Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed by Iran, the US, the UK, China, Russia, France and Germany in July 2015, is a major setback to the Middle East and potentially even to global stability.
Trump had threatened to cancel the deal on numerous occasions in the past but refrained. He was previously either distracted by other events or felt that the timing was wrong.
I ultimately didn’t believe he would follow through with it as it is such a dangerous step. Trump and the United States do not enjoy the support of any of the other signatories in this decision.
The logic behind the decision is not at all clear as, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, Iran has kept to its side of the deal and has passed every quarterly compliance test.
The two questions for me are what caused him to make this decision now and what potential impact it may have.
There have been several voices calling for the US to pull out of this deal. The writing was on the wall for deal when John Bolton was appointed Trump’s National Security Advisor in March. He has been a long-time critic of the Iranian regime and the deal and in a statement made hours after the announcement, he welcomed Trump’s decision;
“Well, I don’t really have much to add to the President’s speech. I think the decision is very clear. I think it’s a firm statement of American resolve to prevent not only Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but a ballistic missile delivery capability. It limits its continuing support of terrorism and its causing instability and turmoil in the Middle East.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, has also shown in recent times that he has major influence with Trump and I initially thought the US decision to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem had been Netanyahu’s piece de resistance.
In hindsight Netanyahu’s “Iran Lied” presentation last Monday was an ominous sign that there were major discussions and lobbying going on behind the scenes but the presentation itself actually fell quite flat according to many observers and this allowed it to fly slightly under the political media’s radar.
There may be a case that domestic issues have also motivated Trump to try and create a major foreign policy news story. The Stormy Daniels scandal continues to rumble on and Trump’s approval ratings, while rising slightly in recent months, are still lingering around the 40% mark. This clearly irritates Trump who references them regularly.
Trump is now at risk at isolating the US in the Middle East. While all the other signatories have continued to back the deal, it is unlikely there will be much co-ordinated action between them to the exclusion of the United States, as tensions are still running high between the UK, France and Germany and Russia over the Salisbury attack and its political fallout.
In the Middle East itself, the move may embolden both Israel and Saudi Arabia (allies in all but name) , to act more aggressively against Iranian interests, including potential further strikes in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
The Iranian response will be interesting. While I believe they have legitimate reasons to be incensed, they need to be careful not to have any context for missile strikes on their nuclear bases as it does seem quite apparent that many in Trump’s inner circle (at the behest of Israel) would welcome military action on Iran.
While this is still less than likely, the chances of it have increased significantly after yesterday’s announcement. The worlds other leaders now need to take heed and ensure peace and pragmatism are the paths taken…
I started to write an article last night on why the UK shouldn’t bomb Syria. I fell asleep before I had completed it and when I woke up this morning it was obsolete. The UK had crossed it’s Syrian Rubicon and another Middle Eastern country had been added to the list of UK targets of military action.
I will not pontificate on the legitimacy of the missile strikes last night by the US, UK and France. There is plenty of coverage and articles out there already doing so.
The thrust of this short piece is a hope that the hawks in all three governments are now satiated and that there will be no further escalation in violence or warfare. It is a hope that could be crushed as early as tonight if the three nations decide to embark on further sorties or if Syria’s key allies, Russia and Iran, decide to launch retaliatory strikes.
The former seems slightly more likely than the latter. Despite the bombastic rhetoric of the Russian government this week, it seems unlikely that would really escalate this to the next level by targeting “allied” sites or infrastructure.
It would be counterproductive and could ultimately dislodge Russian’s position of (albeit challenged) supremacy in Syria now.
It is a little too early to fully analyze what impact these strikes have had on Syria’s military capability, but it seems unlikely it will serious hinder their slow but steady path to ultimate victory they have pursued since Russia’s major interjection into the Syrian Civil War.
Approximately one year, Trump also launched missile strikes against the Syrian regime after another alleged chemical attack by the Syrian regime on its own people. At the time Trump was quoted as saying;
“No child of God should ever suffer such horror,”
There was an initial fear then that the strikes would escalate into American troops on the ground and an overthrow of the Syrian regime. Essentially, back then the “Trump factor” was so unknown that this seemed a possibility despite all the obvious challenges and dangers.
However, when this did not occur, and Trump refrained from further action it appeared the window for the possibility of serious military intervention by the West had passed.
We are unfortunately again at a similar crossroads. The difference this time is that both the UK and France have entered on the side of the US. Apart from the obvious aims of preventing further chemical attacks on innocent civilians, both European nations may also have more nefarious motives for intervening.
Emmanuel Macron has been cozying up to the Saudi Royal family in recent times and it may be more than a coincidence that Macron’s strong actions have taken place less than a week since the Crown Prince visited Paris.
Theresa May has had a bump in her approval ratings in the last month since her strong reaction to the Skripal attack in Salisbury. She may identify this as a further opportunity to bolster her reputation as strong on foreign policy.
This is major gamble by May as only 22% of Britons supported cruise missile strikes against Syria in a poll they published on Thursday.
There will be parliamentary debate on Monday in the UK and hopefully both the opposition and members of her own Conservative party will speak up against further military action.
We are now in a dangerous lull where the first strikes have taken place, but we cannot know for certain that there will be no further action. In my view these initial strikes have been in vain and will produce very little on the ground without engagement with Russia and Iran.
Unfortunately, with the recent appointment of John R. Bolton as Trump’s National Security Advisor there is another hawk in his inner circle who is not afraid to advocate military action against Iran. Whether this would extend to direct action against Russia is unknown for now.
Over the next few days it will become a lot clearer whether this was another one-off strike/warning to the Syrian regime against the use of chemical weapons or we have reached a new level of tension and conflict between the US and its allies against the Syrian regime backed up by Russia and Iran.
The terrifying difference on this occasion would be that the conflict could potentially bit e solely between proxy forces on both sides but directly between military superpowers.
Let’s hope that common sense prevails and we see a de-escalation of threatening rhetoric and a return to dialogue in the coming days…
Last Thursday, Israeli police announced they had recommended the Attorney General that Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two cases.
Then on Sunday, numerous Israeli media outlets linked him to a case where seven Israelis have been arrested for allegedly helping the Bezeq Group, a communications group, in exchange for favourable coverage of Netanyahu and his wife.
Over the weekend Netanyahu was in Munich, speaking at the same security event as Theresa May. He gave a bellicose speech where he threatened that Israel would take action directly against Iran if any of its redlines were crossed;
“And we will act, if necessary, not just against Iran's proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.”
The speech was incredibly aggressive and what made it even more noteworthy was the he directed these threats at the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Zarif, who was in the audience.
However, the pièce de résistance came when he displayed a piece of the drone that Israel shot down which he claimed came from Iran (see title pictures).
In the nine years Netanyahu has spent as Israeli Prime Minister in this current run (he was also Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999) he has been one of the most pugnacious leaders in the democratic world, both in words and deeds.
He has led two military campaigns in this time against the Palestinians, Operation Pillar Defence in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Despite the defensive titles, these claimed over 2,250 Palestinian lives, a large proportion of which were civilians.
He has also continually focused on Iran and has threatened pre-emptive strikes on multiple occasions. He also famously displayed a diagram with a bomb during a speech in 2012 (see title pictures again) saying Iran were 90% there to getting a nuclear weapon. Thankfully, his calls for a strike were ignored by most leaders who went on to sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015.
Since the election of Donald Trump, Netanyahu has displayed considerable influence over the US President. He pulled off a major diplomatic coup by convincing the US to relocate its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and he has improved relations with Saudi Arabia in a bid to further isolate Iran.
I won’t speculate on what would come next for Israel and the Middle East if he is forced to resign, though hopefully a more sensible leader will emerge. It would be hard to imagine a more belligerent Israeli Prime Minister taking the mantle from Netanyahu but it is possible. Fortunately, they will almost certainly not have the same influence over the US President and this may lead to a more nuanced Middle East policy from the United States…
I started A Bit Left and A Bit Lost in June 2017. Initially, it was something to do while I moved countries and searched for a job. A way to combine my interest in politics and current affairs with that little spark for writing I think I've always had but rarely used.
It's been a great seven months. I've written around thirty articles and even got a few published on Slugger O' Toole. However, I love having everything I write on my own medium, so I can link back to previous articles and develop some themes and trends. These trends can evolve over time or dissipate in numerous ways. From key characters stepping aside or a catalyst for change.
The Political Punts page allows me to make "hard" predictions on a certain date and then look back and either bask in a little self congratulation or try to identify what I incorrectly assumed or based the bet on.
These 2018 predictions are a mix of themes and potential events. I always place at least a little wager on the political punts so finding markets online to match my views and predictions can be tricky. For these, they are more general predictions and most touch on topics I have covered in 2017.
Trump to continue his Erratic Foreign Policy but No War: The United States is in disarray under Donald Trump. Trump has already had spats with numerous leaders and caused widespread outrage with his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He has shown little ability to maintain a coherent foreign policy. Trump is easily distracted by individual events and I expect this to continue. I think, in time, 2017 will be seen as a year of regression for the US but for now the buoyant global economy is giving Trump some breathing space.
The Global Bull Market Run to Continue, Just About...: 2017 has been a great year for the global economy and stick markets. We are definitely getting close to the peak and there will eventually be a market correction but there should just about be enough fuel left for 2018 to be another positive year. If this is the case, I will probably be making a very different 2019 prediction.
China to Continue its Steady, Low-Key Ascent to Global Hegemony: It was a good year for China and its leader Xi Jinping. He managed to consolidate his hold on power, prevented Trump from delivering on his pre-election threats on trade and China avoided any hard economic landing, while extending its global diplomatic and economic reach. I expect 2018 to be a similar year and would be surprised if there are any major negative stories.
Tories to Survive and Brexit is Happening: 2018 will be a tough year for the United Kingdom. Brexit is not going to be reversed with the current government (or a Labour alternative). The current Tory Government will probably survive but continue to stutter along. It is hard to see how the UK will be in a better state this time next year than now. However, politics in the UK has been so shocking since the Scottish Independence referendum was first called and there is every chance that something equally surprising and unexpected will happen in 2018.
Fine Gael to increase seats lead over Fianna Fail in any Irish General Election: The economic headline figures will continue to impress and this will be enough for many to approve of Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael. Furthermore, the "Brexit talks bounce" will continue to help Fine Gael and paralyse Fianna Fail. 2018 should be a good year for Fine Gael and Leo Varadkar.
The Irish Abortion Referendum Campaign to be Brutal: I think this will be a very nasty, divisive election. Much more similar to the last US Presidential election or the Brexit Referendum than the Marriage Equality Referendum. It is a much more partisan topic than marriage equality, which I believe the average Irish voter ultimately viewed as a matter of common decency and fairness. It should pass but if the odds go above 5 or 6/1 I may take a small speculative punt on it not passing.
Iran to get even closer to Russia/China and avoid a Revolution: The news has been filled with coverage of the current unrest in Iran recently. I don't think this will reach the levels of 2009 and the Green Revolution. Iran will continue to forge deeper links with Russia and China as Trump will make occasional threats against Iran, mainly at the best of Benjamin Netanyahu and the American pro-Israel lobby.
Thank you for reading this year. Keep following and have a happy and healthy 2018!
I am not going to go into why it’s wrong for President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel this week. Furthermore, I will leave the analysis of what the fallout will be from this to others or for another day.
Jerusalem is a city that has captured the hearts and minds of millions around the world for millennia. This decision will be comprehensively scrutinised and analysis will be mostly filled with passionate and long held views.
What I want to focus on is how Prime Minister Netanyahu was an early innovator in manipulating President Trump and why that success has now helped him land a major victory for him and his party.
Benjamin Netanyahu has many faults but I believe he was very quick to identify that the best way to get what you want from Donald Trump is to flatter him. In light of Trump’s trip to Asia where almost every Asian leader followed this strategy, this may seem obvious.
However, this was not as obvious back in February when Netanyahu visited Trump at the White House. Netanyahu waxed lyrical about how great a tried to Israel Donald Trump is;
“I deeply value your friendship. To me, to the state of Israel, it was so clearly evident in the words you just spoke -- Israel has no better ally than the United States.”
This would have been music to Trump’s ears. However, he went further than that. He then suggested that there were new avenues towards peace that they can explore and that the United States would back Israel in these aims.
“And I believe that under your leadership, this change in our region creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen security and advance peace. Let us seize this moment together. Let us bolster security. Let us seek new avenues of peace. And let us bring the remarkable alliance between Israel and the United States to even greater heights.”
There are allegations that one of Trump’s major benefactors, Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas fame, had sought a commitment from Trump on moving the embassy to Jerusalem and recognising it as Israel’s capital. Trump’s son in law, Jared Kushner, has also been a vocal supporter of Israel in the past. He was recently recorded saying “there may be no solution” to the Middle East peace process.
Netanyahu quickly realised that it is important to have allies in Trump’s inner circle as mentioned above. This, along with flattery and allowing Trump to believe Netanyahu’s aims were his own ideas, have given him incredible leverage in the White House.
Other foreign leaders will now take note of this success for Israel and may look to identify ‘courtiers’ who can help them achieve their aims, while at the same time praising Trump publicly.
This will be more difficult for leaders of Western, democratic nations who will face pressure form their electorate in a scenario where they perceived as sycophantic to Trump, given his often misogynist and potentially racist views and statements.
Russia is an obvious example of a country that has tried this approach. Unfortunately for Putin, they were a little too obvious in their attempts at disparaging Hillary Clinton and placing Trump on the throne.
Now it appears likely that other countries, like Israel already, will bear the fruits of Russia’s toil. The world is now in a position where the most powerful can be manipulated and his strategy moulded by flattery and scheming. The results of this could be unexpected, widespread and potentially catastrophic…
It may have seemed impossible for nearly all of Israel’s existence thus far but I think it’s likely in the next five years that these two nations will open official diplomatic channels. It is an act that may cause serious backlash and anger across the Middle East. Alternatively, after years of disillusionment with the leadership of Saudi Arabia, it may simply be met with a shrug of the shoulder and further sense of dejection with the state of the region.
Since the inception of the state of Israel in May 1948, Saudi Arabia has refused to acknowledge its existence. It has supported the rights of Palestinians and called for a withdrawal from territory occupied by Israel after the war in 1967 through being a charter member of the Arab League.
Crucially, it didn’t participate in the wars in 1948, 1967 or 1973. Saudi Arabia’s long term strategic alliance with the United States may have had something to do with this. This was exacerbated by the mutual distrust between General Nasser led Egypt, the champion of pan- Arabism with secular, Soviet Union sympathies and the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia which used Wahhabism as a crucial pillar of its legitimacy.
However, since 1979 and the Islamic revolution in Iran, the strategic aims of Saudi Arabia and Israel have converged. They both have a desire to curb the influence of Iran across the Middle East. The ruling Saud family initially saw the emergence of the Islamic Republic as an existential threat to their existence.
In recent times, the threat to their existence has subsided somewhat. It has evolved into a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. As the relative power and influence of Egypt waned in the years after the assassination of Anwar Sadat (who actually lost his life for signing a peace Treaty with Israel which made it the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel) the vacuum that opened up was the prize that fuelled the rivalry.
In the 1980’s Saudi Arabia, which still did not have the military capability, bankrolled Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War against Iran. It is important to note that other Middle Eastern nations also supported Iraq but Saudi Arabia spent approximately thirty billion dollars in this conflict.
In more recent times Iran has increased its influence in Lebanon, as well as in post-Saddam Iraq and now in Syria. In Syria, it has acted as a bulwark for the regime of Bashir Al-Assad. The actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain amongst others has failed so far to really damage the Iranian influence in the region.
The emergence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia has led to a raft of major changes in a relatively brief period of time. Just last week, he consolidated his position as the heir apparent as well as the de facto ruler by purging a large number of the Royal Court’s retinue.
He has continued the war in Yemen, a key proxy battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia while allegedly forcing the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, to resign over the continued power and influence of Hezbollah (albeit with a democratic mandate).
It’s his views on the future relationship with Israel though that I believe could mark one of the most seismic changes in Middle Eastern diplomatic relations over the last fifty years. He has spoken about how Saudi Arabia adopted a more rigid Islamic outlook in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution
“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
The major issue with the above statement is that it could be construed to mean “get rid of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. In order to do this, he may engage further with Israel, as the one other Middle Eastern nation that possibly reaches the same level of fear and suspicion of the Iranian state.
It is very interesting, and probably not a coincidence, that the Crown Prince used the phrase “moderate”. Just this week, the Israeli military chief, Gadi Eisenkot, gave an interview to the Saudi newspaper Elaph where he described Iran as the “biggest threat to the region” and that Israel would share intelligence with “moderate” Arab states like Saudi Arabia.
Strategically, the US is pivoting away from the Middle East to Asia in the long term. With the current presidency of Donald Trump though, this may be the perfect window of opportunity to gain maximum leverage from agreeing to diplomatic relations and potentially forming a military alliance that goes beyond the tacit one that exists today.
This would be a potent combination of the vast reserves of cash held by the Saudis combined with the military might of the Israeli army. It may still seem a stretch to many political observers currently, but we may soon see the emergence of the Saudi-Israel axis as the key power in the Middle East.
There is speculation from a few news sources that China will “compel” Saudi Arabia to pay for oil in Yuan. This would change the face of the global economy and could potentially be looked back on in years to come as one of the first examples of Beijing emerging as the lynchpin of the global economy.
Currently the global oil industry is run through dollars. If you want to buy oil from an OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) member you pay in dollars. This has been the case since the agreements of the early 1970s. It gives the US a lot of influence and leads to many oil-exporting nations currently pegging their currency to the dollar (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are two examples).
This has been a strategic objective for China for many years now. As their percentage of global demand grows, and exceeds that of the US, they are increasingly dissatisfied with having to manage their outgoing in dollars. I think a number of factors have convinced them that now is the time to up the ante on this bid.
The US has hugely expanded its oil production over the last ten years. In 2006, according to the BP Oil Review 2016, the US was producing 6.8 million barrels of oil daily. By 2016 this figure was 12.4 million. China wants the clout that comes with being the world’s largest oil importer. The US production looks set to continue to rise as Trump is a big advocate in deregulation, which should lead to increased production from fracking.
Trump’s presidency is a factor in other ways as well. His scatter gun approach to diplomacy, and his lack of focus and clear strategic aims have not gone unnoticed in Beijing. A key doctrine of Obama’s foreign policy was a pivot away from the Middle East to Asia Pacific. This hasn’t been fully executed and I think China believes it is possible to increase its influence in the Middle East (commercially for now) while defending its own interests in the Pacific.
There have been other moves afoot recently which seem to indicate that a lot of talks and jockeying for position is happening in global diplomacy behind the scenes. King Salman of Saudi Arabia visited Moscow last week. Must of the global press fixated on the malfunction of his solid gold elevator as he descended from his plane. However, a Saudi King visiting Russia was almost unbelievable until recently.
Russia and Saudi Arabia have been on opposing sides of almost every conflict over the last thirty years, the most recent example of which is the Syrian War. Saudi Arabia now looks to be carving a new niche in the world, under the indirect leadership of the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. It evidently sees good relations with China as the future cornerstone of this policy.
China has prudently decided to test this non- dollar trading with a key ally initially, Russia. Last Monday, China established its first payment versus payment system for Chinese Yuan and Russian Rouble transactions. This is an early test for further PVP systems with key trading partners on its Belt and Road Initiative.
Moving the global oil economy to Yuan will not be a simple task. The US will not take this lightly and may see it as an act of economic war. There is already a lot of tension simmering between the US and China over claims of “unfair trade practice” by the Chinese. I genuinely believe China has allowed the US/North Korea spat to simmer to distract Trump from this issue.
Attempts to trade oil in Euros by other nations in the past have met with thinly veiled threats (Iran) and perhaps may even have been one of the causes of violent action (Libya).
Ultimately though, China is a completely different beast. The US will not be able to intimidate or threaten them into backing down if China believes now is the time to openly challenge US hegemony in such a direct way. The “if” here is crucial. China may continue to discreetly conduct trade agreements, projects and further PVP systems until their power is further consolidated.
Currently, with the US being pulled in a hundred directions by an aimless President, China’s power relative to its great rival grows every day without having to do anything. China’s ascent has been built on a singular vision fuelled by trade agreements and discreet investment. They will not reveal their hand until they are certain their position and economic power is unassailable. They only thing certain is that China’s hegemony of the global economy is getting closer every day…
The Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have the chance to finally break the Sykes-Picot lines once and for call over the coming years. These lines are loosely the borders of the Middle East that have been in place since the carve-up of the former Ottoman Empire following World War One.
It was a great, long line in the sand that basically gave modern-day Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait to the British, with the French receiving Syria, Lebanon, Southern Turkey and Northern Iraq.
Since ISIS first captured Mosul in June 2014 and subsequently went on to unite parts of Northern Iraq and Syria in their so called Caliphate, the future of the current borders of Iraq and Syria have been in doubt.
At times, the media have played up the power and sustainability of the Islamic State, stories of an emerging evil superpower are a great click generator. However to most observers it was obvious that their state would eventually collapse under the weight of sustained bombing and campaigns from their enemies (basically every other player in the in wider Syrian/Iraqi struggle).
Isis did manage to briefly break the Sykes-Picot lines but a terrorist state which commits atrocities on a daily basis was never going to become a permanent state.
The Kurds however, have the chance to finally gain their long dreamed for homeland. The referendum taking place in Kurdish Iraq today can potentially be the first step in creating a new homeland. The question the people of the Autonomus Kurdish region of Iraq will be asked is
"Do you want the Kurdistan region and Kurdish areas outside the region to become an independent state?".
It should result in a “Yes” vote. It will then be very interesting to see what tactics the Kurdish government undertake moving forward. They have said they will seek talks with the central Iraqi government who (much like their Spanish counterparts concerning the Catalan referendum) are strongly opposed to the vote.
Furthermore, will they then seek to expand any future Kurdish state to the Kurdish regions of Syria, Turkey and Iran. These countries have been on opposing sides of the Syrian Civil War, particularly Iran/Syria Govts v Turkey) however all would be opposed to a great Kurdistan.
The Syrian Government may have no choice but to acquiesce to the demands of their Kurdish population who have already set up an autonomous region in the North of the country. They believe they have earned their right to statehood in blood through fighting ISIS for a number of years. They have had the support of the Americans in this battle. The Kurdish Syrians also held elections last weekend in the first step to creating an official, internationally - recognized autonomous region.
Only time will tell whether either group of Kurds can succeed in founding a new fully autonomous state. If either succeeds, will they then have the stomach to take on their new neighbours in trying to create a greater Kurdistan carved out of multiple, current country borders?
This is not a question that will be resolved in the next year or two. The Kurds felt aggrieved at being denied a nation following the Treaty of Versailles and the founding of the League of Nations. They are well accustomed to playing the long game. Violent independence pursuits have been met by horrific bombings and massacres by the Turkish and Iraqi governments of days gone by. Their best approach now is slow and steady, continue to build international recognition and create a democratic mandate across all of their historical lands. The Kurds have been victims of greater games between superpowers before, however it now appears they have abandoned the fatalism that is somehow endemic to the region and have decided to be the masters of their own destiny…
*thanks to Alan Madden for reminding me how crucial the Kurdish referendum vote is...
The war in Syria has been drawing to a slow, violent end for almost two years now. Since Russia started to increase its military support for the Assad regime in September 2015, there has almost been an inevitability that the government forces would hold out and eventually reclaim most of the country. This was accentuated by the deafening silence from most Western nations as rebel held Eastern Aleppo was levelled by the Russian air force. To the ‘moderate’ rebels groups, that had previously been backed by the US, it was a clear signal that they would have to win this war on their own.
That was never going to happen. Syrian forces have continued to retake large swathes of the country. There have been setbacks along the way, the Islamic State retook Palmyra in December 2016 nine months after it had been re-taken by the Syrian army. These setbacks did not fundamentally impact the direction of the war however, fading resistance in the face of a massive Russian/Iranian backed onslaught. The breaking of Islamic State’s siege of Deir Ez-Zor last week is the latest victory in the Syrian War endgame.
Syria was one battleground of a wider struggle for supremacy in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While this was not the immediate cause of the war, it evolved into this as more parties became involved. What became clearer as the war ensued was that Iran, and its allies Hezbollah and the Iraqi government, were willing to commit more military support than the rebel’s backers in Turkey and the Gulf.
If we assume that this trend won’t be reversed, where does Syria and the Assad regime go from here? Large parts of the country are in ruins. According to Human Rights Watch, by February 2016 470,000 people had been killed, 6.1 million displaced internally and 4.8 million Syrian refugees abroad. This is devastation on an almost unprecedented scale in modern times.
Atrocities have been committed by all sides. This is not a defence of Bashir al-Assad and the Syrian government. According to the United Nations, the government have committed multiple war crimes. The question I want to raise is what options are open to the government now. Can Syria come back into the fold and reclaim legitimacy in the West or is destined to be a devastated, war-torn pariah state for the next decade?
Syria doesn't have the benefit of major oil reserves. It will struggle to attract the financial support necessary to rebuild most of the infrastructure that has been destroyed. The fact that there hasn’t been a regime change, immediately makes this a different case to the other devastated nation we’e seen in the last two decades like Afghanistan, Iraq and to a lesser extent, Libya.
The Western world is still some time away from re-recognizing the legitimacy of the Assad government. Syria’s key allies are not in a position to offer the financial support required, particularly as they are involved in their own domestic and international struggles. Russia is a longtime ally of Syria and their use of the Mediterranean port of Tartous was a major incentive for their increased military involvement mentioned above. However the sanctions imposed on Russia have taken their toll.
There is the potential for China to lead the rebuilding of the country. Throughout the war China has been quite muted in its criticism of the Syrian regime. It has almost vetoed as many UN resolutions against Syria as Russia has. In recent times China has made many new allies across the developing world, particularly in Africa, by funding huge infrastructure projects without making political demands from the reciprocants.
The Syrian government could also try and endear itself to the more right wing political parties in Europe by offering to take back Syrian refugees in exchange for funding. While the feasibility of this may be negligible it could be a smart PR move. In fact, there has been a noticeable decline in criticism in Europe of the regime as the number of Islamic State inspired attacks have increased across the continent. Each atrocity has helped the regime drive the narrative that ‘we are fighting the same terrorists together’.
Ultimately it has been a terrible seven years for the Syrian people. There can be no excuse for the atrocities committed by the Syrian government. If we assume that their victory in the Syrian War is now a fait accompli , the future direction of Syria could be an interesting measure of how far the US has retreated in its supremacy of the Middle East as it tries to continue its Pacific pivot. If this is the case the question is who will fill this vacuum? Will Syria be able to leverage this strategic battle or continue to be an unfortunate pawn in this modern version of the Great Game?
***first featured on Slugger O Toole @ sluggerotoole.com/2017/09/08/where-do-syria-and-assad-go-from-here/
The July 2015 Nuclear agreement between the Iran, the US and five other nations (JCPOA) was meant to herald a new period of diplomacy and openness for US/Iranian relations. Many saw it as President Obama’s finest foreign policy achievement. Unfortunately for him it wasn’t long before Donald Trump claimed he would tear it up on his first day in office on his election campaign trail. Furthermore, towards the end of Obama’s presidency there was almost a complete breakdown in relations between him and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, who views Iran as Israel’s existential enemy.
So, when Donald Trump became President in January 2017 the signs were ominous. However, he did not immediately tear up the agreement, despite earlier threats. What he has done is intermittently threaten Iran and recently added additional sanctions in July, claiming Iran has broken the “spirit” of the deal by building ballistic missiles and funding terrorists. There is little doubt in my mind that Trump wants to focus on the Iranian deal at some point and may still try to reverse it.
The Iranian administration realise this but also, they cannot completely submit to the US or they will alienate the more hawkish elements of the Iranian political spectrum. The Qatari diplomatic crisis is a good example of how they have used soft power to defy the US and add to their regional prestige without giving Trump a rallying call to tear up the accord. Fortunately for Iran, Trump does not seem to be as heavily invested in an eventual overthrow of the Syrian regime as the previous administration and continued Iranian involvement will probably not be enough to force further action from the Americans.
Even if Trump really wanted to force the Iranian hand through further sanctions and the threat of armed action, there is nothing so far in his seven months of presidency to suggest that he has the focus or mental fortitude to do so. He seems to be bouncing from one arena to the next and so far, all his moves seem reactionary. The current standoff with North Korea (which I still see ending peacefully) has come from nowhere as Trump had given very little previous indication that North Korea was at the top of his agenda. His rhetoric of responding with “fire and fury” is language not normally associated with a US president.
Iran can benefit from this lack of strategic vision and unclear foreign policy. They can continue to discreetly push their agenda in the Middle East without creating a crisis that leads to direct confrontation like Kim Jong Un has just done. Their biggest concern would be Israeli sabre rattling like in 2013 when a pre-emptive strike seemed potentially imminent.
However, the US and Israel would no longer have the support of the major European powers; Germany, France and the United Kingdom, who signed the JCPOA. Germany and France have recently agreed to a large number of trade deals. They both view the Iranian domestic market (80 million strong) as a potentially lucrative source of new trade. Just last week Renault signed a joint venture agreement with the IDRO (an Iranian semi-state body) to produce 150,000 vehicles a year in Iran. Total, the French oil company, also recently signed a $4.8B agreement with the National Iranian Oil Company.
When you combine these expanding trade ties with Trump’s lack of focus and easily distracted foreign policy approach you can see why every month the potential for Iran to return to being an economic and political pariah state diminishes. While I can see Trump or Israel leading one final push for this, they will fail to achieve this aim without the support of the major European nations.
The Qatar diplomatic crisis continues to generate headlines. I want to very briefly revisit the topic and add a few thoughts.
Firstly it has played out very closely to how I initially envisaged it would here. I had mentioned that Al Jazeera was one of the contentious issues that has greatly irked the Saudi Arabian leadership. I wasn’t surprised when one of the demands from the Gulf countries was that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera. This was a ridiculous demand to make public (in this case Qatar was given a written list of demands so it was always going to reach the public). It would be impossible for the US (often Saudi Arabia’s key ally) to endorse this demand. Qatar has correctly rejected this.
I also believed that Iran would publicly back Qatar and that this blockade would actually push Iran and Qatar closer together. I maintain this has happened. However I underestimated Turkey’s appetite for diplomatic involvement in the Gulf. I think Saudi Arabia did as well. Erdogan’s tour of the Gulf this week may force the Saudi Arabia, UAE and the other states to tone down their demands or even discreetly end the blockade (UAE’s decision to allow Al Jazeera back on the domestic television today could be the first step). Furthermore Kuwait has made public calls for dialogue in a less aggressive manner.
The one prediction I will add is that the increased dialogue between Qatar-Iran and Qatar-Turkey may eventually lead to Qatar becoming the broker in any regional Syrian agreement. There may be enough key players at a negotiating table that involved Russia, Iran, Turkey and Qatar. A Syrian peace accord that excluded the Saudis would be a huge blow to their regional prestige. However this is purely speculative at this time.
Finally I see the crisis ending within the next two weeks. This is not to say that all the restrictions will be lifted within this timeframe. This would be too much of a volte-face for the Saudis. I think there will be a number of steps and discreet announcements until the media interest finally subsides. It really was a poorly thought out decision to try and bully the Qataris into line in such a public and humiliating fashion. As I have mentioned previously diplomacy is the art of subtlety and nuance, not public puffing out your chest and making unrealistic demands. There's quite a similarity to how Madame May et al have started the Brexit talks. The UK was heavily criticized recently for selling arms to Saudi Arabia. It now appears evident they also traded notes on how to alienate yourself and lose friends with foolish demands with little understanding of your current plight or power...
How Qatar is a (not quite blameless) victim of the greater Middle East battle for supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran
past After mixed success in my UK General Election predictions (here) I want to get back to a topic that has piqued my interest in the last week or so. The cutting of diplomatic relations between a number of Arab states and Qatar. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been simmering for a few years now though this is certainly the most dramatic escalation yet witnessed.
The battle for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been well documented in numerous sources and articles over the years . The causes are well known and while religion is undoubtedly a factor I don't want to focus on it in this article. Since the fall of the Shah in Iran in 1979, Iran has viewed itself as the champion of the Shia version of Islam. Saudi Arabia, as the gatekeeper of the two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina, bases a large part of it's legitimacy and prestige on being the protector of the religion.
As this battle has intensified over the 15 years it has become more and more difficult for Arab nations to remain unaligned. In fact it can nearly be seen as regional specific version of the Cold War, with a number of unfortunate states and regions becoming the proxy battlegrounds that were so tragically common before the fall of the USSR. The United States has been a long term ally of Saudi Arabia and an oft unapologetic enemy of the Islamic State of Iran. The same can be said of Israel, although their relationship with Saudi Arabia is less widely broadcast. Their foreign policy aims are both quite similar. A weak Iran and the the suppression of any other powerful Islamist movements (like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon or the less militant Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt) that could be a threat to Israel's security or challenge the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia.
So how does Qatar fit into all this? Saudi Arabia sees Qatar as one of it's client states. It believes Qatar, like the UAE and Bahrain, should immediately come to heel whenever Saudi whistles. As the situation in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has become more complex, Saudi simply expects Qatar to stand behind Saudi. They do not want a partnership of equals and certainly no diplomatic discourse with Iran (more on this later).
Since the bloodless coup in 1995, when Sheikh Hamas wrested power from his father, Qatar has harbored grand ambitions. With one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world and only 300,000 Qatari citizens their coffers are almost infinite. They have used this money to try and attain global influence. Al Jazeera, often alleged to be the media mouthpiece of the government, has become one of the largest global news agencies. This ability to frame the Qatari narrative of Middle Eastern events scares Saudi Arabia and they see this as a threat to their internal security.
Another element of tension is Qatar's funding (often covert) of Islamist rebels in Syria. Furthermore their official backing of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt after the Arab Spring was extremely dangerous to Saudi Arabia. One of the major differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is that Saudi Arabia has a population of almost 30 million people. The majority of these are Saudi nationals. Saudi Arabia has poor unemployed, Saudi Arabian men. Qatar doesn't have poor, unemployed Qatari men. This point can not be emphasised enough. Saudi Arabia's young population has the potential to become disillusioned with the gross extravagance of the Saudi royal family. It isn't beyond the realms of possibility than a protest movement with an Islamist element become mainstream in Saudi Arabia. Internal turmoil in Saudi Arabia would be a gift to the Iranians.
The conditions marked mentioned above have been around for a while. The catalyst for this spat to take place now is almost undoubtedly Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia. Trump was a vocal critic of the American- Iranian Peace Accord and threatened to tear it up upon entering the White House. When Trump announced his first foreign visit would be to Saudi Arabia and Israel, it was a clear indication where his loyalties lie. The $110 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia has undoubtedly emboldened the Saudis to challenge Qatar to get in line.
They have done this in a headline-grabbing yet clumsy fashion. There is no chance of war as there are currently 10,000 US troops in Qatar. I believe it is now a battle of will between the two nations which may have the unintended consequence of pushing the Qatar closer to Iran. I can guarantee it won't be the last time a rash foreign policy move is secretly toasted in Tehran...