The Democrats’ plan for the Middle East

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This year, the American people will elect their president for the next four years. The US’s vast influence and importance in most corners of the world makes him either an important ally or a dangerous enemy. Nevertheless, there is a region of the world where American military and diplomatic actions have proven counterproductive:the Middle East.

During the 2003 invasion and later occupation of Iraq, the US lacked a consistent strategy to stabilize the country. Later, the Obama administration’s decision to leave Iraq (2009), created a vacuum of power that was filled by militias and extremist groups. Finally the recent crisis over the thousands of ISIS prisoners after the “defeat” of the caliphate shows the lack of a coherent grand strategy for the Middle East.

With the 2020 election coming up it is important to understand the Middle East policy of the main democratic candidates: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elisabeth Warren. With the loss of American hegemony and the increase in Great Power competition, the oil rich Middle East still matters to US interests. Its large amounts of oil and its volatility makes it important for the US and its allies to avoid the region to fall in the wrong hands. Further destabilization of the region or another war would jeopardize US geopolitical, geo-economic and security interests.

Israel: Biden, Sanders and Warren all support a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Biden is the more “pro-Israel” of the three, assuring a no-strings attached continuity in military and financial aid to Israel. Warren and Sanders both support the continuity of military and financial aid to Israel on the condition that the country takes steps towards peace with Palestine.

Iran: Biden, Sanders and Warren agree that the US should try to rejoin the JCPOA if Iran agrees to comply with the deal. They also propose strong diplomatic measures to try to weaken and deter Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region and its ballistic missile program. On the use of military force against Iran, only Warren discards the use of military force to stop Iran from testing a nuclear weapon, while Biden is the only one that will consider the use of military force to protect oil shipments through the strait of Hormuz, even though this could escalate into a military conflict with Iran.

Saudi Arabia: Biden, Sanders and Warren agree that the current relationship with Saudi Arabia, based on cheap oil imports and weapons sales need to be reevaluated. They all oppose the war in Yemen and publicly condemned the assassination of Khashoggi. The three candidates also recognize the importance of Saudi Arabia in the region and the need to work with the Saudis in order to assure security and stability in the region.

There is little difference between the candidates proposals for the Middle East and as it has been the case for the last twenty years, the candidates policies look more like concrete objectives rather than an overall grand strategy for the region. The main issues being: containment of Iran, prevention of proxy wars, energy security, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and curving Russian and Chinese growing influence in the region.

It is clear that a new administration would have to work multilaterally with the support of international organizations (United Nations), regional and international allies in order to avoid losing influence over the region which would have serious repercussions for American foreign policy, economic and security interests.

Ankara at crossroads to protect its borders

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The international community has again turned its back as it watches the conflict in Syria escalate. Waves of refugees fleeing towards the Turkish border, entire towns emptying as the Syrian army, backed by Russia is systematically bombing the Idlib province for days on end in line with Bashar al-Assad’s wish to recapture “every inch of Syria”. Idlib is one of the last rebel populated strongholds remaining in Syria, attributing a great strategic significance to the latest events happening in the north-western region.

The conflict is seeing direct clashes between NATO member Turkey and Assad’s regime with its top backer Russia, which raises the fear of a full-scale war between these three forces. On Monday, forces loyal to Assad fired shells at an observation post manned by Turkish troops in Taftanaz, to the north of Saraqib, killing eight Turkish citizens, one of them being a civilian. These observation posts were set by the 2017 de-escalation agreements between Turkey, Russia and Iran, but the agreements have clearly been sidelined by self-interested rival efforts by the involving parties.

So as the de-escalation agreements, part of the peace process, are being violated, the Syrian army supported by Iranian militiamen and Russian air strikes are making advances on the ground and have been capturing dozens of towns and villages in Idlib since December.

In hopes of repelling attacks, Turkey had been providing artillery and support to rebel defensive positions in the city of Saraqib, which briefly prevented the Syrian army’s takeover of the city. However, the Syrian regime succeeded in capturing the town. This capture is a major strategic territorial move as the city is located in the intersection of the M4 and M5 highways, linking the east with the west and the north with the south of Syria, giving the regime broader manoeuvre possibilities, making it even more difficult for Turkey to contain Idlib.

The Turkish army responded to the attacks on Monday allegedly hitting 54 regime targets and killing 76 Syrian soldiers. Turkey will continue to retaliate while its observation posts are being targeted and has threatened to drive back all Syrian troops behind their twelve observation posts in Idlib if the Syrian army doesn’t withdraw, claiming that they are willing to do this no matter what the consequences are. But what Turkey does not seem to be aware of is what they are up against.

Turkey cannot afford a rupture with Moscow because of  joint interests including energy pipelines, or the prospect of purchasing Russia S-400 Missile Defense Systems in defiance of fellow NATO member, the US. But more importantly, Turkey should not undermine the capabilities of the Russia-backed Syrian army and should be aware that it cannot afford to engage in a full-scale war with Syria and Russia when it is already struggling to protect its borders.

Ankara is alone in this so its first order of business should be finding a balance in its foreign policy by regaining Western support in Idlib. Further inaction from the West along with reckless retaliatory operations will be too costly for everyone – if Assad forces continue to advance, not only it will be a humanitarian disaster, but the mass exodus will spill over to Turkey, the region and Europe by pushing Islamist militants beyond Syria’s borders.

They are all evil: Trump’s “Vision” of Peace and Prosperity.

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Yesterday, Donald Trump, in the middle of his very own process of impeachment, announced his Middle East Plan, the so-called “deal of the century” negotiated with Israel without the Palestinians, and as Netanyahu is under investigation for fraud and bribery charges. Beyond this move -both on the US and Israel labeled as “distraction”  from the ongoing internal proceedings regarding the political future of the president and prime minister respectively- the deal of the century carries material consequences for the lives of the Palestinians living under Israel occupation and settler colonialism. 

Some commentators have suggested that the Peace to Prosperity Vision 2020 (“Vision”) echoes the situation of 1917 and the Balfour Declaration, leaving again the Palestinians out of the negotiation table on their own homeland and further ignoring their opposition to it. Highly unlikely, Trump might think that he is actually doing a favor to the Palestinians and that with this Vision, both him and Netanyahu are really approaching a solution to the conflict. Received amidst mixed reactions, it is convenient to highlight and analyze some of the most remarkable comments within the document.

Palestinians are likely to be terrorists, especially in Gaza. The document states throughout that all Palestinian leaders and authorities are terrorists. Most of the population might be as well. Among other examples: “Gaza is a very complicated situation. It is under the control of Hamas, a terrorist organization, and, as a result of Hamas’ policies, is approaching a humanitarian crisis. It is time to help the Palestinians achieve a hopeful and prosperous future(…)” (p.2). The same idea is spread out, at least the word terrorism linked to Palestinians and their leaders is mentioned 40 times.

Of course, this thinking does at least two things. Firstly, it delegitimizes Palestinians and pictures them as evil terrorists that are constantly threatening Israel. The “Vision” literally states that “A realistic solution would give the Palestinians all the power to govern themselves but not the powers to threaten Israel“. The consequence is, therefore, “limitation of certain sovereign powers in the Palestinian areas such as maintenance of Israeli security responsibility and Israeli control of the airspace west of the Jordan River”.

Secondly, by picturing Israel as a legitimate state under threat, the politics of settler colonialism, aggression, and other atrocities are easily overlooked. In Gaza, these politics have involved over the years, and with the support of the United States, the bombing of key infrastructure in the strip, including hospitals and schools; years of blockades and electricity cuts, hindering access to humanitarian aid, the cutting of funds by the US to the USAid in the region and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.

Although the document makes a great effort in trying to depict the US as the Palestinian savior while highlighting all the advantages the Palestinians will benefit from,  one might ask whose peace and whose prosperity is this plan referring to. Certainly not to the party that being the most affected by it, has not been included in the negotiation.


The Iraqi Dilemma: Between Geography and Diplomacy

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Over the past forty years Iraq has had military conflicts with both Iran and the US, and those wars have brought nothing but political instability, economic crisis and death to Iraq.

Iraq – Iran war: On September 22, 1980, Iraq invaded Iran and started a devastating war that would last eight years, involved several countries and created instability in the Middle East for decades to come.

US invasion of Iraq: In 2003, the US invaded Iraq and, after a couple months, US forces overthrew the government and captured and later executed Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein. The US’s occupation of Iraq proved to be a disaster. The Iraqi government put in place by Washington was too weak to control its own territory, leaving a vacuum of power in the country that was soon filled by violent militias and extremist groups, including the newly created ISIS.

Despite its difficult situation, over the past years, Iraq has managed to regain control of its major cities, push back ISIS, rebuild its oil industry ,and has been taking steps to solidify its newly formed democratic institutions. However, the Iraqi government has had to deal with a very complicated geopolitical scenario.

It has had to struggle to maintain its sovereignty, to improve its relationship with Iran (its most important neighbor) and to manage its military and economic relationship with the US. This dilemma has shaped Iraqi diplomacy and, today, Iraq’s diplomatic efforts are of utmost importance in order to avoid another conflict which the country will probably not be able to endure. As stated by Iraqi president Barham Salih  The United States is our ally. Iran is our neighbor”.

Nevertheless,  the assassination of Qassem Suleimani -a pillar in Iran’s foreign policy- has made Iraq the main stage in the conflict between the US and Iran. The US drone attack that killed Suleimani was conducted without the knowledge of the Iraqi government, violating its sovereignty and leaving the country in a very delicate situation. Iraq cannot afford to take sides in the dispute without jeopardizing its survival and overall the regional stability.

Politically, the government has to manage a divided parliament between Shiite – majority and close to Iran – and Sunni – minority and opposed to Iran – as well as pressure from both sides to limit each other’s influence in the country.

If Iran and the US keep escalating their war games and refuse to sit down at the negotiating table, the regional consequences would be disastrous for the Middle East and Iraq. Among other, the scenarios could go from  an US intervention in order to protect its regional interests to competition for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran creating more proxy wars in the region and an increase in the intensity of Israel’s conflict against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine both militia groups backed by Iran.

Iraq must at all cost avoid alienating either the US or Iran. Baghdad will have to push for a a diplomatic solution in order to deescalate the conflict, because war will be unbearable for both Iraq and the region.

The US-Iran 2020 mess

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We are not even through the middle of the first month of 2020, and it is already too much to bear for Iran. On January 3rd the US forces, on the soil of Iraq, killed their top general Soleimani. Following the killing that came more or less as a surprise to the international community, Iran proclaimed American forces to be terrorist (what a turning point, ha?) and shot some missiles to two US military bases, again on the soil of Iraq. But nothing is as clear as it seems. Who is to be trusted when talking about the results of this attack? Iran claims to have fired 15 missiles and killed at least 80 ‘American terrorists’. On the other hand, the US and Iraq reported no casualties. Iran pulled itself out of the nuclear deal. The US introduced sanctions. The international community has taken a rather soft stance towards the development of the situation. And as if it all were not messy enough, Iran accidentally shot down a commercial flight and left 176 people dead.

Although some claimed that Iran missile shot down the plane and even videos of the crash were released (but who could claim they were to be trusted), for a couple of days Iran rejected these allegations, but refused to give over the black box to Boeing. In the wake of January 11th, Iran admitted shooting down the Ukrainian commercial flight by mistake. The citizens of Iran, Canada, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Britain and Germany are all dead due to ‘human error’.

Things like this don’t just happen. But sometimes they do. In 1988, a commercial flight was shot down by accident, because it was mistaken for an F-14 Tomcat. The plane was Iranian, a commercial flight 655, carrying 290 people. The attackers were American, fired from a guided-missile cruiser of the US Navy.

In 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down when flying over Ukraine, from the pro-Russian separatist controlled territory and by the Russian missile brigade. In total 298 people died. In 2018, a Russian surveillance plane was shot down by Syrian forces accidentally, leaving 15 people dead. There are more examples since the WW2. But all this raises the question of responsibility.

Human error is inevitable in various situations. However, usually when a human error occurs, it has bad consequences. Who is to be held responsible in situations like this? Is it the very person that shot the missile? Is it his superiors? Are the people who did not clear the airspace during and shortly after the attack?  Milgram’s explanations of obedience could provide an insight to this matter. It is now a commonplace in social psychology, the diffusion of responsibility and the agentic state. One exempts himself from responsibility when having entered the agentic state, which is characterised by unquestioning obedience. In this state, personal responsibility is transferred to the person giving orders, i.e. the superior. That is why mostly higher military instances are trialed for war misdeeds.

This is a normal behaviour that is characteristic for all people, although some can resist it but only if having high levels of consciousness at the given moment. That is, unfortunately, not common for military forces since they are trained to be obedient. This is not to justify any of the shooting downs of the wrong targets. This is to explain where it should be looked for responsibility. IRGC Amir Ali Hajizadeh is well aware of this and he took responsibility for this incident. However, the mess is getting bigger in Iran, with the protests against government due to the crash.

Errors like this must be avoided. This collateral damage is at the hands of ordinary people. It may just be too much to carry the weight of it.

Watch Out for the Sultan – Erdoğan in Libya

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The unprecedented escalation in Iran following the assassination of military mastermind Qassem Suleimani by one of Donald’s drones overshadowed another highly interesting development in the Middle East lately getting a new spin: Turkey entering the conflict in Libya.

With this step, that explicitly is at odds with the advices of many other stakeholders in “a failed state par excellence”, as observers say, not least the Arab League, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shows his claim to great power status.

This action appears in line with Erdoğan’s (over)confident self-perception of Turkey being a rising power that urges for its share in a multipolar world and is willing to apply blunt power politics whenever and wherever necessary.

Previous actions by his neo-Ottoman Excellency underline that. Be it infrastructural mega projects like the construction of Istanbul’s new airport, the first road tunnel under the Bosporus, or his newest desire, a canal through Istanbul. Be it his increasingly authoritarian rule finding its expression in press censorship, a purge targeting intellectuals, or his hunt for political opponents from both the Gülen Movement and the left-wing party HDP.

Yet, his attempts of showing off with his power have an international scope, too. Libya, where Turkey’s engagement did not just start last week, in that respect lines up in a row with Northern Syria, where Erdoğan tried to kill two birds with one stone. Pursuing a buffer zone to the war-torn neighbor to resettle refugees residing in Turkey coincided with a military warning to his archenemy, the Kurds, being home in and around that very region. Besides, Turkey made demands on natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, by heating up the Cyprus conflict, Europe’s longest frozen conflict.

Now, one might jump to the conclusion of perceiving Turkey as nothing but becoming another dubious Middle Eastern autocracy, but beware! This is far from reality. Ankara is the pivotal element of many conflicts in the region and thus of crucial interest to the international community.

It is Turkey that keeps myriads of refugees from entering Europe. The end shall not justify the means, though Turkey thereby effectively does the EU’s dirty laundry. It too is Turkey that sits at the table with Russia and Iran negotiating about how to bring an end to the war in Syria. This triangle can be considered the forum that is most likely to achieve this goal. And Turkey is the most pro-Western member, being part of NATO and, yet with neglectable prospects for success, EU candidate country. At the same time, Ankara is the gateway from Europe to the Middle East, not least being a member of the OIC.

Bearing this in mind, the international, particularly European, community shall have a critical but conscious look at Turkey that repeatedly and insistently shows it is not willing to be a mere passive actor of the fight for hegemony in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The whole world focusing on Tehran in those days might open the back door for the sultan.

Trump’s new year adventure in Iraq: killing of Iran’s top general and an echo of war

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The US did it again. So much for its renewed foreign policy strategy of less outside activity and pulling back. One might wonder, does making America great again involve eagerness to intervene in the Middle East? It seems so. On the 3rd of January 2020, the President of the United States gave the order to murder Qassem Soleimani. To be sure, the ordered assassination of a top Iranian military leader by the US president on foreign soil is an act of aggression.

At this point, the event should not be so surprising. However, it has sparked great concerns among US allies,  about Iran’s nuclear deal, retaliation or the possibility of an “asymmetric” war in the territories of Iraq and Afghanistan. But particularly relevant is the fact that Iran has just announced that it will abandon the nuclear deal enrichment limits, although it will remain open to negotiations with European partners.

Nonetheless, what might seem surprising in this scenario is the response of world leaders to the attack. After the shock, the general tone has been a call for de-escalation. A moderate response to what is an act of aggression that can result in terrible consequences. The UN has called for maximum restraint, as “the world cannot afford another war in the Gulf”,  and so have said European leaders in general, following the EU’s position, with the exception of Britain, of course, as Boris Johnson has even justified the killing. With the exception of Russia and China with stronger reactions, the event has not been formally condemned beyond Iran’s allies in the region.

The United States has pictured this attack as a heroic act that will save American -and European- lives; an exercise of a “preemptive defense” traditionally used by the US to justify interventions and military actions on sovereign soils around the world. But the US fake savior complex is something that nobody is buying anymore. Despite the mild responses and reactions, it doesn’t look like world leaders and US allies want to support another war (with the exception of Israel), especially since Iraq’s Parliament has just passed a nonbinding resolution to expel foreign troops of the country.

This move has not been well received within the US, as Trump has already threatened Iraq with sanctions if they were to be expelled, and they have already deployed 3,000 troops in the area. In light of this, it seems a bit unlikely that they will leave soon. But the US will neither have a nice time in Iraq nor in the rest of the region.

What is clear is both that the assassination of Soleimani has been premeditated, matured and the risks have been taken into account: gladly not every day the US decides to kill a venerated general of a foreign country. And, of course, that the US only bandwagons with the US.

Allies should take this into account.

New Year, New Crisis

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Syria is once again, submerged in chaos since the latest US withdrawal of its troops and consequent Turkish incursion through Syria’s northern border. A new chain of events has further destabilized the situation in the country and will continue to do so as we enter the new decade.

A recent de-escalation agreement sponsored by Turkey and Assad’s ally Russia has been overlooked and a new humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the Syrian north-western region of Idlib. Syrian and Russian forces have been indiscriminately bombarding the final major opposition-held bastion of Syria since mid-December. Barrel bombs and air strikes have been hitting civilian infrastructure in Idlib with the aim of forcing out civilians and rebel forces and gaining control of the area.

The deadly bombings have killed dozens and forced 235,000 people to flee parts of the Idlib province towards other parts of the country, creating a new refugee crisis. Idlib is home to an estimated 3 million people, many of them who are already refugees displaced from other areas of the country during the nine years of violence. Refugee camps are already overcrowded so people are living in the open, struggling to find food, shelter and medicine. Schools and hospitals have been targeted, making it impossible to satisfy basic human needs such as education or healthcare.

Aid agencies warn that the situation is untenable, but Assad insists that the civil war will not be over until Damascus retakes ‘every inch’ of Syria. Regaining control of the Idlib territory would allow Assad to control the whole country. So as government forces move forward and bombings intensify, civilians flee up north to the Syrian-Turkish border, creating further security and humanitarian issues – so an end to the conflict would still be very unlikely.

Civilians have been completely abandoned as the international community and its most powerful nations have turned their backs to the war-torn country. China and Russia have vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution that would have allowed more humanitarian aid flowing into Idlib. What is left to do is to condemn the situation through Twitter posts, but world leaders are running out of words of condemnation while the situation continues to worsen every day.

This passivity of the international community towards the Syrian conflict is at the expense of thousands of Syrians who have been abandoned. If after 9 years of conflict, what seems to be one of the worst humanitarian crises the country has seen is not enough for the international community to act – then what is?

Europe’s responsibility to bring back ISIS fighters home

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Following ISIS’ loss of the last sliver of territory in March, US President Donald Trump asked the UK, Germany, France and other European allies to take back the over 800 ISIS members that are captured in Syria and to put them on trial in their home countries. However, European countries have shown to be reluctant to repatriate nationals that have been accused of being affiliated with ISIS or have been involved in the fighting. They claim that bringing them back would pose serious security concerns and they fear that they may have difficulties obtaining enough evidence to prosecute them. They have chosen to revoke their nationality instead, passing on the responsibility to those countries where the fighters are held.

The recent withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the invasion of Turkey have created further tensions in the region, leaving liberated areas unable to contain ISIS fighters in camps, meaning the potential for further activity and radicalization, as many are being freed or have escaped. The Syrian Democratic Forces, in charge of caring for the situation in these camps in northern Syria, have called for an urgent long-term solution as they are struggling to maintain cohesive control over their assigned territories, but European countries are also unable to find a comprehensive way out of the situation. ISIS has lost its territory and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but has readjusted to the circumstances and continues to carry out numerous attacks and to grow in numbers. Therefore keeping ISIS fighters and relatives in the region without being prosecuted will not help the situation and could lead to further recruitment in both the Middle East or Europe.

The issue here is not only the continuing of terrorist activity in the region but also the conditions that these European nationals are living in. Conditions in these camps are inhumane and desperate. Widespread trauma among children subject to abuse, inadequate sanitation, and medical facilities as well as a general environment of lawlessness are present and becoming the norm in the camps, which again is strengthening the risk of further radicalization.

The instability in Syria following the Turkish incursion and the long-term detention of these men, women, and children are problematic for many security and humanitarian reasons. European governments should then address the challenge by accelerating the repatriation of their nationals, but instead, they have chosen to respond with exclusion policies and laws, displacing their responsibility onto others.

Some European officials have been trying to send suspects to be trialed in Iraqi courts or international tribunals but, despite some advantages to this prospect, it has been criticized over the risk of unfair or unreliable trials. Therefore, although it will expect some political courage to do so, European governments will have sooner or later to bring ISIS members home.

It is the fastest way to bring ISIS fighters into accountability for crimes through fairly conducted trials, it will get detainees and their relatives out of an unsustainable security situation and therefore limit the risk of the spreading of ISIS activities in the currently unstable northern Syria.