Tag Archives: Middle East

Turkey at a Crossroads?

‘Peace at home; peace in the world.’ Atatürk’s homely ambition has never been more important for Turkey. However, a number of crises are coming together inexorably to force Ankara to think long and hard about its future intentions. Turkey is at a major crossroads.

There are three main reasons: first Ankara’s relationship with the USA; second, Turkey’s position in the Middle East; and lastly, its delicate economic position.

The biggest snowball rolling down the hill is defence, surprisingly. Ankara has insisted that it will take delivery of a Russian-made S-400 advanced anti-aircraft missile system this month, but the US Congress says it will impose penalties on Turkey if it does so. The sophisticated Russian SAM system poses a direct threat to the latest hi-tech US F-35 fighter, also being supplied to Turkey.

Turkey faces a position in which it must either back away from Moscow’s S-400 deal, or accept the possible economic damage of sanctions and its eventual ejection from the US F-35 programme. The result would have been that, whether by levying economic sanctions, or by cancelling Turkey’s participation in the highly advanced (and very expensive) F-35 stealth fighter programme, the US could retaliate and hurt Turkey’s economy badly.

However, risks to its economy and the threat of US sanctions have not stopped Turkey from acquiring Moscow’s air defence system. Ankara stood firm. A government spokesman was defiant: ‘We are a serious country. Our deal with Russia continues.’ Ankara clearly believes that it can withstand US pressure over the issue – because America needs Turkey.

Then, in late June 2019 (in the margins of the G20 Osaka meeting), the Turkish president claimed that a deal had been struck. President Trump had told him there would be no sanctions over the Russian deal and that Turkey had been had been ‘treated unfairly’ over the move.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters that the first delivery of the S-400s would take place within 10 days and that he believed the dispute would be overcome ‘without a problem’ and without sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of Moscow’s missiles. The results were immediate; the Turkish lira soared nearly 3 per cent on 1 July 2019 to its strongest level since April 2019.

However, Ankara’s optimism is a risky calculation. A USAF spokesman later said: ‘Nothing has changed …  Turkey will not be permitted to have both systems.’ Moreover, if the US Congress follows through on its threat to impose sanctions on Turkey by 31 July 2019 and ignores President Trump, that pressure will have a much wider impact on Turkey’s political and economic future than just defence.

Should the USA remove Turkey from the F-35 programme and impose sanctions on its NATO ally, it would be one of the most significant ruptures in recent history in the relationship between the two nations. It would be one more policy dispute that over the years have tested the complicated relationship between Turkey and the USA.

From Turkey’s military intervention to stop the Greek coup and civil war in Cyprus in 1974, to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, more recently, US support for the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units in Syria’s civil war, ties have frequently been strained between the supposed allies. The danger is that Turkey is, for many reasons, drifting away from the West.

This brings us to foreign policy. Turkey is being forced to recalibrate its foreign and regional policy at a time when the Middle East is undergoing a major transformation. Both Russia and Turkey are seeking more influence in an unstable region. Their relationship is a curious mix of cooperative and competitive. Whilst Ankara is well aware of the dangers of creating new risks to its already weakened economy, it also needs to demonstrate its power as a major regional player.

The problem is that Turkey and Russia have serious form going back to the days of the Tsars. For example, the Crimean War in the 1850s was really all about Russian and Turkish rivalry. Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has always sought to deny Russia a significant presence to the south or in the eastern Mediterranean. But that is now where Russia is becoming increasingly active – especially in Syria. As Russian influence grows, Turkey’s room for regional influence shrinks. Turkey’s recent accommodation of Russia is therefore historically and geopolitically unusual.

However, given Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian civil war in 2015 – and its determination to support President Assad in power – some form of engagement between Russia and Turkey, Syria’s neighbour, was inevitable. The two sides seem, for the moment, to have settled on a wary cooperation. Russia controls northern Syria on Turkey’s border. When Turkey is frustrated with the West – as it is now over US support for Syrian Kurdish forces and the EU’s doublespeak on enlargement –- it finds in Russia a sympathetic ear.

The third factor is economics. Turkey is a major energy-importing country. It needs low energy prices, particularly given its alarming level of borrowing and an unsustainable current account deficit, much of it caused by its increasing energy needs. Ankara is however in serious economic trouble. This spills over on to the streets of Turkey itself, as recent elections have shown.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won support on the streets by using nationalism to highlight frequent challenges from alleged EU and Western hostility, fear of Islam and foreign pressure against the country. The fragile state of Turkey’s economy now however threatens social and political stability. The country’s economy dipped into a recession since the last quarter of 2018. The lira has lost 30 per cent on the global money market.

Over the next year, the Turkish private sector must pay back at least $150 billion in debts, and in foreign currency too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the money. Financially, Ankara is drifting towards national bankruptcy without serious economic reforms – or getting a lot of new money.

However, there are four more years until the next scheduled elections in 2023. The AKP leadership is banking on having time to stabilise the economy, as Ankara believes it can find alternative sources of money.

Two obvious pots of gold are the hydrocarbons beneath the sea off Cyprus and the lure of a sell-out to the East. To deal with the latter first, China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative (to buy up ports and infrastructure across the Middle East and eastern Europe) could be a tempting offer for Ankara. Turning to the East offers easy cash – but at a heavy price.

The second cash cow could be hydrocarbons off Cyprus, and Ankara has shown itself determined to get as much as it can and, in the process, warn off any competition. South Nicosia’s optimistic alliance of Italian, French, Israeli, US and Egyptian backers to support their national oil companies’ ambitions is being met with hard words and the threat of maritime force. The balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean is being challenged.

Inside Turkey the first tremors of a domestic political earthquake are being felt, too. With the country in economic turmoil, AKP’s legitimacy is suddenly facing serious challenges. It suffered stinging defeats in municipal elections in March and was humiliated in the recent mayoral election in İstanbul, the key to national political power. Already there is talk of a rival party based on AKP’s original blend of Islamism with democracy and liberal market policies. Both former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan and former president Abdullah Gül are now looking to create a rival party and bid for power themselves.

The result is that politically, economically and abroad, Turkey is at a crossroads; ‘peace at home and with the neighbours’ is a fine slogan, but is looking to be an increasingly distant dream …

Advertisements

The End of ISIS?

So ISIS – or Daesh (‘one who crushes something underfoot’) as the Arabs call it – is finally defeated. Like trapped rats, the last jihadi fanatics hide in their final boltholes to await their inevitable doom at the hands of the Kurds, Turk, and Syrian armies – helped by the US, Russian and UK’s Royal Air Force – all closing in for the kill. Thousands of men, women and children have fled ISIS’s surrounded final stronghold in the village of Baghuz, on the Iraqi border, surrendering to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the Kurdish-led militias backed by the West. The women and children seen streaming into squalid desert refugee camps to be told what the future holds for the families of the broken terrorist army are the tangible evidence of defeat.

The war is over and everyone can come home … er, well, no … it isn’t, actually.

If you tread on a poisonous mushroom it explodes to scatter its thousands of spores throughout the woods. So it is with ISIS, because group was never just a ragtime army of Islamic hotheads living on captured land. ISIS is much more: it is an ideology that cannot be crushed and exterminated with bullets rockets and bombs. Ideas are spread like spores. Defeat on the battlefield has had the effect of scattering the survivors of the army of the faithful throughout the Middle East – and far beyond. The battle is won, but the war will go on.

This time it will be a war based on two separate but linked campaigns. First is the need to keep the flame of Islamic purity and the search for God’s kingdom of the Ummat al-Islām ( أمة الإسلام ), the collective community of Islam, alive to carry the Holy Gospel of the sacred Koran far afield. Second, the ISIS survivors now on the run are planning a bitter revenge on the West and all those infidels who have destroyed their dream of an ideologically pure Muslim Caliphate.

No one sees this more clearly than General Joseph Votel, who is in charge of US operations in the Middle East. In evidence to the US Congress’s House Armed Services Committee hearing on 7 March 2019, he shared evidence that although Daesh militants are losing the last of their territory in Syria, the militants who remain represent a ‘serious generational problem’. He told the hearing: ‘We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization. Reduction of the physical caliphate is a monumental military accomplishment – but the fight against ISIS and violent extremism is far from over and our mission remains the same.’ The general also warned of more trouble ahead: ‘The Isis population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised.’

General Votel is right. Those who have held out until now are still defiant. What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organisation, but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and going to ground in remote areas to wait for the right time to re-emerge to carry on the fight elsewhere.

Many of the women have told reporters they are unrepentant in their support for ISIS and have pledged to continue the struggle. Women in camps for the displaced have even reported attempts to maintain ISIS discipline there, with unveiled women being attacked by other ‘ISIS brides’.

One 60-year-old woman, who did not want to be named, said that ISIS will continue because the ‘Caliphate’s Cubs’ under the terror group’s rule have been trained to fight from a young age.   She said: ‘The caliphate will not end, because it has been ingrained in the hearts and brains of the newborns and the little ones.’ Some of the civilians threw rocks at the cameras of those trying to film them, whilst one screamed at a photographer and called him a pig.

The captured fighters on the other hand have kept their heads down. Most have been taken to Kurdish and Syrian detention camps. Their fate remains unclear, especially the many hundreds of foreign fighters whose home countries are reluctant to take them back. They are an international hot potato for whom – understandably – no one wants to take responsibility.

The real danger now is that ISIS supporters are being urged to launch lone-wolf terror attacks on Western targets, according to their message traffic. The organisation still has the wherewithal to fight. A UN report published last month claimed ISIS has a secret war chest of up to $300 million (£230 million) that could be used to sustain its operations and fund new attacks on the West. Although the terror group is assessed to have ‘bulk stored’ some of the money in its stronghold area (leading to one spectacular USAF strike on a warehouse that literally blew millions of dollars up into the sky), much of the rest has been smuggled abroad or invested in legitimate businesses. So, not only does ISIS still have an army of sympathisers on which to call, it also has plenty of cash to fund any future operations.

Already there are ISIS propaganda posters encouraging new attacks, including one depicting a man walking through an airport dragging a suitcase depicting the terror group’s logo. We have seen similar Islamist terror posters in the past, often using images of major Western cities such as New York and London as part of their scare tactics. To further strengthen the case that ISIS is going to ground but still remaining active, monitoring agencies report that known ISIS sympathisers are sharing encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram to ‘inspire’ extremists to carry out terror attacks. This follows reports that desperate ISIS-linked media groups are calling for a new ‘online jihad’ now that the terrorists have been neutralised in Syria and Iraq.

The problem is that, like Communism, jihadism is a global phenomenon. History has shown us the dangers of underestimating the power of ideologies. In places like Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Mali and Yemen, fundamental Islam is still prepared to fight and die for the cause, as al-Qaeda still demonstrates. One of the jihadi’s key mantras is ‘stay and expand’. This philosophy and a willingness to accept heavy casualties whilst planning for a long struggle are rooted in a firm belief that God favours their cause and sometimes tests the faithful so that only the purest at heart will survive to fight and win the ultimate battle. Such a mindset makes for a dangerous adversary, whatever its losses.

There is also growing evidence that the group’s surviving leadership have moved to disperse some of their fighters, arms and riches, preparing ISIS to resume terrorist and insurgent operations after the caliphate’s collapse. This campaign has already started in Iraq, where Islamic State is again conducting assassinations, bombings and other operations despite having lost control of vast territories. Given the way Syria is currently partitioned, the various political vacuums in the region are already giving fleeing ISIS State militants time and space to regroup and set up new operations.

The bitter truth is that Islamic State is just one branch of a global insurgency, a problem the world cannot solve by just killing and bombing one single nest of vipers. Combatting a global insurgency will require a coordinated global counterinsurgency effort. This means that efforts to defeat jihadist groups must persist well after the ‘clear’ phase to the ‘hold’ and ‘build’ phases of counterinsurgency. In addition, this must happen in every part of the world where the jihadist insurgency is manifesting itself, from Bali to Birmingham.

Of one thing we can be sure. The erasure of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Syria won’t ensure its final defeat. The war goes on ….

The Road to World War III?

The Roman poet, Horace, once observed, ‘when your neighbour’s house is on fire, you should worry.’ It now looks as whole Middle East could catch fire, because the embers of the Syrian civil war have morphed into something much more dangerous, risking setting off a major new war between Israel and Iran.

The problem is America’s decision to pull its troops out of Syria. This withdrawal leaves the Syrian and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) fighters without protection and increases the likelihood of clashes between Syrian, Kurdish, Turkish, Iranian and Russian forces, as they attempt to fill the vacuum left by the USA.

Iran is particularly intent on exploiting the gap that America is leaving. Like nature, international politics abhors a vacuum. Washington only has itself to blame, because when Iran first moved into Syria, Obama’s Washington stood by and did nothing, except issue feeble threats and sanctions.

Iran responded in 2011 by giving Syria USD $23 million to build a new base near Latakia. Soon Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) officers were stationed on Syrian soil to coordinate arms shipments to the beleaguered Assad regime. Iran now had skin in the game.

This alliance between Damascus and Tehran has deep religious roots. Iran and the Syrian elite are Shi’a Muslims, engaged in an Islamic struggle with Sunni Muslims. Shi’ite notions of Jihad (or Holy War) are apocalyptic. Shi’a Muslims have a long list of perceived suffering and grievances, and pray for the return of their ‘Messiah,’ the Twelfth (missing) Imam, who Shi’ites believe will return at the ‘end of days’ and restore a Utopian Islamic world order. They believe that this Twelfth Imam can only be awakened by cataclysmic world events, which encourages the Ayatollahs to acquire nuclear weapons and hasten everyone’s Armageddon. With weird notions like this controlling Tehran’s foreign policy, it is clear that Iran is a dangerously destabilising force in the region.

The problem goes back to 1979 when Iran deposed the US-backed Shah, America’s closest ally in the Middle East. However, Iranians soon found that they had swapped one dictator for another, the Shi’ite religious fanatic Ayatollah Khomeini. His battle cry was ‘Death to Israel, Death to America.’ Since then, Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution has had far-reaching consequences for Iran and for the Middle East. Tehran is now wedded to violent anti-Western policies, international terrorism, crushing internal dissent and exporting their Shi’ite version of revolution.

Unsurprisingly, Sunni powers (like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries in the region) view Shi’a Iran with grave suspicion, worried that Khomeini’s fanatical heirs will infect their own Islamic militants. The result has been a polarisation of the Muslim world, to the extent that Iran and Saudi Arabia are now fighting proxy wars with Iran in Iraq, Yemen and Syria.

Despite this, Iran has managed to occupy a swathe of war-torn northern Syria and carve out a new land corridor to the Mediterranean in Lebanon. The result is that Lebanon has now become a puppet regime for Tehran.

Lebanon’s problem is Hezbollah, the Shi’ite terror group formed by Iran in 1982 to combat Israel and its allies. It has been Iran’s most successful proxy, serving as the Islamic Republic’s arm on Israel’s doorstep. Backed by Iran, with thousands of trained fighters and an armoury of sophisticated weapons, Hezbollah now dominates the political and military landscape of Lebanon.

Inside the country, Hezbollah has become a powerful state within a state, with its own private army, and has made significant political gains in the latest parliamentary elections. The group now holds three ministerial posts in the new government, controlling some of the country’s largest budgets. Its experienced fighters now issue orders to the Lebanese Armed Forces – and terrorist Hezbollah is controlled by the Ayatollahs in Tehran.

Emboldened by Iran’s protective umbrella, speaking at a rally marking the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah, Hezbollah’s leader (Hassan Nasrallah) warned that Lebanon would ‘defend Iran in the event of war,’ and ‘if America launches war on Iran, it will not be alone in the confrontation, because the fate of our region is tied to the Islamic Republic’.

Iran’s rhetoric has become more threatening, too. Tehran’s bellicose threats spell out the dangers openly. The commander of Iran’s air force, Brigadier Aziz Nasirzadeh, recently warned: ‘Our young people are impatient, fully ready to battle the Zionist regime and eliminate Israel from the Earth’ and ‘Our next generation is the promised one who will destroy Israel.’

Israel was expected to deal with this growing threat to the region when America withdrew. Now the threat is close to home. Iranian and Hezbollah units are on Israel’s northern border and Hezbollah’s Tehran-supplied rockets can threaten the whole of Israeli territory.

To make things worse, the spectre of nuclear weapons overshadows everything. Iran’s President Rouhani said recently that, ‘Iran is determined to expand its military power and ballistic missile programme despite mounting pressure from hostile countries to curb Iran’s defensive work. We have not asked and will not ask for permission to develop different types of … missiles and will continue our path and our military power.’ That’s code for going nuclear.

Rouhani also vowed Iran would defeat harsh US sanctions, re-imposed after President Donald Trump withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers last year. Meanwhile Iran’s secret drive to acquire nuclear weapons continues apace.

A worried Israel has struck back hard. Any nuclear-armed Iran is a serious threat to peace.  Since 2013 Israel has launched dozens of attacks against Iranian and Hezbollah targets. This   undeclared war against Iranian forces and equipment in Syria, aimed at degrading Iran’s logistic supply routes and new bases in the Iranian corridor, has escalated as Iran and Hezbollah dig in inside Lebanon.

In May 2018 Iranian forces fired 50 rockets and mortars into the Golan Heights. This barrage did not inflict a single casualty and caused negligible damage. Israel’s prompt response was airstrikes hitting more than 70 targets. With those strikes, Israel demonstrated its ability to retaliate, warning Iran that attacking Israel would only invite an even more forceful reply. Iran backed down. Its limited capabilities in Syria makes Tehran nervous of any escalation – for now. Israel has a significant military advantage, enjoying overwhelming air superiority that can kill Iranian forces and destroy their equipment.

However, on 21 January 2019, in response to an Iranian surface-to-surface missile launched from Syria into the Golan Heights, Israel launched more strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, killing at least 12 Iranians (‘Israel, Syria: IDF targets Iranian Quds forces, Syrian air forces‘, Stratfor). Although the deputy head of Iran’s IRGC again threatened Israel, saying that Iran ‘could destroy it in three days,’ Iran is still wary of challenging Israel openly.

The conclusion is that in this undeclared war, any escalation between Israel and Iran is a low-probability but dangerously high-risk event. But when it does occur – and it will – it will have significant regional impacts. Iran’s missile arsenal in Syria can hit most of Israel, including major population centres like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and key economic and industrial targets (‘The missile arsenal at the heart of the Israeli-Iranian rivalry‘, Stratfor).

The danger is that any escalation from Iran could spark a major escalation of fighting, which in turn would be met almost certainly with an overwhelming Israeli response in Lebanon and Iraq. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu spells out the consequences: ‘Whoever tries to hurt us, we will hurt them. Whoever threatens to destroy us will bear the full responsibility.’

Given the religious mania of Iran’s leadership, anything is possible. If a massive chemical weapons attack hits Israel, Iran will become a radioactive desert.

We have been warned because, one day, this is going to be a fight to the death. Horace’s ‘neighbours’ roofs’ are already burning. The simmering war in the Middle East requires cool heads and military restraint.

Unfortunately, both are in short supply.

ISIS: The Final Countdown?

Winston Churchill once famously said, ‘battles are the punctuation marks of history.’ Well, we have just avoided a potentially disastrous ‘exclamation mark’ in the bloody history of the Middle East. Whilst the post-colonial Versailles settlement of 1919 is being brutally readjusted to take account of the harsh realities of today’s Muslim world, a major crisis has just been avoided. At Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, Turkey and Russia have agreed to form a joint, demilitarised buffer zone around Syria’s embattled north-western province bordering Turkey: Idlib.

This agreement defuses a growing crisis between Ankara and Moscow by preventing any major Russian-backed government offensive from exploding into ISIS’s final rebellious Syrian redoubt. However, significant obstacles remain; Idlib could still become a flash point.

The problem is that the Middle East is as much of an unexploded bomb today as Europe was in 1914. Sunni Saudi Arabia hates Iran, and Shi’a Iran loathes the Saudis. Shi’ite Assad’s remaining chunk of Syria is the close ally of Iran. Behind the Saudis stand the USA, Britain and France. Behind the Iranians stand the Russians, sometimes the Turks, ever keen to obliterate the Kurds, and perhaps China – and watching nervously from its ringside seat is Israel.

For the past ten years we have all been living with this savage struggle to the death. Muslim has been slaughtering Muslim, all in the name of the Prophet of the religion of Peace and Love – ‘May his name be blessed.’ Now this round is nearly over; or is it?

The Turkish-Russian Sochi deal has been welcomed by all sides as an opportunity to avert the suffering that any major offensive would inflict on the province’s 3 million civilians. UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the agreement, saying that the ‘creation of a buffer zone in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province should avert an all-out military assault and provide reprieve for millions of civilians.’

It would also avoid the heavy losses that would be incurred by government forces in launching the biggest battle yet of the Syrian war against the cornered rebels. Turkey, the UN and aid groups have warned that any major assault by Russian and government forces backing President Bashar al-Assad against the trapped rebel fighters would lead to a massacre. It could also send 800,000 new refugees fleeing across the border into an already overwhelmed Turkey.

Many of the civilians in Idlib are already refugees from other parts of Syria following the collapse of the opposition resistance in cities such as Aleppo. The consequences of an all-out offensive against Idlib with its hapless civilians and the risk of Turkish troops fighting Russians could have led to a bloodbath.

The agreement is specifically designed to halt this major Russian-Syrian-Iranian attack on Idlib, with its trapped civilians.  The agreement calls for a 9- to 12-mile demilitarised  zone around the borders of the region, safe from Syrian and Russian air-force attack and which must be in place by 15 October. Heavy weapons including tanks, mortars and artillery will be withdrawn and Russian and Turkish troops will police the neutral zone. The Syrian government said that it ‘welcomed any initiative that stops bloodshed and contributes to security and stability.’ President Recep Tayyip Erdogan added, ‘With this memorandum of understanding, I believe we have prevented a major humanitarian crisis in Idlib.’

However, the devil is in the detail. The deal’s success hinges on the withdrawal of an estimated 10,000 fanatical jihadi rebel fighters from the buffer zone, fighting under the banner of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida and listed as dangerous terrorists by Russia, the USA and the UN.

These are some of Syria’s fiercest rebels, battle-hardened over years of gruelling warfare. HTS will fight to the death rather than surrender and they have good reason to do so: talks with the government have gone nowhere. In recently recaptured parts of the country, Assad’s goons have promptly arrested former rebels and opposition officials despite assurances of amnesty. Many have disappeared into Assad’s torture dungeons. ‘It’s either die, or surrender – and then die,’ says one rebel leader.

Despite these problems, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (a staunch supporter of Assad) tweeted: ‘Diplomacy works.’ However, he added that his visits to Turkey and Russia in recent weeks had achieved ‘a firm commitment to fight extremist terror.’ Putin himself added, ‘Russia and Turkey reiterated their commitment to continue anti-terrorism efforts in Syria in any of its forms or manifestations.’

Quite how this agreement to quarantine Idlib helps to stamp Islamic terrorism remains unclear because the deal is very fragile. With jets from at least six countries – Israel, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Britain and America – roaming the skies over Syria, the risk of mistakes leading to further escalation of the fighting are just a pilot’s blink away. Also, where will the rebels go?

Nevertheless, the international consequences of Sochi are important. Russia has scored a major diplomatic victory by striking a deal with Turkey. Moscow has avoided damaging its growing strategic relationship with Ankara, whilst achieving its own aims in Syria without more bloodshed. The Syrian war may be ending.

However, some things have not changed. ‘Russia doesn’t like the rebels and they want to help Assad lock down his victory; but they also have strong incentives to continue courting the Turks,’ said Aron Lund, an expert on the region. ‘Syria is just a small part of what Putin cares about. If he can just make the Syrian conflict quiet and unthreatening with Assad still in power, then Russia has won the war ….’

Idlib’s locals have mixed emotions about the Sochi deal. Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a 32-year-old teacher living in Idlib remains wary. ‘After seven years, if we trusted anyone we would be fools. Whenever we trust anyone they trick us,’ said Mr Alhamdo, who lived through the siege of Aleppo before fleeing to Idlib.  He added that he was ‘so happy, and so sad’ about the deal, because it still leaves them in limbo.  ‘People might be able to live again. Children might know there is tomorrow without planes. But we are still in nowhere. Refugees forever.’

Others have spotted the loopholes in the agreement. Thanassis Cambanis of The Century Foundation warns: ‘The gaping hole is that “terrorists” are still fair game. Putin has endorsed a lot of truces, but then Russia proceeded to bomb groups it defines as terrorists, because it says they weren’t part of the wider deal.’

This truce might be different. Putin’s own credibility is at stake, having made such a high-profile deal with President Erdogan. Turkey and Russia are increasingly becoming trade and diplomatic partners. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear reactor. The Kremlin also sees the strains between Turkey and western countries as a wonderful opportunity to divide and weaken the NATO alliance, to which Turkey provides the second largest number of troops. Putin has a personal stake in the Idlib agreement.

However, whilst for the Jihadis the battle may be lost, their long war is not over, because crushing ISIS in Syria will not eradicate the real problem. If the jihadis escape, the deadly spores of terrorism will merely disperse to spread their Islamist terrorism, which is already ‘global and growing.’ Islamist extremists caused 84,000 deaths in 2017 and intelligence agencies have identified 121 groups sharing a common ideology, now operating worldwide. They killed 84,000 people – nearly 22,000 of them civilians – in 66 countries in 2017, according to latest reports.

Even Whitehall admits that a convicted jihadi terrorist is being released onto the streets of Britain nearly every week. Home Office figures show that 46 prisoners held for terrorism offences were released in 2017 (The Telegraph, 13 September 2018)

ISIS and al Qa’ida are still very dangerous. Whatever happens in Idlib, we have not heard the last of them. The fallout from Syria will be with us for years.

The Guns of August

The trouble with August is that the historical record shows that whilst everyone is on holiday it’s a great month to start a war.

From the guns of August in 1914, via the start of the Wehrmacht’s ‘Grand Tour of Europe’ in 1939, the Gulf of Tonkin Vietnam war inciting incident of 1964, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, down to the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, August has meant ‘war’.

This August doesn’t look much better. There is global trouble brewing, big time. It may be the heat: perhaps the madness of ‘le Cafard,’ (the Foreign Legion’s description of the delirium caused by a Saharan summer), but the war drums are beating once again.

The problem is Iran. The US and Iran have been at odds increasingly over Tehran’s growing political and military influence in the Middle East. Things are not looking good for the ‘Mad Mullahs’ of Tehran this August. Trump has deliberately put the clerical regime in Tehran and the Iranian people between a rock and a hard place. The Ayatollah and President Trump are on a collision course.

Many thought that Trump would go back on his threat to quit Obama’s 2015 wishy-washy nuclear ‘deal.’ They were wrong. The economic war started on Tuesday, 7 August 2018, with new US sanctions on cars, aircraft, currency and gold. Any company with an office in the US caught ‘trading with the enemy’ will be prosecuted. Sanctions will cut off the money tap. Europeans are stunned by their loss of potential profits, but the Yanks mean business.

The current American President has simply followed through on his campaign promise. If anyone was in doubt about his willingness to use US power, Trump has shown that when he sets his mind to something it’s going to happen, despite the anguished wails of dismay from EU corporations who thought that their juicy new Iranian contracts would bring them an early Christmas.

Trump is deliberately placing the Iranian economy under intolerable pressure. Global companies are now fleeing the country and the Iranian rial has collapsed, losing half its value since April. Behnam Ben Taleblu, Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC, says: ‘Re-imposing these sanctions is the first step towards tightening the noose on Tehran, putting the regime to a choice between continuing its malign activities or improving its economy.’ Washington’s new penalties are just the first warning shot for even more savage sanctions planned for early November that will target Iran’s valuable oil exports.

The threat is mortal. Tehran needs to sell its oil to survive. The lack of oil revenue could bankrupt Iran. The reaction to American threats from the regime was therefore predictable: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promptly threatened to disrupt international oil shipments through the Persian Gulf if renewed US sanctions strangle Iran’s oil sales. ‘No one who really understands politics would say they will block Iran’s oil exports, and we have many straits, the Strait of Hormuz is just one of those …. We are the honest men who have throughout history guaranteed the safety of this region’s waterways. Do not play with the lion’s tail, it will bring regret.’

Trump promptly Tweeted in kind, mostly in capital letters: ‘To Iranian President Rouhani: Never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have suffered before. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious!’

Whether that will change the change the minds of Iran’s Shi’ite clerical leadership is another matter. Already Tehran is preparing for a fight. The US military’s Central Command reported on Wednesday, 8 August 2018, an increase in naval activity in the Strait of Hormuz, the critical waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf for the international shipment of oil from the Middle East. Iran is threatening to block it off with ships and mines if the USA’s renewed sanctions begin to bite.

The spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards confirmed the deployment of more than 100 vessels to the Gulf: ‘This exercise was conducted with the aim of controlling and safeguarding the safety of the international waterway in the Persian Gulf and within the framework of the programme of the Guards’ annual military exercises.’ He added: ‘They are to enhance defence readiness and to confront threats and potential adventurous acts of enemies.’

In turn, the Americans have warned Iran off. According to Washington, ‘Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. They’ve done that in the past. They saw the international community put dozens of nations of the international community naval forces in for exercises to clear the straits. Clearly, this would be an attack on international shipping, and it would have, obviously, an international response to reopen the shipping lanes with whatever that took, because of the world’s economy depends on those energy supplies flowing out of there.’

This is fighting talk by both sides, but America has serious muscle on the water to back its rhetoric. The US 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, is the ‘combined 5th Fleet’, which means it does not just comprise the US Navy. As well as a powerful US Carrier Strike Force, it has got Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Saudi, and Emirati vessels under command, as well as the occasional Royal Navy warship (when Britain’s MoD can afford to spare one as a token gesture).

From the Iranian side this war of words is not just sabre rattling. This is a battle Iran dare not lose, for domestic reasons. The Government of President Hassan Rouhani is already facing serious trouble at home, where the opposition has demanded action on corruption and for renewed efforts to rescue the economy. A combination of scarcity and inflation has caused prices to soar. Everything from real estate, groceries, and electronic goods have almost doubled in price. Iran is facing the worst economic crisis the country has ever seen.

Worse is to come. Iran has major internal socio-political problems, with serious water shortages and street protests breaking out in the country since the beginning of 2018 over high prices, disconnected water supplies, power cuts and widespread corruption. Since the start of August 2018, thousands of people have rioted in Iranian cities – including Isfahan, Karaj, Shiraz and Ahvaz – in protest against high inflation caused in part by the collapsing rial.

Already there are signs of a widespread clampdown by the clergy and the Revolutionary Guards. What started off as protests, spurred on by the deteriorating economic conditions in Iran and the inflation in prices of basic necessities, could now escalate into a rebellion against the Islamic Republic itself. As domestic economic conditions get worse there is growing anger at Iran’s foreign policy – which includes spending billions of dollars to supply weapons and fighters to take over Syria, funding the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, as well as lending financial support to Lebanese Shi’ite group, Hezbollah – whilst Iranian citizens back home go short. The Mullahs can no longer rely on a docile population.

The questions to pose are, ‘To what extent are these protests threatening the theocratic regime?’ and ‘Could such an upheaval foreshadow a second Iranian revolution?’ This is a real possibility and it explains Washington’s adamantine stance. Despite US denials, Trump and his team really want nothing less than to bring the Mullahs down.

This would explain the sudden receptiveness of the regime to the pleas of the protesters. In January 2018, Iran’s Parliament rejected a then-recent budget plan that increased the price of petrol by 50% and proposed increases in the price of water, electricity, and gas (‘Protests, 2018 budget and public discourse in Iran’, Al Jazeera News, 30 January 2018).

This apparent responsiveness from the current Islamic Consultative Assembly government is a desperate attempt to defuse the sense of grievance felt by many Iranians in the hope of reducing the risk of more violence on the streets or, in the worst-case scenario, protests escalating into a fully fledged revolution. On every front, trouble looms.

Will it end in tears and war? If so, when? Who can predict the outcome?

Once again, the guns of August are loaded and ready to fire – on both sides of the crisis.

The Wolf at our Door

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,’ wrote Lord Byron in his famous poem about the ancient Persians on the rampage. Well, the modern Persians are on the rampage now; and they are right on our doorstep.

Fortunately President Trump is well aware of the danger; he has slammed the diplomatic door in Tehran’s face, to the fury of France, Germany and EU companies, all suddenly forced to ditch their lucrative contracts with Tehran.

One of the mistakes Westerners make is thinking that the Middle East is run by Arabs: wrong. The Middle East is mainly split between Persians and Arabs; and they don’t get on – and never have. The ancient Persians were the bane of Greece and Rome; it wasn’t until the fanatical Arabian warriors of Islam conquered Persia in 651 that the Persians even became Muslim. To this day Persia – now calling itself Iran (after its Persian name) – is a separate culture, language and even a separate branch of Islam.

Persians are Shi’ite Muslims and believe that Islam should be ruled by direct descendants of the Prophet.  Most Arabs are Sunni Muslims, believing that Muhammad’s successor was an elected Imam called Abu Bakr. The ‘religion of peace and love’ fell out in 661 when Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, was murdered. Since then the religious split has widened and acquired political significance – Persians are mainly Shi’a; the rest of the Arab world (85%) are Sunni.

This matters because the modern Assyrians are once again muscling in across the Middle East – and even further. Thanks to Iran, and the meddling Mullahs of Tehran, the great geo-strategic tectonic plates are shifting, and not necessarily for the better. Iran is on the march – and Iran wants a nuclear bomb.

Iran’s efforts to expand its influence are there for all to see. Following the rout of ISIS by Kurdish infantry and American and Russian air power, Iran now controls large swathes of the Middle East, as well as dominating the governments in Baghdad and Damascus, whilst simultaneously intimidating the Gulf States. Through its use of proxy fighters like the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Tehran’s tentacles have now reached the Mediterranean. Iran is busy setting itself up as a regional superpower.

However, Tehran’s real interests are much wider; as Trump warned, we ignore them at our peril. Azerbaijan’s traditional alliance has been with Turkey: Azeris are ethnically Turkic, and the two countries’ languages have shared roots. However, with Turkey now mired down in Syria as a result of Ankara’s paranoia over the Kurds, Tehran is suddenly wooing Baku, because Azerbaijan was once part of the Persian Empire and over 20 million ethnic Azeris live in Iran. Tehran is concerned that the Azeris might try to break away – like the Kurds.

However, Iran’s interests are much wider than domestic unrest on its northern border. Assad’s rump Syria is, once again, effectively a Persian satrapy. This worries Jeddah, because far to the south west, Tehran is fighting a proxy war with Saudi Arabia, the other big player in the region. (‘War’ is no exaggeration. When guided missiles start falling near your capital, that’s war!) The luckless hosts for this struggle for regional dominance are the wretched Shi’a Houthis of Yemen, whose rebellion against their government is being brutally crushed by the Saudis and Gulf States, determined to stop the Shi’a gaining even more power on their doorstep.

Washington is not fooled by Tehran’s manoeuvrings, either. With respect to Iranian aims, US General Jack Keane warns: ‘Syria for Iran is a strategic anchor in the region … they really want to gain more influence and domination of the countries in the area … the Iranians have been conducting a military build-up in southern and south-western Syria .… What they really want to do is replicate what they’ve done in Lebanon, where Hezbollah have in their hands 130,000-plus rockets and missiles capable of reaching Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem. This is serious stuff, what Iran is up to. They certainly want to undermine the government of Israel, create instability and eventually, in time, destroy it.’

Iran’s leaders make no secret of their ambition to emerge as the dominant power in the Middle East and, eventually, the entire Islamic world. Tehran is quite open about its aims: to roll back the influence of the United States in the region and to work towards Israel’s destruction. For example, in 2015, Ali Younesi (a senior intelligence adviser to Iranian President Rouhani) outlined a clear blueprint for Iranian plans, describing Iran’s role as ‘protecting the interests of all the people in the region – because they are all Iran’s people .… We must try to once again spread the banner of Islamic-Iranian unity and peace in the region. Iran must bear this responsibility, as it did in the past.’ Interestingly he spoke of Iran’s past as an empire, and called for a ‘greater Iran’, stretching from the borders of China to the Persian Gulf.

There is however a built-in limit to imperial Iranian dreams: Sunni Arabs are deeply suspicious of Persians. As a Shi’a power, Tehran finds it difficult to win support outside Shi’ite Arab populations. The principal tool of Iranian expansion has been the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), led by the experienced Mohammad Ali Jafari, an advocate of asymmetric warfare using its elite al-Quds Force, whose prime mission is to create Shi’a political/military proxies in other countries and further the ‘Iranian Islamic Revolution’. The chaos in Syria and Lebanon opened the door to Iran’s take-over, using the IGRC as its vanguard.

Iran’s control of Iraq’s Shi’a Arabs rams the point home.   According to a recent report in the Asharq al-Awsat, the IRGC openly maintains a permanent staff of senior officers and political appointees in Baghdad to manage the Shi’a militias and control the Iraqi countryside.  Similar IRGC units are being set up in Syria and Lebanon.

Now Iran has been caught stirring up trouble in another area of expansion, this time on the Atlantic, a very long way from home: Morocco. When colonial Spain left Morocco in the 1970s, Polisario guerrillas fought for independence for the Sahrawi people until a UN-brokered ceasefire. However, Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite ally, Hezbollah, have just been exposed running arms secretly to the Polisario and training its fighters. ‘Hezbollah sent military officials to Polisario and provided the front with … weapons and trained them in urban warfare’, according to Rabat. Intelligence reports confirm this meddling. Sunni Morocco has reacted by expelling the Iranian ambassador and severing all diplomatic ties.

However, the greatest danger of all is Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as Trump warned when he scrapped Obama’s 2015 naive Iranian deal. Under pressure from Obama and the EU, Iran had agreed to limit its attempt to develop a nuclear capability in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions. But, as Israeli intelligence has proved conclusively, the Persians lied and cheated. Now, despite EU corporations’ wails of lost profits, Trump has re-enforced savage sanctions to bring Tehran to its knees once again and scupper Iran’s nuclear programme once and for all. Iran’s aims may be ambitious but its armed forces lack any genuine capability to attack its neighbours; so, without a nuclear capability, Tehran’s options to become the bully on the block are limited.

Iran’s long-term strategy is clear: a naked grab for regional hegemony, mainly by controlling proxies. The irony is that Tehran has badly overplayed its hand; Iranian interference and subversion abroad has been too blatant and encouraged international resistance to Tehran’s over-ambitious dictators. Absolutely no-one wants to see the mad Mullahs with a nuclear bomb. Perhaps the Ayatollah should heed the old Persian proverb? ‘Experience teaches us that wishful thinking only leads to disappointment.’

But be in no doubt: the Iranian wolf is hungry.

Watch Out! There’s a War About

For once I find myself in total agreement with Vladimir Putin, who observed recently in a Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious that ‘the world is becoming a more chaotic place.’ Whilst Pres-for-life Vlad’s BGO doesn’t exactly qualify him as a great thinker, this time he is absolutely right. There’s a definite feeling abroad of an unravelling in world affairs; an uneasy sense that something nasty is lurking round the corner of history ….

As Nigel Molesworth put it so succinctly in Down with Skool: ‘History started badly and hav been getting steadily worse.’ Looking at our increasingly troubled world, maybe ‘the gorilla of 3B’ got it right.

But first, the good news. A few months ago we were all nervously observing a ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ US President threatening fire and fury at North Korea’s ‘Little Rocket Man’ over nuclear missiles. It was definitely steel helmet (and don’t forget your respirator) time. Now, thanks to Trump’s interesting blend of diplomacy, brutal economic sanctions and the threat of violence, Kim Wrong ’Un seems to have a sudden change of heart and is smiling for the cameras and shaking hands across the border. Sigh of relief all round?

However, let’s not get too excited. North Koreans have a consistent track record in talks with the South and the US: consistently lying and trousering the ‘Danegeld’ paid to them to behave themselves, whilst they ignore any agreements. We need to watch this ‘deal’ very carefully.

And let us not forget that Dictator Kim was threatening nuclear war whilst still presiding over appalling human-rights abuses as he ruthlessly executed friends and family alike to eliminate his rivals. Nonetheless, if President Trump really succeeds in negotiating an end to Kim’s nuclear provocations and the Korean War (‘Neutral ground or dramatic backdrop?‘, Telegraph, 23 April 2018), he will have defused a potentially apocalyptic global crisis.

Good luck with that.

Now for the bad news; and there is far too much, as Putin warns.  Intelligence analysts are warning that trouble is looming from at least three other directions: Syria and Iran; Israel; and a global economy deep in debt.

First, Syria, where the endless civil war to keep Assad and his Shi’a allies in power has morphed into something new – and much more worrying. UN Secretary General Guterres warns: ‘The Cold War is back with a vengeance – and a difference.’ The difference is that it is no longer cold. Something very dangerous is unfolding in the war-torn Middle East. A little-known Iranian-backed Shi’a group calling itself the ‘Baqir Brigade’ has declared jihad on US forces in Syria,  where Russian and American troops are only a rifle range apart.  The US, UK and France have already attacked Syrian military targets as a reprisal for the latest gas attack. The dangers are obvious. Any Russia and US fighting in Syria could detonate a hot war and set the entire Middle East on fire.

Further north, Turkey has invaded Syria to crush the Kurds – the warriors who really defeated ISIS on the ground. Meanwhile the Iranians and their Lebanese Shi’a proxy, Hezbollah, have set up a new battle front on Israel’s border. Iran effectively runs Syria now and is turning its malevolent eye against Israel.

This time the Mullahs are really playing with fire. Israel is not a normal country. Tel Aviv will fight like a cornered cat against an enemy that has sworn to ‘sweep the Jews into the sea.’ And Israel possesses nuclear weapons precisely to deter anyone stupid enough to threaten Israel’s very existence. Israel has warned that ‘it will retaliate with every means possible,’ if attacked by Iran and its friends.

Ironically, Iran’s nuclear ambitions may be unravelling at the very moment it tries to intimidate Israel. Tehran thought that it had pulled a stroke with nice Mr Obama with his 2016 no-nukes deal to get sanctions lifted, whilst continuing to build its Shi’a empire in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and now Yemen. Trump is having none of that. Despite Macron’s pleading for a cosy continuation of flogging French and EU goodies to oil-rich Iran, Trump pulled the plug on 12 May 2018 and re-imposed economic sanctions, blocking Iranian oil sales and wrecking Tehran’s not-so-secret nuclear plans.

This is bad news for the world economy, which is now just as vulnerable to a financial crisis as it was in 2008. Oil is the motor of commerce. Oil prices, which dropped to $30 a barrel in 2009 and 2016, are now rising as production cuts by OPEC and Russia have finally sold the world glut of oil; so supply dries up. Iranian sanctions alone will remove 500,000 barrels a day from the market.

Even America’s new oil-shale output cannot fill this gap between supply and demand. Now Brent crude has risen to $72 a barrel and will probably go higher now that Trump has re-imposed sanctions. This could be a global economic bombshell as various geostrategic crises explode. Saudi Arabia is already talking about $100 crude, setting off a speculators’ scramble;  ‘We are pretty confident that oil will be in triple digits by next year,’ opines Jean-Louis Le Mee from Westbeck Capital.

IMF reports warn of a chain-reaction for world finance. One is well-understood: debt. Global debt has been alarmingly high since the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, nations have continued to borrow hand over fist, pushing worldwide debt to $200 trillion (a trillion is a million, million million.)  That is nearly three times the size of the entire global economy.

The second economic problem is that the Chinese and German economies are going into reverse. Germany’s economy in particular is stalling surprisingly quickly. The economic miracle by the EU’s motor of industry is over and now even Berlin faces economic problems, warns Düsseldorf’s Macroeconomic Policy Institute: ‘The danger of recession has increased markedly. It is a more critical picture than just a month ago.’

All this is happening as Korea teeters on a knife edge, Washington and Moscow go head to head, Syria faces multiple wars, Israel and Iran are shaping up for a catastrophic showdown, and the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Yemen gets out of control with missile attacks on Saudi targets by Iranian-backed Houthis. A full blown religious war between Sunni and Shi’a has started. One intelligence analyst warns: ‘All it will take is one Houthi missile sinking a 200,000-ton oil tanker in the Gulf and the consequences would be global.’

Even here, on our island in the sun, alarming events are going on all around us. Suddenly bankrupt Greece is preparing to lease two French multi-purpose frigates to bolster its defences in the Aegean Sea, amid rising tensions with Turkey. Fighters are again on the alert over contested islands. Turkey sails warships to Cyprus to protect hydrocarbon finds. Hostages are being held on both sides. President Erdogan suddenly announces a snap election to choose the country’s next president and parliament on 24  June 2018, to give himself greater executive powers.

All this at a time when the Turkish economy is overheating, raising the possibility of another financial crisis like 2001, when the AKP first came to power promising a strong economy. With Turkish national borrowing skyrocketing and Ankara having to lure foreign money with promises of 13% interest on government bonds, this doesn’t look much like economic competence. The truth is that we are ‘living through interesting times,’ as the old Chinese curse puts it.

Whilst most normal people are just trying to get on with their lives, get to work, earn enough to raise a family and enjoy themselves, all around us alarming events look like coming to the boil. Politically we are living through world-changing history.

It’s an increasingly unstable and dangerous world.  We need to watch out for what is really going on out there.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave