A 2018 Summer Tour d’Horizon
Air Cdre RAF (Retd.) Andrew Lambert
Director, ERPIC Regional Security Program
8 August, 2018
In British politics the Summer Holiday is known as ‘the silly season’. That is because politicians are all away on holiday, and the Media is short of something to say, so they resort to reporting inconsequential nonsense. But the start of the silly season, as Parliament disbands, is the time for government to announce bad news, news that they hope will pass unnoticed by the general population. As usual, difficult BREXIT announcements were made, as was the closure of RAF Scampton, the home of the Dambusters in WWII, and the home of the Red Arrows today.
But if it’s the silly season in the UK it certainly isn’t in the rest of the world.
2018 will, I am sure, be known as the year of the long hot summer, and I would like to be able to say that it was also the summer when the cause of peace advanced. Sadly, that just wasn’t true; quite the opposite in fact – the world has become a more fractious and volatile place than it has been for some time.
And, very sadly, the cause of world peace is also not being helped by the proliferation of personality-based regimes, with each leader exhibiting varying degrees of megalomania.
From his actions and his words, it seems that President Trump appears to have a purely two-dimensional view of the world. In his view, Washington seems to sit like a big spider at the center of its web, and all events elsewhere in the world shuttle backwards and forwards to greater or lesser extent and to distances out towards the periphery. Bizarrely, this view seems also to chime well with his isolationist Redneck supporters, but it certainly ignores the interconnectivity of the global sphere, where events in one part of the world inevitably have knock-on effects to another, and then to another, before finally coming back to taunt you.
Thus, his politically-motivated, rather simple idea of bullying Iran for finding ways of circumventing the nuclear treaty, principally over the development of ballistic missile technology, has strategic effects that seem to have been largely overlooked in the White House. Of course, the US’ withdrawal from the treaty is a truly US-only unilateralist act, which none of the other 5 signatories are bound or likely to follow.
US sanctions, which began last Monday, 6th August, are to be followed by oil sanctions ninety days later, and they are likely to produce some of the following.
First, the domestic sanctions now imposed will squeeze the very middle and lower classes that the US hopes to enlist in undermining the theocratic regime. As consumer goods and medicines dry up, the only beneficiaries will be Iran’s rich elitist black marketeers with close ties to the regime. At the same time, those citizens that stick their heads above the parapet and complain about the nuclear program and the consequent sanctions will be branded as US-sympathizers, if not traitors.
Second, with China already locked in a bitter trade war with the Trump Administration, and with China’s Asia-focused “One Belt, One Road” policy, it is almost certain that China will use this opportunity to move closer to Iran. If, as a result of US sanctions, Iranian oil has nowhere to go, then both India and China would be extremely foolish not to take advantage of this spare oil – for the right price, of course. And, given China’s oil interest in Iran, it is hard to see Beijing voluntarily reducing its investments elsewhere in Iran, especially those in Iran’s nuclear energy sector.
If China and Iran become closer, then so too must we expect Iran and North Korea. Much of Iran’s ballistic missile technology originated in North Korea, and with both of these renegade countries still pursuing nuclear strategies, it is inevitable that Mr Kim, fresh from his blustery meeting with Mr Trump – (that is if the Putin/Trump meeting is anything to go by) – will seek far closer relations in their aspirations, and in their dealings with Mr Trump. It should come as no surprise, therefore, for listeners to learn of the visit to Teheran yesterday, 7th August, by Pyongyang’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho. These two pariah states will have much to discuss, not least whether to unite in their dealings with the US Administration.
Turning now to events elsewhere in the Middle East, I think that one can now confidently predict that, with the help of Russian air power, with help from Hezbollah’s militia, with the help of a number of Iraqi militia, and with the sizeable deployment of Iraqi forces, the war in Syria is likely very soon to come to a bitter end. President Assad has effectively won this war, and the recriminations will no doubt start soon, but he and his Alawite Regime owe a debt of honor to both Hezbollah and Iran, who have not only kept him in power but more tellingly have most likely saved his, and his family’s, lives. He and his regime will have to be compliant, if not enthusiastic, in whatever Iran seeks next.
And the third effect of President Trump’s sanctions will be the question of what will happen to the vast number of newly-redundant Shiite militiamen in the region, all directly or indirectly under the control of Tehran.
As the FT reported, quoting diplomat Mr Robert Ford, “… nearly all the Iraqi Shia militia understand that the American influence in the region sooner or later will diminish, but Iran will always be their neighbor”.
But if Syria really is pacified, then the piggy in the middle, Iraq, continues to be a basket case.
Following May’s General Election no one can be sure who will become the true power broker in Iraq. Frustration over failing water supplies, coupled with frequent electricity outages, and little economic progress, has given the largest number of seats to the radical Shiite nationalist cleric Moqtada al Sadr, followed closely by the seats for the 120,000-strong militia party, known variously as Hashd al-Shaabi, the PMU or Fatah, run by the pro-Iranian Mr Hadi al-Ameri. As seems increasingly likely, a coalition between these two large parties would place Iraq increasingly in Iran’s camp, from whence Iran would control 10% of the world’s oil production, as well as the Straits of Hormuz through which over a third of the world’s oil passes.
To say this leaves Iran in a strong geo-strategic position is something of an understatement. Although the Iranian Rial is falling and the economy under pressure, the population have seen all this before and did not crumble; rather it gave them a focus for their hatred and an opportunity for the clerics to crack down on any liberals.
Given Iran’s perceived persecution by the US, and Hezbollah’s antipathy to Israel, the newly unemployed militia will surely turn to something else. As the saying goes, “the Devil makes work for idle hands”!
Israel is particularly vulnerable. Israel’s move of the capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, coupled with the US’s move of her Embassy, as well as the continuing bloodshed in Gaza, have all conspired to create a casus belli when things go wrong, as they surely will.
Although Mr Trump is on the verge of revealing his “Ultimate Deal” for Palestine peace, both the Fatah administration in Ramallah as well as the Hamas organization in Gaza have already signaled that it is weighed far too much in favour of Israel. And even with considerable Saudi support, it is difficult to see this ultimate deal as anything more than just one more sterile proposal.
Although I don’t want to appear alarmist, it does seem that the stage is now set for one of the more worrying confrontations than we have seen in recent history. To the north of the Persian Gulf sit the Shiite states, more or less tied by some sort of fealty to Iran, from Alawite Syria, through volatile Iraq, to angry Iran. All supported to a greater or lesser degree by Russia and China. To the south sit the allies of the US: Israel, the Sunni Gulf Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. To the north will soon be unemployed irregular militias spoiling for a fight; to the south are sophisticated nations rich in infrastructure and armed with high technology.
While both Iran and Saudi remain as non-nuclear powers any confrontation across the Gulf could, hopefully, be controllable but, should either, or presumably both, acquire nuclear weapons then the consequences could be unthinkable.
And finally, into this bubbling Middle Eastern cauldron we have Turkey. Hitherto, a staunch NATO ally, one that fought with distinction in the Korean War, Turkey is increasingly in the hands of a Sultan-like figure whose rule is increasingly autocratic and capricious. Over 50,000 Turkish citizens were arrested and, according to Amnesty International, a further 107,000 summarily dismissed from their posts for their supposed involvement in the 2016 coup. Judges are now appointed by decree and freedom of expression and freedom of assembly curtailed. The Media is largely state-controlled.
In 2003 the Erdogan government refused to allow its principal ally to deploy troops from Turkey’s borders, and following years of worsening relations involving amongst other things Iranian sanction-busting by Turkey’s Halkbank, and attacks on the Kurds whose Peshmerga fought ISIS as America’s allies, the Erdogan regime criticized the US for not condemning the 2016 attempted coup quickly enough, and for supposedly harboring its initiator Fetullah Gulen.
In what increasingly appears a tit-for-tat action, Turkey arrested Pastor Andrew Brunson, a US citizen whom they accused of being one of the plotters. And he remains under arrest despite a trilateral agreement that Israel would release a Turkish national, Miss Ozkan, who had been apprehended smuggling currency to Hamas. After a fractious Trump/Erdogan phone call, the US has now imposed sanctions on the politicians responsible for Brunson’s detainment, the Ministers of Justice and the Interior.
The President of Turkey has now gone further and accused the US President of “psychological warfare”. Meanwhile, the Turkish lira is falling and the banks are under pressure; but, no doubt, Mr Erdogan will portray this as yet another hostile act by the West.
Meanwhile, Turkish relations with Russia have been improving. At a time of growing antipathy between the United States and Turkey, Turkey and Russia agreed to cooperate on Syria, to construct a new gas pipeline to Turkey, and to supply Turkey with the advanced Russian S-400 missile defense system. Understandably, the US has now postponed deliveries of its most advanced F-35 fighter for fear that the technology could fall into the hands of Russia.
Such actions by Turkey, coupled with Mr Erdogan’s stated intention of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member – a body which both China and Russia aspire to make into the Asian version of the EU and NATO – place considerable doubt on Turkey’s continuing reliability as an ally.
So, with the Anti-ISIS glue, which for the past 5 years has kept all these very disparate groups if not together, then at least in some form of co-operation, with that glue now fast coming unstuck, what does the future hold for the Middle East in particular, and the world in general?
If History teaches us anything, it is to beware the power of a populist nationalist leader with an over-inflated ego. Every time one has been thrown up – and one can think of Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon to name but a few, then bloodshed has ensued, and the resulting chaos took decades, if not centuries, to sort out.
Between the two World Wars, there were two, or arguably three, such idolized personalities.
Now, we have at least four in major positions of power, together with a whole host of petty autocratic acolytes. Can they all live in harmony in this world of eight billion people? I wonder!
Where have all the true statesmen gone when you need them? Or are they all on holiday?