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.
Last week the US re-imposed sanctions on Iran. This was a direct result of the bold decision by US President Donald J. Trump to cease signing off the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of action (JCPOA). Negotiated under the Obama administration, the JCPOA sought to put a halt to Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief and the opening of the Iranian economy to the international community.
I am no fan of Donald Trump. I don't like his politics and I don’t like his style or approach. I also didn’t particularly enjoy watching The Apprenticeeither. So far, his presidency ranks as one of the worst; however, there are some important exceptions where his policies have been more or less right. The first was his decision scale back financial support for UNRWA (more about that in another post) and the second is his policy towards the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump was right to conclude that the JCPOA was a bad deal. It was significantly flawed for several reasons including the sunset clause which would allow Iran to restart its nuclear programme in less than ten years, the lack of unfettered and on the spot access for inspectors to enter top secret Iranian military facilities without prior approval, and the no mention of Iran’s ballistic missile programme. We also saw from the Israeli seizure of Iran’s nuclear archive that even though Tehran was more or less keeping to its obligations, it had failed to disclose its intricate and extensive research into developing a nuclear warhead. This in itself could be a breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, making the JCPOA worthless.
Just as importantly, the JCPOA made no reference to Iran’s foreign policy. This gave the Islamic Republic the financial lifeline it needed in order to spread its influence in the region, including its support for Bashar al-Asad, the butcher of Damascus who had no qualms about using chemical weapons against his own people on multiple occasions and whose torture chambers are a disgrace to humanity in the 21stcentury.
Meanwhile, recent reports of anti-regime protests and disturbances in Iran that trickle into the international news over the past few months do not do justice to the momentum growing against the Islamic Republic. Across Iran, from Mashad to Tabriz, many Iranians are voicing their anger at the regime which has crippled the prosperity of a whole generation of Iranians. Even at a crowded football stadium in Tehran fans chanted anti-regime slogans. The ongoing protests represents what can only be described as a revolutionary period. If there was ever a time when the regime was at its most vulnerable, it is now and is why the sanctions can be either effective in bringing down this heinous regime or at least temper Iran’s nefarious ambitions in the Middle East.
And what is the European Union’s reaction to all this? Brussels has been actively working against US sanctions and is, in effect, supporting one of the most nefarious regimes on Earth. The EU, which was never a party to the JCPOA (negotiated by the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), Brussels has decided to join ranks of Russia, Turkey and China, hardly the beacons of the world liberal order, to obstruct the effectiveness of the sanctions. Not only has Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, publically and loudly encouraged firms to defy the sanctions, but the EU has even launched the blocking statute, an attempt to shield European companies from US sanctions and limit the damage to their interests and dealings in the US. Also, the EU wants European companies who have contracts with Iranian firms to apply to the EU before halting operations.
In other words, the EU is actively working with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers in order to protect a theocratic autocracy which violates almost every article of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights from US sanctions, hampering and the dreams of ordinary Iranians who are risking their lives to protest the regime. All this so mega European firms such as Siemens, Total, Peugeot and Airbus can make profit. Shame on Brussels, shame on Berlin, shame on Paris, and, yes, shame on London.
Despite being in the process of leaving the EU, the UK has sided with the EU on this matter. This is despite the fact that unlike France or Germany, the UK’s trade with Iran only stands at a mere US$1.15 billion. Also, despite supporting the JCPOA and practically pleading the Iranian regime to release Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Iran has still not complied. This, if anything, is a reason why the UK should be supporting its great transatlantic ally. However, London has elected to side with the EU which has chosen the JCPOA as its causes belli against the US administration. If ever there was a morally dubious foreign policy decision of the EU and UK, this is it.
The debate surrounding the decision of US Present Donald J. Trump’s to nix the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been a real eye opener. It seems that some politicians and commentators have lost their moral compasses.
After Trump’s decision, Federica Mogherini, the foreign minister of the EU, stated that “We are determined to keep this deal in place”. Meanwhile, it was reported that Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, commented that the Iran deal highlights the need to defend European economic sovereignty, even putting forward the idea of creating a statute to offset US sanctions on European firms doing business in Iran. Meanwhile, The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, contends that Britain should join other European nations to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions on the US – make Trump pay for sabotaging the Iran deal, he argues.
Wow, that must have been some great deal to advocate that Europe side not with the US, but an autocratic regime which hates the very ideals that Europe stands for (remember when Italy was obliged to cover naked statues so not to offend the visiting so-called moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani), an Islamic theocracy that has terrifying resemblances to the dystopian society envisaged in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
First things first, the deal itself was poor. Bret Stephens of the New York Times put it best when he wrote that if the JCPOA was so great then why did leaders from France, Germany and the UK, as well as some of its other supporters, feel the need to accept that it needed fixing? Fix it, not nix it, they begged of Trump. Surely, if it was such a good deal, it wouldn’t need any fixing?
In reality, there was much that needed to be mended, so much so that the repair work would have left the deal unrecognizable. Where to start, the sunset clause allowing the Islamic Republic to be a nuclear weapon threshold state within 13 years? And then there’s the fact that the deal ignores Tehran’s ballistic missile programme, the exclusion of which was a grave error because if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon, it would have to be compatible with its ballistic projectiles. And what about the inspections themselves? Far from unfettered access on demand, if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) want access to secret military areas, they can’t just barge it. They would need approval from a committee of which Iran is a member! Moreover, the Israeli seizure of Iranian nuclear documents confirmed the suspicions of the US and the IAEA that Iran had indeed been working on a nuclear weapons programme, which although frozen, was still not disclosed to the IAEA and therefore contrary to the spirit of the JCPOA and perhaps even the letter of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
It was under President Obama that the JCPOA was signed. Obama twice failed the people of Iran, proud inheritors of an ancient civilization whose erudition and study of their poets such as Saadi and Hafez makes me wish that people in the West would do the same for Shakespeare, Melville, and Cervantes. The first Obama let down was in 2009. As Iranians took to the streets to demand that their votes count in what become known as the Green Movement, Obama’s silence was deafening. Later, Obama did well to spearhead international sanctions which crippled the Iranian economy. Make no mistake, in 2013 the sanctions brought the Mullahs to their knees. However, Obama and the P5 +1 abandoned the prospect of regime change in order to make this terrible nuclear deal. Not only did this hand a lifeline to the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards (the real powers in Iran), but it allowed the regime to continue its support with boots on the ground for Bashar al-Assad, the butcher of Damascus, who deliberately tortures, murders and massacres his own people, sometimes with the additional sadistic twist of chemical nerve agents.
Europe needs to be more honest about its Iran policy. The reality is there are billions of euros at stake with companies such as Airbus, Total, British-Dutch Shell, Peugeot, Renault, and Siemens standing to lose out with the nixing of the Iran deal. It just all goes to show that the lofty foreign policy ideals of the EU are nothing more than a bunch of words. To hell with the Iranian people, many critics of the deal are effectively saying, as long as European companies make a profit. Shame.
Last Monday, I had to make a difficult television viewing decision, either catch up on Homeland season 7 or watch Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu make a live appearance to make revelations about Iran’s nuclear programme? I chose the latter.
Bibi, as Netanyahu is known in Israel, is ever the showman. While delivering a Ted Talk style presentation, he announced to viewers that Israeli intelligence operatives managed to seize tens of thousands of top-secret Iranian documents from a previously unknown nuclear archive located in an unassuming neighbourhood in Tehran (wow!). A sprinkle of these documents was shown in Bibi’s presentation which the Israeli prime minister claimed was evidence that Iran’s top officials, from supreme leader to president and foreign minister, had lied to the international community when they insisted that Iran was not seeking a nuclear bomb.
This trove of information, argued Netanyahu, casts doubt on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which was concluded between Iran, the US, Russia, China and Europe in 2015 under the leadership of Barack Obama, the most fickle president in the history of US foreign policy until the election of Donald Trump, to reduce and monitor Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of sanctions. In other words, save the Islamic Republic in return for a nuclear deal. President Trump along with a slew of conservative politicians, academics and commentators have termed the agreement a bad deal, a “terrible” deal or the “worst deal ever”. It now looks that they have a point.
Some commentators, eager to save the JCPOA, and by extension Obama’s legacy, insist that there is nothing particularly new in these seized documents. They say that it is all hyperbole, rehashed information and that the deal is still a good one. They add that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was already aware of Iran’s attempt to weaponise its nuclear programme, and the documents are dated before the signing of the 2015 JCPOA. Moreover, the IAEA, as well as Europe and the United States all confirmed that Iran has been in full compliance of the deal and, so far, none of the captured documents seems to have contradicted these assessments. Move along, there’s nothing to see here.
Not so fast. Why such faith in an autocratic regime which has incessantly lied to its people from Ayatollah Khomeini’s hijacking the 1979 revolution with his hidden plan to install a constitution based on his political interpretation of the Shia concept of the velayat-e faqih with himself as supreme leader, to the stealing of the 2009 elections and the perpetual corruption which led many across the country to protest the regime a few months ago? Why is it so hard to believe that the same clerical regime that murders, steals, plunders, executes, tortures and imprisons its own people also lied to the international community and broke agreements, pledges and declarations?
And yes indeed, there is actually something to this cache of documents. Consider the following:
It is true that the IAEA, the CIA and other agencies had their suspicions that Iran was actively seeking to weaponise its nuclear programme and was conducting research into the design and construction of a warhead capable of delivering a nuclear payload, but ceased this project in 2003. But throughout this period and continuously until this very day, Iran’s political leaders denied that there was ever such a programme. However, the IAEA and CIA’s suspicions are now facts. Not only do we now know that Iranian officials had been lying, but they were also negotiating in bad faith, including their declaration before the 2015 agreement that Iran would reveal the full extent of its past nuclear work. The documents show that they have done no such thing.
Furthermore, the existence of this nuclear archive seems to have been unknown to the international community. Iran did not declare its existence to the IAEA either before the 2015 nuclear deal or after. Nor did Iran hand over its research into making a nuclear bomb. Instead it hid it. This in itself is a breach of the spirit of the JCPOA and may even be a violation of Articles II and/or III of the Non Proliferation Treaty. If Iran is indeed in breach of the NPT, then the JCPOA as it currently stands is not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Finally, Bibi’s revelations create the very real suspicion that having negotiated the JCPOA in bad faith, Iran was essentially putting its nuclear weapon programme aside only to come back to it a later. Of course, defenders of the deal have countered that the P5+1 negotiated it with the assumption that Iran was lying, and in the words of President Obama it was based on “unprecedented verification”.
But when negotiating the deal, the international powers did not have such concrete proof that their Iranian interlocutors were brazenly lying. How can anyone now defend the laxity in regulating Iran’s ballistic missile programme or the JCPOA’s ridiculously naïve sunset clause which would allow Iran to enrich again after 15 years? No way Jose!
Although tougher than its critics like to admit, the flaws in the JCPOA are real. Obama did an excellent job in forming and executing a stringent sanctions regime which really crippled the Iranian economy and brought the regime to its knees. But the Obama administration underestimated just how successful it was. In 2012 and 2013 there were rumblings of protests in Iran’s major cities, alleviated with the 2013 election of President Rohani, a regime loyalist disguised as a reformer. While negotiating the deal, Iran was in a situation where it could not afford to be in Syria and Yemen, develop a nuclear programme and placate its restless population angered by corruption, inflation and unemployment. The very future of the regime was at stake. Obama and Kerry could have done better and should have done better
French and German heads of state have tried to convince Trump to fix not nix the deal and make additional supplementary agreements instead. These new documents give him leverage to do just that. He should take it.
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