Tag Archives: regional geopolitics

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

13 Nov

 

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

 

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a wide-ranging interview in November 2017 that that concentrates on the failure of the UN and the world to rescue the people of Syria by a timely and effective humanitarian intervention. The interview was conducted by a Turkish journalist, Salva Amor, and is to be published in a magazine, Causcasus International. The text of the interview has been slightly modified.]

 

A missed chance 

 

  1. You previously referred to Syria as “an ideal case for humanitarian intervention” however, rather than becoming a prime example of positive humanitarian intervention it has turned into one of the greatest humanitarian crises with half of the country becoming refugees or internally displaced. 

 

What turned such an Ideal case for humanitarian intervention into one of the worst humanitarian responses we have seen in recent times?

 

Answer: I do not recall this reference to Syria as ‘an ideal case,’ but I must have meant it in a hypothetical sense, that is, as if ‘humanitarian intervention’ was ever called for, it was in Syria, especially at the early stages of the conflict. And yet I am inclined to think that regime-changing intervention was at all stages a mission impossible. We should keep in mind that the record of actual successful instances of what is labeled as ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been dismal, and when successful the motivation was not predominantly humanitarian, but rather a confluence of strategic interests of one sort or another with a humanitarian challenge. In Syria the strategic interests were not sufficiently strong to justify the likely costs, especially in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Sometimes, the intervention is a cover for non-humanitarian goals, as in Afghanistan (2002), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011) and may be effective in attaining its immediate goals of regime change but is extremely costly from the perspective of humanitarianism if assessed from the perspective of prolonged violence, societal chaos, and human suffering.

And only marginally successful strategically given the resilience of territorial resistance and the pressure for long-term occupation if the original gains of intervention are to be preserved.

 

At other times, the humanitarian rationale is present, as in Syria, but there is no strategic justification of sufficient weight, and what is done by external actors or the UN is insufficient to control the outcome, and often ends up intensifying the scale of suffering endured by the population. In effect, humanitarian intervention rarely achieves a net benefit from the perspective of the population that is being supposedly rescued. Perhaps, Kosovo (1999) is the best recent case where an alleged humanitarian intervention enjoyed enough strategic value to be effective, and yet seems to have left the Kosovar population better off afterwards, although even Kosovo is not a clear case.  

 

 

Failures & implications of inaction

 

  1. The humanitarian failures in Syria and for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries including Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have had far-reaching implications for the EU with millions of refugees choosing to risk their lives in order to enter Europe causing the largest exodus since WWII. 

 

Could the surge of refugees fleeing to Europe have been avoided had a more positive and organized humanitarian intervention taken place?

 

Answer: It is possible that had Syria possessed large oil reserves, the intervention against the Damascus regime would have been robust enough to topple the regime, and create stability before combat conditions prompted massive internal population displacements and gigantic refugee flows, including the European influx. In this sense, Libya with oil, did prompt such an intervention, although it was an easier undertaking, as the Qaddafi regime had much less popular support than did the Assad regime, and was less well equipped militarily and lacked regional allies. In Syria, because of regional and global geopolitical cleavages, the politics of intervention and counter-intervention was far more complicated, and inhibited potential anti-regime interveners from making large commitments. At the early stages of the conflict Turkey and the United States miscalculated the costs and scale of a successful intervention in Syria, supposing that an indirect and low level effort could be effective in achieving regime change, which misunderstood the conditions prevailing in Syria.  

 

 

The best response

 

  1. In your experience, what would have been the ideal humanitarian response to the war in Syria? And who would have been best to implement it? 

 

Answer: As my earlier responses hinted, there is no ideal response, and the current world order system is not reliably capable of handling humanitarian intervention in a situation such as existed in Syria. To have any chance of effectiveness would require entrusting the undertaking to one or more powerful states, but even then the situation that would follow, is highly uncertain. In a post-colonial setting, there is bound to be strong nationalist and territorial resistance to outside intervention and occupation, generally producing serious prolonged chaos. If the country is very small and can be overwhelmed (Granada, Panama) without counter-intervention the undertaking will sometimes work. Iraq serves as a clear example of an intervention that did rid the country of a brutal tyrant, but produced internal violence among competing regions, tribes, and generated extreme sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as a series of ethnic, tribal, and regional battles.

 

In a better governed world, which is far from existing, the UN would have acted robustly and with the support of the regional governments in the Middle East, the geopolitical actors (U.S. and Russia) would have not pursued their strategic agendas, and a politically neutral intervention would have created the conditions for a post-Assad democratic political transition, including imposing accountability for past crimes. Merely mentioning this desirable scenario is enough to reveal its utopian character. Especially in the Middle East, geopolitics of a regional and global scope badly distort all efforts to fashion a humanitarian response to repression and severe violations of human rights. In the background, but not far in the background, is the relevance of oil. The countries that have experienced massive interventions (Iraq, Libya) possessed abundant oil reserves, while those that have little or no oil have either been ignored or endured prolonged bloody conflict, of which Syria is the worst case, having become the scene of competing and offsetting interventions motivated by political and strategic ambitions with only a thin propaganda rationale associated with alleviating a humanitarian crisis, which at best, was a much subordinated goal of the interveners on both sides.

 

 

Lessons for Future

 

4a. How can the world learn from the humanitarian failures and inaction that occurred in Syria for the past 7 years? What opportunities to protect, defend or support the Syrian people have we missed?

 

Answer: In my view, it is a mistake to speak of ‘inaction’ in the Syrian context. There have been massive interventions of all sorts on both sides of the conflict by a variety of actors, but none decisive enough to end the conflict, and none primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns. Of course, here and there, lives could have been saved, especially if the balance of forces within Syria had been better understood at an early stage of the conflict in the West. What intervention achieved in Syria was largely a matter of magnifying the conflict, and attendant suffering. The conflict itself was surrounded by contradictory propaganda claims making the reality difficult to perceive by the public, and therefore there was political resistance to more explicit and possibly more effective regime changing intervention. 

 

Indifference:

 

4b. Is there any correlation between the rise of Islamophobia and the world’s inaction towards Syrian people’s suffering? Has the ongoing drumming of hatred towards the Islamic religion created a generation of indifference towards those of them who are suffering? Or is such wide indifference a natural response to such overwhelming humanitarian crisis?

 

Answer: The indifference in relation to Syria is mainly a matter of public confusion and distrust. Confusion about the nature of the conflict and distrust as to the motives of political actors that have intervened on either side. The spike in Islamophobia is attributable to the interplay of the European refugee crisis and the occurrence of terrorist incidents that are perpetrated by ISIS and its supporters. Of course, the massive refugee flow was prompted by the violence in the Syrian combat zones, which has made Europe most interested in resolving the conflict even if meant allowing a criminal regime to remain in power.

 

I suppose that the indifference noted in your question is more evident in relation to the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar that in response to Syria where, as I have been suggesting, the political context dominates the human suffering, and the Islamic identity of the victimized people is secondary. Also, it is worth recalling the global indifference to genocide in Rwanda (1994) that could have prevented,

or at least minimized, by a timely, and relatively small scale intervention. And on occasion, if the strategic context is supportive, the West will intervene on the Islamic side as in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and there in opposition to the Christian side.  

 

 

  1. The UN has handed over a large portion of the $4bn of its aid effort in Syria to the Syrian regime or partners who have been approved by Bashar Al Assad. How does the UN justify providing tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to one of the worst governments, that has besieged, starved, bombed and killed hundreds of thousands of its own people? 

 

Answer: I suppose the basic justification for this behavior is that from the viewpoint of the UN the Damascus regime remains the legitimate government of Syria representing the country at the UN. This is of course a legalistic justification, and evades the real humanitarian crisis as well as the crimes of Assad’s regime. So far, because there is a geopolitical standoff, regionally (Iran v. Saudi Arabia) and globally (Russia v. the U.S. and Turkey), the UN has tried to remain aloof from the ambit of political controversy to the extent possible while doing what it can to alleviate human suffering. I am not knowledgeable about whether the UN aid is reaching the civilian population as claimed. The language of your question suggests that there should be some mechanism for disqualifying a government that commits repeated crimes against its own people from being treated by the UN as a normal member state, but this is not likely to happen anytime soon, and it is tricky as the UN System is built around state-centric ideas of world order.

 

 

The right to torture

 

  1. The world was shocked in 2015 when the Caesar files were releasedrevealing human stories behind 28,000 deaths in Syrian prisons, most, if not all were tortured prior to their death.Two years later no action has been taken in regards to detainees and torture in prisons. There has been no action or desire to send observers to Syrian Prisons nor to investigate those who were named in the Caesar files for war crimes.What must a dictator have to do for the international community to respond to his crimes? Comparing Libyan intervention with Syria

 

Answer: I took part recently in a ceremony in Nuremberg Germany that awarded a human rights prize to the photographer, whose identity is kept secret for his safety, responsible for the Caesar Report containing photographic images of Syrian prison torture of some 11,000 prisoners, most of whom are reportedly now dead. There is no question that these images are horrifying, but serious issues have been raised as to the authenticity of this photographic archive. It has been authenticated as genuine by Human Rights Watch, but has also been used by persons closely connected with the U.S. Government to build a case for war crimes prosecutions, particularly against Bashar al Assad. I am not in a position to assess the controversy, yet do not doubt that the Damascus regime has committed many atrocities and are responsible for the great majority of civilian deaths over the course of the last six years in Syria. At the same time the anti-regime forces, which are fragmented, have also committed many war crimes.

 

These issues of criminal accountability cannot be reliably answered from a distance, or merely on the basis of media reports. What is required is a credible international fact finding commission of inquiry with adequate access to whatever evidence and witnesses remain available.

 

 

 

  1. Human rights groups have estimated that no less than half a million people have died in the last 7 years in Syria. Although there are many violent factions in Syria, more than 94% of all deaths have been caused by Syrian Government or Russian strikes. In comparison Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi had killed an 257 people including combatants and injured 949 with less than 3% being women and children when UN security council intervened. On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 (2011) authorizing “regional organizations or arrangements…to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” in Libya. The resolution was adopted with ten votes for, none against, and five abstentions. In hindsight, many have now questioned whether that intervention was purely to “protect civilians”. Is the UN Security Council still a reliable body that can be relied upon to protect the civilian? The UN’s Responsibility Not – To Protect the Civilian Population

 

Answer: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) UN norm is interpreted and practice is governed by the UN Security Council, and hence is completely subordinated to the manipulations of geopolitics. In this regard, the lesser humanitarian hazard in Libya led to a UN regime-changing mission because the Permanent Members opposed to intervention (China, Russia) were persuaded not to cast their veto for what was being proposed, which was a limited humanitarian mission to protect the then entrapped civilian population of Benghazi. In fact, the NATO undertaking expanded the mission far beyond the Security Council mandate from its inception, angering Russia and China that had abstained out of deference to pleas relating to the humanitarian claims put forward by the NATO members of the Security Council. They later justified their opposition to a more pro-active UN role in Syria by reference to this failure of trust, the unwillingness of the intervening states to respect the limits of the mandate.

 

What is important to appreciate is that R2P and other UN undertakings must adhere to the constraints of geopolitics. As disturbing as inaction with respect to Syria, is the UN silence with regard to the abuse of the civilian populations of Gaza and Rakhine (Myanmar). It is only when a geopolitical consensus exists, which is quite rare (e.g. failure with respect to Yemen) that it is possible for the UN to play an important humanitarian role in shaping behavior and protecting civilians.

 

 

  1. Why was The UN’s responsibility to protect (R2P ) invisible in the last 7 years in Syria? What must be done now, in order to implement an R2P operation in Syria to avoid further suffering? In past years vetoes have blocked humanitarian intervention.

 

Answer: Part of my response here has already been given in relation to the prior question. I would only add here that the abolition of the veto would be a crucial step, or even an agreement among permanent members of the Security Council to refrain from casting a veto in humanitarian contexts such as Syria. The problem is that the veto powers are extremely unlikely to give up their right of veto, partly because such states do not voluntarily give up power and partly because humanitarian issues are almost always inseparable from diverse and often antagonist geopolitical interests, and therefore the claims are not perceived as humanitarian. This is certainly the case with regard to Syria. The take away conclusion is that the international system as it now functions is rarely motivated by humanitarian considerations when they come into conflict with the strong political preferences and strategic priorities of principal states, and this is true even when the humanitarian crisis is as severe and prolonged as in Syria.

 The most constructive response, in view of these realities, is to advocate global reform, but this will not happen without a major mobilization of people throughout the world or as a frantic response to some earth-shaking catastrophe.

 

 

  1. I understand that there was a veto by Russia and thus a solution was not passed, however, in such cases, when one of the countries that is involved in the atrocities is allowed to veto, does it not raise the alarm?Surely, this situation in Syria and the human cost provides enough of a precedent for (if not the UN, those who care about preventing further atrocities) a new chapter to be drafted and implemented into the UN. –Do you believe that it is time for the UN to adopt a new chapter into itsCharter that would prevent dictators or countries with vested interest in a war from overpowering UN Security Council votes? Normalizing atrocities at the global level.

 

Answer: Yes, there was much criticism of Russia for blocking action on Syria, but Russia was acting in accord with the constitutional structure of the UN. The U.S. uses its veto in a comparable way to protect Israel and other allies, and equally irresponsibly, from a moral or humanitarian point of view. It should be remembered that the League of Nations fell apart because major states would not participate, including the United States. The idea of the veto was designed to persuade all major states to participate, with the goal of universality of membership, but at the cost of engendering paralysis and irresponsible obstructions to action whenever veto powers disagree sharply. Your questions raise the crucial issue if this was too high a price to pay for the sake of maintaining universality of participation. One consequence of this tradeoff between geopolitics and effectiveness is to weaken public respect for the UN as an agency for the promotion of justice and decency in global affairs.

 

As specified in Article 108 of the UN Charter requires the approval of 2/3rds of the entire membership of the UN as well as all five Permanent Members of the Security Council, which means that it will not happen in the foreseeable future in relation to any politically sensitive issue. When World War II ended there was the hope and illusion that countries that cooperated against fascism would continue to cooperate to maintain the peace. As should have been anticipated, it was a forlorn hope.

 

 

  1. The White House accepts Assad’s continued rule in Syria as a “political reality” while European leaders have also taken a soft approach with French president declaring he no longer saw the removal of Assad as necessary. In your view, how do such civilized countries justify good relations with Assad? ISIS the monster that invites intervention: ISIS Affects the West, Assad does not.

 

Answer: Your comment on ISIS is a way of expressing my view that these issues are dominated by geopolitical calculations. ISIS as horrible as it is has not been nearly as responsible for the quality and quantity of suffering inflicted upon the Syrian people by the Damascus regime.

 

At this point, and given the unavailability of humanitarian intervention, the best Plan B for Syria is to seek a sustainable ceasefire, and this would undoubtedly require making some unpalatable compromises, including the possible retention of Assad as head of state. After all, there are many heads of state with much blood on their hands, and yet their legitimacy as rulers is essentially unchallenged. The way the world is organized makes it unable to impose criminal responsibility on the leaders of sovereign states except in special circumstances of total victory as in World War II, or more recently, in relation to the criminal prosecutions of Saddam Hussein and Milosevic, particular enemies of the West.

 

 

  1. Many Syrian groups have released statements to express their dismay at the international community for only intervening to strike ISIS. The Global Coalition’s planes hover over Deir Al Zour and Raqa to target ISIS (often causing civilian casualties) while in the same sky Assad Planes carrying deadly Barrel Bombs hover over nearby towns unperturbed. A) Is there balance in the international community’s actions in Syria? While Assad only kills or affects the lives of Syrians in Syria, ISIS became a threat to western countries. Terrorist attacks in the west killed and injured civilians in the west.
  2. B) Is there an underlying message that the West will “Fight against ISIS in Syria, because it affects people in our countries, but leave Assad because he has no impact on their own people?”

 

Answer: Yes, this is certainly a perceptive observation. When the issue is fairly large scale and internal, and where Muslims are the victims, any effort to intervene is bound to be feeble, at best, which it was in the early stages of 2011-2013 when Turkey and the U.S. cooperated in supporting Friends of Syria, which was mistakenly thought capable of shifting the balance sufficiently in Syria to produce the collapse of the Damascus regime. When that failed, it became obvious that the costs of an effective intervention were viewed in the West as too high and dangerous. Considering the Iranian and Russian alignments with the Syrian government doomed an anti-Damascus intervention.

 

And as you suggest, the West views ISIS as dangerous enemy, and is prepared to take bigger risks and bear higher costs because Western homeland security is at stake. ISIS is a proclaimed enemy of the West that is perceived as responsible for violent acts, Syria is not, being regarded, at most, as an unattractive regime, partly because in the past, hostile toward Israel. Taking account of these circumstances, the political realist seeks a ceasefire in Syria while going all out to achieve the destruction of ISIS.

 

 

  1. Please kindly note any comments, suggestions, opinions, thoughts you have on the Syrian conflict and in particular on the west’s reaction to it and the UN’s role. Also, on what you feel can and should be done from now on. Thanks so much.

 

Answer: From my earlier responses I am skeptical about what can be done beyond the obvious: give up any hope of securing support for an R2P mandate to protect the Syrian people, and pursue a ceasefire so as to end the suffering. This is not justice, but it may at least spare the Syrian people further trauma and bloodshed.

 

What the Syrian tragedy and ordeal reveals vividly is the inability of the international community, as now organized, to deal with a humanitarian crisis unless a geopolitical consensus is present in a relatively strong form, regionally and globally. Such a consensus is not even enough if the difficulties of intervention are seen as producing heavy casualties for the intervening side and would impose burdens of a prolonged occupation to achieve post-intervention political order and security.

 

Europe would benefit at this time from a Syrian ceasefire and the restoration of political normalcy. It would undoubtedly reduce the pressure on European countries created by the Syrian refugee flow, which has given right wing political parties their greatest strength and largest level of popular support since the end of World War II.

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The Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

22 Nov

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a modified version of the Morton-Kenney annual public lecture given at the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale on November 18, 2015 under the joint sponsorship of the Department of Political Science and the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.]

 

The Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

While focusing on the ‘failure’ of American foreign policy in the Middle East it is relevant to acknowledge that given the circumstances of the region failure to some degree was probably unavoidable. The argument put forward here is that the degree and form of failure reflected avoidable choices that could and should have been corrected, or at least mitigated over time, but by and large this has not happened and it is important to understand why. This analysis concludes with a consideration of three correctible mistakes of policy.

 

It is also true that the Middle East is a region of great complexity reflecting overlapping contradictory features at all levels of political organization, especially the interplay of ethnic, tribal, and religious tensions internal to states as intensified by regional and geopolitical actors pursuing antagonistic policy agendas. Additionally, of particular importance recently is the emergence of non-state actors and movements that accord priority to the establishment and control of non-territorial political communities, giving primary legitimacy to Islamic affinities while withdrawing legitimacy from the modern state as it took shape in Western Europe. Comprehending this complexity requires attention to historical and cultural background, societal context, and shifting grand strategies of geopolitical actors.

 

 

I

 

From many points of view American foreign policy in the Middle East has been worse than a disappointment. It has been an outright failure, especially in the period following the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Even such an ardent supporter and collaborator of the U.S. government as Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has acknowledged as much in a recent set of comments where he basically says that the West has tried everything, and whatever the tactics were relied upon, the outcome was one of frustration and failure. In Blair’s telling words:

“We have tried intervention and putting down troops in Iraq; we’ve tried intervention without putting in troops in Libya; and we’ve tried no intervention at all but demanding regime change in Syria. It’s not clear to me that, even if our policy did not work, subsequent policies would have worked better.” [as quoted in David Swanson, “Tony Blair is Sorry, a Little,” http://davidswanson.org/node/4960] In Blair’s either/or world the political imagination is militarized to the extent that the only viable alternatives are to intervene/or not to intervene, suggestive of that most celebrated of binaries, Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be,’ an utterance relating to whether or not he should kill the usurping king, the presumed murderer of his father.

 

Several comments are worth observing: first, the scope of inquiry in Blair’s comment is limited to an assessment of military intervention as a tactic, without any consideration of diplomacy or respect for the dynamics of self-determination; secondly, the ‘we’ in his comments is the West, which mainly has meant the United States, rather than the UN or the wider international community; it is a geopolitical ‘we’; thirdly, the fact that intervention violates the UN Charter and international law is irrelevant for a post-colonial advocate of Western militarism, such as Blair. This comment is revealing in the same way that Sherlock Holmes famously perceived the nature of a crime by noticing that a dog was not barking in its habitual manner, that is, identifying what is omitted from Blair’s assessment is far more interesting and illuminating than what is acknowledged, which is the frustrations of interventionist statecraft in the Middle East; fourthly, it is a misrepresentation of Western policy toward the Syrian conflict to classify it as an instance of ‘nonintervention’ because there has been no concerted air campaign or ground forces mounted by external actors; fifthly, and perhaps most important of all, Blair’s focus on intervention as a Western instrument to control behavior in particular countries does not attempt to encompass the blowback or boomerang effects of intervention as being increasingly unconstrained by the territorial geography of the combat zone; this extra-regional extension of intervention is being most vividly experienced in the contradictory forms of the migration crisis and the horrifying Paris attacks; the point here being that the reverberations of Western intervention can no longer be reliably confined to non-Western battlefields as was the case during the colonial era.

 

Tom Mayer gives a more satisfactory gloss on this same range of experience. Mayer is a peace activist in Boulder Colorado who manages a very perceptive listserv with the name “Just Peace in the Middle East.” His assessment: “US military intervention has been a calamity in the Middle East. They have destroyed Iraq, destabilized Libya, fostered dictatorship in Egypt, accelerated civil war in Syria, and the destruction of Yemen, and helped squelch a pro-democracy movement in Bahrain.” [Oct. 25, 2015] The difference in outlook between Blair and Mayer is evident: Blair is exclusively concerned with whether Western policy attained its goals or not, while Mayer emphasizes the harmful effects on the society that is on the receiving end of intervention. Blair epitomizes what I regard as an obsolete yet dangerous form of ‘geopolitical thinking’ while Mayer focuses on the primacy of people and the suffering brought about by a misguided reliance on military solutions for conflicts in the Middle East. Mayer’s consequentialist thinking is also like Blair, not overtly sensitive to the relevance of restraints associated with the United Nations or international law but puts all his emphasis on the effects of these Middle Eastern uses of force. He also does not here mention the post-colonial globalization of conflict, the non-localization of Western political violence in the non-Western world, or more dramatically, the recourse by non-Western extremist forms of resistance to striking back at Western civilian or ‘soft’ targets. In my view, this last point is great significance signaling the end of a long era of one-sided violence in which non-Western resistance was confined to the territorial limits of the combat zone.

 

 

 

 

 

II

 

Before proceeding on the facile assumption of the ‘failure’ of American foreign policy in the Middle East, it is illuminating to consider alternative interpretations of recent developments.

 

There are important senses in which American foreign policy in the Middle East has not failed given certain assumptions about its character and priorities. If U.S. priorities are oil, Israel, non-proliferation, and the containment of political Islam, then American policy in the region, despite the collateral devastation and suffering entailed, has been surprisingly successful. For decades U.S. strategic relationships with the Gulf states have been successfully balanced with support for Israel. Oil has continued to keep the world economy going at affordable prices during a period when additional energy sources outside the region have been under development and exploration. After being a strategic burden during the early stages of its existence, Israel emerged as a valued strategic asset and partner with the United States in the region, especially since 1967. The U.S. together with Israel has successfully challenged all instances of the threatened proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region, while quite remarkably enabling Israel to maintain its regional monopoly of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, even to the extent of being insulated from criticism and pressure that should have been expected given such a blatant double standard as well as its process of covert acquisition. [Israel’s attack destroying Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981; Seymour Hersh, The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy (1991)]

 

Beyond these central points, it is relevant that both Israel and Saudi Arabia are also valued as major purchasers of American weaponry, and that Israel has field tested new tactics and weaponry in relation to the Palestinians that seem to have had a particular influence on Washington since the 9/11 attacks. Israel has joined with Washington in the development of counter-terrorism doctrine and tactic in all phases, including shared intelligence. In addition, Saudi Arabia has, despite its own fundamentalist orientation, operated as an unlikely counterweight in the region to the spread of Islamic radicalism, especially due to its bitter rivalry with Iran and hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, by relying on the cool abstractions of geopolitics it is possible to make a strong case for concluding that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, given the priorities, has been a success, and the current devastation chaos, and oppressiveness in several of the countries is a diversionary sideshow that should not be understood as outweighing the benefits.

 

It must be acknowledged that this positive assessment is no very convincing given the inability to prevent the turbulence of the Middle East from spilling over to the West is taken into account. The migration crisis confronting Europe and the extra-regional terrorism of jihadism must now be included in any credible calculation of foreign policy success and failure. Put differently, those countries not militarily engaged in the region, including China and Brazil, have not yet experienced the lethal backlash of Middle East turbulence and the related jihadi backlash.

 

As indicated, much depends on whether the prevailing geopolitical outlook of dominant states in the West is the criterion of success or failure rather than the normative criteria of peace, human rights and justice in the region. I am far more inclined to rely on the latter evaluative approach as coupled with a revisionist interpretation of 21st Century geopolitics. I contend that given the realities of the contemporary world, a nonviolent geopolitics respectful of international law, the authority of the United Nations, and the primacy of the politics of self-determination, despite some difficulties, best serves the strategic interest of the United States. [See Jens David Ohlin, The Assault on International Law (2015)] In effect, the United States position in the Middle East and the world would have been much more successful if built around adherence to international law and respect for UN authority than it has been by the refusal to accept the dynamics of self-determination. In this primary sense there is no conflict between affirming normative priorities and geopolitics, that is, presupposing reliance on this revisionist version of geopolitics.

 

This refusal to accept the political verdicts of self-determination remains in my view the unlearned major lesson of the American defeat in the Vietnam War, a lesson reinforced by the outcome of a series of wars against European colonial powers and by the unhappy post-Vietnam experiences of the United States with military intervention, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. The only convincing reading of international history since the end of World War II is that military superiority does not produce political victories in struggles for national independence waged against foreign domination and generates a number of extra-geographical negative effects. These results are unlike the experience of earlier centuries when military superiority did largely shape the historical process. It is quite understandable that this decline in the agency of military policy is hard to difficult to integrate into the thinking and behavior of Western elites.

 

After the Vietnam War, a conversation between an American colonel who was a counterinsurgency specialist and his Vietnamese counterpart makes this essential point. The American declares, “You know that you never defeated us on the battlefield,” to which the Vietnamese colonel replies, “Yes that is true, but it is irrelevant.” From my perspective, the failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East, and elsewhere, is largely a consequence of the inability and unwillingness to comprehend this irrelevance. General David Petraeus, rose to the top of the military bureaucracy by reinventing counterinsurgency warfare in the late 1980s as part of the effort to overcome what American policymakers were derisively calling ‘the Vietnam Syndrome,’ that is, the post-Vietnam inhibition on the use of force due in the pursuit of international goals. I would argue that until the U.S. Government and its political leaders are ready to think outside this military box, we should expect more calls in the future for intervention, followed by new instances of frustration, failure, and non-territorial blowback. If you have watched the presidential debates there is no sign at all given by the candidates of either party of any understanding of the questionable role of military power in addressing characteristic 21st century conflicts. This understanding of the limited usefulness of military power has yet to penetrate the political consciousness of leaders and the public, and is rarely reflected in the media treatments of the Middle East. The consensus in Washington remains that it is military power that best correlates with American security and strategic interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. It had seemed for a while that the ex-colonial powers in Europe had learned this preeminently important lesson, and were successfully creating a culture of peace in Europe that included a reluctance to use force internationally except in self-defense as set forth in the UN Charter. Then the Libyan temptation came along in 2011, and spoiled this impression, which has now

all but disappeared given the challenges posed for Europe by mass migration and ISIS.

 

Against this background, it seems helpful to depict the historical depth of the present circumstances together with a discussion of events that have shaped the

challenge faced by American foreign policy in the region, and then reach for some partial explanations of what went wrong, followed by some thoughts as to what might be done by way of corrective. The distorting impact on American foreign policy of the two so-called special relationships that the United States maintains with Israel and Saudi Arabia deserves special attention. A critical attitude toward these special relationships is at the core of my revisionist approach to the regional turmoil and its extra-regional spillover. At the very point where grand strategists in the old realist tradition think American foreign policy has been most effective is where I think it has gone off the tracks if objectively appraised from the perspective of interests, policies, and values of the United States. In my view fixing these special relationships would initiate a long journey that will be needed if American foreign policy in the Middle East is to more effective and more consistent with international norms and proclaimed American values.

 

III.

 

I am fully aware that there is something arbitrary and opinionated about any insistence that certain lines of historical explanation should be labeled ‘root causes.’ My effort is to highlight some historically rather remote happenings that are not often enough mentioned when discussing policy options in the region. Also, as my focus is on the conceptual and normative failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East, I point to these early developments without any implication of a direct American responsibility, unlike the more recent proximate causes for which there exists a definite and direct American role. Indeed, here the responsibility that is asserted relates not to participation in misguided policies of past colonial actors but to the national failure of policymakers and leaders to make the effort to learn from the past.

 

Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. An initially secret agreement between Britain and France on how to divide up the Middle East in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The goal of the agreement was to extend European colonial rule to the region, thereby circumventing the self-determination aspirations of Woodrow Wilson and the United States as well as breaking promises to Arab leaders that assured sovereign independence. Russia had originally been party to this colonial diplomacy, but after the Russian Revolution, the agreement was made public by the new Soviet leadership with the intention of discrediting such diplomatic maneuvering.

 

What emerged were two developments that have significant relevance to the current turbulence and coercive ordering of the region: first, the establishment of artificial political communities with borders determined by colonial convenience rather than by historical and ethnic circumstances, completely neglecting the will of the relevant population or its prior experiences of community and culture. To give an example, Lebanon was carved out of Ottoman Syria to satisfy the French desire to have a Christian majority country in the region. In fact, all of the contemporary Middle Eastern territorial sovereign states were imposed from above and without, and lack indigenous legitimacy. Hence, when Osama Bin Laden, and more recently, ISIS, talk about the end of Sykes-Picot and the renewal of the Islamic caliphate, there is a cultural and historical resonance. The modern territorial sovereign state may seem like an inevitable choice given the character of world order and the persisting Orientalist mentality, but its legitimacy in the Middle East is fragile because the states failed to emerge as a consequence of the trials and errors of self-determination. From this perspective it is not so surprising that transnational non-state actors have emerged as the most formidable challengers of the established order in the Middle East, and no where else.

 

I encountered a similar non-territorial mindset when interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini in early 1979. On that occasion he made clear that the victory in Iran should not be grasped by reference to national or territorial parameters suggested by the label ‘the Iranian Revolution.’ He insisted on the primacy of community as religious conceived, that is as an ‘Islamic Revolution.’ In passing I would note that the state system is constitutive of world order, and that Iran as political actor has been challenged and responded since 1979 as a typical Westphalian state, especially given the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and the Israeli-American policy of aggressive containment of subsequent years.

 

Secondly, in such countries as Iraq, Libya, and Yemen the governance role of the state has been challenged from below. The idea of ‘the nation’ so vital to the coherence and success of the modern European state was relatively weak in the Middle East, and never succeeded in displacing the primacy of tribal loyalties in many countries and regions within countries, eroding the capacity of the state to maintain order and control except by highly coercive methods. Further, in many states a particular tribal or kinship group would gain control of the state, and privilege their own group while discriminating against and persecuting rival tribes.

 

Thirdly, the inability after World War I to implement the Sykes-Picot vision of the Middle East leading to a kind of compromise in the form of the mandate system that combined colonial paternalism with a sacred trust given to the organized international community that these peoples subject to administrative rule by the European colonial powers would when ‘ready’ be granted independence. In effect, this arrangement satisfied the substance of colonial ambition (trade routes, access to Suez Canal, resources) while ambiguously compromising its formal legitimacy. Without the weakening of Europe as a result of World War II, it is not clear that such independence would have been achieved, at least without lengthy wars of liberation of the sort fought in Indochina and North Africa.

 

Balfour Declaration 1917. Also initially secret, and equally colonialist, was the promise made by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, to the World Zionist movement to look with favor on the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in

Palestine. Such an initiative was an enormous morale boost for the fledgling Zionist project, and can be seen as a decisive negative turning point for the Palestinian people. It was a pure colonialist gesture, both the form of the declaration and the complete disregard of the wishes of the indigenous population. What Balfour proposed was written into the mandate arrangement for Palestine administered by Britain, which leaned toward the Zionist side at first because there was more of a convergence of interest than with the native Arab population. In the end, when Zionism became more robust, and aimed for the establishment of a Jewish state, it turned against the British, relying on terrorist tactics to induce the British to abandon the mandate, and give responsibility for the future of Palestine to the UN, which as we know, carried forward the colonialist approach by proposing a partition plan that was adopted without the participation or agreement of the people living in Palestine, two-thirds of whom at the time were Palestinian Arabs, and about one-third Jews. Perhaps, the intentions underlying the UN proposal were benign, seeking some formula for peace and reconciliation, but the approach lacked the political will to implement the plan embodied in GA Resolution 181 and suffered from a process that was insensitive to the self-determination imperative.

 

Geopolitics also played a part in completing this Zionist project. The combination of the Holocaust and the guilty conscience of the liberal democracies led the international community to endow the state of Israel with immediate membership in the UN and left the Palestinian people in a permanent condition of limbo where they remain 68 years later. We hear frequent complaints from the U.S. Government and Israel that the UN pays disproportionate attention to Israel and Palestine, forgetting that unlike the other unresolved self-determination struggles in the world such as Kashmir, Western Sahara, Sri Lanka, the UN was from the outset directly implicated and responsible for the flawed approach to the post-Ottoman evolution of Palestine.

 

The Suez War of 1956. Without going into detail, the Suez War in which Britain, France, and Israel collaborated in waging war against Egypt in retaliation for the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the harassment of Israel by guerrilla fighters based in Egypt, had the major geopolitical impact of shifting the burden of protecting Western interests from Europe to the United States. At the time, it seemed like a benevolent sequel to the colonial era, but after the passage of 59 years it is not evident that this was helpful to the peoples of the region or for that matter to the United States. Put provocatively, the subsequent period might have had a different character if under the waning colonialism of a weak Europe rather than a strong and proactive United States (as complemented during the Cold War by a strong Soviet Union).

 

In conclusion, we cannot adequately grasp the depth of turmoil in the Middle East without looking back a century ago at the diplomacy associated with World War I.

The denial of Kurdish rights, the questionable legitimacy of the borders of the countries in the region, and the frustration of Palestinian self-determination are persisting unresolved issues that offer insight into present challenges, and the difficulties of response. The region, and even the world, is paying the deferred costs of these policies in the form of chaos, oppression, severe civil strife, and terrorist blowback.

 

 

 

III

 

By moving from root causes to proximate causes the methodological claim is being made that the present regional turmoil was significantly generated by several seismic happenings in recent decades. Again these events singled out should be understood as shorthand designations of turning points that have had a lasting impact on the political life of the region, and are themselves a product of the earlier root causes. Because they occurred after the enhanced American engagement in the Middle East after 1956 the United States was more of a participant, with more at stake.

 

The 1967 War. This war was a turning point in the strategic perception of Israel, changing its relationship to the United States rather dramatically from being a burden undertaken for moral and political reasons in defiance of realist calculations to becoming a strategic asset that could facilitate American hegemonic goals in the region. In this way the special relationship with Israel began to be perceived in terms of mutual benefits, and this was reinforced by the growth and influence of the Israel Lobby within the country. There is another more controversial view that the special relationship, at least as enacted, continued to distort American foreign policy, a position articulated by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their book. [The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007)] It can be illustrated by the added complexities of the relationship with Iran and its nuclear program due to the need to insulate Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the region; similarly diplomacy to end the Syrian War has been definitely inhibited by giving in to Israel (and Saudi Arabia) on the role of Iran in seeking a negotiated end to the war.

 

Perhaps, the biggest detrimental effect of the special relationship in relation to the greatly expanded territorial expanse of Israel after the 1967 War was the U.S. unwillingness to exert effective pressure on Israel to withdraw to the ‘green line’ boundaries, which was the unanimously decreed directive of Security Council Resolution 242. I would imagine that if the withdrawal core of the resolution had been implemented, we would today have a two state solution rather than a single Israeli apartheid state that seems destined to sustain in one form or another its unilateral control over the whole of historic Palestine for the indefinite future. To give greater credence to this conjecture we should take into account both the 1988 PLO/PLC acceptance of the legitimacy of the Israeli presence within these 1967 green line borders on the basis of implementing 242 and the 2002 Arab Initiative along the same lines that offered Israel legitimacy and normalization. The United States has consistently affirmed this basis of Israel/Palestine peace, but it has been unwilling to use its geopolitical muscle to make it happen, and in fact has done the opposite, shielded Israel from criticism while the settlements expanded, and various steps were taken to make a viable Palestinian state incapable of realization. This double game of the United States that has bipartisan backing is to proclaim in public diplomacy its commitment to an independent Palestinian states and yet through the maneuverings of private diplomacy conspire with Israel’s increasingly evident resistance to the emergence of a Palestinian state.

 

The Islamic Revolution in Iran (1978-79). Without elaborating on this unexpected challenge to Western interests, the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran had a profoundly unsettling effect on American behavior in the region. First of all, it reversed the apparent success of the 1953 geopolitical move that had returned the Shah to his throne with the help of the CIA; secondly, it led to the shocked realization that political Islam was becoming a greater threat to American interests in the Middle East than either Marxism or Soviet encroachment; thirdly, it introduced the notion of Islam as the natural political community in the Islamic world, with its ideas of a non-territorial caliphate and umma, which contrasted with the post-Ottoman imposition on the region of territorial sovereign states, which were not legitimate or natural even by Westphalian criteria.

 

The United States reacted hostilely to the popular movement that arose in Iran to displace its imperial ally in Tehran. Again, the root failure of American foreign policy was its unwillingness to respect the principle of self-determination if it seemed to go against its grand strategy in the region, which was then built around anti-Communism, oil, and Israel, soon supplemented by a strong commitment to oppose the spread of political Islam (unless serving Western interests as was the case with Saudi Arabia).

 

The Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). The fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the collapse of the Soviet empire, contributed dramatically to upgrading the American role in the Middle East. It removed the Soviet Union as rival and left the United States as the uncontested external political actor in the region. It also had the effect, given salience by Israeli strategic thinking coupled with the rise of neo-conservative foreign policy in Washington, of shifting the central venue of geopolitical significance from Europe to the Middle East. [See neocon report “Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (1996, 2006); also reports of Project for a New American Century] What followed were years of supposed unipolarity in which the United States was being criticized in conservative circles for its passivity in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War in which a dramatic military victory was not followed up by imposing a regime-changing political solution that removed Saddam Hussein from control over the Baghdad government. Such a shift has been somewhat diluted during the Obama presidency by the so-called ‘pivot to Asia,’ but the persistence of chaos, warfare, and sectarian rivalries continues the preoccupation with the Middle East of American foreign policy.

 

IV

 

The Al Qaeda 9/11 Attacks. The fact that the Al Qaeda attacks in 2001 were carried out by Middle Easterners (manly Saudis) and that Al Qaeda, as led by Osama Bin Laden, took responsibility sharpened the perception that the main strategic threat to the United States now emanated from religious extremism in the Middle East as materialized through the medium of a non-state and non-territorial actor. Such a traumatic event has had lasting impacts by way of focusing attention on counter-terrorism and global securitization of foreign policy, categorizing terrorism as a mode of warfare rather than as crime as in the past, and transforming warfare from a territorial encounter to engage with on a global battlefield. It also led to a further positive perception of the special relationship with Israel as counterterrorist mentor. Ariel Sharon’s remark that Yasir Arafat was Israel’s Osama Bin Laden summarized this sentiment of solidarity, which Netanyahu repeated in crude form after the 2015 Paris attack. This mentorship I believe encouraged drone warfare, targeted assassinations, and even led to extensive reliance on Israel to train American police forces in a paramilitary approach to opposition. President François Hollande of France has taken the same path, calling the Paris terrorist attacks as ‘an act of war’ by ISIS, adopting the disastrous Bush discourse of warfare, rather than elaborating upon the European counter-terrorist path of cooperative criminal law enforcement. [Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: Wars for the Twenty-first Century (2008)]

 

In light of the foregoing, what may seem more surprising is the resilience of the special relationship with Saudi Arabia, given its connections with 9/11. Notable Saudis were alone allowed to leave the United States on 9/12, and more relevantly, the Saudi role in the worldwide financing of Wahabbist jihadism was publically ignored by American leaders, and implicitly tolerated, which seems a perverse contradiction with the securitization of American global policy based on a post-9/11 counterterrorist rationale. What seems shocking is that this tolerance persists even in the face of the terrorist spillovers beyond the Middle East.

 

The Iraq War and Occupation. (2003-2014). The main response to 9/11 was George W. Bush’s declaration of war on global terror, starting with the attack on Afghanistan, governed by harsh Taliban rule and offering Al Qaeda its base area for training and ideological leadership. In many ways this American shift from crime to war is most responsible for the severity and spread of the regional turmoil. This approach reached its climax with the attack on Iraq, which lacked a foundation in international law, and could not gain an endorsement at the UN Security Council. In this regard, the Iraq War of 2003, which was misleadingly principally justified by efforts to remove weapons of mass destruction from the country and to react to the false alleged complicity in the 9/11 attacks, was the occasion for bringing an American military presence into the center of the Middle East, and connecting this with safeguarding Israel and Saudi Arabia, confronting Iran, and establishing permanent military bases and assured access to the oil and natural gas reserves of the Gulf.

 

After a heavy expenditure of military personnel and resources, the outcome in Iraq after a decade of occupation and economic reconstruction aid, has been dismal. Instead of a partner with the West, there is a Shi’ia leadership in Iraq that is pledged to Iran, instead of constitutional democracy there is civil strife and chaos, instead of security there is ISIS control over a large portion of Iraqi territory, instead of some kind of regional collective security arrangement there is sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Under such circumstances is it any surprise that the United States policy planners dream of a second coming of Saddam Hussein? Once again American failure was mainly associated with trying to impose an external solution that defied the logic of self-determination.

 

The Arab Spring (20ll). It is impossible to overlook the impact of the Arab uprisings of 2011. What occurred was first an unexpected challenge from below to secular autocracies throughout the region. It caught the United States by surprise, and alarmed to various degrees the two beneficiaries of special relationships—Israel and Saudi Arabia—although for somewhat different reasons. After calling for democratization in the Middle East for many years, the actuality of democratic glimmerings was greeted in Washington with ambivalence, at best, and more accurately, as an occasion of tension as between democratic values and geopolitical goals. This tension rose to the surface in the counterrevolutionary aftermath in which the United States sided with suppression in Bahrain, intervention in Libya, looked the other way when the Egyptian armed forces staged a bloody coup to overthrow the first ever democratically elected leader in the country’s history, and seemed bewildered by what to do in Syria, even seeming to give tacit tactical backing to jihadist anti-regime forces and to Kurdish militant entities previously regarded as ‘terrorist organizations.’

 

V

 

Conclusion: What should be done to calm the situation is in sharp tension with the realistic assessment of what is politically possible. For example, the special relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia should be abandoned, and replaced by normal relationships based on true mutuality and respect for human rights and international law. Pressure should be mounted to establish a just and sustainable peace that acknowledges rights of self-determination of both Israeli and Palestinians. Further, foreign policy in the Middle East should be carried out in accord with the guidelines of international law and with respect for the authority of the United Nations. Finally, self-determination of peoples in the Middle East offers the only hope for legitimating the state system within the region. It seems obvious that without a sea change in perceptions and behavior of the West there is no prospect for overcoming the failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East. These failures have contributed to the turmoil, oppressiveness, and migratory and terrorist spillovers from the region. At present, there seems no likelihood of such a sea change, and so we must expect more of the same sense of failure and frustration.

At least, the citizenry can begin to understand what is wrong with American foreign policy in the Middle East.

 

Nonagon of Toxic Conflict: Notes on the Turkish Quagmire

2 Oct

 

 

The lethal complexity of politics in the Middle East has become overwhelming. The main political actors producing a continuous stream of swerves and turns that randomly juggle alignments and almost casually switch the identity of friends and enemies. In practical terms what this means is that there are indecipherably opaque conflicts, a multitude of state and non-state actors with distinct agendas, a bewildering array of seemingly contradictory and shifting conflict patterns, and controversial media manipulations orchestrated from various sources of governmental and insurgent authority situated both within and without the region. This geometry of conflict can be best approximated as a nonagon connecting the US/Turkey/Kurds/ISIS/Iran/Syria/Russia/Saudi Arabia/Israel, and even this is a crude simplification that leaves out many important actors. It is little wonder the Middle East has become a puzzle so daunting that only fools are clear about what should be done. The best we can do is to pick up a piece at a time, and hope it makes some sense a few weeks later.

 

Amid all these complexities there are some crucial developments bearing on Turkey’s relations to the overlapping realities of civil, national, regional, and extra-regional warfare. Turkey had deftly managed to avoid toxic engagement with the troubles of the region until 2009 when it began to cross swords with Israel, followed by jumping imprudently and overtly onto the anti-Assad side after the 2011 uprising in Syria. These prior problematic issues were temporarily eclipsed recently after Turkey crossed several additional treacherous thresholds of turmoil: the renewal of the deadly clash with Kurdish aspirations in Turkey and Syria; a formal joint undertaking with the United States to combat ISIS presence while still proclaiming solidarity with ‘moderate’ anti-Assad forces; and the recognition that the scale of the unmanageable flow of Syrian refugees across the Turkish border and outside of the camps is becoming unmanageable and a threat to domestic order.

 

As if this is not enough to worry about, polarized domestic politics in Turkey was unable to produce either a governing majority for the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the June elections or in the aftermath an agreed coalition. As a result Turkey has an embattled interim government until a new election on November 1. The country is also beset by a divisive controversy that targets Recep Tayyip Erdoĝan as primarily responsible for all the above alleged wrongs, accusing him both of harboring the unabashed ambition to run the country as its executive president and of needlessly arousing Kurdish hostility and fears by adopting an ultra-nationalist posture during the electoral campaign that ended in June. The Turkish opposition seems to forget the uncomfortable reality that if by magic Erdoĝan disappeared the array of formidable problems facing the country would not disappear with him. And perhaps, even more uncomfortably, awake to the realization that the AKP since 2002, despite some notable errors and deficiencies, has been responsible for a remarkable series of positive economic, social, and political developments, as well as the upgrading of the country as an importantly independent regional and global political actor.

 

After 30 years of struggle between the Turkish state and it large Kurdish minority (14-18 million) causing up to 40,000 battle deaths there were finally hopes of peace raised in 2013 when a reconciliation process was started and a ceasefire established by the AKP led government. Now these hopes have disappeared and been replaced by daily violence as well as dire fears of what is to come, which includes the possibility of a full-scale civil war. In reaction to these developments Erdoĝan, emphatically declared the end of the peace process, although somewhat later ambiguously renewing a call for national unity, a new ceasefire, and a revived search for reconciliation. As might be expected, conditions were attached by Erdoĝan to such a proposal: abandonment of armed struggle by the Kurdish movement , the PKK (or Turkish Workers Party), which has been operating out of its main base area in Iraq’s Qandil mountains.

 

The recently proclaimed military collaboration of Turkey and the United States with the agreed goal of jointly battling ISIS adds to the confusion. It is Kurdish armed groups, including the PKK, and especially its Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga militia that have proved to be the most effective forces combatting ISIS and the Assad government in recent months, and an indispensable complement to America air strikes. In effect, the anti-ISIS campaign is at cross-purposes with the renewed Turkish preoccupation with the fight against the PKK and the Assad regime. Fighting against the Kurds weakens the fight against ISIS and Assad, and vice versa.

 

From Ankara’s perspective there is logic to the seeming irrationality of stepping up the fight against the strongest enemy of its main Syrian enemy. Ever since the Iraqi Kurds established their state within a state in northern Iraq and the Syrian Kurds seemed within reach of their goal of establishing Rojava (or Syrian Kurdistan), the more radical parts of the Turkish Kurdish national movement, evidently had second thoughts about negotiating with the Turkish government a peaceful end to their struggle in exchange for rights and some measure of limited autonomy. After so many years of struggle why should Turkish Kurds settle for far less than what their Kurdish comrades in Iraq and Syria achieved? It should be appreciated in raising such a question that the Kurdish minority in Turkey is about three times the size of the Iraqi Kurdish population, estimated to be between 15 and 20 million, which happens to be more than eight times the size of the Syrian Kurdish minority. It would seem that what the reconciliation process would offer Turkish Kurds fell below reasonable expectations, and it could be argued that the success of the Kurdish political party (HDP or Peoples Democratic Party) in the June elections associated with electing 80 members of Parliament as a result of crossing the 10% marker for the first time accentuated rather than alleviated Kurdish anxieties. There is no direct evidence at this point, but circumstantially it seems as if the HDP’s success was not welcome news to the PKK as it seemed to augur a premature accommodation with the Turkish state, and thus a betrayal of more ambitious goals for the Kurdish national movement. How else can we explain the PKK repudiation of the ceasefire with Turkey on June 11th only four days after the historic HDP electoral success in June?

 

Then the ISIS suicide attack on July 20, 2015 in the Turkish border town of Suruç killing 32 young Turkish civilian activists made clear that Ankara could no longer ignore the threat posed by ISIS despite the disturbing contradiction of battling against an opponent of both the Kurds and Assad. Hence, the agreement with the United States with respect to ISIS, and the accusations that Turkey was nevertheless using most of its military capabilities to fight against the Kurds and Assad.

 

In this atmosphere of growing political violence the Turkish government faced a mounting internal security threat. Between the June 7 Turkish national elections and late July, there were over 281 violent attacks carried out in Turkey by PKK operatives, including a series of lethal assaults on police and military personnel. In retaliation, unsurprisingly, the Turkish armed forces launched air attacks against PKK positions in the Kandil area of northern Iraq. To blame this upsurge of violence on Erdoĝan is not only simplistic but deeply misleading.

 

Two other factors can better explain what happened. First, the Kurdish militant leadership in the Kandil base areas came to the conclusion that the political success of Kurdish armed struggle in Iraq and Syria could be duplicated in Turkey; secondly, a concern that the rewards of the reconciliation process started by the Turkish state if allowed to continue would reward Kurdish politicians and business people who took few risks to advance the national movement in Turkey, while the PKK fighters enduring decades of hardship, loss, and danger would end up being invited back to Turkey with an inadequate acknowledgement of their long struggle. Of course, in between the Turkish state and the AKP there were many Kurds and Turks to yearned for peace and political compromise, and opposed any behavior on either side that would resume a zero-sum bloody struggle in which one side or the other would be a winner and the other a loser.

 

The prolonged Syrian civil strife burdens Turkey further. It is relevant to recall that in the years immediately before 2011, and the Arab Spring, when Turkish regional diplomacy was capturing the imagination by its call for ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ it was then Assad’s Syria that served as the poster child of the policy reaching an unprecedented level of cordiality as between the two governments and their respective leaders. Earlier tensions were dissolved and forgotten, friendship and trade flourished in relations between the two countries, and overnight the governments of Syria and Turkey seemed to reconcile their differences, opened their borders, increased economic and cultural interaction, creating an impression that durable harmony will persist long into the future.

 

Then came the Arab Spring in early 2011, which spread to Syria in March shortly after the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The Damascus government responded with torture and crimes against humanity in its reactions to peaceful demonstrators who were initially suppressed in Daraa, and later in many parts of Syria. Turkey, along with the UN, tried for several months to coax the Assad leadership into meeting the political demands of the Syrian people by instituting democratic reforms. Assad seemed to agree, but no power-sharing steps were taken. Instead there was a spread of insurgent activity, and an intensification of indiscriminate violence and frequent atrocities by the government, including heavy bombing of rebel held Syrian cities and towns, and eventually recourse to chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Syrian casualties rose, mass atrocities were documented, and hundred of thousands of refugees streamed across the Turkish border, creating a major humanitarian challenge that continues to grow, reaching the astounding figure of over 2 million.

 

Against this background, Turkey increasingly and overtly sided with the rebel forces. Istanbul becoming the center of operations for anti-Assad political activity, which included explicit backing of the Friends of Syria (a loose and ineffectual anti-Assad coalition put together by the United States and Turkey). Various forms of military assistance were channeled to the Free Syrian Army but it steadily lost ground against the well-equipped Syrian armed forces, which enjoyed support and assistance from Russia and Iran. Early in the conflict Ankara believed that the balance of forces had shifted decisively against Assad, and that the Syrian regime would collapse in a few weeks. It was mistakenly thought that Syria, like Libya, would be easy prey to a popular uprising, forgetting that the Damascus government unlike Tripoli had loyal support from a series of important Syrian minorities as well as from large segment of the urban business world, was strongly backed by Iran and Russia, and possessed significant military capabilities.

 

The situation became even messier. Even before the appearance of ISIS, it seemed that the Al Nusra Front had become the most effective opposition to Assad, was linked to Al Qaeda. In this mix, when ISIS seemingly came out of the blue to mount an even bigger challenge to Damascus the alignments for and against became hopelessly complex. It is not surprising that given these developments the Turkish leadership was initially reluctant to confront ISIS as its battlefield record of success seemed to pose the biggest threat to their biggest enemy! Turkey still understandably wobbles on the tightrope that stretches between opposing Assad and fighting PKK and ISIS.

 

How this interplay of US/Turkish/Kurdish/ISIS actions and reactions will play out is currently unknowable. To intervene in such a zone of multiple conflict is beset with risks, costs, and unknowns but so is standing by as horrified spectators. The assumption in the West has been that military power offers the only way to calm the waters without sacrificing Western interests, but the consistent record of intervention is one of repeated costly failures. Perhaps, the very hopelessness of the situation makes the moment right for bold forms of regional diplomacy. Tangibly, what this means is bringing Russia and Iran into the game, and minimizing the influence of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel seems to be promoting regional disorder, destabilizing the internal public order of the major states in the region. Saudi Arabia apparently cares for little other than the survival of the royal regime in the Kingdom. It can savagely undermine the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza yet claim to be leading the Sunni struggle against the spread of Shia Islam, justifying its interventions in Syria and Yemen. And globally, it is Saudi funds and Wahabi militancy that is bringing extremist politics to the forefront throughout the Middle East.

 

With such tensions, contradictory agendas, and unconditional ideologies at play the outlook for compromise and normalcy is dim. Oddly, Russia without ties that bind is freer to dampen the forces of extremism than is the United States that remains beholden to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Iran despite the theocratic and repressive character of its government has the internal stability that Turkey now lacks, and if allowed could play a constructive force role by helping to work out a political transition in Syria and Yemen and playing a leading part in an anti-extremist coalition needed to cope with ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Al-Nusra Front operating in Syria.

 

Will this happen? Of course, not. It is far too rational and realistic. The United States despite its power and residual leadership potential finds itself stuck in a geopolitical straight jacket of its own devising, and without its ability to behave like a rational actor. The region seems destined in coming years to fluctuate between chaos and autocracy, and this means that Arab populations will experience repression, displacement, chaos, and cycles of demonic political violence. More than elsewhere, the Middle East is badly in need of political miracles.

 

Turkey is one of the few actors, situated within and without the Arab World, that retains the capacity to be a constructive influence in support of compromise and nonviolence conflict resolution. This helpful performance depends on the Turkish recovery of composure within its borders, which seems dependent of the AKP recovering an effective majority allowing it to form a government after the results of the new election on November 1st become known. The second best solution would be a strengthening of the AKP and CHP (Republican Peoples Party) parties in November, followed quickly by a coalition between these two parties that puts national unity, economic development, and political stability ahead of partisan confrontation. It is the anti- Erdoĝan preoccupation that has mainly hindered Turkey’s effort at regional leadership, although Erdoĝan has contributed to this atmosphere by his reliance on autocratic tactics in quelling the Gezi uprising in 2013 and expressing his views without sensitivity to opposition values and outlooks ever since scoring a major victory in the 2011 elections. It is time for Erdoĝan and the AKP to abandon ‘majoritarian democracy’ and also time for the political opposition parties and media to assess the Erdoĝan and the AKP in a more balanced, and less polarized views. It is unfortunate that even prior to 2011, the opposition to the AKP was unyielding in voicing its intense hostility, giving no credit, and insisting the AKP under Erdoĝan’s leadership was guiding the country away from the secularism of the Republic era, and toward the imposition of an Islamic theology in the manner of Iran. Let’s hope that the CHP does well enough in the new elections to join with the AKP in giving Turkey the government it deserves, and that Erdoĝan will be content to be presidential in a constitutional system that is essentially based on parliamentary supremacy but with some recourse to judicial checks on arbitrary power.

 

The focus on Turkey, and its role with respect to Syria and the conflicts with Syria, PKK, and ISIS is not meant to minimize the importance of the other actors in the region that are part of the geopolitical nonogon. There are several overlapping regional proxy wars that have complicated, perhaps precluded, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, including serious intraregional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Syria as well as the extraregional rivalry between the United States and Russia. Also of indeterminate significance are the variety of undisclosed Israeli regional moves and the leverage exerted by way of its often dysfunctional special relationship with the United States (preventing negotiation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone or allowing Iran to play an appropriate diplomatic role). Although not as notoriously described, the willingness of the United States to give Saudi Arabia a free pass with respect to internal repression and recourse to force as in Yemen, and earlier Bahrain, is a further source of regional turmoil.