Turkish troubles


It’s not without a small amount of schadenfreude that I read this article about Turkish trevails:

Throughout his political career, Erdogan has boldly zigzagged between his Islamist and pragmatic selves. But he has now been enslaved by a nation that is pressing him for more confrontation with Turkey’s enemies. They include basically the entire non-Muslim world, plus Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Muslim Kurds, and all the Shia in the Middle East.

The context is the Turkish position on the Middle East’s strategic triangle of Status Quo Bloc, Resistance Bloc and Sunni Islamist continuum. Erdogan has always chafed against the status quo, because the status quo relegates Turkey to outsider, and favours the Arab states.

Under Erdogan, Turkey dallied with Iran in the Resistance Bloc, but that didn’t sit comfortably, either. Iran is not Turkish, not Sunni and, as leader of the Resistance Bloc, would, again, relegate Turkey to second fiddle. Turkey, imagined Erdogan, was destined for greater things.

Erdogan saw an opportunity in 2011 and leapt into the unknown, but the gamble backfired. It is for this reason that Turkey is now largely friendless. The opportunity was the emergence of the ‘Arab Spring’. What Turkey saw was the overthrow of the Status Quo Egyptian government, and its replacement with a Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government. Likewise, it saw the disintegration of Syria (member of the Resistance Bloc) and the rise of a myriad of Sunni Islamist militias. It also saw Hamas (a member of the Resistance Bloc) leave Syria (and thereby effectively leave the Resistance Bloc) because Syria was killing so many Sunni Arabs, in order for Hamas to identify with Sunni Islamists.

Turkey saw the emergence of a Sunni Islamist Bloc (as did, it must be admitted, this author), and thought it could become its leader. It threw itself behind the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government, and threw itself against Syria, all the while maintaining the rage against Israel. Had the Sunni Islamist Bloc successfully emerged, it would have been a good gamble. But the Bloc didn’t stick.

Having over-reached, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government was overthrown by a popularly-backed coup (Egypt is now once again a Status Quo dictatorship). The Syrian civil war dragged on, with no decisive victory by a Sunni Islamist militia (indeed, the most successful militia in Syria internationally gave Islamists a bad (well, worse) name. And Hamas, having seen its allies in Egypt fall, has slowly retreated back into the folds of the Resistance Bloc.

Turkey has been left out on that limb all alone.

What should US MidEast policy be? 


The Trump Administration is reviewing US policy toward Iran. Good. But reviewers should keep two things in mind. First, US strategic policy in the Middle East should not be binary. Second, the US needs to work out how its strategic vision (once adopted) fits in with the interests of other parties, and use that to US advantage

Two years before the US election, I made a policy recommendation about what US policy in the Middle East should be. Those recommendations haven’t changed. What has changed, however, is that Iran has become stronger, and Arab countries more vociferously worried by that—and all because of poor US policies under the Bush and Obama Administrations.

In short, in Trump’s rush to label Iran as the evil empire, he should not lose sight of the fact that there are three groups of interest in the Middle East—the Status Quo Bloc, the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist continuum—the last two of which are inimical to Western interests.

The strategy of the West should be to defeat (eventually) these last two blocs. This strategy will be achieved by choosing tactics that undermine any and all parties or policies that represent or bolster the last two blocs, and strengthening or supporting any and all parties or policies that bolster the first bloc.

Iran needs to be sanctioned heavily, just like in the years before the nuclear negotiations, due to its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah. A concrete goal of ending such support should be the trigger for lifting sanctions.

Countries like Israel that want to undertake espionage in Iran, including things like cyber attacks that damage the regime (as opposed to the people) should be allowed to do so. Countries like Saudi Arabia, which fears Iran, must play their part, by keeping down oil prices, by reducing discrimination against Shi’ite subjects, and by defeating Iranian proxies in Yemen. (The US should start advising the Saudis on how to defeat the Houthis, because current Saudi tactics aren’t working.)

Russia needs to be encouraged to abandon Iran. Russia is transactional (as, happily, is Trump). If Russia is assured its naval infrastructure in Syria will remain and, more importantly, if Russia is granted a privileged sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, by stopping any hints of NATO expansion and removing support for Ukraine, as well as the removal of anti-ballistic missiles from a Poland and the Czech Republic, it will allow the US to have its own privileged sphere of influence in the Middle East.

But the issue isn’t merely Iran. The public and private support for groups on the Sunni Islamist continuum—including those fighting in Syria—needs to end. The Saudis have come a long way since September 2001, but they have a long way to go. The US has a lot of leverage over the Arab states—not least the promise of concrete action against Iran. 

As for Syria, it’s time for Arab countries to get involved. Coordinated and, if necessary, led by the US, Arab country troops need to operate in Syria. All groups associated with Iran, including Hezbollah, Iranian soldiers (if they don’t pull out) and the myriad ‘Popular Mobilisation Fronts’, must be fought. Syrian soldiers will stand down very quickly. Any other group, such as al-Qaeda, that fights this Arab–US coalition, must be swatted aside. Once stabilised—and it wouldn’t take long—the Arabs and the world would be in a position to determine what to do next. But it would not involve a precipitous withdrawal or a prolonged occupation of US troops. Arab troops would occupy the country. The outcome would not be excellent, but it would be better than the situation as it is, or the situation we are currently drifting towards, where the Iranian bloc wins and sets up permanent control.

In international diplomacy and war, things are messy. Things are rarely black and white. Desired tactics are not always available. However, identifying strategic objectives is the first step. Once these have been identified, and once the courage is found to pursue them, the right tactics (or best of a bad bunch) can be chosen. But pursuing tactical actions without a clear strategic direction will always lead to failure.


Ehud Ya’ari is one of the few ‘must-read’ Middle East analysts. He writes well, with authority but without emotion, and he’s usually spot on. He’s written an article in Foreign Affairs about Iranian plans for the Levant, and ended it with concrete proposals for US policy:

In responding to Iran’s plan to secure influence in the Levant, the Trump administration should work with its regional counterparts to thwart Iran’s attempt to build these two corridors. Turkey, a NATO ally, should be encouraged to resist Iran’s efforts to dominate, through the corridors, the main trade routes serving large amounts of Turkish exports to the Arab world. The Kurds, both in Iraq and in Syria, should be provided military equipment to face the Shiite militias. Jordan should assist the Sunnis of western Iraq, as well as the Shamar Bedouin federation of the Syrian desert, which has traditional ties with the Saudis, in organizing their own forces. The United States should back Israel’s effort to prevent the Iranians from securing a foothold on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. But above all, the United States should continue talking with Russia and insist that sooner rather than later, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will have to go.

Lumper or splitter?

Marc Lynch, of the Carnegie Endowment, has written an essay in which he divides analysts of Islamist movements between ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’. Lumpers, he writes, lump all Islamist movements into the same basket, and think the West is at war against them all. Splitters, on the other hand, analyse the many differences between movements, and see some (non-violent) Islamist groups as potential allies. Lumpers are wrong and splitters are right, according to Lynch.

On the face of it, I’m a lumper. I write often of a Sunni Islamist continuum. However, I think Lynch is too clumsy in his analysis; there are benefits to both approaches (it is important to know the differences between factions, even if you think they are all the enemy). Further, by lumping all lumpers into the same basket, Lynch does his analysis no favours.

Lynch appears to believe that lumpers see all Islamist movements as a coherent whole. This indicates he thinks lumpers think that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State, for instance, are in a grand, cooperative coalition—perhaps a Muslim variant of the Elders of Zion! While some might think that’s the case, I disagree. For a start, there is a difference between Muslim groups (i.e. Political groups that have Islam as part of their identity) and Islamist groups (i.e. Political groups whose objectives are defined by their interpretation of Islam). Membership of my Sunni Islamist continuum is determined by objectives: it consists only of groups that have the objective of establishing a Sunni caliphate. All Islamist groups that desire this goal, whether now or in 50 yeas, and whether violently or non-violently, are on the continuum and, despite the many differences between them, they are all the enemies of the West. This does not indicate that these groups are in cahoots, but merely they share a desired outcome. In that regard, I am a lumper, but that doesn’t mean I lump all Muslim groups into the one basket (and, certainly, Shi’ite groups or states like Hezbollah and Iran are in their own basket—what this blog and others label the Resistance Bloc).

(Further, Hamas has been wavering between membership of the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist continuum for years, as covered in other pages of this blog.)

But, of course, it is important to know the differences between the groups. Islamic State, for instance, can only be beaten with violence (although effective governance will help prevent the emergence of a similar group in the future). But the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan will be defeated through effective governance, secular education and increased civil rights. The tactics required to defeat each actor on the continuum are different, but the strategy is the same, to not only show everyone that being on the continuum leads to failure, but also that there are better options to secure health, wealth and safety for one’s country, community and family. Obviously, devining successful tactics and implementing them is hard, if not currently impossible, so the status quo will likely contnue for some time. But before we launch into implementing tactics—any tactics—we need to know what our strategy is. Does the West have a strategy? 

Syria, in eight pages


To the uninitiated, the conflict in Syria, and what can be done about it, is very confusing. In recent days, a member of the Washington Institute made a statement to the US Senate, which you can read here. The eight page document is a succinct and cogent description of the internal and external actors, and policy options for the US. These options are founded in strategy—what are the US’s vital interests in the context of the way, and how can these be achieved. Well worth the read.

Turkish democracy votes to end itself


This blog has long been concerned about the trajectory of Turkish domestic and foreign policy. A substantial post in October 2014 provides background. In short, Turkey is a key member of the Sunni Islamist continuum. In 2011 and 2012, it saw what it thought (and, admittedly, what this author thought) was the emergence of a Sunni Islamist Bloc, to compete with the Status Quo Bloc and Resistance Bloc (background here). However, with only one principality (i.e. Turkey) run by a member of the nascent bloc, Turkey has been left dangling, strategically.

But that hadn’t stopped Turkish President Erdogan’s ongoing policy of increasing autocracy. His rise to being a president with unprecedented powers over the executive and judiciary while sidelining, oppressing and arresting opponents is at once a masterclass in politics and a valuable lesson, (which we didn’t learn in Russia and Hungary), and given the populist politics in much of the West.

Two recent articles describe his rise, though neither mention his purposeful undermining of a ceasefire with Kurds in 2015, so as to earn populist support among ethnic Turks and, with it, a clear election victory.

The articles are here and here.

The Syria strike


On the radio this morning, Fran Kelly and Sabra Lane spoke, in their respective programmes, at length about the US strike on Syria. In this post, I want to discuss the Russian involvement in Syria, the purpose of the US attack and the supposed change in US policy vis-à-vis ‘regime change’ in Syria.

First, Fran Kelly asked a guest what would change Russia’s mind in regards to its backing of Syria. The guest said, correctly, that stepping away from Syria would be embarrassing and a significant back down vis-à-vis Russian–US relations. That’s true (and it reminds one of the Obama Administration walking away from its backing of Egypt in 2011), but the guest was wrong to leave it at that. 

Russia has a strategic relationship with Syria, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility for it to walk away from Assad. In the past, I likened the respective Russian and Iranian involvement / commitment to Syria as the comparison between a breakfast of bacon and eggs.

Russia is primarily motivated by its national interests. (So is the West, but sometimes the liberal elite forget that.) The Russian relationship with Syria has long served Russian interests, and only if the West can convince Russia that its interests lie in another policy will Russia change. The Russian interests are: a warm water port at Latakia; significant arms sales; an opportunity to show the lengths of unconditional Russian support in comparison to the West (especially during the Obama Administration, when US support for its traditional friends was purposefully diluted, but also generally, as the West likes to link its support to protection of human and civil rights, which Russia does not); and a Russian intolerance to internal or externally-driven overthrows of regimes.

This last point is important because Russia has plenty of restive areas that might dream of breaking away from Russia; Russia does not want them to think such actions will be successful or go unpunished. A successful Western Syria policy must involve Russia, and so must appreciate Russian interests. Russia cannot be handed a strategic defeat on this front; it must be co-opted.

Second, a reader pointed out that 59 missiles fired at an airbase won’t make much of a difference to the Assad regime. That’s true, but the missile strike wasn’t about making a difference, it was about sending a message. The message was to all countries around the world; before you do something, you have to consider the American reaction. Because America, under Obama, had essentially left the field, countries began to have a much freer hand in the Middle East. Russia and Iran became much more important players. And the Gulf states funded Islamist militias because no one on their side was doing anything. In Asia, China became more bullish as well. And so it goes. 

Which leads me to my third point, there is now talk about ‘regime change’ in Syria. I honestly do not think that the Trump Administration is contemplating direct military action to bring down Assad (though it might increase support to militias that are trying to do that). But it has come to the conclusion that the end game in Syria, whenever it is realised, should not involve Assad. That’s hardly a novel policy, but it is in direct conflict with what Russia wants, and so the statements are significant, given the friendly Russian-Trump relations until now.

But those that want Assad gone, using whatever means, risk losing sight of the fact that getting rid of him is a tactic, not a strategy. The Middle East requires a strategic view. This blog has put forward one such view, from the very first post and repeated ad nauseum since, that there are three groups of interest in the Middle East, and two are inimical to Western interests. They should be fought using diplomatic, financial and military means (the last, where necessary, and preferably through proxies).

Actions to achieve ends that do not align with a strategic objective (or, worse, in the absence of a strategic objective) will only end in further disasters.

Reward Jordan


Jordan is an increasingly important part of the pro-West Status Quo Bloc. It doesn’t have much money, but it has a king (but, sadly, not a population) that is willing to go out on a limb to support Western interests, including recognition of Israel, an anti-violence Islamic message, outspoken concern about Iran, and boots on the ground in Syria (well, bombers in the air) to back up its rhetoric. 

With few natural resources and massive Iraqi and Syrian refugee populations, Jordan has been struggling economically. Add to that its Palestinian population, there since 1948 and largely naturalised (though not really integrated), Jordan could have easily stayed on a populist Islamist, anti-Israel, anti-West path. But it didn’t, and so deserves as much financial and diplomatic support the West can muster. Australia could have a role by directing development aid to the country. Too often in the Middle East, bad behaviour is rewarded and good behaviour is ignored. This should be reversed, and Jordan is a country where it should happen.

Here’s a good backgrounder from the Washington Institute.

A test for Trump


Syria has allegedly used chemical weapons against civilians once again. When Obama was president, he foolishly said that such use would be a ‘red line’. When chemical weapons were subsequently used, Obama’s bluff was called, and he effectively did nothing. The episode substantially weakened the US in the Middle East, and helped Russia ease its way back in, a proc ss that continued for the remainder of Obama’s term.

Trump hasn’t said anything quite as specific about chemical weapons, but he has talked tough, and he has sought to differentiate himself from Obama. If he does nothing in the face of th s outraged, it will be perceived as weakness. I expect he will order a strike on some Syrian government or military facility to send a message. 

PS – the photo is from the 2013 attack