Of Iran, Syria and regional chaos
Iran’s teaming up with world powers to hammer out a solution to the war in Syria does not mean an end to regional conflicts, writes Salah Nasrawi
For more than four years, Saudi Arabia and its allies have rebuffed persistent appeals to let Iran join peace-makers in Syria by arguing that Tehran is a key ally of President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s bloody conflict and that it would be unthinkable to grant it a seat at the table.
The price of a ticket to the talks to find a durable political settlement in Syria, Riyadh has long insisted, would be an unequivocal commitment from Tehran to endorse a plan backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies that calls for a political transition and the departure of Al-Assad from power.
With Moscow’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict turning the tide against Al-Assad’s opponents, Riyadh finally relented and gave Tehran a free pass to an international peace gathering in Vienna on 30 October.
However, inviting Iran to attend the Vienna summit raises questions far beyond the problems and promises of Iran’s acting as a mediator in reaching a political settlement in Syria.
Will Iran’s participation guarantee greater connectivity between regional powers stalled by decades of rivalries and can they now work together to prompt peace and security?
For many Middle East watchers, the political and security impact of the conflicts that have played havoc with many of the countries in the region shows that they have been damaged beyond repair. If regional stakeholders are keen to end the entangled hotspots, they should adopt a new and common approach to their shared stability.
As expected, Iran has proclaimed the Saudi U-turn in letting it join the international peace efforts in Syria as a triumph for its regional diplomacy. “Those who tried to resolve the Syrian crisis have come to the conclusion that without Iran being present there is no way to reach a reasonable solution to the crisis,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif boasted after receiving the invitation.
But while Tehran celebrated the Saudi and the world’s recognition of its regional diplomatic capacity, it also showed pragmatism, and probably realpolitik, by expressing its preparedness to shore up the country’s “soft power” to resolve the Syrian crisis.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian said that “Iran does not insist on keeping Al-Assad in power forever,” a declaration Saudi Arabia quickly met with scepticism. “If they’re serious, we will know, and if they’re not serious, we will also know and stop wasting time with them,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said.
Of course, it is too early to judge if the talks in Vienna have made any headway in efforts to bring peace to Syria. The group of nations with opposing stakes in the Syrian war have agreed to ask the United Nations to start a process that could lead to a ceasefire and new elections.
In an announcement following the meeting, the participants also asked the United Nations to launch a political process that would involve overseeing the rewriting of the country’s constitution and then new elections.
For many analysts, the statement, designed to show that the participants have narrowed their differences over the Syrian conflict, seemed more like wishful thinking than a realistic outcome. The controversial issue of the future of Al-Assad has remained unresolved.
What drove Saudi Arabia to drop its opposition to allowing Iran, which it has always accused of being part of the problem and not part of the solution, to participate in the direct talks is a matter of speculation.
While pressure from the United States on the kingdom may have played a part in its showing flexibility over Iran, Riyadh’s realisation that it has been misreading the game Tehran is playing in the region cannot be excluded.
Still, the unprecedented decision to permit Iran to join the talks on Syria has sparked old fears that giving Iran a seat at the regional negotiation table will reinforce Tehran’s emerging status as a recognised regional powerhouse.
Tehran’s diplomatic breakthrough comes three months after it struck its landmark nuclear deal with world powers in exchange for removing the international and US economic and financial curbs that had throttled its economy.
The deal was made to show that Iran has complied with specific obligations to reduce its capabilities of stockpiling enriched uranium and address concerns about the potential military dimensions of its nuclear programme.
Yet, the agreement was also seen as a signal of willingness on the part of Washington, the main power behind the deal, to engage Tehran in Middle East issues and to work in concert with it to confront regional challenges such as those in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon and the threats posed by the Islamic State (IS) and other terror groups.
Though Saudi Arabia and its allies reluctantly supported the nuclear deal, they raised concerns about Iran’s rehabilitation and expressed fears that the US would turn away from their worries about Iranian activities in some of the region’s flashpoints.
Given Saudi Arabia and its allies’ deep-rooted mistrust of Iran, it is clear that these countries want to make Iran’s participation in international efforts to find a solution to the Syrian conflict a testing ground of Tehran’s intentions.
The sticking point remains the future of Al-Assad and whether Iran is prepared to reverse its support for its Syrian ally and back a political process that includes replacing him. Iranian officials still say that “it should be up to the Syrian people to decide on the country’s fate.”
Yet, the predominately state-controlled media in Iran, routinely employed as a proxy to spread the message of Iranian diplomacy, may have expressed Tehran’s real view on the subject.
“With the participation of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rivals, reaching an agreement [in the Syria talks] could be difficult,” wrote Tehran newspaper Ebtekar in an editorial.
While there has been no sign that Iran will come around to the Saudi view on Al-Assad’s future, the Islamic Republic has never hidden its desire to be a partner with international and regional powers in any diplomatic push to deal with other regional flashpoints.
Here again the Iranian media may provide an insight into Iranian official thinking. “If they succeed, [the talks] can serve as an example for the international community in managing other regional conflicts in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon,” wrote the Farsi-language Iranian newspaper.
“Some of the countries in the region will gradually start recognising Iran’s regional status. Iran’s responsible behaviour on regional crises could help reduce the tension between key players,” it wrote on the eve of the Vienna talks.
Of course, the idea of a platform to discuss, or to resolve or manage, these and other conflicts on the regional level is very tempting. But that is not how the Middle East system since it came into being following the First World War has worked.
Today’s Middle East problems are not simply the result of the ongoing bloody conflicts that threaten to tear it apart, but rather are the consequences of both foreign interventions and the failures and follies of its regimes over some 90 years.
A closer look at the new diplomatic process to solve the Syrian crisis would reveal it as just another gambit that Western strategists hope will push Russia, and in Saudi Arabia’s case Iran, deeper into the Syrian quagmire.
In a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue this weekend, Antony Blinken, the US deputy secretary of state, revealed his government’s thinking. It was only a matter of time before Moscow realised that its military intervention and its ardent support for Al-Assad’s continued rule were mistakes, he said.
Saudi Arabia’s assessment of the Iranian role was not much different in hoping to see Iran failing to sustain its military intervention in Syria for long and being obliged to change course.
Al-Jubeir, who spoke at the Manama Dialogue after Blinken, said that in order for any real political process in Syria to begin Iran must withdraw its forces from Syria and agree to a date and means for Al-Assad’s departure.
Such a gamble not only ignores the deep-rooted problems in the Middle East, but also the new regional dynamics. While the turbulence created by the Arab Spring since 2011 is still affecting the regional order, the rise of non-state actors is also shaking the foundations of the state system in many of its countries.
The sad truth is that the failure of the Vienna process will give Syria the final push to tear itself apart and plunge the region further into bloody chaos.
This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on Nov. 5, 2015
The not-so-zero problem
Turkey’s new bellicose posture may not work as well as it hopes, writes Salah Nasrawi
From the perspective of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP government, the decision to send fighter jets against the Islamic State (IS) terror group’s positions in Syria and the Kurdish PKK’s bases in Iraq probably goes something like this: to survive politically by improving the Party’s waning popularity after its weak performance in the elections and to ensure Turkey is a vital Middle East player by taking back the regional initiative.
This week, the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu suddenly decided that IS and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had turned into a threat big enough to be confronted by airstrikes, cross-border bombardments and a massive police crackdown.
But what the AKP government has not yet sorted out is how to go about implementing its newly aggressive approach by going after two ideologically and politically divergent enemies which it had earlier been trying to pacify without raising doubts about its sudden policy shift.
Turkey’s new way of war came on 24 July when Ankara sent its warplanes to hit IS positions in Syria for the first time since the terror group made advances in both Iraq and Syria. Turkish jet fighters also struck at camps of the PKK in northern Iraq.
Soon after the first attacks on IS, news emerged that Ankara had allowed the United States to fly bombing missions against IS militants from air bases in southern Turkey, a move that effectively makes Ankara a partner in the US-led coalition in the war against the jihadists.
The air campaign and the agreement with Washington to allow US planes to use the Incirlik airbase came after an escalation of violence in southern Turkey.
On 20 July a suicide bomber with suspected links to IS set off an explosion in the Turkish border town of Suruc, killing 32 people and wounding more than 100.
A day later, Turkey lost a soldier after its troops came under fire from several IS militants armed with rocket launchers and machine guns. The Turkish security forces fired back at the extremists, killing one and destroying a pickup truck.
As the Turkish military operations against IS and the PKK escalated this week, Ankara has detained thousands of their supporters in a nationwide sweep. The authorities also imposed a ban on demonstrations in Istanbul and expanded a campaign against media critical of the campaign, including a brief shutdown of Twitter.
By abandoning its long history of ambivalence about IS, or even its alleged implicit support – Turkey has long been seen as an IS revolving door – and by ratcheting up the war against the PKK and splintering its fragile peace with the Kurds, Turkey has entered a new phase of uncertainty.
In trying to decode Ankara’s surprising change of strategy two scenarios could emerge that could explain why the AKP government is becoming bellicose in dealing with challenges at home and abroad.
On the domestic front, the move to mix up the war against IS with the fight against the PKK has been carefully designed as the country now faces a 50 per cent chance of being plunged into a snap election if efforts to form a coalition government flounder.
By creating a climate of jingoistic militarism, the AKP is trying to give the impression that Turkey is involved in a national war in order to win back a single party majority in a new poll. Rumours and conspiracy theories have surfaced to the effect that the AKP government has deliberately provoked the wave of violence in order to create a national crisis and make political gains.
One well-known Turkish whistle-blower, known on Twitter as Fuat Avni, tweeted that Erdogan himself was behind the deadly suicide attack in Suruç. Avni, famous for making claims about the government that often turn out to be true, alleged that Erdogan’s intention was to “sow chaos” in society in order to pave the way for the AKP’s return to power as a single party in an early election.
The daily Milliyet columnist Kadri Gursel has also been sacked for alluding to Erdogan’s role in the 20 July Suruç bombing in a social media post. Gursel shared a post on his Twitter account in which he hinted at Erdogan’s involvement and criticised foreign leaders for sending him condolences and sympathy after the Suruç bombing.
As for the other scenario under which Turkey could enter into direct conflict in Syria and Iraq, this reflects Ankara’s determination to play an imperial role in the region and to seek to expand its influence in neighbouring countries and especially to the south.
One of the main goals of Turkey’s intervention is to create a long-expected security zone inside Syria which it claims will drive IS and other militants from a strip of land along its southern borders.
The Turkish and American media have reported that US-led coalition jets will provide security over the 90-km long and 40 to 50 km deep strip, which may be broadened in the future.
The enclave would be used as a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians, who are expected to be largely Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turkmens, according to leaked reports.
However, such a zone will also be seen as a move to stop Syrian Kurds who have exploited the turmoil in Syria to seize territory from setting up their authority in captured areas and creating an autonomous entity along Turkey’s southern border.
In the long run, a Turkish-controlled zone would block a united independent Kurdish state in the region that would expand the Kurdish-populated areas in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
But most importantly, the protected strip would effectively create a Sunni enclave under Turkey’s hegemony that could create a Sunni entity away from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s control.
While taking on the Kurds will increase tensions between Ankara and its powerful Kurdish minority and Kurds across the region, a Sunni-dominated enclave in northern Syria would signal Turkey’s intentions to split Syria on sectarian lines.
Worse, such an entity would work to enhance Ankara’s expansionist ambitions in the region. Whatever the reason for its new initiative, Turkey’s step change in its involvement in the region’s conflicts is calling into question its regional strategy.
For years, the theme of Turkey’s foreign policy under the AKP government that came to power in 2002 was “zero problems with neighbours.” The strategy, worked out by the academic-turned-diplomat Davutoglu, had hopes of pacifying decades of regional turmoil and ending tensions with Turkey’s neighbours.
Despite being outlined by Davutoglu as “strategic depth” thinking aiming to reform Turkey’s foreign policy following the AKP party’s electoral victory that year, the approach has failed to accomplish its objectives and in many cases has proved to be counterproductive.
Due largely to Erdogan’s foreign-policy missteps, Turkey has plunged deeply into the region’s conflicts, and Erdogan’s defiance and attempts to enforce his version of Islamic nationalism have also cost Turkey many friends and alienated allies.
From Iraq, Syria and Libya to Egypt, incoherent policies and sometimes Erdogan’s own aggressive behaviour have served Ankara badly and in many cases have raised troubling questions about the country’s foreign policy, especially in serving to breed extremism.
By resorting to NATO for help against IS and the PKK and by giving access to US jets to use Turkish airbases in striking Syria, Ankara is going back to its traditional alliance with the West at the expense of its Muslim brethren.
In Davutoglu’s words, this is a new “regional game under new conditions.” But by making such a dramatic turnaround, Turkey will expose its weaknesses and vulnerability and make it again prone to Western pressure.
This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on July 30, 2015
Can IS survive to 2023?
The Islamic State terror group may continue to thrive for the time being, but over the longer term it is doomed to fail, writes Salah Nasrawi
When the Islamic State (IS) group declared itself to be a caliphate, with its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, setting himself up as a ruler “by order of God” following the group’s advances last summer, sympathisers quickly cheered the pronouncement as a heaven-sent victory.
The group’s spokesman Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani even boasted that “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations has become null and void by the expansion of the caliphate’s authority and the arrival of its troops in their areas.”
In order to further establish the status of its jihadist state, IS removed the boundaries between two Arab countries and began issuing passports to its “citizens”.
A growing number of zealots from around the world, including Americans and Europeans, have flocked to the Islamic State’s territories, which once run from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyalah on the borders with Iran.
But as followers and sympathisers celebrated, detractors dismissed the declaration of the Muslim “holy state” as nothing more than propaganda. The phenomenon, they argued, was just “a response to the chaos” that has spread in Iraq and Syria. Time, they said, would prove that establishing a worldwide Muslim movement and mobilising a broad coalition of supporters is simply over-hyped optimism.
Yet, regardless of whether the global Islamic caliphate will be accepted in the international and regional arenas or not, the question remains of whether the IS-led insurgency in Iraq and Syria that has become a synonym for fear and bloodshed is sustainable.
It is true that the dramatic fall of the city of Ramadi to IS last month gave control of virtually all of Anbar province to the militants, pushing them to the edge of Baghdad. IS has also made significant gains in Syria, including the capture of the key city of Palmyra and some other towns in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
But the new onslaughts may also have exposed how the IS insurgency in Iraq and Syria has neared its limits.
In order to maintain its gains, IS needs to pursue two sets of goals. First, it needs to win over the Sunni population in the areas under its control by striking a delicate balance between its radical religious programme and their traditional Arab nationalism.
Second, it has to subdue the Shia in Iraq and the Alawites and other non-Muslim minorities in Syria by either forcing them to convert to its extremist ideology or to flee and leave their areas to its control.
Neither of these two goals will be easy to achieve.
Though IS has relied heavily on local Sunnis, including former Baathists in Iraq and Arab tribes who felt marginalised after years of Alawite rule in Syria, there is an ongoing debate about whether this is a tactical alliance or a more strategic one.
Unlike the Taliban and the Hizbi Islami of Gulbaddin Hekmetyar in Afghanistan that created national mujahideen organisations with broad-based Pashtun appeal, IS has showed no inclination to transform itself into a nationalist Sunni Arab insurgency.
A similar transformation also occurred in Kashmir where the nationalist insurgency for independence from India turned Islamist under the influence of rising jihadist movements in Pakistan.
Baathists in Iraq and pan-Arab nationalists in Syria have also collaborated with IS in the war against Baghdad and Damascus, but in order to achieve its long-term objectives IS will need to invent a new approach and build new relationships that can fuse its religious ideology with the more secular Arab nationalism among Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis.
On a broader level, IS has ruled vast Sunni areas since June last year, and there has not been much for the local population to admire. The jihadi group is harsh, narrow-minded and intolerant of dissent. Its fighters act like barbaric psychopaths willing to engage in the most brutal forms of violence in order to slaughter their way into controlling Sunni areas.
Millions of people in Sunni towns captured by IS in Iraq and Syria have left their homes. Many prefer to live in miserable conditions in camps in neighbouring countries, or brave the Mediterranean Sea to seek refuge in Europe and refuse to return. Others are taking up arms to fight IS in the name of Iraqi and Syrian nationalism.
IS’s expansion in many other Arab countries, including Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia, and its endeavour to win supporters in other places has begun to pose a serious threat to regional security and stability.
As for the other goal of subduing Shia and Alawites to its ideology and rule, that seems far-fetched. The Shia, who consider IS an existential threat, do not seem interested in a compromise with the group’s militants. This takfiri group, which considers Shia and Alawites to be infidels and is bent on their annihilation, remains their biggest challenge.
The Iraqi state they control enjoys legitimacy and support among a large number of the world’s nations. The Iraqi Shia have been quick to mobilise hundreds of thousands of men and militias on the front line, and they have overwhelming firepower and motivation in the fight against IS.
A substantial number of Iranian Revolutionary Guards units and Iraqi Shia militiamen are already fighting on the side of the Al-Assad regime in Syria.
IS may be able to survive setbacks and will probably be able to engineer new advances, but its ability to sustain a self-styled caliphate or even victory in the war remains very much in doubt.
In recent weeks, the group has been seen to be losing ground in many parts of Iraq and Syria, and the tide is beginning to turn against IS. According to many military estimates, it faces a grim future and its defeat is militarily certain but probably not until it plunges the Middle East into further chaos.
One of the main consequences of the raising of the black banners of IS over an area from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean Sea is that the group has been able to change the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East. While its scourges have deepened the sectarian schism in the region to a point of no return, the territorial dimensions of its onslaughts have showed that it can result in changing the region’s political map.
In many ways, the success of IS in breaking up Iraq and Syria will create a new regional order in which ethno-and sectarian-based new countries will emerge. The emerging nations of Arabs, Kurds, Shia, Sunni and Alawites, among other ethnicities, will be pitted against each other while trying to consolidate their new national identities and boundaries.
Many believe that IS’s stunning rise over the last few months has been a catalyst for what has been widely expected since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The tragic domino effect that followed left the Middle East in turmoil amidst the threat of yet another regional conflagration along sectarian lines.
According to this theory, IS, which was empowered by the same US-led invasion, is part of an ill-conceived patchwork geo-strategy to re-draw the map of the Middle East, which was defined by the European powers and established in several international agreements following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
A different map, professed by US journalist Robin Wright in a famous article in The New York Times on 28 September 2013, “would be a strategic game-changer for just about everybody, potentially reconfiguring alliances, security challenges, and trade and energy flows for much of the world, too.”
For many Middle East watchers that moment is fast approaching. In their view, the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 which established the century-old national boundaries of modern Turkey and remnants of the former Ottoman Empire, such as Iraq and Syria, will expire, or perhaps be up for review, on its hundredth anniversary in 2023.
Whether the new mapping will happen in keeping with secret articles in the treaty, as advocates believe, or whether it will be the consequences of the tectonic shift triggered by the Iraq invasion, the Middle East could wake up one day in the next few years with different border lines for many of its countries.
Until now, Iraq and Syria have resisted falling apart. In both countries IS is receiving significant setbacks, and its fighters are losing ground. The results of this week’s elections in Turkey, which saw a sharp decline in votes for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), will also have an impact on Turkey’s regional policies that have helped in IS’s rise.
At its worst, IS may prove that it was only an instrument used by outsiders who have long “gamed the Middle East,” and at its best it may be the force that destroys in order to create the future.
Whatever the results of these conflicts of historical magnitude may be, IS, with its brutality and murderous ideology, seems to have no place in the new Middle East.
This article appeared first in The Al- Ahram Weekly on June 11, 2015