What is the real strategic sense of Turkey’s very recent military operation in the Idlib region of North-Western Syria?
We will analyse here, above all, the main strategic effects and the consequences within the entire Middle East region, as well as the counterpressures within the global geopolitical framework.
The word Idlib comes from the Aramaic “Adad” (God) and “Lib” (centre).
A very important geographical and military factor is that, to the West, Idlib is very close to Latakia, where the Russian base of Khmeimimim is located, with more than 1,000 stable operatives, who are now part of the Russian defence apparatus, together with those of the Tartus naval base, where – at the air base near Latakia – also an important unit of the Sixth Directorate of the Russian Military Secret Service (GRU) operates.
As early as 2015, i.e. the outbreak of war in Syria, Idlib has been, at first, the centre of protests against Bashar al Assad by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni groups. Later Idlib was taken as a safe base by the various jihadist groups, including the remaining elements of the “Islamic State” of Raqqa that have now largely fled to the North-Western Syrian city, in close contact with the Turkish territories.
Not to mention the over 100,000 ones, previously held by the Kurds, who are relatives, collaborators and mere militants of the so-called “Caliphate” that Turkey has no interest in keeping detained and is slowly releasing.
Currently Idlib is not controlled by any majority jihadist group, but by an often vague balance among the many groups of the “holy war”, i.e. the Middle East and the other proxy wars, usually mediated by the Turkish Intelligence Services.
Besides autonomous groups of jihadists coming from the Chinese Turkestan-Xinjiang, often weakened with lightning operations by the operatives of the Chinese Armed Forces, in the region. There are also Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Al Qa’eda faction that has been operating for many years in Syria and partly in Iraq, and the National Liberation Front, founded in May 2018 and openly supported by Turkey.
It currently includes as many as 11 jihadist factions, but also nationalistic and mainly anti-Assad groups.
These groups often emerge from the Syrian Sunni majority, largely present in the North of the country.
In agreement with Russia, however, as early as 2019 the Syrian government led by Assad has stated that “Syria’s first goal is to free Idlib”.
A very harsh signal for Turkey which, just in that phase, was beginning to have as many as 1,300 soldiers around Idlib to monitor the ceasefire.
In that case, Turkey’s primary goal was to avoid adding a further and probably incalculable mass of other migrants to the 3 million Syrians already present in the Turkish territory on the border with Syria – with EU money – but assigned by Germany alone to Turkey.
That situation made the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, do his utmost to prevent a new offensive against Idlib from the South and from the East.
Hence, Staffan de Mistura’s proposals were the usual talks to avoid military pressure and, above all, create a humanitarian corridor, mainly with a view to avoiding the rush of crowds of Syrian migrants to Idlib and, from there, to the “Balkan route”.
European countries are full of migrants but, when thinking about geopolitics, they focus only on humanitarian aspects and, precisely, on how to avoid the arrival of other migrants.
Cannot we call it a failure?
In October 2018, in Sochi, the contacts between Putin and Erdogan led to an agreement.
A “de-escalation zone” was created in Syria – just to use the terminology of the Astana talks, the real ones, not the semi-deserted talks in Geneva – and it was in that area that Turkey took up the role of maintaining public order.
Shortly after the Sochi agreement, in an interview on the Russian TV, Bashar al Assad stated: “The Syrian military confrontation with Turkey is illogical”.
The document signed in Sochi between the two leaders stated that: a) there was a commitment of both countries for Syria’s territorial integrity; b) there was a common commitment to the fight against “all terrorists”, as well as the beginning of a ceasefire regime in Idlib as from March 6, and the establishment of a ‘security corridor’ along the Syrian M-4 motorway, six kilometres to the right and six kilometres to the left of the road axis; c) finally, there was the introduction of joint Turkish-Russian patrols, again along the M-4 motorway, in Idlib, in the direction controlling the Latakia-Aleppo axis.
Regardless of what happens to the Sochi agreement, the clash between Turkey and Russia is therefore very unlikely.
Neither Turkey nor, even less, Russia want to open a Syrian front where they would inevitably enter de facto marginalized from Syria.
A new war for hegemony in North-Western Syria between Russia and Turkey would be a very hard blow for both economies, which are now increasingly interconnected. By clashing with Turkey, the Russian Federation could lose an easy access to the Dardanelles and its own Syrian bases, as well as to the Bosphorus.
Moreover, Russia does not want to upset a NATO country like Turkey, which is now a maverick in the Atlantic region. An incalculable advantage position for Russia.
On its part, however, Turkey cannot do without specific support also from the United States, especially if obtained outside the North Atlantic Treaty region.
This means Turkey’s future concessions to the United States in the Eastern Mediterranean region and Turkey’s involuntary delicate hand against the PKK and other Turkish organizations (all offspring of the PKK, however) that are still essential on the ground for the United States (and Israel).
Currently, however, many executives of CIA, the Pentagon and the vast U.S. intelligence community do not even hide the desire to put an end to Erdogan’s regime.
Certainly the new Turkish Sultan is “scarcely democratic”, but if the United States were to test the approach of all its Middle East traditional allies in this regard, obviously the only democratic country would be Israel.
It will not be easy for the United States to define its future regional alliances, but the situation of relations between Turkey and the United States is today increasingly ambiguous and, in any case, very tense.
Only the most brilliant people within CIA are worried about not exasperating tempers, so as to avoid Turkey agreeing definitively with Russia irremediably against the United States.
The idea of some North American intelligence executives is also to push Turkey into reckless military adventures in Syria and, possibly, also in Libya – a distant area, but very much correlated with Syria – to eventually create a Turkish Vietnam and then leave Erdogan’s regime in the hands of the increasingly angry and impoverished Turkish crowds. A hope more than a strategic idea.
A vast program- as De Gaulle would have said – but anything is possible, even the U.S. planners’ dreams, if you are in the Middle East.
At this juncture, there is a key question. Can Assad alone control the stability of his Syria, after a victory which means, above all, the persistence of Russian protection over the old Ba’ath regime and also the inevitable support of the covert or non-covert military structures of Iran, which wants, above all, to create a stable terrestrial continuity towards the Lebanon and border with Israel, with its military and signal intelligence (SIGINT) stations?
Currently – after having changed and made the strategic framework much more insecure, with an ineffective stability of the U.S. positions in Syria and Turkey’s definition of the agreement with Russia, as well as the strong permanence of the ever stabler Assad’s regime, in the rest of Syria – the Turkish forces have approximately 20,000 soldiers in the Idlib area.
The deployment of Erdogan’s forces in Idlib includes his five special forces, which depend only on the Chief of Staff and not on the classic territorial chain of command of the Turkish Armed Forces. It also includes some armoured units, light infantry units, i.e. real commandos, and the 5th Brigade, specialized in paramilitary operations and mountain warfare.
Hence nothing to do with a Military Police that deals with an agreement on the M-4 motorway line.
The dozens of thousands Syrian or para-Syrian migrants, who want to push towards Europe, in the direction of Greece and then the “Balkan route”, are always supported by the Turkish Armed Forces themselves, who do not want civilians standing in the way between them, Assad’ Syria, Russia and the other players in the Syrian war, especially Iran.
Clearly Turkey does not want even the United States. If anything, Erdogan wants the financial support of the E.U., which, as usual, is terrorized of the obvious result of a war it has recklessly supported.
Hence, currently, the feeble agreement that Turkey and Russia reached in Sochi – which, indeed, served their most basic strategic interests – no longer holds, except for the wise malice of both statesmen.
It has even been said that recently Russia has sought the support of the Emirates and of Saudi Arabia (currently it is more difficult, after the fall of OPEC+) so as to break the stalemate with Turkey, while it is known that none of the powerful countries of Jazeera, namely the Arabian Peninsula, likes the Turkish strategic behaviour.
Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have begun to support, with money and weapons – the weapons that the new E.U. IRINI mission naively seeks at sea – the Libyan “rebels” of Cyrenaica, against the pro-Turk Tripolitanians, supported by the naivest part of the international community and, above all, by the Muslim Brotherhood that, instead, is not naive at all.
Obviously, however, Syria’s final victory at Idlib would never be accepted by Turkey, which would probably react with a limited but very harsh counteroffensive, capable of turning the Idlib area not into a Turkish enclave, to be used as a bargaining chip with Syria, but into a real Turkish area.
Furthermore, the Syrian economic crisis has not permitted an acceptable reconstruction in the areas of the Idlib region brought back to the Syrian regime or to Russia. This has also led to further revolts and provided induced support to the old jihadist networks that are fierce and still rich in liquidity.
It is also possible that the great push of Syrian and para-Syrian migrants – of various ethnic origin and political nature – is not viewed too negatively by Russia, which could thus favour those ethnicist and right-wing forces which now permanently support Russian strategic goals in the now brain-dead Europe.
Hence what should we do? Should we support the Idlib Strip as an area of permanence and support – with E.U. money – of the over three million additional migrants – something that is now physically impossible?
Where could the E.U. money be found, in the midst of a COVID-19 financial emergency?
Meanwhile, until the Idlib issue is solved, Assad’ Syrian regime is not stable and hence not capable of facing the great business of the country’s reconstruction, without the others’ strategic “teeth”.
Certainly – for what foreign policy agreements are worth – the Adana Agreement of 1998 still applies between Syria and Turkey. It dealt with the Province of Hatay, as well as the issue of water, essential for both countries, not to mention the Syrian recognition of the PKK as a “terrorist organization” and, therefore, the subsequent and immediate expulsion of the PKK leaders, especially Abdullah Ŏcalan, from Syria.
This is something we Italians remember fairly well. Therefore, between 2004 and 2010, the relations between Turkey and Syria were excellent.
The two countries also signed the beginning of a High Level Strategic Cooperation Council in September 2009, with an immediately subsequent free trade agreement between them.
That agreement was immediately extended to the Lebanon and Jordan, besides the two first signatories – hence the old Levant Quartet. When the war, which had begun as the Syrian “Arab Spring”, became radicalized, and both global and regional elements entered Syria, Turkey changed its observation point, mainly with reference to the strong presence of Iranian and, in any case, Shi’ite forces organized by Iran.
This was also connected to the proven substantial U.S. lack of interest in Syria, and above all its sole support for the various Kurdish political-military organizations – which, indeed, has never been the only one for the Kurds.
Since the beginning of tensions in Syria in 2014 – especially thanks to the local organizations of the Muslim Brotherhood, often connected at the time to the U.S. networks, as in Egypt – Turkey had clear and very simple goals in mind: the management of the inevitable humanitarian crisis, in which it was directly and inevitably interested; the fall of Assad’s regime; a proxy war against Iran; the elimination of Daesh, competing with the Turkey-manipulated jihadist organizations on the ground, and the final marginalization of the entire Kurdish area.
Currently there are approximately 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Therefore, Turkey’s goals are currently to stop further migrant flows, as well as to support those already there, and finally keep its very safe borders with Syria in view of avoiding further migrant flows.
At that juncture, once the clash in Syria had started, Turkey saw both the Kurds and Daesh arrive at its borders.
Later, in 2011, when the “Arab spring” broke out in Syria, Turkey explicitly advised Assad to start a radical reform of the Ba’athist regime in view of maintaining internal stability.
Certainly, today, with the penetration of Russian and Iranian security apparata into Assad’s regime, the fall of Ba’ath and the Assad dynasty – a desire never hidden by Turkey – is much more difficult to achieve. Furthermore, Russia has an economic and oil agreement with Turkey that is worth the entire survival of the Turkish AKP regime.
One of Turkey’s primary plan to topple Assad, and hence free Syria from Russia and Iran and turn it into a dépendance of Turkish geopolitics, was to try to unite all the forces opposing Assad into a single “front”.
The Turkish support also applied to the Astana talks, where Turkey supported the opposition against Assad, including jihadists, and, above all, sought peace in Syria with a view to sending its 4 million migrants back to their Syrian homes and in the rest of the world.
From this viewpoint, we can better understand the Turkish operations Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Olive Branch in 2018, both designed to avoid the Daesh penetration into Turkey and the Kurds’ arrival in Ayn-el-Arab and Afrin.
As already seen, however, the real punctum dolens of Turkey’s regional geopolitics is the possible “Shiazation” of Syria, while Turkey would like to have the entire Syria or, at least, its Sunni-majority parts, hegemonized by Turkish interests.
The Turkish Forces’ and Intelligence Services’ penetration into Idlib has also this meaning: at first, we take our area of influence, then we will decide to negotiate with Bashar al Assad, but from a position of strength.
It should be recalled that the first aspect of the 1979 revolution in Iran was the expansion of Islamic radicalism, which immediately spread to both Sunni and Shi’ite countries.
The second strategy, which is currently still pursued by Iran, was instead pan-Shi’ism.
After the predictably unfortunate “Arab Springs” that the United States invented to defuse the sword jihad by reactivating the militancy, including the religious one, with a bottom-up and rank-and-file approach, with the results we could well imagine even before, Iran no longer uses pan-Islamism, but only pan-Shi’ism.
Since 1980, however, Turkey has carved out its geo-informative role of defender of the West against pan-Islamism and, above all, against the great Shi’ite insurgency organized by Iran, which has also strengthened the never well clarified relations between the AKP, Erdogan’s party, and the Muslim Brotherhood which, at the beginning of the “Arab Springs”, was also the primary instrument of the U.S. operations in the framework of the great change regime planned by Langley in the Arab-Islamic world.
Certainly Iran has its very strong Shi’ite identity, which mobilizes and strongly motivates all its proxies, in Syria as in the rest of the world. Also Turkey, however – especially after Operation Olive Branch, has created its myth: a “democratic and pluralistic” Syria, i.e. without the Assad dynasty in power, but still maintaining the political and territorial unity of the Syrian Republic.
In other words, Turkey still envisages the silent division into zones of influence, possibly favouring Russia, which maintains the TurkStream project, the bilateral gas pipeline leaving from Anapa, in the Russian region of Krasnodar, crossing the Black Sea and arriving at the Turkish station of Kiyikoi.
A clearly strategic pipeline since it strengthens Russian-Turkish ties and hence favours Turkey’s substantial moving away from NATO. It also avoids Russia’s transit through the dangerous and unstable Ukraine, which will hence become more a problem for the West, which has opposed Russian operations in the region, than for Russia.
Let us, however, analyse the current Turkish military operations in Syria. The Turkish military action began on October 9, 2019, with attacks on the Kurdish area of Tall Abyad and Sere Kaniye, which were carried out also thanks to the help of some jihadist groups connected with the MIT, the Turkish secret service.
Still today, it is an area of Turkish hegemony, obtained in a territory previously controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish initiative and involving Christian (Assyrian) and Arab (Sunni) troops.
Well before the SDF, however, much of the territory occupied by Turkey was previously held by the so-called Caliphate of Raqqa.
Another Turkish goal was to militarily separate the Syrian Kurds – who are often mostly on the Syrian-Turkish North-Western border – from their fellow countrymen in Iraq and, all the more so, in Turkey.
In addition, Erdogan’s Turkey plans to relocate at least 2-3 million Syrian refugees or refugees coming from Syria (who are the largest share) already present in Turkey.
A solution that has already caused two problems. All migrants come from North-Western Syria and, hence, they are not homogeneous with the Turkish stability projects in the region. There is also the danger of giving room and bases for action to Turkey’s traditional enemies: the Syrian Democratic Forces; some remnants of the “Caliphate”, that, especially in its last phases, had close relations with the Turkish Intelligence Services; some Kurdish areas well armed from their supply lines, which go mainly from South-Eastern Syria to the whole Northern border.
Just think that, in 2013, there were also confidential talks between the Chief of MIT and the Turkish Foreign Ministry and the leaders of all the Kurdish forces, in view of reaching a stable agreement. Those negotiations, however, were harshly disrupted by Turkey.
In the meantime, the E.U. is obtusely undertaking to paying Turkey to stop migrants at the beginning of the “Balkan route”, which is, however, largely used both by Syrian migrants and by the majority migrant flows passing through Syria.
Indeed, the E.U. support for all the U.S. and Franco-British democratist follies, aimed at bringing free elections and secular democratic systems throughout the Middle East, has been a unique case of strategic masochism, i.e. paying the same Turks who destabilize North-Western Syria and then asking Europe to pay the bill for what they have done precisely to the designated victims, namely the powerless Europeans.
First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib
Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*
The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.
The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.
Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.
As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.
But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.
This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.
To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.
The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.
For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.
Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.
Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.
The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.
Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.
* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
From our partner RIAC
Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed
No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.
The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.
Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.
Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.
The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.
In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.
The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.
For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.
Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.
The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.
If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.
The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.
If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
What Does China-Iran Relations mean for United States?
What China wants in the Middle East
Although the recent China-Iran deal prompted extensive debates in international media, Iran is not the only country in the region to keep up a strategic partnership with China. The GCC states such as Saudi Arabia (since 2016) and the United Arab Emirates (since 2018) do as well. According to the China Global Investment Tracker, Beijing invested up to $62.55 billion in Saudi Arabia and the UAE between 2008 and 2019. (Julia Gurol & Jacopo Scita, 2020) Although due to the impacts of Washington’s maximum pressure strategy this new dimension of relationships looks more beneficial to Iran than to China, however, Beijing will now merge as one of the global powers to make sure the survival of the JCPOA presenting China with the opportunity to set the tone in the broader nuclear non-proliferation debates.
Economically, China needs to import its energy mostly from the Middle East and it also maintains a huge interest in exporting. China, in Iran’s Pivot to the East policy, will become now one of few formal buyers of Iran’s oil boosting its footprint in the Iranian market. Under the umbrella of the One Belt, One Road project, China is steadily expanding its political influence and investment plans in the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, which has occurred as a new theatre of U.S.-Iran power competition. Moreover, China is keen to stabilise the security environment that will help its infrastructure investments in the region. (Global Times, 2017) According to China’s estimations, the growth opportunities through the One Belt, One Road project will reduce tensions in the Middle East. (Xinhua, 2017) Therefore, China has proceeded to invest in Iran. The latest example was a 538 million USD railway deal. (South China Morning Post, 2017)
Iran’s Look East Policy
Iran’s policy of a “Pivot to the East” involves developing robust ties with the giants of the Asian continent, namely, China and Russia. (Micha’elTanchum, 2020) China and Iran have now signed an agreement, a roadmap for 25 years. While the Iranian government spokesperson said that there was no legal obligation to publish it (Patrick Wintour, 2021), we can assume that the agreement entails political-strategic, economic and cultural components for improving and promoting relations between China and Iran in the long run. The present agreement emphasises the effective participation of Iran in the Chinese one belt one road project with extensive projects in infrastructure, financial and banking fields. In terms of the political-strategic dimension (military, defence and security), China and Iran will set up close positions and cooperation promoting exchanges, and consultations on issues of mutual interest, including strengthening the defence infrastructure, countering terrorism and holding regular military manoeuvres. (Hossein Amir Abdollahian, 2021) China and Iran have emphasised economic ties, including cooperation in the fields of oil, industry and mining, and energy-related fields.
China was essential to striking a nuclear deal between Iran and the West. First, the Chinese were a real (if occasionally reluctant) partner in building pressure on Tehran. Beijing voted for six UN Security Council resolutions targeting Iran between 2006 and 2010 (The Arms Control Association, 2017), and China’s oil imports from Iran fell by more than 20 per cent in 2012-2013 when the United States was rising its crippling sanctions campaign. (Middle East Institute, 2016) As Iran’s most considerable oil customer, Chinese cooperation was crucial to the effort. China was then important to designing the JCPOA.
For almost three years, the destiny of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) hung in the balance (Guardian News, 2018). However, the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, an international agreement between Iran and world powers endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2231 seeking a “maximum pressure” strategy. (Hossein Mousavian, 2019) The maximum pressure strategy by the United States, if anything, sharpened Tehran’s wish to introduce Beijing as a reliable economic and political ally under the atmosphere of threats and sanctions. Thus, Iran’s policy of a Pivot to the East has achieved all the more credibility among Iranian officials after the United States withdrew from the JCPOA.
Thus, the relationship between the two countries is asymmetrical but highly pragmatic. Economic sanctions against Iran have driven the growth of China-Iran economic ties. Having been cut off from the West by sanctions, Iran has engaged in a Look East Policy. China is now Iran’s largest trade partner, its largest oil purchaser, and its largest foreign investor.
The US-Iran relations and Implications for China
A point of agreement between the United States and China is that both do not want a war in the region. China and Iran share the interests that they substantially oppose violent regime change policies. The existing U.S. sanctions and other bold moves will raise uncertainties to business and presumably postpone much of the economic engagements of China in Iran. But these policies may lead China and Iran to reduce imports and exports from each other and seek alternatives, but the policies imposed by Washington will not stop Sino-Iranian exchanges completely. Iran is not part of China’s immediate neighbourhood, but China is becoming an important part of the Iranian security calculations.
The Trump Administration’s chaotic foreign policy offered a buffet of opportunities to Beijing. Given the absence of ties between Tehran and Washington, China steps in opportunistically. The United States’ maximum pressure campaign on Iran, combined with a confrontational approach from Saudi Arabia and Israel vis-à-vis Iran and the growth of tensions in the Strait of Hormuz are endangering both the freedom of navigation, energy security and flow of oil supplies through the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, China seems quite reluctant to become bogged down in the regional tensions and attempts to avoid a military conflict. China’s reluctance to act as a security guarantor in the Persian Gulf indicates that Beijing does not want to pay any of the costs of possible military tensions in the Middle East and that its security strategy towards the Persian Gulf is not yet well-known. (Job B Alterman, 2013) Hence, Beijing seems unlikely to proclaim any peace initiatives for Iran and Persian Gulf security beyond broad calls for peace in the region, probably maintaining China’s existing policy of non-interference. (Camille Lons, Jonathan Fulton, Degang Sun, & Naser Al-Tamimi, 2019)
Although China would need to support cooperation with Iran on civil nuclear projects, China has been careful as Iran’s main partner in reconstructing nuclear facilities, not desiring to get ahead of the United States. Diplomatically, Beijing and Tehran stay together as long as Washington continues unilateral measures against them, although it’s unlikely that Tehran or Beijing use the alliance to confront Washington directly. Currently, with the Biden Administrations delay in recovering relations both with Iran and the failure to offer to substantially resolve the trade war with China, Beijing would be reluctant to help the United States to regain its footprint in the Middle East and certainly not dominance over the only country in the region with rich hydrocarbon resources in which Americans lack a foothold.
Iran-China relations is also linked to the fate of their respective relations with Washington and Iran’s upcoming election in 2021. Although China and Iran now share many strategic interests, in the long run, Iran’s wish to build up good relations with Western powers may affect its relationship with China. It remains yet unclear how far United States commercial and banking sectors will be willing to ease sanctions and engage with Iran. The United States can revisit Iran policy to avoid a major crisis with Iran and pave the way for a new round of negotiations with Iran. Otherwise, under the current conditions, we can expect Chinese players to create and widen influence and ties to keep up ties with Tehran without overly provoking Washington.
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