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Dialogue of the Deaf Drives Escalating US-Iranian Tensions

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The United States and Iran, acting on perceptions of one another that seem to be engraved in stone, are on a collision course that could have devastating consequences for Arab Gulf states and Iraq. The risk is magnified by each one’s adoption of policies and strategies that are based on faulty assessments of the other.

The United States and Iran have waged a contentious dialogue of the deaf for much of the past four decades.

It is a dialogue that seemingly brought the two countries to the brink of war in January following tit-for-tat attacks with potentially devastating consequences for Arab Gulf states.

The tit-for-tat culminated in the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani that initially was thought to have deterred Iran.

It did not, and the talking past one another heightens the risk of things getting, again, out of hand.

Successive US and Iranian governments are the culprits even if US President Barak Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, attempted to change the course of history with a 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The agreement failed to revise deep-seated distrust, including US perceptions that Iran seeks to destabilize the Middle East and sow regional mischief and Iran’s conviction that successive US administrations and their regional allies seek regime change in Tehran.

In a sign of the times, the global pandemic has become another Iranian-US battlefield in which both sides are driven by perceptions of one another rather than a will to create opportunities to break the logjam.

Perceptions have been reinforced not only by a US refusal to ease harsh sanctions, but also Saudi Arabia’s failure to follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates by shipping medical supplies to Iran and by Iran’s attempt to use the pandemic to pressure Washington and secure financial aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The divide is further magnified by the fact that misperceptions have filtered into the fabric of foreign policy communities of both countries that lead to policy recommendations potentially based on problematic analysis.

The killing of Mr. Soleimani did everything but send a message warning Iran that it was playing with fire.

It missed the point that Iranian strategy, after initially failing to pressure the Trump administration into reversing its 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear accord, is centred on playing with fire.

Iran last weekend stepped up Revolutionary Guard speed boat patrols in the Gulf after the United States warned that there had been “dangerous and harassing approaches.”

Rightly or wrongly, Iran is likely to believe that it is a strategy that may not have achieved its main goal so far but has produced results.

Iran appears to see forcing a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq as achievable and will interpret the recent concentration of US forces in a smaller number of Iraqi bases as a step in that direction.

The US says the redeployment was planned prior to President Donald J. Trump’s assertion that Iran was planning “a sneak attack” against American forces.

Iran last year opted for gradual escalation involving attacks on US targets in Iraq as well as critical national infrastructure in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in a bid to bring the region to the brink of war.

Convinced that neither the United States nor Iran wants a war, Iranian leaders hope that heightened tension will open the door to a return to the negotiating table.

If that were correct, it would throw into doubt recommendations that the United States should adopt a strategy of deterrence against Iran, similar for example to Israel’s successful bid to push Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria away from the Jewish state’s border.

Some 200 airstrikes against 1,000 targets “slowed Iran’s military build-up in Syria while avoiding a broader regional conflagration that would have been damaging to Israel’s interests,” the Center for a New American Security said in a report released last week.

The problem is that comparing Iranian policy towards the United States and Israel amounts to comparing apples and pears. Iran has no interest in pushing Israel towards a negotiation nor does it want to risk an all-out war.

In other words, Israel may find it far easier than the United States to deter Iran. Escalated US attacks on Iranian targets, unlike Israeli strikes, would probably serve Iran’s immediate purpose.

The lay of the land is complicated not only by the rejiggering of US forces in Iraq but also the country’s internal political dynamics.

The killing of Mr. Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi commander who died alongside the Iranian general, has brought to the surface differences among pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. The two men were pivotal figures in keeping the militias in line.

Some militias are demanding that they be integrated into the Iraqi military while others want to continue operating independently albeit in close association with the military and yet others have forged alliances with criminal networks.

All in all, little suggests that US-Iranian tensions can be reduced without the political will to revisit and puncture perceptions of one another. That may be a tall order given that the nuclear accord failed to create a real opening.

Yet, even without an opening, both the United States and Iran would do well to take a hard look at their perceptions in a bid to realistically assess their options.

“The United States and Iran are on a collision course . . . because [they] . . . hold very different interpretations of reality,” said strategist and Middle East scholar Ross Harrison. “The United States, which had built its doctrine around combatting a global threat from the Soviet Union, found itself flatfooted in dealing with a regional phenomenon like post-revolutionary Iran…. The United States can injure Iran, but it is unlikely to be able to compromise Iran’s regional influence.”

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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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Erdogan punches above his weight

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Since months Turkish Lira losing its value and inflation is on the rise, the statistics shows that inflation increased from 8 percent by 17 percent and still climbs. According to the National Statistics Institute-Tüik, inflation jumped by 14.6 since 2020 and 17.84 % from the time when 2019. Turks have lost their reliance on Lira, so that people purchase foreign currency or gold, which in turn caused unemployment and capital fight. When venture capitalists avoid investing, it sparks unemployment subsequently, redundancy brings about less money spending and capital flow, ultimately, poverty and depression takes place.

Erdogan attempted to fix the issue thru his monetary policy and fiscal measures, and he even reshuffled national financial institutions.  Erdogan sacked finance minister and head of central bank in hope of deflation and economic recovery.

In order to ameliorate country’s Real GDP, Erdogan raised the prime interest rate, doubled gold reserves and began to sell collaterals. Despite Erdogan’s monetary measures, Turkish quarterly Nominal GDP signifies price increase and inflation escalation. One has better find the root cause for the economic stagnation in Turkey, in precise sluggish economic developments have not been effected due to fiscal policy, rather Erdogan’s politically motivated foreign and interior ambitious policies.

Erdogan’s imperialistic political ideology to ottomanize the world has had backlashes, as result most of the regional countries have distanced themselves from Turkey. In order to sponsor such a dogma, Ankara signed an agreement with Moscow to run Turk-stream a natural gas pipeline. Moreover, Erdogan’s Ankara launched drilling in offshores of Greek and Cyprus, and signed an exclusive agreement with Tripolis’ leadership to get access to the oilfield and natural resources of the country, which nurtured a possible full-scale war between Athens and Ankara.  Meanwhile, Erdogan’s ambitions caused anger within European Union’s leaders, who warned Turkey with penalties and sanctions.  Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 missile system form Russia not only infuriated its traditional ally the United States but also annoyed its fellows within the NATO club. In the aftermath of the purchase, Trump’s administration sanctioned Turkey on 14 December 2020, Ankara was dropped from F35 stealth fighters’ project, and the decades-long history of productive defense cooperation between the countries demised. 

Erdogan has joined Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and he recently signed an extradition covenant to deport Uyghurs and Beijing’s criticizers to China, whereby they face death penalties and capital punishment. Erdogan’s sponsorship of Turkish enunciated minorities not only defamed Turkey in Afghanistan, but also in most of east European countries.

Turkey’s military and financial support to HAMAS (Palestinian Radica Islamic Movement) exasperated Israel, which has been in turn counter-productive, triggering face-off between Ankara and Jerusalem. Turkish military intervention in both Azerbaijan and Libya led adversary between Ankara and Moscow. Erdogan’s fundamental Islamic hegemony (Muslim Brotherhood) instigated rift between Ankara and Riad and its allies, who sponsor the ideal of Salafism, consequently, most of the gulf countries removed Turkish products from their ranges and excessively complicated Ankara’s access to the regional markets. Ankara has recently agreed to finance and train Pakistan’s backed mercenaries and militants in Kashmir to fight Indian army in the region, which put Ankara at diplomatic, political and economic standoff with New Delhi.

Erdogan’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt ramified Ankara from Cairo, which minimizes Turkish entree to Suez-Canal. Accordingly, Erdogan has drawn a political, military and economic buffer zone all around the country.

If we put all pieces together, it will eventuate a conclusion that Erdogan punches above his weight. Erdogan’s monetary policy and populistic dogma cannot handle Turkey’s grimy economic situation and inflation, relatively a profound strategic shift in policy within internal and external realms of the country can rescue Ankara from total collapse. 

Additionally, thru populist rhetoric and national-populism, he hits below the belt.  Since Turkish lethargic economy cannot bear the burden of neo-ottmanism and tans-national Islamic fundamentalism as well as cross-border terrorism. 

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Can Syria be reborn from the ruins after a decade of civil war?

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According to the data from the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” (a non-governmental organization based in London), in 2020 – after ten years of civil war – “only” 6,800 people were killed in Syria, the lowest figure since 2011.

In this long and bloody decade a total of 387,000 people died, of whom 117,000 were innocent civilians, victims of a war that began with a student protest and, in a short time, turned into a small “world war” that saw Turkish, Iranian, Russian and American forces in the field, besides the “local” contenders, namely Bashar al-Assad’s loyalist army and the various indigenous militias, ranging from the Kurds in the North-East to the jihadist militiamen of various complexion or background.

 Considering the importance of Syria in the Middle East and in Mediterranean’s and North Africa’s equilibria, before analysing the possible developments of the geopolitical situation triggered by the conflict, it may be useful to go over the five phases in which the Syrian war unfolded, which turned out to be the most explosive and bloody consequence of the entire phenomenon of the so-called “Arab Springs”.

The first phase, in March 2011, was triggered by a demonstration of students in Deraa who, on the wave of the first protests in Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets to demand the democratization of Assad’s regime, based on an Alawite leadership (a minority sect of Shi’ite origin) that for over forty years had been in power in a country where the Sunnis, traditional enemies of the Shi’ites, accounted for 65% of the population – as is still currently the case.

The police repression of student demonstrations was extremely harsh and, also thanks to a skilful information and disinformation campaign by Al Jazeera – the Qatari TV channel which is a master in defending the interests of the “Muslim Brotherhood” protected and supported by the Qatari Emir – the protests quickly spread throughout the country, while Assad’s forces tried to control them with the military iron fist.

Soon what looked like a re-edition of the French 1968 protest movements in Arab guise turned into a full-blown civil war.

 In early 2012 there was the second phase of the crisis. The street protests turned into armed conflict due to the fact that better armed and better organized militias took the field, thanks to weapons and money from Qatar and Erdogan’s Turkey.

While the Syrian regime began to lose control of strategic territories in the North and in the South of the country, ceding the city of Aleppo to the insurgents, Iran – worried about the fate of the regime and the Alawite minority – had the Shi’ite militias of Hezbollah intervene in the conflict, from the neighbouring Lebanon, as well as “military advisers” from the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” a powerful paramilitary organization created by the Ayatollahs to defend Iran’s interests abroad and the internal stability of the theocratic Republic.

In the spring of 2013, the Syrian regime appeared to be on the verge of collapse but, thanks to the Iranian help, it managed to maintain control of the capital and the strategic ports of Latakia and Tartus, in which a strong Russian naval presence was “hosted”.

The third phase marked the internationalization of the conflict, with the emergence of ISIS and the American and Turkish intervention.

 In June 2014, faced with the total marginalization of the Sunni minority by the Shi’ite majority in Iraq, a Sunni political-military group composed of former Iraqi members of Saddam Hussein’s regime decided to establish the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”, a jihadist military organization aimed at building a new Sunni nation sitting astride two States considered “bastard” because they were conceived by Anglo-French colonialism.

The armed forces of ISIS, under the leadership of the “Caliph” Al Baghdadi, quickly conquered the city of Raqqa and territories in the North-East on the borders with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, and initially thanks to the Turkish help they threatened to exterminate the Syrian Kurdish population and establish a bloody terror regime in the conquered areas.

The threat of ISIS led to the first American intervention, with targeted bombings in defence of the Kurds, while Turkey supported not only the Caliphate but also the creation of Sunni militias gathered under the name of “Jabhat Al Nusra”, that progressively reduced the control of the Syrian territory by the loyalist forces faithful to Damascus.

The fourth phase of the conflict started in 2015. The fate of Assad’s regime seemed doomed: the Damascus army did not even control the entire capital; the international isolation of the regime was almost absolute and the Sunni forces of ISIS and Al Nusra seemed destined to a victory that would deliver Syria to the fundamentalists and bring back to the centre of the Middle East scene a neo-Ottoman Turkey whose leader, Tayyip Recep Erdogan, pursued  the dual goal of definitively cutting Kurdish irredentism down to size and ensuring Turkey the role of centre of gravity in the whole region.

At that juncture Russia directly entered the field with its own air force, siding with the Iranian forces deployed in defence of Assad, thus turning the tide of an increasingly confused and bloody conflict.

In the fifth and final phase of the Syrian war, thanks to the Russian military support, which almost led to a direct clash between Russian and Turkish forces, the Syrian armed forces not only regained total control of the capital but also of all the cities that had fallen under the control of ISIS and its allies, ranging from Aleppo to Raqqa, at the time reduced to a heap of rubble as a result of street fighting and Russian and American bombings.

The final conquest of Deraa – the symbolic city of the civil war – by Assad’s military forces at the end of 2018 marked the end of Sunnis’ and their internal and external supporters’ hopes to overthrow the secular Alawite regime in Damascus. However, as the 6,800 deaths in 2020 show, Syria cannot be considered pacified.

The Syrian civil war had significant impacts throughout the Middle East and Europe.

Over 3 million refugees poured into Turkey, the Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Some of them arrived also in Europe via Greece, while Erdogan was “convinced” – with a donation of 7 billion euros- initially to curb and later to stop the flow of Syrian migrants to Europe.

 Currently Syria is a country in ruins which, however, remains fundamental for the Middle East equilibria.

The role played so far in the conflict by Russia, Iran and Turkey and, albeit marginally, by the United States and Israel, shows that what appeared to be the “Arab Spring” in Damascus, was indeed an attempt to exploit the international unpopularity of Assad’s regime to alter the regional balance in favour of Turkey, Qatar and the most reactionary Sunnis.

 Despite the Turkish military backlash that, in 2019, attempted to definitively eliminate the Kurdish threat from its borders by seizing Syrian territories, currently Syria is gradually integrating again into the Arab world.

It is a world that survived the impact of false “Arab Springs” which, badly analysed by a short-sighted and superficial West, were not initially understood in their most realistic sense, i.e. a well-orchestrated attempt by the most reactionary part of political Islam to overthrow the secular governments of the Arab-Muslim world.

Thanks to the efforts of Al Sisi’s Egypt, Syria is back again in the Arab League and has progressively resumed diplomatic relations with most Arab nations. With its support for Assad, Egypt is trying to curb the strong Iranian presence in the region and the unscrupulous activism of Turkish President Erdogan, who still dreams of becoming the “dominus” of the region.

The worst part of the Syrian war has come to an end. The Caliphate has been defeated militarily, but it still controls some parts of territory in the North-East of the country and is still able to carry out sporadic attacks against the regular armed forces.

Turkey remains a threat to the stability of Syria, a half-destroyed country, with a collapsing economy as a result of the U.S. sanctions and the Covid 19 pandemic.

Egypt, the Gulf States and Russia are working to bring Syria’s relations with the rest of the world back to normalcy, thus taking the first steps in the process of physically rebuilding a country in ruins. China and North Korea are also players in the game – a game that, in the future, will have important positive economic repercussions for the protagonists of the process.

For the time being, Europe and the United States have a wait-and-see attitude and are satisfied with maintaining a system of indiscriminate sanctions that have negative effects not on the stability of the regime, but on the well-being of its citizens.

After a decade of war, Syria has the right to peace and reconstruction – a complex process at which Europe should look with pragmatism and rationality, recalling the statement by Henry Kissinger that “in the Middle East there can be no peace without Syria”.

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Maritime Border Dispute: The South Lebanon Crisis

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The Middle Eastern region has been riddled with crisis and disputes for centuries yet only a few seem to make their way out of an endless war. One such instance is making its way to the map as aged rivals: Lebanon and Israel, are inching their way to a possible resolution to a meddling dispute spanning decades. The two countries have been formally at war with each other since the Arb-Israel conflict initially sparked after the establishment of Israel post Holocaust in 1947-48. Though the official position has not deterred much since then, Lebanese representation states that a ‘framework’ has been devised under the eye of The United Nations (UN) while Israel’s energy minister Yuval Steinitz confirmed that the talks over the maritime dispute would initiate soon after being deterred since October 2020. The significance of these talks could only be deciphered once you realise the backdrop leading to such complex relations.

Both Lebanon and Israel are Middle Eastern countries located to the western periphery of Asia. Lebanon, officially known as the Lebanese Republic, shares a border with Syria to the north and east while meets Israel in the south. The two countries share no border on land and have overlapping borders in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which stems the basis of the conflict. The disputed region is cited by experts as rich with lucrative energy reserves. Back in 2011, Israel discovered two gas fields in the region as the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu stated that, “The state enjoys exclusive economic rights including the right to exploit sea’s natural resources”. Lebanon on the other hand is not economically upright relative to Israel and could reap immense benefits from the resourceful region.

As Lebanon and Israel share no defined border on land, it makes it significantly difficult to draw a justifiable demarcation to the maritime. The current boundary, known as the ‘Blue Line’, was drawn by the UN after, almost 22 years of occupation, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon back in 2000.

The region is the most sensitive region between the two countries as it has often been deemed as the ‘Tensest Frontier’ of the region. Historical facets make this fact even more apparent since Israeli forces have met thorough resistance over decades in this very perimeter from the Lebanese army and the Shia militant group, its arch-rival, Hezbollah. The deadliest conflict struck between the duo back in 2006 when Israeli forces clashed with Hezbollah over the blue line frontier. A month-long war resulted in 1190 casualties on the Lebanese side whilst 163 Israeli soldiers were rendered dead in the sea. A recent skirmish came about only 3 months back in July when Lebanese border again quivered with ammunition. A set-up attack sparked when a Hezbollah cell comprising of heavy artillery throttled the Israeli forces. The responsibility of the attack was never accepted by Hezbollah, but the incident was cited as a revenge operation over the assassination of a Hezbollah fighter due to an Israeli airstrike in Damascus mid-July.

Despite the nations being on rough patch, both militaristically and diplomatically, both have showed positive signs to resolve the dispute once and for all. Israel has been under pressure over the growing tensions as the normalisation of relations with UAE, Bahrain and Morocco came about. While, Lebanon is still reeling with the catastrophe struck by the blast in Beirut and subsequent resignation of the government. Although Lebanon refused to directly negotiate the talks with the Israeli representatives, the UN still welcomed this step toward the much-awaited talks as a ‘Historic Agreement’. However, the talks stalled after the fourth round left some dents in the position of either parties. Israel’s Energy Minister, Yuval Steinitz accused Lebanon of changing, in fact, contradicting its position on the borders seven times, stating that “Lebanon’s position during the fourth round of negotiations not only contradicts its previous positions, but also contradicts Lebanon’s position regarding the maritime borders with Syria, which takes the Lebanese island near the borders into consideration,”

The fifth round of the talks was deferred just hours before the scheduled meeting, casting a gloom over the optimism shown by the UN. After 3 years of dedicated mediation, UN presumes these talks to pave a way towards a conclusive end to the dispute and beginning of development of natural resources for the benefit of all people of the region.

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