Reading the Middle Eastern Strategic Tea Leaves

Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment, 31 August – 4 Sept 2015

It seems – as much as anything can be certain in today’s world – that President Obama has secured enough Democratic Senatorial pledges of support to sustain a veto over any negative resolution by Congress (though, no doubt, the legislative skirmishing designed to supply alternative constraints on Iran, will be prosecuted with vigour by domestic opponents to the P5+1 nuclear deal (and their Israeli friends), whilst Saudi Arabia will play up its claims of Iranian terrorism in order to underpin new categories of sanctions).  What then does the P5+1-Iran deal portend?

In a word, it portends tectonic change: the landscape of the region will alter. It opens the way for very different ‘readings’ of politics and events (readings, which until now have been disallowed in mainstream discourse), and it will facilitate a long overdue change in the political ethos of a significant number of states.

It may too, finally erode the old, western (neo-conservative), Cold War foreign policy shibboleths, that the way one acts diplomatically should concede nothing to one’s opponents, but rather one should pile on the economic and military pressures until your opponent’s pips squeak; or he, or she, be replaced by a ‘Bilderberg man’.

For some three and a half decades (since 1979), the portion of the region which has held the West’s ear (the Gulf and Israel) has wanted either to have the Iranian ‘serpent’s head severed’ (in the late Saudi monarch’s words), or bombed (Israel’s demand since Labor’s defeat in 1996). Or, at the very least, to have ‘the beast caged’ and totally isolated and vilified.  The West gladly went along with this advice, in the wake of President Carter’s huge embarrassment over the US Tehran embassy siege.  But the cost has been onerous.

Iran naturally pushed-back against its ‘caging’ – particularly after being drafted into the ‘axis of evil’ by Bush – by mounting its own ‘rejectionist camp’. These two opposing dynamics have been spiralling ever since: the Gulf becoming more afeared of the ‘resistance front’, and therefore insisting on a more restrictive ‘cage’ – with Iran pushing-back the harder, in order to push its way past the bars, and out from its containment.  This attempt to enforce a one-sided power structure (containment and vilification on the one hand, and full allied status and the ability to set the ‘narrative’, on the other) has seeded push-back and reactionary conflicts across the region.

But one major consequence to all this has been that the Middle East became ever more to be seen, and unhesitatingly understood, in the West, through Gulf eyes, (and through the increasingly converging Israeli optic).  Wars were launched by the West that reflected more old regional hatreds (or personal feuds, i.e. Ghaddafi), rather being somehow done in true assessment of western interests.

So, now Iran ‘emerges’. It is not clear whether America will try still, to circumscribe Iran in other ways, in the wake of the agreement; but for the rest of the world, Iran simply has ‘emerged’.  Its status as a regional power (already a fact) is now acknowledged by all.  Of course this will change the regional equation to the detriment of the Gulf and Israel.  For the first time in decades, the Gulf ‘narrative’ will loose its ‘entitlement’ to automatic support.  Now other narratives, other ‘truths’ about events in the region will be heard.  We will begin to see again, after a long hiatus, that events have multiple facets.

More significantly this emergence occurs at a time of Sunni crisis – a crisis created not by Iran per se – but as a result of the long-term collapse of the ‘the Arab system’, and by the concurrent crisis within Sunni Islam.  But context apart, just as the Iran ‘deal’ symbolises a President Obama triumph over the neo-conservative/neo-liberal ‘bulldozer’ approach to diplomacy, so Iran’s ‘achievement’ is symbolic in its own way, too. The west has had to reach an accord with a state which precisely opposes America’s ‘exceptionalist’ meme, and its claim to regional hegemony (the Carter Doctrine). This is not synonymous, of course, with being anti-western.

Here is the point which lies at the heart of Gulf and Israeli fears.  For all these years, the Gulf has been able to outsource their foreign policy heavy-lifting to the US and Europe – secure in their ‘entitlement’ to a privileged hearing as a part of the western camp. But now, a new political ethos effectively has been empowered by the ‘Iran deal’: namely the right of the ‘non-West’ to be non-western in its various ways.  Iran, Russia and China all pursue this notion – albeit in very different modes.  It may seem to be something of an abstract idea of belonging to an undefined ‘non-western sphere’, but is this any less meaningful than that of Europe of very profound divergences, insisting on its inherent European-ness?

In many ways though, the notion of the right of ‘non-west’ to be non-western in its way of being, may turn out  to be more grounded than the European states’ construct of European-ness:  Being ‘non-western’ under Russian and Chinese leadership now, increasingly is being associated with protecting oneself from the power of US global trade and financial governance hegemony, rather than American military hegemony, and from the ideological hold of the Washington consensus: i.e. it is about economic re-sovereigntisation; withdrawal from a system of global financial coercion (‘Treasury Wars’) into a ‘safe’ trading sphere, free from the threat of sanctions and exclusion from all financial mechanisms.  

The term – the ‘non-west’ – may indeed be rather abstract, but its agenda is not. It constitutes a very practical agenda of common interest among non-western states of constructing parallel trading and financial clearing systems outside the reach of US claims of jurisdiction (which effectively covers more than 6,000 financial and banking institutions, at this time).  Paradoxically the European Union is heading precisely in the opposite direction at this time – centralising its financial systems into this Washington consensus system of global economic governance.

Here is the rub:  Effectively Obama, by negotiating with a state which explicitly opposes US hegemony (of all types), is hinting that the old Lord Curzon doctrine for the Middle East, later assimilated into the Carter doctrine that: “[We need an] Arab façade, ruled and administered under British guidance, and controlled by a native Mohammedan and, as far as possible, by an Arab staff …. There should be no actual incorporation of the conquered territory in the dominions of the conqueror, but the absorption may be veiled by such constitutional fictions as a protectorate, a sphere of influence, a buffer state and so on” — is well past its sell-by date.  As such, the doctrine no longer stands within America’s economic or military scope – in a changed world.  The US President understands this. He was clear: either we negotiate with Iran, or we go to war (which no one wants, except Netanyahu). Pressure was not working.

This leaves those who have been dining handsomely for decades at the West’s top table very anxious and in a precarious state.  America’s diplomatic shift, may be as significant in its own way, as Britain’s post WW2 taking of leave, of its old Indian élites. Bruce Reidel makes the point when he writes that America’s interests, and those of Saudi Arabia, simply diverge now, and that the two are drifting apart. Of course, Washington would never cast it in such terms, rather the reverse (security guarantees, eternal bonds etc. for old colonies) – as did Mountbatten in another era, where Britain’s interests and capacities were shifting too.

It can be no co-incidence surely, then, on the eve of King Salman’s official visit to Washington, that Tom Friedman, celebrated for his close White House links, should write the epitaph of the old relationship: saying in the New York Times, precisely that which diplomatic courtesy prevents Obama from saying directly to the king:

“But if you think Iran is the only source of trouble in the Middle East, you must have slept through 9/11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernization of the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large, than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam — the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shiite versions — and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.

It is not an accident that several thousand Saudis have joined the Islamic State or that Arab Gulf charities have sent ISIS donations. It is because all these Sunni jihadist groups — ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front — are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.

And we, America, have never called them on that — because we’re addicted to their oil and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers”.

But the nub of the Middle East re-set is that those expecting Iran and Russia (and China) to be more acquiescent and more docile to the Saudi notion for a Syria solution – in the wake of P5+1 accord – may be disappointed.  For all three of these states, the defeat of radical armed jihadism is a primordial national interest:  And Syria represents their front-line in this war.  The recent statements by the Supreme Leader and FM Lavrov seem to suggest a hardening of support for the Syrian state in its war against jihadism, rather than the converse.  In short, rather than being acquiescent, the non-West seems more likely to be feeling empowered (which again is not the same thing as saying it is becoming anti-western), but that simply, the non-west diverges in its interests with the West in fundamental ways.

Pat Lang, formerly a high-ranking civilian official in US Military Intelligence, tapping into his DC sources, notes in reference to the media reports of the arrival of a Russian air presence in Syria that, “the US Government believes that Russia has decided to raise the level of its intervention and risk in the Syrian Civil War, [but] the ultimate scope and size of that increased role are unclear as yet.”  Lang opines that,  “It is believed [presumably by Lang’s intelligence sources] that the Russians will introduce air units [there are credible reports that 6 MIG 31s ordered by Syria in 2007 have been delivered to the Syrian Air Force] to provide close air support for the Syrian Army.  The Russians will build another maritime facility in the Latakia area on the Syrian coast … This facility could have many useful functions but the need for Russian possession of sufficient throughput for sea transported goods in an expanded Russian presence is obvious.  Air transported supply for a large presence is never sufficient.”  He further notes:

“It is increasingly clear that the mere presence of NATO manned Patriot air defense missiles in Hatay Province in Turkey was a significant factor in enabling the Nusra (AQ) jihadi capture of Idlib Province in Syria and that portion of Aleppo Province north of Aleppo city.  The mechanism for this effect is easy to understand.  Patriot battery radars reach far across the border between Turkey and Syria.  Syrian Air Force aircraft entering that space are “painted” by these radars.  For any pilot, to be painted by the target acquisition radars of an air defense battery is a profoundly discouraging experience.  As a result Syrian air did not play a major role in holding back jihadi advances in the area [the north of Syria and Kobani].   This is, of course, precisely what Erdogan had in mind in demanding NATO air defense of Turkey’s border.” [Note the missiles began to be deployed in January 2013]

We, CF, understand that the Patriot missiles – under a Russo-American agreement – now will be withdrawn from southern Turkey, and redeployed to Lithuania.  It seems also that General Allen’s (controversial) ‘agreement’ to a no-fly zone is being re-visited, in the context of this Russo-American co-ordination.  Sending in MIG31s, which are sophisticated interceptors, rather than close support aircraft, plainly is intended to overturn Turkey’s attempt to establish a ‘no-fly zone’ along the northern Syrian border.  There is also plausible reporting that Russia will now share its satellite imagery with Syria.  This reverses the earlier situation whereby Syrian insurgents were receiving ‘real time’ NATO imagery (now terminated) – presumably via Turkey; whereas for the last years, Syria received none from Russia.

As Patrick Bahzad notes, “Ever since the start of the civil war in Syria, the Russians have always made it clear that they would not tolerate another version of the Libyan precedent.  In 2013 already, Russian officials made numerous statements formally objecting to a “no fly zone”. A few very strongly worded declarations by President Putin himself didn’t leave any doubt as to the Russians’ willingness to actively oppose such a development”.

We, CF, do not believe however that Russia intends to intervene in a major way in Syria (that would disrupt the co-ordination with Washington); but we believe that this would be unnecessary in any event.  The arrival of MIG31s, new weaponry, aerial night-vision capabilities, Russian ground support and the provision of Russian satellite imagery is, we believe, sufficient to turn the tide of war. This is not to say that Turkey and Saudi Arabia will not attempt to launch a new wave of now mainly Turkoman jihadists across Syria’s northern border.

This, however, is the portent of the major strategic change underway in the region in the wake of the ‘Iran deal’.  The writing is on the wall for Saudi Arabia: Tom Friedman’s article paints the new mood.  Russia (with US co-ordination – albeit with clear limits to such co-ordination) is going to change the calculus in Syria.  Saudi’s war in Yemen is turning into quagmire – as is its initiative in Libya.  The kingdom is becoming over-extended financially and politically, exposing significant vulnerabilities.

And even Tom Friedman’s final sentence “And we, America, have never called them [the Saudis] on that — because we’re addicted to their oil; and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers” is no longer true.  In fact, it is the opposite.  It is Saudi crude production that is crushing America’s fracking industry.  America’s much acclaimed, growing self-sufficiency in energy, paradoxically might be saved if somehow Saudi Arabia’s production were ‘lost’ to the market.  Now that is a big change.

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