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New Alliance Could Re-shape Middle East

The Great Game Comes to Syria

Dispatches From The Edge

April 17, 2018

 

 

An unusual triple alliance is emerging from the Syrian war, one that could alter the balance of power in the Middle East, unhinge the NATO alliance, and complicate the Trump administration’s designs on Iran. It might also lead to yet another double cross of one of the region’s largest ethnic groups, the Kurds.

 

However, the “troika alliance”—Turkey, Russia and Iran—consists of three countries that don’t much like one another, have different goals, and whose policies are driven by a combination of geo-global goals and internal politics. In short, “fragile and complicated” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

 

How the triad might be affected by the joint U.S., French and British attack on Syria is unclear, but in the long run the alliance will likely survive the uptick of hostilities.

But common ground was what came out of the April 4 meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meeting in Ankara, the parties pledged to support the “territorial integrity” of Syria, find a diplomatic end to the war, and to begin a reconstruction of a Syria devastated by seven years of war. While Russia and Turkey explicitly backed the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, Iran was quiet on that issue, preferring a regional solution without “foreign plans.”

 

“Common ground,” however, doesn’t mean the members of the “troika” are on the same page.

 

Turkey’s interests are both internal and external. The Turkish Army is currently conducting two military operations in northern Syria, Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield, aimed at driving the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) out of land that borders Turkey. But those operations are also deeply entwined with Turkish politics.

 

Erdogan’s internal support has been eroded by a number of factors: exhaustion with the ongoing state of emergency imposed following the 2016 attempted coup, a shaky economy, and a precipitous fall in the value of the Turkish pound. Rather than waiting for 2019, Erdogan called for snap elections this past week and beating up on the Kurds is always popular with right-wing Turkish nationalists. Erdogan needs all the votes he can get to imlement his newly minted executive presidency that will give him virtually one-man rule.

 

To be part of the alliance, however, Erdogan has had to modify his goal of getting rid of Syrian President Bashar Assad and to agree—at this point, anyhow—to eventually withdraw from areas in northern Syria seized by the Turkish Army. Russia and Iran have called for turning over the regions conquered by the Turks to the Syrian Army.

 

Moscow’s goals are to keep a foothold in the Middle East with its only base, Tartus, and to aid its long-time ally, Syria. The Russians are not deeply committed to Assad personally, but they want a friendly government in Damascus. They also want to destroy al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, which have caused Moscow considerable trouble in the Caucasus.

 

Russia also wouldn’t mind driving a wedge between Ankara and NATO. After the U.S., Turkey has NATO’s second largest army. NATO broke a 1989 agreement not to recruit former members of the Russian-dominated Warsaw Pact into NATO as a quid pro quo for the Soviets withdrawing from Eastern Europe. But since the Yugoslav War in 1999 the alliance has marched right up to the borders of Russia. The 2008 war with Georgia and 2014 seizure of the Crimea were largely a reaction to what Moscow sees as an encirclement strategy by its adversaries.

 

Turkey has been at odds with its NATO allies around a dispute between Greece and Cyprus over sea-based oil and gas resources, and it recently charged two Greek soldiers who violated the Turkish border with espionage. Erdogan is also angry that European Union countries refuse to extradite Turkish soldiers and civilians who he claims helped engineer the 2016 coup against him. While most NATO countries condemned Moscow for the recent attack on two Russians in Britain, the Turks pointedly did not.

 

Turkish relations with Russia have an economic side as well. Ankara want a natural gas pipeline from Russia, has broken ground on a $20 billion Russian nuclear reactor, and just shelled out $2.5 billion for Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft system.

 

The Russians do not support Erdogan’s war on the Kurds and have lobbied for the inclusion of Kurdish delegations in negotiations over the future of Syria. But Moscow clearly gave the Turks a green light to attack the Kurdish city of Afrin last month, driving out the YPG that had liberated it from the Islamic State and Turkish-backed al-Qaeda groups. A number of Kurds charge that Moscow has betrayed them.

 

The question now is, will the Russians stand aside if the Turkish forces move further into Syria and attack the city of Manbij, where the Kurds are allied with U.S. and French forces? And will Erdogan’s hostility to the Kurds lead to an armed clash among three NATO members?

 

Such a clash seems unlikely, although the Turks have been giving flamethrower speeches over the past several weeks. “Those who cooperate with terrorists organizations [the YPG] will be targeted by Turkey,” says Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said in a pointed reference to France’s support for the Kurds. Threatening the French is one thing, picking a fight with the U.S. military quite another.

 

Of course, if President Trump pulls U.S. forces out of Syria, it will be tempting for Turkey to move in. While the “troika alliance” has agreed to Syrian “sovereignty,” that won’t stop Ankara from meddling in Kurdish affairs. The Turks are already appointing governors and mayors for the areas in Syria they have occupied.

 

Iran’s major concern in Syria is maintaining a buffer between itself and a very aggressive alliance of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, which seems to be in the preliminary stages of planning a war against the second-largest country in the Middle East.

 

Iran is not at all the threat it has been pumped up to be. Its military is miniscule and talk of a so-called “Shiite crescent”—Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon—is pretty much a western invention (although the term was dreamed up by the King of Jordan).

 

Tehran has been weakened by crippling sanctions and faces the possibility that Washington will withdraw from the nuclear accord and re-impose yet more sanctions. The appointment of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who openly calls for regime change in Iran, has to have sent a chill down the spines of the Iranians. What Tehran needs most of all is allies who will shield it from the enmity of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia. In this regard, Turkey and Russia could be helpful.

 

Iran has modified its original goals in Syria of a Shiite-dominated regime by agreeing to a “non-sectarian character” for a post-war Syria. Erdogan has also given up on his desire for a Sunni-dominated government in Damascus.

 

War with Iran would be catastrophic, an unwinnable conflict that could destabilize the Middle East even more than it is now. It would, however, drive up the price of oil, currently running at around $66 a barrel. Saudi Arabia needs to sell its oil for at least $100 a barrel, or it will very quickly run of money. The on-going quagmire of the Yemen war, the need to diversify the economy, and the growing clamor by young Saudis—70 percent of the population—for jobs requires lots of money, and the current trends in oil pricing are not going to cover the bills.

 

War and oil make for odd bedfellows. While the Saudis are doing their best to overthrow the Assad regime and fuel the extremists fighting the Russians, Riyadh is wooing Moscow to sign onto to a long-term OPEC agreement to control oil supplies. That probably won’t happen—the Russians are fine with oil at $50 to $60 a barrel—and are wary of agreements that would restrict their right to develop new oil and gas resources. The Saudi’s jihad on the Iranians has a desperate edge to it, as well it might. The greatest threat to the Kingdom has always come from within.

 

The rocks and shoals that can wreck alliances in the Middle East are too numerous to count, and the “troika” is riven with contradictions and conflicting interests. But the war in Syria looks as if it is coming to some kind of resolution, and at this point Iran, Russia and Turkey seem to be the only actors who have a script that goes beyond lobbing cruise missiles at people.

 

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Turkey’s Coup: Winners and Losers

Turkey’s Coup: Winners & Losers

Conn Hallinan

Aug. 30, 2016

 

As the dust begins to settle from the failed Turkish coup, there appear to be some winners and losers, although predicting things in the Middle East these days is a tricky business. What is clear is that several alignments have shifted, shifts that may have an impact on the two regional running sores: the civil wars in Syria and Yemen.

 

The most obvious winner to emerge from the abortive military putsch is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogen and his campaign to transform Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to a powerful, centralized executive with himself in charge. The most obvious losers are Erdogan’s internal opposition and the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

 

Post-coup Turkish unity has conspicuously excluded the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP), even though the party condemned the July 15 coup. A recent solidarity rally in Istanbul called by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) included the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), but the HDP—the third-largest political organization in the country—was not invited.

 

The deliberate snub is part of Erdogan’s campaign to disenfranchise the HDP and force new elections that could give him the votes he needs to call a referendum on the presidency. This past June, Erdogen pushed through a bill lifting immunity for 152 parliament members, making them liable for prosecution on charges of supporting terrorism. Out of the HDP’s 59 deputies, 55 are now subject to the new law. If the HDP deputies are convicted of terrorism charges, they will be forced to resign and by elections will be held to replace them.

 

While Erdogan’s push for a powerful executive is not overwhelmingly popular with most Turks—polls show that only 38.4 percent support it –the President’s popularity jumped from 47 percent before the coup to 68 percent today. With the power of state behind him, and the nationalism generated by the ongoing war against the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast, Erdogan can probably pick up the 14 seats he needs to get the referendum.

 

The recent Turkish invasion of Syria is another front in Erdogan’s war on the Kurds. While the surge of Turkish armor and troops across the border was billed as an attack on the Islamic State’s (IS) occupation of the town of Jarablus near the Turkish border, it was in fact aimed at the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

 

According to Al Monitor, the IS had been withdrawing from the town for weeks in the face of a YPG offensive, and the Turks invaded to preempt the Kurds from taking the town. The question now will be how far south the Turks go, and whether they will get in a full-scale battle with America’s Kurdish allies? The Turkish military has already supported the Free Syrian Army in several clashes with the Kurds. Since the invasion included a substantial amount of heavy engineering equipment, the Turks may be planning to stay awhile.

 

While the YPG serves as the U.S.’s ground force in the fight against the IS, the Americans strongly backed the Turkish invasion and sharply warned the Kurds to withdraw from the west bank of the Euphrates or lose Washington’s support.

 

The Kurds in Syria are now directly threatened by Turkey, were attacked in Hasaka Province by the Syrian government, and have been sharply reprimanded by their major ally, the U.S. The Turkish Kurds are under siege from the Turkish army, and their parliamentary deputies are facing terrorism charges at the hands of the Erdogan government. The Turkish air force is also pounding the Kurds in Iraq. All in all, it was a bad couple of weeks to be Kurdish.

 

There are others winners and losers as well.

 

Erdogan has been strengthened, but most observers think Turkey has been weakened regionally and internationally. It looks as if an agreement with the European Union (EU) for money and visa free travel if Ankara blocks the waves of immigrants headed toward Europe is falling apart. The German parliament is up in arms over Erdogan’s heavy-handed repression of his internal opposition and his support for extremist groups in Syria.

 

Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian bomber last Nov. 24 has badly backfired. Russian sanctions dented the Turkish economy and Moscow poured sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons into Syria, effectively preventing any possibility of the Turks or the U.S. establishing a “no fly zone.”

 

Erdogan was also forced to write a letter of apology for the downing and trot off to St. Petersburg for a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. All were smiles and hand shakes at the Aug. 9 get-together, but the Russians have used the tension generated by the incident to advance their plans for constructing gas pipelines that would bypass Ukraine. Indeed, the EU and Turkey are now in a bidding war over whether the pipeline will go south—Turkish Stream— through Turkey and the Black Sea, or north—Nord Stream—through the Baltic Sea and into Germany.

 

Erdogan apparently has concluded that Russia and Iran have effectively blocked a military solution to the Syrian civil war, and Ankara has backed off its demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has to go before there can be any resolution of the conflict. Turkey now says Assad can be part of a transition government, pretty much the same position as the Russians take. Iran—at least for now—is more invested in keeping Assad in power.

 

Iran has also come out of this affair in a stronger position. Its strategic alliance with Russia has blocked the overthrow of Assad, Teheran’s major ally in the region, and its potential markets have the Turks wanting to play nice.

 

Any Moscow-Ankara-Tehran alliance will be a fractious one, however.

 

Turkey is still a member of NATO—it has the second largest army in the alliance—and its military is largely reliant on the U.S. for its equipment. NATO needs Turkey, although the Turks have mixed feelings about the alliance. A poll taken a year ago found only 30 percent of Turks trusted NATO. The post coup polls may be worse, because it was the pro-NATO sections of the military that were most closely tied to the putsch.

 

Iran’s Shiite government is wary of Erdogan’s ties to the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and Ankara’s close relations with Iran’s major regional nemesis, Saudi Arabia. The Russians also have a tense relationship with Iran, although Moscow played a key role in the nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Teheran, and Iran calls its ties with Russia “strategic.”

 

The Saudis look like losers in all this. They—along with Turkey, France, Britain, and most the Gulf monarchies—thought Assad would be a push over. He wasn’t, and five years later some 400,000 Syrians are dead, three million have been turned into refugees, and the war has spread into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

 

The Yemen war has predictably turned into a quagmire, and even Saudi Arabia’s allies are beginning to edge away from the human catastrophe that the conflict has inflicted on Yemen’s civilian population. The United Arab Emirates, which provided ground forces for the Saudis, is withdrawing troops, and even the U.S. has cut back on the advisors assigned to aid the kingdom’s unrestricted air war on the rebel Houthis. U.S. Defense Department spokesman Adam Stump said aid to Riyadh was not a “blank check,” and several U.S. Congress members and peace groups are trying to halt a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

 

In military terms, the Yemen war—like the Syrian war—is unwinnable, and Washington is beginning to realize that. In fact, were it not for the U.S. and British aid to the Saudis, including weapons resupply, in-air refueling of war planes, and intelligence gathering, the war would grind to a halt.

 

The Saudis are in trouble on the home front as well. Their push to overthrow Assad and the Houthis has turned into expensive stalemates at a time when oil prices are at an all-time low. The Kingdom has been forced to borrow money and curb programs aimed at dealing with widespread unemployment among young Saudis. And the Islamic State has targeted the kingdom with more than 25 attacks over the past year.

 

Ending the Yemen war would not be that difficult, starting with an end to aid for the Saudi air war. Then the UN could organize a conference of all Yemeni parties—excluding the IS and al-Qaeda—to schedule elections and create a national unity government.

 

Syria will be considerably more challenging. The Independent’s long-time Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn calls the conflict a three-dimensional chess game with nine players and no rules. But a solution is possible.

 

The outside powers—the U.S., Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Gulf monarchies—will have to stop fueling their allies with weapons and money and step back from direct involvement in the war. They will also have to accept the fact that no one can dictate to the Syrians who will rule them. That is an internal affair that will be up to the parties engaged in the civil war ( minus the IS and the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front.)

 

The Kurdish question will be central to this. The Syrian Kurds must have a place at the table regardless of Turkish opposition. The Iranians are also hostile to the Kurds because of problems with their own Kurdish population. If there is to be eventual peace in the region, Ankara will also have to end its war against the Kurds in southeast Turkey. Turkish army attacks have killed more than 700 civilians, generated 100,000 refugees, and smashed up several cities. The Kurds have been asking for negotiations and Ankara should take them up on that.

 

Erdogan has made peace with the Kurds before—even though part of the reason was a cynical ploy to snare conservative Kurdish voters for the AKP. It was also Erdogan who rekindled the war as a strategy to weaken the Kurdish-based HDP and regain the majority that the AKP lost in the June 2015 elections. The ploy largely worked, and a snap election four months later saw the HDP lose seats and the AKP win back its majority. The Turkish president, however, did not get the two-thirds he needs to schedule a referendum.

 

Erdogan is a stubborn man, and a popular one in the aftermath of the failed coup. But Turkey is vulnerable regionally and internationally, two arenas where the U.S., the EU, and the Russians can apply pressure. The hardheaded Turkish president has already backed off in his confrontation with the Russians and climbed down from his demand that Assad had to go before any serious negotiations could start.

 

If the chess masters agree to some rules they could bring these two tragic wars to a close.

 

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Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom Stumbles

A Kingdom Stumbles: Saudi Arabia

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 31, 2015

 

For the past eight decades Saudi Arabia has been careful.

 

Using its vast oil wealth, it has quietly spread its ultra-conservative brand of Islam throughout the Muslim world, secretly undermined secular regimes in its region and prudently kept to the shadows, while others did the fighting and dying. It was Saudi money that fueled the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, underwrote Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, and bankrolled Islamic movements and terrorist groups from the Caucuses to Hindu Kush.

 

Today that circumspect diplomacy is in ruins, and the House of Saud looks more vulnerable than it has since the country was founded in 1926. Unraveling the reasons for the current train wreck is a study in how easily hubris, illusion, and old-fashioned ineptness can trump even bottomless wealth.

 

The Kingdom’s first stumble was a strategic decision last fall to undermine competitors by upping oil production and, thus, lowering the price. Their reasoning was that, if the price of a barrel of oil dropped from over $100 to around $80, it would strangle competition from more expensive sources and new technologies, including the U.S. fracking industry, the arctic, and emergent producers like Brazil. That, in turn, would allow Riyadh to reclaim its shrinking share of the energy market.

 

There was also the added benefit that lower oil prices would damage countries that the Saudis didn’t like: Russia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Iran.

 

In one sense it worked. The American fracking industry is scaling back, the exploitation of Canada’s oil sands has slowed, and many arctic drillers closed up shop. And, indeed, countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Russia took a serious economic hit. But despite obvious signs, the Saudis failed to anticipate China’s economic slowdown and how that would dampen economic growth in the leading industrial nations. The price of oil went from $115 a barrel in June 2014 to $44 today. Because it is so pure, it costs less than $10 to produce a barrel of Saudi oil.

 

The Kingdom planned to use its almost $800 billion in financial reserves to ride out the drop in prices, but it figured that oil would not fall below $80 a barrel, and then only for a few months.

 

According to the Financial Times, in order to balance its budget, Saudi Arabia needs a price of between $95 and $105 a barrel. And while oil prices will likely rise over the next five years, projections are that price per barrel will only reach $65. Saudi debt is on schedule to rise from 6.7 percent of GDP this year to 17.3 percent next year, and its 2015 budget deficit is $130 billion.

 

Saudi Arabia is spending $10 billion a month in foreign exchange reserves to pay the bills and has been forced to borrow money on the international financial market. Two weeks ago the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) regional director, Masood Ahmed, warned Riyadh that the country would deplete its financial reserves in five years unless it drastically cut its budget.

 

But the Kingdom can’t do that.

 

When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, the Saudi Arabia headed it off by pumping $130 billion into the economy, raising wages, improving services and providing jobs for its growing population. Saudi Arabia has one of the youngest populations in the Middle East, a lot of it unemployed and much of it poorly educated. Some 25 percent of the population lives in poverty. Money keeps the lid on, but for how long, even with the heavy-handed repression that characterizes Saudi political life?

 

In March, the Kingdom intervened in Yemen, launching an air war, a naval blockade, and partial ground campaign on the pretense that Iran was behind the civil war, a conclusion not even the Americans agree with.

 

Again, the Saudis miscalculated, even though one of its major allies, Pakistan, warned Riyadh that it was headed for trouble. In part, the Kingdom’s hubris was fed by the illusion that U.S. support would make it a short war—the Americans are arming the Saudis, supplying them with bombing targets, backing up the naval blockade, and refueling their warplanes in mid-air.

 

But six months down the line the conflict has turned into a stalemate. The war has killed 5,000 people, including 500 children, flattened cities, and alienated much of the local population. It has also generated a food and medical crisis, as well as creating opportunities for the IS and Al-Qaeda to seize territory in Southern Yemen. Efforts by the UN to investigate the possibility of war crimes were blocked by Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

 

As the Saudis are finding out, war is a very expensive business, a burden the Saudis could meet under normal circumstances, but not when the price the Kingdom’s only commodity, oil, is plummeting.

 

Nor is Yemen the only war that the Saudis are involved with. Riyadh, along with other Gulf monarchies, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are underwriting many of the groups trying to overthrow Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. When anti-government demonstrations broke out in 2011, the Saudis—along with the Americans and the Turks—calculated that Assad could be toppled in a few months.

 

But that was magical thinking. As bad as Assad is, a lot of Syrians, particularly minorities like Shiites, Christians, and Druze, were far more afraid of the Islamists from al-Qaeda and the IS then they were of their own government. So the war has dragged on for four years and has now killed close to 250,000 people.

 

Once again, the Saudis miscalculated, though in this case they were hardly alone. The Syrian government turned out to be more resilient that it appeared. And Riyadh’s bottom line that Assad had to go just ended up bringing Iran and Russia into the picture, checkmating any direct intervention by the anti-Assad coalition. Any attempt to establish a no-fly zone will have to confront the Russian air force, not something that anyone other than U.S. presidential aspirants are eager to do.

 

The war has also generated a flood of refugees, deeply alarming the European Union, which finally seems to be listening to Moscow’s point about the consequences of overthrowing governments without a plan as to who takes over. There is nothing like millions of refugees headed in your direction to cause some serious re-thinking of strategic goals.

 

The Saudis goal of isolating Iran is rapidly collapsing. The P5+1—The U.S., China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany—successfully completed a nuclear agreement with Teheran, despite every effort by the Saudis and Israel to torpedo it. And at Moscow’s insistence, Washington has reversed its opposition to Iran being included in peace talks around Syria.

 

Stymied in Syria, mired down in Yemen, its finances increasingly fragile, the Kingdom also faces internal unrest from its long marginalized Shiia minority in the country’s east and south. To top it off, the IS has called for the “liberation” of Mecca from the House of Saud and launched a bombing campaign aimed at the Kingdom’s Shiites.

 

Last month’s Hajj disaster that killed more than 2100 pilgrims—and anger at the Saudi authorities foot dragging on investigating the tragedy—have added to the royal family’s woes. The Saudi’s claim 769 people were killed, a figure that no other country in the world accepts. And there are persistent rumors that the deadly stampede was caused when police blocked off an area in order to allow high-ranking Saudis special access to the holy sites.

 

Some of these missteps can be laid at the feet of the new king, Salman bin Abud-Aziz Al Saud, and of a younger generation of aggressive Saudis he has appointed to key positions. But Saudi Arabia’s troubles are also a reflection of a Middle East in transition. Exactly where that it is headed is by no means clear, but change is in the wind.

 

Iran is breaking out of its isolation and, with its large, well-educated population, strong industrial base, and plentiful energy resources, is poised to play a major regional, if not international, role. Turkey is in the midst of a political upheaval, and there is growing opposition among Turks to Ankara’s meddling in the Syrian civil war

 

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is impaled on its own policies, both foreign and domestic. “The expensive social contract between the Royal family and Saudi citizens will get more difficult, and eventually impossible to sustain if oil prices don’t recover,” Meghan L. O’Sullivan, director of the Geopolitics of Energy project at Harvard told the New York Times.

 

However, the House of Saud has little choice but to keep pumping oil to pay for its wars and keep the internal peace. But more production drives down prices even further, and, once the sanctions come off of Iran, the oil glut will become worse.

 

While it is still immensely wealthy, there are lots of bills coming due. It is not clear the Kingdom has the capital or the ability to meet them.

 

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