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
A couple of days ago I had an op-ed published by Haaretzentitled, “Turkey: The One Place that Trump’s Bullying is Actually Working” and can be found here. In the piece, I argue that President Trump’s hard line against Turkey, mainly over the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson, paid off. Following US sanctions and tariffs, Turkey finally relented and a few weeks ago Brunson was released. In the period since, Turkey and the US seem to have advanced in other areas including progressing on their Manbij agreement with joint patrols in the city. Washington even offered a US$4-5 million reward for information about the whereabouts of leading PKK operatives.
It seems as if President Trump has taken a page out of Russia’s playbook. Back in 2015, Turkish-Russians relations hit an all-time low after Turkey downed a Russian SU-24 jet which was traversing northern Syrian into Turkish airspace. In order to get its apology and other Turkish concessions, Moscow ratcheted up the pressure and announced sanctions which hurt the Turkish economy ranging from banning Russian travel agencies from selling package holidays to Turkey and ending visa-free travel to the banning of Turkish fruit and vegetables. Finally, in June 2016, President Erdogan relented and issued an expression of regret while blaming the affair on the activities of the Gulen movement, the ultimate internal Turkish bogeyman. Soon, Russian-Turkish relations began to blossom with regular ministerial visits, cooperation in Syria and Turkey’s decision to buy Russian military hardware.
Although US-Turkish relations are far from where they were several years ago, I think what is happening is that the US is seeking a transactional relationship with Turkey, something I have actually long advocated. In other words, Washington is basing its bilateral relationship on specific areas of interest and working out respective arrangements based on a formula of give and take - a concession in one sphere for a concession elsewhere. For example, releasing Brunson in exchange for easing US sanctions (including allowing Turkey to purchase Iranian crude following the snapping back of US sanctions on Iran), US support for the Turkish position west of the Euphrates in Syria in return for expectations that Turkey hold back in the East of the Euphrates.
In some respects, Europe has also turned towards a transactional relationship with Turkey (although the ties are considerably deeper especially on civil-society, trade and human capacity levels). Following the very vocal and ugly bust-ups between Turkish leaders and several European countries over the last couple of years and Turkey’s seeming strategic about face towards Russia and Iran, Europe seems to have calculated that relations with Turkey are best worked out on a case-by-case transactional basis, the 2016 Migrant deal being the prime example of this – European aid and work towards visa free travel in exchange for Turkey ensuring that Syrian refugees remain in Turkey. Despite all the turbulence in Turkey’s relations with Europe and the West and strains in mutual relations, this example of transactional diplomacy has lasted to this day.
The reality is that shared values of democracy, human rights and rule of law are no longer factors that even from an aspirational perspective link Turkey with the West. Also, Turkey is under the centralised control of its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who perceives himself as leader of a powerful international power which is not bound by any particular alliance. I would also argue that in terms of strategic priorities, Turkey’s threats are not the same as those of the West (with the more or less exception of ISIS since 2016) and there is therefore little interest for close strategic relations as was the case during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. With this is mind, a transactional approach to Turkey is the West’s best bet, at least for the short to medium terms, and perhaps, in the not too distant future mutual confidence can be built to once again foster closer relations.
Just as the ink was drying on my last post about US-Turkish relations, the White House announced sanctions against Turkey based on the Global Magnitsky Act, targeting the justice and interior ministers over the continued arrest of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkey has announced retaliatory measures with some sanctions of its own. It’s rather unprecedented that mutual sanctions have been imposed on fellow NATO allies. The question on many minds is how did it come to this?
There are several symptoms of the low ebb in bilateral relations. They include the presence in the US of the alleged 15 July attempted coup mastermind Fetullah Gulen, the continued detention of Pastor Brunson and other US nationals and consular workers, Turkey’s intention to purchase the Russian S400 SAMs which are incompatible with NATO hardware, and US assistance to the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria against the so-called Islamic State which Turkey says is affiliated to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, these are all symptoms rather than the root causes of the problem. In terms of the actual underlying reasons for the downturn in bilateral relations I contend there are 3 main reasons and a related fourth. Let me explain them one by one.
Firstly, the nature of the Turkish state is often misunderstood by both Western and Turkish officials alike. Turkey should be understood as a weak or a fragile state. Turkey has many of the attributes of a weak state. For example, the internal threat in Turkey is greater than the threat posed by its external enemies. Ankara’s two greatest existential concerns are the PKK and the Gulen movement. Sure, both have international branches and are influenced by international affairs, but they are, by and large, internal challenges to both state security and the institutions of state. Turkey also resembles a weak state because for many citizens the primary threat to their personal security is the state itself, the body which is supposed to protect them. This is the case for many Kurds in the Southeast of the country as well as those affected by the recent post 15 July 2016 purges. Let’s not also forget the marginalisation of the remnants of the Gezi movement and progressives in general, all considered fifth columnists by President Erdogan and his government. There are other factors as to why Turkey is a fragile state including the economy which often runs along patrimonial lines and is marred by corruption and nepotism.
The reason why understanding Turkey as a fragile or weak state is important because the US, or any other country for that matter, will have difficulties finding common cause with Turkey over an external enemy. Quite frankly, an international threat will always be less of a concern for Turkey which has to prioritise internal threats, or view international affairs through the lens of domestic security matters. Meanwhile, internal developments in Turkey, if not understood and acknowledged by other countries, leads to anger and recriminations. We saw this take shape after the attempted coup two years ago. Such wounds will be slow to heal.
The second factor is that Turkey does not consider itself part of the western orbit. It doesn’t see itself in the Russian orbit. Nor part of the Iranian axis either. Turkey sees itself as a great power in its own right. Whenever I read news reports about developments in US-Turkish relations and the comments of Turkish officials, I can’t help but think, “does Turkey think it is the superpower in this relationship?” The answer is yes, actually it does. Turkey suffers from delusions of grandeur when it comes to international affairs and finds it difficult to reconcile its self-image of greatness, often emanating from a selective and politicised memory its Ottoman past, with the reality that Turkey is not even a regional hegemon, let alone an international power. Turkey is a medium sized power at best, albeit one with potential if it effectively harnesses its human capacity. Sometimes Turkey needs a shock in order to recalibrate its self-image with reality. This is what happened with Russia after Moscow announced sanctions in 2015 following Turkey’s shooting down a jet hovering over its airspace. Following this wake-up call, relations between Turkey and Russia were soon back on track. Some advice to Ankara, if you live with a lion, don’t pull its tail!
The third factor is increasing authoritarianism in Turkey. Sure, President Donald Trump doesn’t exactly behave like a liberal democratic gentleman and leader of the free world either, but Turkey is on a completely different level when it comes to strongman politics, so much so that nothing of note happens without the blessing of President Erdogan. This gives the US a firm address to point the finger. These latest sanctions are a warning. Washington knows who is really in charge. And if there is any action that harms US interests, President Erdogan cannot blame shift.
Relatedly, the fourth factor (feel free to email me more) is the reality that times have changed. Turkey’s interests are not the same as those of the US and the West. Turkey also does not identify with the West as much as it used to. This fact is plain and simple and the longer this reality is ignored or swept under the carpet, the more likely these kinds of rifts will happen. It is time for a new paradigm in US-Turkish relations. I propose a transactional relationship based on selective joint interests on an ad hoc basis. After cool heads prevail and this crisis is resolved, surely this is the best way forward to build confidence and trust between both sides and, who knows, soon a lasting partnership that may once again be of a strategic nature. But that’s far into the future.
So, this begs the question, how do the sides get out of this current impasse? Stay tuned, I will offer a few words about that soon.
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.
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