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Iran: The Drift Toward War

Edging Toward War With Iran?

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 1, 2019

 

 

Keeping track of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is like trying to track a cat on a hot tin roof: We’re pulling out of Syria (not right away). We’re leaving Afghanistan (sometime in the future). Mexico is going to pay for a wall (no, it isn’t). Saudi Arabia, Russia, the European Union, China, Turkey, North Korea—one day, friends, another day, foes. Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to tell who’s on first.

 

Except for Iran, where a policy of studied hostility has been consistent from the beginning. Late last year, National Security Advisor John Bolton pressed the Pentagon to produce options for attacking Iran, and he has long advocated for military strikes and regime change in Teheran. And now, because of a recent internal policy review on the effect of US sanctions, Washington may be is drifting closer to war.

 

According to “On Thin Ice,” a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), the Trump administration has concluded that its “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions has largely failed to meet any of the White House’s “goals” of forcing Iran to re-negotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement or alter its policies in the Middle East.

 

While the sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy, the Iranians have proved to be far more nimble in dodging them than Washington allowed for. And because the sanctions were unilaterally imposed, there are countries willing to look for ways to avoid them.

 

“If you look at the range of ultimate objectives” of the administration, from encouraging “protests that pose an existential threat to the system, to change of behavior, to coming back to the negotiating table, none of that is happening,” Ali Vaez of the ICG’s Iran Project, told Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor.

 

That should hardly come as a shock. Sanctions rarely achieve their goals and virtually never when they are imposed by one country, even one as powerful as the US. More than 50 years of sanctions aimed at Cuba failed to bring about regime change, and those currently aimed at Russia have had little effect beyond increasing tensions in Europe.

 

This time around, the US is pretty much alone. While the Trump administration is preparing to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the European Union (EU) is lobbying Iran to stay in the pact. Russia, China, Turkey and India have also made it clear that they will not abide by the US trade sanctions, and the EU is setting up a plan to avoid using dollars.

 

But the failure of the White House’s sanctions creates its own dangers because this is not an American administration that easily accepts defeat. On top of that, there is a window of opportunity for striking Iran that will close in a year, making an attack more complicated.

 

The nuclear agreement imposed an arms embargo on Iran, but if Teheran stays in the agreement, that embargo will lift in 2020, allowing the Iranians to buy weapons on the international market. Beefing up Iran’s arms arsenal would not do much to dissuade the US, but it might give pause to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE), two of Teheran’s most implacable enemies.

 

It is not clear who would be part of a coalition attack on Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would almost certainly be involved, but that pair hardly has the Iranians quaking in their boots. The rag-tag Houthi army has fought the two Gulf monarchies to a standstill in Yemen, in spite of not having any anti-aircraft to challenge the Saudi air war.

 

Iran is a different matter. Its Russian built S-300 anti-aircraft system might not discomfort the US and the Israelis, but Saudi and UAE pilots could be at serious risk. Once the embargo is lifted, Iran could augment its S-300 with planes and other anti-aircraft systems that might make an air war like the one the Gulf monarchs are waging in Yemen very expensive.

 

Of course, if the US and/or Israel join in, Iran will be hard pressed. But as belligerent as Bolton and the Israeli government are toward Iran, would they initiate or join a war?

 

Such a war would be unpopular in the US. Some 63 percent of Americans oppose withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and by a margin of more than two to one, oppose a war with Iran. While 53 percent oppose such a war—37 percent strongly so—only 23 percent would support a war with Iran. And, of those, only 9 percent strongly support such a war.

 

The year 2020 is also the next round of US elections where control of the Senate and the White House will be in play. While wars tend to rally people to the flag, the polls suggest a war with Iran is not likely to do that. The US would be virtually alone internationally, and Saudi Arabia is hardly on the list of most American’s favorite allies.

 

And it is not even a certain that Israel would join in, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Iran an “existential threat.” Polls show that the Israeli public is hardly enthusiastic about a war with Iran, particularly if the US is not involved.

 

The Israeli military is more than willing to take on Iranian forces in Syria, but a long-distance air war would get complicated. Iraq and Lebanon would try to block Israel from using their airspace to attack Iran, as would Turkey. The first two countries might not be able to do much to stop the Israelis, but flying over a hostile country is always tricky, particularly if you have to do it for an extended period of time. And anyone who thinks the Iranians are going to toss in the towel is delusional.

 

Of course Israel has other ways to strike Iran, including cruise missiles deployed on submarines and surface craft. But you can’t win a war with cruise missiles, you just blow a lot of things up.

 

There are deep fissures among the Gulf monarchs. Qatar has already said that it will have nothing to do with an attack on Iran, and Oman is neutral. Kuwait has signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey because the former is more worried about Saudi Arabia than it is Iran, and with good reason.

 

A meeting last September of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emir Sabah Al-Sabah of Kuwait to discuss problems between the two countries apparently went badly. The two countries are in a dispute over who should exploit their common oil fields at Khafji and Wafra, and the Saudis unilaterally stopped production. The Kuwaitis say they lost $18 billion revenues and want compensation.

 

The bad blood between the two countries goes back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, when Saudi Arabia refused to accept the borders that the British drew for Kuwait and instead declared war. In 1922 the border was re-drawn with two-thirds of Kuwait’s territory going to Saudi Arabia.

 

Lebanese legal scholar, Ali Mourad, told Al-Monitor that Kuwait has tightened its ties to Turkey because “they are truly afraid of a Saudi invasion,” especially given “the blank check Trump has issued” to Prince Salman.

 

Whether Kuwait’s embrace of Turkey will serve as a check on the Saudis is uncertain. Prince Salman has made several ill-considered moves in the region, from trying to overthrow the government of Lebanon, blockading Qatar, to starting a war with Yemen. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are currently at odds over the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, probably the only thing that the Saudi princes hate more than Iran.

 

Would—or could—Ankara really defend Kuwait from a Saudi attack? Turkey is currently bogged down in Northern Syria, at war with its own Kurdish population, and facing what looks like a punishing recession. Its army is the second largest in NATO, and generally well armed, but it has been partly hollowed out by purges following the 2015 coup attempt.

 

So is US National Security Advisor Bolton just blowing smoke when he talks about regime change in Iran? Possibly, but it is a good idea to take the neo-conservatives at their word. The US will try to get Iran to withdraw from the nuclear pact by aggressively tightening the sanctions. If Teheran takes the bait, Washington will claim the legal right to attack Iran.

 

Bolton and the people around him engineered the catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq (the Obama administration gets the blame for Libya and Yemen), and knocking out Iran has been their long time goal. If they pull it off, the US will ignite yet another forever war.

 

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Iran & Sanctions: A Prelude to War?

Iran: Sanctions & War

Dispatches From The Edge

May 29, 2018

 

The question is: has the Trump administration already made a decision to go to war with Iran, similar to the determination of the Bush administration to invade Iraq in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington?

 

Predictions are dicey things, and few human institutions are more uncertain than war. But several developments have come together to suggest that the rationale for using sanctions to force a re-negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is cover for an eventual military assault by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia aimed at regime change in Teheran.

 

As clueless as the Trump administration is on foreign policy, the people around the White House—in particular National Security Advisor John Bolton—know that sanctions rarely produce results, and unilateral ones almost always fail.

 

Sanctions aimed at Cuba, North Korea, Iraq and Libya did not dislodge any of those regimes and, in the case of North Korea, spurred Pyongyang into producing nuclear weapons. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi were eventually overthrown, but by American firepower, not sanctions.

 

The only case in which sanctions produced some results were those applied to Iran from 2010 to 2015. But that embargo was multi-lateral and included China, India, and one of Iran’s major customers, the European Union (EU). When the U.S. unilaterally applied sanctions to Cuba, Iran and Libya in 1996, the move was a conspicuous failure.

 

This time around, the White House has made no effort to involve other countries. The Trump plan is to use the power of the American economy to strong-arm nations into line. Back our sanctions, threatens the administration, or lose access to the US market. And given that the world uses the dollar as its de-facto international currency, financial institutions may find themselves barred from using the Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunications (SWIFT), the American-controlled network that allows banks and finance centers to transfer money from country to county.

 

Those threats have not exactly panicked the rest of the world. China and India, which between them buy more than 1 million of Iran’s 2.1 million barrels per day production, say they will ignore the sanctions. According to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign affairs minister, “The European Union is determined to act in accordance with its security interests and protect its economic investments.”

 

Adding up all the countries that will go along with the sanctions—including South Korea and Japan–will cut Teheran’s oil exports by 10% to 15%, nothing like the 50% plus that Iran lost under the prior sanctions regime.

 

In short, the sanctions won’t work, but were they really meant to?

 

It is possible that the White House somehow thinks they will—delusion is a characteristic of the Oval Office these days—but other developments suggest the administration is already putting in place a plan that will lead from economic sanctions to bombing runs.

 

For starters, there is the close coordination between the White House and Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s April 30 speech shortly before Trump withdrew from the Iran agreement was tailored to give Washington a casus belli to dump the agreement. Virtually all of what Netanyahu “revealed” about the Iranian nuclear program was old news, already known by US, Israeli and European intelligence services.

 

Four days before Netanyahu’s speech Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met with his American counterparts and, according to Al Monitor, got a “green light” for any military action Tel Aviv might take against Iran.

 

The same day Liberman was meeting with the Pentagon, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Saudi Arabia to end its campaign against Qatar because the Americans wanted the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to be united around a campaign against Iran.

 

Each of these moves seems calculated to set the stage for a direct confrontation with Iran involving some combination of the US, Israel and the two most aggressive members of the GCC, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The latter two are currently waging war on the Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen.

 

It is almost impossible to imagine what the consequences of such a war might be. On paper, it looks like a cakewalk for the anti-Teheran axis. Iran has an antiquated air force, a bunch of fast speedboats and tanks that date back to the 1960s. The military budgets of the US, Israel and the GCC are more than 58 times those of Iran. But, as the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz once remarked, the only thing one can determine in war is who fires the first shot.

 

Military might does not translate into an automatic win. After almost 17 years of war, the US is still bogged down in Afghanistan, and it basically left Iraq with its tail between its legs. Indeed, the last time the American military won a war was in Grenada. As for the GCC, in spite of more than two years of relentless warfare in Yemen, the monarchs are no nearer victory than they were when the war started. And Hezbollah fought Israel to a stalemate in 2006.

 

While Iran does not have much in the way of military force, it has 80 million people with a strong streak of nationalism who would certainly unite against any attacker. It would be impossible to “win” a war against Iran without resorting to a ground invasion.

 

But none of Iran’s antagonists have the capacity to carry that out. The Saudis have a dismal military record, and the UAE troops are stalemated in their campaign to take Yemen’s capital, Saana from the rag-tag Houthi militia. The Israelis don’t have the troops—and, in any case, would never put them in harm’s way so far from home—and the Americans are not about to send in the Marines.

 

Most likely this would be a war of aircraft and missiles to destroy Iran’s military and civilian infrastructure. There is little that Teheran can do to stop such an assault. Any planes it put up would be toast, its anti-aircraft weapons are obsolete, and its navy would not last long.

 

But flattening Teheran’s military is not winning a war, and Iran has other ways to strike back. The Iranians, for instance, have shown considerable skill at asymmetric warfare in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and it does have missiles.

 

The real damage, however, will be the fallout from the war. The price of oil is already on the rise, and hostilities in the middle of one of the world’s largest petroleum repositories will likely send it through the roof. While that will be good for the GCC, high oil prices will put a dent into the economies of the EU, China, India, and even the US.

 

What a war will almost certainly do is re-ignite Iran’s push to build a nuclear weapon. If that happens, Saudi Arabia will follow, and the world will be faced with several new nuclear powers in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

 

Which doesn’t mean war is inevitable.

 

The Trump administration hawks broke the JCPOA because they hoped Iran would then withdraw as well, giving the anti-Iranian axis an excuse to launch a war. Iranians are divided on this issue, with some demanding that Teheran re-start its uranium enrichment program, while others defend the agreement. Europe can play a key role here by firmly supporting the Joint Agreement and resisting the American sanctions, even if it means taking a financial hit. Some European firms, however, have already announced they are withdrawing their investments.

 

The US Congress can also help stop a war, although it will require members—mostly Democrats—to put aside their anti-Iranian bias and make common cause with the “stay in the pact” Iranians. This is a popular issue. A CNN poll found that 63 percent of Americans opposed withdrawing from the agreement.

 

It will also mean that the Congress—again, mainly Democrats—will have to challenge the role that Israel is playing. That will not be easy, but maybe not as difficult as it has been in the past. Israel’s brutality against Palestinians over the past month has won no friends except in the White House and the evangelical circuit, and Netanyahu has made it clear that he prefers Republicans to Democrats.

 

Lastly, Congress should cut the arms pipeline to the GCC and stop aiding the Saudis in their war on Yemen

 

If war comes, Americans will find themselves in the middle of an unwinnable conflict that will destabilize the Middle East and the world’s economy, and pour more of this country’s resources into yet another quagmire.

 

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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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The Tortured Politics behind the Persian Gulf Crisis

Middle East Chaos

Dispatches From The Edge

June 14, 2017

 

 

The splintering of the powerful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into warring camps—with Qatar, supported by Turkey and Iran, on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), supported by Egypt, on the other—has less to do with disagreements over foreign policy and religion than with internal political and economic developments in the Middle East. The ostensible rationale the GCC gave on June 4 for breaking relations with Qatar and placing the tiny country under a blockade is that Doha is aiding “terrorist’ organizations. The real reasons are considerably more complex, particularly among the major players.

 

Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn once described the Syrian civil war as a three-dimensional chess game with five players and no rules. In the case of the Qatar crisis, the players have doubled and abandoned the symmetry of the chessboard for “Go,” Mahjong, and Bridge.

 

Tensions among members of the GCC are longstanding. In the case of Qatar, they date back to 1995, when the father of the current ruler, Emir Tamin Al Thani, shoved his own father out of power. According Simon Henderson to of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE “regarded the family coup as a dangerous precedent to Gulf ruling families” and tried to organize a counter coup. The coup was exposed, however, and called off.

 

Riyadh is demanding that Qatar sever relations with Iran—an improbable outcome given that the two countries share a natural gas field in the Persian Gulf—and end Doha’s cozy ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, if there is any entity in the Middle East that the Saudis hate—and fear—more than Iran, it is the Brotherhood. Riyadh was instrumental in the 2013 overthrow of the Brotherhood government in Egypt and has allied itself with the Israelis to marginalize Hamas, the Palestinian version of the Brotherhood that dominates Gaza.

 

But fault lines in the GCC do not run only between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Oman, at the Gulf’s mouth, has always marched to its own drummer, maintaining close ties with Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis, Iran, and refusing to go along with Riyadh’s war against the Houthi in Yemen. Kuwait has also balked at Saudi dominance of the GCC, has refused to join the blockade against Doha, and is trying to play mediator in the current crisis.

 

The siege of Qatar was launched shortly after Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, when the Saudi’s put on a show for the U.S. President that was over the top even by the monarchy’s standards. Wooed with massive billboards and garish sword dances, Trump soaked up the Saudi’s view of the Middle East, attacked Iran as a supporter of terrorism and apparently green-lighted the blockade of Qatar. He even tried to take credit for it.

 

Saudi Arabia, backed by Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE, along with a cast of minor players, made 13 demands on Doha that it could only meet by abandoning its sovereignty. They range from the impossible—end all contacts with Iran—to the improbable—close the Turkish base—to the unlikely—dismantle the popular and lucrative media giant, Al Jazeera. The “terrorists” Doha is accused of supporting are the Brotherhood, which the Saudi’s and the Egyptians consider a terrorist organization, an opinion not shared by the U.S. or the European Union.

 

On the surface this is about Sunni Saudi Arabia vs. Shiite Iran, but while religious differences do play an important role in recruiting and motivating some of the players, this is not a battle over a schism in Islam. Most importantly, it is not about “terrorism,” since many of the countries involved are up to their elbows in supporting extremist organizations. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s reactionary Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is the root ideology for groups like the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, and all the parties are backing a variety of extremists in Syria and Libya’s civil wars.

 

The attack on Qatar is part of Saudi Arabia’s aggressive new foreign policy that is being led by Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman. Since being declared “monarch-in-waiting” by King Salman Al Saud, Mohammed has launched a disastrous war in Yemen that has killed more than 10,000 civilians, sparked a country-wide cholera epidemic, and drains at least $700 million a month from Saudi Arabia’s treasury. Given the depressed price for oil and a growing population—70 percent of which is under 30 and much of it unemployed—it is not a cost the monarchy can continue to sustain, especially with the Saudi economy falling into recession.

 

Underlying the Saudi’s new-found aggression is fear. First, fear that the kind of Islamic governance modeled by the Muslim Brotherhood poses a threat to the absolutism of the Gulf monarchs. Fear that Iran’s nuclear pact with the U.S., the EU and the UN is allowing Tehran to break out of its economic isolation and turn itself into a rival power center in the Middle East. And fear that anything but a united front by the GCC—led by Riyadh—will encourage the House of Saud’s internal and external critics.

 

So far, the attempt to blockade Qatar has been more an annoyance than a serious threat to Doha. Turkey and Iran are pouring supplies into Qatar, and the Turks are deploying up to 1,000 troops at a base near the capital. There are also some 10,000 U.S. troops at Qatar’s Al Udeid Airfield, Washington’s largest base in the Middle East and one central to the war on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Any invasion aimed at overthrowing the Qatar regime risks a clash with Turkey and the U.S.

 

While Egypt is part of the anti-Qatari alliance—the Egyptians are angry at Doha for not supporting Cairo’s side in the Libyan civil war, and the Egyptian regime also hates the Brotherhood—it is hardly an enthusiastic ally. Saudi Arabia keeps Egypt’s economy afloat, and so long as the Riyadh keeps writing checks, Cairo is on board. But Egypt is keeping the Yemen war at arm’s length—it flat out refused to contribute troops and is not comfortable with Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam. Cairo is currently in a nasty fight with its own Wahhabist-inspired extremists. Egypt also maintains diplomatic relations with Iran.

 

Besides the UAE, the other Saud allies don’t count for much in this fight. Sudan will send troops—if Riyadh pays for them—but not very many. Bahrain is on board, but only because the Saudi and UAE armies are sitting on local Shiite opposition. Yemen and Libya are part of the anti-Qatar alliance, but both are essentially failed states. And while the Maldives is a nice place to vacation, it doesn’t have a lot of weight to throw around.

 

On the other hand, long-time Saudi ally Pakistan has made it clear it is not part of this blockade, nor will it break with Qatar or downgrade relations with Iran. When Riyadh asked for Pakistan troops in Yemen, the national parliament voted unanimously to have nothing to do with Riyadh’s jihad on the poorest country in the Middle East.

 

The largely Muslim nations of Malaysia and Indonesia are also maintaining relations with Qatar, and Saudi ally Morocco offered to send food to Doha. In brief, it is not clear who is more isolated here.

 

While President Trump supports the Saudis, his Defense Department and State Department are working to resolve the crisis. U.S. Sec. of State Rex Tillerson just finished a trip to the Gulf in an effort to end the blockade, and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee is threatening to hold up arms sales to Riyadh unless the dispute is resolved. The latter is no minor threat. Saudi Arabia would have serious difficulties carrying out the war in Yemen without U.S. weaponry.

 

And the reverse of the coin?

 

Doha’s allies have a variety of agendas, not all of which mesh.

 

Iran has correct, but hardly warm, relations with Qatar. Both countries need to cooperate to exploit the South Pars gas field, and Tehran appreciated that Doha was always a reluctant member of the anti-Iran coalition, telling the U.S. it could not use Qatari bases to attack Iran.

 

Iran is certainly interested in anything that divides the GCC. The Iranians would also like Qatar to invest in upgrading Iran’s energy industry and maybe cutting them in on the $177 billion in construction projects that Doha is lining up in preparation for hosting the 2022 World Cup Games. Also, some 30,000 Iranians live in Qatar.

 

Figuring out Turkey these days can reduce one to reading tea leaves.

 

On one hand, Ankara’s support for Qatar seems obvious. Qatar backs the Brotherhood, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is a Turkish variety of the Brotherhood, albeit one focused more on power than ideology. Erdogan was a strong supporter of the Egyptian Brotherhood and relations between Cairo and Ankara went into the deep freeze when Egypt’s military overthrew the Islamist organization.

 

Qatar is also an important source of finances for Ankara, whose fragile economy needs every bit of help it can get. Turkey’s large construction industry would like to land some of the multi-billion construction contracts the World Cup games will generate. Turkish construction projects in Qatar already amount to $13.7 billion.

 

On the other hand, Turkey is also trying to woo Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies for their investments. Erdogan even joined in the GCC’s attacks on Iran last spring, accusing Tehran of “Persian nationalist expansion,” a comment that distressed Turkey’s business community. As the sanctions on Iran ease, Turkish firms see that country’s big, well-educated population as a potential gold mine.

 

The Turkish President has since turned down the anti-Iran rhetoric, and Ankara and Tehran have been consulting over the Qatar crisis. The first supportive phone call Erdogan took during the attempted coup last year was from Qatar’s emir, and the prickly Turkish President has not forgotten that some other GCC members were silent for several days. Erdogan recently suggested that the UAE had a hand in the coup.

 

Is this personal for Turkey’s president? No, but Erdogan is the Middle East leader who most resembles Donald Trump: he shoots from the hip and holds grudges. The difference is that he is far smarter and better informed than the U.S. President and knows when to cut his losses.

 

His apology to the Russians after shooting down one of their fighter-bombers is a case in point. Erdogan first threatened Moscow with war, but eventually trotted off to St. Petersburg, hat in hand, to make nice with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And after hinting that the Americans were behind the 2016 coup, he recently met with Tillerson in Istanbul to smooth things out. Turkey recognizes that it will need Moscow and Washington to settle the war in Syria.

 

The Russians have been carefully neutral, consulted with Turkey and Iran, and have called on all parties to peacefully resolve their differences.

 

There is not likely to be a quick end to the Qatar crisis, because Saudi Arabia keeps doubling down on one disastrous foreign policy decision after another, including breaking up the Arab world’s only viable economic bloc. But there are developments in the region that may eventually force Riyadh to back off.

 

The Syrian War looks like it is headed for a solution, although the outcome is anything but certain. The Yemen War has reached crisis proportions—the UN describes it as the number one human emergency on the globe—and pressure is growing for the U.S. and Britain to wind down their support for the Saudi alliance. And Iran is slowly but steadily reclaiming its role as a leading force in the Middle East and Central Asia.

 

There is much that could go wrong. There could be a disastrous war with Iran, currently being pushed by Saudi Arabia, Israel and neo-conservatives in the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. and Turkey could fall out over Syria. The Middle East is an easy place to get into trouble. But if there are dangers, so too are there possibilities, and from those spring hope.

 

 

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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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Middle East Plots

Middle East: Dark Plots Afoot?

Dispatches From The Edge

June 8, 2015

 

A quiet meeting this past March in Saudi Arabia, and a recent anonymous leak from the Israeli military, set the stage for what may be a new and wider war in the Middle East.

 

Gathering in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh were Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, newly crowned Saudi King Salman, and the organizer of the get-together, the emir of Qatar. The meeting was an opportunity for Turkey and the Saudis to bury a hatchet over Ankara’s support — which Riyadh’s opposes — to the Muslim Brotherhood, and to agree to cooperate in overthrowing the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

 

Taking Aim at Assad

 

The pact prioritized the defeat of the Damascus regime over the threat posed by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and aims to checkmate Iranian influence in the region. However, the Turks and the Saudis are not quite on the same page when it comes to Iran: Turkey sees future business opportunities when the sanctions against Teheran end, while Riyadh sees Iran as nothing but a major regional rival.

 

The Turkish-Saudi axis means that Turkish weapons, bomb making supplies, and intelligence, accompanied by lots of Saudi money, are openly flowing to extremist groups like the al-Qaeda associated Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, both now united in the so-called “Army of Conquest.”

 

The new alliance has created a certain amount of friction with the United States, which would also like to overthrow Assad but for the time being is focused on attacking the Islamic State and on inking a nuclear agreement with Iran. This could change, however, because the Obama administration is divided on how deeply it wants to get entangled in Syria. If Washington decides to supply anti-aircraft weapons to the Army of Conquest, it will mean the United States as thrown in its lot with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and that the “war on terror” is taking a backseat to regime change in Syria.

 

Not that the Americans are overly concerned about aiding and abetting Islamic extremists. While the U.S. is bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration is also training Syrians to overthrow Assad, which objectively puts them in the extremist camp vis-à-vis the Damascus regime. Washington is also aiding the Saudis’ war on the Houthis in Yemen. Yet the Houthis are the most effective Yemeni opponents of the Islamic State and the group called Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, against which the United States is waging a drone war.

 

The Turkish-Saudi alliance seems to have already made a difference in the Syrian civil war. After some initial successes last year against divided opponents, the Syrian government has suffered some sharp defeats in the past few months and appears to be regrouping to defend its base of support in the coastal regions and the cities of Homs, Hama, and Damascus. While the Syrian government has lost over half of the country to the insurgents, it still controls up to 60 percent of the population.

 

Turkey has long been a major conduit for weapons, supplies, and fighters for the anti-Assad forces, and Saudi Arabia and most of its allies in the Gulf Coordination Council, representing the monarchies of the Middle East, have funneled money to the insurgents. But Saudi Arabia has always viewed the Muslim Brotherhood — which has a significant presence in Syria and in countries throughout the region— as a threat to its own monarchy.

 

The fact that Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party is an offshoot of the Brotherhood has caused friction with the Saudis. For instance, while Turkey denounced the military coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, Saudi Arabia essentially bankrolled the takeover and continues to bail Cairo out of economic trouble.

 

But all that was water under the bridge when it came to getting rid of Assad. The Turks and the Saudis have established a joint command center in the newly conquered Syrian province of Idlib and have begun pulling the kaleidoscope of Assad opponents into a cohesive force.

 

A War on Hezbollah?

 

Three years of civil war has whittled the Syrian Army from 250,000 in 2011 to around 125,000 today, but Damascus is bolstered by Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters. The Lebanese Shiite organization that fought Israel to a draw in 2006 is among the Assad regime’s most competent forces.

 

Which is where the Israeli leak comes in.

 

The timing of the story — published on May 12 in The New York Times — was certainly odd, as was the prominence given a story based entirely on unnamed “senior Israeli officials.” If the source was obscured, the message was clear: “We will hit Hezbollah hard, while making every effort to limit civilian casualties as much as we can,” the official said. But “we do not intend to stand by helplessly in the face of rocket attacks.”

 

The essence of the article was that Hezbollah is using civilians as shields in southern Lebanon, and the Israelis intended to blast the group regardless of whether civilians are present or not.

 

This is hardly breaking news. The Israeli military made exactly the same claim in its 2008-09 “Cast Lead” attack on Gaza and again in last year’s “Protective Edge” assault on the same embattled strip. It is currently under investigation by the United Nations for possible war crimes involving the targeting of civilians.

 

Nor is it the first time Israel has said the same thing about Hezbollah in Lebanon. In his Salon article entitled “The ‘hiding among civilians’ myth,” Beirut-based writer and photographer Mitch Prothero found that “This claim [of hiding among civilians] is almost always false.” Indeed, says Prothero, Hezbollah fighters avoid mingling with civilians because they know “they will sooner or later be betrayed by collaborators — as so many Palestinian militants have been.”

 

But why is the Israeli military talking about a war with Lebanon? The border is quiet. There have been a few incidents, but nothing major. Hezbollah has made it clear that it has no intention of starting a war, though it warns Tel Aviv that it’s quite capable of fighting one. The most likely answer is that the Israelis are coordinating their actions with Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

 

Tel Aviv has essentially formed a de facto alliance with Riyadh to block a nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany. Israel is also supporting Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen and has an informal agreement with Riyadh and Ankara to back the anti-Assad forces in Syria.

 

Israel is taking wounded Nusra Front fighters across the southern Syrian border for medical treatment. It’s also bombed Syrian forces in the Golan Heights. In one incident, it killed several Hezbollah members and an Iranian general advising the Syrian government.

 

The Realm of Uncertainty

 

The Saudis have pushed the argument that Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are really about Iranian expansionism and the age-old clash between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Hezbollah is indeed a Shiite organization, and the majority of Iraqis are also members of the sect. Assad’s regime is closely associated with the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiism, and the Houthis in Yemen are a variety of the sect as well.

 

However, the wars in the Middle East are about secular power, not divine authority — although sectarian division is a useful recruiting device. As for “Iranian aggression,” it was the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States, that started the modern round of Sunni-Shiite bloodletting when Iraq invaded Iran in 1981.

 

If the Israeli Army attacks southern Lebanon, Hezbollah will be forced to bring some of its troops home from Syria, thus weakening the Syrian Army at a time when it’s already hard pressed by newly united rebel forces. In short, it would be a two-front war that would tie down Hezbollah, smash up southern Lebanon, and lead to the possible collapse of the Assad regime.

 

As Karl von Clausewitz once noted, however, war is the realm of uncertainty. All that one can really determine is who fires the first shot. That the Israelis can pulverize scores of villages in southern Lebanon and kill lots of Shiites, there is no question. They’ve done it before. But a ground invasion may be very expensive, and the idea that they could “defeat” Hezbollah is a pipe dream. Shiites make up 40 percent of Lebanon’s ethnic mélange and dominate the country’s south. Hezbollah has support among other communities as well, in part because they successfully resisted the 1982-2000 Israeli occupation and bloodied Tel Aviv in the 2006 invasion.

 

An Israeli attack on Hezbollah, however, would almost certainly re-ignite Lebanon’s civil war, while bolstering the power of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The Turks might think that al-Qaeda is no threat to them, but recent history should give them pause.

 

Creating something like the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan and the anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya is not terribly difficult. Controlling them is altogether another matter.

 

“It Always Seems to Blow Back”

 

“Every power in the Middle East has tried to harness the power of the Islamists to their own end,” says Joshua Landis, director of Middle Eastern Studies at Oklahoma University, but “it always seems to blow back.”

 

The Afghan Mujahedeen created the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the U.S. invasion of Iraq spawned the Islamic State, and Libya has collapsed into a safe haven for radical Islamic groups. Erdogan may think the Justice and Development Party’s Islamic credentials will shield Turkey from a Syrian ricochet, but many of these groups consider Erdogan an apostate for playing democratic politics in secular institutions.

 

Indeed, up to 5,000 Turkish young people have volunteered to fight in Syria and Iraq. Eventually they will take the skills and ideology they learned on the battlefield back to Turkey, and Erdogan may come to regret his fixation with overthrowing Assad.

 

While it hard to imagine a Middle East more chaotic than it is today, if the Army of Conquest succeeds in overthrowing the Assad government, and Israel attacks Lebanon, “chaos” will be an understatement.

 

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