Monthly Archives: November 2012

Four More Years: Into Africa

Four More Years: Into Africa

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 15, 2012

Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of foreign policy problems, most of them regional, some of them global. Dispatches From The Edge will try to outline and analyze some of the key issues for Africa.

 

Africa is probably the single most complex region of the world and arguably its most troubled. While the world concerns itself with the Syrian civil war and the dangers it poses for the Middle East, little notice is taken of the war in the Congo, a tragedy that has taken five million lives and next to which the crisis in Syria pales.

Africa represents 15 percent of the world’s population, yet only 2.7 percent of its GDP, which is largely concentrated in only five of 49 sub-Saharan countries. Just two countries—South Africa and Nigeria—account for over 33 percent of the continent’s economic output. Life expectancy is 50 years, and considerably less in those countries ravaged by AIDS. Hunger and malnutrition are worse than they were a decade ago.

At the same time, Africa is wealthy in oil, gas, iron, aluminum and rare metals. By 2015, countries in the Gulf of Guinea will provide the US with 25 percent of its energy needs, and Africa has at least 10 percent of the world’s known oil reserves. South Africa alone has 40 percent of the earth’s gold supply.  The continent contains over one-third of the earth’s cobalt and supplies China—the world’s second largest economy—with 50 percent of that country’s copper, aluminum and iron ore.

But history has stacked the deck against Africa. The slave trade and colonialism inflicted deep and lasting wounds on the region, wounds that continue to bleed out in today’s world. France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal sliced up the continent without the slightest regard for its past or its people. Most of the wars that have—and are—ravaging Africa today are a direct outcome of maps drawn up in European foreign offices to delineate where and what to plunder.

But over the past decade, the world has turned upside down. Formerly the captive of the European colonial powers, China is now Africa’s largest economic partner, followed closely by India and Brazil. Consumer spending is up, and the World Bank predicts that by 2015 the number of new African consumers will match Brazil’s.

In short, the continent is filled with vibrant economies and enormous potential that is not going unnoticed in capitols throughout the world. “The question for executives at consumer packaged goods companies is no longer whether their firms should enter the region, but where and how” says a report by the management consultant agency A.T. Kearney. How Africa negotiates its new status in the world will not only have a profound impact on its people, but on the global community as well. For investors it is the last frontier.

The U.S. track record in Africa is a shameful one. Washington was a long-time supporter of the apartheid regime in South Africa and backed the most corrupt and reactionary leaders on the continent, including the despicable Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo. As part its Cold War strategy, the U.S. aided and abetted civil wars in Mozambique, Angola, and Namibia. Americans have much to answer for in the region.

Militarization

If there is a single characterization of US policy vis-à-vis Africa, it is the increasingly militarization of American diplomacy on the continent. For the first time since WW II, Washington has significant military forces in Africa, overseen by a freshly minted organization, Africom.

The US has anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 Marines and Special Forces in Djibouti, a former French colony bordering the Red Sea. It has 100 Special Forces soldiers deployed in Uganda, supposedly tracking down the Lord’s Resistance Army. It actively aided Ethiopia’s 2007 invasion of Somalia, including using its navy to shell a town in the country’s south. It is currently recruiting and training African forces to fight the extremist Islamic organization, the Shabab, in Somalia, and conducting “counter-terrorism” training in Mali, Chad, Niger, Benin, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Gabon, Zambia, Malawi, Burkina Faso, and Mauretania.

Since much of the US military activities involves Special Forces and the CIA, it is difficult to track how widespread the involvement is. “I think it is far larger than anyone imagines,” says John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.

As a whole, US military adventures in Africa have turned out badly. The Ethiopian invasion overthrew the moderate Islamic Courts Union, elevating the Shabab from a minor player to a major headache. NATO’s war on Libya—Africom’s coming out party—is directly responsible for the current crisis in Mali, where Local Tuaregs and Islamic groups have seized the northern part of the country, armed with the plundered weapons’ caches of Muammar el-Qaddafi. Africom’s support of Uganda’s attack on the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of the Congo resulted in the death of thousands of civilians.

While the Obama administration has put soldiers and weapons into Africa, it has largely dropped the ball on reducing poverty. In spite of the UN’s Millennium Development plan adopted in 2000, sub-Saharan Africa will not reach the program’s goals for reducing poverty and hunger, and improving child and maternal healthcare. Rather than increasing aid, as the plan requires, the US has either cut aid or used debt relief as a way of fulfilling its obligations.

At the same time, Washington has increased military aid, including arms sales. One thing Africa does not need is any more guns and soldiers.

There are a number of initiatives that the Obama administration could take that would make a material difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of Africans.

First, it could fulfill the UN’s Millennium goals by increasing its aid to 0.7 percent of its GDP, and not using debt forgiveness as part of that formula. Canceling debt is a very good idea, and allows countries to re-deploy the money they would use for debt payment to improve health and infrastructure, but as part of an overall aid package it is mixing apples and oranges.

Second, it must de-militarize its diplomacy in the region. Indeed, as Somalia and Libya illustrate, military solutions many times make bad situations worse. Behind the rubric of the “war on terror,” the US is training soldiers throughout the continent. History shows, however, that those soldiers are just as likely to overthrow their civilian governments as they are to battle “terrorists.” Amadou Sanogo, the captain who overthrew the Mali government this past March and initiated the current crisis, was trained in the U.S.

There is also the problem of who are the” terrorists.” Virtually all of the groups so designated are focused on local issues. Nigeria’s Boko Haram is certainly a lethal organization, but it is the brutality of the Nigerian Army and police that fuel its rage, not al-Qaeda. The continent’s bug-a-boo, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Meghreb, is small and scattered, and represents more a point of view than an organization. Getting involved in chasing “terrorists” in Africa could end up pitting the US against local insurgents in the Niger Delta, Berbers in the Western Sahara, and Tuaregs in Niger and Mali.

What Africa needs is aid and trade directed at creating infrastructure and jobs. Selling oil, cobalt, and gold brings in money, but not permanent jobs. That requires creating a consumption economy with an export dimension. But the US’s adherence to “free trade” torpedoes countries from constructing such modern economies.

Africans cannot currently compete with the huge—and many times subsidized industries—of the First World. Nor can they build up an agricultural infrastructure when their local farmers cannot match the subsidized prices of American corn and wheat. Because of those subsidies, US wheat sells for 40 percent below production cost, and corn for 20 percent below. In short, African needs to “protect” their industries—much as the US did in its early industrial stage—until they can establish themselves. This was the successful formula followed by Japan and South Korea.

The Carnegie Endowment and the European Commission found that “free trade” would end up destroying small scale agriculture in Africa, much as it did for corn farmers in Mexico. Since 50 percent of Africa’s GNP is in agriculture, the impact would be disastrous, driving small farmers off the land and into overcrowded cities where social services are already inadequate.

The Obama administration should also not make Africa a battleground in its competition with China. Last year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described China’s trading practices with Africa as a “new colonialism,” a sentiment that is not widely shared on the continent. A Pew Research Center study found that Africans were consistently more positive about China’s involvement in the region than they were about the US’s.

Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, recently praised the continent’s “relationship with China,” but also said that the “current trade pattern” is unsustainable because it was not building up Africa’s industrial base. China recently pledged $20 billion in aid for infrastructure and agriculture.

One disturbing development is a “land rush” by countries ranging from the US to Saudi Arabia to acquire agricultural land in Africa. With climate change and population growth, food, as Der Spiegel puts it, “is the new oil.” Land is plentiful in Africa, and at about one-tenth the cost in the US. Most production by foreign investors would be on an industrial scale, with its consequent depletion of the soil and degradation of the environment from pesticides and fertilizers. The Obama administration should adopt the successful “contract farming” model, where investors supply capital and technology to small farmers, who keep ownership of their land and are guaranteed a set price for their products. This would not only elevate the efficiency of agriculture, it would provide employment for local people.

The Obama administration should also strengthen, not undermine, regional organizations. The African Union tried to find a peaceful resolution to the Libyan crisis because its members were worried that a war would spill over and destabilize countries surrounding the Sahara. The Obama administration and NATO pointedly ignored the AU’s efforts, and the organization’s predictions have proved prescient.

Lastly, the Obama administration should join with India and Brazil and lobby for permanent membership for an African country—either South Africa or Nigeria, or both— in the UN Security Council. India and Brazil should also be given permanent seats. Currently the permanent members of the Security Council are the victors of WW II: the US, Russia, China, France and Great Britain.

In 1619, a Dutch ship dropped anchor in Virginia and exchanged its cargo of Africans for food, thus initiating a trade that would rip the heart out of a continent. No one really knows how many Africans were forcibly transported to the New World, but it was certainly in the 10s of millions. To this day Africa mirrors the horror of the slave trade and the brutal colonial exploitation that followed in its wake. It is time to make amends.

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Middle East: The Next Four Years

Middle East: The Next Four Years

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov.11, 2012

 

Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of foreign policy issues, most of them regional, some of them global. Dispatches From The Edge will try to outline and analyze them, starting with the Middle East.

Syria

The most immediate problem in the region is the on-going civil war in Syria, a conflict with local and international ramifications. The war—which the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad ignited by its crushing of pro-democracy protests— has drawn in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The U.S., France and Great Britain are also heavily involved in the effort to overthrow the Assad government.

The war has killed more than 30,000 people and generated several hundred thousand refugees, who have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. It has also badly damaged relations between Turkey and Iran. The former supports the insurrection, the latter supports the Assad regime. Pitting Shite Iran (and to a certain extent, Shite Iraq and the Shite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon) against the largely Sunni Muslim opposition has sharpened sectarian tensions throughout the region.

The war itself appears to be a stalemate. So far, the regime’s army remains loyal, but seems unable to defeat the insurrection. The opposition, however, is deeply splintered and ranges from democratic nationalists to extremist jihadist groups. The US and Britain are trying to weld this potpourri into a coherent political opposition, but so far the attempts have floundered on a multiplicity of different and conflicting agendas by the opponents of the Assad regime.

Efforts by the United Nations (UN) to find a peaceful solution have been consistently torpedoed, because the opposition and its allies insist on regime change. The goal of overthrowing the government makes this a fight to the death and leaves little room for political maneuvering. A recent ceasefire failed, in part, because jihadist groups supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia refused to abide by it and set off several car bombs in the capital. The Sunni extremism of these groups is whipping up sectarian divisions among the various sects of Islam.

There are a number of things the Obama administration could do to alleviate the horrors of the current civil war.

First, it should drop the demand for regime change, although this does not necessarily mean that President Assad will remain in power. What must be avoided is the kind of regime change that the war in Libya ushered in. Libya has essentially become a failed state, and the spinoff from that war is wreaking havoc in countries that border the Sahara, Mali being a case in point. In the end, Assad may go, but to dismantle the Baathist government is to invite the kind of sectarian and political chaos that the dissolution of the Baathist regime in Iraq produced.

Second, if the US and its allies are enforcing an arms embargo against Assad’s government, they must insist on the same kind of embargo on arms sent to the rebels by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Third, China and Russia should be asked to negotiate a ceasefire and organize a conference aimed at producing a political settlement and transition government. China recently proposed a four-point peace plan that could serve as a starting point for talks. A recent Assad government controlled newspaper, Al Thawra, suggested the Damascus regime would be open to such negotiations. A key aspect to such talks would be a guarantee that no outside power would undermine them.

Palestinians

The conflict that will not speak its name—or at least that is the way the current impasse between Israel and the Palestinians was treated during the 2012 US elections. But as U.S. Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, the military formation responsible for the Middle East, said last spring, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a “preeminent flame that keeps the pot boiling in the Middle East, particularly as the Arab Awakening causes Arab governments to be more responsive to the sentiments of their populations” that support the Palestinians.

Rather than moving toward a solution, however, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently announced yet another round of settlement building. There are approximately 500,000 Jewish settlers currently on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, although all such settlements are a violation of international law. While Netanyahu says he wants negotiations, he continues to build settlements, which is like negotiating over how to divide a pizza while one of the parties is eating it.

Proposals to annex the West Bank, once the program of far-right settlers, have gone mainstream. A conference this past July in the West Bank city of Hebron drew more than 500 Israelis who reject the idea of a Palestinian state. The gathering included a number of important Likud Party officials and members of the Knesset. Likud is Netanyahu’s party and currently leads the Israeli government.

“Friends, everybody here today knows that there is a solution—applying sovereignty [over the West Bank]. One state for the Jewish people with an Arab minority,” Likud Knesset member Tzipi Hotovely told the audience.

Conference organizer Yehudit Katsover put the matter bluntly “We’re all here to say one thing: the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Why? Because!”

A major argument against absorbing the West Bank is that it would dilute the Jewish character of Israel and threaten the country’s democratic institutions. “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak argues. “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

But right-wing conference goers dismissed that argument because they reject that there is a demographic threat from the Palestinians. According to The Times of Israel, former ambassador to the US, Yoram Ettinger, told the crowd that estimates of the Palestinian population are based on “Palestinian incompetence or lying” and that there are actually a million fewer than the official population count.

Legal expert Yitzhak Bam said he expected there would be no fallout from the Americans if Israel unilaterally annexed the West Bank, since Washington did not protest the 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria. Both areas were conquered in the 1967 War.

The Times reporter Raphael Ahern writes that that the conference reflects “The annexationists are growing in confidence, demanding in outspoken fashion what they always dreamed of but have never dared to say quite so publically.”

The expanding settlements are rapidly making the possibility of a viable two-state solution impossible. Eventually there will be no pizza left to divide.

The Obama administration has dropped the ball on this issue and needs to re-engage, lest the “pot” boil over.

First, the Tel Aviv government needs to be told that all settlement expansion must cease, and that failure to do so will result in a suspension of aid. At about $3.4 billion a year, Israel is the US’s number one foreign aid recipient.

Second, the US must stop blocking efforts by the Palestinians for UN recognition.

Third, negotiations must cover not only the West Bank and Gaza, but also the status of East Jerusalem. The latter is the engine of the Palestinian economy, and without it a Palestinian state would not be viable.

Iran

The immediate danger of a war with Iran appears to have slightly receded, although the Israelis are always a bit of a wild card. First, the Obama administration explicitly rejected Netanyahu’s “red line” that would trigger an attack on Teheran. The Israeli prime minister argues that Iran must not be allowed to achieve the “capacity” to produce nuclear weapons, a formulation that would greatly lower the threshold for an assault. Second, there are persistent rumors that the US and Iran are exploring one-on-one talks, and it appears that some forces within Iran that support talks—specifically former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani— are in the ascendency.

Netanyahu continues to threaten war, but virtually his entire military and intelligence apparatus is opposed to a unilateral strike. Israeli intelligence is not convinced that Iran is building a bomb, and the Israeli military doesn’t think it has the forces or weapons to do the job of knocking out Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Polls also indicate overwhelming opposition among the Israeli public for a unilateral attack. This doesn’t mean Netanyahu won’t attack Iran, just that the danger does not seem immediate. If Israel should choose to launch a war, the Obama administration should make it clear that Tel Aviv is on its own.

US intelligence and the Pentagon are pretty much on the same page as the Israelis regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Even with its powerful military, US generals are not convinced that an attack would accomplish much more than delaying Iran’s program by from three to five years. At least at this point, the Pentagon would rather talk than fight. “We are under the impression that the Iranian regime is a rational actor,” says Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Polls also indicate that nearly 70 percent of the American public favors negotiations over war.

In short, a lot of ducks are now in a row to cut a deal.

However, the US cannot make uranium enhancement a red line. Iran has the right to enhance nuclear fuel under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and as long as inspectors are in place—as they currently are—it is virtually impossible to create bomb-level fuel in secret.

Not only has intelligence failed to show that Iran is creating a nuclear weapons program, the country’s leader has explicitly rejected such a step. “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons,” says the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, calling nuclear weapons “a great and unforgivable sin.”  The Iranian government has also indicated that it will take part in a UN-sponsored conference in Helsinki to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

The Obama administration should endorse this effort to abolish nuclear weapons in the Middle East, although this will force it to confront the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel. Israel is not a NPT signatory and is thought to have some 200 nuclear weapons. Such a monopoly cannot long endure. The argument that Israel needs nuclear weapons because it is so outnumbered in the region is nonsense. Israel has by far the strongest military in the Middle East and powerful protectors in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  While Egypt and Syria did attack Israel in 1973, it was to recover territories seized by Tel Aviv in the 1967 war, not an attempt to destroy the country. And that was almost 40 years ago. Since then Israel has invaded Lebanon twice and Gaza once. Countries in the region fear Israel, not visa-a-versa.

While the White House has recently eased restrictions on the sale of critical medicines to Iran, the sanctions are taking a terrible toll on the economy and the average Iranian. So far, the US has not explicitly said it will remove the sanctions if talks are showing real progress. Since no one likes negotiating with a gun to the head—in this regard Iranians are no different than Americans—there should be some good faith easing of some of the more onerous restrictions, like those on international banking and oil sales.

Lastly, the option of war needs to be taken off the table. Threatening to bomb people in order to get them not to produce nuclear weapons will almost certainly spur Iran (and other countries) to do exactly the opposite. A war with Iran would also be illegal. The British attorney general recently informed the Parliament that an attack on Iran would violate international law, because Iran does not pose a “clear and present danger,” and recommended that the US not be allowed to use the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to launch such an attack.

The Gulf

Because US relies on the energy resources of the Persian Gulf countries, as well as strategic basing rights, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will challenge the foreign and domestic policies of its allies in the region. But then Washington should not pretend that its policies there have anything to do with promoting democracy.

The countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are monarchies that not only suppress dissent but also systematically oppress women and minorities and, in the case of Bahrain, the Shite majority. The extreme jihadist organizations that the countries of the Gulf fund and arm are destabilizing governments across the region and throughout Central Asia. Washington may bemoan extremism in Pakistan, but its Gulf allies can claim the lion’s share of the credit for nurturing the groups responsible for that extremism.

The Gulf Council is not interested in promoting democracy—indeed, political pluralism is one of its greatest enemies, nor does it have much interest in the modern world, aside from fancy cars and personal jet planes. This past summer Saudi Arabia executed a man for possessing “books and talismans from which he learned to harm God’s worshippers,” and last year beheaded a man and a woman for witchcraft.

Lastly, the Obama administration should repudiate the 1979 Carter Doctrine that allows the US to use military force to guarantee access to energy resources in the Middle East. That kind of thinking went out with 19th century gunboats and hangs like the Damocles Sword over any country in the region that might decide to carve out an independent policy on politics and energy.

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Turkey Haunted by Hubris

Turkey Haunted by Hubris

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Nov. 1, 2012

Two years ago Turkey was on its way to being a player in Central Asia, a major power broker in the Middle East, and a force in international politics. It had stepped in to avoid a major escalation of the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia by blocking U.S. ships from entering the Black Sea, made peace with its regional rivals, and, along with Brazil, made a serious stab at a peaceful resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis.

Today it is exchanging artillery rounds with Syria. Its relations with Iraq have deteriorated to the point that Baghdad has declared Ankara a “hostile state.” It picked a fight with Russia by forcing down a Syrian passenger plane and accusing Moscow of sending arms to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It angered Iran by agreeing to host a U.S. anti-missile system (a step which won Turkey no friends in Moscow either). Its war with its Kurdish minority has escalated sharply.

What happened? The wages of religious solidarity? Ottoman de’je vu?

There is some truth in each of those suggestions, but Turkey’s diplomatic sea change has less to do with the Koran and memories of empire than with Illusions and hubris. It is a combination that is hardly rare in the Middle East, and one that now promises to upend years of careful diplomacy, accelerate unrest in the region, and drive Turkey into an alliance with countries whose internal fragility should give the Turks pause.

If there is a ghost from the past in all this, it is a growing alliance between Turkey and Egypt.

Population-wise, the two countries are among the largest in the region, and both have industrial bases in an area of the world where industry was actively discouraged by a century of colonial overlords (the Turks among them). Ankara recently offered $2 billion in aid to cash-strapped Egypt, and both countries have moderate Islamic governments. Cairo and Ankara have also supported the overthrow of the Assad regime.

“Apparently now Egypt is Turkey’s closest partner in the Middle East,” Gamel Soltan of American University in Cairo told the New York Times. But while Egypt was once the Ottoman’s wealthiest provinces, 2012 is not the world of sultans and pashas, and, in this case, old memories may well be a trap.

Egypt is deeply mired in poverty and inequality. Indeed, it was as much the economic crisis gripping the region as issues of democracy and freedom that filled Tahrir Square. Cairo is in serious debt and preparing a round of austerity measures that will sharpen that inequality. The government of President Mohamed Morsi announced it will slice gas subsidies, which will fall particularly hard on the poor, especially given a jobless rate of over 12 percent and youth unemployment running at more than double that.

At first glance, both governments have a lot in common, particularly because Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are considered “moderately” Islamic. But many in the Brotherhood consider the AKP and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan far too “moderate”—in Turkey it is still illegal to wear a head scarf if you run for public office or work in a government office.   While the West considers Morsi’s and Erdogan’s government “Islamic,” some of the jihadists groups Cairo and Ankara are aiding in their efforts to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria consider the Egyptian and Turkish government little more than non-believers or apostates.  As Middle East expert Robert Fisk puts it, the jihadists are a scorpion that might, in the end, sting them both, much as the Taliban has done to its Pakistani sponsors.

Turkey apparently hopes to construct a triangle among Ankara, Cairo, and the wealthy oil monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (Jordan and Morocco, two other monarchies, have been asked to join). The combination of population, industry, and wealth, goes the thinking, would allow that alliance to dominate the region.

The Council does have enormous wealth at its disposal, but how stable are autocratic monarchies in the wave of the democratic aspirations raised by the Arab Spring? Bahrain’s king rules through the force of the Saudi Army. Saudi Arabia itself is struggling to provide jobs and housing for its growing population, while weighed down by inequality, high unemployment, rampant corruption, and a restive Shia minority in its eastern provinces. Jordan’s monarch is wrestling with an economic crisis and a political opposition that is pressuring king Abdullah II for a constitutional monarchy.

How this new alliance will affect the Palestinians is not clear. Turkey had a falling out with Israel in 2009, and Egypt and Qatar have been sharply critical of Tel Aviv’s treatment of the Palestinians. So far, however, it appears the Islamic group Hamas in Gaza will benefit more than the secular Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank.

With the exception of Bahrain, all the countries involved have large Sunni majorities that, at first glance, would put them on the same page religiously. But most the Gulf monarchs are aligned with radical Islamic groups, some of which have morphed into al-Qaeda-like organizations that have destabilized countries from Pakistan to Iraq. On occasion, these groups have turned on their benefactors, as Osama bin Laden did on Saudi Arabia.

Such Islamic groups are increasingly active in the Syrian civil war, where Turkey finds itself in a very similar role to the one played by Pakistan during the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan war. Some of the groups Pakistan nurtured during those years have now turned on their patrons. Will Turkey become the next Pakistan? In an interview with the Financial Times, one Syrian insurgent said that many of the rebels were stockpiling ammunition for “after the revolution.”

Bulent Alizira of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Financial Times that Turkey is in danger of becoming “like Pakistan, which became the forward base for the Afghan rebels. If that were to happen, it could confront all the pressures that Pakistan faced and from which it has never recovered.”

And why would the Erdogan government pick a fight with Russia? Russia is a major trading partner, and Turkey is keen on establishing good relations with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) founded by Russia and China in 2001. The organization includes most of the countries in Central Asia, plus observers from India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. The SCO accounts for 75 percent of the world’s energy resources and population, and coordinates everything from trade to oil and gas pipelines. Why would Ankara irritate one of the major players in the SCO?

Might it be pique at Moscow for blocking more aggressive measures by the UN Security Council to intervene in the Syrian civil war?  Russia, along with China, has consistently called for a political resolution to the Syria crisis, while Turkey has pursued a strategy of forcible regime change.  Erdogan has a reputation for arrogance and letting his temper get the best of him.

“His personal ambitions and overweening certainties may be eclipsing his judgment,” Morton Abramowitz of the Century Foundation told UPI, “and affecting Turkish interests.” Abramowitz served in the Carter and Reagan administrations and was appointed ambassador to Turkey from 1989 to 1991. He is also a director at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Relations between Turkey and Iran have also cooled, in part because of the U.S. anti-missile system, but also because Ankara is trying to overthrow one of Iran’s few allies in the region. In any case, backing Sunni jihadists against the Alawite Assad regime is hardly going to go down well in Shia Iran, or for that matter, in Shia Iraq. The Alawites are a branch of Shism.

Why, too would Turkey alienate major trading partners like Iran and Iraq? It is possible that the wealthy monarchies of the Gulf—who are anti-Shia and view Iran as their greatest threat— made Ankara an offer it can’t refuse. Whether the monarchies can deliver in the long run is another matter.

In the meantime, the Syrian war has unleashed the furies.

*Car bombs have made their appearance one again in Lebanon.

*The Kurds have bloodied the Turkish Army.

*Hundreds of thousands of refugees have poured out of Syria, and the fighting inside the country is escalating.

*Anti-aircraft missiles—the Russian SAM-7, or Strela, most likely “liberated” during the Libya war—have made an appearance. The hand-fired missiles may indeed discomfort Syrian aircraft, but if they get into the hands of the Kurds, Turkish helicopters will be in trouble as well, as will any number of other air forces, from Lebanon to Jordan. A Strela was fired at an Israeli aircraft in the Gaza Strip Oct. 16.

Turkey’s role in the Syrian civil war finds little resonance among average Turks. Some 56 percent disagree with the policy, and 66 percent oppose allowing Syrian refugees into the country.

“We are at a very critical juncture,” journalist Melih Asik told the New York Times. “We are not only facing Syria, but Iran, Iraq, Russia and China. Behind us we have nothing but the provocative stance and empty promises of the US.”

Four years ago Turkey set out to build strong ties with other countries in the region—“zero problems with the neighbors”—and decrease its dependence on the US. Today those policy goals are in shambles. But that is where illusion and hubris lead.

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