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The killing of Qassim Soleimani: The United States misreads the tea leaves

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The killing of Iranian military leader Qassim Soleimani proves the point: The United States has perfected the art of strengthening Iranian hardliners fuelled by an apparently ingrained misreading of Iranian politics and strategy sustained over decades.

It also suggests that the Trump administration has walked into a trap in which spiralling tension between the United States and Iran is likely to be played out on Iranian rather than US terms.

Iran moved last year away from its initial strategic patience response to the US withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program and imposition of harsh economic sanctions to a strategy of gradual escalation.

Iran is banking on the assumption that taking the United States to the brink of yet another Middle Eastern war will ultimately persuade the Trump administration to return to the negotiating table. It’s a high-risk gamble that so far has produced results.

Last week’s killing of an American contractor on an Iraqi military base constituted Iran’s latest chess move.

It sparked a US military strike against an Iranian-backed militia, the subsequent killing of Mr. Soleimani and the leader of the militia, Abdul Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the targeting of a militia convoy.

The Iranian move led to the siege of the US embassy in Iraq that evoked images of the humiliating 1975 evacuation of the US mission in Saigon towards the end of the Vietnam war and the 444-day occupation of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979.

It also has put at risk the future of US forces in Iraq, seventeen years after US forces toppled Saddam Hussein and US$1 trillion later. Iraq’s parliament is about to discuss moves to remove foreign forces from the country.

“A humiliating departure for the US from Iraq now seems inevitable,” said International Crisis Group Iran expert Ali Vaez.

Pro-Iranian militias are counting on the fact that they are Iraqis with close ties to the Iraqi security establishment, which they expect will exclude them from the moves that would primarily target the United States.

Iraq’s influential Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has so far limited himself to calling for restraint in the wake of Mr. Soleimani’s killing. Yet, Mr. Al-Sistani could prove to be the player who definitively sways the pendulum.

How long before Ayatollah Sistani issues a fatwa (religious opinion) asking US troops to leave?” Mr. Vaez asked.

In a similarly humbling development, Iraq, long a primary venue for an ongoing US-Iranian proxy war, has become in the wake of Mr. Soleimani’s death a no-go zone for Americans with the Trump administration urging US citizens to leave immediately to avoid becoming targets.

Earlier, an attack in September on two key Saudi oil facilities, widely believed to have been instigated by Iran, coupled with US president Donald J. Trump’s hesitant response to the assault and the earlier downing of a US drone by Iran, persuaded Saudi Arabia to tone down its rhetoric and explore ways of reducing tension with Iran.

The spectre of a Saudi Iranian rapprochement was put on hold with the eruption in recent months of anti-government protests in Lebanon and Iraq that threatened to throw a monkey wrench into Iran’s strategy of exerting regional influence through proxies.

While it is likely to remain on hold amid the escalating tension, it has not been taken off the table.

Earlier, the United Arab Emirates reached out to Iran after the Islamic republic was sought to have instigated attacks on tankers off the Emirati coast.

The “sequence of events shows that, thus far, the Iranian strategy of calculated counter-escalation is working… By escalating on its own, Iran forced a number of key players to change their cost-benefit calculus,” said Eldar Mamedov, an advisor to the social-democrats in the European parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

While that may be a positive development in and of itself, it also means that regional US allies, with the exception of Israel that wholeheartedly endorsed the killing of Mr. Soleimani, are likely to be more circumspect in their support of the US amid escalating tensions.

Already, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have called for restraint in the wake of Mr. Soleimani’s death.

Mr. Soleimani’s killing has widened the opening for a tit-for-tat war in which Iran has the advantage of being a master of asymmetric warfare and at playing in grey areas.

Amid massive speculation about how it will respond to the killing, Iran is likely to take its time and strike out of left field, potentially prompting an American response that again risks playing into Iranian hands.

““The Iranians will definitely respond, but not in a way that triggers an all-out war, which they know they would lose,” said Iran expert Dina Esfandiary.

In a further indication of US misreading of the tea leaves, the killing of Mr. Soleimani threatens to amount to a gift of God for Iranian hardliners who are now expected to win next month’s parliamentary election in Iran.

A hardline victory would spotlight the United States’ repeated shooting of an own goal by adopting policies that undermine its own long-standing aim of persuading Iran to moderate its policies and tone down its revolutionary rhetoric.

Rather than provide incentives, like with the 2015 nuclear accord, US policy has more often than not reinforced perceptions in Tehran that the United States’ real goal was regime change.

Mr. Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton reinforced those perceptions in response to Mr. Soleimani’s killing:  “Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran,” he tweeted.

US policy prompted Iran to adopt a defense and security policy that compensated for the Islamic republic’s intrinsic weakness by emphasizing the very things the United States has long wanted to see change. These include Iran’s successful use of proxies across the Middle East.

At the bottom line, the strengthening of Iranian hardliners not only undermines US policy goals but also risks putting the United States in difficult, if not impossible and at times humiliating positions, and sucking it into a conflict for which it is ill-equipped.

Said political anthropologist Negar Razavi: “The US foreign policy establishment has collectively created a culture of expert impunity when it comes to Iran, which has contributed in no small part to the unstable and dangerous policy conditions we see under Trump today.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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The rapport between Iran and Turkey over Syria: Liaisons or tussle?

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The two powers of Iran and Turkey constitute a crucial feature on the map of the Middle East. The influence of the dyadic interactions exceeds sometimes the meanings of any bilateral ties, transcending the political borders to impact the geographical proximity of surrounding states. However, more evident their influences upon the Arab Sphere were at the aftermath of what so-called the Arab Spring, particularly in Syria that became the most prominent playground for their regional competition became.

Syrian tragic conflict has, indeed, a multi-scalar interaction with different players, each of which is driven by complex and contradictory motivations. In the same vein, Turkey and Iran have several aims for intervening into Syria militarily. Nonetheless, the explicit objective for Turkey is to create a ‘buffer zone’; thus, it might drive out the Kurdish presence along its border with Syria and address the Syrian refugee issue there. On the other side, the strategic partner for Syria, Iran, is seeking to bolster Assad’s government, as it used to work as a safety valve for the regime in Damascus.

In order to prop up Bashar al Assad’s regime, Tehran developed close ties with Russia that changed the equation in Syria. But, Moscow founded the rapports with the strategical foes of Tehran; Saudi Arabia and Israel. Likewise, the “marriage of convenience” brought Turkey with Russia, which, subsequently, facilitates carving up northern Syria between them by Sochi agreement, in October 2019.

Although it worked on the opposite front to Turkey’s, nevertheless, Iran attempts always to maintain warm and unruffled relationships with it. Tehran has overtly been competing, just as it covertly cooperating with Ankara in Syria for managing the dynamic variables of the surrounding area. Subsequently, the unsatisfactory with Turkey’s presence in the torn-war Syria doesn’t mean by any means a full conflictual; neither means otherwise, a comprehensive cooperation and peace. After all, seems, Iran needs Turkey shortly both in Syria and beyond.

Upon the US withdrawal from the Kurdish-held zone of northern Syria the dispute between the two-peer regional powers, Iran and Turkey, has surfaced off considerably off. Tehran has continuously been preserving a secret connection with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units which backed by the US. It was gaining a margin of leverage by occasionally working as a covert conduit bridging the differences between the Kurdish movement and the al-Assad’s regime.

Nonetheless, Iran’s substantial concern was a repercussion which might spill over its Kurdish regions if Turkey fulfils its intent to fill the expected power vacuum in the north of Syria.Thus, it was not surprising, once Turkey uncovered its intention by interfering the north-eastern Syria militarily, Iran announced the military exercises under the slogan “one goal … one bullet” in the area barely 20 miles from the Turkish border. Its maneuver, however, implied two-edges; on the one hand, it was against any potential Kurdish movement in its territory.

On the other hand, it gesticulated an external dimensional message, mainly to Turkey. In parallel to this combatant stand, Iran attempted to show, at least rhetorically, its alignment with and understanding of, Turkey’s anxieties. As the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated in an amicable expression: “We are calling on our friendly and brotherly neighbor Turkey to act with more patience and restraint and to revise its decision and chosen path” of military invasion. Further, Tehran urged Ankara alternatively to work inline with the Adana agreement.

The Adana agreement of 1998 was signed between Turkey and Syria to address the border differences. The broker of the deal, along with the other Arab countries, was Iran, and the primary aim of the agreement was at expelling the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from Syria.

A complex of causes makes Iran avoid Turkey’s dissatisfaction. The latter was always supportive of the Iranian regime in challenging times. Turkey, whether during the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s or international sanctions that intensified on Tehran in 2012, opened its borders with Iran to allow the trade that reached Europe. Similarly and lately, it helped Tehran to circumvent the US suffocating sanctions to a large extent.

As well, Turkey attempted to exploit the tensions between Tehran and Riyadh after the attacks on Aramco’s oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia last September, by denying Tehran’s involvement in the attacks. In an interview with Fox News, Turkish President RecepTayyip Erdogan said: “I don’t think it would be the right thing to blame Iran.”A few days later, when the architect of Iranian expansion in the Middle East the Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani was assassinated, Erdogan offered condolences to him, though didn’t use ‘martyr’ to describe him.

Notwithstanding, the chapter of persuasive confrontation between Iran and Turkey manifested when the Syrian airstrike hit the Turkish-backed forces in Idlib province on 27 January 2020. That resulted in killing 33 Turkish combatants. While Russia accused the Turkish soldiers of being “operating alongside jihadist fighters” when they had been struck, conversely and simultaneously, Iran emphasized on deescalating and restraining the tension in Idlib. It, further, called for all parties resort to decisions that had been taken by the presidents of Astana Process.

Although the Iranian President and his Turkish counterpart conducted a discussion on the phone regarding the tension over Idlib province, Turkey carried on the retaliation by launching a dozen air and missiles attack against the Syrian troops. The offence begot causalities of the Syrian military as well as several deaths of Iranian-backed forces in the northwest of Syria. As per the official Iranian media reported eight fighters of Hezbollah, and at least 21 militants affiliated with Fatemiyoun and Zaibayoun brigades were among the deaths.

Concurrently, Ankara opened the borders for the influx of the Syrian refugees to head for Europe. By so doing, it attempted to force its allies of the NATO states to pressurize Russia in order to alter its policy in Syria. Again and as always, Russian condemned the Turkish raids, but, its pragmatic rapprochements with Turkey outweigh the differences. Therefore, it is no wondering to see Russian assistance to Damascus minimized notably. Further, a deal will be reached to reduce the tension in Idlib when the Turkish President met his Russian counterpart in Moscow on March 2020.

On the other side, Iran and its affiliates warned Turkey by referring that its troops were within their “fire range”. Tehran, however, tried to shun from escalating the situation, and instead, it was accusing the US of getting Ankara into Syrian trap. Meanwhile, it was calling Ankara for holding a new summit for Iran, Russia, and Turkey within the Astana summit framework.

By devoting immense political and financial potentialities to safeguard the Ba’ath regime, Iran was not ready to cede its clout there. So convinced too, it prefers a political triumph over martial achievements. Perhaps, for that reason, it worked to boost connections with the major players in Syria, including Turkey. However, Iran shares Turkey several issues not merely in Syrian circle, but expand to the regional level sometimes. In addition to their shared economic and commercial benefits, they both have a fear of Kurdish ambitions to establish of own state, as they both stood firmly with the government of Baghdad against the Kurdish referendum in the north of Iraq in 2017. Second: Although, Turkey’s differences with Washington are mostly temporary; it meets with Iran in several issues that troubled their relations with the US.And thirdly: They were mutually pro-Qatar stand against Saudi and its allies. Qatar’s flights switched to the “Iranian airspace and Turkey upped the ante on its military presence in the country as a sign of strength and commitment”.

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Teething Troubles for Pakistan in Mediating the Saudi-Iran Tension

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Imran Khan’s visit to America, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia carries much importance concerning the unity of the Muslim community and solution of their long-standing differences and enmities particularly Saudi-Iran Tension. Moreover, these visits are not only very significant for the relations of Tehran and Jeddah but also for Pakistan, being one of the neighbors of Iran. As for as the visit of PM Imran Khan to China is concerned, Beijing, being a rising power and an economic giant, could play a very effective and decisive role in normalizing the relations between Iran and Saudi along with Pakistan because of its economic interests. Islamabad has been experiencing many changes in the national, regional and global dynamics. In this regard, Pakistan wants to balance its side by engaging with China and tries to mediate between Iran and Saudi to end the long-standing conflict between both the Muslim nations.

However, it is not easy to lessen the tensions between both the rival nations as perceived by a large portion of societies because America never allows this to happen smoothly while it will try vigorously to counter this activity because of its long-standing problems with Iran. Particularly looking over the policies and actions of the United States against Iran such as when the whole world is suffering from a fatal disease known as COVID-19/Corona Virus, America imposed more sanctions on Iran which is against humanity. Besides, the killing of Iran’s top bras general QasimSulemani in an attack by the US and the scrapping nuclear deal with Iran are condemnable acts. There can be many reasons for opposition from the United States for instance, it never wants China to engage with various nations throughout the globe mainly Iran. Because it creates the environment of friendship and engagement for China with other nations which pose threat and fear for the dominant position of Washington.

Moreover, America considers Iran as one of the staunch opposite nations of the world therefore the conflict between the US and Iran has been continued for very long. In this regard, America has imposed numerous sanctions upon Iran which creates more hardships for Tehran to smoothly run its affairs. While Iran considers it the violation of international and humanitarian laws that should not be bearable for any well-educated, sophisticated and sincere nation of the world. According to Iran, the US has been practicing inhuman and illegal policies throughout the world, especially the Muslim World. In this regard, Iran in the UN General Assembly strongly condemned the policies and actions by Washington in which Iran is on top of the list. On the other side, Saudi Arabia is one of the closest and reliable allies of America because of its economic interests.

Rationally looking over the US-Saudi bond, Washington keeps much influence concerning the economic, political and financial policies of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In this regard, attacks on the oil fields of Saudi Arabia created insecurity for it therefore Saudi King called MBS requested more American forces to protect the security of his country. There are multiple perspectives regarding the control, influence and creating the warlike environment in the oil-rich Muslim nations of the Middle East. For instance, it is considered by a huge portion of the population within the Muslim world that these all issues and conflicts which have generated the deaths, destruction, fear, and insecurity all over the region are created by America to gain its interests mainly economic benefits.

This is the reason for which America intervenes within these countries rich in natural resources in the pretext of saving humanity and the US being a savior of human rights violations all over the world. While within the Western nations it is considered that terrorism and other multiple kinds of evils are generating from this region because of the undemocratic structure of these states. In this regard, the US should intervene to eliminate all evils from the region for protecting the peace and progress of the world. Therefore, Pakistan can play a very significant role through normalizing Saudi-Iran relations though it is very difficult because of sectarian division between both nations. Recent condemnation and opposition by PM Imran Khan about the new sanctions on Iran by the US is a good and positive sign. Besides, it is also considered by a huge population within the Muslim world that they are under the serious threat of Western Powers beneath different agendas so Pakistan being the only nuclear power state within the Muslim countries should seriously take the issue towards a peaceful solution. Though it is also in the interest of Islamabad because in case the spiraling tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are not solved and turn into the escalation of the conflict, Pakistan because of Iran’s neighbor will face direct impact which could be sectarian violence and increasing oil prices.

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Ten years on Syria is still deep in wars

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Having barely risen from the menacing impact of Bashar al Assad’s poor economic policies during the drought from 2007 to 2010, that brought more poverty, unemployment and social distress, a spiral of conflict, in 201, took Syria from one warring episode to another. Ten years on, with most of the country in the rubble, there was little respite even in the news in 2018 that the US would reduce its footprints in Syria.

The nature of the beast is now more local than foreign.

It began when exercising their democratic rights, the disgruntled Syrians took to the street, in 2011, to demand economic and political reforms. They also wanted freedom of expression, in the political sphere. This movement to democracy was one of the many strains Syria had attracted from the Arab-spring that had erupted in the neighboring countries. 

Not used to disagreements, the Syrian government, headed by the Assads for the last four decades then, responded angrily. On March 18, 2011, the Syrian Army opened fire on the demonstrator killing four people with many more arrested.  Shocked by the treatment of the government, more people came out on streets in different parts of the country. Instead of repositioning its responses, the administration used more force to control the damage. In retaliation, a group of defected soldiers and army officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to protect the protesting civilians.  The group would in no time become powerful on the back of other anti-government forces. No sooner Syria descended into a full-blown civil war. 

A war that began between Syrians and their government escalated into varying wars each with its own protagonist and agenda. Supported by its Sunni allies in the Middle East, the US demanded regime change.  Taking a leaf from Iraq where the end of Saddam Hussain’s government had brought more misery than relief, Iran and Russia defied the US demand and thwarted it militarily. With this outside involvement, the war is no longer Syrian. It has become regional and even international, with an overtone of sectarian crisis. 

Today, Syria is battling three wars: Coalition efforts to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); violence between the Syrian government and opposition forces, and military operations against Syrian Kurds by Turkish forces.   

The US-led regime-change wars have wrought havoc with the Middle East.  Each regime change from Iraq to Libya to Syria was masked as a rescue operation to liberate people from the humanitarian crises unleashed by the bloodthirsty dictators. Not that it was the first of its kind of crises the US had perpetrated. A long list of countries stands witness to the interventionist policies of the US that would always bring more suffering then relief.

With the end of the cold war and democracy becoming the only ideology that promised salvation from all kinds of bounds and fetters, scholars started seeing the world come of its age. What other bigger event could unfold—Europe was unified and its eastern part had come out of the Russian shadow, the Central Asian states were free to form the Bolshevik yoke, colonialism had almost tapered off, proliferation of nuclear weapon had been controlled through various treaties, and with the rise of Asia the world was heading towards a more equitable survival.  

This, however, proved a ‘purpose-built façade’ with little tenacity to hold itself out for too long. The slide was rather quick. Just as the communist propelled the social system was being defeated, a new disintegrative system—terrorism—was pushed through the US military establishment to justify interventions for regime change.

This enemy on the gate was there for a long haul.  It would no more be a straightforward rivalry. An enemy in one war theatre would be a friend in another. If in Afghanistan Al Qaeda was a threat to homeland security, it joined hands with the same militant organization in Syria.  Lent to multiplication and manipulation the Jihadi proxies would later consolidate into a broader percept—the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Contrary to its overriding mission of reincarnating Caliphate, the ISIS instead obliterated Iraq and Syria—the two iconic cultural sites of Islamic heritage.  Today the ISIS has its fangs spread to every country, but not without casting a negative effect on the west, though. Bred on the anti-Muslim hysteria a significant number of voters in Europe have grown against the Muslim migrants. In reaction, they voted to power the ultranationalist parties to cleanse Europe of the outsiders. Trump and Brexit owe their success to the Islamophobia industry that grew dramatically after the 9/11 attack.

The Syrian war unfolded some of the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century. The United Nations had put the Syrian death toll to 400,000 in 2016. As the war becomes more complex, diffused and with no sign of abatement, international monitoring groups, even the UN have stopped counting causalities. Saying: “it is virtually impossible to verify how many died.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees, over 5.6 million Syrian have registered as refugees. The majority of these refugees moved into neighboring countries. Not only did these migrating people brought an economic burden to the host countries, but they also opened a new ethnic fault- lines concerning Kurds. Soon doors were being closed down on the migrating refugees, with European countries appearing cruelest. It was not until the pictures of drowning children in the Mediterranean Sea, and refugees living in dilapidated conditions in makeshift camps on borders hit the social media, picking on the European conscience, did the European leadership start showing its moral side.  

Everything has changed in Syria in these ten years, except its political structure.  Ten years is a long period for the civil war of such ferocity triggering a huge transformation. The World Bank has assessed the damage to be at $200bn, while according to the United Nation Economic and Social Commission for West Asia, in order to restore Syria to its 2010 condition, almost $ 400 bn would be needed.

The question is: has the Syrian government started wrapping its head around the reconstructing options, that includes finding investors to foot the bills, or will Syria become another Afghanistan for proxy war among regional and global powers.

From our partner Tehran Times

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