Monday, July 30, 2012

Calling 'bad boy' to do good deed

Different foreign policy wonks have been tossing back and forth the question of whether to ask Iran to use its tremendous leverage in Syria to find a political solution to the 16-month crisis there that has now left more than 20,000 Syrians dead.

Vali Nasr, former assistant to late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, has an op-ed in the New York Times, where he claims that the Western and Arab strategy to focus on toppling Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad takes that country down the slippery slope. In his view, Iran is the most significant actor in this game, which major powers ignore. Given the fact that any indulgence granted to demands of Iran has reapead a horrible harvest in the past few years, it is legitimate to ask why Tehran could possibly play a constructive role in the Syrian crisis. The article is fascinating because hardly anything claimed in the piece is theoretically wrong.

Iran is an unreliable and unpredictable country -- it takes extra caution and patience to work with this country. History shows that it would be a mistake to bet on Iran's words and pledges. Working with Iran in difficult cases such as Syria is a sure path to a room full of trouble. For years, the Western countries have worked tooth and nail to move Syria out of Iran's orbit and accused the Islamic republic of aligning with Syria in a bid to extend its influence to the eastern Mediterranean. How could now Western nations ask Iran to play a constructive role in Syria when it believes that Iran should have no business in the country? In addition, Iran blatantly backed Assad and gave no sign that it would agree to a Sunni-dominated government once the Syrian president steps down.

In Nasr's article, few of these concerns are mentioned or addressed adequately. Nasr claims that with or without Assad as its leader, Syria now has all the makings of a grim and drawn-out civil war. He argues that the United States and its allies must enlist the cooperation of Assad’s allies — Russia and, especially, Iran  — to find a power-sharing arrangement for a post-Assad Syria that all sides can support, however difficult that may be to achieve. In his view, involving Iran in any resolution to the conflict could throw Tehran a lifeline, but repercussions of prolonged conflict in Syria would have devastating consequences for both Syria and its vicinity. He then goes on in length to explain how powerful Assad's "killing machine" is and how it carries the risk of becoming another Lebanon. Nasr contends that the West has already bungled its attempt to topple Assad and he says the Western strategy of supporting opposition to oust the Syrian president is a wrong goal.

To find a way out of this impasse, Nasr offers a transition plan that includes most importantly Iran and Turkey, which he says has a military muscle to influence the conflict. According to Nasr, Iran will join in the bargain because it is not sure what will follow Assad if he exits.

Syria is a battleground between Sunni majority, backed by US allies such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and Alawite minority, supported by Hezbollah and Iran rather than a fight for democracy. Why would Turkey or Iran agree to such a transition plan when each side believes that it is winning the war? Iran seems unwavering in its support and its foreign minister said this week that such a plan is nothing but "an illusion." Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan already said twice last week that rebels in Syria are putting final touches to the revolution.

Theoretically, Nasr is correct. Underlying this strategy is the view that a country, especially one which could use its political weight to shift troubling trend in another country, will most likely agree to a midway formula with which everyone would win.
But realities on the ground make it impossible to work with Iran for a peaceful solution in Syria due to regional bickering and too much antagonism between the U.S. and Iran. Besides, it is hard to imagine that Syrian rebels will agree to any role Iran would play in Syria's transitional government.

Nasr's article would make more sense if he wrote this last summer and replaced words "Iran" with "Turkey," which had enormous influence on both Syrian opposition and the Assad regime but abandoned it for reasons still can't make me sleep well.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Russian warships in eastern Med no longer threat

Russia is amassing unprecedented naval force into eastern Mediterranean but there is little indication that its possible naval supremacy in the region will remain long as Turkish and U.S. warships are seeking for counterbalance.

Russia’s navy chief Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov told reporters on Thursday that there are ten Russian warships in the eastern Mediterranean dispatched solely for war games and that their presence in the area is not related to the Syrian crisis.

Russia earlier said it will not allow Libya-style military intervention in Syria, which largely was carried by the extensive help of warships and aircraft carriers of NATO-member states in the Mediterranean.

Fleet of the Russian battleships off Syrian coast is one of the largest in the past few decades and definitely poses a danger to the security of Turkey, NATO’s only Muslim member. But there is little concern for a major power face-off in the region as American warships are expected to arrive in the eastern Mediterranean months earlier than previously expected amid escalating tensions in the region.

Currently, USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier is docked off the Turkey’s Mediterranean city of Antalya. Turkish, French and British warships also separately conducted military drills in the area. There is little evidence that Russian naval forces in eastern Mediterranean will be Turkey's headache due to growing American and Turkish naval power in the region. But the fragile situation there, no doubt, makes it almost impossible for Western powers, including NATO, to conduct a possible successful military operation against Syria in the near future.

I wrote about this and other developments in the eastern Mediterranean here.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Assad wants to leave but rebels make it harder

A news report that Assad is ready to step down in an orderly way received mixed reactions on Friday, most of which mocked the Syrian president for demanding a civilized transition after ordering his army to kill too many civilians in the course of the uprising.

News agencies quoted on Friday Russia’s Paris ambassador as saying in an interview that Assad is ready to step down in an orderly way but most Syrian activists were quick to reject the ambassador’s possible scenario they thought could be Russia’s plan.

In fact, it was agreed at a conclave of foreign ministers in Geneva late last month that a transitional government must be formed in Syria by a mutual consent. Assad implicitly endorsed the plan as he slowly be starting sense his own defeat and it is out of the question that he considers himself staying in the transitional government. Syrian opposition categorically rejects any plan that makes Assad a part of the transitional government and his stay is impossible if mutual consent were given.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Wednesday that Geneva plan in fact agreed a transitional government that doesn’t grant a position for Assad. He said even Russians seem positive to a transitional government without Assad.

In a nutshell, it is not news that Assad wants to leave and a transitional government is a good way for Assad to step down in an “orderly way.”

But surge in attacks by opposition fighters and the infamous Damascus bombing this week that killed four senior security figures within Assad’s inner circle could have considerably changed the scale. Fearing that the opposition won’t stick to its promise, Assad has indeed declared an all-out war against rebels and sees his family’s survival in purging the entire armed opposition.

At this stage, a possible ceasefire could peacefully make Assad leave the power but increasingly growing assaults on regime officials, police and security checkpoints make it almost impossible for Assad to consider a transitional plan that will safely put him out of the power.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Egypt’s Morsi is not good news for Turkey

Very few understand how Turkey is rather a foe for Egypt than this man protesting outside the residence where Davutoglu and Morsi holding talks.

Turkey was excited to see a conservative president with beard in Cairo who shares similar views on domestic politics with Turkey’s previously progressive and reform-minded ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). But Ankara's fervor won’t last long.

In a sign of this excitement, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Cairo following his talks with Egypt's new leader Mohammad Morsi earlier this week that Egypt needs to be strong in the region and that strong Egypt means Turkey will be strong. "Strong Egypt means stability in the region,” Turkish foreign minister added.

There is little, if any, evidence to believe what Davutoglu says is reasonable. Points Turkish foreign minister stressed in his remarks are unprecedented in history and not possible in a normal setting of international politics. Two increasingly strong states in the same region are usually a primary cause of instability. Two powerful states hardly coexist unless there is a significantly strong state outside the region that is threat to both of these countries.

If history is any guide, peaceful relations between Egypt and Turkey are very unlikely in the long term. A short glance over history will prove this point further. European powers would most likely not fight each other in two devastating world wars if there was a powerful threat from Asia. European powers could establish a relatively stable union only after Communist threat from the East put the fate of entire continent on danger.

In another notable development, Turkey moved to militarily intervene in Cyprus in 1974, fighting a bloody war with Greeks there after a Greek-inspired coup. The U.S. then put tremendous pressure on Turkey to rule out the intervention and urged Greece to remain restraint. Greece’s response was minimal because both states faced a bigger threat in the north in the heydays of the communism: The Soviet Union.

The same scenario can describe the alliance among wealthy Gulf Arabs too. Saddam’s Iraq was a significant threat to the region and today Iran seems interested in instigating instability in the oil and gas rich region. Gulf Arabs will likely remain in union in a foreseeable future unless Iran chooses to cease its confrontational policy with the Arabs.

History is also awash with Turkish-Egyptian confrontation despite the fact that Cairo was under Ottoman rule. Egypt has always been a difficult country for Turkey to deal with during the Ottoman rule. It was the most disobeying vassal state compared to other regions for Istanbul. During 1831-1841, Egypt’s ruler Muhammad Ali challenged and fought against Ottomans to an extent that European powers had to intervene in 1840 with London Convention to prevent a new empire dominating the region vital for Europe’s trade with the South Asia. The incident is known as Oriental Crisis of 1840. Muhammad Ali virtually established a new empire encompassing Egypt, Sudan and Syria up to today’s southern Turkish city of Adana. Only after a solid military action in the eastern Mediterranean by Western empires Muhammad Ali’s new empire was put on hold from moving ahead. 

Today, Turkey and Egypt don’t face an important outside power that could threaten security and survival of both states. Instead of cooperation, the two countries have a lot of reasons to fight about. They share increasingly unstable and militarized eastern Mediterranean. New oil and gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean is also a good reason to seek dominance in the region.

Leadership in the wider Muslim world is another reason why Turkey and Egypt will most likely be foe more than a friend. Unlike its new leader, Egypt’s ousted leader Hosni Mubarak was decrepit and pro-Western. Morsi is only slightly different from leaders Libya, Tunisia and Morocco elected in the past year and we are yet to see a conservative leader in Syria largely representing views of the Muslim Brotherhood. It will be much easier and more effective for an Arab leader to appeal to the Muslim world rather than a Turkish-speaking leader.

In a nutshell, a stronger Egypt means more headaches for Turkey.