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Unrest in Iraq: Continuation of the Arab Spring or a New Political Reality?

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Mass protests broke out in Baghdad on October 1, 2019, and continued all month long. The demonstrations spanned a large part of the country and have still not fully subsided. During that time, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior reported 100 people dead and over 1000 injured». The latest information puts the number of casualties at over 260 people.

Among the reasons cited for the actions are the general discontent with mass poverty and unemployment (over 20 per cent of the working-age population), the lack of social services, and corruption. However, starting from the second day of unrest, the protesters’ slogans began to turn political, with one of the most popular being “The People Want to Overthrow the Regime,” which is hard to see in any other light than a direct reference to the sentiments of the Arab Spring.

This association with the events of 2011 is far from accidental. The developments in Iraq are taking place in the same temporal continuum as the unrest in Algeria, which has been going on for almost a year. The same goes for mass protests in Sudan that took place on the eve of a military coup that ended up changing the political regime, and the turmoil in Lebanon that bears a striking resemblance to what is going on in Iraq. The nuances in each of these countries may differ somewhat. Still, one thing is clear: the demand for profound changes in political systems continues to span the entire region, and these four countries, which had remained either relatively unscathed or untouched altogether by the 2011 wave of protests, have now, eight years later, been pulled into the general area of socio-political aftershocks.

At the same time, in the case of Iraq, we are talking about the crisis of an entirely new political system — one that is barely 15 years old. And this system came into being with a number of “birth injuries”, under the influence of external forces and with dubious, or at least controversial, borrowings. The framers of Iraq’s constitutional system intended its model of political representation to support the stability of the post-Saddam order in the country. In reality, however, it failed to support stability during the entire period of its existence. The ethnic and denominational nature of the political system, which could not be reduced to a parliamentary-presidential republic, and the electoral system and process were riddled with pitfalls that gave rise to inevitable cataclysms.

The real ethnic and denominational situation resulted in the Shiites dominating the political spectrum, which entailed severe political consequences. For the first time, the Sunnis found themselves in a position of the ethnic-denominational minority. They felt the growing inferiority of their situation, which prompted many of them to join ISIS terrorist camps. The same situation motivated the Kurds to steer a course for independence. The overall terrorist threat during the expansion of ISIS rallied the Shiites and the Kurds to fight the pseudo-caliphate together. Yet, after ISIS was defeated, the Kurds held a referendum on independence. As a result, the country, which had not yet recovered from the terrible damage done by terrorists, once again found itself on the brink of collapse.

Although Kurdistan did not secede from Iraq, the republic, while formally remaining a federation, began, in reality, to drift toward confederation. And this was happening not only along the line dividing Kurds’ autonomy from the rest of Iraq, but also along the lines of the increased geographic dissociation between predominantly Shia and Sunni districts, and the latter development entailed elements of ethnic cleansing. The continuation of the processes threatened the collapse of the country.

We should also note the military-political trends that overlapped with these developments. The military and the police have been in a state of collapse ever since the start of the American occupation in 2003, and the ubiquitous emergence of armed ethnic-denominational units has become a leading trend. Kurdistan already had the Peshmerga units that remain the backbone of its military until today. Immediately upon the entry of U.S. troops, Shia districts formed armed units, such as the Mahdi Army, etc. And the Sunni strip had al-Qaeda units and Ba’ath guerrilla units acting independently of each other, which later merged to form ISIS.

Initially, the military and the police, which Iraq needed both to develop its statehood and to fight terrorism, were being built under the auspices of the United States. The process had essentially been a failure until Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) entered Iraq and took over. The IRGC succeeded in creating the combat-ready and highly motivated Shiite al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Forces, PMF). It was the PMF alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga (not the regular army) that played the leading role in liberating Mosul and in other critical episodes of the fight against ISIS.

However, after the victory over terrorists, the division of armed forces on ethnic-denominational grounds could no longer be tolerated, since it was fraught with the real danger of an armed confrontation between the principal ethnic and denominational communities in the state. It is noteworthy that discontent with this situation was expressed not only by Kurds and Sunnis but also by some Shiites inclined to view the PMF as an instrument of Iran’s military and political dominance in Iraq.

The 2018 parliamentary elections were a watershed moment in Iraq’s political developments. One of the most remarkable results of the electoral campaign was the victory of the Saairun bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a popular public figure. The son of an influential Shia theologian killed by the Ba’ath regime in 1999, al-Sadr led an uprising against the American occupation in 2004. From the outset, he positioned himself not only as a Shia leader but primarily as an Iraqi patriot striving to unite all of the country’s national forces regardless of their denomination or ethnic origin. Further down the road, this trend in Muqtada al-Sadr’s political conduct played a crucial role in his public activities.

Following his theological studies in Iran, Muqtada al-Sadr was accorded the rank of Grand Ayatollah and, upon his return to Iraq, he transitioned from extreme radicalism to legal, political struggle. As a result, his Sadrist Movement formed Saairun alliance, a broad electoral bloc of diverse political forces, including the Iraqi Communist Party.

The Saairun’s victory marked a new trend in the development of Iraq’s political processes, one that was aimed at uniting patriotic forces regardless of their denomination and ethnic origins. It is noteworthy that this was the only bloc to receive votes in all the country’s 19 governorates, including Sunni and Kurdish regions.

Another equally significant result of the 2018 elections was the fact that less than half of eligible voters (44 per cent) turned out. This was a red flag that was disregarded at the time, signifying the population’s disappointment in the political elite.

Another remarkable fact is that the election was held on May 12, while Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, whose resignation protesters are demanding today, was only appointed by the President on October 2, 2018. What does this mean? First, several political forces, primarily the above-mentioned Saairun bloc, claimed that the voting had been fixed and demanded a recount. A recount was held in July 2018, but only in a few governorates. The Federal Supreme Court of Iraq only approved the results of the election in August. This meant that the Parliament, which is responsible for electing a new president, was not able to assemble for a session until September. Consequently, the government continued to be led by the previous Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi until October, although his political bloc al-Nasr only came third in the election.

In accordance with the constitution, Barham Salih, who was elected President by Parliament on October 2, is responsible for appointing the new prime minister. Submitting Adil Abdul-Mahdi as a non-aligned “technical” Prime Minister meant that MPs had failed to form a government coalition. What is more, this move was preceded by unrest in Basra in September that was aimed against Iran and involved protesters breaking into the premises of a nearby oil field. Even though this was a local development, it was nevertheless a harbinger of what was to come a year later. This entire chain of events bears the hallmarks of a brewing political crisis.

This notwithstanding, the events of October 2019 were a surprise for all the political forces represented in the establishment. The explosive nature of the unrest, its initial and subsequent composition, the lack of clear political leaders, etc., bear an uncanny resemblance to the events of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. The similarities also extend to the fact that the ringleaders were Baghdad students, who organized the protests via social networks, which (just like in Tunis and Cairo) made it all the more surprising for the powers-that-be, which experienced problems responding to the protest movement.

Initially, it was a social protest. Unemployment in Iraq is over 20 per cent, and youth unemployment is higher still. Accordingly, the population lives in abject poverty. This is nothing new for Iraq. The situation was the same in the years of Saddam Hussein’s military adventurism, during the country’s collapse at the start of the occupation, and during the advance of ISIS.

Today, however, Iraq has become OPEC’s second-largest producer and exporter of oil. It is starting to close the gap on the oil top three (the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia). Hence the slogan of the protesters: “If our country is so rich, why are the people so poor?” They also name the cause: “Corruption.” Indeed, Iraq is 12th in the corruption rating among developing countries.

It is here that the protest moves from the social to the political: as a rule, political status is the starting point for accumulating private wealth through corruption. Evidence relating to the corrupt activities of political figures, including MPs, has been widely publicized.

This is essentially the answer to the question of whether an outside force has provoked the Iraqi protests. The United States, Iran and several neighbouring Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, definitely have leverage over Iraq. Still, this leverage is limited to various sectors of the political elite and does not extend to average citizens mounting the protests.

From this point on, there are significant differences between the events in Iraq and the events of the Arab Spring. First, while many of the youth activists in Tunisia and Egypt had undergone preliminary training (in Serbia, for example), there is no evidence that any training took place before the events in Iraq. Second, as early as day two, people of various ages began joining the young protesters, and that included the elderly. The Communist Party reports that over 30 per cent of the protesters were women. Third, unlike the unrest of the Arab Spring of 2011, the protests in Iraq do not have an Islamic component. Moreover, the demonstrations spanned mostly the Shia part of the country, where factions of political Islam represent the largest parties, and the unrest is directed against these parties, too.

The political demands of the protesters include changing the political system, and the country’s constitution in particular. It is not yet entirely clear what specific steps for changing the constitution they propose, although the thrust against division by denomination and ethnicity is evident. Additionally, apparent demands include changing electoral legislation; these demands are supported by several political forces represented in parliament. In particular, Muqtada al-Sadr has called for holding new elections under international supervision. The President of Iraq’s statement that new elections are possible, but only after the electoral legislation has been changed, can be viewed as indirect support.

The military has acknowledged its excessive use of force, and criminal proceedings have been launched against the officers responsible. As for the resignation of the government (al-Sadr supported this demand), the Prime Minister said he would resign only if there is an alternative candidate.

Clearly, the Saairun bloc and its leaders strive to position themselves as the force closest to the protesters. There are also nuances. For instance, the Communist Party withdrew its deputies from parliament and is apparently striving for closer solidarity with the protesters as an individual political force. Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, also expressed his support for some of the demands of the protesters and called for an investigation into the actions that had resulted in people’s deaths. This can be taken to mean that the emerging rapprochement between al-Sistani and al-Sadr will play a role in the future.

It should be noted that there is an anti-Iran element to the protests. The Iranian leadership, in particular, the country’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, was restrained in its response. Noting that “enemies cannot sow discord” between Iran and Iraq, he did not express any attitude towards the protesters. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran issued a statement indicating that foreign forces may abuse the situation. This suggests that the Iranian leadership is taking a cautious stance towards a situation that is particularly inconvenient for Iran, given the increasing pressure it is under from the United States and regional powers. Iran is clearly exploring various options for changing its policies towards Iraq by making them more flexible and seeking support and compromise with those Iraqi forces that the local population does not consider to be direct protégés of Iran. We are talking specifically about the Kurds and the Saairun bloc here, especially since Muqtada al-Sadr cannot be regarded as an anti-Iranian figure, even though he has criticized that country’s actions in the past.

It is also apparent that the events in Iraq objectively weaken the positions of Iran and its claim to the role of dominant regional power. It does not, however, mean that the United States can, following these events, regain the political dominance it had in the country since 2003. Some American analysts acknowledge that the United States no longer has any serious centres for influencing the domestic situation in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional forces also have minimal means of exerting any kind of internal influence on the country.

Some analysts express concern over the fact that the military and the police mostly focus on counteracting the protests, which could help revive or even restore the positions of ISIS. This danger does exist, since the activities of both sleeper cells and some individual terrorist squads have not been suppressed, and acts of terror are committed almost daily. However, since ISIS has been crushed as a systemic entity, these activities have been mainly localized geographically and have their limits.

The only way the terrorist threat may expand is if the general protest situation cripples the authorities for good. A continuing stalemate among the Iraqi authorities is indeed fraught with such danger. We can only hope that it will not materialize.

From our partner RIAC

Senior Research Fellow, Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, RIAC expert

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Syria: 10 years of war has left at least 350,000 dead

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A decade of war in Syria has left more 350,200 people dead, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the Human Rights Council on Friday, noting that this total was an “under-count of the actual number of killings”.

These are a result of a war that spiralled out of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Based on the “rigorous work” of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), she said that the tally, which includes civilians and combatants, is based on “strict methodology” requiring the deceased’s full name, the date of death, and location of the body.

People behind the numbers

In the first official update on the death toll since 2014, Ms. Bachelet informed the Council that more than one in 13 of those who died due to conflict, was a woman – 26,727 in all – and almost one in 13 was a child – a grim total of 27,126 young lives lost.

The Governorate of Aleppo saw the greatest number of documented killings, with 51,731 named individuals.

Other heavy death tolls were recorded in Rural Damascus, 47,483; Homs, 40,986; Idlib, 33,271; Hama, 31,993; and Tartus, 31,369.

Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights”, reminded the High Commissioner.

“We must always make victims’ stories visible, both individually and collectively, because the injustice and horror of each of these deaths should compel us to action.”

More accountability needed

Her office, OHCHR, is processing information on alleged perpetrators, recording victims civilian or combatant status and the type of weapons used, Ms. Bachelet said.

To provide a more complete picture of the scale and impact of the conflict, the UN agency has also established statistical estimation techniques to account for missing data.  

The High Commissioner explained that documenting deaths complements efforts to account for missing people and that her office has been helping the families of the missing, to engage with international human rights mechanisms.

Given the vast number of those missing in Syria, Ms. Bachelet echoed her call for an independent mechanism, with a strong international mandate, to “clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people; identify human remains; and provide support to relatives”.

No end to the violence

Today, the daily lives of the Syrian people remain “scarred by unimaginable suffering”, the UN human rights chief said, adding that they have endured a decade of conflict, face deepening economic crisis and struggle with the impacts of COVID-19.

Extensive destruction of infrastructure has significantly affected the realization of essential economic and social rights, and there is still no end to the violence.

It is incumbent upon us all to listen to the voices of Syria’s survivors and victims, and to the stories of those who have now fallen silent for ever”, the High Commissioner concluded.

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Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds

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The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.

It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.

The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.

Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.

Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.

Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.

There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.

The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.

This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.

The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.

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Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga

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Image credit: Hurriyet daily news

The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.

Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.

Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.

By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.

The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.

Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.

This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.

The Central Asia factor

These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.

Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.

Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).

The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.

“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.

All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.

As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.

Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.

Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.

This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.

Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.

In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.

Restoring balance with the West

Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.

Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.

This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.

However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.

From our partner RIAC

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