Tag Archives: Revolution

Complex Relationships to Determine the Future of the Gulf

 

The Pentagon is building a missile-defense radar station at a secret site in Qatar and organizing its biggest-ever minesweeping exercises in the Persian Gulf, as preparations accelerate for a possible flare-up with Iran…

The Middle East of today is abuzz with a frenzy of political brinkmanship, zero-sum games and delicate strategic manoeuvrers, the likes of which the region has seldom seen before – a hefty statement, but one with basis nonetheless. Elections have been held (somewhat successfully I might add) in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt; more gentle and subdued renditions of political reform have been called for in states such as Jordan, Algeria and Morocco. Yet despite this significant progressive movement in one of the most politically stagnant regions of the world, there remain regimes determined to “ignore” calls for reform through force, coercion and bloodshed. Such a regime in Syria has caused the deaths of many thousands of people and is responsible for the countless bloodcurdling images plastered across our 24/7 news channels. The Iranian regime on the other hand seems to be getting its thrills from its nuclear program. Whether the program is strictly civilian in nature or has a more sinister goal is yet to be proved beyond any doubt; however what is certain is that the Iranian’s are not allowing themselves to be bullied by the West. A comprehensive list of sanctions and embargos have been imposed by the USA, European Union and the United Nations which have had a somewhat crippling effect on the Iranian economy at large but seem to have had little effect on the attitude of the most powerful men in Tehran; instead these men threaten to shut the Strait of Hormuz. This political brinkmanship has created a point of conflict between the pro-US Israel, who see a nuclear-armed Iran as an immediate threat to its existence, and the more “independent minded” Iranians, who claim the right to a peaceful nuclear program and emphatically deny nuclear weapon aims. The potential for this situation to go from simmering to explosive is extremely alarming for all involved in the region, thus the US has decided to take a more proactive approach through an increased military presence in the Gulf, most recently as mentioned above, through the construction of a missile-defense radar station in the Gulf Emirate of Qatar. Additional complications are uncovered when one explores the conjoined interests of Iran and Syria on one side and the US and Qatar on the other. All-in-all, as ever, the Middle East and its players have concocted a stunningly complicated and perplexing situation whose outcome could have extremely serious geopolitical implications not only for the immediate region, but for the rest of the world.

Iranian-Israeli hostilities have been a near constant issue plaguing the region since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. On this point it must be pointed out that the USA have been accusing the Iranians of constructing a nuclear weapon since the 1980s – before I was even born! Thus the latest accusations and escalation of the situation must be taken with a sizeable grain of salt. Nonetheless Iranian-Israeli antagonism has been the source of much angst in the region and around the world resulting in the international community imposing extremely restrictive sanctions on the Iranian regime in response to what is perceived to be a nuclear weapons program within the state. The problem here is that, as far as I have read, no weapons program has been found, proved-to-exist or otherwise, and thus the Iranian people are being punished for, as yet, an unconfirmed offence. The logic of this is indisputably twisted yet is allowed to take place in the full view of all due to the imperfect international system. This is not to dismiss the deep suspicions of many that the Iranians are building a nuclear weapons program, but since when did suspicion prove to be evidence for punishment?

To try and untangle the Iranian quagmire one must look not only at the situation in the Gulf but at the international system as a whole. It is clear that, for reasons I will not go into, the USA and Israel have a ‘special relationship’. Thus, put at its simplest, the US are willing to do the bidding of Israel at international organisations such as the UN while wielding their unparalleled influence to pressure other similarly powerful states to adopt similar dim views on the situation in the Persian Gulf. This contention, combined with the economical reasoning that a serious nuclear standoff in the Gulf would cause world oil prices to skyrocket, leaving an already frail global economy in a much worse condition, has undoubtedly motivated the West to act harshly on suspicions about Iranian nuclear policy. In return the Iranian regime has lashed out with threats of its own: shutting the Strait of Hormuz and letting loose their significant proxy forces on the region are just some of many such threats. As a result, the US has been pushed into proactive action, cementing its already significant strategic position in the region to deter an Iranian outburst. The latest news of the US Navy shooting dead an Indian fisherman off the coast of the UAE is a mere signal of the increased prominence of US forces in the Gulf and constitutes a symptom of the rise in tensions in the region.

The big news story coming out of the Middle East at the moment is that of the Syrian Civil War. In typical Middle Eastern style, this conflict convolutedly ties in with issues involving Iran, in particularly the decision from the US to station a missile-defense radar station in Qatar. Since the 1979 revolution Iran and Syria have cultivated ever closer strategic ties. This relationship has been fostered by similar feelings of animosity towards Saddam Hussein, the USA and Israel. Today the two have a relationship which makes Syria Iran’s closest key strategic ally – and thus an ally Iran cannot afford to lose at such a pivotal and fragile moment in regional politics. Thus Iran has been proactively arming and aiding the Assad government through any means it can to keep the regime in power and therefore retain its closest and most important ally; in this Iranian national interest goals are clear. On the other side of the scale Qatar (along with Saudi Arabia) has called for, been accused of, and for all intents and purposes has been, arming the Syrian opposition – in direct contradiction to the national interest and thus the wishes of their large northern neighbour. Arguably, this leaves Qatar vulnerable to the wrath of the Iranian regime, which despite having once cordial relations with the extremely wealthy Emirate, will surely look on their involvement in Syria with some disdain. In addition to this, the lifeblood of the Qatari economy – its LNG production capacity – is not only extremely vulnerable to Iranian attack, but is actually shared with Iran through the North Pars Gas Field. Therefore the Americans – who already operate a significant military base in Qatar – are capitalising on this vulnerability by assuring the Qatari’s of their physical and economic safety from their northern neighbour while simultaneously shoring up their strategic military position in the region through a new missile-defense radar station. Such a station will undoubtedly prove useful to their staunch Israeli allies should Iran ever decide to strike – nuclear or not – against the Jewish state. It seems the ball is now, temporarily at least, in the Iranian’s court, their forthcoming decision could be one which determined the course of the future of the Gulf region.

The complexity of the relationships between the aforementioned key players of the Middle East cannot be understated, and thus the above discussion is merely a scratching of the surface in its simplest form. It is this interconnectedness that makes Middle Eastern geopolitical relations so charming and captivating despite its often serious implications. In spite of my recognition that predicting the future in such a volatile environment is a fool’s game, perhaps I can leave you with a scenario which seems, to me at least, to be either the most likely or at least realistically the most desirable:

The collapse of the Assad-regime is almost unavoidable, what the regime will be replaced by is impossible to predict. This being said, due to the large Sunni Muslim population in Syria it is more than likely that the new Syrian administration will likely consist of a large Sunni segment which understandably will not be as amicable with Iran as was the Assad regime. In Iran the current stagnated situation may continue for some time, however with the departure of their Syrian allies life may begin to get a whole lot tougher. In addition to the lack of allies, the continued imposition of economic sanctions and embargos will serve to slowly erode the notably patriotic spirit of the Iranian people who may, at some point revolt in a similar fashion to the 2009 election protests. Whether such a popular revolt serves to topple the current Iranian regime or whether a similar end-game to that of 2009 plays out is beyond the bounds of sensible conjecture. However one thing can be ascertained, just like the situations in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia the future truly is in the hands of the Iranian people.

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Syrian Solutions. Do They Exist?

 

It seems every time one watches, reads or hears a snippet of news the exact same depressing situation seems to be playing out in Syria – over and over and over again – in fact, so frequently has this story been aired, I will not torture you with a reiteration of it.

It has been a year and a half to the day since the uprising began yet no solution prevails, in fact, many seem to have given up on the situation all together – a bloody, gruesome stalemate; a failure of humanity if you will. Yet just like every other problematic conflict which has plagued history there must, and will, be a solution. It seems there are a number of ways the Syrian situation could play out: a triumph by one side over the other; a military intervention of some kind, presumably by the “West”; a political solution, most likely involving President Assad stepping down or being removed; possibly even a buffer zone set up by Turkey in the north of Syria to quell the violence. In no way is this list exhaustive or complete in any way, in fact the more perceptive among you may have noticed the absence of the most desirable solution – a ‘meeting of the minds’ between the opposition and the regime. The absence of such an outcome is not a lethargic oversight on my part, (of which there will be many throughout the remainder of the piece) but rather a quasi-acceptance that such a result is now, after all the spilled blood and animosity, extremely unlikely to come to fruition.

Military intervention is often the last port of call in the international community’s conflict resolution kit – grisly, costly and often creating more problems than it solves. However the Syrian situation has been stubborn and unyielding, it has intensified instead of faded and thus a military intervention grows more attractive by the day while remaining almost unthinkable. As an indication of just how unattractive a military intervention is perceived to be, one would point to the fact that a year and a half on, with 10,000-15,000 dead there has been no serious talk of an intervention. This unattractiveness is complex and multifaceted, the linchpin of which surely has to be the fear that should a full scale war erupt within Syria, it’s already fragile neighbours, most pointedly Iraq and Lebanon, would teeter on the edge of chaos themselves. Additionally, Russia’s insistence in standing by the Assad regime as it butchers its own people has rendered the United Nations Security Council as, one again, a toothless  organisation, while the US and its allies seem to have had quite enough of engaging the Middle East in violence – and rightly so. Iran, it seems, is the elephant in the room. It is well known that the Assad regime and the Iranian elite are rather cosy; in fact there is some evidence to suggest that Iranian commanders have been assisting in supplying and coordinating the Syrian military, undoubtedly calling on their own experiences of the 2009 “Green Revolution”. Iran’s political proximity to the Assad regime gives the Syrian situation yet another dimension due to the Iranians current posturing toward the international community and the constant threats they seem to receive and issue, particularly with regard to Israel. Thus from an American point of view a military intervention into Syria – most definitely serving to raise the ire of Iran – would cast a further shadow over the region and in particular their staunchest ally in the Middle East – Israel – something the Americans are not prepared to do, particularly in an election year!

A far more feasible option, at least on paper, would be the implementation of a humanitarian buffer zone by Turkey (undoubtedly assisted by others) in the north of Syria. Although not solving the problem per se, such a security zone would at least (theoretically) provide safe haven for millions of Syrian civilians caught up in the conflict. Additionally such a region could be used to arm and coordinate the Free Syrian Army and its affiliates, helping to unify a fragmented opposition and strengthen the opposition in its quest to topple the Syrian regime. Of course, this solution too is riddled by a plethora of problems. Russia would almost definitely veto any Security Council resolution proposing such a scheme, China may also be opposed to such a blatant disregard for Syrian sovereignty – as China often are. Thus if such a buffer zone were to be put in place it is most likely that it would need to be done unilaterally, that is, not through the United Nations. This is something which is unpopular with many (see Invasion of Iraq in 2003) and unlikely to get off the ground without a nation willing to lead the way, of which there seem to be few to none at the moment. Additional problems will certainly be encountered when applying the scheme on the ground – skirmishes with the Syrian military would be unavoidable; in fact it is hard to see the Syrian government abstaining from a full frontal attack, especially taking into consideration their reaction to a Turkish reconnaissance aircraft entering their airspace for ‘a few seconds’.

A political solution of some kind is the most likely outcome of the Syrian conflict. As we all know political situation change in the blink of an eye, especially in the Middle East in the past year and a half (Mubarak and Ben Ali). It is very hard to see Bashar Al-Assad voluntarily stepping down from the presidency, in fact it is impossible to see; unless of course an inordinate amount of pressure were to be placed on him. The two most likely sources for such pressure would be internally: from his own government and from exterior allies – primarily Russia and Iran. Predicting such a situation is a fools game and one which I will not take part in, however what does strike one as quite obvious is that the conflict will not end if just Assad goes – it must be a holistic change of government and governance, something which is far harder to accomplish. One only needs to look at Egypt in the present day to realise just how deeply rooted and stubborn a political system can be to remove.

Even if one or all of these solutions were to magically work there remains a fundamental and serious sticking point which will prevent solving the conflict in Syria once and for all – what to do in a post-Assad Syria? Reprisal attacks along sectarian lines will undoubtedly be common place, violence and instability is likely to plague the country for years to come creating thousands of refugees and yet more bloodshed. The Arab Spring has opened many a can of worms and has, in many cases, been praised for doing so. I just wonder, could this be one can too many?

The US & the Arab Spring

 

Just like any other country, the United States and its’ leaders are driven primarily by national interest – in effect, selfishness – putting their own needs and wants above those of others. To do otherwise would not only be illogical but would undermine the very essence of international politics and foreign policy formation. Leading on from this, it is plainly obvious that stability in the Middle East would be of great benefit to America. This is exemplified by the multiple wars in this region led by America in pursuit of a stable, harmonious and submissive Middle East. America’s interests extend far and wide across what is regarded as the least stable and most influential region of the world. From economics to politics, security to human rights, the Middle East is a constantly evolving, generally unstable, yet deeply influential part of the world which the US has been, in many ways, unable to dominate. Thus it would be naive to the point of ignorance for anyone to resolutely state that America upheld its’ democratic values during the Arab Spring. Instead the US presented a two-faced policy with regard to the developments in the Arab world – rallying for democracy in the public eye yet remaining mostly quiet in the real world.

Washington’s options in relation to their policy towards the Arab Spring can, in essence, be simplified to stability vs. democracy. The Obama administration astutely inferred that backing either one horse or the other would create for itself problems, uproar and unpopularity, particularly in the Middle East – a region not renowned for its love of America. Instead Washington slyly portrayed itself as pro-democracy through many words, the culmination of which came in President Obama’s May 19th speech. In reality however, words were all they were; Washington’s actual position on the political situation in the Middle East remained unchanged as it had been for the past half century and could we really blame them? From a political standpoint Washington’s deep, ‘unshakeable’ commitment to Israel meant the formation of good relations with Egypt’s (now deposed) dictator Hosni Mubarak in order to secure peace for the Jewish state. This relationship was literally bought by the American’s through the $1.5 billion in annual aid, most of which was spent on security forces, the very same forces which attempted to crush the January 25th uprising across the country. Clearly, American support for the previous Egyptian regime is undeniable, many would classify the US as an accomplice to the thirty year despotism and ensuing crackdown, they traded support of a dictator in return for stability – stability vs. democracy, and it’s pretty clear which triumphed.

It could be pointed out that, although the US failed in upholding its intrinsic values in Egypt (and many other states) the backing of the UN Security Council’s no-fly zone over Libya and resultant aerial engagement of Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalist forces demonstrated Washington’s support for democracy. In reality this is a flawed argument, not only did America, the world’s only superpower, fail to lead this intervention, but they only joined in with the intention of saving the world from a brutal bloodbath – a humanitarian intervention, not a stand for its’ political values. Instead, it could be said that Washington’s backing of the no-fly zone was to establish a sense of stability, for had the international community not intervened, chaos and anarchy would surely have ensued. Furthermore, Washington’s ‘good deed’ in Libya was offset by their blunt refusal to intervene in Bahrain – a crucial ally and home of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. This yet again demonstrates Washington’s two-faced approach to the Arab Spring, prioritising stability over democracy, national interest over intrinsic values. The Bahraini situation not only gave rise to Washington’s failure to protect the rights of the thousands of democratic protestors, but also demonstrated US complicity in the brutal foreign-led crackdown carried out by the ‘Peninsula Shield’. This intervening force was comprised mostly of Saudi security forces, forces who receive military equipment and training from the USA. In possibly the most outrageous contradiction, President Obama himself said: ‘we will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard – whether it’s a big news organization or a blogger’ . When it came to action however, Washington fell dismally short, standing idly by as Bahraini blogger Zainab Al-Khawaja was ‘brutally arrested’ , not to mention the shameless internet censorship conducted by many of its Gulf allies. Throughout the Arab Spring a recurring theme began to evolve – elaborate, promising rhetoric by Washington yet very little, if any, action. This phenomenon was no accident, instead it was the subtle (or not so subtle in the case of Bahrain) evidence that the US prized stability and influence over democracy in the Middle East.

Perhaps the most blatant evidence of the United States’ real intentions lie in the current massacre taking place in Syria. For better or for worse the US has refused to intervene in this situation, possibly fearing reprisal attacks from Syria’s staunch ally Iran through it’s proxies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip on Israel or even America itself. The morality and ethical values displayed by Washington with regard to its failure to act on Syria are complicated, it is not a clear cut situation, there is no clear path to peace, yet despite this clouded sense of right and wrong one thing is clear – Washington has once again deliberately chosen to preserve stability outside of Syria at the cost of the many thousands of Syrian democratic protestors. The actual Syrian situation and possible intervention may be complicated but this fact is as clear cut as ever.

The Middle East was, is and will continue to be a complicated, intertwined and unstable place and the USA will continue to be a world superpower, at least for the foreseeable future. This being said Washington’s foreign policy choices throughout 2011 and continuing to this day are blatant and obvious to even the simplest minds. The stark reality is that, despite the fluffy sunshine rhetoric exhibited by the Obama administration with regard to their determination to uphold democracy throughout the Middle East, they have knowingly and deliberately chosen to abide by a realist, national interest-driven foreign policy. Is this so shameful?