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Syria: The Autumn Offensive

“Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” said Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, so you wouldn’t think that the United States would object to the Syrian government reconquering it. Especially since US forces in Syria have no way of reaching Idlib, in the country’s northwestern corner, and neither do America’s Kurdish allies.

But you might be wrong about the US stance, because the Syrian regime’s troops attacking Idlib would have Russian bombers helping them. Turkey might also object, as President Recep Tayyib Erdogan was surreptitiously helping the al-Qaeda rebels in Syria earlier in the war and has already posted Turkish troops at ‘observation posts’ inside Idlib province to protect the status quo.

We’re going to find out which way Turkey and the US jump quite soon, because Idlib is next on the list. Over the past two years Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime has recaptured first the rebel-held part of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, then the eastern outskirts of Damascus, the capital, and most recently the areas down south near Israel and Jordan where the rebellion began. Idlib is next.

It has to be Idlib, because that’s where all the jihadi fighters who surrendered after those other defeats were sent. The influx of Islamist fighters and their families has virtually doubled the province’s population to two million in the past two years. Assad will want to finish the job while the Russian air force is still in Syria, so the offensive will probably start next month.

It will require intense bombing, as the Syrian army is short of ground troops, and there are bound to be anguished international protests about civilian casualties in the crowded province. That would provide an excuse for either Washington or Ankara to intervene and stop the attack if they want, but do they?

Erdogan would have to pull the Turkish troops out of Idlib if he wants to avoid a clash with the Syrian army, which would be rather embarrassing, and he hates to be embarrassed. He is already having to eat a good deal of humble pie in the financial crisis that is crippling the Turkish economy at home, and this would be a second helping.

On the other hand, Erdogan has already had to change his line once and accept that Assad will survive as Syria’s dictator. That makes it kind of hard for him to argue now that Syria cannot be allowed to take Idlib back, especially since the real power in Idlib is Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham, the many-times-renamed Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.

Logically, Erdogan should not be getting involved in a foreign war when he is already in a shouting match with Donald Trump and the Turkish economy is in a nose-dive. But he is erratic, emotional and over-confident, so he might just dig his heels in.

As for Trump’s own decision on Idlib, national interest decrees that he should just sit back and let it happen. What’s not to love about an event that destroys al-Qaeda’s only territorial base in the Middle East at no cost in American money or lives?

But if Trump doesn’t intervene, America’s hard right will complain that he is allowing a further expansion of Russian power in the Middle East, while his Israeli allies will protest again at the use of ‘Iranian troops’ (really mostly Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian mercenaries paid by Iran) in the battle. And Trump, too, is erratic, emotional and over-confident.

If the Idlib operation goes off without a major hitch involving Turkish or American military intervention, it will be the last major battle of the Syrian civil war. There would remain the task of persuading Turkish and American troops to leave the country, but that should not involve fighting.

At that point, it will be all about the Syrian Kurds. Turkey wants to be sure that they do not get enough independence to set an example for its own Kurdish minority just across the border. It is especially concerned that an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria could become a base for attacks across the border by the PKK, the banned ‘terrorist’ organisation that seeks independence for Turkey’s Kurds.

The United States, on the other hand, has made the Syrian Kurds its main instrument for fighting ‘Islamic State’ in the eastern third of Syria. ISIS has been beaten by this alliance and the US army now effectively controls eastern Syria. It’s reluctant to just hand over the huge, sparsely populated region to Assad, and it doesn’t want to abandon its Kurdish allies to the tender mercies of the Turks either.

There is a deal that could work. The Turkish and US armies both pull out of Syria, and the Syrian army replaces them to ensure that is no comeback by ISIS and no base there for Kurdish separatists seeking to break away from Turkey. The Syrian Kurds are rewarded with limited self-government including control over education, language and local spending. And the Russians go home too, since Assad no longer needs their help.

That would be the sensible thing to do, but this is the Middle East. So nobody knows what will really happen.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“At that…either”)

Iran: Here We Go Again?

“The people behind what is taking place think they will be able to harm the government,” said Iran’s First Vice-President, Eshaq Jahangiri. “But when social movements and protests start in the street, those who have ignited them are not always able to control them.” And the question is: which people did Jahangiri actually mean, and which government?

The hard-liners in Iran insist (as they always do on these occasions) that the demonstrations that broke out on Thursday and have continued every day since are the work of ‘anti-revolutionaries and agents of foreign powers’. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has warned anti-government protesters they will face the nation’s “iron fist” if political unrest continues.

But there are actually two governments in Iran. One is the elected government of President Hassan Rouhani, a reformist who won a second term in last June’s election. The other consists of the clerics and Islamic extremists (like the Revolutionary Guards) who serve the ‘Supreme Leader’, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – and it’s Khamenei who has the last word in both theological and political matters.

There is always great tension between the two when Iranians elect a reformist government, and Eshaq Jahangiri has always supported the cause of moderation and reform. What he was actually signalling, in his cryptic remark, was his suspicion that the protests about economic conditions were initally incited by the hard-liners to harm Rouhani’s government – and then got out of hand.

Iranians certainly have lots to protest against. Living standards have fallen 15 percent in the past ten years. More than 3 million Iranians are jobless, and youth unemployment is about 40 percent. The price of some basic food items, like chicken and eggs, has recently risen by almost half.

It’s not really Rouhani’s fault. The main problem is that despite the 2015 deal that ended most international sanctions against Iran in return for strict controls on Iranian nuclear research and technology, US financial sanctions remain in place. That has made most banks wary of processing money for Iran or extending credit to its firms, and so the promised economic benefits of the deal never arrived.

It is natural for ordinary people to blame the government when promised economic improvements don’t happen, and so it may well have occurred to hard-liners to exploit that anger to discredit the reformist government. But the anger went deeper than that, and quickly turned into a protest against the Islamic regime in general.

One significant piece of evidence that Jahangiri’s veiled accusation may be true is the behaviour of the state-run media, which are almost entirely controlled by hard-liners. They reported virtually nothing about the much bigger demonstrations in 2009, but they gave front-page exposure to the current protests on the first day of the demos. Then, as the protesters’ demands grew more radical, the state media stopped reporting on them.

In any case, Rouhani is no longer the prime target of the demonstrations, and they are no longer just about prices and jobs. They are protests against the entire regime, and the slogans are explicitly political. Previous outbreaks of protest have been put down by force in 1999, 2003, 2006 and most spectacularly in 2009, but three things are different about the current demonstrations.

The first is that the unelected parallel government of the mullahs, headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is no longer sacred and beyond criticism. The crowds have been chanting ‘Death to the dictator” and even “Death to Khamenei”, which is unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. There have even been calls for the return of the Shah who was overthrown by the Islamic revolution in 1979 (or rather of his son, since he died long ago).

Secondly, for the first time the demonstrations began not in Tehran but in provincial cities. The initial outbreak was in Iran’s second city, Mashhad, which is traditionally seen as a very conservative place. The protests only reached the capital on Saturday – and they have broken out in a dozen smaller cities as well.

And the third thing (which may account for the second) is that the majority of protesters this time are not middle-class students and professionals but lower-class people with very little to lose. This may also be why the crowds are less disciplined and more likely to answer violence with violence this time around.

None of this necessarily means that the Iranian regime is on the brink of collapse. It has already cut off the social media that the protesters use to organise, and it is notorious for its willingness to use force against its own citizens (though a dozen have been killed at the time of writing). Most opposition leaders are in jail or in exile, and there is no visible coordination among the protests.

All the other waves of protest failed; this one probably will too. But once events like this start to happen, especially in the Middle East, almost anything is possible.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“It is…on them”)

Obama’s Minimalist Foreign Policy

If the US Congress had not imposed a two-term limit on the presidency in 1947 after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s record four electoral victories, President Barack Obama would be a safe bet for a third term next November. He inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression, and now the United States has the healthiest economy of all the major powers, with unemployment back down to 5.5 percent.

But Obama can’t run for president again, so the time has come for the pundits to start delivering their assessments on the success or failure of his policies. First up is Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, with a lengthy article called “The Obama Doctrine” on the man’s conduct of American foreign policy over the past seven and a half years.

As you would expect when discussing a man whose basic rule is “Don’t do stupid shit”, Goldberg’s piece is mostly an examination of what Obama didn’t do, not what he did. He didn’t go to war with the Assad regime in Syria. He didn’t get into a new Cold War with Russia over Ukraine. He didn’t bomb Iran, instead making a political deal to block its nuclear weapons ambitions. He didn’t attack North Korea even when it did test nuclear weapons.

None of these foreign policy choices would be remarkable if we were talking about Japan or Canada or Germany. Even in former imperial powers like Britain and France, where the interventionist reflex is still alive and kicking, Obama’s choices would not be controversial.

But in the Washington foreign policy establishment, where every conflict on the planet tends to be redefined as an American problem and almost unlimited military force is available to attack the problem, Obama’s approach was heretical.

Democrats were just as opposed to his heresy as Republicans. Indeed, despite the wreckage of George W. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that Obama’s administration inherited when it took office in early 2009, his own first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was a classic interventionist.

After she left office in 2013, Clinton told Goldberg that “the failure to build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad…left a big vacuum, which the jhadists have now filled.” But Hillary Clinton actually got her way on Syria.

The real failure of American policy on Syria in 2011 was the tolerance extended to Turkish, Qatari and Saudi Arabian shipments of arms and money that were intended to subvert the faltering non-violent revolution and replace it with an armed revolt whose goal was a Sunni Islamic state, not a secular democracy.

Obama and Clinton must share the blame for the fact that the United States became part of this operation in early 2012, providing arms that it sourced from Libya to avoid Congressional oversight. By then the non-violent protests had been largely suppressed and Syria was stumbling into a civil war – which subsequently killed 300,000 people and turned half the country’s population into refugees.

Most Syrians would now agree that it would have been better to accept the failure of the non-violent movement and the continued rule of the execrable Assad regime than to see their country virtually destroyed. I suspect that Obama sees Clinton’s Syrian policy, in hindsight, as the greatest mistake of his time in office – but he did partially redeem himself by refusing to bomb Syria during the “poison gas” episode of 2014.

Clinton also told Goldberg in 2014 that “great nations need organising principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organising principle.” Nobody said it was, but it is a good guide when deciding on actual policies, and Obama has been pretty consistent in observing it even with regard to the Middle East.

His fundamental insight – and his greatest break with the orthodoxy of the American foreign policy establishment – has been to understand that very little that happens or could happen in the Middle East is a threat to America’s vital interests. Even Israel’s well-being is only a sentimental consideration for the United States, not a strategic one, although like all American politicians he is obliged to pretend otherwise.

Only if the Islamist extremists of the Nusra Front and Islamic State were to overrun all of Syria would Israel be in any danger, and the Russian military intervention in support of Assad’s regime since last September has largely eliminated that possibility. So Obama has been free to concentrate on the issues that he thinks are really important, and that is where he has made real progress.

His foreign policy has been minimalist only with regard to the traditional “strategic” concerns inherited from the Cold War and America’s long, deep and mostly futile engagement with the Middle East. In his “pivot” to Asia, in reestablishing ties with Cuba, above all on the issue of climate change (which he rightly sees as the crucial issue for the next generation and beyond), he has been an activist in his foreign policy – and a largely successful one.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump, the two main contenders for the succession, will be a patch on him.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 11. “None…controversial”; “Obama…refugees”; and “Clinton…East”)

The Islamic Wars of Religion

On Friday, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim rulers beheaded their country’s leading Shia Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, on charges of seeking “foreign meddling” in the kingdom.

On Saturday, an angry crowd of Iranians – all Shia Muslims, of course – attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. And Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, put a cartoon on his website comparing Saudi Arabia’s head-chopping orgy on New Year’s Day (46 other executions on the same day) to the mass executions carried out by the Sunni extremist ‘Islamic State’ group.

So on Sunday, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran – and all the pundits started talking about the Sunni-Shia “war of religion” that is about to engulf the Middle East.

This raises two questions. First, what would a Sunni-Shia war of religion actually look like? And second, has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses?

The first question is best answered by looking at the history of the Christian wars of religion, ca. 1520-1660.

The Muslim world now, like “Christendom” in the 16th century, is made up of many independent countries. And the current phase of the Muslim wars of religion is being fought out between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, just as the first phase of the Christian wars of religion was fought out mainly between Catholics and Protestants in individual countries.

From the start of the conflict in Europe, however, each European state tried to help its co-believers in neighbouring countries as well, and alliances were increasingly shaped by religious considerations. In the second phase, these alliances dragged most of Europe into the catastrophic Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), fought mostly in the middle of Europe but involving armies from as far apart as Sweden and Spain.

The main battleground, Germany, lost between one-third and one-half of its population. Nobody won, of course, and in the very long run everybody just lost interest in the question. But it was a very great waste of lives, time and money.

The Muslim world is already caught up in the first phase of a comparable process, but it is not condemned to go the whole distance. One big difference is that the Sunni-Shia split is ancient – more than 1,350 years old – whereas the Catholic-Protestant split was new and still full of passion at the time of the Christian wars.

More than 99 percent of today’s Muslims were simply born Sunni or Shia, whereas many 16th-century Christians had made a conscious choice about their religion. The current killings in the Muslim world are mostly driven by state policy, so maybe Muslims will not throw away a couple of generations following the same foolish, bloody road that the Christians took 500 years ago.

Those who live at the geographical extremes of the Muslim world – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh in the East; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisa and even Egypt in the West – will certainly not suffer the same fate, for there are only tiny Shia minorities in these countries. But for those who live in the heart of the Muslim world, from Yemen to Turkey and from Lebanon to Iran, the future may be much darker.

And so to the second question: has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses? Not exactly, but many players have lost sight of the bigger picture.

George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed the sectarian demon in the region. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 frightened the region’s dictatorships and absolute monarchies into increased repression and greater reliance on appeals to sectarian loyalty. Then King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died a year ago, and the kingdom spun out completely.

Saudi Arabia under its previous monarchs was very cautious and conservative in its foreign policy. It subsidised various extreme Sunni groups in other countries, but it clung tightly to its American alliance and never engaged directly in adventures abroad

The new Saudi king, Salman, is 80 years old and infirm, so in practice most decisions are made by his nephew, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (aged 56), or his son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (aged only 30). There is intense competition between the two men for the succession to the throne, and the decisions coming out of Riyadh have been much bolder than ever before.

The past nine months have seen a major Saudi Arabian military intervention against the Shia side in the Yemeni civil war, the creation of a Saudi-led alliance of almost all the Sunni-majority Arab states, and now the execution of a Shia leader in Saudi Arabia that was clearly calculated to cause a diplomatic breach with Iran.

It’s just dynastic politics, in other words, not some inevitable geopolitical juggernaut. But it was similar dynastic politics half a millennium ago that triggered the worst phase of the Christian wars of religion.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The Muslim…ago”)