The countdown to World War Trump has begun1. As I argued in my previous September 2019 WSI article, the US approach toward Iran, coupled with NATO/EU enlargement, the 1999 war “over” Kosovo, and the deployment of US/NATO Missile Defense systems in eastern Europe, and now the Trump administration decision to dump the 1987 INF Treaty and possibly deploy war-fighting intermediate range missiles, has helped to generate a post-Cold War “insecurity-security dialectic” throughout the wider Middle East and the world in which Russia and China have reached out for closer political-economic and military ties with both Iran and Turkey—in the formation of a new Sino-Russian axis.
Many of the present conflicts in the wider Middle East were exacerbated by the Bush administration’s ill-conceived preclusive military intervention in Iraq in 2003 that has destabilized much of the region. As to be discussed, the possibility that the ongoing conflicts in this region could draw the US, Russia and other powers into wider or deeper military interventions at counter-purposes is real. This is true despite President Trump’s claim that he is trying to reduce the US military presence and vulnerability abroad—as indicated by his initial proposal in December 2018 to eventually withdraw and relocate the 1000-2000 US troop presence in northern Syria. By October 6, 2019, Trump then opened the door for Turkey to intervene militarily in the region in Operation Peace Spring.
I intend to discuss other zones of conflict, between India, Pakistan and China over Jammu/ Kashmir and other regions, plus the burgeoning potential for military conflict between the US, Japan and China over North Korea, Taiwan, islands in the South and East China Seas, and now Hong Kong, in the Indo-Pacific, in a future article.
II. Issue of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)
One of the major reasons why President Trump dumped the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear accord that had been signed by the Obama administration was the fear that Iran would soon enter the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) after having fulfilled its JCPOA obligations―assuming that Tehran did restrict its nuclear enrichment capabilities and once UN sanctions on Iran were dropped2.
In effect, it has been feared that Tehran’s membership in the SCO would represent the “keystone” that would help solidify a Russia-China axis. Moreover, the China-Russia-led SCO could potentially link with NATO-member Turkey―which has, like Iran, been flirting with joining the SCO at least since November 20163. In effect, both Iran and Turkey are key to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And with China in the background, Russia, Iran, and Turkey have all attempted to resolve the Syrian conflict in their respective interests in the Astana process―largely to the exclusion of the Arab Gulf states and the US and Europeans.
The Trump administration has consequently feared that an economically resurgent Iran―linked closer to Russia and China in the SCO—would represent a potential “threat” to Israeli, Saudi, and US interests. Even if the US could benefit from trade with Iran once the latter fully abided by the JCPOA nuclear accord (including the projected sales of Boeing aircraft to Iran as promised by the Obama administration, but which Trump blocked), the Trump administration nevertheless feared that Iran could eventually become a major player in China’s Bridge and Road Initiative (BRI) and thereby expand its global and regional influence.
By dumping the JCPOA, by placing tougher sanctions on Iran, and by working to isolate Iran through international sanctions on all states that purchase Iranian oil and gas (including India, China, Turkey, among others), the Trump administration has hoped to lessen the prospects that Russia and China could forge closer political economic and defense ties with Tehran. The Trump administration has accordingly hoped that such “maximum pressure” will eventually impel Iran to move in a pro-American direction—upon the threat of war. Yet the Trump approach is backfiring—in part as the many of the states, including China, India and Turkey, which are impacted by US sanctions on Iran, are not playing along.
It is true that US sanctions have significantly weakened the Iranian economy. And while Tehran has hoped that the Europeans can help revitalize the corrupt Iranian political economy, which is controlled in large part by the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards, by implementing a financial mechanism to bypass US sanctions through the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) that has been established by Germany, Great Britain and France, this option appears problematic. The dilemma is that ineffective European financial and trade supports for Tehran (which are relatively weak due to multinational corporation fears of US sanctions) have led Iran to look to Russia and China for financial supports―so the Iranian regime can try to muddle through the crisis.
An isolated Moscow had initially appeared to be less hesitant than China to forge close ties with Iran that would risk US wrath. Yet as the US trade and monetary war with China will dubiously come to a truly positive resolution (despite a recent truce), both Beijing and Moscow have continued to seek closer ties with Iran―which is precisely what the Trump administration has hoped to prevent.
In thumbing its nose at Trump’s sanctions, China’s ties with Iran have become much tighter after China finalized a major $400 billion energy deal with Iran—with conditions that could lead Iran to become a “colony” of China4. A significant clause in that deal permits Beijing to station up to 5,000 security personnel in Iran to protect its investments, with more to guard supply lines, including in the Gulf5.
From this perspective, with the backing from Beijing (at the foolhardy risk of selling out the country to the Chinese “Dragon” as opposed to the American “Satan”), the Iranian government does not yet appear to be on the verge of a pro-American “regime change” or even destabilizing collapse. And even if the present Iranian government does collapse―perhaps after the death/ incapacity of the aging Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei—it appears very dubious that a pro-American leadership will eventually emerge. There will be a power struggle with uncertain and dangerous results.
III. Rondò Alla Turca
Contrary to Trump administration aims, both Moscow and Beijing have stepped in when the US and Turkey were at odds after Turkish President Erdogan blamed the US for backing the Kurdish militias in Syria and for appearing to back the July 2016 “Gulenist” coup―in that Erdogan’s political rival, the Moslem cleric, Fethullah Gülen, is a US resident. At that point, Turkey began to turn to Moscow as Putin purportedly warned Erdogan of the “Gulenist” coup attempt. A complete about face in Turkish-Russian relations has taken place since 2016― even if Ankara had just shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet in November 2015 that was engaged in a mission over Syria against Turkish interests at that time. The latter incident came close to provoking a military confrontation between Turkey, NATO and Russia.
As Turkey is Russia’s second largest gas pipeline consumer, Moscow has sought to develop the potentially lucrative TurkStream pipeline project since October 2016. Moscow has also sold Turkey S-400 surface to air missiles―angering the US and NATO who argue that deployment of the Russian S-400 system in Turkey will permit Moscow to spy on NATO defense systems. Turkey has additionally entered into negotiations to purchase Russia’s Su-35 stealth fighter jets as an alternative to the costly US F-35 which will no longer be produced in Turkey. Turkey’s loss of the F-35 contract was in retaliation for Ankara’s decision to purchase the S-4006.
For its part, when the value of the Turkish currency dropped by more than 40 per cent in 2018 under US pressures, Beijing loaned Ankara US$3.6 billion to fund infrastructure projects, including funding for Turkish ports. And Beijing has continued to promise assistance to Ankara despite Erdogan’s formerly harsh criticism of China’s repression of between eight hundred thousand to two million Uighurs, and other Muslims, who have been detained since April 2017 in what China calls “re-education” camps. Here, Erdogan has recently appeared to flip toward a pro-Chinese position on the Uighurs in order to obtain Chinese loans for the Turkish economy7.
With China hovering in the background, Russia, Iran and Turkey have sought to forge a joint condominium over the region that excludes the US and Europeans in the Astana process. At their September 2019 summit, Russia, Iran and Turkey had promised joint efforts to reach a long-term settlement in Syria, that would include measures to eliminate the “terrorist” threat in Idlib and in northwest of Syria, while ostensibly promoting the political and constitutional process and efforts to resolve humanitarian issues.
Yet despite their apparent cooperation with the Syrian regime, both Moscow and Tehran looked the other way as Erdogan moved his military machine into northern Syria in October 2019―an action which Turkish President Erdogan has threatened for a number of years. Ankara has hoped that its military intervention will establish a 20-mile “buffer zone” that will ostensibly be used to house (with great difficulty if the region is not totally secure) 1 to 2 million Syrian war refugees that are presently living in Turkey. Ankara also hopes to disperse, if not destroy, Kurdish militias of the YPG―a faction of Syrian Kurds that are connected to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and to the PKK. Such a zone is also intended to prevent the SDF/YPG Kurds in northern Syria from linking with oil-rich Iraqi Kurds and with Kurdish PKK inside Turkey. Ankara may likewise hope to gain access to agriculture and energy resources in the region.
IV. Trump’s Response
It appears that Erdogan’s flattery of Trump’s vanity helped convince Trump to withdraw US forces from the region. Erdogan has hoped to rebuild his AKP Party’s popularity by an appeal to Turkish nationalism which involves anti-PKK and anti-Syrian refugee sentiment, while likewise appearing to offer Trump a way to pull out of the “forever wars.”
By abandoning Kurdish fighters, who were a major surrogate force in the struggle against the Islamic State, Trump’s actions have helped to open the door to a Turkish military intervention in northern Syria. Trump has consequently been accused by leaders of his own Republican Party of turning his back on the Kurdish SDF/ YPG which has reportedly lost 11,000 fighters in the war against the Islamic State, as compared to the United States, which has lost fewer than 100 soldiers in both Syria and Iraq8. In mid-October 2019, advancing Turkish troops came close to shelling American special forces in an action that can perhaps be described as “accidentally on purpose”—an effort to pressure US completely out of the region as Donald Trump’s policies continue to flip-flop9.
Given strong criticism from his own Republican Party, Trump has threatened sanctions against Turkey, but sanctions which the US Congress has said are not strong enough. Prior to the Turkish intervention in northern Syria, in an effort to revive the slumping Turkish economy and to prevent Turkey from purchasing Moscow’s S-400, the Trump administration had proposed a difficult to achieve $100bn free trade deal. Yet such a deal has been postponed, as US-Turkey relations are now in a free fall. Trump has urged a cease fire; Erdogan has adamantly opposed putting a halt to Operation Peace Spring despite the imposition of US sanctions.
Concurrently, after Trump dumped the US alliance with the Kurdish YPG, the latter have agreed to a military alliance with Syria, but not a full political accord―thus raising the question as to whether Syria, aligned with the Kurds, will risk a confrontation with NATO-member Turkey? Will both Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime against Turkey much as they previously did in the battles over Idlib and Afrin? Could the Islamic State try to trick opposing sides into a major escalation of the conflict by engaging in acts of terrorism? Will Moscow, as a mediator, be able to prevent Turkey and Syria from clashing? If Turkey is attacked, would Erdogan attempt to somehow oblige NATO to defend his actions? And what will Turkey do if NATO will not give it support?
V. Ongoing Conflict: Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia
Concurrently, the conflict between Israel (the state which has perhaps most strongly backed Kurdish movements) and Saudi Arabia with Iran is now even more closely interlinking the Syrian theatre with that of the Arabo-Persian Gulf, where Turkey is playing a role in defending Qatar against Saudi military pressures. Given perceived Qatari and Turkish support for the Moslem Brotherhood, relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia remain cold. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait, as well as Egypt and Israel, have all stated their strong opposition to Turkey's intervention in northern Syria10. For their part, Iran and Russia have sought to calm the crisis.
During the August 2019 G-7 summit, French President Macron urged US-Iran talks. Yet it is not entirely surprising that Israel purportedly struck Iranian and Hezb’allah positions within Syria and within US-ally Iraq, while also engaging in drone operations in Lebanon and Gaza. These actions appeared to represent an attempt to boost Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election chances in mid-September and to prevent a possible US-Iranian rapprochement that might work against Israeli interests11. And backed by Trump, Netanyahu had announced his intent to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea―a possibility not to be excluded once Israel forms a new government.
At the same time, despite President Macron’s proposals for US-Iran talks, the situation on-the-ground does not appear ripe for success. The Trump administration designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) as a “terrorist” organization appears to represent a step toward de-legitimizing the country itself—given the key role the IRG plays in Iran’s finance and governance12. The IRG also plays a key role in backing the Syrian regime of Bashir Al-Assad.
The major drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 purportedly launched by Houthi rebels, who are seen by Washington as backed by Tehran in Yemen, represents a major escalation of the conflict and risks an augmentation in world energy prices13. And with the rise of US-Iranian naval tensions, a US and/or Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities—after Netanyahu accused Iran of possessing secret nuclear facilities—would further destabilize Iran and the region.
After the G-7 summit, there have been positive reports of secret Iran-Saudi talks, facilitated by France, Oman, Pakistan, and Iraq, among other countries. But for these talks to succeed, Saudi Arabia will need to tone down its criticism of Iran, and begin to wind down its war over Yemen, while the Trump administration will need to be perceived as an “honest broker” and actively seek ways to bring compromise between Tehran and Riyadh. Yet Trump has thus far tilted too close to both Saudi Arabia and Israel, while largely ignoring Turkish concerns.
The suspected missile attack by undisclosed or unknown actors on an Iranian oil tanker on October 11 in the Red Sea is not a positive sign14.
IV. Renewed Multilateralism?
If the Turkish-Syrian crisis is not dealt with effectively by the UN Security Council, the Turkish intervention in northern Syria will hand the diplomatic burden to President Putin to play the key role in the effort to mitigate disputes between the Syrians, Iranians, Kurds and the Turks, among other factions―not an easy task.
Concurrently, it will prove costly for Turkey to develop the “buffer zone” and move refugees there, while Kurdish refugees fleeing Turkish military actions in northern Syria to northern Iraq will create yet another humanitarian crisis in the region and augment tensions within Iraq. As thousands of ISIS members escape confinement in Kurdish-controlled prisons, Turkish military actions will not only provoke acts of both ISIS and pro-Kurdish terrorism inside Turkey, but will also provide ISIS and other terrorist groups with the opportunity to recruit new members who oppose a perceived revitalization of the Turkish/Ottoman claims.
Concurrently, Trump’s apparent “acquiescence” to Turkish demands to remove US forces from northern Syria (forces which are purportedly to be redeployed in the south closer to ISIS positions) will not significantly reduce US spending on the “forever wars”―which have now cost roughly $5.9 trillion15. This is true as Trump has been augmenting defense spending and federal borrowing in other areas: Trump has proposed $738 billion for the Pentagon in fiscal year 2020, up from $716 billion in 2019 and nearly $700 billion in 2018― even though these figures do not cover actual yearly military expenses.
And after the Turkish military intervention, US and European sanctions will make it even more difficult to draw Turkish President Erdogan away from a closer alliance with Russia and China―given Erdogan’s threats to leave NATO and develop Turkey’s own nuclear weapons capability. And Turkey will be further isolated by the US and Europe if Turkish forces have engaged in war crimes as alleged by US Defense Secretary Mark Esper16. And finally, the threat of US and EU sanctions will not put an end to Erdogan’s threats to send some 3.6 million refugees across the border and into the European Union. In essence, despite the threat of sanctions that will “obliterate” the Turkish economy in Trump’s words, Erdogan still hopes to play the Europeans/ Americans and Russians/ Chinese against each other―with Moscow and Beijing thus far gaining the advantage.
The US and EU will both need to rethink their approach toward Turkey―if the latter is not to fully shift toward Russia, China and Iran. Sanctions that are not accompanied by promises of positive future benefits will not draw an increasingly alienated Turkey closer to the US and EU. A multilateral approach is absolutely crucial. Prior to these events, I had proposed a new category of EU “associate membership” for Turkey, for example, as a means to draw Ankara closer to the US and Europe. New thinking toward both Russia and Turkey will prove crucial if Turkey is to remain an ally17. In sum, Trump administration “maximum pressure” policies are not preventing Moscow and Beijing from seeking closer military and political-economic ties with Tehran―which is precisely what the Trump administration had hoped to prevent by dumping the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement. Neither are Trump policies helping to check a closer Russia-China-Iran-Turkey political economic and military relationship. In the meantime, US-Israeli-Saudi tensions with Iran are still simmering.
There will be no abatement of the crisis unless the major powers, the US, Europeans, Russia, China, Japan and India, can engage in sincere multilateral Contact Group diplomacy. If, for example, the Turkish military intervention is not to become permanent (as was the case for Northern Cyprus, for example), it will prove necessary to establish an UN-backed Contact Group that will mediate between the conflicting regional powers and socio-political movements and then deploy an international peacekeeping force in northern Syria.
Although the Trump administration will never admit its mistake in dumping the JCPOA Iran nuclear accord that was achieved through difficult UN-backed Contact Group diplomacy, the US must find a way to patch up that agreement and engage the Saudis and Iranians in far-reaching discussions―while likewise engaging in full-fledged multilateral diplomacy with Turkey and Syria and other states so as to better manage, if not eventually resolve, the ongoing conflicts throughout the region.
Unless the Trump administration changes course and begins to revitalize multilateral diplomacy―the world will take one step closer to Armageddon.
1 Hall Gardner, “Countdown to World War Trump, Part I” (WSI, September 2019). See also, Hall Gardner, The Butter Battle Arms Race.
2 “The lifting of U.N. sanctions under the joint comprehensive plan of action opened the path for Iran to resume membership application to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.” General Joseph Votel, House Armed Services Committee Hearing on Terrorism and Iran Source CCCI JOC, House Armed Services Committee hearing on Terrorism and Iran February 27th, 2018.
3 Turkey’s SCO Ambitions Challenge EU and United States.
4 Is Iran At Risk Of Becoming A Chinese Colony?.
5 Vazhid Salemi, “China woos Iran with a $280bn oil lifeline”, The Times (September 6, 2019).
6 Russia in talks with Turkey on possible Su35 fighter jet sale: Official.
7 China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang; Erdogan abandoned the Uygurs to court China. Will he do same to the US?.
8 To offset criticism of his decision to abandon US backing for Kurdish fighters, Trump has authorized the release of a meagre $50 million in emergency assistance to Syrian human rights groups.
9 Indicating that the Trump administration acquiesced in the Turkish intervention, the US had previously shared a list of "no-strike" locations with the government of Turkey, which goes beyond just where US troops are located and includes Kurdish areas, including Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled prisons holding thousands of ISIS prisoners.
10 How Turkey's 'Peace Spring' changed the dynamics of Syria's war.
11 Israeli Strikes Seek To Bait Iran And Scuttle U.S.-Iran Diplomacy; Alleged Israeli Strikes Bring US to Crossroads in Iraq.
12 Hook, Line and Sinker: The State Department's Iran Hand Steps Up the Pressure on Tehran.
13 US blames Iran for attacks on Saudi oil plants.
14 Iranian Oil Tanker Attacked as Middle East Tensions Remain High.
15 Costs of War.
16 Esper: Turkey 'appears to be' committing war crimes in northern Syria.
17 See: Hall Gardner, NATO Expansion and US Strategy in Asia (Palgrave 2013) and Hall Gardner, World War Trump (Prometheus Books, 2018).