Is There a Path Out of Ratcheting Mid-East and Geo-Strategic Tensions?

Has Trump convinced himself that the Administration’s wider bluster is actually winning: Making America Great Again? On this question, hangs our joint futures.

The faultline between Turkey and the Gulf States – with the US and Israel standing in the wings – has just become quite acute. The pressures on Erdogan are mounting. He is a street-fighter and likely to react with his fists. Iran – like Turkey – is subject to an all-out ‘Treasury blitz’. It too, is likely, in one way or another, to push-back against those seen to have been egging-on President Trump and his hawks, in their new belligerency. They know who to blame; who has been stoking the fire: MbZ and his acolyte, MbS. The evolving site for this aggravated tension is likely to be the North and the Horn of Africa.

This faultline should to be added to the others already fracturing the Middle East. Tensions are strung taught. Trump’s bellicose language is understood often to be calculated bluster, in the interests of leveraging some negotiating advantage. But perhaps unforeseen by the President was how his bellicosity would go viral around DC, and in the beltway think-tanks. Every careerist hoping for promotion, or a post in the Executive, now wants to ape the Bolton ‘gunslinger’ hard-nosed rhetoric (ideally on Fox News).

The point here is that Trump’s real-estate conditioning does envisage ‘flipping’, when required. He does it. He did it in business. U-turns don’t bother him. It’s how he does business. But his team? That is not so clear. Some of them, per chance, may see Trump’s rhetorical bellicosity as precisely the necessary ratchet for positioning the President on a conveyor to a narrowing convergency, at which ‘to flip’ is no more an option.

The pressures being applied by the US on Erdogan are truly intense: Sanctions, certainly; but then also the repeated calls by leading US Wall Street banks to short the Lira to ‘death’; the promised imposition of yet further US punishment (i.e. more Treasury ‘war’), should Turkey receive the S 400 SAMs from Russia; and now, the withdrawal of the US ‘waiver’ in respect to the ‘light’ oil which Turkey imports from Iran – and on which Turkey’s refiners are structured (i.e. their production is geared to Iranian light oil, and to re-engineer will be costly).

Then there are the strategic pressures. First amongst these is Trump’s stated intent to list the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as a terrorist group. This is still in the policy ‘machinery’ in Washington, but the expectation is that this will happen.

Well? Well – recall that the AKP is informally MB (at least in terms of one major component); Erdogan is culturally MB, and sees himself as its patron; and the AKP facilitates the funding of MB social organisations inside Turkey (i.e. though grants from the Istanbul municipality). Turkish commentators directly blame certain Gulf States for launching Trump down the proscription path. They are right. And this is no trivial matter.

Then there are the Kurds of Syria whom the US says it intends to arm with Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Really? Is ISIS using helicopters these days? Then there is the recent statement by a US State Dept official that the US will occupy the Eastern third of Syria for the ‘long duration’ – and invest in it. (Translation: i.e. further arming the Kurds). And the US Envoy, James Jeffry is pressing Erdogan to accept an armed Kurdish border guard sitting on, and controlling, Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

Not surprisingly, circles close to Erdogan see the noose tightening around Turkey’s neck, and view this Kurdish ‘project’ as ‘a platform’ from which to penetrate and weaken Turkey itself. For the leadership, this amounts to a conspiracy, standing in open view, to undermine Turkey.

And finally, in the category of the Gulf’s direct ‘front’ against Turkey, stands the regime-change mounted in Sudan against a MB-linked President; the likely eviction of Turkey from its Sudanese naval base sitting smack opposite Jeddah – and last, but not least – General Hiftar’s assault on Tripoli and Misrata (which are defended by forces supported by Turkey and Qatar). Significant proportions of the population in northern Libya are ethnically Turkic.

And so – as Abdel Bari Atwan in Rai al-Youm reports (in Arabic), “the most important development at the level of the Libyan scene, consists of the Turkish President stepping in … [with a] call to Mr. Al-Sarraj that he, [Erdogan], will be dedicating all his country’s capacities to prevent what he called “the conspiracy” from affecting the Libyan people. He further valued Al-Sarraj’s and his government’s role in pushing back the attack on Tripoli. In our opinion, this means military and not only political support”, Bari Atwan concludes.

In short, Erdogan (in alliance with Qatar), is pitting himself against the UAE and the Saudi/US-backed forces of Haftar – and in support of the GNA backed by the UN (and Italy).

Hiftar’s assault is already bogged down at the outskirts of Tripoli. It seems unlikely now that either Qatar or Turkey will accede to the UAE-Saudi mounted coup, without putting up a bloody fight. For the moment the GNA – through the Central Bank – has control over oil revenues (though Hiftar guards the fields). He may try to overturn this and take the revenues for himself. The Central Bank which controls access to these funds, held in an escrow NY account – is situate in Tripoli.

The point here, is that though Turkey is under huge pressures, both domestic (i.e. its fragile economy and with the new Mayor of Istanbul challenging the very premises to AKP policy), as well as external – so too, are the Gulf States under pressure, albeit of a different nature.

Firstly, the Yemen war is not going well for Saudi Arabia. The Saudi southern front seems to be disintegrating badly, and Yemeni forces are pushing into southern Saudi Arabia. And secondly, the Gulf attempt to install military security regimes in Sudan, Algeria and Libya is by no means secured. The risk here is that the instability generated by these attempted coups is spreading across North Africa like a stain. Chad is anxious (Haftar attempted a coup there some years earlier); Mauritania believes the UAE is eyeing its resources; and Morocco is at odds with the UAE for its turn toward Qatar. The final outcome to this ‘trifecta of coups’ hangs in the balance.

Which returns us to the bigger picture: Trump is set on actuating a re-make of the Middle East. Kushner and the envoys make no bones about it: Their objective is to re-engineer the region to the Israeli liking: Israel is to become Greater Israel (subsuming some 6,5 million Palestinians); and to facilitate this plan, three historic nations – the pillars to the region – are to be diminished: Greater Syria becomes even less (losing one-third of its already diminished territory); and the Persian and Turkish nations are to be contained, weakened, and their present governments overturned, if possible, for more compliant rulers.

There are however clear flaws to this ambitious initiative. The first derives from the ‘horse’s mouth’ on sanctions: David Cohen, the former Undersecretary at the US Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. That is to say, from the former ‘Mr Sanctions’ himself:

In the last several decades … sanctions have become a key tool of US foreign policy. The Trump administration has made particularly heavy use of this tool, especially in its efforts to induce regime change in Venezuela and Iran … And although the administration has been more oblique in its call for the overthrow of Iran’s clerical regime, the demands it has issued to Tehran are so onerous that, as former US Ambassador Robert Blackwill has argued, they are “effectively impossible for Iran to accommodate without fundamentally changing its leadership and system of government.” US President Donald Trump, in other words, “is requiring regime change in Iran without calling it that.”

“But for sanctions to work … they must be aimed at behavior that the target can, however reluctantly, change. The targeted party must also believe that sanctions will be lifted if it abandons the behavior in question.

“The logic of coercive sanctions does not hold, however, when the objective of sanctions is regime change. Put simply, because the cost of relinquishing power will always exceed the benefit of sanctions relief, a targeted state cannot conceivably accede to a demand for regime change …

“There is little reason to expect a different outcome today in Venezuela or Iran. US unilateral sanctions are taking a severe toll, but this economic impact should not be confused with policy success, especially when regime change is the objective.”

And another expert, US Colonel Pat Lang, notes that the latest shambles of an attempt to mount an uprising by the local military in Venezuela to oust President Maduro, is in many ways, as inept as the 1961 ‘Bay of Pigs’ landing on Cuba (premised on the mistaken belief that the Cuban people there, too, would rise up in immediate support).

This Venezuelan episode underlines how US macho rhetoric is often more mouth, than trouser. (i.e. macho self-image is inversely related to actual performance in that department.) Of course, all in the Middle East will have taken note.

So, if sanctions will not succeed, and the US would likely fumble a covert Maidan-type coup in either Iran or Russia, then is there nothing to worry about?

Well, not quite. For, though the attempt to make the ‘outpost of the West’ in the Middle East the overarching dominant force will roil the region – whether or not the US fumbles it – the point here, is different: The ratcheting US verbal bellicosity emanating from officials is not just whimsy. It is about the notion of America’s ‘forever wars’: the endless, generational war – in the prevalent doctrine – against Russia and Iran. The language of ‘cosmic evil’ used for Iran and President Putin is deliberate. It is a part of the incremental severing of lines of engagement and communication between the West and Russia and Iran (the US public has not yet been habituated to viewing the Chinese people as ‘evil’).

Gradually, channels of inter-communication have been left to atrophy; areas of co-operation built over the years, are severed; arms and security understandings painstakingly assembled, are renounced. And the formula that there is no one with whom to speak – for ‘their’ nature is to lie and cheat, and be deceitful – is established.

Of course, those who see the bellicose language uttered from Bolton and Pompeo as simply a negotiating strategy are perfectly free to continue in that opinion, but others may view it as the piece-by-piece construction of a narrowing tunnel that ends with only one exit: forever escalation against ‘malignity’.

The real issue is, does Trump see and understand this? Or has he convinced himself that the Administration’s wider bluster is actually winning: Making America Great Again? On this question, hangs our joint futures.

Is There a Path Out of Ratcheting Mid-East and Geo-Strategic Tensions?

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