President Trump signed an executive order on 24 June, imposing additional economic sanctions on Iran. Apparently it’s in retaliation to shooting down of the US Drone by Iran over its airspace last week (which US claims to be in international airspace), which has left US red-faced, war gaming all options on the table from military retaliation to additional curbs, sanctions, talks and possibly another deal. US claim to have exercised restraints, after ordering cyber attacks on Iranian missiles, which Iran denies to have any effect. The immediate trigger was a strike on merchant ships, for which US blamed Iran but Iran denied any role in it. No conclusive evidence appeared to confirm it to be a hostile act by Iran. It makes Strait of Hormuz another flash point in the global arena, more so when Iran finds support from some of the US Competitors. These triggers are only a by- product of greater US agenda to ‘Contain/Change behavior of Iran’, where Israel and Saudi Arabia are direct beneficiaries, because Iran has no capability to strike the mainland of US.
Earlier Presidents like President Clinton and President Obama did not consider striking Iran as a worthwhile option, instead US worked very hard to get Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) signed in 2015 with Iran (commonly known as Iran nuclear deal), even at the cost of differing with some of its allies and strategic partners. It’s a subject of discussion in hindsight, as to why President Trump found it necessary to pull out of it, and re-impose sanctions on Iran to moderate its behavior, to help some of its allies? Did he have a better plan to achieve what US wanted to, or it was just an election promise; hence a domestic compulsion? Has he entered a minefield by pushing Iran to wall, from which it’s not easy for both countries to retract.
Can US reach the its Desired End State by the Ongoing Stance
JCPoA was signed to reach an end state wherein Iran gives up the means to make nuclear weapons and the United States and allies agree to reduce sanctions on Iran in return. The Republicans were not too happy with JCPoA at that time and made it an election issue. The IAEA had not reported any conclusive breach of the agreement by Iran, which implies that it was workable, with some suspicion, minor allegations and counter allegations. President Trump delivered his election promise by walking out of the deal. Additional sanctions were imposed based on the narrative of US and Israel that Iran was enriching Uranium beyond the agreed limit.
The fresh wish list of US and Israel which they want Iran to follow seems to be a tall order for any meaningful negotiations. It includes ceasing its nuclear weapon program, uranium enrichment and nuclear capable ballistic missile systems permanently, under international verification with unqualified access to international inspectors. It also desired Iran to pull out completely from Syria, end its support to Houthi militants in Yemen, Taliban in Afghanistan and allow disarming of Shia militants in Iraq. It also wanted Iran to cease backing Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Palestinians. Regime change in Iran due to economic pressure could also have been its unstated desire. With no such restrictions on Saudi Arabia, Iran refused to accept the new conditions, which it viewed as threat to survival of Shia community, more so when US is continuing to increase the military strength of its arch rival Saudi Arabia.
The rhetoric, provocative speeches, renewed sanctions and efforts to curtail their oil exports, have not worked so far. In my opinion Iran has shown no signs to buckle under US pressure so far. People in Iran may/may not be happy with President Rouhani, but when it comes to taking anti American position, they will stand with him, because ‘Hate America’ sentiments are very strong in Iran and further economic hardship to them will make it even stronger. Will sanctions and other measures (short of war) change Iran’s behavior is questionable, if it did not do so in North Korea.
Possibility of US-Iran Conflict
US will like to step up economic, diplomatic and information warfare to include electronic and cyber war. The saber rattling may not end up in conventional war. US has past experiences of starting a conflict in Middle-East, but later finding conflict termination difficult, leading to more chaos. With such bitter experience it may not start it again. Iran is not a threat to its mainland; hence during the run up for election, President Trump may not like to get entangled in one more flashpoint for someone else, besides North Korea, South China Sea and ongoing trade war with China. The war will push an alliance of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, besides creating a problem of strategic balancing for its allies/strategic partners. The rhetoric will soon be seen following a US-North Korean downward curve.
The Iranian actions also seem to indicate impatience. Even if Iran feels that it been pushed to wall, I see no justification in threatening the world with 60 days ultimatum to commence dangerous level of enrichment, if the deal is not protected by then. It seems to be an over- reaction, when other partners of the deal like EU have not walked out of it and criticized US action. The economic strangulation of Iran may not work, if China and some other countries defy sanctions and start questioning the efficacy of CAATSA being US centric, at the cost of some of the core interests of other countries like energy security.
Global Implications of Instability in Gulf
A disturbed Gulf region and Strait of Hormuz has affected the global oil flow adversely, and the most affected countries are China, India and Japan. The threatened air space has increased the distance of all the commercial flights, earlier routed over this region, resulting in extra fuel consumption and time delays. Although the events may be sounding music to Israel and Saudi Arabia, but it may alter the balance of allegedly Shia – Sunni terror proxy by increasing regional influence of Saudi Arabia, which will further increase the instability in the region. President Trump’s idea of prioritizing US military hardware sale to Saudi Arabia over further probe into Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder will embolden Saudi Arabia. The rise in oil prices resulting further downslide in global economy will be a natural outcome. These side-effects of sanctions make Iran different from the effects of sanctions on North Korea in near similar circumstances.
Impact on India
India imports 84 percent of its crude oil requirement. Iran had been the third largest supplier of crude to India. The crude oil supplied by Iran was the cheapest for India, as Iran had agreed to accept payment in rupee terms. Any alternate arrangement will force India to buy oil in dollar terms, causing a heavy drain in foreign exchange, pushing the oil prices up. Most refineries in India are designed to refine crude from Gulf countries. India does not have enough refineries for US shale oil; hence it will have to be purchased at a much higher cost and that too in dollar terms, which will push the cost of oil products even more, which will be a challenge for India.
These incidents will affect Indian investment in Chahbahar port of Iran adversely. The development of International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) linking India with CAR countries and Russia will be adversely affected by the US sanctions. The commercial traffic to Afghanistan and beyond through INSTC will also be affected by instability in Iran, more so when Afghanistan is also not peaceful. The Indian Diaspora in Gulf region will also be insecure, which will be a cause of concern for India in context of their safety and revenue loss of foreign exchange.
While Iran is putting up a brave front, to withstand sanctions despite heavy punishment on its economy, it’s ultimatum to EU and others to save the deal has not gone off well with world community, more so when other members did not cancel JCPoA. Iran’s resolve against US will be under severe test. If US found it difficult to make North Korea surrender to its demand, then it will be as difficult in case of Iran(if not more), which has much more strategic significance/clout due to its location/size as well as oil export, impacting US allies, strategic partners and China. I do not feel that a regime change under the pressure of US sanctions can happen, nor do I anticipate a war on this issue. Ultimately the talks will have to be resorted to as the troubled Gulf region does not suit anybody.EU has not withdrawn from the Iran Deal so far, and I sincerely feel that compromises are possible. The Trump Administration may eventually find that the original deal was actually not as bad to achieve its strategic interests, as it was made out to be, more so when Iranian Supreme leader, Khomenei had asserted for years that Iran neither needs nor wants nuclear weapons.
The Turkish Gambit
The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon. One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.
The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria. Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps. The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.
Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian. After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families. About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.
How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question. Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently? For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.
There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter. Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes.
Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability. If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point. Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal: access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.
Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon. It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke. It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood. The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.
A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power. The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson. So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006. Now they are feared by Israeli troops.
To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump. Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past. It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving. If you go in, you will have to police the area. Don’t ask us to help you.” Is that subject to misinterpretation? It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office.
For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions. Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included. Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire. On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May. Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith. The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can. Where are they headed? Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.
Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences.
Author’s Note: This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org
Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?
On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.
It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.
Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.
Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.
Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.
It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.
Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around
Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.
Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.
But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.
The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.
The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.
It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.
The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.
It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.
Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK
Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.
Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.
The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.
If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.
The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.
The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.
The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”
The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.
Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”
Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.
The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.
A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.
The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.
In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.
Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.
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