Will ISIS Bring Russia and Iran Together?

Is Washington bungling the opportunity for a U.S.-Iranian entente, thereby opening the door to Russian-Iranian leadership of the fight against Sunni extremism and the resultant consolidation of Iranian emergence on the Mideast stage as an anti-U.S. player?

By late September, Iran was working hard at the U.N. to reach a nuclear accord with the U.S. in order to open the door to Washington’s anti-ISIS coalition. Obama subsequently chose to adopt an insulting public stance, probably with a nervous eye on the highly vocal U.S. war party but conceivably as part of a back-room agreement with Rouhani that holding hands openly would embarrass them both. In any event, at the end of the month Rouhani embarrassed Obama in a much more substantive way by pointing out that the U.S. air campaign, minus a boots-on-the-ground commitment, was mostly “theater,” a point the U.S. war party would have appreciated. With pride and domestic political opponents in the way on both sides, the upshot was that despite the obvious utility to both the U.S. and Iran of cooperation against ISIS, the two sides once again bungled a great opportunity. Tehran has reportedly ordered its renown Quds Force, that worked so hard to prevent consolidation of the neo-con invasion of Iraq, “not to target American troops inside Iraq.” While this may be due to a desire for anti-ISIS cooperation, as argued by Eli Lake, it is explicable simply in long-range, strategic terms: the tenuous U.S. military position in Iraq today is hard to interpret as a threat to Iran, which got pretty much what it wanted with the U.S. withdrawal. So the door to a settlement of the long spat between Tehran and Washington remains open and the need for both sides to walk through that door together remains obvious, but it is not happening, much to the delight of both Salafi and Zionist extremists.

With Washington still unwilling to acknowledge Iran as a legitimate regional power and the ISIS threat still rising, the predictable seems to be happening: Russian-Iranian military cooperation against ISIS. Moscow, effectively frozen out of the Mideast since the collapse of the Soviet Union, sees military cooperation with Tehran as a way to gain access to the Mideast that the West can hardly criticize, a way to remind Washington that it must treat Russia as a world power (including even in Ukraine!), and a reasonable approach to dealing with ISIS. Tehran reminds Washington that it has other options, should Washington refuse to cooperate.

The reported Russian-Iranian cooperation includes the training of Iranians in the operation of MI-35m helicopters already being supplied to Iraq. Designed for both troop transport and combat, these helicopters would both help the anti-ISIS war effort and, with Iranian crews, consolidate Iran’s regional position. While Moscow has not confirmed these reports, it does acknowledge providing arms to both Iraq and Syria. Since Rouhani’s condescending “theater” remark a month ago, Obama’s military tactics may have become somewhat more effective, but the weakness of the U.S. position in the war with ISIS now raging across the center of the Mideast is opening the door to a shift in regional power relationships that could turn out very much to the disadvantage of the U.S.

From the U.S. perspective, it is not really so much the fact of Russian support for Iran’s emergence on the Mideast stage as the context: Russian-Iranian-U.S. cooperation against Salafi extremism would create a very different Mideast from Russian-Iranian victory over ISIS in defiance of a marginalized and ineffective U.S.

To defend its interests in the Mideast effectively, the U.S. of course needs numerous things, e.g., the wisdom to identify its real interests, but above all it needs freedom of movement, something it can only have to the degree that it can establish working relationships with a range of regional actors. To the degree that Russia becomes Iran’s patron against the U.S., the U.S. will be cornered in a most likely subordinate relationship with the Israeli and Saudi right and will thus find itself frequently working against its own long-term interests. The current crack in the edifice of Turkish-U.S. strategic relations has already undermined the potential for effective U.S. Mideast policy.

The urgency for the U.S. of finding an effective Mideast policy is further raised by the slow but ominous decline in Lebanese stability. Fighting in the narrow inhabited back streets of Tripoli on Oct. 25 with helicopters and armored vehicles that left 14 dead has already imperiled the safety of civilians and can only inflame sectarian tensions. With the Lebanese Army taking increasingly violent steps against ISIS-provoked violence, a return to Lebanese civil war, the apparent aim of Sunni radicals, is becoming increasingly likely and should be viewed by Washington strategists as a near-term possibility at least as serious as the fate of Kobani. Lebanon once was part of Syria, and Syrian refugees now constitute an astonishing one-third of the Lebanese population.

A month ago it was not hard to imagine a U.S.-Turkish-Iranian entente against ISIS, with mutual military interests propped up by mutual economic interests and the U.S. benefiting over the long term by seeing moderate Turkey pull Iran in a moderate direction. However, U.S. unwillingness to accept Iran’s emergence as an independent regional power, Turkish hostility to full citizenship for Kurds and perhaps the emergence of a Kurdish state, and Iranian distrust of the U.S. after three decades of hostility combined to scuttle that ship before it was launched. A very different alternative is now emerging in which Russia leads, Turkey sulks, and the U.S. finds itself marginalized. Washington needs to consider this possibility before it becomes reality.

Should Lebanon collapse into civil war in the context of a Russian-Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian military alliance (excluding the U.S.) as the only answer to ISIS, both Saudi and Israeli interference further destabilizing the Mideast would only be expected, with the resulting debacle constituting a genuine nightmare for U.S. national interests.

 

 

 

Collapse of Kobani: A Massive Turkish Defeat

Both in terms of domestic tranquility and international strategic positioning, Ankara’s decision to watch the destruction of Syrian Kurds in Kobani constitutes a massive defeat for Turkey.

Erdogan has a point in callously bargaining with the lives of Syrian Kurds in order to get a more serious NATO effort against Assad (who is also calmly sitting on the sidelines watching the barbarism of ISIS). A well considered, realistic, tightly coordinated U.S.-Turkish (-Iranian) political strategy to settle the Syrian civil war is a great idea. Sadly, Erdogan’s timing is deplorable, seemingly calculated to make a good point at precisely the moment when it cannot possibly be acted on. The immediate need this week was not to remake the world but to save Kobani. Kobani lost, Erdogan’s goal of settling the Syrian civil war becomes vastly more difficult.

The immediate results of Erdogan’s betrayal of the Kurds with whom he was in the process of negotiating a settlement include:

  • Straining relations with the U.S.;

  • Reigniting an internal war with the Kurds, who have now been told in no uncertain terms that Ankara will never treat them as Turkish citizens;

  • Empowering ISIS and allowing it to install its power directly on the Turkish border;

  • Permanently sullying his previously impressive moral stature.

Erdogan, possessing the freedom of action that comes with superior force and the time to make a careful decision, calculated carefully, and handed his country a massive defeat.

Did Erdogan knowingly accept this loss in return for some offsetting strategic gain? His adversary Assad has gained time to consolidate his position in southern Syria, while further benefiting from the new rift between Ankara and Washington that will make all the more difficult any smooth Turkish-U.S. coordinated strategy to resolve the Syrian civil war. Erdogan has also demonstrated by proclaiming last-second opposition to ISIS capture of Kobani, but then doing nothing to back up his words, the precise degree to which Ankara can be trusted, which will surely give Tehran, among others, reason for pause. It seems more than likely that his behavior will negatively impact Turkey’s efforts to join the EEC. And how, exactly, are Iraqi Kurds to continue their flourishing economic relationship with a Turkey that has just tossed to the dogs their brothers in Syria? Turkey did, however, gain one apparent new friend on its borders: the Islamic State. We shall see how that works out for Turkish society as black flags wave within sight of Turkish soldiers and Salafi imams proclaim their faith from Turkish mosques.

The intentional sacrifice of Kobani in order to undermine the Kurds also has a deeply troubling broader consequence that Erdogan probably did not consider. For a decade Westerners, who have long since forgotten the cultural superiority of moderate Moorish Granada, have been asking themselves if a Muslim society could be tolerant and democratic. The thoughtful answer to this question, counteracting the behavior of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, has been the moderate Islamic regime of none other than Erdogan, who has campaigned against Turkey’s traditional military dictatorship in favor of democracy and has opened historic negotiations with Turkey’s long-oppressed Kurdish minority. In the wake of his sell-out of Kobani, it takes great optimism to imagine that Turkey will continue its painstaking crawl toward civil liberties and justice for all its citizens. Thus, the question of how contemporary Islam might fit in with the fundamental principles of democratic rights, individual freedoms, civil liberties, and equal opportunity for all citizens regardless of sectarian distinctions has been reopened, sadly, by the one Mideastern leader who appeared to have offered a positive answer.

And, with protest riots, police brutality, and curfews in Kurdish regions of Turkey already appearing while the last defenders of Kobani still fight in front of their homes, Erdogan’s chickens from the sacrifice of Kobani are already flying home to roost.

In a Confusing Mideast, Finally a Clear Moral Choice

The imminent [as of Monday morning, October 6] disaster for the integrity of Ankara and Washington, as well as for the Kurdish people, at Kobani seems about the most morally clear-cut situation one can find in the anguished Mideast, and so, the great men who run the world…stand and watch.

If Washington is looking for “good guys” to defend, then the beleaguered Kurds are about the most obvious group around. If Washington is looking for a strategy in a region in which it has caused so much harm only to create chaos that is now blowing back in our faces, then treating Iraqi Kurds like good guys while allowing ISIS to massacre Syrian Kurds hardly constitutes a rational approach to stabilizing the region. If Washington wants to defend U.S. national security, empowering ISIS and teaching the world that Washington cannot figure out how to make a difference even when it attacks constitute a shamefully incompetent twin failure. If Washington cares about the consolidation of Turkish democracy, then watching the Turkish NATO army as it watches ISIS conquer and exterminate the Syrian Kurds is a course of action we…and all freedom-loving Turks will come to regret: democracy and freedom must be shared. Turks will not find freedom by facilitating the slaughter of the abused neighbors.

As for Erdogan and Davutoglu–in whom some have placed so much faith for a new, more civilized approach to politics in the Mideast—Kobani is their moment of truth. How they go down in history will be decided on this battle. A barbaric ISIS takeover of Kobani under the gun s of silent Turkish tanks will burn Turkey’s “good neighbor policy” to the ground, give ISIS enormous momentum, ensure Turkish-Kurdish hatred and violence for a generation, probably doom Turkish democracy, and very likely end up leading to a Turkish withdrawal from NATO and transformation into a state destabilized by Sunni radicalism. Kobani is a turning point. Ankara is heading down a slippery slope, and its callousness toward Syrian Kurds will generate an increasingly serious chain of interlocked disasters.

Now is not the time for arguing over which one more carelessly threw gasoline on the fires of Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Ankara and Washington need to think about the longterm future, and strategic calculus needs to start with protecting Kobani…today.

The situation is, of course, not that simple. Why, indeed, should Americans or Turks die for Kurds if Kurds will not even unite to defend themselves? Ankara has a point in calling on all Kurds to get on the same page:

… Saleh Muslim, co-chair of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD), went to Ankara this weekend to hold meetings with Turkish security officials to discuss possible Turkish assistance in defending Kobani against Isis. Turkey’s government has vowed it will not sit idly by and let Kobani fall.

Turkish media reported that security officials in Ankara urged Muslim to convince the YPG, the armed wing of the PYD that is currently battling Isis in Kobani, to join the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and to “take an open stance against the Syrian regime” of Bashar al-Assad. [The Guardian 10/5/14.]

But now is also not the time for using the population of Kobani as hostage to a negotiating process between Turkey and various Kurdish factions. Such are not tactics designed to build an effective coalition.

One aspect of the long term is the momentum that Salafi extremists would gain across the region if the world were to permit them slowly and openly to crush a city packed with refugees and representing the last strongpoint of a minority on the brink of extermination. The fall of Kobani would put Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey itself directly on the front line, in addition to reinvigorating the radical Sunni threat to Baghdad.

Second, no one would miss the message that Erdogan had slammed the door in the face of regional Kurdish aspirations and, at least implicitly, cut a deal with Sunni extremism. Anti-Turkish radicalization of Turkish Kurds and the simultaneous radicalization of religiously inclined Turkish Sunnis could be expected, in turn leading to instability within Turkey, Turkish tension between secular and religious Turks, regime crackdowns, and the emergence of a hard-line Turkish regime – be it by radicalized Sunnis or secular militarists.

Third, seeing Ankara turn soft on ISIS and the threat to Assad instantly intensifying would only stiffen Tehran’s resolve to protect their Syrian interests with force, isolating and radicalizing Iran while driving a wedge between Iran and Turkey. Thus, the fading of moderate Sunni Islam would inhibit the rise of moderate Shi’i Islam, no doubt with rapid and dire consequences for both Syria and Lebanon.

Fourth, much to the satisfaction of Western as well as Israeli war parties and Islamic extremists, the monster of Christian-Islamic war would once again raise its ugly head. The world has already seen in this century how easy it is to fan the flames of global religious war, yet it took ISIS only weeks to bait a U.S. administration again into taking the noisy, self-proclaimed, public (yet utterly inept!) lead in yet another coalition of the “willing Western and repressive Sunni states” that serves above all as a bright red target for every unemployed extremist in sight.Not one of these probable consequences is hard to foresee; the combination of all would greatly aggravate the political situation in the Mideast. All of these predictable consequences in the balance, yet Ankara and Washington seem unable to defend a city right on the Turkish border when its civilians are threatened with slaughter. How much more morally compelling could a situation be?

Turkey & Iran: How Similar?

Turkey and Iran occupy very distinct positions in the Mideast political environment, suggesting there is little likelihood of any rapprochement, much less of a moderate one, which would require a significant Iranian shift.

If the emergence of a moderate Turkish-Iranian axis now appears to be not just anTurkey Iran Futures historic potential shift toward Mideast stability but also a logical outgrowth of certain current trends, how might it occur and how far along such a path have these two vastly different rivals moved to date? With harsh suppression of peaceful democratic protest and continuing discrimination against its Kurdish minority, Turkey can be viewed as a moderate state only in the chaotic context of the Mideast. Iran’s extremely harsh domestic political environment dominated by a military swallowing the civilian economy and a repressive clerical governing elite sits even further away from the idealized concept of a modernizing, secular, inclusive state symbolized by the green quadrant.

Relatively inclusive and attempting, under Erdogan, if sometimes not too convincingly, to find some resolution to its sectarian conflict with long abused Turkish Kurds, Turkey nonetheless still has a long way to go before building a truly inclusive polity. To put this point in context, however, one could say the same of, for example, the U.S., with its continuing racial discrimination against blacks and growing economic discrimination against both middle and lower classes. Iran may be less exclusionist in sectarian terms but is considerably more so in terms of its treatment of political dissent. Here, the key distinction is not the nature of the discrimination but its harshness.

In terms of the choice between the economy and ideology (unstated in the model, and simply assumed to be the obvious alternative for the purposes of this analysis),Turkey Test Iran and Turkey seem to be widely different, with Turkey much more focused on the pursuit of economic development as a national goal. Iran’s long-standing determination to give priority to its right to nuclear technology at the expense of the wrecking of its economy by U.S.-led economic warfare is the most obvious piece of evidence. Particularly noteworthy was Turkey’s effort to find a compromise over the uranium refining issue, surely with the hope of implementing in return a joint hydrocarbon venture involving serving as the middleman between Iran and Europe, upon which Iran seemed in the end needlessly to throw cold water. Turkey risked its alliance structure for economic gain; Iran suffered economic embargo, risked nuclear attack, and lost a golden opportunity simultaneously to consolidate its strategic position and gain economic advantages in order to make its point about having the right to an independent political position (i.e., the right to nuclear technology and the right to articulate a hostile verbal opposition to Israel). Examination solely of current positions offers strong evidence that the emergence of a moderate Turkish-Iranian axis based on the combination of the pursuit of economic development and an inclusionist domestic polity is a long shot indeed.

But what of trends? The next post in this series will examine recent behavior.

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Part 1. A Stumble in Ukraine Open’s the Door for Iran Scenario

Part 2. Emergence of Iran Scenario

Part 3. Turkish-Iranian Moderate Rapprochement Scenario

Turkish-Iranian Axis: A Scenario for the Rise of a Center in the Extremist Mideast

The Mideast is dominated by three sectarian religious states–Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran–and a fourth state that has yet to make up its mind: Turkey. In this incendiary political environment, the best hope for moderate, just governance of this region may well rest on the unlikely emergence of long-term, strategic Turkish-Iranian cooperation. 

The very obstacles to the counter-intuitive emergence of a stable, effective Turkish-Iranian axis are the keys to its possible emergence: Sunni Turkey and Shi’i Iran would both have to rise above zero-sum sectarianism; each would have to focus its future aspirations away from sectarian-based regional militancy toward economic development; each would have to come to terms with the right of Kurds to pursue their own aspirations even as Turks and Iranians pursue theirs. Such a tripartite miracle simultaneously achieved by both states would be an historic surprise but has its own powerful logic. First, in both Turkey and Iran significant forces appear to support such non-sectarian modernization. Second, Iran has the hydrocarbons Turkey needs, while Turkey stands geographically, politically, and financially in the right place to serve as middleman for Iranian hydrocarbon export to Western Europe. Third, each is currently exposed diplomatically, so they need each other’s political support. Conveniently, these three arguments in support of a moderate Turkish-Iranian axis in the dangerously extremist region naturally fall out in a logical order. The mutual diplomatic support each needs right now is an easy step for both sides, especially with Davutoglu still voicing support for his good-neighbor policy and Rouhani looking for moderate regional achievements to buttress his domestic position. As the two stick their toes into the congenial waters of diplomatic cooperation, their mutual efforts to enhance economic cooperation–already well under way–will both be enhanced and themselves further enhance broader diplomatic coordination, and their mutual need for long-term defense against the so-called “Islamic State” only underscore the timeliness of the whole process. Finally, as momentum builds, the truly hard part of the process can take shape, with Turkey giving up whatever pretensions it may have to lead regional Sunnis and Iran giving up fundamentalist Shi’i crusading. While regional collapse into sectarian warfare may be far more probable, the emergence of a powerful Turkish-Iranian center rests on powerful logic.

Turkey Iran FuturesThe dynamics of such an historic transformation of the Middle Eastern political system arguably center on two dimensions: inclusiveness and commitment to economic development. A state can be discriminatory (e.g., Turkey toward the Kurds or Israel toward the Palestinians) even while it focuses on economic development, but this is an illogical and unstable position in which sectarian conflict tends to undermine economic progress; inclusiveness logically maximizes growth potential since it encourages the joint efforts of all citizens pulling together to bake a bigger pie rather than fighting over their shares of a small pie (e.g., illegal Israeli settlers burning Palestinian olive groves). If a state dedicated to inclusivity and development represents one logical alternative, a state dedicated to exclusivity (e.g., the typical Mideastern religious state) and cultural homogeneity rather than modernization represents the other logical alternative.

The “Turkey/Iran Futures” diagram illustrates this simplistic, two-dimensional model of politics in which the green quadrant represents the ideal of a modern state and the red quadrant represents the ideal of a sectarian, fundamentalist state emphasizing orthodoxy over economic development and likely to be warlike and expansionist. How likely Iran and Turkey are to move simultaneously toward the “modern state” position may be evaluated in terms of current trends and the probability of a positive feedback loop arising in which movement by one party might promote a similar movement by the other party.

At the moment, numerous pressures are enticing movement by both Turkey and Iran toward the ideal of inclusivity plus economic development, with Iran moderating its stance both as a result of Rouhani’s electoral victory and in response to the Islamic State challenge and Turkey balanced delicately at a tipping point. It remains very unclear if these pressures will combine so as to become the dominant dynamic influencing the behavior of either state, much less both; as will be shown in the next part of this analysis, tracking recent behavior offers some clues.

Iran’s Strategic Calculus in the Broader Mideast Context

Iran’s steady emergence as an independent actor stands out in comparison with the rest of the Mideast – both distinctive by its efficacy and constituting one of perhaps four core trends in contemporary Mideast affairs.

Beneath the distracting noise of harsh rhetoric, savage partisan warfare, and strict fundamentalist micro-management of individual behavior, when one views Iranian foreign policy behavior over the years, the strong beating heart of a patient national security establishment consistent in its goals and flexible in its tactics is evident: the readiness to cooperate with Washington after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the cool gaze upon U.S. forces as they occupied Saddam’s Iraq, the defense of Iranian interests in Iraq always just short of an open military challenge to Washington, the very risky but controlled nuclear challenge to Israel, and now the willingness to cooperate with Washington against ISIS in fact if not with open arms…but at the same time to try to negotiate economic accommodation. The degree of consistency of fundamental purpose and tactical flexibility can certainly be overstated but nonetheless seems rather greater than for most major actors in the Mideast theater.

Stepping back from examples to pattern, one sees an Iran militarily and technologically very weak but nonetheless not just challenging but repeatedly winning victories against vastly more powerful, nuclear opponents. But let us not give Tehran credit for more than is due: Iranian behavior allowed these victories but did not create them. Rather, the Tehran foreign policy establishment won repeatedly by its willingness to wait and take a step backwards in order to be ready to move two steps forward once Lady Luck should smile, as it did with the U.S. removal of Saddam and again this summer with the U.S. desire for allies against ISIS. This appearance, or record, of Iranian diplomatic skill informs the three scenarios that, respectively, paint a possible near future in which 1) Iran will profit from the sad failure of U.S. Ukraine policy, 2) Iran will profit from the disaster of the Syrian civil war that opened the door to a new Salafi jihadi campaign, and 3) Iran will doubly profit from the simple fact of the Ukraine crisis and the ISIS crisis occurring simultaneously.

Over the last 30 years, Iran has in fact been very unlucky – invaded by Saddam who was backed by seemingly overwhelming international support, threatened by Israeli nuclear attack, surrounded by a chain of U.S. military bases, and impoverished by Western economic warfare…and yet it has not just survived but advanced toward its goal of emergence as a regional power not to be ignored. The price of diplomatic marginalization and economic deprivation (not to mention weakening of domestic democratic tendencies) was, to be sure, extremely high, but just compare it with the price paid by other actors for their Mideast policies – Saddam got his country trashed and its middle class crushed, the U.S. paid out trillions only to see Iraq almost collapse in the face of a few thousand poorly armed jihadis, Syria has effectively collapsed; Saudi Arabia seems a house of cards and is now visibly unsettled by a perceived threat from its own jihadi clients; Israel is mired, decade upon decade, in a grossly immoral and debilitating sectarian war against the Palestinian people that is radicalizing its population and poisoning its democracy; Egypt has been sucked back into military dictatorship; and Turkey stands at a tipping point that may wreck its own impressive steps toward domestic democracy and regional leadership. Iran, in contrast, is defending at low cost and with a degree of skill that is making it invaluable to Washington, its sphere of influence in Iraq, has managed to take the edge off Netanyahu’s fearsome strategic challenge, retains a strong relationship with a Lebanese Hezbollah that has transformed itself from militia to modern political party, and seems to be in an increasingly strong negotiating position regarding the much resented Western policy of economic warfare. In the chaotic Mideast, that is an impressive foreign policy record for a weak and marginalized state.

Let us be clear: the point here is not to judge the morality or decency of the Iranian state but to judge the long-term effectiveness of its national security team. On that score, over the last 30 years, it scores better than most of its clients, allies, or adversaries. In comparison,  Iran has many domestic weaknesses that may prove ultimately more significant to its fate but has made itself a global political factor of note by virtue of a foreign policy strategy worth studying.

The Mideast demands attention. The challenge of violent Sunni fundamentalism has become a long-term pattern whose seriousness only increases as the West continues to defeat it militarily while ignoring the underlying frustrations deeply felt by the far broader masses of non-violent but impatient non-fundamentalist Sunnis. Turkey’s vacillation between Westernization and moderate political Islam, democratization and anti-Kurdish sectarianism may decide the future of the Mideast for a century, if only because Turkey is the only regional state remotely capable of offering a moderate, democratic, and economically successful alternative. The receding efficacy of a confused U.S. continuing to rely for influence on ever less relevant military solutions contrasting with the subtle economic offensive of a rising China makes far fewer headlines but is no less significant for its relative invisibility. Iran’s struggle to regain its historical position as a major regional player with an independent foreign policy thus constitutes one of at least four major and contradictory Mideast stories entangled together. It is hard to see how all four of these stories can reach successful conclusions.

Iran Seizes Its Moment: A Scenario for the Near Future

Part of the art of scenario analysis lies in thinking not just “alternative scenarios” but “compatible and interacting scenarios.” An imminent possibility is the emergence of Iran as a major power as a result of the combination of the Ukrainian crisis provoking a possible Western-Russian gas war and the West’s dependence upon Iran for help against ISIS.

Scenario I. Playing for Keeps (Apr 2014)

Washington provokes a new cold war with Moscow over the Ukraine, a war fought with hydrocarbons that harms both sides and hands bargaining room to Tehran as West Europe’s emergency source of natural gas.

Scenario II. An Embarrassing Embrace

By the spring of 2014, the lid had been gingerly placed on the Washington-Tehran nuclear crisis: no solution acceptable to both sides was yet visible to the stubborn adversaries, but Netanyahu seemed to have overplayed his hand. His obviously self-serving militancy—so dangerous that even top Israeli military/intelligence officials questioned Netanyahu’s reliability—was losing effectiveness. The argument was moving away from its reckless, zero-sum emotionalism toward a spirit of thoughtful professionalism that opened the door to rational behavior. Then, right on time, ISIS exploded onto the scene, displaying to the world the nakedness of both the U.S. Emperor-of-a-Conquered-Iraq and the Iranian Emperor-of-a-Shi’i-Iraq. After a three-trillion-dollar war, Washington had lost control of post-Saddam Iraq, while Tehran–after sitting so brilliantly on the fence during the U.S. occupation and winning the peace—was watching its new Shi’i client regime disintegrate. After three decades of slapping each other in the face, established power Washington and rising power Tehran suddenly found themselves in an embarrassingly public embrace: they needed each other. A generation after becoming empowered by superpower conflict in Afghanistan, Salafi jihadis were once again in the driver’s seat…and this time pressing the pedal so hard to the metal that even their Saudi sponsors were beginning to wonder exactly what bargain they had made with the devil.

Far more cunning than bin Laden or Zarqawi, al-Baghdadi moved rapidly during the fall of 2014 both to pose as the defender of the faith against U.S. “air crusaders” and to set in place an effective state structure to win the support of regional Sunnis. Obama’s coalition of the unwilling, featuring a still (globally) marginalized Rouhani and a smooth-talking Erdogan playing both sides against the middle, looked great on T.V. but proved unimpressive against tens of thousands of militants scattered across the Mideast, each with a brother or cousin or rich uncle.

Redirecting energies to avoid the U.S. air force, by November 2014, ISIS cells were destabilizing Lebanon and Jordan, its recruiters operating freely out of mosques in Turkey, and its financial agents making deals in Saudi Arabia–all immune to American bombs, while every photograph of a U.S. warplane over the Mideast further inflamed the passions of both wealthy shiekhs and young madrassa grads.

The shot-gun Washington-Tehran marriage of August 2014, with Daddy ISIS holding the gun, failed to satisfy either bride or groom, both unwilling to treat the other with true respect. Divorce being out of the question, they crawled in mutual humiliation into separate bedrooms. But Iran, with many friends in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, quickly got her life back.

Compatible Scenarios: Iran Rises on Two Legs

As of September 2014, Playing for Keeps is slowly becoming reality, even as the ISIS threat forces Washington and Tehran into each other’s arms. An obvious and intriguing example of “compatible scenarios,” a West Europe desperate for natural gas to stay warm during the winter of 2015 and having no way to replace Russian gas other than Iran combined with the simultaneous Western need for Iranian help on the ground against ISIS created a reinforcing feedback loop accelerating Iran’s re-emergence as a major regional power. By early 2015, Iran is standing tall on the two legs of natural gas exports to a cold Western Europe and Washington’s need for Iranian stabilization of the Mideast.

Every time U.S. wanna-be crusaders demanded an end to the Washington-Tehran romance, West Europeans screamed for Iranian gas, and Khamenei called vaguely for “serious global cooperation against jihadis” as soon as the U.S. economic war against Iran was terminated. With the U.S. economy still hostage to corporate elites bleeding the middle class and Washington’s foreign policy elite baffled by the ever-changing complexities of Mideast politics, Washington remained dependent upon Tehran—with its vastly more informed network of Iraqi contacts—for effective action on the ground against Sunni extremists.

Nevertheless, the domestic U.S. political situation prevented Washington from making the necessary changes to U.S. policy toward Iran in economic and political spheres to permit a real U.S.-Iranian honeymoon. Domestic frustrations over the global mess handed the House to American primitives in November, so hobbling Obama that he could achieve no breakthrough with Tehran. The limitations that ensued handed the initiative to Tehran, precisely the opportunity that Iranian decision-makers had been looking for since 1979.

Rejected by Washington, Tehran adjusted to its continued marginalization by playing the ISIS game of redesigning Mideast borders to its own advantage, ignoring the artificial borders imposed by colonialists after WWI. Many Mideast residents, regardless of sectarian allegiance, found that new “Mideast realignment” quite acceptable. Mideast religious civil war became a comfortable status quo as ISIS steadily consolidated its gains without overly threatening the major regional powers. Building social support quietly in both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, it carefully avoided both violence and open political challenges in each country. A “comfortable impasse” with Tehran included understandings that in return for not attacking Iranian interests in the rump Syria statelet of Damascus, Iranian forces would look the other way when ISIS organizers crossed into Lebanon and Jordan.

By the end of 2014, Ankara—insistent upon seizing short-sighted sectarian advantage at the expense of long-term Turkish national interests–had set up a sphere of influence outside its borders at the expense of the Kurds, Iran—making the best of a poor bargain with the U.S.–had consolidated control of its whole border with Iraq as well as over a strip from Baghdad to Damascus, and al-Baghdadi—opting for a small victory now–had a functioning state covering northern Syria and Iraq plus raging brushfires in Lebanon and Jordan facilitated by various understandings with both Ankara and Tehran, while American aircraft carriers paraded uselessly around the Mideast littoral.

The old colonial powers, focused intently in January 2015 on finding natural gas imports, suddenly discovered that they really did not care how Mideast borders were drawn. Moscow and Beijing found the whole spectacle of Arab and Iranian strategists remaking the post-colonial Mideast under the utterly confused gaze of the soaring eagle nothing if not amusing. Putin moved when opportunity presented itself to score points but focused mainly on redrawing borders in East Europe. Beijing quietly signed arms-for-oil contracts and delicately began putting very tough-looking “technicians” in civilian clothes on the ground in Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus.

Things could well have turned out differently. Washington could have negotiated an accommodation with Tehran trading diplomatic status and Western technology for a winning strategy against jihadis. That could have generated a post-Assad compromise Syrian peace. Erdogan could have carried his old campaign to grant Turkish Kurds justice and cultural legitimacy to its logical conclusion and made that the foundation for the emergence of genuine Turkish democracy. Iraqis could have found the political maturity to set up a non-sectarian government of national unity. Jihadis could have been defeated tactically, while Saudi Arabia could have taken the strategic decision to design a modern, moderate, secular educational system. But that is not how it turned out.

Instead, Salafis had their little caliphate; Iran had its imperial strip right across the center of the Mideast from the homeland all the way to the Mediterranean; Turkey had the Kurds cowering in their mountains; Moscow digested Ukraine; China got oil. And the world’s last remaining superpower? Well, in this happy ending for everyone, Americans got what they had really wanted all along—a knock-down, drag-out domestic culture war. No foreigners invited.

Implications:

  • Would Turkish rejection of Kurdish rights doom Turkish democracy?

  • Would the region civilize the caliphate or the caliphate radicalize the region?

  • Would Beijing dominate the Mideast?

  • With the U.S. self-absorbed, could Iran as seller, Turkey as broker, and Western Europe as buyer form a hydrocarbon alliance capable of ending the U.S.-centric international political system?

Erdogan’s Kurdish Tipping Point

Turkish leader Erdogan made a name for himself by offering Turkey a genuine reform movement incorporating moderate Islamic reform, democratization of a heavily militarized state, and a good neighbor policy in the war-torn Mideast. But most of all, he moved toward a state policy, after decades of repression, of justice for Turkey’s Kurds. He stood up to Israel’s abuse of Palestinians, resisted U.S. military moves into the region, and advocated a nuclear compromise with Iran. In the wake of the Syrian civil war, the explosion of ISIS jihadi barbarism, and the strides of Iraqi Kurds toward independence from a hostile (be it Sunni-run or Shi’i-run) Baghdad, Erdogan’s claim to an honored place in history has now reached a turning point, and–perhaps no surprise–it is the morally-charged Kurdish issue that threatens to wreck everything Erdogan has claimed to stand for.

Turkey stands at a tipping point: either it makes a commitment to justice for Syrian Kurds, with all that implies for fair treatment of Turkish Kurds and acceptance of a greater political role for Kurds throughout the Mideast, or the delicate democratization of Turkey under Erdogan collapses under the dual weight of Turkish discrimination against its own Kurds and Turkish complacency in ISIS barbarism. Erdogan surely understands all too well the implications of defending the security of Syrian Kurds and the right of Turkish Kurds to help them. Recognizing Kurdish rights on the border implies recognizing the right of Turkish Kurds to be full citizens of Turkey, implies the right of Iraqi Kurds to political participation in Iraq or independence, implies the legitimacy of Kurdish militia units since they will inevitably be central to any serious effort to defend Syrian Kurds, and implies that Turkey will finally take a clear stand against the ISIS. A fateful and historic tipping point indeed.

Turkish police violence against Turkish Kurds desperate to cross the border or in some way contact and provide aid to the new flood of Syrian Kurdish refugees in combination with Ankara’s policy of looking the other way while jihadis use Turkish territory to expand their power offers a picture of moral turpitude too blatant for anyone to miss. Erdogan’s claim to being a great leader in a region desperately in need of great leadership will live or die on this issue, and–with some 100,000 new Syrian Kurdish refugees pouring across the Turkish border this week, now is the time for Erdogan to stand up and earn the reputation he has sought so long.

Here, on the Syrian-Turkish border, in the face of yet another ISIS campaign of massacre, is Erdogan’s opportunity to make fundamental changes in Turkey’s reputation and its domestic social system by standing up for the Kurds. But, no, he lets his police bully them. Does Erdogan imagine that fence-sitting will shock and awe al-Baghdadi?

The Turkish military now guards a border with nothing but chaos on the other side: no state exists, only barbarism, and if Turkey does not fill that vacuum of governance with a security blanket for its residents (those who have not already fled), then ISIS will create a state, and that state will by cultural osmosis flow north, radicalizing Turkey itself. That process is already being implemented: ISIS has put in place a highly successful process of recruiting Turkish youths into its military and those who survive the war will not have forgotten the land from which they came.  The traditionally dictatorial Turkish military will reemerge, and Turkish civil war between a secular military and a radicalized Islamic movement will emerge, aided and abetted by the gasoline that al-Baghdadi will pour on the flames.

And what if that prognosis is somehow avoided? Even then, Turkey will lose, descending into renewed sectarian conflict,with a heavy military hand in the background: the perfect recipe for extinguishing the green shoots of Turkish democracy. Turkish democracy, however imperfect it may still be, represents an invaluable hope for the chaotic Mideast, a huge region containing no other significant sign of non-sectarian governance except little Tunisia. Salafi radicals committed to violent jihad–even against other Muslims, even against other Sunnis, and certainly against all established Mideast states–seek revolution. No place in their vision exists for a semi-secular, Westernized society like that of modern Turkey. The tipping point now piercing the soles of Erdogan’s shoes is critical for the next century of Mideast history.

Turkish political analyst Ceylan Ozbudak is quite right that mindless counter-violence, as desired by various well-known war parties, is not the solution to the Sunni fundamentalist cultural/political challenge, but that does not mean that Turkey should use force against desperate Kurds when 100,000 of their relatives are being threatened with extermination by an ISIS blitzkrieg. It is precisely the unwillingness of powerful Turkey to take a firm stand in favor of security and justice for civilian populations that leaves open the door to ISIS violence. Ozbudak points out:

Turkey is seeking a way to dismantle ISIS without killing people, without using weapons as much as possible, other than for self-defense. Turkey is seeking a way to de-radicalize the people who happened to join ISIS after heated debates of Muslim grievances. Turkey is seeking to launch a worldwide ideological struggle to counter the narrative of ISIS. [Al-Arabiya net.]

Well and good. A peaceful strategy to marginalize ISIS is almost certainly the proper long-term approach. The strategy Ozbudak claims Ankara is following is a great strategy, but the issue this week is the genocide of Syrian Kurds. Strategy is long-term; tactics are short-term. Even if Ankara is sincerely committed to the strategy she describes, something by no means clear, an immediate tactical response to ISIS violence is required: when one’s beautiful glass beach house is threatened by a hurricane, the essential tactical response is not love and kisses but nails to board up the place.

What an opportunity for the peace teams described by Oregon professor Tom Hastings to make a difference! But, of course, as he points out, governments “almost never” appreciate the action of peace teams (just recall the behavior of Wisconsin toward…its own police!!! when they demonstrated peacefully for civil rights), and one can easily imagine the response of Turkish police to anyone advocating mutual understanding between Turkish border guards and impassioned Kurds trying to save their families from jihadi barbarians.

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Update 9/24

Erdogan in the U.S. has both warned of the necessity of establishing a comprehensive plan for regional stability and announced support for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS bombing campaign. [Mideast Eye.] Strategically, if Erdogan can convince Obama to focus on regional stability before the U.S. bombing campaign accelerates out-of-control, Erdogan will be making a real contribution. Tactically, Erdogan needs to demonstrate immediately that he has a plan for stability in the small region of Syrian Kurdistan along his threatened southern border.

Ankara already appears to be laying the groundwork for precisely that, both by launching military planning and leaking to the media its interest in moving troops across the Turkish-Syrian border into the state-less Kurdish region that has now collapsed into open war. According to Today’s Zaman on 9/24:

According to information obtained from military sources, the Turkish military updated its current operation plans on Syria. Sources say if a buffer zone, covering parts of Iraq and Syria, is established, the Turkish military wants to be part of the operation by sending in ground troops.

Questions:

  • Will Turkey combat ISIS recruiting within Turkey?
  • Will Turkey facilitate the provision of support to Syrian Kurds by Turkish Kurds, accepting the inevitable consolidation of regional Kurdish relations?
  • Will Turkey offer arms to the Syrian Kurds?
  • Will Turkey move to terminate ISIS oil sales inside Turkey?

Making the Next Economic Crisis Worse

The U.S. economy clearly faces some major challenges. The issue is whether or not we, as a society, are preparing to meet those challenges, and the most obvious way to do that is to give the whole society the best possible foundation. Unfortunately, since the Recession of 2008, exactly the opposite has occurred: strengthening the 1% by undermining the 99%.

In his intentionally provocative but nevertheless solidly researched National-Debt-2014-300x199Economic Collapse blog, Michael Snyder posted this very scary U.S. Treasury chart illustrating the exponential growth of U.S. national debt. Arguments over the significance of the huge overall debt or the enormous increase over just the last year need not obsess us: the point here is the word “exponential.” Those who have spent their life trying to avoid any mathematical thinking at all should read “avalanche.” In case you missed the endless Great Recession of 2008-??? brought to you by those great men on Wall St. who now pretty much own the nation once again (after their control slipped a bit following their previous major screw-up in 1929), we Americans are now all (except of course for the bankers, who made out like pirates in 2008, not coincidentally) walking in a financial valley beneath the peaks of high finance, covered deeply in layers of financial snow composed of deeply leveraged powder tenuously balanced on generous slices of very slippery corruption. The tortured analogy is for the innumerate, of which I confess to being one. For anyone familiar with thinking about exponential rates of change or anyone who can simply follow the curve of this scary U.S. Treasury graph, the message is pretty clear: expect an avalanche.

Of course, we have a government both more than willing to interfere with the normal march of capitalism, fortunate to some degree since we also have a financial class dedicated to the total corruption of the normal march of capitalism, so we can all assume that our government will be able to foresee the high probability of imminent disaster as well as the rest of us, right? Perhaps, though they did not have a clue in 2008, but there is another problem: we have seen very little sign since 2008 that Washington has cleaned up its act, and certainly Wall St., which won big by defrauding the nation in 2008, has not demonstrated the slightest interest in cleaning up its act. Elizabeth Warren must now be the loneliest person on the planet.

Not to be pessimistic, but there is still another problem with our financial situation, and to my mind this is even worse. Snyder and others speak of individual problems with debt; corruption; the failure of reform efforts; the continuation of leveraging; the failure to deal effectively with the cancer of empty, rotting, foreclosed housing. All true, of course, but to me the elephant in the financial room of the house American society calls home is the degree to which the vast wealth of America has, over the last generation, been taken out of the hands of the 99% and stuffed into the deep pockets of the corporate/financial elite. Am I exaggerating? Just compare the 17,000-level of the Dow Jones with the socio-economic collapse of Detroit. Detroit, not the stock market, is the symbol of the contemporary U.S. economy.

When the financial avalanche roars down on our heads, how will we protect ourselves? While Washington took care of the financial elite first by the breathtaking and secretive bailout of the billionaires followed by Treasury management of the economy to puff up yet another stock market balloon, American society was left with massive unemployment, declining real incomes, broken retirement contracts, vanishing benefits. Am I wrong? You tell me: how’s your nest egg doing, lately?

The real problem is not that America faces financial challenges but that its enormous wealth has been transferred away from potential consumers and small business owners into the very inefficient and non-productive hands of a tiny elite that has become addicted to gambling rather than production. The wealth of America still exists, but it is fenced off in a private game room for useless, and in fact pernicious, socially harmful activity.When the next big financial crisis arrives, the U.S. has the wealth, resources, population, education to deal with it through belt-tightening, but I am guessing that your belt is already tight as the result of the Recession of 2008, and we both know that those who now control the money have belts too big to tighten. So I wish you luck.

 

 

 

 

Marginalizing ISIS

ISIS exploded on the Mideast scene with some quick victories supported by unrelated factions with their own agendas. Now Washington is throwing stones at the hornet’s nest, inefficient at best, sure to transform ISIS in the eyes of many into the “defender of Islam,” and also likely to consolidate support for ISIS in those quarters those quarters that happen also to land in Washington’s very blunt crosshairs. Addressing the causal dynamics and splitting the ISIS “coalition of the jihadi willing” would be the wiser course of action.

How did ISIS get so powerful, so fast? Answer that question, and you will have the key to wresting that power away. Instead, ISIS is obviously baiting Washington, and Washington is tripping all over itself, despite Obama’s well-founded qualms, in its rush to stick its neck into the trap’s teeth…again. Brain-dead, self-styled tough guys (who never see a battle) scream for blood (to be paid for by the blood of other Americans). But ISIS is a gang being empowered by a slew of factions with a wide variety of temporarily overlapping goals–a coalition of the sort-of, at the moment “willing.” Persuade them to turn “unwilling.” Bombs, especially when tossed around in civilian areas, are as likely to infuriate those bombed. So can we find the patience and wisdom to consider the aspirations of the various factions supporting ISIS in order to figure out the degree to which we might manage to find common ground…and isolate ISIS?

Modeling Political BehaviorOne might start with a simple model of political behavior in the Mideast that considers three factors: conflict resolution strategy, level of ideological commitment, and the nature of the physical environment. Many Mideast groups, obviously including ISIS, have a militant conflict resolution strategy and are ideologically committed. Everyone in the Mideast is faced with a tough physical environment, where food surpluses are hard to come by and competition for water is constant. According to the model, then, political behavior in the Mideast will, no surprise, tend to be rough and nasty, more specifically, zero-sum and warlike (i.e., centered in the red quadrant). And indeed, such is the standard assumption in Washington, from which an equally militant U.S. policy seems almost automatically to follow. But even this simple model makes perfectly clear that numerous alternative options are theoretically available. How might they be evaluated?

One can hardly get such a question out of one’s mouth before being accused of being “naive,” but in fact the naive position is the blind faith in simplistic solutions to complicated problems. There may be no need to debate the extreme nature of ISIS, but where was that little militia before Iraqi soldiers walked away from Mosul? Where would ISIS be today if Baghdad had not enraged Sunnis with its discriminatory policies? The ISIS coalition of the jihadi willing really doesn’t look so solid beneath its flashy military exterior. Iraqi Ba’athist ex-officials would find a genuine offer to share political power hard to resist. Unemployed young Iraqi Sunni men might well be persuaded to desert ISIS in return for jobs. A concerted effort to find a Syrian political compromise that would remove Assad and share power might satisfy Ankara to the point that it would stop facilitating the flow of funding to ISIS.

Financial InducementsTo be found, solutions must be sought. Throwing rocks at the ISIS hornet’s nest will certainly scatter the hornets and upset their tactical plans for a time, but if the broader problem is an extremist coalition composed of factions with widely varying needs, ideologies, and goals, that jihadi coalition structure offers opportunities for genuine solutions. The red quadrant, above, represents political behavior of factions that are highly militant, ideological, and facing stiff non-political conditions (an intentionally vague phrase that may stand for economic deprivation or resource shortages). ISIS has gained enormous financial resources, but the degree to which Iraqi Sunnis generally are benefiting remains very much open to question. The degree to which a restructured financial policy by Baghdad might persuade Iraqi Sunnis to abandon ISIS and become supporters of the national regime remains an opportunity as yet unexplored.

A second obvious opportunity is to address the concerns of marginalized senior Ba’athist figures seeking political access. These relatively secular former officials have little obvious ideological affinity with ISIS fundamentalists and may well find themselves forced uncomfortably deep into the red quadrant of military solutions to conflict when they might be more comfortable negotiating with Shi’i officials across a table in Baghdad…if only given the chance. Obama stressed the need for Sunni-Shi’i reconciliation after the fall of Mosul, but it is probably Tehran rather than Washington that holds the key to persuading its Shi’i allies to share power…and, indeed, Tehran clearly has understood this point.

A systematic review of the graphical landscape of political possibilities may well focus attention on additional opportunities for breaking apart the ISIS coalition. Consider the gray quadrant (lower front left), representing factions that are ideologically committed but dedicated to peaceful conflict resolution. Are such Sunnis more natural bedfellows with Sunni jihadis or Shi’a sharing their dedication to peaceful conflict resolution? Perhaps more to the point, what impact might a new coalition of Kurds and Sunnis seeking negotiated solutions have on sectarian rivalry in Baghdad? Might the need to defend themselves against ISIS jihadis provoke the rise across Iraq of a more civilized political culture?