September 3, 2013

The Strategic Consequences of Initiating War Against Iran’s Vital Ally

Analysis. By Gregory R. Co pley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. Some serious and unintended medium- to long-term consequences of the intervention by Sunni Arab, Turkish, and Western governments and trans-national Sunni jihadist groups in Syria since 2011 are beginning to become apparent.

The pivotal transformation of one or more regional countries — apart from the changes to Syria itself — appears to have begun.

The process may have been exacerbated by the fact that, at the beginning of September 2013, the US and the UK had backed away from a commitment to comprehensive overt military conflict against the Assad Government in Syria. US Pres. Barack Obama had set up a strategic challenge, which he was then unable to meet, and the retreat of the US (even though the affair was still not over by September 2, 2013) was thus a self-inflicted wound, but one which also scarred the allies of the US.

But more immediately, the long-undeclared war between Turkey and Iran, for example, may now have crossed a threshold — a point of no return — despite the fact that these two states still have need of each other. Turkish Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rash initiation of confrontation with Iran has been politically suicidal because the Turkish economy cannot withstand a sudden loss of highly-subsidized oil and gas from Iran, and the ensuing public outrage when shortage and price-spike hit the grassroots.

And although the Turkish Government of Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan had, by late August 2013, begun to move away from its strident public endorsement of military action against the Syrian Government, the Iranian leaders knew that Erdoğan had already declared himself firmly as a strategic rival to Iran. The consequences of Erdoğan’s own political recklessness were also unraveling governance in Turkey, and his team leading the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party: AKP) was falling into opposing factions.

It is not inconceivable now to see Turkey emerge severely weakened, or even dismembered, within years, and new states — including a new sovereign Kurdish state — emerge from Turkey and the region. It is conceivable that Syria, if it survives intact, would be a patchwork of confederal societies.

The ramifications for Greece and Cyprus, Russia, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and the Balkans are all tied to this; and so, too, is the outlook for Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates. And if Turkey falters and fractures, then, conversely, Egypt may benefit. And the Eastern Mediterranean region’s energy development would take on new dimensions.

The foreign intervention in Syria was already mature — albeit still not spontaneously combusting within the Syrian population itself — by the end of August 2013. Even the ultimately-symbolic commitment of direct and indirect US military elements against the Syrian Government as a result of the alleged casus belli of a “chemical weapons attack” by Syrian Government forces against Syrian civilians1 could do little other than bring misery to all, and relief to none.

Strategic trend analysis attempts to assess the possible and probable outcomes of courses of action by looking more broadly at the terrain or context, and beyond the linear and reactive paths and obvious symbols of everyday politics. In the current example in the Middle East, the consequences were, by the beginning of September 2013, beginning to be fleshed out from the decision by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States in early 2011 — more than two years earlier — to transform street protests in Syria into an opportunity to overthrow Iran’s key ally, Syrian Pres Bashar al-Assad, and his Ba’ath Party Government.

None of the antagonists, in seeking to press advantage against Iran (and so righteous was their perception of their cause), attempted even to gauge the non-linear impact — the unintended consequences — which their actions would stir. Nor comprehend the strategic terrain in which their activities would play out, particularly as the coercive global power of the United States progressively evaporated because of an array of missteps.

There was little doubt that the four interventionist governments in the first quarter of 2011 saw opportunities to gain dominance and leverage by engagement in a number of street uprisings of that time which they saw as the collective and interactive beginning of a new era: the popularly misunderstood “Arab Spring”. This was seen as a trend they believed to be exploitable and universal within the Arab world, by channeling the trans-national forces of jihadism. This “Arab Spring”, they felt, could be applied — as Islamist forces had themselves attempted to do for some time in Chechnya and the Caucasus and into the reaches of Kashmir, the Balkans, and elsewhere2 — to re-writing borders and history.

In essence, it became a competition between Iran and Iran’s opponents; a conflict which often became distracted by the thought that perhaps it was a conflict between Sunnism and Shi’ism, or between Islam and the West. And it was a competition in which some — particularly in the West — forgot that regional cultures (and, in some cases, nation-states) were in a period of unrest for different reasons.3 The supposed monoculture of a Muslim ummah did not exist. And perhaps the only common feature was the reality that the West had walked away from — or had been driven by exhaustion from — a coercive and powerful domination of the region for the first time in 500 years.

And just as all cultures, as they spread, adapt and become subject to the geography in which they are nurtured, so different societies generate different patterns of logic and require different and unique paths which reflect their separate and unique marriages of people and terrain: this is the essence of geopolitics, the firmness of geography and the adaptive soft flesh of the polity.

Modernity — whether in the technology-driven West or the application of modern communications to the global Muslim societies — has generated the misperception that humanity is driven by overwhelming elements of commonality, rather than by individual and necessarily competitive cultures which are dominated by their own respective senses of terroir.

An amusing but instructive letter to the Editor of Britain’s The Financial Times in August 2013, from reader K. N. Al-Sabah, highlighted the confusion which the international community has in assessing the current Middle Eastern situation:

“Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad! Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi [commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces]. But Gulf states are pro-Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood! Iran is pro-Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood! Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!
Gulf states are pro-US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro-Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states! Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.”

Even Mr al-Sabah’s amusing passage fails to capture the even-deeper complexities of often-contradictory competition and cooperation between societies in the region, and their ambiguous relations with the outside world. And it is worth bearing in mind that this web extends well into the Caucausus and into the Persian-Turkic-Mongolian hinterlands of Central Asia and the Indo-European human exchanges which traversed the region for the past few thousand years.

Respected writer and Balkan correspondent Misha Glenny noted in a blog in Carnegie Europe’s Strategic Europe website, on August 30, 2013: “In the years after 1618 [when the Thirty Years’ War began], the attempts by tiny principalities in central Europe to challenge the status quo acted as a vortex, sucking in almost every major power. The now fragmented territories of Syria can exert a similar force on the neighborhood and beyond.”

What seems clear is that the ambiguity being generated by the state of flux of the greater Middle East region, and particularly the conflict in Syria, is both within and across national lines. Clearly, however, several factors began emerging:

  1. There was strong and sustained popular support within the Arab Peninsula and Mashriq Sunni states — except from Qatar — for the rebuff which the Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan al-Muslimin) received in Egypt at the hands of the Armed Forces, on July 3, 2013, and this tacitly strengthened the position of (and support for) Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad, who was perceived as fighting the Ikhwan and its related jihadist allies;
  2. There was significant Iranian support — albeit tacit and unexpressed — for the change of events in Egypt, because (as noted above), this was seen as removing some of the support for the jihadists and their Sunni supporters who were intent on toppling Iran’s key ally, the ‘Alawite Government of Pres. Assad in Syria;
  3. There was considerable Iranian hostility toward Turkey because of Turkey’s leading rôle in attempting to foment the collapse of the Assad Government in Syria. The Turkish Government, aware of this, attempted to seal a peace deal with the separatist Kurdish movement, the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan: Kurdistan Workers’ Party), to prevent a retaliatory sponsoring by Iran (and others) of a resurgent Kurdish uprising. The Turkey-PKK accord is now essentially at an end and the PKK fighters have been brought together in camps inside Iran, where they are being re-armed. PKK units, plus Kurds from northern Iraq and Syria, are now available to foment major security challenges to the Turkish state, and so, too, are Iranian-influenced ‘Alawite/Alevi communities in Turkey as well as Turkish Shi’a adherents. At the same time, the Kurdish Armed Forces are at their lowest ebb in terms of morale, loyalty, and efficiency since, perhaps, the introduction of military-led Kemalism in 1923, and therefore ill-equipped to face the anticipated major internal security challenges;
  4. There is a major perceptional change among many Arabian Peninsula leaders who had, over the past two years, seen the evaporation of Egyptian leadership and the rise of Turkish influence. Now, with the resurgence of Egyptian self-determination and the seeming collapse of Turkish foreign policy, many Arab states — except Qatar — are turning away from cooperation with Turkey. This could be seen as a de facto diminution of Arab strategic concern over Iranian power, but in fact is quite separate from that concern. Nonetheless, it does nothing to reassure Ankara at a time when it is becoming increasingly isolated, and facing concerted hostility from Tehran, Damascus, Baghdad, and Irbil. Of greatest concern to Turkey may be the decline in financial stimulus from Iranian and Arab sources4. Correspondingly, and in direct response to US and Turkish hostility to the new Government of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had committed major new funding to Cairo.5
  5. Within all of this, the Saudi intelligence services, in the form of Prince Bandar bin Sultan (Director-General of the General Intelligence Service and Secretary-General of the National Security Council), appear to have played a rôle of supporting jihadist opposition groups in Syria while at the same time attempting to negotiate a strategiccoup de main with Russia, to attempt to change Russian support for Syrian Pres. Assad and Iran for a major alliance with Saudi Arabia. The extent of Saudi involvement in the current transformative process shows the extent and confusion of the Saudi position.6

On one hand, Saudi Arabia actively supports the overthrow of the Assad Government in Syria, on the grounds that it closely allied with Iran, which Saudi Arabia perceives — not without justification — as the overwhelming strategic power and threat in the region7. On the other (and perhaps to oversimplify), it supports the anti-Assad war in order to retain influence over Sunni dynamics in the region, in competition with neighboring Qatar and with Turkey, which support a separate (Ikhwan: Muslim Brotherhood) branch of Sunni extremism. This has led Saudi Arabia to bankroll and equip the al-Nusra Front pro-Wahhabi jihadist group in Syria to the point that it may well have been through Saudi Arabia that the chemical weapons used in the Ghouta incident on August 21, 2013, were introduced to al-Nusra.8 But it was clear that the close Saudi-US ties meant that the planned use of the chemical weapons was known to the US, and, via the US, to Turkey.

The Saudi concern over the Turkish-Qatari competition was clearly part of what helped determine Riyadh’s (and the UAE’s) overwhelming support for the military suppression of the Ikhwan and the Morsi Government in Egypt, but also the need for Saudi Arabia to find a regional champion to assist it vis-à-vis Iran required a revived Egypt. Apart from Egypt and Pakistan, Riyadh now has few options, and perceives the declining support offered by its US alliance with increasing alarm. Thus, Egypt and Pakistan — and perhaps the People’s Republic of China — begin to assume significant places in Saudi thinking. Pakistan, with the PRC’s endorsement, is the key to the Saudi deterrence against nuclear Iran. Pakistan has deployed ballistic missiles to Saudi bases, ostensibly for exercises, and Islamabad promised to deploy at least two nuclear warheads should unique strategic circumstances so demand. The tacit alliance which Riyadh maintains with Turkey, Qatar, and the US in overthrowing Assad in Syria also conform to the overriding fear of the existential Iranian threat.

  1. By no means the least important emerging factor (indeed, it may be the most urgent of them) is the reality that Iran, now fearing less and less the viability of a military confrontation with the US, is moving toward a comprehensive response to the challenges posed to its regional position by Turkey. In this, Iran might find numerous external supporters. But it is a strategy which could well be dangerous for Iran, given that it entails mobilizing Kurdish, ‘Alawite/Alevi, and Shi’a societies within Turkey. Among other things, this would implicitly promise support for irredentist activities by communities within Turkey, mostly supporting an independent Kurdish homeland. Such a Kurdish homeland could well extend into Syria and Iraq (where a quasi-autonomous Kurdish region already functions). But it could well also incite Iranian Kurds to join such a new Kurdish state.
  2. A key issue is the central rôle of the Obama White House dream of a US-Iranian “great rapprochement” in and around Syria. Early on, Obama sought to build a tripartite Islamist alliance of outside powers — Egypt, Turkey, Iran — which would jointly contain and control the Arab Middle East. The alliance was to weaken the Fertile Crescent of the Minorities (including Israel, which Washington “forbade” barred from striking Iran), and to pressure Saudi Arabia and the rest into compliance with Obama’s energy policy. However, the key issue was to integrate Iran into a pro-Western regional system which would cater to Iran’s strategic aspirations and convince Tehran that Obama was not out to constrain Iran’s ascent. This way, Tehran would have been convinced of Obama’s friendship and commit to the “grandrapprochement”, while Obama would be in position to convince the US Congress that integrated into a regional alliance Iran would no longer constitute an existential threat to the allies of the US.

The problem has been that Obama failed to comprehend the overriding importance of the on-land access to the Mediterranean for Tehran.

Moreover, the Obama White House was unable to convey this concept to the Iranian leadership, which, instead, merely saw the hostility in US actions against Iranian interests. Having to choose between rapprochement and the tripartite alliance, and between hegemony over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Tehran opted for the latter. Moreover, the ever-suspicious Tehran has interpreted Obama’s expectation that Iran gives up on the land corridor as a proof that Obama ultimately sought a weakened Iran. This perception, along with the realization that Obama is a weakling President who is betraying US’ allies for instant gratification, convinced Iranian Supreme Leader “Ayatollah” Ali Hoseini-Khamene‘I that he could not trust Obama to abide by a treaty with Iran no matter how much Obama was pressing for such arapprochement. Hence, Iran is back to igniting the region by proxies. 

There are many other factors weaving into this equation, not least being the stability of the Caucasus, the future of Afghanistan after the Coalition withdrawal of forces (and new Presidential elections) in 2014; the future of Pakistani stability; the rôle and shape of Yemen, the Red Sea balance, and the outlook for Ethiopia (and neighbors); the position of the entire Nile riparian states’ network; the ability of the Greek and Cypriot governments to respond to the current Turkish situation (while combating their own internal economic/political demons); and the transformative nature of the Eastern Mediterranean energy basin, which could transform the fortunes of Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon, and possibly Turkey.

Behind all of this is the final transformation of Russia, which may see in the break-up of Turkey an easier access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea and a rise in regional influence in the broader area, and an ability to end the Turkish rôle as a possible spoiler in the East-West and North-South energy network which Russia has been developing. In all of this, the functioning of the Red Sea/Suez sea lane is critical.

What is also significant is that the threat of an ill-considered US military thrust — to regain some element of influence — could indeed well accelerate the process of regional transformation, without any prospect that such a mechanism would, in fact, assist in the reconstruction of US influence.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the USSR and the PRC leading the way in the use of proxy terrorist and agitprop forces against the West, given that the communist bloc powers lacked the ability to directly confront the West. The 1990s and first decade of the 21st Century saw Iran and Islamist powers resort to the sponsorship and direction of terrorist forces against the West, because those states lacked the ability to directly confront the West. But the second decade of the 21st Century has seen the US (and some of its allies) enter the realm of the use of proxy terrorist forces.

Is this a measure of the inversion of power? Has this become, in other words, the West’s only viable political option for power projection?


1. See “Mounting Evidence That the White House Knew, and Possibly Helped Plan, Syrian “Chemical Weapon” Attack by Opposition”, by Yossef Bodansky, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special AnalysisAugust 28, 2013; and  “Markale in Damascus? How Islamist Forces Have Used a Time-Honored Deception and “Self-Bombing” Technique to Pull in Foreign Sympathy and Support”, also by Yossef Bodansky, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special AnalysisAugust 22, 2013.

2. See, for example, some of the books by Yossef Bodansky: Chechen Jihad: Al Qaeda’s Training Ground and the Next Wave of Terror (2007, HarperCollins); Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America (1999, 2001, Random House); Offensive in the Balkans: The Potential for a Wider War as a Result of Foreign Intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1995, International Media Corp./ISSA); and so on.

3. See “Fragility of the Modern Middle Eastern State System Reflects a Return to Reliance on Traditional Societies”, by Yossef Bodansky, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special PolicyAugust 20, 2013; and as “The Middle East Drifts Back to Its Roots” in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 8-2013.

4. On August 28, 2013, for example, Abu Dhabi energy group Taqa said that it would delay until 2014 a $12-billion deal between Turkey and the UAE for the development of a coal project. Taqa said the delay had been for economic reasons, but Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said that it was for “political reasons”, implying that it would not be consummated if political relations remained as they had become: uneasy. — source: The Financial Times, August 29, 2013.

5. “Saudi Arabia Promises to Aid Egypt’s Regime”, by Rod Nordland, in The New York Times, August 19, 2013: “By July 10, [2012], one week after the military takeover, the Saudis had put together a package of aid totaling $12-billion: $5-billion from the kingdom, $3-billion from the United Arab Emirates and $4-billion from Kuwait.”

6. See: “Saudis offer secret oil deal if it drops Russia”, by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, in The Daily Telegraph, UK, August 27, 2013. The author cited Russian and Lebanese media sources, and his article noted: “The details of the talks were first leaked to the Russian press. A more detailed version has since appeared in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, which has HizbAllah links and is hostile to the Saudis. As-Safir said Prince Bandar pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord. ‘I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us,’ he allegedly said. Prince Bandar went on to say that Chechens operating in Syria were a pressure tool that could be switched on an off. ‘These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no rôle in Syria’s political future.’” Subsequent Russian broadcasts confirmed that Prince Bandar had made such offers to the Russian Government. Prince Bandar reportedly met with Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin at the latter’s dacha in the first week of August 2011. The Telegraph article noted: “The Putin-Bandar meeting was stormy, replete with warnings of a ‘dramatic turn’ in Syria. Mr Putin was unmoved by the Saudi offer, though western pressure has escalated since then. ‘Our stance on Assad will never change. We believe that the Syrian regime is the best speaker on behalf of the Syrian people, and not those liver eaters,’ he said, referring to footage showing a jihadist rebel eating the heart and liver of a Syrian soldier. Prince Bandar in turn warned that there can be ‘no escape from the military option’ if Russia declines the olive branch. Events are unfolding exactly as he foretold.”

7. See, for example: “Iran Moves at Highest Level to Support the Newly-Declared “Republic of Eastern Arabia”” [within Saudi Arabian territory]. In Defense & Foreign Affairs Special AnalysisMay 18, 2009.

8. The Lebanese media outlet, Al-Manar, on its website on August 31, 2013, cited a report by Associated Press correspondent Dale Gavlak — a report which was not used by AP itself, and was thus released through other websites — noting: “From numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the (deadly) gas attack,” writes Gavlak. Rebels [reportedly] told Gavlak that they were not properly trained on how to handle the chemical weapons or even told what they were. It appears as though the weapons were initially supposed to be given to al-Nusra Front militants. “We were very curious about these arms. And unfortunately, some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions,” one militant named ‘J’ told Gavlak. “al-Nusra Front militants do not cooperate with other rebels, except with fighting on the ground. They do not share secret information. They merely used some ordinary rebels to carry and operate this material,” he said. His claims are echoed by another female fighter named ‘K’, who told Gavlak, “They didn’t tell us what these arms were or how to use them. We didn’t know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.”



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