Who’s winning in the Middle East?

Looking at what is going on in the Middle East, it is becoming harder and harder to differentiate between the leaders who are pulling the strings and those whose strings are being pulled. Some might say that it doesn’t matter since the end result is the same and others might claim that there is a symbiotic relationship between the players and the played in which the roles are fluidly changing all the time.

The players in the region can be lumped into 6 distinct groups:

  • The active superpowers: countries who view the countries in the region as bases for proxy wars in their never-ending power struggles against each other – namely Russia and the USA.
  • The regional enemies: countries in the region which are leading “alliances” of other countries in the region – namely Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  • The regional followers: countries who are following the lead of the regional enemies – these include Lebanon, Iraq and Syria supporting Iran and the Gulf/Arab states supporting Saudi Arabia.
  • The war zones: countries in the region which are ravaged by regional, civil and/or proxy wars – namely, Syria, Yemen and Israel/Palestine.
  • The leading fence-sitters: countries who are looking to increase their influence in the region mainly for economic purposes – namely China and the EU.
  • The opportunistic supporters: countries in the world willing to ally themselves to the regional enemies for economic, political, sectarian and/or religious purposes – Turkey, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Malaysia, Argentina, Cuba etc…

Let’s start with the active superpowers. It’s quite obvious that that Moscow has the upper hand over the US in the region for now: the retreat from Iraq and the nuclear deal with Iran, both led by President Obama, have antagonized regional allies and have definitely weakened Washington’s influence in the region while Moscow, under President Putin, on the other hand, has definitely stepped up its game to fill the vacuum. But this balance of power will soon lose its stability as President-elect Trump will take office. While Obama focused his efforts on changing the status quo of allies in the Middle East by forging the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump will most probably try to return to the US’s historical allies, Saudi Arabia. But for now at least, the balance of power is definitely in Moscow’s court.

As to the regional enemies, Iran and Saudi Arabia, it’s quite obvious that, much like its big brother ally, Moscow, Tehran has the upper hand for now. With a nuclear deal which brought Iran out of its pariah status, with new found friends and allies, with trade delegations flying into Tehran to cash in on its market and with Bashar al-Assad on his way to winning the “civil” war in Syria, Tehran is definitely on a roll. Sure, nothing is perfect: Tehran has antagonized many, if not most, of the Arab countries, is watching on the sidelines as the Houthi rebels in Yemen are being crushed and worst of all, is still suffering from a weak economy. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, lost the warm support of the US, watched as the Syrian rebels it supported were defeated, is suffering from an all-time low in its economy and seems threatened by the possibility that Iran might one day build a nuclear bomb which will be aimed at Riyadh.

But the regional enemies would probably not be so adamant to fight out their fight in the war zones were it not for the regional followers which support them. In the case of Iran, Lebanon is a satellite state while Iraq and Syria are on their way to becoming satellite states as well. These are states which are content to follow in order to maintain strategic alliances. They might send a few troops to a war zone but they are mostly there for moral, economic and political support. Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran rhetoric would fall flat were it not for the support of the Arab League and the express support of many other Arab countries but these supporters are not yet ready to place their own soldiers in danger yet.

The war zones, specifically, Israel, Syria and Yemen, are where the conflicts surface beyond diplomatic tiffs or hate-filled and hate-inducing rhetoric. These are the areas where the agendas of the active superpowers and the regional enemies clash and explode and where people suffer the most: soldiers and civilians get hurt and killed, civilians live in fear or become refugees and life, on the whole, is on pause for most of the civilians. The leaders in these zones are playing for the visions they have of the countries that they lead and for their own political lives. In all three zones, foreign intervention from the active superpowers and the regional enemies is a basic part of the wars: Iran, for example, supports the Assad in Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US, on the other hand, support the rebels in Syria, Israel and the Yemenite government. It’s all a big game in which civilians are used as collateral and winning is much more important than peace.

The fence-sitters embody the biggest question marks in the outcome of the conflicts in the region. China and the EU, for example, are trying to maintain alliances with Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Russia and with the US. They don’t want to take sides because taking a side might mean a lost opportunity. They want to profit from the situation. The EU will be selling passenger planes to Iran while China will supply Tehran with fighter jets. Money is the main impetus here and there is always a lot of money to be made from conflicts. For now, they are content to watch the active superpowers and the regional enemies fight it out without taking any side 100%. Oh sure, they feel bad about the victims of the war zones but not bad enough to really do something about it. But the fence-sitters are extremely important due to the potential of their loyalty – imagine if China were to openly ally itself with Iran – but it is exactly this potential which makes them more powerful. The active superpowers and the regional enemies are doing all they can to woo the fence-sitters to their sides but for now, the fence-sitters are doing what they do best: sit on the fence and gain power. For now, they are neither winning nor losing the game and retain their power by simply playing both sides.

And finally, there are the opportunistic supporters. Some are close by such as Turkey or India but some are much further away such as in Latin America. These countries are in the game for one of two reasons: making money or weakening a mutual enemy. Most of these supporters are not really interested in the conflicts in the war zones nor are they seriously worried about the outcome of these wars. They might have been lumped in with the regional followers or the leading fence-sitters but their level of involvement is so varied that it would not do justice to the other groups. They might choose one side or they might choose not to choose. They win if the regional enemy or the active superpower that they are supporting wins. Simple.

So here’s the score for now:

  • Active superpowers: Russia beats US with a wide margin but everyone is waiting for Trump.
  • The regional enemies: Iran beats Saudi Arabia with a wide margin but the game certainly isn’t over yet.
  • The regional followers: One would think that the regional followers of Iran are winning but since two out of three are ravaged by war, winning doesn’t have too many benefits.
  • The war zones: The government forces in Syria and in Yemen seem to be winning while Israel still has the upper hand.
  • The leading fence-sitters and the opportunistic supporters: All countries which are making money or increasing their powers are winning regardless of the outcomes in the war-zones.

And then, there are the ultimate losers – the victims in the war zones and the citizens of the regional rivals whose economies are being extinguished by the costs of war. They are the ultimate pawns for the game played by the active superpowers and the regional enemies. They cannot win unless one side gives up and they can only hope that their side will win.

 

Related articles:

 

 

The nuclear deal and the fall of Aleppo

When the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, the West looked worriedly on but did basically nothing. Oh yes, President Barak Obama did force Bashar al-Assad to desist from using chemical weapons but, on the whole, the war zones were empty of any Western influence. Assad warned the Western powers to stay out of the war while rolling out the red carpet for Tehran to take over the dirty business of a war which had ceased to be an internal “civil” war and now included Tehran’s own agenda in the area, namely supporting Assad, a Shiite-Alawite, in an effort to Export the Islamic Revolution to Syria. Tehran was only too happy to pour in Hezbollah, IRGC and Shiite militant troops while joining Assad’s warning to the West to stay clear of the region. For three years, the war trudged on with no clear winners and many losers.

In 2014, ISIS began its rampage, claiming to set up an Islamic state which would span from Syria to Iraq and inadvertently, the issue of the West’s support to ISIS in its infancy became the perfect cover-up: Tehran and Assad were killing terrorists who were backed by the Western powers and their proxies in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Every horrifying act of terrorism by ISIS only strengthened this narrative even though the West had stopped supporting ISIS long before it began its rampage in 2014. But Assad and Tehran weren’t only fighting ISIS – in fact, most of the war efforts were focused on eliminating any form of opposition against Assad. These efforts took a heavy toll on the Syrian civilian population and led to a massive wave of Syrians fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe but the West still remained politely out of the war.

Meanwhile, the West was trying to clinch the nuclear deal which would, supposedly, keep Iran’s nuclear program in check. But the issue of the nuclear program seemed secondary to most of the EU representatives who eagerly awaited the cash in on the huge potential of the soon-to-be-opened Iranian economy. As the negotiations on the nuclear deal dragged on, the situation in Syria became worst for all sides and still, the West kept its distance, this time out of fear of endangering the nuclear deal. So while suited diplomats from all over the world haggled over the percentages of Uranium enrichment in fancy board rooms in Europe, Syrian men, women and children kept on suffering and getting killed.

The nuclear deal was finally signed in June 2015 and within four months, the red carpet was once again rolled out by Assad (and Tehran) to Moscow, Tehran’s newest and most powerful ally. Russian planes began bombing Syrian rebels while claiming, as before, that it was there for one reason and one reason only: eradicating terrorists. Moscow’s entry to the war was the beginning of the end for the Syrian rebels. It wasn’t only the issue of the Russian air force, it was the fact that such a superpower openly entered the war while the Western powers maintained their distance, demoralizing the Syrian rebels. All this was done while Assad, Tehran and Moscow continued to hypocritically warn the West to stay out of Syria.

Since day one, Tehran has claimed that the only solution to the war in Syria would be a political one and not a military one while at the same time, Tehran and Moscow have invested in the war in Syria tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the millions of refugees. This glaring discrepancy was once again ignored under the grand goal of eradicating terrorists and the West, once again, sat on the sidelines. As pictures, videos and information regarding the dire situation of the Syrian population leaked out to the world, the pressure on the West to take a stand increased but, once again, nothing. The danger of an escalation which might lead the West to fight against Russia was left the West frozen in indecision.

And then, the siege on Aleppo began and suddenly, the inaction of the West became more unbearable. Most of the troops involved in the siege of Aleppo were not even Assad’s: they were Shiite militants and Hezbollah troops which Tehran had organized. The city was split into two distinct areas: the Western part was pro-Assad while the Eastern part was anti-Assad. As the noose around the rebels tightened, the Russian planes kept on bombing. The war of conflicting narratives sounded like two distinctive echo chambers: One narrative spoke about “liberating Aleppo from the terrorists” while the other narrative spoke about “conquering Aleppo by Tehran and Moscow”. As the siege on Aleppo became more critical, the accusations from the West increased but apart from words, the West didn’t do a thing for fear of “rocking the boat” and being accused of supporting terrorists.

And then, Aleppo fell, or was “liberated”, depending on your point of view and this time, the war of words reached a much higher level. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, slammed Tehran and Moscow for having “no shame” in fighting Assad’s war and victimizing millions of Syrians in the process while the Russian ambassador to the UN pointed out that the US wasn’t “Mother Theresa” and was far from being a neutral “player” in the war. What he should have done is tell Power that Moscow and Tehran are not alone in having no shame and that the US should take responsibility over the fact that it shamelessly abandoned the Syrian people to a fate in the hands of Moscow and Tehran. History might not forgive the Iranians and the Russians for what they did in Syria but it won’t forgive the West either for what it didn’t do there either or as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

 

Related articles:

  • tehran-and-isis-its-complicated/
  • the-black-white-narrative-on-isis/
  • how-exactly-is-tehran-fighting-isis/
  • aleppo-at-the-front-of-a-growing-proxy-war/
  • exporting-the-revolution-is-simply-shiite-colonialism/
  • aleppo-is-liberated-aleppo-has-fallen/
  • syria-key-to-iran-and-to-russia/
  • iranian-involvement-in-syria-escalates-alarmingly/
  • tehran-blatantly-hypocritical-on-syria/
  • tehran-supports-assad-not-syrians/
  • syrians-and-yemenites-caught-in-the-middle/

 

Tehran looking everywhere but West

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei inherited his paranoia of foreign interference from his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini who coined his “Neither East Nor West” strategy which was paired up with another dominant theme of Khomeini’s, “Exporting the Revolution”: “Once again, I announce my support for all movements, fronts, and groups which are fighting in order to escape from the claws of the Eastern or Western superpowers“. Standing up to the “arrogant” superpowers and supporting the “oppressed” people/nations was always at the core of the Islamic Revolution and it remains so today as well under Khamenei’s goal of leading a “Global Islamic Awakening”, a “Century of Islam” and a “New Islamic Civilization”.

For decades, these twin strategies were upheld by Tehran but since the signing of the JCPoA, the hatred for the West and specially the US (the “Great Satan”) has even intensified but Tehran is definitely looking Eastward, specially towards Russia and China, as a means of increasing its power in the region. It also in began looking in other directions: first, South to Africa and Latin America where it’s scouting for likely candidates to “Export the Revolution” to and then to its immediate neighbors, mostly for economic reasons but as a means to gain more power in the region.

Although Khomeini would approve of Tehran’s focus to the South and to the neighborhood, he is probably rolling in his grave over the growing ties with Moscow and Beijing.

 

Definitely not West.

Following the signing of the JCPoA, Khamenei forbade dealing with the US but allowed President Hassan Rouhani to try to develop diplomatic ties and trade ties with countries in the EU. The initial response from most EU countries was positive and EU trade delegations landed one after the other in Tehran in an effort to capitalize on the huge potential of the Iranian market which was finally released from sanctions. The enthusiasm of the European delegates and governments was dampened by two unrelated issues: 1) The US’s removal of the nuclear sanctions did not clear Iran from other sanctions which are related to terrorism and human rights and 2) the issue of Iran’s horrific record in human rights and its recurring ties with terrorism resulted in a lot of internal objections. For now, European countries and businesses are waiting impatiently on the sidelines until both these issues are cleared and the US isn’t even on the sidelines.

 

South to Africa and Latin America

A lot of diplomatic effort is being invested to the South, to Africa and to Latin America. These countries hold a lot of economic potential but money is not the main goal here. All the nations in  Africa and Latin America are part of the Non-Aligned-Movement (NAM) and most fit Khomeini’s description of being oppressed, at least in the past, by the “arrogant” West – this makes them good targets for “Exporting the Revolution”. Furthermore, at least in Latin America, many nations hold deeply anti-American sentiment which makes them even better candidates to “Export the Revolution” to.

On his African tour, Tehran’s FM Javad Zarif, “offered” each country he visited, to share in Tehran’s experience at “fighting terrorism”. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, this offer sounded hollow since the government of Nigeria cracked down on the subversive efforts of a local Shiite Sheikh Zakzaky who was openly backed by Tehran. Furthermore, Tehran is the current president of NAM (a post which changes every three years) and has used its position to try to mobilize NAM countries to support its agenda.

On Latin America, Zarif made a point of kicking of his tour in Cuba and including in his tour countries with strong anti-American countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. In his visit in Cuba, he made a point of emphasizing the fact that both Iran and Cuba were under American sanctions. Note how this statement echoes Khomeini’s quote at the beginning of the article: “The resistance of the Iranian and Cuban nations has left the hegemonic countries no other choice but compromise and renunciation of their hostile policies even in their words“.  Zarif’s LatAm tour is particularly worrisome for many countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay who are suffering from fears of Hezbollah’s growing influence in the region, mixing anti-American sentiment with terrorism and Shiite Islam.

 

Close by to Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors

Tehran’s involvement in Muslim neighbors such as Syria and Iraq has been in full force for the past few years but following the signing of the JCPoA, Tehran not only extended its overtures to other Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Talks of increased trade were mixed with calls for the unification of Muslim countries in tune with Khamenei’s vision. These potential partners are crucial not only as trading partners but also as a buffer to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to unify all Arab countries against Iran.

But Tehran didn’t stop with Muslim countries – it also began wooing its non-Muslim neighbors. High level meetings between Iran and India, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and others led to many trade agreements and the easing of diplomatic restrictions such as visa requirements. Azerbaijan committed to creating a free-trade zone on the border of Iran while Georgia decided to drop visa restrictions.

All in all, Tehran’s new-found interest in neighbors which had little or no contact with Iran in the past is not strengthening Iran’s power in the region economically and politically. None of these countries have any real powers to “infiltrate” and they might not be likely candidates to “Export the Revolution” to and Khomeini would probably have approved.

 

East towards Moscow and Beijing

By far the biggest development since signing the JCPoA is the rapprochement between Tehran and Moscow and Beijing. These two local superpowers quickly understood the ramifications of the signing of the JCPoA which brought Iran out of its isolation and Tehran’s continued hatred of the West. For Moscow and Beijing, strengthening ties with Tehran served two immediate purposes: cashing in on the economic potential of Iran’s market as well as weakening  the US’s influence in the region and the perception of the US’s influence in the world.

Moscow was the first to jump at the opportunity to fill the vacuum by openly supporting Tehran politically, economically and militarily. Even the issues of the remaining sanctions and the problems of dealing in dollars were easily circumvented as Tehran and Moscow agreed to deal through barters or through local currencies. At the same time, Moscow began supplying Tehran with missiles and joined the Syrian civil war siding with Tehran and Assad. The latest developments in which Russian jets launched air-raids on Syria from Iranian territory exemplifies the nature of the growing partnership.

Beijing was slightly more cautious but quickly understood that if it did not want to leave Moscow in the field alone – there was too much money to be made and weakening the US was an added bonus. Huge deals were signed and Tehran and Beijing are now talking about purchasing Chinese jets.

And suddenly, Tehran became a catalyzer to create a new coalition in the region with Tehran, Moscow and Beijing at its core and other countries in the region as second circle partners. The growing relationships with Moscow and Beijing are still fragile but as long as the money keeps on rolling and the US remains at bay, it will definitely grow and with it one can expect a growing Russian and Chinese influence on the regime and on the lives of Iranians and Khomeini’s “neither East nor West” lost half of its meaning.

Shattered Hopes in Tehran

shattered hopes in tehranThe hopes that followed Hassan Rouhani’s election to the presidency reverberated around the world: The millions of Iranian people who voted for him were joined by hundreds of millions of Westerners who felt that Iran was finally on its path out of isolation. These hopes came to a peak in the signing of the JCPoA which fulfilled one of Rouhani’s most ambitious promises by killing three birds with one stone: 1) normalizing foreign relations with the West, 2) boosting the economy by lifting sanctions and opening Iran to foreign trade and 3) legitimizing Iran’s nuclear program.

Paradoxically, the signing of the JCPoA which had elevated Rouhani in the eyes of most Westerners and his Iranian voters was also Rouhani’s fall from grace in Tehran and losing control on all three fronts to none other than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

 

Hard-liner Backlash

Once the deal was signed, Khamenei, who had taken a back seat for over two years, took back control of the implementation of the JCPoA, rescinded the budding relationship between Tehran and Washington and banned American companies from the Iranian markets. But this wasn’t the end of Rouhani’s fall since hardliners in Iran, with the IRGC as their spearhead, found in Khamenei’s move to consolidate control, an open invitation to “move in for the kill”. Within weeks, Rouhani’s demotion was followed by a crackdown on human rights and freedoms as the IRGC arrested journalists, artists, activists, foreign businessmen etc…while Rouhani impotently objected.

The hopeless stability exemplified in Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has now given way to a volatile atmosphere of instability in which hopes and resignation are constantly jockeying for position. The implementation of the JCPoA is fraught with contradictions between the JCPoA itself and Khamenei’s red lines. The trade delegations are still flying into Tehran but they are becoming weary of the hardline political atmosphere. Khamenei’s anti US rhetoric is creating unease even among the EU members who are beginning to understand that they may be next in line to being banned for introducing Western influence.

The only “player” who seems unfazed from the backlash is the same “player” who is cutting ahead of the line of all the Western delegations and closing deals worth billions of dollars: Russia. The Kremlin,  historically unfazed by government crackdowns and unworried from the possibility of a ground-roots uprising, placed its relations with Khamenei on a high pedestal as Putin’s historic meeting with Khamenei exemplifies.

And the Iranian people, who finally saw a light at the end of the tunnel of sanctions and dreamt of peaceful relations with the West, are back in the dark again.

 

Proxy Wars Take Center Stage

Meanwhile, Tehran found itself involved in two civil wars: the first, supporting Assad’s government in Syria and the second, supporting Yemenite rebels in Yemen. These civil wars quickly evolved into proxy wars involving Iran’s regional nemesis, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Russia, the US and the EU and are spiraling out of control, forcing Iran into a potentially volatile position of a regional or even global conflict.

The proxy wars are a matter of great concern for the Iranian people and potential Western investors for several reasons. First, these wars are costly and Tehran is invested in them to a tune of approximately $10 billion a year. Second, the definition of allies and foes is very fluid at this moment and Tehran may be anti-West as far as opening markets but it may find itself allied to the same Western countries in the mutual fight against ISIS. Third, the Iranian casualties are estimated to be only a few hundred for now, but an all-out war in Syria or in Yemen is sure to increase the death toll which will, at some time or another, create unrest among an army and a people who are still scarred from the devastation of the Iran-Iraq war.

Once again, Moscow is proving itself to be Tehran’s unswerving ally in the proxy wars: not only did Putin take the plunge in the Syrian conflict, Moscow has launched a fire-sale for its military equipment to Iran, including missiles, anti-aircraft guns, jets etc…

But for the Iranian voters, the situation seems much worse than it had been before Rouhani: Until Rouhani’s election, Tehran’s involvement in Syria was on a slow burner and it has now flared up dramatically. Furthermore, the Iranians are now allied to the Russians who seem hell-bent on testing the West’s resolve in regards to the regional power-play over the Middle East.

 

Winners and Losers of JCPoA

BN-LK207_1123pu_J_20151123114511The JCPoA that Rouhani and his team hammered out for over two and half years was supposed to be a blessing for all Iranians who had suffered under Ahmadinejad’s 8 year tenure. It’s a tragic paradox that Iran is now much more unstable than it had been before Rouhani’s election. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran was defiantly closed, hopes for change were non-existent and its involvement in the civil wars was at a constant “minimum”. The West simply tried to ignore him and was content to sanction Iran while the Iranian people reluctantly accepted their fate. Many Iranians and Westerners would feel that the situation wasn’t good but at least it was stable.

But once the JCPoA was signed, under immense pressure from…you guessed it…Russia, the hopes of the Iranian people, especially those who voted for Rouhani, were shattered. As time ticks on, the JCPoA is evolving into a deal which cannot hold and it is just a matter of time that it will unravel. The Western powers have placed a lot of emphasis on the possibility of slapping back sanctions if Tehran gets out of line in its nuclear program but such a move would only dissolve the deal and legitimize Tehran’s path to militarizing its nuclear program.

Now that Moscow is firmly on Tehran’s side, the possibility of sanctions seem less dangerous for both: deals between Russia and Iran are being closed with or without sanctions and plans to trade mutually using local currencies have already been inked. In the event of the JCPoA disintegrating into a series of accusations between the West and Iran, a military option, which was never really on the table pre-JCPoA, will now be next to impossible to even discuss since it would mean declaring war against Russia, initiating a third world war.

Once again, it is the Iranian people who will suffer the consequences of the power moves of Iran’s regime: instead of heading for a few decades of well-deserved peace and prosperity, they will find themselves at the center of a global power-play between the West and Russia.

There is little hope for the Iranian people: the backlash in human rights and freedoms, the open market that might rapidly close down, the peace with the West that is already disintegrating…all will lead to the simple fact that the Iranian people, and Rouhani, are going to foot the bill for Khamenei’s anti-Western paranoia (and Russia’s anti-Western agenda) to keep the revolution alive instead of opting for an evolution lead by the will of his people.

The Black-White Narrative on ISIS

It is impossible to find anything good to say about ISIS. Without a doubt, it has reset the bar for the levels of savagery inherent in a terrorist group: the much communicated beheadings, crucifixions, rapes, enslavements etc…have placed ISIS at the top/bottom of all the scales and have helped redefine the word “terrorism” itself.

In fact, the media hype over ISIS has been so loud that it is nearly impossible to hear anything but condemnations against ISIS and cheers for the nations and the people trying to defeat it. And as with all media hype, the message has boiled down to a very simple black and white “soundbite”. Since, there is an ongoing campaign to place the US as responsible for the birth of ISIS, the simplified narrative goes something like this: “ISIS and its real/imagined backers (US, Saudi Arabia and even Israel) as the “bad/evil guys promoting terrorism” and the anti-ISIS axis (includes nearly the whole world but is basically Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq and now Russia) as the “good/benevolent guys fighting terrorism”.

Obviously, this simplified polarized version of the situation is as far from the truth as the infamous “axis of evil” tags that President Bush was so fond of using. ISIS is definitely evil and should be eradicated but, and this is a big “BUT”, the core anti-ISIS axis poses an evil that is much larger, albeit less immediate and less graphic, than ISIS itself.

 

The Birth of ISIS in Many Shades of Grey

birth isisOne fact is certain: as Obama would later admit, ISIS was born as an “unintended consequence” of the US’s mismanagement in Iraq.

The birth of ISIS as it is today began in 2004 in the US-run prison of Camp Bucca in Southern Iraq: Most of the would-be commanders of ISIS were at one time prisoners at Camp Bucca and it was there that they developed their network and their extremist ideologies. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was one of the key figures but he wasn’t even close to becoming its leader.  When the US pulled out of Iraq, it left a vacuum of power that was to becoming the womb for the birth of ISI (Islamic State of Iraq). Old rivalries were set aside and new allies were created to fight different wars on a constant basis. ISI’s goals were mostly anti-Shiite and anti-US but these goals were relatively fluid depending on the environment at each moment. In fact, ISI was, at one time, supported by Assad’s own government in an effort to topple the Iraqi government. Al-Qaeda was and remained for a long time the most powerful terrorist organization that all other factions had to deal with.

In 2011, the rumbles of a civil war began in Syria and Al-Baghdadi, decided to expand ISI’s territory of operations beyond Iraq into Syria through a Syrian rebel called Abu Muhammad al-Julani who formed Jabhat al-Nusra for the purpose of fighting Assad who had refused to hold free elections and had answered local protests by killing and jailing demonstrators.

Events came to a peak when in 2013, al-Baghdadi announced that al-Nusra and ISI were one and the same, resulting in denials by al-Julani and a condemnation by al-Qaeda who felt that ISI was growing too big too fast. But by this time, al-Baghdadi felt strong enough to make his move: he led multiple raids on Iraqi prisons in order to free more than 500 hard-core prisoners who later pledged their allegiance to ISIS. By 2014, al-Qaeda broke its ties with ISI and after much infighting between al-Nusra and ISI in Syria (al-Nusra wanted to topple Assad, al-Baghdadi wanted to create a Sunni stronghold within Iraq and Syria), the two groups finally consolidated.

In June 2014, al-Baghdadi proclaimed the worldwide Islamic State and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and ISIS’s rampage across Syria and Iraq quickly followed. Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria raged on with Syrian rebels backed by the US and Saudi Arabia fighting against Assad and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militias. Some of these Syrian rebels joined ISIS in the hope of overthrowing Assad while others fought against ISIS in a classic Middle Eastern melee.

So, who’s to blame for the birth of ISIS? Like any recipe for disaster, there are many ingredients: Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the US invasion of Iraq, the pro-Shiite government in Iraq, the incarceration of would-be ISIS leaders in a US-Iraqi prison, the subversive efforts of Syria in Iraq, the civil war in Syria, the break with al-Qaeda, Iran’s efforts to export the Shiite revolution and many more links that would eventually become the horror that is ISIS. Sorry, no easy black/white, good/bad picture here…only many many shades of grey.

 

From Shades of Grey to Black and White

isis beheadingThe savagery of ISIS made huge headlines. These were terrorists who knew that a youtube video of the beheading of one single person is worth more than a bloody battle. News of the horrors of ISIS were smartly disseminated through media outlets and social media and within a few weeks, ISIS became the terrorists everyone loved to hate.

This strategy helped to build ISIS’s image but also, as a direct consequence, rebranded Assad and his supporters in Tehran as the world’s saviors who were doing what the whole world wanted to do – kill ISIS. The US joined the fray in bombing ISIS strong-holds but the involvement of the US was criticized and denigrated by Tehran as cynical (since the US was identified with the rise of ISIS) and worthless (no real examples of success). Riding this sentiment, Rouhani developed his WAVE (World Against Violence and Extremism) initiative which placed Iran and Assad in the White Corner and ISIS, the US and Saudi Arabia in the Black Corner.

The public admissions by Obama and several key US political and military leaders of being a part of the birth of ISIS weren’t balanced by admissions by Assad, Baghdad or Tehran of their own responsibility for creating ISIS or for supporting terrorism and the simplified black-white narrative of ISIS began to take traction. In such a black and white picture, there was no room for shades of grey of the massacres carried out by Assad, Hezbollah and Iran on Syrian citizens and legitimate Syrian rebels (not ISIS). The facts that Tehran had not only been a part of the birth of ISIS, has invested over $10 billion a year in the Syrian civil war and was supporting numerous terrorist militias and faction in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas were dwarfed by the world’s hope that ISIS would be destroyed – any questionable shades of grey were pushed to the extreme black-white picture of the situation.

The fact that despite Tehran’s repeated calls for foreign entities to not get involved in the civil war in Syria, Tehran dispatched 15,000 Iranian troops and increased its supplies of weapons to Syria.

Even as Syrian refugees landed in Europe, many who were escaping Assad’s coalition, and not ISIS, Rouhani continues to bang the drum of guilt over the US’s head: “Assad + Tehran = Good/White, ISIS + US = Bad/Black”, in other words, killing “bad guys” turned Tehran into the “good guys”.

 

Putin, The White Knight

putin 2Before Moscow joined the war, many other nations took part in trying to destroy ISIS: the US, Canada, Australia,  UK, France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE have all joined in air-srikes against ISIS in Syria/Iraq while Egypt has targeted air-strikes against ISIS bases in Lybia, Germany and Italy have supplied weapons to fight ISIS and Qatar supplied humanitarian aid.

For years, Moscow watched wearily as Assad’s future dangled precariously while at the same time pressuring the US to sign a nuclear deal with Iran in order to begin a new era of trade and partnership with Iran. In June the JCPOA was finally inked and the following month, Iran’s Qods chief Suleimani visited Moscow (despite sanctions against him to travel) to convince the Russians to take a more dramatic part in saving Assad. What Suleimani showed Moscow must have been alarming and Suleimani next visit to Russia in September clinched the deal, bringing Moscow to invest its full power to support Iran and save Assad.

Within weeks, Moscow deployed its jet fighters and suddenly, Assad’s precarious fortunes turned rosier and Moscow enhanced the black-white narrative of ISIS by placing itself, together with Assad, Tehran and Hezbollah as the “good guys”. The Russian jet fighters, directed by Assad’s commands, began bombing Syrian rebel outposts regardless of whether the rebels were factioned with ISIS or not. The US looked on worriedly as Russian jets bombed US-backed rebels and pictures of Syrian casualties from the Russian bombings began flooding the media.

The EU, high on the success of the JCPOA called for diplomatic interventions to save Syria while keeping Assad in power and both the EU and the UN reinforced Iran’s role in helping to end the war, reinforcing, once again, the black-white ISIS narrative. Both Rouhani and Putin made it quite clear in their speeches at the UNGA: Assad must remain in power in order for the conflict to be resolved.

Saudi Arabia, a long term rival of Assad and Tehran called unsuccessfully on Russia to step down and even threatened to join the war against Assad but will probably not do so since it a) reinforces the blackened image of Saudi Arabia as fighting against the fighters against ISIS and b) increases the chance of turning a proxy war in Syria to into a global conflict.

 

No doubt about it, ISIS should be destroyed and so should Assad. But the anti-ISIS axis is much more dangerous in the long run to the West than ISIS itself. Unfortunately, in a world of simplistic media sound-bites, the grey intricacies of this war are lost. In the shorter scenario, while the West looks on, the Syrian rebels who legitimately called for the removal of Assad will die along with ISIS and the world will hail the anti-ISIS axis as its savior. The other scenario is much more worrisome: If the Russians continue to hit US interests in Syria and if their blitz turns out to a protracted war, the chances of the a global war emanating from Syria will dramatically increase. In any case, the Middle East looks like its spiraling into a “meltdown“, and the superpowers (specifically Russia and China) are jostling to fill up the vacuum.

 

Related Posts:

Suleimani Links Moscow to Assad and to Tehran


If you listen closely, between the noise of the bombs and the cries of the refugees, you can probably hear Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s sigh of relief all the way from Damascus: Moscow finally made a power play and increase its support for him. If you listen even more closely, you might also hear quite a few cheers of victory from Tehran, especially the cheers of Qassem “Supermani” Suleimani, (the “Shadow Commander”), the chief of Iran’s Qods unit and the mastermind for all of Tehran’s military procedures and policies outside of Iran with bases in Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus. Why?  Suleimani has just returned from his second trip to Moscow, despite sanctions against him travelling, and he is the crucial link between Moscow, Tehran and Assad.

All this is good news for Assad, bad news for the Syrian rebels and worrying news for the US/NATO. But will it be enough to save Assad? Tehran’s backing is ideological and the Iranians will fight for Assad right up to victory or defeat. Moscow, on the other hand will support Assad, and Tehran, as long as it politically convenient to do so. For now, it is content to send more weapons and reportedly, Russian troops, as well as shows of force of warships and submarines.

 

Just in Time


Why did the Russians move now? According to an article in Middle East Briefing, there are 4 reasons and all of them are related to Iran:

  • Diplomacy is dead in Syria: The P5+1 have invested very little in diplomacy in Syria, compared to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and since Assad is being supported by Tehran, it seemed impossible to deal with both issues at once. Moscow, which had favored diplomacy and had long objected to any foreign military presence in Syria, suddenly decided to do exactly what it warned others not to and beefed up its military presence there.
  • The nuclear deal and the regional reshuffle: The nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran allowed Russia and Iran to become regional partners. Trade deals were inked, Russian missiles were promised to Iran, strategies to drop the US dollar in favor of local currencies were launched and Tehran finally had its option to the West. Khomeini’s “neither West nor East” slogan was put aside as Tehran found itself being wooed by the West (US/EU) and the East (Russia/China) simultaneously with Russia topping as its best ally to fight the US’s involvement in the region.
  • ISIS and the rebels gained ground: As ISIS gained more control of Syria and Iraq and the rebels successfully defeated Assad’s troops, the situation in Damascus went from bad to worst. Meanwhile, the US continued its strategy of focusing on the nuclear deal and its relations with Iran for fear of leading the country to “another Iraq”. Assad was on the brink of disaster which would have led to another void that could have allowed foreign troops to enter Syria. Putin decided to follow Iran’s lead in fighting ISIS and supporting Syria.
  • The US’s continued inaction in Syria: The US’s role in Syria was ineffective to say the least. Washington sent people to train the rebels without really fighting for them and in the process was labelled as a partner of the rebels without actually helping them. The vacuum left by the US’s inactions in Syria and Iraq (as well as the Ukraine) was too tempting for Tehran, and now for Moscow, to not fill. The US was so focused on the nuclear deal with Iran that is was weary of going to war against Tehran in Syria and this played directly into the hands of the Putin who, as he showed in the Ukraine, is not afraid of military options.

Beyond these geopolitical reasons, there are two others that are of a more personal nature:

  • Putin and Rouhani will speak at the UN General Assembly later this month: Although Rouhani has already spoken twice at the assembly, it will be Putin’s first and both will probably use their involvement in Syria as a justification for their foreign and military policies.
  • It’s become a “Putin vs. Obama” issue: Obama’s hesitancy to go to war is juxtaposed to Putin’s readiness to do so and Putin revels in his macho branding of the tough guy who walks the talk and is unafraid to take on any world leader. Although the US/NATO are “concerned” with the Russian move into Syria, Putin is betting on the fact that Obama will not send American troops to fight abroad and therefore deploying Russian troops doesn’t really put him at risk of confronting the US in the battle field.

 

Blame ISIS and the West


Without Moscow, Assad’s future looked dim not only on the battlefield but in the media since many are rightly blaming him for the devastation of the civil war in general and the plight of the Syrian refugees in particular. Assad is not only avoiding his responsibility for the plight of those Syrian refugees who are fleeing him and not ISIS, he is blaming the “West” (including the EU) for the refugees’ plight since the “West” at one time had supported “terrorists” (ISIS).

The fact that it is Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah fighters that are pulling the triggers is trivialized in view of the horrors of ISIS which cannot be defended by anyone but the brutes themselves. ISIS, ironically, has become a singular pretext for Assad, Rouhani and Putin to carry out their policies by redefining themselves as fighters against terror while using terrorist militias and tactics themselves. Rouhani initiated this move by redefining terror based on fighting ISIS in Iraq and in Syria in his World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) initiative – suddenly the narrative moved from Tehran being a massive supporter of terrorist militias to being a fighter for freedom. Suddenly, all Syrian rebels were tagged as being ISIS terrorists irrespective of the legitimacy of the Syrian rebels’ cause to oust the young dictator from power.

The fact that ISIS was supported in its infancy, long before it began its rampage, by the US/West (as well as Saudi Arabia) only made the issue easier to abuse by redirecting the blame for terrorism with total disregard to the terroristic tendencies of Tehran and Assad. Blaming Riyadh also served to support Tehran in its rivalry against Saudi Arabia. On its part, Saudi Arabia claims to have taken in 2.5 million Syrian refugees who were obviously fleeing Assad.

What the world needs to understand is that just because ISIS is labelled as “bad” doesn’t make the people fighting it “good”. Had Assad allowed free elections from the start, ISIS would never have reached the tipping point necessary to break out the way it did.

 

Suleimani in the Middle

Suleimani’s role in Iran’s wars beyond its borders is crucial. Widely respected and feared in the region, he had, until recently, earned the title of the second most powerful man in Tehran and voted the man of the year by the Iranians. Perhaps these acclaims went to his head because suddenly, pictures of Suleimani in the war-fields of Iraq and Syria began showing up on the internet and he must have been “tugged in” by none other than Khamenei himself.

But when it came to coordinating with Moscow on Damascus, he remains the perfect man for the job. He has a large office in Damascus where he meets with Iranian, Hezbollah and Syrian military leaders and he regards himself as the boss known for exclaiming that “the Syrian army is useless! Give me one brigade of the Basij, and I would conquer the whole country”.

His fame has placed him in a unique position to be given the reins of command by all who share Tehran’s agendas: “Experts agree that it is hard to overestimate Suleimani’s role in Iraq…at times of crisis Suleimani is the supreme puppeteer…He is everywhere and he’s nowhere.”

Suleimani’s repeated trips to Damascus, Baghdad and now Moscow place him in the perfect position to became the man in charge of coordinating Syrian, Iranian and Russian efforts in Syria and, in the future, in Iraq as well. Once Russia has entered the fray in Syria, doing so in Iraq is a natural development under the pretexts of fighting ISIS.

Tehran Still Ahead on Nuclear Deal Delay

time2

 

A whole year has brought us back to square one: both sides are willing to negotiate a deal – not more, not less.

Rouhani ‘s promise for change was based on de-isolating Iran and negotiations were the first step. Interests clash. While the US led P5+1 want to reduce Iran’s nuclear program Iran wants to increase it. Were Iran selling and the P5+1 buying, this would be tantamount to the seller increasing his original price as the negotiations continue.

 

Four Reasons Why
khamene 6An article in Foreign Policy identified 4 reasons for the breakdown in talks and if they are correct, don’t expect a nuclear deal ever:

  • First of all, Khamenei calls the shots and not Rouhani & Zarif.
    The all-powerful Khamenei remains the wild card in this deal. Although Khamenei officially supports Rouhani in achieving a nuclear deal, or better worded in eroding the sanctions, his rhetoric is far from conciliatory: for him, the US remains the “Great Satan” which will never succeed to “bring Iran to its knees” due to the resilience and the military might of Iran, “irrespective” of diplomacy.
    He is wary of the West and believes in an Islamic Awakening that will bring on his longed-for “Century of Islam”.
  • Second, although sanctions are not lifted, they are weakening.
    Before Rouhani, sanctions were circumvented sporadically by hungry rogue businessmen. Since Rouhani’s efforts at de-isolation, sanctions are circumvented by governments, with Russia and China trampling US-led sanctions. Numerous deals are being brokered through numerous foreign delegations to Tehran who are wooed by the immense financial profits to be made and foolishly believing Iran’ Economic Minister Tayyebnia when he says that “Iran is among the safest countries for (foreign) investment.”
  • Third, dignity, specifically Iranian dignity, is not for bargain.
    The West views this dignity as a form of a bargaining chip while the Iranians present it as a deal-breaker on a very personal level. Khamenei himself went from idealizing “heroic flexibility” in negotiations to leading a “resistance economy” meant to reach Iran’s “long term objectives”.
    The Iranians do not understand, appreciate or accept the need of the world to control its nuclear program. The insistence of the West is tantamount to calling them liars.
  • Fourth, Iran refrains from any significant compromise and refuses to accept restrictions.
    If Iran is serious about not developing a nuclear bomb, it could rationally have accepted the nuclear deal and lifted the sanctions. But Iran doesn’t want to settle for less than it has already even though large parts of its nuclear program have exceeded IAEA and NPT limitations. It would rather keep on negotiating in the hope that the West will choose a deal over a possible war. And in the meantime, it still maintains enrichment, still runs the heavy water facility in Arak and keeps the military base in Parchin closed from inspections…all unresolved issues according to the IAEA.

 

What Next?

0kDnx9qIOne thing for sure, it’s going to get more complicated on two fronts: The internal interests of hardliners in Tehran and the external interests of the Russians.

Relevant Posts:

Deadline Extension Pushes Rouhani Under or East

iran east west

As the nuclear talks deadline was extended yet again (this time for seven months),  and it still remains to be seen whether this will mean more sanctions on the people of Iran, it is time to look at the person who probably has the most to lose by this situation: Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani.

The Promise in Rouhani

2730e181-8853-4db6-984e-9b05d239803e-460x276

Rouhani, it must be remembered, was elected a year and a half ago on the basis of reformation and getting the country’s economy into motion after long years of stagnation from sanctions, among other things. This is still far from being the case.

We cannot ignore that under his rule, Iran is indeed trying to speak with the West, although its tactic can be summarized as “stall + divide“. Also, most critics and experts on Iran agree that the true power lies in the hand of supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

But Rouhani is a symbol of sorts, having been elected on the slogan “Government of Prudence and Hope”, one might argue that Rouhani is the only viable partner for talks in the current regime. Holding that assumption, it is quite alarming, when putting 2 and 2 together, to see that Rouhani is in big trouble politically.

Growing Opposition to Rouhani

27261Image1Reports from Tehran suggest that there is plan for a coup d’état in Iran. There is also the political blunder Rouhani has been facing for a long time now, when he was unable to appoint a science minister, a fact that marks clear problems with the Iranian parliament. Also, there are always tensions with the IRGC and other hardliners in Iran who, on the whole, vehemently resist any concessions on the nuclear program.

Were Iran a Western country, Rouhani might rely on the popular support he receives from his public. But a) even that support seems to be slipping away from him and b) popular support can be easily overridden in Tehran with one word by Khamenei just as in the bungled 2009 elections.

Rouhani: Under or East?

putin-rouhani-russia-iranWe shouldn’t be surprised then, that this might be the moment that his foes from inside have been waiting for and that the failure of the nuclear negotiations might lead to a severe backlash that Tehran’s hardliners must have been praying for.

Either that, or Rouhani will have to go down an alternative path: give up on rapprochement with the West and the elimination of sanctions while choosing to “buddy-up” to an “anti-West” coalition headed by Russia and backed by China, members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and neighbors who may have a strategic economic interest such as India.

In any case, the West will have lost the chance to normalize its relationship with Iran even though no one really knows how the West would benefit from such a friendship.

Syria key to Iran…and to Russia

iran syria

Syria is Key to Iran’s Foreign Policy

One of the most important issues on the agendas of world leaders right now is the still raging Syrian civil war. Its importance goes far beyond the suffering of the Syrian people and the great number of casualties quite simply because Iran is involved.

Make no mistake, it is not the fate of the Syrian people that is of interest to Iran. It is the fate of Assad, one of Tehran’s staunchest allies who is key to Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.

Iran supports Assad with its own IRGC forces and Hezbollah troops on Syrian battlefields as well as financially. That’s why it seemed strange to invite Iran to the peace talks with Syria since Iran obviously has a vested interest in this equation. In the meantime, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visits Assad, doing all he can to maintain a high profile as a legitimate mediator while trying not to seem too pushy insisting that Iran would participate in talks only “if we are invited” while stipulating his own precondition against preconditions.

So while Zarif “innocently” maintained that “only Syrians should shape their future“, he waited for the invitation, got the invite from UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, and then got disinvited the next day.

The Tehran-Moscow-Damascus Axis

The question of whether Iran should play a part in the talks over Syria’s future is openly backed by Russia: The Russians believe that Iran is “key to Syria peace efforts” and a “Tehran-Moscow-Damascus” axis is being promoted by none other than President Putin himself.

The Russians have a lot to gain in supporting Tehran. Although they claim that they have no hidden agendas, they are focused on the “post-nuclear-deal” stage in order to reap a cool $1.5 Billion a month in oil-for-goods trade as well as sales of military equipment in the billions.

So it seems natural that Russia joined Iran in criticizing the “disinvite” to the talks regardless of the questionable legitimacy of Iran’s role as a mediator.

Needless to say, the growing ties between Iran and Russia are ruffling feathers in the West because they undermine any pressure that could have been placed by Europe and the US in the nuclear issue.

In the meantime, the Syrian people are suffering from being disposable pawns in a much larger game.

Related post: Rouhani Needs to Clean Iran of Syria