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
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.
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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