Category Archives: Middle East

Saudi-Turkish ties amount to a major strategic realignment in the Middle East

If you are dealing with rational actors (which is surely not always the case) global geopolitics is a bit like high math; there are routinized equations– strategic moves on the map—that just make logical, irrefutable sense. The recent visit by the Saudi Crown Prince to Ankara heralds a possibly decisive strategic counter-stroke to rising Iranian adventurism in the Middle East. Enduring, closer Saudi-Turkish ties provide political balance to Iran’s growing ambitions, amounting to nothing less than the nascent formation of a competing strategic bloc in the region.

Closer Saudi-Turkish ties have been a long time coming. Since now President Erdogan became Prime Minister in 2003, relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have gone from being coolly correct to far warmer, a deepening link that extends beyond the provision of Saudi oil for Turkey’s economy into the vital realm of strategic affairs.

Indeed, since the failure of the Arab Spring, this relationship has become far more of a security relationship as both Saudi Arabia and Turkey of this basic strategic fault line. The most important example of this burgeoning relationship and confluence of primary interests is that both Saudi Arabia and Turkey champion groups who are in rebellion against the Syrian government. Saudi Arabia has also given strong diplomatic support to Turkish military operations in northern Syria that are directed primarily against the Kurds. The endless wartime crisis in Syria has thrown Turkey and Saudi Arabia more and more onto the same side of the regional strategic equation.

Likewise, both Riyadh and Ankara have been deeply disappointed with their long-time strategic partner, the United States. Under the Obama administration, both increasingly view the US as a force that, rather than being a mutual ally and source of help, is getting in the way of their hopes and designs by virtue of its ostensible timidity and its diverging foreign policy practices, ranging from its perceived timidity in Syria to its landmark nuclear deal with Iran. For both the Saudi and Turkish governments, this newfound America tilt toward Tehran, bringing Iran in from the diplomatic cold, is both unacceptable and dangerous.

Over the issue of terrorism, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have increasingly been victims, and have found further common cause. Both have publicly increased bilateral cooperation to fight terrorism, as Riyadh and Ankara now increasingly emphasise the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as a multilateral organisation around which Muslim majority countries can come together and pool their resources to fight terrorism. Increasingly, military cooperation between the two countries has taken place under the OIC umbrella.
In personal terms, the new relationship’s strength can be seen in that in the last visit by King Salman to Ankara in April 2016 President Erdogan himself met him at the airport, even though protocol and precedent dictated only that a senior Minister meet the King. In symbolic terms, Erdogan wanted there to be no doubt as to the personal value he places on the Saudi-Turkish relationship.

Crucially, at the moment of maximum danger, Saudi Arabia gave strong diplomatic support to Erdogan’s government during and after the failed July 2016 coup. This also suggests that Saudi Arabia sees its new friendly relationship with Turkey as something that is primarily due to Erdogan on the Turkish side; he is the indispensable man knitting Turkish interests to those of Riyadh.

This all being so, a strong caveat must be mentioned. Turkish officials—playing both sides of the strategic triangle–have recently made several high-level visits to Iran and have begun negotiations with Iranian officials, now that sanctions have been lifted, to begin doing business with Tehran again. Despite strong strategic disagreements with Iran over its foreign policy in Iraq and Syria, Ankara has moved forward with partially re-engaging with Tehran, sensing there is a real chance for enhanced commercial opportunities.
This Iranian counter-example proves the adage that alliances in the Middle East are rarely set in stone; it is more useful to think of the major players drifting towards or away from one another. While there is no doubt whatsoever that Ankara and Riyadh have (perhaps definitively) drifted closer together their links—as is true for all states in the fluid Middle East—are not absolute.

But for all the strategic hedging, something important is going on here. As both the administrations of King Salman and President Erdogan are rational actors on the geopolitical chessboard, they have followed the predictably logical course of together balancing against growing Iranian power in the region. Don’t look now but an enduring (for all its very real fluctuations) new balance of power is coming about in the Middle East.

Published in Al Arabiya online, October 4, 2016

Syria must burn itself out: It is time for the West to do nothing

By Dr. John C. Hulsman

“(The best policy is) to float lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collisions.”

–Lord Salisbury, 1877

In one of the least shocking policy outcomes of the year, the US-Russian brokered ceasefire in Syria did not last the week.

Speaking as a longstanding sceptic of intervention there, being right analytically gives me little joy, as an estimated 500,000 have lost their lives for absolutely nothing. Syria is cause for nothing so much as global mourning.

But being analytically correct remains vitally important, both morally and practically. The fine, ancient lineage of Ethical Realism—the moral views of Aristotle, Burke, Salisbury, and Morgenthau—holds in contempt those who care above all about feeling good, rather than doing good. Beyond their emotional narcissism, advocates of a showily moralistic foreign policy so often leave their critical faculties behind in the headlong pursuit of ‘caring’. History records that such faux moralism very often makes matters worse.

Which brings me to the current hapless machinations in Syria, led by that simplistic arch-moralist, gormless Secretary of State, John Kerry. Kerry is a man who perpetually confuses action with effectiveness, ‘doing the right thing’ with thinking.

On the surface, you can see why an American deal with Moscow was so appealing. The Great Powers would bully their respective allies on the ground—the bloodstained Assad regime and the radicalised rebels dominated by al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS)—to adhere to a week’s ceasefire.

During this time, desperately needed provisions would be raced in by aid agencies to hard-pressed Aleppo and other cities blighted by this ghastly war. The ‘moderate’ rebels (that mythical unicorn of the war) would separate themselves from JFS and then together, the oddest of couples—Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama—would have their air forces together bomb ISIS and JFS.

Such a solution might make sense—devoid of all present day context—on board Secretary Kerry’s yacht, but it falls apart almost immediately upon contact with the real world. For here is the insoluble power riddle at the heart of the Syrian tragedy: three of the four major political players on the ground (apart from the Syrian Kurds) ought to be anathema to Washington; the war criminals running the Assad regime, the murderers in al-Qaeda, and the fanatics running ISIS. Any true morality (and any practical western policy) must run a mile from helping any of these abominations.

Let’s look at the collapsed cease fire then through this new prism of Syrian power realities. If the deal had worked, Russia and America would have bombed JFS together, directly and materially helping the Assad regime consolidate its grip on power and furthering primary Russian national interests.

First, surely such an outcome is not in American interests. But Kerry had his beady eye firmly fixed on the overwhelming merits of ‘international cooperation’ for its own sake. For this, and for a week’s grace in the fighting–allowing a teaspoonful of aid to be distributed–Secretary Kerry did not hesitate to feel good, even if it meant directly helping a regime that has gassed its own people.

Second, most of our moderate rebel friends refused to separate from JFS, as a kaleidoscope of rebel forces often fight together willy-nilly, and JFS has emerged as the most disciplined and most effective of the rebel groups. If our moderate friends refuse to separate from troops whose allegiance is to al-Qaeda, it is safe to say they are not truly moderates at all.

Having survived being in Washington on 9/11, I never want to knowingly advocate a policy that ever, ever helps al-Qaeda in any way. The byzantine politics of Syria mean that, by supporting rebel groups more broadly, American is in danger of doing just this.

Assad, JFS, ISIS. The West simply does not have a dog in this fight. To tip the strategic balance from outside—all in the name of feeling good, and with no concrete strategic plan in place—is to invariably help one of these three moral lepers. It is not too much to say it is a form of immorality itself.

New British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is wrong to say that the US-Russia deal remains ‘the only game in town’. Such a statement assumes that action here—whatever its dolorous strategic consequences—is always and forever superior to inaction.

But in Syria now, that is not morally or practically true. This horrendous conflict must burn itself out, and—after the galling lessons of mindless intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya—we in the West must have the moral courage to do nothing. For tragically, that remains far and away the best policy to pursue, practically and morally.

Published in City AM London, September 26, 2016

Why US elections really matter for the Mideast

Why US elections really matter for the Mideast

By Dr. John C. Hulsman

Introduction: The Middle East is even more befuddling than usual

Before talking about the immediate future of US foreign policy in the Middle East, let us spare a kind thought for the last days of the underrated, if embattled, Obama administration. In his quiet, deliberative, realist manner, the President has accomplished two big things in the Middle East (which is two more than the hapless regime of George W. Bush ever managed).

First, the President, through mighty efforts, has kept America from being embroiled in yet another counter-productive war in the Middle East. Following the absolute debacle in Iraq (and the relative one in Afghanistan), this is what the American people elected him to do, that is, (to paraphrase President Obama) not to do stupid stuff. Despite great temptations and pressures to get embroiled in a major way in the unwinnable hell that is Syria, the White House has just about managed to avoid the quicksand of further military combat in the region.

Second, for all its continuing virulence as a terrorist organisation, ISIS as a geopolitical force—as a state controlling territory in the region—is on its way out. As of the beginning of July 2016, ISIS is now thought to have lost half the land it seized in Iraq, and 20% of its territory in Syria, along with its dangerous toe hold in Libya. In many ways, ISIS is morphing into just another conventional, stateless terrorist organisation, which is surely a major step in the right direction.

But for all this the Middle East remains a confusing mess. At present, we have the mortifying spectre of Turkey and the Kurds, two American allies openly fighting each other. The Syrian and Yemen calamities continue to burn unabated, and long-time Sunni American allies—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt–are increasingly estranged from Washington and on the defensive, in the face of more coherent Shia Iran and its allies. Surely all this muddle and chaos demands a major and immediate shift in America’s policy toward the Middle East?

The above paragraph is exactly how newspaper columnists (and of course I am one) in particular and the chattering classes more generally see the world. But it is simply not the way the planet actually works. To get a better read on what future American policy in the region is likely to amount to, it is far more analytically useful to look at the schools of thought orientation of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as they are the ideological glasses through which these murky events will be perceived, and then acted upon.

In other words, the objective events in the Middle East matter less for in determining future American policy than does they way they will be ideologically interpreted by the next President of the United States.

Hillary’s Garden Variety Wilsonianism

Former Secretary of State and Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton’s well-established Wilsonian schools of thought orientation—quite different from Obama’s guarded, cautious, realist approach—bears examination, as it is the prism through which she views the present muddle that is the Middle East.

Over foreign policy, Clinton can be seen as a garden variety Wilsonian. Wilsonians can be characterised as being inclined to use force when an international coalition can be assembled, often for humanitarian purposes and to support global governance and international law, and when the international community generally backs the use of such force.

While Wilsonians have a strong predisposition to act only in concert with a broad coalition of powers representing what they see as the collective will of the planet, they are not generally shy about doing so.

Regarding specific foreign policy issues, Secretary Clinton proved herself predictably more interventionist than her former realist boss. While Secretary of State, she favoured western efforts to topple Gaddafi in Libya, even as the White House worried about what would come after him. Likewise, Secretary Clinton has long been for leaving a significant residual American military force in Afghanistan (she also favoured doing the same in Iraq), a point of view the Obama administration only reluctantly agreed to (in October 2015), following Taliban gains in Kunduz.

Clinton has also advocated a greater American role in Syria—stressing that the US should establish no-fly zones near the Turkish-Syrian border and more seriously training Syrian rebels—while President Obama has tried mightily hard to keep America out of the bloody and intractable Syrian Civil War. In a rare direct criticism of the President, Secretary Clinton said in 2014 that the failure to help non-Islamist Syrian rebels fight the Assad government had left a ‘big vacuum’ for ISIS and other jihadists to fill there.

So the good news for America’s allies is that the United States would be far more focused on the Middle East than is the present administration. The bad news for those of us who worry about America becoming the world’s ineffectual and counter-productive social worker, is that interventionism in the Middle East has a terrible historical pedigree.

Trump’s Very Different Foreign Policy

Donald Trump’s foreign policy positions, which put him at odds with the traditionally hawkish Republican Party establishment as well as the Democrats, are fathoms away from Clinton’s.

Criticising Secretary Clinton as well as the formerly dominant neo-conservative thinking in his own party, Trump, in late April 2016, called for an ‘America-first’ foreign policy, saying every decision needs to be taken ‘through the clear lens of American interests.’

Trump has said, “Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct. A superpower understands that caution and restraint are really true signs of strength.” While Secretary Clinton supported the Iraq war, the conflict against Gaddafi in Libya, and favours establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, Trump points out he was against Iraq, and is against nation-building abroad.

While Trump’s foreign policy is non-interventionist in general, it is also surely unilateralist. He refuses to countenance sending American forces into battle unless doing so is absolutely necessary to American interests and will lead to a decisive US military victory. While not an isolationist, Trump has argued for a much more limited commitment to the world, not wishing to serve as the global policeman.

In essence, Trump is offering the party a protectionist, nativist, anti-immigration, anti-free trade, unilateralist foreign policy, usually the preserve of merely a minority of the Republican Party. However, given his shocking success since declaring for the presidency, these historically minority views within the party must be taken very seriously. They would mean a Middle East where American well-intentioned—if often ignorant—meddling was not its usual problem. But it would also mean the region would be left to largely fend for itself. Given the Syrian historical template, this is also not an appetising prospect.

Conclusion: Policy lies in the eye of the beholder

It is clear to see from the present mess in the Middle East that American policy is largely made in the eye of the beholder. Chaos in the region just confirms committed Wilsonian Hillary Clinton in her activism, just as it confirms for Donald Trump the wisdom of giving the region a wide berth.

It is not events that will drive America’s near-term policy in the region, but rather the schools of thought orientation of the next president; how they view these events. As such, ironically, the most important near-term event for the Middle East is America’s November election, as it will determine the ideological predisposition of the region’s still-greatest power for years to come.

Published in Aspenia online, September 8, 2016