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Understanding Egypt’s Limited Involvement in the Arab NATO

Irina Tsukerman

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Authors: Irina Tsukerman, Mohamed Maher*

During President Sissi’s visit to the White House, some press reports talked about Egypt’s withdrawal from the planned Middle Eastern and North African defense alliance which became known as MESA, and in popular parlance, referred to as the “Arab NATO”. The idea of the alliance, initiated and backed by President Trump, is to create a structure that would bring together powers to oppose Iran’s regional meddling. According to sources cited by Reuters, some of the reasons for the withdrawal included uncertainty over President Trump’s political future, lack of formal structure for the alliance, and lack of traction by the other potential members.

Egypt has always been against the policy of alliances throughout its modern history, and therefore its refusal to participate in the Arab NATO or Mesa  was expected.

Indeed, in 2018, when the discussions were held with lower level Saudi defense officials, many have expressed doubts about the success of MESA, at least in part due to the potential membership by the Anti-Terrorism Quartet’s regional rival Qatar, under the boycott by KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain since June 2017. The Saudis at the time and five others of the would be members of this defense initiative, despite differences on many other defense matters, all agreed that Iran is a major regional threat, and would be willing to work closely to coordinate with the White House . The alliance would be in essence  a pact focused on countering the Islamic Republic’s influence.

Like NATO, such coordination would not necessarily be dependent on the administration in office; the Obama administration never completely denied that Iran-backed groups presented a threat.  However, the lack of framework, mechanism for addressing internecine tensions and grievances, and the odd fellowship of the would-be members spelled doom for this idea. Similar efforts had failed in the past for the same reasons. Tensions between Doha and the ATQ were but one problem plaguing the tentative alliance. Under President Trump’s proposal, Morocco with its well equipped and well trained military would not be part of it, but Bashir’s Sudan would have been.

Now that Omar Bashir has fallen from power, Sudan’s future is unclear. It enjoys support from a number of state actors, and the symbolic Sudanese contingent remains in Yemen, but Sudan’s ability to commit to any long term plans is doubtful. Qatar, with its tiny military, does not add much on the defense side; moreover, it is closely aligned to Iran politically and economically. Aside from aggravating several of the potential MESA members with its funding of the Muslim Brotherhood, attacks through the state mouthpiece Al Jazeera, and close defense relations with Turkey, Qatar cannot be trusted at this point not to play for both sides, or to adhere to defense goals of the group.  Following the imposition of the boycott on Doha by the ATQ, Qatar claimed that this boycott pushed it closer to Iran, despite evidence of growing relations prior to June 2017. 

Why is Trump’s vision of MESA failing?

The White House devoted some diplomatic efforts to securing the lifting of the boycott, but Qatar refused to meet any of the demands put forth by the ATQ, including Egypt, and the prospects for the reunification of the Gulf seem bleak in the short term. Egypt, one of the major players in the region was one of the contingencies on which MESA depended. With Cairo out of the picture, the Trump administration will have to rethink its approach to regional security. Part of MESA’s purpose would be to create an independent regional force, to go along with the diminishing role of the United States.

Unfortunately, what that would entail was never clearly defined. For instance, the Arab Coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen receives intelligence and logistical support from the US, but the operations are not fully integrated. Morocco once comprised part of the forces in Yemen, but eventually withdrew following tension with Saudi Arabia. Sudan greatly diminished the number of its forces over time, while Egypt retained only a small number from the start. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates likewise had different priorities in Yemen, with KSA, which is regularly attacked by the Houthis, prioritizing the opposition to the Iran expansionism.  UAE, by contrast, like Egypt was more concerned about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Overtime, the Coalition came to rely increasingly on assorted mercenaries to supplement diminishing forces.

And the presence of the pro-Iran Hezbollah, which trained, armed, and supplied Yemen – and which likewise threatened Morocco with the backing of the separatist Polisario group, was widely cited by the Saudi embassy in the U.S., but at no point was clearly addressed by the White House, nor was there ever a plan to address its presence. For the Arab NATO to have even a glimmer of hope, resolving these differences and assuring a greater level of coordination and mutual support between these members for Yemen, and greater level of US government buy in would be the first test. So far, however, too many forces appear to be pulling in different directions; the United States is more concerned about eliminating Al Qaeda and ISIS, and have expressed concerns about rumors of the Coalition members cutting deals with Al Qaeda. At the same time, the US has been unwilling to reassess the grounds for its presence and to commit to a greater level of support and involvement. From Egypt’s perspective, if the current on the ground realities cannot be handled even by the initiators of the MESA project, the prospects for future success appear to be rather bleak. 

Executing the Mission without MESA – what is the path for the United States?

If Arab NATO is not to be in the form as envisioned by the White House,  the US will be forced to develop stronger bilateral defense relationship with each of the key players, and figure out a different way of engaging the pivotal actors in countering Iran’s expansionism.  If MESA is to be resurrected, its members need to be at least a somewhat cohesive force; so only the countries that are more or less on the same page and are not likely to attack each other should be considered for membership. Furthermore, any Arab NATO should model itself closely upon the real NATO, including creating a formal structure of alliances, finding a way of separating PR and trade grievances from defense commitments, receiving formal training from the US and other Western NATO members, and creating Centers of Excellence which capitalize on each members’ strengths and which would create interdependency and assuage regional rivalries. Furthermore, a certain level of fluidity in alliances makes sense in contemporary multipolar defense landscape. For some countries, addressing joint border issues makes sense, and a natural alliance will occur. Others will see Iran as the top priority, while still others may be more concerned about jihadist presence. Whatever the case may be, rigid structure of the original NATO which emerged out of the bipolar Cold War scenario, may no longer be applicable at all, much less towards MENA.

Does that mean that Egypt can never be relied upon to counter Iran’s rising hegemony? From all appearances, it seems that Egypt is content with maintaining a modest diplomatic relationship with the Islamic Republic. Part of the reason for its difference with the rest of the ATQ on this matter is the fact that Egypt currently prioritizes addressing the threats by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, while Tehran does not appear to present an immediate existential danger.

Understanding the Divide within the Anti-Terrorism Quartet

Additionally, Cairo’s priorities since Abdul Fattah al-Sisi took power have consistently centered around countering the danger of radical Islamism, both in Egypt and abroad. Cairo is likewise currently fighting a fierce regional battle with Turkey and Qatar, who support the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. Relative to these challenges, countering the Iranian threat is a lower priority for Egypt.

Thanks to MB financial backing, terrorist threats have spread throughout the regions; infiltration of ISIS member and other groups in Sinai keep Egypt occupied and require a great deal of financial expenditures and military focus. The situation in Libya until recently has likewise been a major military concern; Qatar’s interference in regional matters, such as backing Sudan over a dam-related dispute with Egypt were likewise more immediate items of interest from Cairo’s perspective.  Although Iran had previously worked with the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood Morsi government on establishing stronger military and intelligence ties with Egypt, since President Sissi’s tenure began, Iran focused its energies elsewhere.

The Muslim Brotherhood, with support from Ankara and Doha, is seen as an existential threat; Iran is not.

IN that sense, the Gulf States and Egypt have differing priorities; combating Iran’s expansionism is one of the top priorities for KSA, UAE, and Bahrain, but it apparently is not so for Egypt.

Similarly, the Gulf States, despite significant differences with Erdogan’s Turkey, need Turkey’s involvement in Syria to oppose Assad and Iranian incursion, although they, too, distrust Erdogan’s geopolitical ambitions. Cairo, on the other hand, in part by growing closer to Russia, has made peace with Assad retaining power, and prefers Assad to the instability of jihadist groups at war, the expansion of Muslim  Brotherhood, and the strengthening of Ankara.

Why Egypt Prioritizes Response to the Turkish Threat

Egypt’s and Turkey’s historical relationship is fraught with friction; some of the old tensions are now playing out with Ankara’s Islamist leadership in charge.  Some old Ottoman street names, for instance, have fallen casualty of the more recent strife. Egypt was under Ottoman control from the 16th through the early 20th century. Although there are many historical, cultural, and religious ties, the countries have had periods of tensions, such as during the Nasserist period in the 1950s and 60s, when the Kemalist Turkey moved in a pro-Western direction. Erdogan’s support for Morsi created a long term problem for his relations with the Sissi government. In 2013, Egypt expelled the Turkish ambassador following a diplomatic crisis. Erdogan permanently banned the Egyptian ambassador from entering Turkey and declared him to be a persona non grata in response. The reason for this cold start to relations was Turkey’s involvement in the Arab Spring which brought Morsi to power in the first place, and later, its meddling in Syria.

Erdogan welcomed the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood, who fled Egypt and openly touted his ties with that organization. Increasing evidence of Erdogan’s trade ties with ISIS created a further obstacle to the relationship with Egypt, which suffers from ongoing terrorist attacks. President Sissi on the other hand, proposed, recognizing the Armenian genocide, a sore point for Turkey, particularly under Erdogan. In February 2019, the government implicitly recognized the genocide, further exacerbating the divide. Other members of the Egyptian government proposed granting asylum to Fethullah Gullen, Erdogan’s Islamist political rival, currently under protection in the United States.

  Furthermore, Egypt has arrested a number of individuals in 2017; that group was accused of espionage in favor of Turkey, as well as money laundering, and assorted related crimes.  The two countries have also been engaged in an ongoing media war. These exchanges reflected the geopolitical tensions. Egypt was irked by Turkey’s interest in projecting greater power into Africa, including its incursions into the Red Sea. Not the least of it was the general sense that Turkey seeks to be the new Sunni leader of the Muslim world, displacing the traditional role played by Egypt and Saudi Arabia in that regard. Its media coverage attacking the heads of state in these two countries reflected Erdogan’s populist move to rile up any pro-Muslim Brotherhood elements.

Turkey and Qatar’s growing presence in Africa threatens to reignite the pro-Muslim Brotherhood sympathies, which can spread like fire across borders of unstable neighboring countries, or exploit existing vulnerabilities even in more secure states. Both of these states have been generously funding humanitarian and ideological outreach efforts, which hit much closer to home than Iran. Egypt, then, finds itself having to focus on securing itself from these efforts – and leaving the less immediately urgent battles to its Gulf counterparts.

How Egypt is Getting the Best of Both Worlds

For Cairo, this arrangement seems to be the best of both worlds: while remaining a Gulf ally, Egypt is able to preserve an attitude towards Iran’s actions in the region that reflects some of Cairo and Tehran’s shared strategic interests. The two states have similar perspectives on major regional issues such as support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the need to subject the Israeli nuclear program to international oversight.

 The position of the two countries on the Syrian issue is notably aligned—even at the expense of Egypt’s Gulf allies. Cairo openly supports Assad, Tehran’s traditional ally. And against expectations, Egypt voted in the Security Council in favor of the Russian decision on Syria in October 2016—supported by Iran and opposed by Saudi Arabia—a decision that infuriated Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Egypt has not been pushed towards a significantly more bellicose position by its Gulf allies and continues to limit itself to activities like its participation in the Warsaw Conference. Based on these and other indicators, it seems that Egypt and Iran have no intention of seriously clashing in the near future.

There are other reasons for Egypt’s position on this issue. First, there is the traditional isolationist argument present to some extent in any society, which calls for focusing Egypt’s foreign policy exclusively on matters of direct and immediate interest to Egypt’s national interests. While that argument is not prevalent, despite some presence among government officials, it does press the issue of priorities. Second, coordination of efforts thus far has been mostly lip service. There have been some isolated joint military exercises; Egyptian advisers to Saudi defense have played an influential role. Nevertheless, for theArab NATO to succeed and for Egypt to want to return to an active role in regional efforts, several things need to happen – and there are certainly opportunities for these issues to be addressed.  

Recommendations for saving MESA and bringing Egypt back to the table

Goals and limitations of the alliance need to be clearly defined; responsibilities of each member need to be delineated; financial commitments must be clear, transparent, and have enforcement mechanisms for collection to avoid the pitfalls of the Western NATO discrepancies.

Most successful Iranian operations, including naval exercises, are geared towards asymmetrical warfare. While MESA member states are increasingly well equipped with modern weaponry, up until this point the training regimen was largely geared towards large scale traditional confrontations, which is no longer the present, much less the future of contemporary warfare. For that reason, all states which aspire to be a members should agree to restructure their forces in such a way that effective asymmetrical preparation became possible. This would give Egypt additional advantage in any future confrontation with jihadist groups or its priority adversarial forces. In other words, this would be a win-win situation, as all members would benefit in some way from such an arrangement.

 While there needs to be a minimal agreed upon financial commitment among all members, building trust in any formalized alliance also requires balancing strengths and weaknesses, creating a way of compensating for any inherent vulnerabilities.  That means that where some members are best position to contribute well trained and battle hardened forces, others may be better positioned to contribute financially while they commit to developing the level of preparation that would facilitate their participation in any potential confrontations, and still others might provide other essential types of expertise.

Because Iran is not a top priority for Egypt, it is important to underscore that Iran’s detrimental effect in the region is not constrained by military prowess and destruction alone. Cybesecurity, financial crimes, alliances with assorted organized crimes schemes, the advance of soft power, law fare and economic warfare, and lobbying and PR in the West are all part of Iran’s geopolitical strategy – and while Egypt may not suffer the effects of Iran’s combat plans directly or in the immediate foreseeable future, it is not immune from the other global activities by Iran and its proxies.

Finally, it is important to note that Turkey, Qatar, and Muslim Brotherhood and its backed organizations such as Hamas, are increasingly growing closer to Iran. Hamas is fully funded by Iran; Egypt’s diplomatic successes in dealing with Hamas recently are noteworthy; however, Iran’s determination to destabilize the region and to utilize Syria and regional battles to exact influence have continued unabated.  For that reason, it is in Egypt’s best interests to separate its worst enemies from each other and from Iran.   The issue, then, is how to address Egypt’s relationship with Assad and how to avoid exacerbating the differences with the Gulf States over Syria’s role. The answer to that is: carefully, and incrementally, by focusing on small issues, where, for instance, Egypt can exercise diplomatic influence over Russia and Assad to pressure Iran, whereas in exchange the Gulf States can worker closer with Egypt on securing its interests against incursion by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The United States has limited options if it wants to exert the “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic. It can return to a more hawkish role in the Middle East, expand its presence in Syria and Iraq, figure out an effective and legal way of disrupting Hezbollah operations and IRGC financing and arming of the Houthis or else increasing its forces on the ground and incorporating Hezbollah into its counterrorism mission. It can also invest into soft power projects along with its Middle Eastern counterpart that could counter Iran’s ideological influence. It could even build additional bases, including in Saudi Arabia, in the future to deter attacks from Houthis or various jihadist groups. Alternatively, if the US seeks in the long term to minimize its presence in the region without sacrificing the region to Russia and Iran as now appears to be the course, it will need to do a lot more in the short term to ensure that the bloc of states the Trump administration is counting on to pick up the leadership role in countering Iran’s malign influence does not disperse to be co-opted, weakened, or countered by the adversary. It needs to invest time, effort, and human resources into creating a coherent mechanism for delivering a workable strategy towards a clearly defined objective – rolling back Iranian influence and bankrupting the regime to the point that it can no longer present a security threat to anyone in the region.

*Mohamed Maher is an Egyptian journalist and researcher based in the United States.

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney and analyst based in New York. She has written extensively about geopolitics, foreign policy, and security issues for a variety of domestic and international issues and her writing has been translated into Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

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India-Pakistan: Stitched in Multilateral Interests

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Bilaterally botched relationship, Pakistan and India would be working together in an economic and strategic multilateral forum of Eurasia’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The China-led Organization has eight members – India, Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – and four observer states, Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia. Both India and Pakistan were given the membership in 2017.

Founded on June 15, 2001, the SCO characterizes the inter-governmental interaction to provide an institutional platform for broad regional economic cooperation within the context of the new realities of globalization and regional integration. As such the interlacing of relations between countries and regions is significantly augmented with the paradigm shift of increasing interdependency and commonly accessible communication. The major objective is to encourage a more cohesive global community for development and prosperity.

However, locked in unrelenting hostility, to establish a non‐securitized culture with collective security through conflict resolution between India and Pakistan is blocked by their parochial politics. The teaming up when encountering transnational challenges, as members of a multilateral forum, such as the SCO, presents a ray of hope despite the antiquated politics of Indo-Pak relations.  Nationalism and politics of ‘otherness’ or populism has mainly kept the basic conflict dynamics unchanged between India and Pakistan so far. It is painfully being exacerbated even further with Modi’s Hindutva ideology.

Similarly, one of the characteristics of regional cooperation is strengthening conflict management to ensure security. The Composite Dialogue initiated between the two states, way back in 1998, with reference to “all outstanding issues including Jammu and Kashmir” never reached its conclusion. A brief rethought of holding the “Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue’ in 2015, also got scuttled by ever soaring tensions.

Likewise, geo‐economic collaboration in the region, with autonomy for individual countries is dependent upon its political and security conditions. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is perhaps the only regional forum which has not been able to provide a much needed platform for discussing security‐related issues.

Hence the question whether Prime Minister Imran Khan will attend the SCO summit when India would host the event in October this year, is one of extreme consternation for Pakistan against the backdrop of the deteriorating bilateral relations between both countries. Especially since India has revoked Article 370, keeping the Kashmiris under siege for more than 150 days, an emboldened Modi’s recent Bill on Citizenship, and the erstwhile incident of February27 when Pakistan’s borders were violated, with its opposing hostile narratives all present an ‘incandescent panoply’ of South Asia’s collective security concerns. Already deep rooted and agonizing for the people of both India and Pakistan, the territorial disputes between both countries have significantly stampeded the possibility of cordial bilateral relations between both neighbors.

Mr. Raveesh Kumar, the spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs has already declared that “India will be hosting the heads of government summit later this year. As per established practice and procedure within SCO, all eight members, as well as four observer states and other international dialogue partners, will be invited.”

South Asia is desperately negotiating its place in an arena of global interconnections within the throes of rapid change. Within the purview of both immediate and distant history where relentless confrontation between two major nuclear armed nations has played a defining role, how would one geographical unit benefit from a multilateral venture? Where would India and Pakistan start as co‐members of the SCO, in the absence of the complementarity of political interests? Who would step forward to challenge the prevailing incongruity both internally and externally? To borrow from the Theory of Transcendence for conflict resolution, proposed by Johan Galtung, India and Pakistan have the following three options to respond to the changing world of multi‐ polarity and regional integration:

1. To give up in advance on the outstanding issues,

2. Content oneself at the expense of the other,

3. Or reach some compromise.

Hence, would their presence in the SCO this year impart a new momentum towards a more coherent and effective exercise in conflict management? Is it an opportunity? Or would it deepen their already existing strains and widen their ancient rivalries further afield to Afghanistan and Central Asia?

Through the SCO, China and Russia are building a decidedly multi‐polar “Eurasian” point of view. Its strategic aims are to condemn any efforts to achieve a “monopoly in world affairs”, divide the world into “leaders and followers” and “impose models of social development.” This obviously reflects China’s insistence on “multi‐polar” world as against the US persistence of “uni‐polar” international order.

Agreeably, the SCO does provide an opportunity to both India and Pakistan to transcend from their parochial politics. It has historically provided a platform to its member states to sign such crucial agreements like the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions and the Treaty of Good‐ Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, amongst its member states. The transformation of the regional and global security paradigm amidst the growth of new economic centers also necessitates a qualitative change. The world looks askance at teamwork.

Though the forum is too feeble to bear the consequent shocks of Indo-Pak hostility, the converging interests of the member states offer an opening for an effective intermediary role to resolve the Kashmir issue as well. The presence of unimplemented resolutions in the United Nations and now universally noticeable human rights violations has already given it an international status.

Conclusively, a final decision on whether Prime Minister Imran Khan attends the meeting, scheduled for October, is yet to be made by Islamabad. Placing cooperation above conflict in the conduct of interstate relations is certainly a viable solution however, without compromising on its principled stance. As an alternative there is already is a precedent from the past to have the foreign ministers representing the national interests in such multilateral forums should the Prime Minister choose to abstain.

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Looking Behind the Daily News: Informed Narratives on Israel’s Nuclear Challenges

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it.”-Karl Jaspers, Reason and Existence (1935)

How shall Israel endure in a prospectively non-rational Middle East? It’s a complicated question, many-sided and uniquely daunting. More precisely, this question represents an authentically existential query, one never to be answered with simplifying political rhetoric, banal discourse or otherwise empty witticisms. Above all, it is a bewilderingly complex and nuanced interrogative; one not suited for the easily misled or intellectually faint-hearted.

What is altogether plain is that Israel’s nuclear forces and posture will soon become more urgently important to the country’s national survival.[1]

Indeed, considering a broad assortment of more or less credible circumstances – some of which may even be unwanted and/or inadvertent – the Israeli survival imperative could sometime concern actual use of nuclear weapons.

How might this most markedly unwelcome circumstance actually come to pass? To begin to answer, this is not the time for any continuously unsystematic or fanciful scenarios of prospective nuclear perils. At the same time, it would be mistaken prima facie to assign precise probabilities to any specific categories of nuclear threat or nuclear conflict outcomes. This is the case, inter alia, because (1) mathematically meaningful probabilities must always be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events; and (2) there are (fortunately, of course) no such events to consider.[2]

At a minimum, scholars and strategists should respond to these unprecedented sorts of challenge in regional or geographic terms, thereby highlighting the particular states or clusters of state-sub-state “hybrids” that seemingly pose the plausibly greatest security concern. For Israel, the most obvious locus of nuclear concern remains Iran, including the related prospect of future nuclear terror attacks by Iranian proxies, e.g., Hezbollah. Still, Sunni Arab fears of an impending “Persian Bomb” could prod Egypt and/or Saudi Arabia to “go nuclear” themselves.

Should that happen, Jerusalem could then have to deal with several nuclear “fronts” simultaneously, a staggering geopolitical challenge that would place utterly herculean intellectual expectations upon Israel’s principal security planners.

How shall Israel best prevent its presence in any conflict involving nuclear weapons, whether as war, or “merely” as terrorism? In principle, at least, Jerusalem should be able to undertake certain timely and capable preemptions wherever needed, thus substantially diminishing any conspicuous risks of nuclear engagement.[3] Under authoritative international law,[4] such defensive first-strikes could conceivably qualify as authoritative expressions of “anticipatory self-defense.”[5]  Still, the primary obstacles, going forward, will not be narrowly jurisprudential. Even a defensive first strike that is fully legal might still not “work.” Inevitably, for the IDF, principal decisional concerns will be broadly operational and specifically tactical. Not concerns about legality

This understanding brings Israel to the overriding need for coherent nuclear strategy and doctrine, a complicated requirement that must include a counter-value targeted nuclear retaliatory force that would be (1) recognizably secure from enemy first-strikes; and (2) recognizably capable of penetrating any such enemy’s active defenses. To meet this imperative security expectation, the IDF would be well-advised to continue with its selective sea-basing (submarines) of designated portions of its nuclear deterrent force. To meet the equally important requirements of penetration-capability, it will have to stay well ahead of all pertinent enemy air defense refinements. Israeli planners will also need to ensure that their own strategic retaliatory forces are always able to get through any such modernized Iranian defenses, and that the Iranian leadership remains fully aware of this particular Israeli ability.

 From the standpoint of making sure that relevant enemy states will have no meaningful doubts about Israel’s capacity to launch “assuredly destructive” retaliations for certain aggressions, Jerusalem will soon need to consider a partial and possibly incremental end to its longstanding policy of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.”[6] By selectively beginning to remove the “bomb from the basement,” Israel’s planners would then be able to better enhance the credibility of their country’s indispensable nuclear deterrence posture. However counter-intuitive, any mere possession of nuclear forces can never automatically bestow credible nuclear deterrence.[7]

 Also always necessary is that would-be aggressors (e.g., an already-nuclear Iran) believe that Israel has (1) the willingness to launch these nuclear forces in retaliation; (2) nuclear forces that are sufficiently invulnerable to their own now-contemplated first-strike attacks; and (3) nuclear forces that can always be expected to penetrate their own deployed ballistic-missile and certain corollary air defenses. Israel, therefore, would soon benefit from releasing certain broad outlines of strategic information supporting the perceived utility and security of its relevant retaliatory forces.

This information, released solely to enhance Israeli nuclear deterrence, would center upon the targeting, hardening, dispersion, multiplication, basing, and yield of selected Israeli nuclear forces. Si vis pacem, para bellum atomicum. “If you want peace, prepare for nuclear war.”

 Israel must protect itself against Iran or any other potential nuclear aggressor not only by maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent force, but also by fielding assorted and appropriately intersecting elements of national defense. In this connection, an integral core of Israel’s multi-layered active defenses is the Arrow or “Hetz.” Still, the successfully-tested Arrow, even when reinforced by David’s Sling and Iron Dome, could never achieve a sufficiently high probability of intercept to reassuringly protect Israeli civilians.[8] Its main purpose, therefore, will likely be for the protection of Israel’s “hard” nuclear deterrence infrastructures, not for ultimate security of the nation’s “soft” human targets.

Still, this could change, especially as Israel’s Ministry of Defense continues to produce noteworthy breakthroughs in the development of laser-based weapon systems. Here, Rafael and Elbit Systems will be developing prototypes for advanced laser systems, including some designed for missile interception. In essence, the new Israeli technology will make it possible to develop effective interception systems at relatively low cost, thereby adding an additional layer of national defense protection.[9]

Once it is faced with a fully nuclear adversary in Tehran, Israel will need to convince this adversary that it possesses both the will and the capacity to make any intended Iranian nuclear aggression more costly than gainful. Still, no Israeli move from deliberate ambiguity to nuclear disclosure could meaningfully help in the case of an irrational nuclear enemy, whether appearing in Tehran or anywhere else. For dealing with irrational enemies, those enemies that would not value their own continued national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences, even a comprehensive preemption could already be too late.

Eschatology could also matter here. To the extent that an Iranian leadership might authentically subscribe to certain end-times visions of the Shiite apocalypse, Iran – at least in principle – could sometime cast aside the obligations of rational behavior. Were this to happen, Iran could then effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Nonetheless, this riveting but unverifiable prospect is highly unlikely, at least according to the necessarily imprecise forms of measurement available to strategic planners.

For Israel and its allies, it is time to further systematize inquiry about nuclear weapons and nuclear war in the Middle East. What are the tangibly precise circumstances under which Israel could find itself involved with any actual nuclear weapons use? To answer this most basic question, it will be most productive to respond within already well-established canons of logical analysis and dialectical reasoning. Accordingly, four pertinent and plausibly intersecting narratives or scenarios best “cover the bases”: Nuclear Retaliation; Nuclear Counter Retaliation; Nuclear Preemption; and Nuclear War fighting.

(1) Nuclear Retaliation

Should an enemy state or alliance of enemy states launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel, Jerusalem would assuredly respond, and to whatever extent possible, with a nuclear retaliatory strike. If enemy first-strikes were to involve other forms of unconventional weapons known as chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Israel might launch a nuclear reprisal. This would depend, in presumptively large measure, upon Jerusalem/Tel Aviv’s expectations of follow-on aggression and on its associated calculations of comparative damage-limitation.

If Israel were to absorb a massive conventional attack, a nuclear retaliation might still not be ruled out, especially if: (a) the state aggressors were perceived to hold nuclear, and/or other unconventional weapons in reserve; and/or (b) Israel’s leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent annihilation of the Jewish State. A nuclear retaliation by Israel could be ruled out only in those circumstances where enemy state aggressions were entirely conventional, “typical” (that is, sub-existential, or consistent with previous historic instances of enemy attack in degree and intent), and hard-target directed (that is, directed only toward Israeli weapons and military infrastructures, and not at any “soft” civilian populations).

(2) Nuclear Counter retaliation

Should Israel feel compelled to preempt enemy state aggression with conventional weapons, the target state(s) response would largely determine Jerusalem’s next moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would expectedly turn to an immediate nuclear counter retaliation. If this retaliation were to involve other weapons of mass destruction, Israel might then also feel pressed to take an appropriate escalatory initiative. Inter alia, any such initiative would reflect the presumed need for what is normally described in formal strategic parlance as “escalation dominance.”

 All would depend upon Jerusalem’s judgments of enemy state intent and on its calculations of essential damage-limitation. Should the enemy state response to Israel’s preemption be limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is unlikely that the Jewish State would then move on to nuclear counter retaliations. If, however, the enemy conventional retaliation were plainly “all-out,” and directed toward Israeli civilian populations, not just to Israeli military targets, an Israeli nuclear counter retaliation could not be ruled out.

It would appear that such a counter retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state’s conventional retaliation were entirely proportionate to Israel’s preemption, confined exclusively to Israeli military targets, circumscribed by the legal limits of “military necessity” (a limit routinely codified in the law of armed conflict), and accompanied by various explicit and suitably verifiable assurances of non-escalatory intent.

(3) Nuclear Preemption

It is difficult to imagine that Israel would ever decide to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Though circumstances could arise wherein such a strike would in fact be perfectly rational, it is unlikely that Israel would ever allow itself to reach such dire circumstances. Moreover, unless the nuclear weapons involved were somehow used in a fashion consistent with the laws of war (aka the law of armed conflict), this extreme form of preemption would represent an especially serious violation of international law.

But even if such consistency were possible, the psychological/political impact on the wider world community would be exceedingly negative and far-reaching. In essence, this means that an Israeli nuclear preemption could be expected only (a) where Israel’s enemies had acquired nuclear and/or other weapons of mass destruction judged capable of annihilating the Jewish State; (b) where these enemies had made it clear that their military intentions paralleled their capabilities; (c) where these enemies were believed ready to begin an active “countdown to launch;” and (d) where Jerusalem/Tel Aviv believed that Israeli non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve the minimum needed levels of damage-limitation – that is, levels consistent with physically preserving the state.

(4) Nuclear War fighting

Should nuclear weapons ever be introduced into an actual conflict between Israel and its enemies, either by the Jewish State or by a pertinent foe, nuclear war fighting, at one level or another, would ensue. This would be true so long as: (a) enemy first-strikes would not destroy Israel’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Jerusalem/Tel Aviv’s nuclear counter retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy adversarial second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy nuclear counter retaliatory capability.

It follows that in order to satisfy its essential survival requirements, Israel must now take reliable steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and also the corollary unlikelihood of (c) and (d).

In all cases, Israel’s nuclear strategy and forces must remain oriented to deterrence; never to war fighting. With this obligation in mind, Jerusalem has likely already taken steps to reject any discernible reliance upon tactical or (relatively) low-yield “battlefield” nuclear weapons, and on any corresponding plans for implementing counter-force targeting doctrines. For Israel, at all times, nuclear weapons can only make sense for deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.

But, always, rationality must remain a key factor in operational deterrence logic. More exactly, in order simply to be sustained in world politics, any viable system of deterrence must be premised on an assumption of rationality. Essentially, each side must consistently believe that the other side will value its continued national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences.

Indisputably, during the Cold War era, rationality proved to be a consistently reasonable and correct assumption. Now, however, Israel may have good reason to doubt that MAD could work as well in the Middle East as it did more generally during the prior time of US-Soviet bipolarity.[10] Over time, of course, principal decision-makers in Tehran could turn out to be just as rational as were the Soviets. Still, there is no adequately reassuring way of knowing this for certain, or, for that matter, of predicting Iranian rationality with any previously-tested bases of reliable judgment.

This brings up the most sobering question of all: What if Iran should become fully nuclear, and if any consequent nuclear deterrence posture would fail to prevent all-out war between Iran and Israel? What, exactly, would happen if Tehran were to actually launch a nuclear attack against Israel, whether as an atomic “bolt from the blue” or as a result of escalation, whether deliberate or inadvertent?

In considering this basic question, it must be kept in mind that even a fully rational Iranian adversary could sometime decide to launch against Israel because of (1) incorrect information used in its vital decisional calculations; (2) mechanical, electronic, or computer malfunctions; (3) unauthorized decisions to fire in the national decisional command authority; (hacking-related issues); or (5) coup d’état.

In  a conceivably worst case scenario, irrational Iranian adversaries would not value their own national survival most highly. Nonetheless, even as irrational foes, they could still maintain a determinable and potentially manipulable ordering of preferences. It follows that Jerusalem should immediately undertake to best anticipate this expected ordering, and to fashion corollary deterrent threats accordingly.[11]

It should also be borne in mind that Iranian preference-orderings would never be created in a vacuum. Eventually, assorted strategic developments in “Palestine” and elsewhere in the region could impact such hierarchies, either as “synergies,” (where the “whole” of any determinable effect would exceed the ascertainable sum of its “parts”)[12] or (in more expressly military language) as “force multipliers.”

There is more. It is frequently assumed that Israel’s nuclear weapons and strategy are more-or-less irrelevant to non-nuclear threats. This erroneous assumption stipulates, albeit implicitly, that (1) extraordinary ordnance and posture must refer exclusively to roughly parallel levels of prospective enemy destructiveness; and that (2) non- nuclear threats – whether from individual states, alliances of states, terror-group adversaries, or even state-terror group “hybrids” – must be symmetrically countered. The invariant core of any such assumption is the following seemingly plausible proposition:

 A particular state’s deterrent credibility must be directly proportionate to calculable enemy threats.

At first, this  “symmetry hypothesis” appears to make perfect sense. But authentic strategic truth can sometimes be “recalcitrant” or counter-intuitive. Moreover, because virtually all of the Israel-related scenarios or cases in point are effectively sui generis, or without any determinable precedent, nothing of any true scientific value can ever be extrapolated concerning probabilities.

It follows, inter alia, that any meaningful assessment of hypotheses regarding “asymmetrical deterrence” and Israel’s security must always be limited to formal deductive analysis. This indicates, among other things, assessments that are effectively devoid of tangible empirical content, yet are still defined by appropriately stringent standards of internal consistency, logical interconnectedness and conspicuously dialectical thinking.

How to begin? A good place would be with the “grey area” of future enemy non-nuclear threats that are nonetheless unconventional. Most obvious, in this connection, would be credible enemy threats of biological warfare and/or biological terrorism. While assuredly non-nuclear, biological warfare attacks could conceivably also produce grievously injurious or even near-existential event outcomes for Israel.

In principle, at least, Israeli policies of calibrated nuclear reprisal for certain BW attacks could exhibit significant deterrent effectiveness against three of the four above-mentioned adversarial categories. Such policies would be inapplicable, prima facie, against threats from those terror groups functioning without any recognizable state alignments. In such expectedly residual cases, Israel – then plainly lacking operational targets suitable for nuclear ordnance – would need to “fall back” upon the more usual arsenal of counter-terrorist methods and options.

This tactical retrogression would be required even if the particular terror group involved (e.g., Sunni ISIS or Shiite Hezbollah) had already revealed plausible nuclear threat capabilities.

What about those enemy conventional threats that would involve neither nuclear nor biological attack, but were still prospectively massive enough to produce existential or near-existential consequences for Israel? On its face, it seems that in such cases, a would-be conventional aggressor could still reasonably calculate that Jerusalem might actually make good on certain of its decipherable nuclear deterrent threats. Here, however, Israel’s nuclear deterrent threat credibility could be largely dependent upon an antecedent doctrinal shift from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” (the so-called “bomb in the basement”) to more overt “nuclear disclosure.”

Why? The correct answer must hinge on Israel’s presumed operational flexibility. More specifically, in the absence of any prior shift away from deliberate ambiguity, a would-be aggressor state might still not really understand or accept that the Jewish State already had available to it a sufficiently broad array of graduated nuclear retaliatory responses. Of course, in the presumed absence of such an array, Israeli nuclear deterrence could be correspondingly diminished.

As a direct consequence of its presumptively diminished nuclear ambiguity, Jerusalem could signal its relevant adversary or adversaries that Israel would wittingly cross the nuclear retaliatory threshold to punish  any acts of existential or near-existential aggressions. Using more expressly military parlance, Israel’s shift to apt forms of nuclear disclosure would then be intended to ensure “escalation dominance.”

In any such dynamic and complex scenario, the nuclear deterrence advantages for Israel of moving beyond traditional nuclear ambiguity would lie in the compelling signal it is then able to send to particular foes. This signal warns that Jerusalem would not necessarily be limited to launching retaliations that employ only massive and disproportionate levels of nuclear force. A timely Israeli move from ambiguity to disclosure – as long as this doctrinal move were suitably nuanced and incremental – could substantially improve Israel’s prospects for deterring large-scale conventional attacks with more consciously “tailored” nuclear threats.

Finally, it is well worth noting that these stipulated nuclear deterrence benefits could extend to certain Israeli threats of nuclear counter-retaliation. If, for example, Israel should sometime consider initiating a non-nuclear defensive first-strike against Iran, a preemptive act that would persuasively represent “anticipatory self-defense” under authoritative international law, the likelihood of suffering any massive Iranian conventional retaliation might then be diminished. In essence, by following a properly prepared path from deliberate nuclear ambiguity to nuclear disclosure, Jerusalem could expectedly upgrade its indispensable deterrence posture vis-à-vis both nuclear and non-nuclear threats.

Ultimately, Israel’s nuclear deterrent must be oriented toward dominating escalation at multiple levels of conventional and unconventional enemy threats. For this to work, Israeli strategic planners must bear in mind that all future operational success will depend upon prior formulations of national nuclear doctrine.

Looking over this comprehensive delineation of scenarios that could lead Israel to some future involvement in a regional use of nuclear weapons, Jerusalem will need to steadily refine and systematize its core strategic doctrine. In certain circumstances, the tangible results of any such enhancements could also impact United States security.[13] In absolutely all conceivable circumstances, Israel would need to carefully prepare for both rational and non-rational adversaries.[14]

 Though the likelihood of the latter is plausibly small, the consequences could be literally incalculable.


[1] Among other things, this development will call for a suitably incremental end to “deliberate ambiguity” or “the bomb in the basement.” The point here would not be to reveal the obvious –  that is, that Israel merely has the bomb – but rather to communicate to all prospective adversaries  (and pertinent allies) that its nuclear forces are usable (not too destructive), well-protected and fully capable of penetrating any nuclear enemy’s active defenses. See earlier, by this author: Louis René Beres, “Changing Direction? Updating Israel’s Nuclear Doctrine,” INSS, Israel, Strategic Assessment, Vol. 17, No.3., October 2014, pp. 93-106. See also: Louis René Beres, Looking Ahead: Revising Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity in the Middle East, Herzliya Conference Policy Paper, Herzliya Conference, March 11-14, 2013 (Herzliya, Israel); Louis René Beres and Leon “Bud” Edney, Admiral  (USN/ret.) “Facing a Nuclear Iran, Israel Must Rethink its Nuclear Ambiguity,” U.S. News & World Report, February 11, 2013; 3pp; and Professor Louis René Beres and Admiral Leon “Bud” Edney,  “Reconsidering Israel’s Nuclear Posture,” The Jerusalem Post, October 14, 2013. Admiral Edney served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic (SACLANT).

[2] There has never been a nuclear war. The use of atomic bombs against Japan at the end of World War II represented the inclusion of nuclear weapons in a non-nuclear conflict.

[3] Historically, Israel’s two major preemption operations concerned with an eventual adversarial access to nuclear weapons were Operation Opera (1981) and Operation Orchard (2007). Much less is known about  “Orchard” than about  “Opera.” In brief, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reasserted the 1981 “Begin Doctrine,” only this time in reference to perceived dangers from the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria. Later, in April 2011, the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that the bombed Syrian site had been a developing nuclear reactor. Olmert’s decision on “Orchard” – like Begin’s earlier one on “Opera” – proved substantially gainful not only for Israel, but also derivatively, for the United States and others.

[4] Regarding international law, it is ultimately deducible from natural law, which is the foundation of both US and Israeli municipal (domestic) law. Inter alia, according to Blackstone, each state is expected “to aid and enforce the law of nations, as part of the common law.” See William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 4, “Of Public Wrongs.” Lest anyone question the significance of Blackstone, we need merely to recollect that his Commentaries represent the original and authoritatively core foundation of United States law, and that they are themselves ultimately based on various scriptural sources. International law is most expressly incorporated into U.S. law by Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”), and also by certain U.S.  Supreme Court decisions, especially the Paquete Habana (1900).

[5] In jurisprudential terms, it is always necessary to distinguish preemptive attacks from “preventive” ones. Preemption is a military strategy of striking an enemy first, in the expectation that the only likely alternative is to be struck first oneself.  A preemptive attack is launched by a state that believes enemy forces are about to attack.  A preventive attack, however, is launched not out of any genuine concern about “imminent” hostilities, but rather for fear of some longer-term deterioration in a pertinent military balance.  Hence, in a preemptive attack, the length of time by which the enemy’s action is anticipated is very short, while in a preventive strike, the interval is considerably longer. A problem for Israel, in this specific regard, is not only the practical difficulty of determining imminence, but also the fact that delaying a defensive strike until some more appropriately ascertained imminence is acknowledged could be “fatal.”

[6] On identifying pertinent nuclear disclosure options, see: Louis René Beres, “Israel’s Strategic Doctrine: Updating Intelligence Community Responsibilities,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 28. No.1., Spring 2015, pp. 89-104.

[7] On this most ambiguous element of Israeli nuclear deterrence, see: Professor Louis René Beres and Admiral (USN/ret.) Leon “Bud” Edney, “Israel’s Nuclear Strategy: A Larger Role for Submarine Basing,” The Jerusalem Post, August 17, 2014; and Professor Beres and Admiral Edney, “A Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent for Israel,” Washington Times, September 5, 2014.

[8] On prospective shortcomings of Israeli BMD, see: Louis René Beres and (Major-General/IDF/ret.) Isaac Ben-Israel, “The Limits of Deterrence,” Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Professor Louis René Beres and M-G Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iran,” Washington Times, June 10, 2007; and Professor Louis René Beres and M-G Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack,” Washington Times, January 27, 2009.

[9] https://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/41573

[10] For scholarly writings by this author on the global security implications of this earlier era of bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[11] On deterring a potentially irrational nuclear adversary, most notably Iran, see: Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?”  The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog). February 23, 2012. General Chain (USAF/ret.) served as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[12] The concept of “synergy” here would concern not only various intersections of national security policy, but also of possible attack outcomes. In this connection, regarding the expected consequences of specifically nuclear attacks, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986), See also, Ami Rojkes Dombe, “What Happens When a Nuclear Bomb Hits a Wall?”  Israel Defense, September 10, 2016.

[13] On vital interconnections between US and Israeli nuclear security, see special 2016 monograph (published at Tel Aviv University) co-authored by Professor Beres and US General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey:

https://sectech.tau.ac.il/sites/sectech.tau.ac.il/files/PalmBeachBook.pdf

See also: http://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/parameters/Articles/07spring/beres.pdf

[14] If facing a still non-nuclear adversary in Iran, a preemption option could appear prudent and rational to Israel if executed before certain new protective measures were put in place. Whether in regard to rational or non-rational foes, newly- nuclear adversaries in Tehran could sometime implement protective measures that would pose significant additional hazards to the Jewish State. Designed to guard against preemption, either by Israel or by other regional enemies, these specific measures would involve the attachment of  “hair trigger” launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems and/or the adoption of “launch on warning” policies, possibly coupled with hazardous pre-delegations of launch authority. This means, in essence, that Israel would be increasingly endangered by once-preventable steps taken by a nuclear enemy to prevent a preemption. Optimally, Israel would do everything possible to prevent such steps, especially because of expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks against its own armaments and populations. Yet, if such steps were allowed to become a fait accompli, Jerusalem might still calculate, and accurately, that a residual preemptive strike would be both legal and cost-effective: The expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, could still appear more tolerable than the expected consequences of any enemy first-strikes (strikes likely occasioned by the failure of certain  “anti-preemption” protocols).

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Defense

How the Withdrawal of US Troops in Syria Impacted Regional Politics and Security

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As northern Syria attempts to adjust to life without US troops, which destabilized what was already considered a tenuous situation, the regional politics and security of the nation have been thrown into disarray with no sight of improvement. In addition to the civil war and refugee crisis, the nation has been an arena where world powers have been vying for a foothold in the Middle East for nearly a decade. With the abrupt shift in territorial control it has become apparent that due to its geographical location and political makeup, Syria is the subject of a custody battle with repercussions that extend far beyond its borders. 

In March of 2011, when peaceful protesters were brutalized for anti-government graffiti, Syria joined the Arab Spring movement sweeping across the Middle East. But unlike neighboring countries, whose own uprisings were brief and relatively non-violent, Syria was pulled into an outright civil war. Later that year, when more citizens were killed and tortured, the sentiment reached a critical mass. What complicated things in Syria, however, was not a more violent response by the national government – the Lybian leader Muammar al-Gaddafi didn’t hesitate in unleashing his military onto his citizens calling for social reform – but the unique nationalities and religions that make up the Syrian population. 

The kindling that sparked the civil war can be attributed to the large ethnic group known as the Kurds who, since the end of WWI when the winning side drew arbitrary borders that divided villages and townships, have remained nationless and spread across multiple countries including Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. The Kurds in Syria, who differ from those in Iraq and Turkey, became easy scapegoats when they formed a rebellion with the intent to not only fight back against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but to fight for land control they felt was long overdue. However, when the initial Kurdish rebellion fractured into nearly a dozen smaller groups, they became pawns that allowed world powers to engage in a proxy war. Though it’s impossible to predict who might fill the vacuum that was recently created by the withdrawal of American troops, there are some key players who are strategically postured to make a move

The war in Syria is comprised of three main groups which is why the situation is often a complex one to follow. After the first shots were fired, the Syrian government was immediately backed by long-time ally Iran, and eventually received military support from Russia. Saudi Arabia, who saw the rebellion as a means to counter Iran without starting a war on its own soil, sent funding and military arms to the Kurds. The US watched this localized fighting from afar until the decision was made to support Kurdish forces in an effort to defeat the newly emerged ISIS, or Islamic State, who threatened western civilization with extremist tactics such as chemical weapons. The third player to throw their hat into the proverbial ring was Turkey, who took the opportunity to wage war against their own Kurdish population whom they consider terrorists but who in reality have little connection to their Syrian counterparts. 

The status quo has been broken and already a trend of uncertainty and chaos has emerged. With the US no longer aligned with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Turkey was granted tacit permission to invade northern Syria. The Kurdish rebels are being forced to either flee the region or join Russian-backed Syrian forces to the south, leaving behind abandoned ISIS prisoners and further displacing overrun refugee camps. Although Russia may outwardly appear to be working against the Turkish government, recent delegations and official engagements suggest that an agreement might be in the works. It would make sense as Russia has a lot to gain by striking a peace deal between Turkey and Syria. Not only would it provide more access to the region through developed seaports but getting Turkey to move away from NATO would give Russia more status as a world power.

 In addition to wondering what comes next for Syria, the world is also left with the question of why the US so abruptly decided to pull its troops out of areas it has been defending for years.  Although this move seems sudden, there is a historical precedent that suggests it may have been long overdue. In 1947, barely two years after WWII ended, Britain found itself overextended and unable to effectively manage its global empire. Realizing it was financially impossible to maintain oversight of the region, the British government abdicated control to the US. Now, years later, America finds itself in a similar position, but without a viable candidate to hand things over to. While there is much to be said and plenty to criticize about how and why the decision was made, it’s hard to imagine there’s ever a ‘good time’ or ‘right way’ to exit the Middle Eastern crisis. 

Although there’s no way to predict what Syria’s future looks like, there are a few variables the move has cemented into place. Firstly, the US has all but permanently severed ties with the Kurds and rebellion forces, making it unlikely the abandoned populace will place its trust another super-power anytime soon. Secondly, the Russian government’s influence will no doubt throw a spanner in the works, and stability in the region seems to be far fetched. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the ISIS and other extremist groups have threatened to resurge and create further instability in already unstable country. With the Turkish Kurds being forced to move south, and the Syrian Kurds involuntarily enlisted into Assad’s regime, they are prime recruits for any movement that can convince the world it is less extreme than the current governments of Syria, Russia, or Turkey. 

Sadly, the one fact that has not changed is that more innocent lives will continue to be lost, and the world will continue to face the refugee crises. European countries who amended immigration policy in response to the crisis have maxed out their ability to assimilate them into society. Without proper management and oversight, this could be the set-up for history to repeat itself. A large population of disenfranchised individuals who feel their land and their rights have been taken away from them is the definition of what started the Arab Spring. Whether with words or with weapons, the fighting will continue until a nation (or collective of nations) with direct experience and understanding of the problem, as well as a personal stake in the availability of oil, steps in with the intention of eventually stepping out. 

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