Following the decision of US President Trump to withdraw forces from Syria, I penned an op-ed for The Globe and Mail, Canada's leading daily.
Around 100 years ago, the Arab Middle East was carved into spheres of influence by Britain and France, the imperial powers of the day. In the period after the First World War, the only country strong enough to challenge the two was the United States – but while it managed to insist that League of Nations mandates be established for Syria, Palestine and Iraq, the United States declined to join the League itself, turning instead toward isolationism. Washington declined to take control of a mandate, and allowed the colonial powers to dominate the region. It wouldn’t be until after the Second World War that the United States would assert its influence in the Middle East, and it carried that out through regional alliances with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and, until 1979, Iran.
Looking at history is instructive, not just to reaffirm that this is all in the past now, and even more so after Donald Trump’s surprise and abrupt decision to send the 2,000 U.S. special forces stationed in Syria home because he felt the war against the Islamic State was complete. But it also provides the context that actually, this is well-charted territory. By exiting the country, the United States is effectively allowing Syria to be divided up again, but this time by the region’s new non-Arab imperialists – namely Iran, Turkey and Russia.
Iran has a long imperial history dating back to the Achaemenid Empire. Even after the demise of the Qajar dynasty and the ascendancy of the Pahlavi dynasty of the late Shah, Iran considered itself to be a regional superpower. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Islamic Republic set up regional proxies in places such as Lebanon – where Iran funds the powerful military and political force Hezbollah, through which the regime props up the Assad government – and Yemen, where Iran arms the Houthi rebels contributing to the prolonging of the country’s bloody civil war. Tehran also wields considerable influence over Iraq through its links with Shia militias and politicians, while Iran’s Quds Force, an elite branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is believed to be active in Syria, along with an array of Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting for the Assad regime. Iran has also set up military bases in Syria to entrench its position permanently.
U.S. forces were a check on Iranian influence in Syria. Tehran will now relish the opportunity to expand its influence in Syria and beyond.
Turkey is also looking upon that power vacuum with interest. Turkish politicians, most especially the country’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seek to emulate their imperial Ottoman forefathers. Not only does Turkey dominate the Kurdistan Region of Iraq economically and politically, but the government has also established military bases in Qatar and Somalia while leasing an island from Sudanlocated strategically on the Red Sea, which Turkey claims to be developing into a tourist hub.
In the case of Syria, Turkey has launched two interventions. The first was the 2016-17 Operation Euphrates Shield, in which Turkish special forces supported the Free Syrian Army in its march to capture the northern Syrian city of al-Bab. The second intervention took place earlier this year when the Free Syrian Army, again backed by Turkey, invaded and took control of the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin. In both incidents, the primary foe was the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that Turkey claims is affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a separatist war against the Turkish state since the 1980s. The YPG, however, is also the dominant party within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the most significant partner on the ground of the international coalition against the Islamic State.
Despite Mr. Trump’s insistence that the Islamic State is defeated, the vast majority of experts beg to differ. Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw forces effectively means that the largely Kurdish SDF and YPG are being abandoned and left to the mercy of Ankara, which just last week threatened to launch another attack against those groups. If Turkey follows through on its threat – which is now a very real possibility – it will destroy the only effective indigenous force against the Islamic State and cement Turkey’s influence in Syria and the region.
And then there’s Russia. After 1917′s October Revolution, Russia’s Bolshevik leaders ended their country’s disastrous role in the First World War and forfeited any real say in the peace conferences that followed. However, a century later, Russia has managed to cement its foothold in the Middle East to an extent greater than even the heyday of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s steadfast support of the Assad regime, through measures such as prolonged military investment, has paid off. Moscow is now the indispensable arbiter in the future of Syria and has managed to win permanent influence in the region – and that only looks set to increase.
Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria enables two regional non-Arab states, with the support of Russia, to dominate Syria and the Middle East. So say goodbye to Uncle Sam – and hello to the new imperials.
This article first appeared on 21 December 2018 in The Globe and Mailand can be found here
It has been weeks since the falling out between the US and Turkey over the continued detention of pastor Andrew Brunson, a symptom of many problems between the two countries. Just to briefly recap, some of the other outstanding issues between the sides include Turkey’s anger at US support for Kurdish forces affiliated to the PKK in Syria; the violation of the Iran Sanctions Act by a Turkish state-owned bank, possibly with the full knowledge or even behest of the highest levels of the Turkish government; Turkey’s intent to purchase Russian S400 surface to air missiles; and the residence in the US of Fetullah Gulen who Ankara blames for the July 2016 attempted coup.
Despite the US sanctions which wreaked havoc on the already vulnerable Turkish economy, and the threat of more to come, Turkey is still resisting US pressure. All Ankara has to do is drop the charges against Brunson, so why is Ankara resisting so much? Why not find a face-saving measure and fall into line, just like Ankara did after tensions with Russia?
In an earlier post, I explained how Turkey and the US might overcome some of their differences. And if I can think of a way, I am sure the brilliant minds in Washington and Ankara can do better. I also wrote a post about the underlying symptoms for the breakdown of relations in which I factor Turkey’s internal security threats, Ankara’s delusions of grandeur and Turkey’s authoritarian turn. But there is an additional factor, namely, President Erdogan’s version of political Islam.
Faced with ongoing Magnitsky Act sanctions and high tariffs on aluminium and steel, as well as being excluded from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme after the passing of the 2019 defence spending bill, Turkey is experiencing a continued strain on its economy, an ongoing currency crisis and uncertainty about future military hardware. If President Erdogan truly cared about the Turkish economy, he would have appointed representatives from the business community to establish an economic advisory council, increased interest rates by guaranteeing the independence of the central bank, and, of course, immediately released American Pastor Andrew Brunson. Instead, Erdogan chose his son-in-law to be the country’s economy minister, maintained his position that high interest rates leads to inflation and pressured the central bank to reframe from raising rates. Not only did Erdogan not release Pastor Brunson, but he responded to US sanctions with some of his own, which practically amounts to a trade war against the biggest economy on Earth.
“They have their dollars but we have the Quran”, declared Erdogan, not just once but on countless occasions over the past couple of weeks. This is typical of religious fanatics everywhere; when they don’t have the answers, they double down on God. When asked about the dismal economic performance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, Ayatollah Khomeini responded that, “the revolution was not about the price of watermelons”. Indeed, how can it be when Khomeini promised that Islam was the solution? This is why Erdogan continues to resist increasing interest rates which he has described as “evil”, no doubt a reflection of Islam’s abhorrence to usury. If it is not proscribed by God, it cannot be part of the answer.
Erdogan adds that there is no need to fear, the world is bigger than the United States. Never mind the fact that the US accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s economy, Turkey, Erdogan insists, can turn to other countries for economic support and arms purchases. Qatar and Russia, or, in the case of F-35s, Turkey’s own military aviation industry (ignoring that the TF-X project, for example, is currently dependent on the expertise and intellectual property of UK firms).
It appears that President Erdogan and his sycophantic band of advisors believe the hype about America’s demise and the rise of the rest. But unlike serious observers who write about America’s inwardly looking trajectory and the rise of China and other developing nations, President Erdogan and his cohorts seem to think the time is nigh. They appear to have missed that for the time being at least, the US is still the most powerful nation on earth, and that remains the case whether we are talking about hard power, soft power, smart power or any other kind of power.
President Erdogan once commented that there is no such thing as moderate Islam. His foreign policy reflects this. President Erdogan’s government continues to support Hamas. It sides with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and sponsors a range of Islamist militants in Syria. Erdogan himself earned his political stripes with the openly Islamist Welfare Party of the one-time Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan who was anti-western to the core and talked about forming an Islamic currency and uniting the Muslim world against US and Zionist conspiracies. Although Erbakan was ousted following a military intervention, his thinking inspired a generation of Turkish Islamists, and President Erdogan was his (wayward) protégé who is beginning to act more and more like his old mentor. “The attack on our economy has absolutely no difference from attacks on our call to prayer and our flag,” Erdogan recently stated, showing his inability to separate religion from economics and international relations. Just last March, Yeni Safak, a pro-Erdogan newspaper and government mouthpiece if ever there was one, talked about creating an Islamic army of millions of soldiers to fight Israel. Erdogan didn’t distance himself from the piece. It also reflect the apparent statements of King Abdullah II of Jordan who told US congressional leaders back in 2016 that the Turkish head of state believes in a “radical Islamic solution” to conflicts in the Middle East.
Erdogan sees himself as the head of a country that leads the Muslim world. The most recent example was when President Erdogan used Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as a means to speak on behalf of the Muslim world by convening a special emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Erdogan used this pulpit to lead the Muslim world’s condemnation of the Trump Administration in the most visceral terms imaginable.
In this context, how can it be possible for Erdogan to back down against Trump? It be a setback for Erdogan’s attempt to lead the Muslim world legitimized by Turkey's Ottoman past, Islamic credentials and the Turkish president’s ability to stand up to Israel and America. Of course, the losers will be Turkey’s long-suffering population who are seeing their money devalued, their savings hurt and their businesses on the brink. But they needn’t worry, they always have God.
In my last post, I wrote about the underlying reasons for the decline of US-Turkish relations. I identified three main factors and a related forth. In brief I made the following points: 1) Turkey needs to be understood as a weak or fragile state because its internal threats are more of a priority than its external enemies, 2) Turkey considers itself to be an international power in its own right, but finds it difficult to reconcile its image of greatness with the reality that it is a medium sized power, 3) increased authoritarian rule means that the government and especially President Erdogan cannot blame shift when matters arise between Turkey and another state, 4) Turkey is no longer part of the western camp in the same way that it was before the rise of the ruling AKP.
It is far easier to identify the causes of the breakdown in US-Turkey relations than it is to find solutions. Nevertheless, I am going to give it a try. I will focus on solving the bilateral tensions associated with the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson and Turkey’s desire to purchase Russian S400s. There is a road map of sorts on the Manbij issue in northern Syria, so I will allow others to assess the efficacy of that arrangement, although I may mention it briefly.
But first, a question. With the exception of war or the threat of war, can you think of a case when a superpower power was able to make a smaller power do something which the smaller power considered detrimental to its national interest? This question was posed to me by one of my professors when I was an MA student. The answer is no. And if so, very rarely. If a country considers it against its national interest, there is little the stronger power can do. More often than not, the use or threat of force is inappropriate. Therefore, the trick is to convince the smaller power that it is in its national interest to comply with the policy of the more powerful state.
Recent reports have indicated that US and Turkish officials are in talks. The job of Washington’s officials is to convince Ankara that it is in Turkey’s national interest to release Pastor Brunson from house arrest as well as other US citizens and consular employees.
This is why the Magnitsky sanctions were a good start. Although symbolic, it demonstrated that Washington means business. Already the Turkish economy has taken a hit. The US must show that it is not going to back down, but even ready up the ante by highlighting that it is very serious about implementing additional sanctions. These new sanctions include those stipulated in the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act, which, if passed by Congress, would instruct the US directors of the World Bank International Finance Corporationand European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to vote against extending loans to Turkey. Also, the US should move ahead with legislation pertaining to the 2019 defence budget which would shut out Turkey’s involvement in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. Collectively, these are incredible tools because they pertain to both Turkey’s economic and security interests.
But there are more tools at Washington’s disposal. First, the US should not rush into a deal, but wait until Ankara feels the looming pinch of the sanctions. Time is on Washington’s side. Second, the US should make it clear in no uncertain terms that President Trump is an unpredictable figure. And just as he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he could support Congressional attempts to recognise the Armenian massacres of World War I as a genocide. Thirdly, playing to the internal security threat in Turkey, the US could kindly point out that they might not accept Turkey’s position that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria are related organisations (Washington currently insists that its support for Syrian Kurds is only through the SDF – an umbrella organisation dominated by the YPG). There are additional measures the US could take such as restricting Turkish participation in NATO operations and training exercises, reducing intelligence sharing, and taking measures against Turkey’s trade with Iran. However, I think these measures should be left off the table for now as they would do more harm than good.
The US should use the above as leverage to demand that Pastor Brunson and all other US citizens and consular officials are immediately released. But the White House can and should offer a few incentives to sweeten the deal. It could propose that it put in a word to the New York District Attorney and US court in order to allow Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive of the Turkish state owned Halkbank, who was found guilty of breaking the Iran Sanctions Act, to serve out the rest of his sentence in Turkey. Also, perhaps the Treasury could be convinced to slap Halkbank with just a medium sized fine – enough to deter other banks from violating Iranian sanctions, but not too high to hurt the Turkish economy.
As already mention, Turkey is a country where its internal security concerns are seen as more important than its external. Washington might want to play into this by offering to “look into” the activities of the Gulen movement in the US. Couched in vague terms, this will be enough for Ankara to be placated and able to publically save face, but not enough for the US to obligate itself. Also, to further sweeten the pill, Turkey could be offered an additional discount on Patriot missiles if it were to forgo the Russian S400 deal. Ankara would save billions of dollars on Russian hardware that has no compatibility with most of Turkey’s own equipment, let alone NATO’s.
Underlying all this is a message that Ankara needs to receive from Washington - it is in Turkey’s interests to be on good terms with the US and is most secure and economically prosperous when ties with the west are strong. Once this impasse is solved, the sides can move towards a transactional relationship, which, if played right, could be a harbinger of even closer ties in the future.
Once again US-Turkish relations have reached a new low. That phrase “new low” is getting a bit repetitive and overused when describing Turkey’s relations with Europe, the US and the West in general. This in itself tells us a lot.
The current crisis came after President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both tweeted that Turkey could face harsh sanctions if Ankara does not fully release Pastor Andrew Brunson, who is currently facing trial in Turkey on trumped up (no pun intended) terrorism related charges. Ankara has responded by declaring the threats “unacceptable” and is refusing to bow down to US pressure.
The sanctions that Trump and Pence have in mind are in addition to defence budget legislation which is currently being drafted in Congress and contains clauses pertaining to Turkey’s involvement of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. After the draft legislation is passed by both houses it will need a Presidential sign off. Currently the bill contains a reference to Turkey’s purchase and involvement in the F35 project, calling for Turkey’s participation to be contingent with the release of pastor Brunson and Turkey forgoing its purchase of Russian S400 surface to air missiles.
Added to this impasse is the recent victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June following simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections. The overarching power of President Erdogan, secured after a constitutional referendum last year, is now all but sealed. President Erdogan’s power is so overwhelming that excuses for not releasing Brunson such insisting that Turkish courts are independent, just doesn't fly. Arguably, such excuses never washed anyway - let’s not forget that last year Erdogan offered the US a swap, Brunson for Gulen. This led to the detention of Brunsen to be labelled by some quarters “hostage diplomacy”.
This recent crisis is the latest of many fallings out between the two former allies. Currently at least a dozen US citizens are consular employees are being held in detention. There’s also the issue of US support for Kurdish militias in Syria fighting the so called Islamic State. Ankara claims these militias are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but the Pentagon sees as an effective indigenous force against Islamic militancy. Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S400 Surface to air missiles, incompatible with NATO hardware, is an act that obviously strained ties. A purchase and deployment of such equipment risks the leaking of sensitive NATO military data to Russia. Meanwhile, Turkish banks, probably with the blessing of the country’s President, broke US led international sanctions against Iran. Plus, just recently Turkey rebuffed US efforts to enforce sanctions against the Islamic Republic, declaring that Turkey will not follow them. All of these issues alone are serious enough to strain relations for the foreseeable future. Taken together it is inevitable that relations have taken a nosedive.
In fact, relations have dipped so low that it would be foolhardy to expect that they will ever go back to how they were. Elsewhere I have recommended that the strategic component of the West’s relations with Turkey should be reconsidered. I think now more than ever that I am right. The strategy that some analysists and policy makers have recommended to either the US or European governments is continued engagement with Turkey. They believe that western countries should recognise and take steps towards meeting Ankara’s security needs while ensuring Ankara respects their own security concerns. Meanwhile, the argument goes, the sides should work towards greater cooperation in fields outside of the strategic dimension. This may have been sound policy advice a while ago, but quite frankly this method has been tried with Ankara over the past couple of years and is clearly not working.
Instead, it is time for the US and Europe to work towards a transactional relationship with Turkey when it comes to strategic issues. The first thing to do is recognise that the alliance between Turkey and the West is not one of mutual strategic interests, not is it one of shared values. However, there are some fields where western and Turkish interests converge and collaboration should be sought. Issues such as terrorism, aspects of regional security and the future of Syria are areas where there can be some cooperation and serious discussion.
However, this should not be mistaken for a strategic alliance and therefore the west should limit Turkish involvement in projects such as the Joint Strike Fighter and NATO operations until a time when relations improve and warrant an upgrade. However, when it comes to trade, businesses and corporations on both sides should be encouraged to invest, buy and sell until their hearts are content. The same goes for cultural diplomacy. And who knows, maybe they will be the harbinger for strategic convergence at a later date.
Although this state of affairs may seem disappointing, this is the nature of international relations. Alliance form and alliances collapse. A period of transactionalism and trade may be the step back that both sides need before relations become warm again because soon Turkey will discover that the US and the West make better bedfellows that Russia, Iran or China.
There are many embattled democracies in the world today, but How Democracy Die is primarily a book about America. It is a warning to Americans to never be complacent about their democracy, regardless of how robust and dynamic the oldest democratic constitution in the world may appear to be; the foundations of even the strongest of constitutions shake when an autocratic demagogue is committed to smashing the liberal democratic order.
In this book, Harvard professors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky examine international examples to illustrate how autocrats use legal means to kill democracy. Professor Ziblatt is a historian of Europe from the nineteenth century to the present day and Professor Levitsky focuses on Latin America and the developing world. You can’t get more qualified than that to write a book about how democracies die.
With the exception of its snowy neighbour to the north and its transatlantic Anglo sidekick, many who live outside of the US reside in countries where democracy has either died and been reborn, or is experiencing a difficult process of democratization. Others are witnessing the death of their own democracy in front of their very eyes. It is therefore imperative that Americans, regardless of their level of education, political views or social status, pay heed to the political histories of other nations in order to prevent the misfortune of others to be repeated in America. This is especially true while Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office. Sure, he was elected fair and square, but there are facets of his character and policies that raise alarm bells.
Borrowing and updating the work of Juan Linz, Ziblatt and Levitsky highlight four key indicators of authoritarianism. They are 1) rejection or weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game, 2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, 3) toleration of encouragement of violence, 4) readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including the media. Note that Trump falls into each of these four categories.
In recent times the death of a democracy is less likely to occur through a military coup or by a violent revolution. It’s not that there aren’t any good old-fashioned military coups anymore (Thailand, Ecuador), but it is increasingly the case that demagogues obtain power through the ballot box, and once there slowly but surely push democratic norms to the point of collapse in a bid to solidify power. Often this achieved by eroding the checks and balances needed in a healthy democracy through the combination of nullifying the legislative power of parliament, filling the judiciary with sycophantic or co-opted judges, attacking the critical media and delegitimising political opponents. Such has happened in Venezuela, Turkey, Peru, Argentina, Russia, and Hungary to name but a few. Then there is, of course, the examples of Germany and Italy earlier in the century. In the case of the United States, Ziblatt and Levitsky argue that over time America’s democratic fail safes have been eroded including party gatekeeping, institutional forbearance, self-restraint and mutual toleration. This has led to the situation of today. A US president who has no qualms about railing against the free press and calling for his political opponent to be locked up.
It is often said that history is doomed to repeat itself. Perhaps that’s true for those who choose to ignore the past. This is why a book like this is so important. Americans can no longer afford to be complacent.
Sometimes it is quite a pleasure to enjoy disagreeing with an author. This is how I felt when I read Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country, which I recently reviewed for e-international relations and can be found here. In my review, I took exception with much of the book. But I would like to briefly dwell on one aspect which I didn’t really get to into my review, the early engagement of the US in Turkey and the Middle East.
It would surprise many that the US was not always disliked in the Middle East (nor is it universally hated today as some might think). Before World War II, many in the region looked towards the US as a friend and a nation that was very different to other western countries, most especially the colonial powers of Britain and France. And this was for good reason. Before World War II, when arguably the US had already become an imperial power, America had no colonial designs in the Middle East. Even the deal between Standard Oil and Saudi Arabia during the 1930s was much more favourable to the Saudi Kingdom that anything which competing British companies were offering in terms of profits and royalties. By working the US, Saudi did better than its neighbours who were obliged to work with British companies.
Better business transaction was one thing, but there was also American benevolence. Across Turkey and other parts of the Middle East there are still today living monuments of American altruism. Perhaps the most notable are the institutions of education, namely Bogazici University in Istanbul, the American University of Cairo and the American University of Beirut and high schools such as Robert College and Uskudar American Academy in Turkey. These educational establishments were founded by the joint efforts of American philanthropists and missionaries mainly during the late nineteenth century. Unable to convert the local population to Christianity, American missionaries decided against packing up and leaving. Instead, they established these institutions open to all regardless of religion, sect or denomination (although Robert College, for example, did not see its first Muslim Turk graduate until the 1900s).
One can of course make the claim that this was an example of cultural imperialism. Perhaps, but not quite. These educational endeavours, together with the foundation of hospitals and clinics, were established with expressed permission the of the Ottoman government which was itself aiming to open western educational institutions. Also, the US founded schools and universities were by no means compulsory, no one was forced to attend. Sure, they spread American ideals, but they were not factories to indoctrinate impressionable young people about liberalism and capitalism, but offered an education that allowed for critical engagement in the liberal arts and sciences. Moreover, these institutions educated generation after generation of Middle Eastern elites. Were it not for such schools and universities, the Middle east would be an intellectually poorer place. Indeed, some of the Middle East’s finest minds, including those critical of US policies, were educated at such institutions.
Fast forward to today and while the US now has considerable imperial baggage, these institutions remain independent and still continue to educate the young and treat the elderly and sick. This should not be overlooked, denigrated or forgotten.
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