Are the Kurds starting to trust us?

There is another sign that the wider Middle East trusts Trump.

Syria’s Kurds have been fairly shy during the civil war as to which side they fall on. Mostly they’ve taken the stance of, if you try to kill us, we’ll attack, but otherwise we’ll leave you alone—and they’ve forged for themselves two areas in Syria where they hold the monopoly on power. The Syrian government hasn’t bothered to try to take the territory back, both because it has bigger fish to fry, and also because the Kurds aren’t attacking Syrian forces. Moreover, the Kurds have been the most effective regional force against the Islamic State.

So the Kurds have adopted a wait-and-see approach. They want the best deal for them, and are unsure how the Syrian civil war will end, or who will be the victor. Why get in solidly behind the US if they think the US will ultimately leave and Iranian-backed forces will win the war? Or why do the opposite, just in case the US-backed forces win?

But this article makes it look like the Kurds are starting to think that the US is in for the long haul, and is determined to not let Iran and the Resistance Bloc win. That’s a good thing, because, as Osama bin Laden put it, locals will back the strong horse. 

The Accidental Strategist 


Despite his best efforts, it’s just possible that President Obama accidentally stitched together the makings of a new Middle East favourable to Western interests. 

Let’s consider Obama’s record. During his administration: the distrust among Israelis and Palestinians became complete; Syria descended into civil war; Saudi Arabia and Iran began conducting a proxy war in Yemen; Egypt went from military dictatorship to Islamist ‘democracy’ to military dictatorship; Iraq went from mostly stable to failed state to Iranian client; the Islamic State rose out of nowhere and took over a third of Iraq; Iran became emboldened and free of UN sanctions (all the while continuing to pursue a nuclear option and missile technology), and is now openly supporting militias that defy Western interests in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Syria. So, yes, he left the region worse than he found it (which, given his predecessor’s record, is impressive), but the conditions Obama created in the Middle East are ripe for meaningful improvement. 

This is because a key gripe of US strategists—and Trump as candidate—is the assumed expectation among America’s partners that because the US guarantees their security, they need have little responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof). But Obama provided the Middle East with new assumptions. The lessons he imparted is that America is not trustworthy and can no longer be relied upon to guarantee regional security. This created throughout the Middle East a mood that actors would have to help themselves. A wise Trump Administration would not reverse this mood, but rather guide it—a carrot and stick approach along the lines of ‘we will help those who help themselves, but thwart all those who defy us’. 

In order to understand how this policy might work, we first need to understand the region’s strategic environment, as this will explain why each actor acts as they do. 

In a long process beginning with the First World War and culminating during Obama’s presidency, the Middle East coalesced into three main groups of interest. The first is an unofficial ‘Status Quo Bloc’, consisting of most Arab states (Qatar, Syria and Oman being the exceptions). The Status Quo Bloc is Sunni and Arab. It wants things to stay as they are—monarchical or military dictatorships whose security is guaranteed by the US. These states have long experience in swatting away clumsy Western attempts to improve their human and civil rights record, and increasingly accept Israel (which shares their objectives and enemies) as a proxy member. 

The second group is the ‘Resistance Bloc’. Although its members have different end-goals, they are united in their desire to remove America as the source of Middle Eastern stability (since America props up their enemies). Led by Shi’ite, Persian Iran, the Resistance Bloc includes ‘official’ Syria, Hezbollah and, until 2012, Hamas. Iraq is a recent member (Iraq is mostly Arab, and most of its Arabs are Shi’ite. With America asleep at the wheel, Iraq was allowed to drift into Iran’s orbit of influence, a stunning defeat for the US, given all the blood and treasure it spent from 2003). 

The third group is harder to define, which is why I describe it as the ‘Sunni Islamist Continuum’, rather than Bloc. The common end-goal among all adherents is the establishment of a Sunni caliphate over the Middle East and, eventually, the world. But that’s where the commonality ends—some want to start with internal religious reform, others with the ruthlessly-enforced imposition of new rules over areas obtained militarily. Some are willing to work with the West in the short term, others are not. Few cooperate with each other and some fight each other. However, their common end-goal allows us to place them on a continuum from non-violent, political Islamist groups like Hezb u-Tahrir, to increasingly strident groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas to Islamic State and its successors. Turkey and Qatar are also on the Continuum, and act accordingly. 

In a fascinating series of events sparked by the Arab Spring, this continuum almost coalesced into a genuine bloc. Turkey under Erdogan would like a Sunni Islamist Bloc to emerge, and so, after being snubbed by Assad in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, came out strongly against Syria and the Resistance Bloc. In the same period, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt. This saw Egypt leave the Status Quo Bloc. Sunni, Arab Hamas—part of the Resistance Bloc and based in Damascus—was so embarrassed by Syria killing so many Sunni Arabs that it pulled out of both Damascus and the Resistance Bloc. It had the courage to do so because of Egypt’s then-Sunni Islamist government. With Muslim Brotherhood control of Egypt (actively backed by Turkey) and Sunni Islamists on the rise throughout the region, it was thought by many that their time had come. 

However, in July 2013, the Egyptian military regained control of the country and re-joined the Status Quo Bloc. Turkey was on the outer (again) and Hamas realised it had lost badly, which is why it has become so reliant on Qatar. 

The existence of three distinct groups of interest both explains regional actions and the confusion of those commentators that appear to assume the region has only two main blocs, typified by Iranian–Saudi tension. 

The Status Quo Bloc sees the Resistance Bloc as an existential external threat, but the Sunni Islamist Continuum as an existential internal threat. The Status Quo’s diplomatic actions against Qatar is not so much because of Iran, but because Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and al-Jazeera, which is intent on highlighting the Status Quo dictatorships’ myriad shortcomings. (If Qatar’s isolation continues, look for Hamas to seek to re-join the Resistance Bloc and Iranian patronage.) 

As above, as a direct result of Obama’s choices, such as pressure on America’s friends (e.g. Israel), a deliberate lack of pressure on America’s enemies (e.g. Iran in 2009 and the nuclear talks), the pivot to Asia, no help to friendly regimes in need (e.g. Egypt in 2011), and entirely hollow threats (e.g. over chemical weapons), America’s enemies learned that they could defy American interests without consequence. And America’s friends learned that that would have to learn to take care of themselves. 

Iran’s undisguised activity in Iraq and Syria is the most obvious example, as is its missile testing and the recent admission—after years of obfuscation—that it was arming Houthis in Yemen all along. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s military intervention in Yemen, to thwart Iranian interests, is another example, as is their willingness to countenance attempts to create an ‘Arab NATO’. The isolation of Qatar has provided Fatah (a Status Quo Bloc member) with the perfect opportunity to squeeze Hamas—hence the recent cessation of payments for Gaza’s electricity and the thousands of people still on the PA’s payroll ten years after Hamas kicked the PA out of Gaza. 

So, what is to be done? The new can-do spirit in the Middle East only works in our interests if those so doing are doing things in our interests. A Middle East strategy needs to be developed, one based on a realistic understanding of the Middle East, what our interests there are, and who helps us advance them (and who doesn’t). To put it bluntly, America and the West must thwart our enemies (the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist Continuum) and help our friends (the Status Quo Bloc and Israel). 

I know it’s not a popular view, but I think Trump is on the right path, mostly. He expresses support for those countries willing to act, and pressures those countries intent on defying America’s will. But he needs to refine this policy, and quickly.  

Take Syria. The West’s focus has been defeating Islamic State. But IS is a symptom of the wider Sunni Islamist Continuum, not the cause of instability. Remove IS and others will step up to the plate. More importantly, the Resistance Bloc is heavily involved in Syria, and is the group most likely to achieve its objectives there. Like it or not, the West’s long-term priorities are to thwart Iranian activities in Syria (and Iraq), not kill a few thousand bloodthirsty jihadis. While Trump (and Congress) are placing diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, it’s all rather ad hoc. I’m not advocating regime change, but a strategic-level policy of thwarting—diplomatically, economically, and militarily (preferably by proxy)—as many Iranian actions as possible that are against US interests.  

Further, the current and unprecedented (though under the radar) security, intelligence and economic cooperation between Israel and the Status Quo Bloc is an unintended outcome of Obama’s policy of turning his back on America’s friends. Trump must be very careful that, as he demonstrates that America is once again engaged in the region, the Status Quo Bloc doesn’t become so comfortable as to hate Israel again. 

Likewise, Trump has to make sure that by rewarding good behaviour, he does not accidentally recreate the conditions where countries in the region once again become ‘free riders’, and head back to the position they were in before Obama stuffed things up / created the pre-conditions for a new Middle East. When America’s friends defy American interests (such as with unwanted settlements or funding yet more Wahhabi mosques), America must use its considerable leverage to put them in their place. 

This is all rather difficult to pull off, but Trump has two things in his favour. First, despite his personal erraticism, his Secretaries of Defence, State and Homeland Security, appear—mostly—to have the correct strategic view of Middle Eastern realities. Second, Trump appears to have the will to implement policies that aren’t domestically or internationally popular. If convinced the strategy outlined above would make America great again (and they would), he just might put them into action.  

Can Trump channel Kissinger?

 

With US President Trump about to embark on a Middle East tour, the conditions exist for a grand bargain, but does the US have the strategic vision to achieve it?

In the 1970s, US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger identified a rare alignment of the planets and re-ordered the Middle East. Consider the context; a Soviet-backed war against Israel in 1973 (the fifth such war in 25 years) was pushing the Jewish state to the precipice. The oil weapon, unsheathed by Saudi Arabia, produced the first great oil shock for the American economy. President Nixon, mired in the Vietnam and Watergate crises, was otherwise distracted. The American brand was in retreat across the world. 

By the end of Kissinger’s machinations, Israel had decisively won the war, embarrassing the Soviets; Egypt had been plucked from the Soviet camp (the US’s biggest Cold War win) and signed a peace treaty with Israel; a balance of arms was established whereby the 1973 war became the last state-to-state Arab–Israel war; and the Saudis were on their way into America’s fold, allowing for the uninterrupted flow of oil, which has underpinned the global economic rise over the last four decades. 

Now consider today’s Middle East. The policies of the last two US presidents have been dismal. Hundreds of thousands have died. The Arab Spring became an Islamist Winter, and at least four Arab states are currently either failed or nearly there. Countries that once relied on the US to protect their interests now have little trust in Washington. Russia, largely excluded from the Middle East because of Kissinger, has returned in dramatic fashion. Iran has risen from annoying supporter of global terrorism to the most important actor in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Its repressive regime faces little risk domestically. And, on top of that, it now has the license, signed by Barak Obama, to be a nuclear state in a decade. 

But amidst this chaotic outcome of shambolic policy lies the seeds of a grand bargain. That’s because all the parties that have once or might again heed the US want something, and only the US can deliver.  Let’s take a look at the main actors.

Saudi Arabia, most other Arab states and Israel want Iran contained. This includes less influence in Iraq and a defeat in Syria. Israel wants security from Palestinian terrorism (with or without a Palestinian state). The Palestinian Authority wants a state, though isn’t politically strong enough to deliver the minimum concessions, and it wants Hamas contained. Many Arab state leaders want a relationship with Israel, but cannot until the Palestinian question is answered. And the entire Arab leadership wants Islamists undermined, even though they offer little alternative.

Without being too prescriptive, here’s what Trump should be aiming for. Nothing can happen until the Iranian–Russian relationship is effectively severed. Russia is transactional (as, happily, is Trump). Russia should be assured its naval infrastructure in Syria will remain and, more importantly, it should be 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 Poland and the Czech Republic. In return, the US should make clear that the Middle East is its own privileged sphere of influence.

Iran wants to upturn the regional order and replace the US as regional hegemon. Its strategic objective, not its religion, makes it an ideological enemy of the West, and it should be countered, by sanctions, by proxy wars and by funding opposition groups. Remember, it wasn’t UN sanctions that brought Iran to the nuclear negotiation table, but a European Union decision (forced by American action) to exclude Iran from the SWIFT international finance regime.

Saudi Arabia and Israel each have a role to play in countering Iran.

The other group of interest ideologically committed to undermining the West is the Sunni Islamists. The public and private financial support for violent Islamist groups—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. By acting against Iran, the US will create considerable leverage over the Arab states to make demands.

On Syria, the US needs to realise that Islamic State isn’t the principle enemy, and needs to make clear that the only way to prevent an Iranian win is a Saudi-led Arab occupation of the country, with US support—a policy of ‘we will help those who help themselves’. With American assistance, Arab country troops should enter Syria and fight all groups associated with Iran, including Hezbollah, Iranian soldiers (if they don’t pull out) and the myriad ‘Popular Mobilisation Forces’. 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 while Arab (not American) troops occupy the country. The outcome would not be excellent by any means, but it would be better than the status quo, and it would mark an undeniable defeat for Iran by its principle enemies.

Despite finally getting some real aid from the US, the Kurds are drifting towards the Iranian camp, because Iran might give them want they want—independence, or at least greater autonomy in Syria. Kurdish support must be won to the West, and the West, notwithstanding Turkish objections, should promise the Kurds a homeland.

In exchange for action against Iran, Israeli settlement activity must be restrained, and some helpful unilateral moves (such as small withdrawals or issuing of building permits in Area C of the West Bank) should be encouraged. The Palestinian leadership lacks popularity for two reasons; peace with Israel has not brought tangible benefits and endemic corruption. With the threat of reduced aid, corruption must be made to end, and pressure on Israel to make the unilateral moves will help Abbas’s popularity. (But Israeli moves cannot be seen as occurring because of violence, as that will benefit Hamas and harden Israeli attitudes.) Official Palestinian celebrations of violence, such as naming youth events after suicide bombers, must end immediately.

Only the US has the ability to achieve these ends. Pursuing this strategy will not create Utopia. People will still be killed. The losers—Iran and its proxies—will respond with terrorism. But what the above represents is a strategy, not merely a collection of ad hoc tactics. What has been missing for the last 20 years is strategic vision in the US and the right constellation of events on the ground. The latter is now in place. Will Washington step up to the plate?

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.


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.

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.

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.

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

Worth watching


An article worth reading reveals Hezbollah fighters are growing tired of their Iranian overlords in Syria, and are causing problems upon their return to Lebanon. A way to fix the situation might be for the Hezbollah leadership to refocus the fight against Israel, as opposed to against fellow Arabs. Watch for increased anti-Israel rhetoric and maybe, if things from a Hezbollah perspective get bad enough, attempts to spark renewed confrontation with the Jewish state.

Backing a strong horse


To paraphrase Osama bin Laden, it feels as if Turkey and Egypt are backing the strong horse in softening their opposition to Syrian President Assad (and Russia). This New York Times article has the details. 

For those without the time or inclination, the article essentially says that in the face of a strong and apparently determined Russian intervention in Syria, and a weak Obama Middle  East policy, Turkey and Egypt are softening their opposition to Syria, whereas once they were both staunch opponents.

What the article doesn’t say is that the Turkish and Egyptian leaders—both strongmen with decreasing democratic credentials—are fickle, compared to the much more strategic vision of the Saudi leadership, which is maintaining its opposition to Assad, because of Assad’s principle backer, Iran.

That fickleness is interestng, because both might come back to the American fold, should the latter start showing some spine (and results). And, come 20 January, that might happen. 

And that, to me, is the reason the Syrian and Russian onslaught in Aleppo has ramped up so significantly in the last few weeks; both want tangible and irreversible gains in the key city before Trump takes power. What this indicates is that Russia is actually apprehensive of a Trump presidency (well, aren’t we all?!). Many of the naysayers have stated that Trump and Putin will get along famously (or that Trump will let Putin do what he wants in the Middle East and Europe—which is ironic, since that’s what Putin has been doing during the Obama Administration!) 

I’m no fan of Trump, but the Russian actions in Syria show that they’re worried. I bet they’ll be a significant calming of the Aleppo situation or or immediately before 20 January.