strongest army in the region.

All this, coupled with Turkey’s ongoing efforts to crush radical Kurdish nationalism, has resulted in a certain degree of rapprochement between Ankara and Tehran, which views the Saudis as its main rival in the Middle East. The two countries are closely intertwined economically and this also contributes to this process with Ankara and Tehran planning to ramp up their annual trade turnover to $30 billion. And this without mentioning the “gray” commodity turnover between the two, which many Turkish experts believe is almost commensurate with the official one as Turkish companies are actively helping their Iranian counterparts to overcome sanctions.

With all this being said, the two empires’ centuries-old rivalry for the status of the defender of the “only right” trend in Islam is still being felt today. The mere fact that Shiite clerics in power in Tehran, and “moderate” Sunni Islamist ones with close affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood calling the shots in Ankara, any significant foreign policy cooperation between the two countries is simply out of the question.

Moreover, in Syria, Iran and Turkey have in recent years been pursuing diametrically opposite goals, with Tehran trying to keep the Alawite leadership in power (for reasons of preserving the country’s territorial integrity), and Ankara trying to overthrow it, albeit under the very same slogan. Even though Turkey has recently softened it anti-Assad rhetoric, its officials still stick to its hardline position during media interviews.

Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia equally dislike Israel and, to varying degrees, the United States, despite the fact that Riyadh and Ankara are “strategic allies” of Washington, which views the Middle East as a very important region, regardless of whatever political or economic fluctuations may be happening there. Small wonder that this situation helped propel Islamic radicals to the political foreground. Russia’s military and political activity in the region was dictated by the need to keep these jihadist extremists away from its borders. With relations between Tehran and Ankara on the one side, and Washington on the other being strained as they are, this helped Russia to gain a foothold in the Middle East as a counterweight to the United States, and act as an intermediary between the conflicting parties.

In Syria, Russia is coordinating its moves with both Iran and Turkey. Even though President Bashar Assad remains in power primarily thanks to Russia’s assistance, Iran’s influence on Damascus is hard to overestimate.

Indeed, Tehran has spared no effort to support the current Syrian government, and with pretty good reason too: with Sunni Muslims making up the majority of the Syrian population, their coming to power, hypothetical as it may seem, would almost certainly block Iran’s access to the Mediterranean Sea by breaking the “Shiite axis” of Iran – Iraq – Syria – Lebanon.  

In their bid to check Turkey’s military activity in Syria, Tehran has repeatedly signaled its desire to help establish a dialogue between Damascus and Ankara. With little success though, because Turkey rejects any contacts with Damascus. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once branded Bashar Assad as a “bloody tyrant,” whose days were numbered, and he just can’t retract his words now because this would put him in a “face-losing” position. Besides, admitting mistakes is not the best-known trait Turkish mentality is famous for.

More recently, at a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara on April 16, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif supported the idea of “liberating” northern Syria (apparently from Kurdish units and US forces). 

“The only way to ease Turkey’s concerns about the terrorist threat in the border zone with Syria would be to deploy government (i.e, Syrian – A. I.) forces at the border,” he said in a statement that reflected Tehran’s demand for a withdrawal of Turkish troops from the neighboring country’s territory. Apparently surprised by such an openly “unfriendly” declaration, the Turkish Foreign Ministry left this statement without comment.

Emboldened by its closer alliance with Russia, Turkey is going ahead with its task of neutralizing the “Kurdish threat” from the south and support the Syrian Turkomans. Simultaneously, it keeps a certain distance with Russia by flirting with Washington, despite the US’ support for the Syrian Kurds’ military-political structure, its refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, and even vague hints made by some Turkish politicians about Washington’s alleged backing for the 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the United States has been working hard not to “lose” Turkey, which boasts the strongest army in the region and a unique geopolitical position. As for Turkey, despite its “blusterous” rhetoric, it apparently seeks no serious quarrel with Washington.

Indeed, Ankara’s relations with Washington, which have recently been pretty unstable, are looking up now with President Erdogan and members of his inner circle recently making conciliatory statements and telling the US not to look for political motives behind the planned delivery of Russian air defense systems to Turkey, and being ready to discuss with the US military the possible risks of adopting these systems, and, if necessary, “to change the parameters of S-400 missiles” (the Americans have yet to respond to this proposal), assurances that these air defense systems will cover only Ankara and Istanbul (in case of a new coup attempt by the military using NATO planes the Russian missiles would target as a “foe”? – A. I.). Moreover, Ankara is ready to consider a new US proposal for the sale of Patriot missiles, and is looking forward to continued cooperation in the joint production of F-35 fighters.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar summed up his recent visit to the United States on a conciliatory note, essentially blaming non-specialists for the current tensions in his country’s relations with Washington.

“Yes, we have problems. But no one will solve them for us. I hope that a solution, in one way or another, will be found shortly. Sometimes we have a serious misunderstanding, misrepresentation of information… Politicians, senators do not know the details of some of the topics being discussed. And some details have an impact on decisions that are being made.”

Treasury and Finance Minister Erdogan Berat Albayrak’s visit to Washington where he took part in IMF- and G20-organized events was one in a series of fence-mending steps. During his April 16 meeting with President Donald Trump, Albayrak handed him a personal message from President Erdogan, which didn’t go unanswered. According to Turkish media reports, during the meeting with Trump, Albayrak raised the issue of the S-400 missile systems (and this at a time when the Turkish defense minister was right there in Washington!). Albayrak described the meeting as a success, adding that President Trump had responded to the arguments in favor of acquiring the Russian air defense system with understanding. Later on, however, The World Street Journal cited its sources as saying that the sides had “failed to break the impasse on the Russian missile-defense system.”

It looks like journalists will hardly be able to learn the content of President Erdogan’s personal message to Trump any time soon, but the mere fact that the Turkish president could entrust the transfer of the letter only to his relative (son-in-law) gives ample food for speculation.

Realizing that Ankara would not budge on its plans to purchase the S-400 missiles from Russia, Washington replaced the stick with a carrot, with the US Special Representative for Syria, James Jeffrey assuring Turkey that Washington was fully aware of Ankara’s security concerns about the latest threats emanating from northern Syria, and that Washington would  work together with Ankara to create a safe zone in Syria next to the Turkish border, without the presence of the [Kurdish] People’s Protection Units (YPG).

“We will work with Turkey to ensure that zone remains free of any threat to Turkey, and introduces stability,” Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey emphasized that the two countries have been and continue to be geostrategic partners.

In conclusion, the US diplomat flattered Ankara by saying that “Turkey is the voice of about half of the Syrians who are opposition-minded (in relation to the current regime – A. I.).

After Washington said it would withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria, Ankara stopped announcing its imminent military offensive in this region, apparently hoping that with the European allies relinquishing their responsibility for the region, the Americans would hand their command over to Turkey. Something apparently went wrong though, and so Ankara confirmed its intention to acquire the S-400 air defense system from Russia. What we see now is a renewed attempt by Washington and Ankara to settle their differences, but on conditions that favor Turkey more than they do the United States. If this attempt succeeds, then the other participants in the Syrian “Big Game” may need to change their tactic and bring itin line with the new reality.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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“Today Saudi Arabia finally lost the war on Yemen.”

Eric Zuesse

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On August 17th, an anonymous German intelligence analyst who has perhaps the world’s best track-record of publicly identifying and announcing historical turning-points, and who is therefore also a great investigative journalist regarding international relations (especially military matters, which are his specialty) headlined at his “Moon of Alabama” blog, “Long Range Attack On Saudi Oil Field Ends War On Yemen”, and he opened:

Today Saudi Arabia finally lost the war on Yemen. It has no defenses against new weapons the Houthis in Yemen acquired. These weapons threaten the Saudis economic lifelines. This today was the decisive attack:

Drones launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels attacked a massive oil and gas field deep inside Saudi Arabia’s sprawling desert on Saturday, causing what the kingdom described as a “limited fire” in the second such recent attack on its crucial energy industry.  …

The Saudi acknowledgement of the attack came hours after Yahia Sarie, a military spokesman for the Houthis, issued a video statement claiming the rebels launched 10 bomb-laden drones targeting the field in their “biggest-ever” operation. He threatened more attacks would be coming. 

New drones and missiles displayed in July 2019 by Yemen’s Houthi-allied armed forces

Today’s attack is a check-mate move against the Saudis. Shaybah is some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from Houthi-controlled territory. There are many more important economic targets within that range.  …

The attack conclusively demonstrates that the most important assets of the Saudis are now under threat. This economic threat comes on top of a seven percent budget deficit the IMF predicts for Saudi Arabia. Further Saudi bombing against the Houthi will now have very significant additional cost that might even endanger the viability of the Saudi state. The Houthi have clown prince Mohammad bin Salman by the balls and can squeeze those at will.

He went on to say that the drones aren’t from Iran but are copies from Iran’s, “assembled in Yemen with the help of Hizbullah experts from Lebanon.”

He has been predicting for a long time that this war couldn’t be won by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud (MbS). In the present report, he says:

The war on Yemen that MbS started in March 2015 long proved to be unwinnable. Now it is definitely lost. Neither the U.S. nor the Europeans will come to the Saudis help. There are no technological means to reasonably protect against such attacks. Poor Yemen defeated rich Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi side will have to agree to political peace negotiations. The Yemeni demand for reparation payments will be eye watering. But the Saudis will have no alternative but to cough up whatever the Houthi demand.

The UAE was smart to pull out of Yemen during the last months.

If he is correct (and I have never yet found a prediction from him turn out to have been wrong), then this will be an enormous blow to the foreign markets for U.S.-made weapons, since the Sauds are the world’s largest foreign purchasers of those, and have spent profusely on them — and also on U.S. personnel to train their soldiers how to use them. So (and this is my prediction, not his), August 19th might be a good time to sell short U.S. armament-makers such as Lockheed Martin.

However: his prediction that “the Saudis will have no alternative but to cough up whatever the Houthi demand” seems to me to be the first one from him that could turn out to have been wrong. If the Sauds have perpetrated, say, $200 billion of physical damage to Yemen, but refuse to pay more than $100 billion in reparations, and the Housis then hit and take out a major Saudi oil well, isn’t it possible that the Sauds would stand firm? But if they do, then mightn’t it be wrong to say, at the present time, that: “Today Saudi Arabia finally lost the war on Yemen.”? He has gone out on limbs before, and I can’t yet think of any that broke under him. Maybe this one will be the first? I wouldn’t bet on that. But this one seems to me to be a particularly long limb. We’ll see!

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The message behind the release of Iranian oil tanker

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Gibraltar court ordered the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 to be released. The tanker was seized by the British Royal Marines about a month ago. 

This verdict was the ending of an elaborate game designed by John Bolton National Security Advisor of the United States and Mike Pompeo, carried out by the Britain government. 

With seizing the tanker, Bolton was trying to put psychological and political pressures on Iran and force other countries to form a consensus against Iran, but he couldn’t fulfill any of these goals. 

Iran’s firm, logical and wise answer to the seizure of Grace 1 (like making solid legal arguments) and the seriousness of our country’s armed forces in giving a proper response to Britain’s contemptuous act, made the White House lose the lead on reaching its ends. 

Washington imagined that the seizure of Grace 1 will become Trump’s winning card against Iran, but the release of the tanker (despite disagreement of the U.S.) became another failure for the White House in dealing with Iran.  

Obviously, London was also a total loser in this game. It is worth noting that U.S. was so persistent about keeping the oil tanker in custody that John Bolton traveled to London and insisted on British officials to continue the seizure of the ship. Their failure, however, clearly shows that the White House and its traditional ally, Britain, have lost a big part of their power in their relations with Iran. 

Clearly, the illegal seizure of the Iranian oil tanker by Britain proceeded by the seizure of a British tanker by Iran and the following interactions between the two countries is not the whole story and there is more to it that will be revealed in coming days. 

What we know for sure is that London has to pay for its recent anti-Iran plot in order to satisfy Washington; the smallest of these consequences was that Britain lost some of its legal credibility in international arena as it illegally captured an Iranian oil tanker. 

The order of the Gibraltarian court revealed that London had no legal right to seize the Iranian oil tanker and nobody can defend this unlawful action. Surely, Iran will take all necessary legal actions to further pursue the matter.  

In this situation, the Islamic Republic of Iran is firm on its position that it doesn’t have to follow the sanctions imposed by the European Union on other countries (including Syria). 

No entity can undermine this argument as it is based on legal terms; therefore, Iran will keep supporting Syrian nation and government to fight terrorism. This is the strategic policy of the Islamic Republic and will not be changed under the pressure or influence of any other third country. 

Finally, it should be noted that the release of Grace 1 oil tanker was not only a legal and political failure for Washington and London and their allies but it was also a strategic failure. Undoubtedly, the vast consequences of this failure will be revealed in near future. 

From our partner Tehran Times

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Business and boxing: two sides of the same coin

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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What do a planned US$15 billion Saudi investment in petroleum-related Indian businesses and a controversial boxing championship have in common?

Both reflect a world in which power and economics drive policy, politics and business at the expense of fundamental rights.

And both underscore an emerging new world order in which might is right, a jungle in which dissenters, minorities and all other others are increasingly cornered and repressed.

Rather than furthering stability by building inclusive, cohesive societies both support trends likely to produce an evermore unstable and insecure world marked by societal strife, mass migration, radicalization and violence.

A world in which business capitalizes on decisions by a critical mass of world leaders who share autocratic, authoritarian and illiberal principles of governance and often reward each other with lucrative business deals for policies that potentially aggravate rather than reduce conflict.

No doubt, the planned acquisition by Saudi Arabia’s state-owned national oil company Aramco of 20 percent of the petroleum-related businesses of Reliance Industries, one of India’s biggest companies, makes commercial and strategic economic and business sense.

Yet, there is equally little doubt that the announcement of the acquisition will be read by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, days after he scrapped the autonomous status of the troubled, majority Muslim region of Kashmir, as a license to pursue his Hindu nationalist policies that discriminate against Muslims and other minorities and fuel tensions with Pakistan, the subcontinent’s other nuclear power.

The ultimate cost of the fallout of policies and business deals that contribute or give license to exclusion rather than inclusion of all segments of a population and aggravate regional conflict could be far higher than the benefits accrued by the parties to a deal.

Underscoring the risk of exclusionary policies and unilateral moves, cross border skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani forces erupted this week along the Kashmiri frontier in which at least five people were killed.

The timing of the announcement of the Aramco Reliance deal in a global environment in which various forms of racism and prejudice, including Islamophobia, are on the rise, assures Indian political and business leaders that they are unlikely to pay an immediate price for policies that sow discord and risk loss of life.

Like in the case of Saudi and Muslim acquiescence in China’s brutal clampdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled, north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang, the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history, the announcement risks convincing embattled Muslim minorities like the Uighurs, the Kashmiris or Myanmar’s Rohingya who are lingering in refugee camps in Bangladesh that they are being hung out to dry.

To be sure, Kashmiris can count on the support of Pakistan but that is likely to be little more than emotional, verbal and political.

Pakistan is unlikely to risk blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, at its next scheduled meeting in October by unleashing its anti-Indian militants.

Anthony Joshua’s controversial fight with Andy Ruiz scheduled for December in Saudi Arabia, the first boxing championship to be held in the Middle East, pales in terms of its geopolitical or societal impact compared to the Saudi Indian business deal.

Fact is that Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the championship has provoked the ire of activists rather than significant population groups. The fight is furthermore likely to be seen as evidence and a strengthening of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s selective efforts to socially liberalize the once austere kingdom.

Nonetheless, it also reinforces Prince Mohammed’s justified perception that Saudi Arabia can get away with imprisoning activists who argued in favour of his reforms as well as the lack of transparency on judicial proceedings against the alleged perpetrators of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia insists the killing was perpetrated by rogue operatives.

What Saudi investment in India and the scheduled boxing championship in the kingdom have in common is that both confirm the norms of a world in which ‘humane authority,’ a concept developed by prominent Chinese international relations scholar Yan Xuetong, is a rare quantity.

Mr. Yan employs the concept to argue without referring to President Xi Jinping, Xinjiang, China’s aggressive approach towards the South China Sea or its policy towards Taiwan and Hong Kong that China lacks the humane authority to capitalize on US President Donald J. Trump’s undermining of US leadership.

Mr. Yan defines a state that has humane authority as maintaining strategic credibility and defending the international order by becoming an example through adherence to international norms, rewarding states that live up to those norms and punishing states that violate them. Garnering humane authority enables a state to win allies and build a stable international order.

Mr. Yan’s analysis is as applicable to India and Saudi Arabia as it is to China and others that tend towards civilizational policies like the United States, Russia, Hungary and Turkey.

It is equally true for men like Anthony Joshua promoter Eddie Hearn and business leaders in general.

To be sure, Aramco is state-owned and subject to government policy. Nonetheless, as it prepares for what is likely to be the world’s largest initial public offering, even Aramco has to take factors beyond pure economic and financial criteria into account.

At the end of the day, the consequence of Mr. Yan’s theory is that leadership, whether geopolitical, economic or business, is defined as much by power and opportunity as it is by degrees of morality and ethics.

Failure to embrace some notion of humane authority and reducing leadership and business decisions to exploiting opportunity with disregard for consequences or the environment in which they are taken is likely to ultimately haunt political and business leaders alike.

Said Mr. Yan: “Since the leadership of a humane authority is able to rectify those states that disturb the international order, the order based on its leadership can durably be maintained.”

What is true for political leaders is also true for business leaders even if they refuse to acknowledge that their decisions have as much political as economic impact.

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