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Europe After the INF Treaty

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The cancellation of the INF Treaty will have a significant impact on defense and security policies in Europe. Last year’s demise of the treaty will lead to a massive loss of predictability and military transparency. It will almost certainly trigger ultimately a new arms race in Europe. Nevertheless, few European leaders have chosen to contest U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to renounce the treaty in response to Russia’s refusal to withdraw prohibited systems. However, there have also noticeably been no appeals from Western European politicians for the U.S. to go ahead and match the Russian deployments of intermediate-range missiles, in order to maintain deterrence and show transatlantic solidarity. One possible explanation for the lack of enthusiasm or an outraged reaction on behalf of Western European leaders might be that they may not view today’s Russia as posing the same threat as the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 1980s. In the mind of most Western Europeans, the Cold War is history. Surely the Poles and Baltic states, but also Romania, Bulgaria, and even the Scandinavian countries may have a different perspective.

The gloomy truth is that West European apparent indifference to the end of the INF Treaty is neither based on confidence nor a professional assessment of security policy in Europe, but on a deep-seated reluctance to accept that military issues are back on the agenda across Europe. Granted, for Europe, the issue of missiles is no longer as central as it was thirty or forty years ago when NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced each other on a line dividing all of Europe. But the end of the INF Treaty is by no means without consequences for Europe. Most of all, Western European leaders seem to lack a complete understanding of what a post-INF Europe could look like. This stems in large part from the INF discussion in Europe being held on the wrong premise. The German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, for example, warned last year of a new arms race, stating that he believed that European security will not be improved by deploying nuclear-armed, medium-range missiles. Western Europe appears to be solely concerned that the nuclear element is coming back to the forefront of European security. The media, politicians and populations in countries like Germany, France or Italy, connect this nuclear element with something that goes back to the Cold War, something dangerous and fearful that had been eliminated from the European reality decades ago. The chance that this danger could come back is of course paired with emotion and met with opposition. Pictures of the European protests of the 1970s and 80s come to mind, when thousands protested against U.S. missiles being stationed in Europe.  However, by mistakenly classifying the INF debate as a nuclear debate, the Europeans are narrowing the discussion and missing the main point. We are no longer in the 1980s, but it seems as if the general understanding in Western Europe regarding missile capabilities and the strategic employment of missiles is stuck in that time. While the disposal of a treaty that also admittedly limited the development of nuclear weapons may be unnerving, it must be understood what post-INF Europe will really look like, in order to be prepared. The nuclear issue itself is no longer at the heart of the debate – conventional attack and defense capabilities are front and center (even if some of these missiles are dual-capable). This should in no way discount the potential dangers that could arise for Europe. Conventional long-range missiles were not relevant at the time of the implementation of the INF Treaty because, before precision guidance, it took a nuclear warhead to guarantee an effective hit on a target thousands of kilometers away. But now conventional long and medium-range missiles have become increasingly central to a new era of warfare. Reduced costs and substantial improvements in the accuracy of conventional missiles of all ranges have made them very attractive. Low-flying cruise missiles are very difficult for ground radars to detect, and despite their relatively slow speed of travel, the defense against them proves challenging. Ballistic missiles, by contrast, move at high velocity and can potentially hit targets with minimal warning. The new arms race that is expected in Europe will certainly not unfold according to the classic Cold War model. It will not, for the most part, involve Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons systems in Europe. In addition, the numbers of these missiles are unlikely to run into thousands or even hundreds. Nevertheless, this new round of proliferation will be no less dangerous or intense.

Without the INF Treaty, there are no limitations to new land-based missile systems. The U.S. Department of Defense has already tested a ground-launched version of the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile last year. This new cruise missile has a range of around 1,000 kilometers and could be deployed by early 2021. The U.S. has thus validated Russia’s claim that the United States did not necessarily adhere to the INF Treaty to the letter either. Russia denounced previous U.S. missile tests as violations and accused the U.S. of stationing launchers as part of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense facilities in Europe, capable of firing intermediate-range missiles. Russia insisted on the dual-use capability of Mk 41 (Aegis Ashore) anti-missile launch facilities in Romania and Poland. The Obama administration on the other hand had always claimed that they were purely defensive and could only be utilized for launching SM-3 interceptors to defend against missile attacks. The logic of the Russians in this matter was that the Mk 41 launchers on the Aegis ships were used to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles as well; therefore, they also have this capability as part of the land-based Aegis Ashore system. The U.S. always denied this and argued that this would require a massive modification of the software and wiring, and was also not possible because it would require a change in the bilateral stationing agreement with Poland and Romania. However, that this capability apparently does exist as demonstrated, with the latest test, has gone unnoticed in the mainstream European media.

The U.S. also tested new surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, one of which – the replacement for the Army Tactical Missile System, with a planned range of 700 km – could be deployed as early as 2023. Another one – a ballistic missile with a much longer range (3,000-4,000 km) – will not be ready for deployment until 2025. Other types of missiles are currently in the planning stage. With China and Russia investing heavily into Anti-Access/Area Denial anti-aircraft systems, ground-launched missiles have become an attractive option for the U.S. military, rather than the conventional use of air power.

There is no doubt that Russia has been violating the INF Treaty for some time and the Russian violation is part of a deliberate policy. In 2003, Moscow apparently began to develop a new family of land-based cruise missiles. This development may be interpreted as a result of a combination of several factors: while Moscow might have officially strongly condemned the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty, in reality it never cared much for the treaty itself. The growing strength of China’s armed forces, including its vast arsenal of land-based medium and intermediate-range missiles (95% of which would be in violation of INF, had China been a signatory), has Moscow concerned they could be at a disadvantage. In its defense planning, Russia needs to consider how to potentially handle a Chinese military threat if it ever materializes. Additionally, its southern flank, with Iran as a major missile producer, is also a growing potential concern to Russia. This explains why Moscow, as early as 2007-2008 raised the possibility of a joint withdrawal from the INF with the United States. In addition, there may also be domestic reasons. Vladimir Putin is allowing its traditional defense industry to maintain significance in Russia. This is part of a calculated policy of preserving the Russian industrial complex, recapitalizing the Russian military, and being able to develop long-range dual-capacity strike capabilities. These include surface-to-surface missiles, in line with Russian traditional military preference, as well as for cost reasons. It is also, in a sense, a retribution on behalf of the Russian military establishment against the policies of Gorbachev, who withdrew Soviet SS-20 missiles from Europe and negotiated the INF. These policies are viewed as weakness toward the West. They resulted in the demise of the Soviet Union, the loss of Russian power, and the strengthening of the West at the cost of Russian security, in the eyes of many within Russia.

The dispute over Russian compliance with the INF Treaty had intensified since 2014, especially after the United States officially alleged a Russian violation. Informed by the Obama administration about the issue since 2013, a year before making public its formal assessment of the violation (U.S. Congress had been informed as early as 2011), Europeans were initially unconvinced. American allegations increased since 2017, when Russia began deploying a ground-launched cruise missile, the 9M729, capable of traveling within the treaty’s prohibited 500-5,500 kilometer missile range. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that the Russian military deployed four battalions of 9M729 missiles (including one test battalion). The missiles can be nuclear-capable, but according to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, they are most likely conventionally armed. Eventually in 2019, European doubts were dispelled and several European intelligence agencies independently validated the American judgment with a high degree of probability. Russia initially denied the existence of a new missile, but then finally admitted it, arguing that the new missile was in conformity with the INF Treaty. In January 2019, it presented its arguments in detail to the international press, claiming that the missile has a range of only 480 kilometers.

Moscow could have politically capitalized on the U.S. position of unilaterally cancelling the treaty, proclaiming it would prefer to remain bound by the INF Treaty. Vladimir Putin actually suggested this possibility in December 2018. But Russia eventually acted differently: while publicly blaming the United States, it followed the exact U.S. position by announcing it was suspending its obligations as well. This while stating at the same time that it will not deploy missiles of that range if the U.S. refrains from doing so. But further deployments of 9M729s are likely to follow, since Russia claims that these missiles actually do not violate the ranges laid out in the INF Treaty. In addition, Moscow could develop a new version of the SS-26 Iskander surface-to-surface missile (whose maximum range is currently estimated at 500km) and transform it into an intermediate-range category missile. Without the constraints of the INF Treaty, the development and deployment of multiple types of missiles (including hypersonic missiles) to address objectives and threats in the 500-5,500 kilometer range is now possible with less geographical constraints.

The issue of the INF Treaty must be viewed in a global perspective, with missile proliferation, quantitative growth, and increased sophistication of Asian and Middle Eastern arsenals largely explaining the current situation. The 1987 strategic solution at the implementation of the INF Treaty became a strategic problem from Moscow’s and Washington’s perspectives. That there is no longer an INF Treaty in practice is the product of a new reality and a new context. This development is just as much about Russia’s increasing military power as it is about the American perception of many Cold War arms control treaties being outdated and being viewed as “shackles” that are unfavorable for the United States. But above all, this development is due to the new strategic landscape in Asia.

Even before Donald Trump became president, the Pentagon regarded the restrictions due to INF responsible for the imbalances between Chinese and North Korean missiles and U.S. systems in the region. For quite some time, the INF Treaty was a constraint preventing the United States from acquiring appropriate defenses necessary for a changing context in Asia. Within America, many political ideologues have long advocated for the United States to free itself from INF restrictions, regardless of Russia’s compliance or acceptance. The announcement of the cancellation of the INF Treaty also revealed the fundamentally ideological nature of a decision consistent with the disdain of international treaties perceived as constricting the United States by a large part of the American conservative camp. Consequently, like the ABM Treaty in 2002, when the Bush Administration decided to field the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, the INF Treaty appeared to be a constraint preventing America from acquiring the necessary means to adapt to the changing context and a new security environment.

Right now, Asia, not Europe, appears to be the primary geopolitical emphasis of post-INF missile development in the United States. In this regard, it is also not surprising that China was outspokenly supportive of the United States and Russia saving the INF Treaty, while at the same time categorically ruling out its own participation, in order to maintain its own strategic advantage. However, in Asia, aside from the U.S. territory of Guam and other small U.S. Pacific island territories thousands of miles from the Chinese coast, deployment of American ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles is extremely limited by geography. The United States instead relies on air- and sea-based platforms for long-range power projection in Asia. American basing options for post-INF missiles in Asian countries also appear very limited, geographically as well as politically. However, the day after the formal U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that he was in favor of deploying conventional ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia sooner rather than later.

Europe, on the other hand, with its landmass adjacent to the Russia, seems predestined for the stationing of U.S. land-based missile systems in the long run. The question remains, however, where in Europe should these missiles be deployed. The Trump administration has not yet held talks with any European governments, at least not publicly, on hosting new missiles. Another consideration is the terms on which Washington may be willing to support and carry out a missile deployment to Europe. The United States certainly will want its own troops in Europe to be equipped with the new missile systems, but will there also be an option or a push to sell or lease systems to interested European governments? The Pentagon, in any case, is already attempting to calm the potential debate and any resulting anxieties by constantly emphasizing that none of the planned missiles are nuclear systems.

How open Europeans would be to U.S. intermediate-range missile deployments will vary significantly from country to country. Some NATO countries, such as Poland and the Baltic states, which are already within reach of Russia’s shorter-range missiles, like the SS-26 Iskander, are viewing the development of Russian intermediate-range missiles as an opportunity to attract a more robust and permanent U.S. military presence in their countries. Other countries, such as Germany and France, however, will be cautious of escalating the intermediate-range arms race and will have to internally deal with populations that will be opposed to missiles in their territories. During the 1980s, U.S. missile deployments caused major protests in Western Europe. This means for Russia in return, that if it wants to exploit Western European skepticism and opposition, it must strike a delicate balance between expanding its own intermediate-range missile deployments with maintaining its current outward propaganda advantage. In the Eastern European NATO countries, the situation and sentiment are entirely different, especially in Poland. Due to its history and proximity to Russia, Poland has been wary about Russia’s intentions and has advocated for a resolute, sometimes even provocative policy toward Russia. According to some Polish defense analysts, Russia has already gained a considerable military advantage, because it has medium-range missiles in Europe while NATO does not. But this Russian advantage could be easily curtailed with American missiles in Europe. In their view, the end of the INF treaty is an opportunity for Eastern Europe. It could lead to a stronger alliance between the United States and Eastern European countries. If Western Europe is opposed to the stationing of medium- to intermediate-range missiles from the U.S., Poland and other countries of NATO’s eastern flank may not refuse U.S. missiles on their soil. Some Polish defense planners are even going so far to recommend missiles in Ukraine or Georgia to clearly restrain Russia. They dream of Poland playing a pivotal role in the defense of Europe. For geopolitical reasons, and with American military presence, in their mind, it will become the hub for redistributing security to the whole region by strongly limiting Russia and its ambitions in Central and Eastern Europe. In a similar line of thought, a stronger alliance between the United States and the countries of Eastern Europe would potentially prove far more valuable than a broken, outdated U.S.-Russia treaty would ever be.

Therefore, as Western Europeans may be opposed to any U.S. missile deployments in Europe, the perception in Eastern Europe is quite different. Also, Western European dreams of a common defense and security policy across EU countries are very far from reality. Pro-European voices who claimed that the cancelation of the INF Treaty could be a chance to come up with the creation of a “Euro-deterrent” and European strategic autonomy in a 21st century Europe that will exercise strategic sovereignty will be quickly reminded of the realities in a post-INF Europe. There is no united European position on the defense of Europe. It is telling that the Eastern European countries in the past often turned directly to the U.S. for defense matters and not to the EU or even NATO. Poland and the United States, under President Obama, in 2010 agreed to rotate American Patriot units from Germany to Poland (resulting in Russian threats to move Iskander missiles to the Kaliningrad Oblast) as part of the so-called Patriot to Poland mission. This, for example, was a bilateral agreement between Poland and the United States. There was no NATO involvement. Poland and Romania are already hosting the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense systems. Although integrated into a NATO missile defense architecture, make no mistake, these are U.S. systems. The U.S. AN/TPY-2 (FBM) radar, which functions as the primary sensor for these NATO defense systems is located in Turkey and is operated by U.S. soldiers only. The actual radar and the immediate area where it is located is only accessible to U.S. personnel; no NATO member state has access to it, and this is no different for the sites in Romania or Poland. The operations for the radar in Turkey are coordinated and controlled by U.S. personnel at the U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany. All the data that the radar provides is collected by U.S. personnel and only then passed on to NATO. Contrary to what many Europeans may want to think, NATO has no direct command or control over any of the U.S. missile defense assets in Europe. The U.S. shares information with NATO and takes NATO into consideration. That is the extent of NATO involvement. All of the assets are American and potential strategic engagements to defend Europe from ballistic missile attacks are controlled and carried out by the U.S. military.

Realistically, the Europeans are only bystanders when it comes to their strategic missile defense. The Europeans were bystanders when the stability of Europe was determined by the Soviet Union and the United States in 1987 with the INF Treaty and the Europeans are bystanders now as well as Russia and the U.S. figure out how a post-INF Europe may look. Today, they remain essentially spectators, even though in 2018, the United States obtained pro forma NATO’s open support for its position. The INF crisis is not a central strategic issue for Europe, also because Europe really has very little strategic say. For Europeans, the consequence and direct impact is political: the INF Treaty symbolizes the end of the Cold War and the start of a new era. The American withdrawal may lead West European populations to view the White House – which, in terms of public relations in Europe, made a big mistake by unanimously cancelling the INF Treaty – and the Kremlin – which now has the higher ground from this point of view – on an equal footing. The consequences for the already strained transatlantic relations are therefore not positive, at least not in Western Europe. Moscow has largely managed to shift the blame for the treaty’s collapse mainly on Washington in the eyes of many Europeans. The abrupt U.S. withdrawal without making much effort to negotiate and discuss the allegations of breaches by both sides has fueled the perception that the U.S. is mainly responsible for the INF’s failure. Therefore, Russia will continue to portray itself as simply reacting to U.S. aggression if it further deploys its own intermediate-range missiles to maintain this perception. Thus, Russia is trying to minimize European irritations at its own missile deployments while at the same time driving a wedge between the United States and its West European allies. Nevertheless, the mysterious explosion at a Russian navy’s testing range last year that had been surrounded by secrecy and increased radiation levels may have drawn some attention to the fact that Russia is also very much engaged in testing and establishment of offensive capabilities and may not be so innocent after all.

One overlooked feature of the INF Treaty in the debate of post-INF Europe is that it was not entirely bilateral anymore after the fall of the USSR. After the USSR ceased to exist, it also covered former Soviet states in whose territories the production or testing of intermediate-range missiles once took place. Among these states is Ukraine, a country with a very strong domestic industrial base for the production of missile systems. Ukraine could now see the collapse of INF as an opportunity to gain some deterrent capability towards Russia with its own ballistic missiles. Kiev has already stated that it reserves the right to now develop its own missiles as necessary. With its economy in dire straits, it may also consider export of such missiles. Potential buyers in Europe would be Poland or the Baltic states, who are eager to bolster their own defenses against Russia.

Another country to consider is Turkey. Turkey too may influence future European missile proliferation. With the launch of its domestically produced Bora ballistic missile in combat against Kurdish assets in northern Iraq, Turkey has joined Syria, Iran, Israel and Russia in making use of ballistic missiles in combat in the region. Turkey is currently in the process of establishing a domestic independent defense industry. The combat use against the Kurds in northern Iraq was just as much a sales pitch, as it was an actual military operation. Turkey has announced its intention to export its missiles and it is working on more advanced ranges and precision. In the past, Turkey had planned to develop a missile with a maximum range of 2,500 kilometers. Further indicating Turkey’s intention to earn offensive missile capabilities was the construction of the first Turkish satellite launching center to bolster the country’s satellite programs. It could be suspected that Ankara may be intending to use its launching pad to fire the long-range missiles the government hopes to build in the long term. Turkey justifies its ballistic missile ambitions by pointing to its neighbors Iran and Syria and their missile programs. However, Turkey also views Armenia, which possesses Russian Iskander missiles, as a potential threat. With Greece being within range of Turkish ballistic missiles, the prospect of an Aegean arms race, if Greece feels compelled to acquire new weapons against its traditional rival Turkey, is not inconceivable either.

The disappearance of the INF Treaty marks the end of the post-Cold War strategic relationships. The nuclear issue itself will not be the actual topic of the debate, but rather the conventional attack and defense capabilities, something that is gravely misunderstood in Western Europe. The end of the INF Treaty reveals many things: the evolution of the international context with China’s rise to power, the disinterest of Russia and the United States in Cold War arms control treaties, the deterioration of relations between Russia and the United States, the division between Western and Eastern Europe, and the powerlessness of Europe in international military matters.

Michael Unbehauen, is the founder and president of Acamar Analysis and Consulting, an independent U.S.-based think tank and consulting firm. During his military career, he supported U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM ) in the fields of strategy, policy, and plans for global integrated missile defense, was the lead planner for Air and Missile Defense Theater Security Cooperation in Europe, as well as the commander of a strategic U.S. missile defense radar station in Israel. He further served as a crew member on a GMD crew and as the Planning Officer of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade (GMD).

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Developments on Korean Peninsula risk accelerating regional arms race

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A week full of missile tests; this is the current environment on the Korean Peninsula. On Wednesday, North Korea fired two rounds of ballistic missiles into the East Sea while South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just a few hours later. Wednesday’s tests follow a week of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the consequences of which can be felt beyond the two Koreas.

North Korea ramps up tensions

According to North Korean state-run media reports, the reclusive state carried out a series of successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend while referring to the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance”. Calling the weapon ‘strategic’ may imply a nuclear-capable system. Although North Korea is banned from using ballistic technologies due to U.N. Security Council resolutions, these same rules do not apply to cruise missiles.

Despite the tests, Washington maintained its position to resume dialogue with the North and “to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization,” US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim said on Tuesday. Still, the US Indo-Pacific Command did acknowledge the cruise missile launches and said the tests highlight the “DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community.”

China reacted to the test by calling for restraint by all relevant parties and for a ‘dual track’ approach to be followed involving “phased and synchronized actions to continuously advance the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.”

North Korea then upped tensions further by conducting yet another missile launch on Wednesday. This test marked the first time the DPRK launched a missile off a train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which they referred to as the “Railway Mobile Missile Regiment”. According to Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the missiles were believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The location of the landings don’t seem to be a coincidence as earlier that day North Korean state media had criticized Japan’s newly unveiled defense budget, referring to the country as a “war criminal state”.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strongly condemned the latest tests, calling North Korea’s behavior “outrageous” and a “threat” to “the peace and security of our country and the region”. The US State Department also called the tests “a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” while emphasizing the Biden administration’s commitment to trilateral diplomacy and cooperation with Japan and South Korea.

What’s more, North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, according to a report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month. The report stated that “The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern” while adding that “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”

In July, North Korea warned of a “major security crisis” in protest against the combined summertime military exercise between South Korea and the United States. This increase in rapid missile testing seems to be the result of North Korea’s dissatisfaction with both Seoul and Washington’s actions over the last few months.

South Korea joins in on the missile testing

Although the international community is used to hearing about North Korean missile tests over the years, what is much less common is to hear about a missile test conducted by the South. Hours after the North fired its missiles, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong—the sister of leader Kim Jong Un— was quick to respond to the tests the same day, warning of the “complete destruction of inter-Korean ties” and criticized Seoul’s “illogical, antiquated and foolish attitude”, according to North Korean state media.

Through the test, South Korea became the first country without nuclear weapons to launch an SLBM. Besides the SLBM, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that the ROK military had also developed other new missiles, including a supersonic cruise missile to be deployed in the near future, and a new ballistic missile that has “overwhelming counterattack capability” by firing a larger warhead. Indeed, South Korea’s arms industry has grown exponentially over the last two deacades and continuous to expand rapidly. According to he SIPRI arms transfer database, South Korea rose from the 31st ranked arms exporting country in 2000 to number six in 2020.

Besides South Korea, Japan is also beefing up its military capabilities. Last month, Japan’s Defense Ministry sought a record $50 billion annual budget that would entail the largest percentage jump in spending in eight years. China was quick to criticize the move, accusing Japan of “trying to find excuses to justify their decision to increase military spending,” On the other hand, Japan blames China for “unilaterally changing the regional status quo,” affecting “the security of the Taiwan Straits, but also Japan’s security.”

The missile tests conducted by both Koreas this week further exacerbates the security situation in the region, negatively impacting far beyond the peninsula alone. The recent developments also don’t bode well for improving inter-Korean relations or US-DPRK ties. Diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea have been stalemated ever since the 2019 Hanoi Summit fell apart. So far, Biden has only verbally expressed interest in resuming talks, but is unlikely to do so unless North Korea makes concrete commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Inter-Korean relations are also unlikely to improve in the near future, given the time constraints. South Korea’s President Moon has roughly six months left in office, and it is unlikely significant diplomatic progress can be made in this timeframe.

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HTS enters Turkey’s plot against the Kurds

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Ever since Turkey entered the 2017 Astana agreement with Russia and Iran Ankara has been relentless in its efforts to sell the international community the idea of absolute necessity of Turkish military presence in North-East Syria to support the moderate opposition and deter the Assad government.

The Astana meetings that followed the initial agreement indeed resulted in making Turkey responsible for the state of the Syrian opposition in Idlib and Aleppo provinces but – and there is always a but when it comes to the decade-long Syrian conflict – Ankara’s mission was never defined as ‘support’ of the opposition. Instead, Turkey volunteered to perform an arduous task of separating moderate Syrian armed groups from those who were considered radical and posed a potential security threat on both regional and global levels. This process, dubbed ‘delimitation of the Syrian opposition,’ is hardly any closer to completion now than before raising the question of the extent of Ankara’s ability – and intention – to fulfill its pledge.

Shared goals

Turkey’s insistence on supporting the moderate opposition conveniently combines with the recent attempts of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is de-facto dominant power in the Idlib de-escalation zone, to recast the image of the group. Although HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the UN and a number of global powers al-Joulani made a number of high-profile media appearances to promote the group’s vision of the future of Syria and confirm that its ambitions are confined to national scale only.

Talking to the Turkish version of The Independent al-Joulani spoke against any foreign military presence in Syria, making no special mention of the Turkish army. Meanwhile in Idlib, a position of the Turkish military located next to those of HTS is a common, even natural occurrence. This co-existence of regular armed forces and radical terrorists is not affected neither by hard evidence of HTS involvement in committing war crimes, nor even by the fact that HTS is listed as a terror group by Turkey’s authorities.

Shared enemies

In his interview to The Independent al-Joulani has also touched upon the position of the Syrian Kurds, another key axis of Turkey’s policy in Syria. Commenting on the current developments in Afghanistan the HTS leader suggested that the aftermath of the US surprise withdrawal from Kabul will also have an impact on the Kurds or, as he put it ‘the US-backed enemies of the Syrian revolution.’ He also accused the Kurds of conducting attacks in living quarters in the areas of the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” operations carried out by the Turkish military in Northern Syria.

HTS has never been in direct confrontation with the Kurds. However, al-Joulani’s words highlighted his open hostility towards the Kurdish administration, that, as the HTS leader purports, is only able to control a huge swath of Syria and maintain relative stability thanks to the US support. This Kurdish dream will crumble as soon as the last US plane takes off from the Syrian soil, according to al-Joulani.

Does this opinion reflects Turkey’s intention to put an end to the ‘Kurdish threat’ should the US withdraw from Syria? The events in the Afghanistan provide enough evidence to conclude that it’s entirely possible. Indeed, such concerns have been expressed in a number of articles authored by both local and international analysts.

The bottom line

Turkey’s regional policies and HTS leader’s statements confirm that Ankara seeks to transform HTS into a bully of sorts. The group’s primary task would be to exercise pressure on other armed units to facilitate the delimitation process orchestrated by the Turkish authorities. As the US grip over the region gradually loosens and HTS control over Syria’s north-west tightens thanks to its efforts to achieve international recognition with the tacit support of Turkey, the Kurds are facing an uncertain future. Moreover, close coordination between Turkey and HTS harbors negative consequences not only for the Kurds but rather for all of Syria.

To prevent this, the international community must intervene and deny HTS the opportunity to position itself as a part of the moderate opposition and gain the right to establish legitimate administrative bodies. Otherwise Syria will face law-twisting terrorists running their own statelet with all the support that Turkey is able to provide as a prominent regional power.

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To include or not include? China-led SCO weighs Iranian membership

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The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may help Iran reduce its international isolation. At least, that’s what the Islamic Republic hopes when leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gather in Tajikistan next weekend.

Members are admitted to the eight-member China-led SCO that also groups Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, by unanimous consensus. Iran, unlike its rivals in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has long had observer status with the SCO.

The Gulf states have so far kept their distance to the China-dominated regional alliance created to counter the ‘evils’  of ‘terrorism, separatism, and extremism” so as not to irritate their main security ally, the United States.

Acceptance of the Iranian application would constitute a diplomatic coup for Tehran and Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi. Mr. Raisi, a proponent of closer relations with China and Russia, is expected to make his first appearance on the international stage at the SCO summit in Dushanbe since having assumed office last month.

Iranian officials hope, perhaps over-optimistically, that SCO membership would help them counter the impact of harsh US sanctions. Ali Akbar Velayati, an international affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has advised the Raisi government to look East towards China, Russia and India asserting that they could “help our economy to make progress.”

Similarly, it is not clear that membership would substantially reduce Iran’s international isolation or significantly improve its existing relations with other SCO members. What membership would do is effectively give Iran a veto should Saudi Arabia and the UAE choose to seek more formal relations with the SCO in response to a reduced US commitment to their security. The SCO is expected to grant Saudi Arabia and Egypt the status of dialogue partner at its Dushanbe summit.

Gulf confidence in the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor has been rattled by the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan as well as the recent removal of the most advanced US missile defence weapon, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia  as Yemeni Houthi rebels were successfully hitting targets in the kingdom.

China and Russia have in the past been reluctant to entertain full Iranian membership because they did not want to upset their delicately balanced relations with both Iran and its detractors. Policymakers, in the wake of Afghanistan, may figure that the two-year application process will give them time to prevent upsetting the apple cart.

To be sure, Tajikistan, in anticipation of a Taliban victory, first publicly promoted Iranian SCO membership in late May.

Zohidi Nizomiddin, Tajikistan’s ambassador to Iran, told a news conference in Tehran “that Iran to become a major member is among plans of the Shanghai Organization and if other countries are ready to accept Iran, Tajikistan will also be ready.” Tajikistan opposed Iranian membership in the past, accusing Iran of supporting Islamist rebels in the country.

Mr. Nizomiddin’s comments have since been supported by reports in Russian media. “There is a general disposition for this, there is no doubt about it,” said Bakhtiyor Khakimov, Russia’s ambassador at large for SCO affairs.

Russian analyst Adlan Margoev noted that “the SCO is a platform for discussing regional problems. Iran is also a state in the region, for which it is important to discuss these problems and seek solutions together.”

The Tajik and Russian backing of Iranian membership raises tantalizing questions about potential differences within the SCO towards dealing with the Taliban. Iran and Tajikistan, in contrast to Russia and China that have praised the Taliban’s conduct since the fall of Kabul, have adopted a harder, more critical attitude.

Nonetheless, Russia has in recent weeks held joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan near the Tajik-Afghan border. Russia further promised to bolster Tajikistan by supplying weapons and providing training.

Tajikistan is believed to support Tajik rebels in the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan that last week lost a potentially initial first round of fighting against the Taliban. It remains unclear whether the rebels will be able to regroup. Tajiks account for approximately one-quarter of the Afghan population. As the

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently awarded posthumously Tajikistan’s third-highest award to two ethnic Afghan Tajiks, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary father of current Tajik rebel leader Ahmad Massoud, and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, for their contribution to ending a devastating civil war in the 1990s in the Central Asian country.

Tajikistan and Iran agreed in April to create a joint military defence committee that would enhance security cooperation and counter-terrorism collaboration.

Iran recently changed its tone regarding Afghanistan after the Taliban failed to include a Hazara Shiite in their newly appointed caretaker government. Hazaras, who account for 20 per cent of the Afghan population, have reason to fear Taliban repression despite the group’s protection last month of Shiite celebrations of Ashura, the commemoration of the Prophet Moses’ parting of the sea.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, took the Taliban to task for  “ignoring the need for inclusive government, foreign intervention and the use of military means instead of dialogue to meet the demands of ethnic groups and social groups that are the main concerns of the friends of the Afghan people.” Mr. Shamkhani was referring to alleged Pakistani support for the Taliban in the battle for Panjshir.

Supporters of Iranian membership may figure that affairs in Afghanistan will have been sorted out by the time the application procedure has run its course with Afghanistan well on its way towards reconstruction. That may prove to be correct. By the same token, however, so could the opposite with an Afghanistan that is wracked by internal conflict and incapable of controlling militants operating from its soil.

The SCO may in either case want Iran to be in its tent to ensure that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, as well as regional powers Russia and India, are seated at one table. Mr Margoev, the analyst, argued that “just like other countries in the region – (we should) sit at the same table with Iran and not call it a guest from outside.”

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