AICR, 9 February 2016
More than ever before, Middle East and Mediterranean regions are the place of “proxy wars”. From Syria to Iraq, from Yemen to Lybia these conflicts transform the regional balance of power; interact with global challenges, terrorism, migrations, poverty; and reinforce Russia and Iran regionally and globally.
If we compare the present situation with the two decades following the collapse of the USSR, local wars seem now increasingly fuelled by actors disconnected from western interests because this actors do not consider themselves “partners” of America and Europe. Meanwhile, over the last seven years Americans and Europeans have not always exerted all their influence in situations where “hard power” – economic and military – was more needed.
During my tenure as Ambassador to the UN and then to the United States till November 2011, the topics more popular in talk shows, op-ed and books were: “decline of the West”, “rise of the Rest”, “a post American world”, “end of the empires” , “China rules the world”. A “declinist theory” is also rooted among Europeans. Almost every pundit in Rome, London, Berlin, would lose credibility were he not generous enough with prophecies about western marginalization from world affairs.
There are, fortunately, good exceptions. In “ The world America made” Robert Kagan quotes a Frank Capra classic,“ It’s a Wonderful Life”, when George Bailey gets a chance to see what his world would have looked like had he never been born.” It would be nice – says Kagan – if we could do the same for the United States; to see what the world would have looked like had the United States not been the preeminent power shaping the world for the past six decades, and to imagine what the world might look like if America were to decline, as so many predict“. Robert Kagan concludes that “Americans once again need to chose what role they want to play in the world. They hate making such a choice. If the past is any guide, they will make it with hesitation, uncertainty, and misgivings. They might well decide that the role they have been playing is too expensive. But in weighing the costs, they need to ask themselves: is the American world order worth preserving? “
After the Iranian nuclear deal an answer to that question is even more crucial for Middle East and Europe. A huge “arc of crises” stretches along the “Great Sea”, from Gibraltar to the Gulf. It threatens the “line of stability” drawn with an America imprint long ago. Three Islamist totalitarian forces are on the rise. While being in murderous conflict with each other they are branches of the same poisonous plant: A) the Iran’s theocracy and its allies; B) the global Salafist Jihadists currently dominated by the Islamic State; C) the Muslim Brotherhood, with supporters in Qatar and Turkey.
During the last four decades these poisonous branches have expanded over the Mediterranean shores, and into Europe. 2011 was a turning point for the “Great Sea”, the outcome of a long process. “The Arab revolutions – The Economist wrote recently – produced few leaders, few credible programs for action, and few ideas. But they produced much needed clarity about such things as what political Islam actually means in practice, where the Arabs stand in the world and with each other, and what the weaknesses and strengths of Arab States and societies are”.
When Samuel Huntington wrote in the early ‘90s “The clash of Civilizations” the common wisdom was that cultural, religious and ethnic fractures between the “West and the Rest” were running deeper then the divide between Sunnis and Shias, between the secular and the religious forces of political Islam. Instead the Muslim struggles reach now Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Somalia, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria.
Iraq, Syria and Libya, three countries of a key importance for the European security and economy, can be considered “failed states”. With more than 62 million people, huge natural and human resources, very young populations, these countries are at crossroads critical for the whole Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
Iran, on its part, synthesizes complex legacies, driven by internal dynamics of an ultra millenary and diverse culture, and a whole century of struggle between a Persian soul and a theocratic power. Contemporary Iran seems decided to be a cause before being a country. A cause for expanding the pre-eminence of Shia regionally and globally.
Although al Qaeda and the plethora of Jihadist groups have never ceased to threaten both the Muslim world and our societies, a worrisome, millenary “clash” is re-emerging. The “Islamic civil wars”, centuries before the Crusaders appearance in the Holy Land, did mark the age of the four Caliphs, the massacre of Karbala, the killing of Husain ibn Ali. Those memories still resound in the sermons of the Mullahs and Imams, and keep alive doctrinarian and sectarian divisions.
The Sunni-Shia confrontation in Syria provides Russia and Iran with the opportunity to become –in absence of a coherent Western strategy- the winners of a war poised to end with: 1) consolidation of the Assad regime; 2) recognition of an Iranian “droit de regard” over Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and beyond; 3) enhancement of Moscow’s role in the whole region.
Years ago when the Bush administration was discussing the military “surge” in the Anbar and Nineveh Provinces, Professor Vali Nasr wrote an important essay “The Shia revival”, which remarkably explains Iranian long term strategy in Iraq. The same applies to Syria today.
“In Iraq, Vali Nasr said, Iran’s primary objective is to ensure that Baathist and Arab nationalism -Sunni rule in an altered guise-do not return to power. The more violent the Sunni insurgency becomes and the more Shias it kills, the more determined Iran grows…” . “The conflict now unfolding- Henry Kissinger noted in his masterpiece “World Order”- is both religious and geopolitical.. Iran aims for regional dominance by employing non state actors tied to Teheran ideologically.”
The Iranian agenda is not a hidden agenda. In the spring 2013, for example, Ayatollah Khamenei addressed a conference of Muslim clerics and gave the Arab Spring meaning a twist by calling it “Arab Awakening”: “the world of Islam, said Khamenei, has now emerged out of the side-lines of the social and political equation, opening the door to a global religious revolution. All parts of the Islamic Ummah should achieve the position specified in the Holy Quran”. It is important to understand that the unity of Islam the Supreme Leaders is advocating should take place under the sole banner of Shia.
The main question still lays on the West approach to Iran. Has the regime changed since Rouhani election? Is the nuclear agreement based on sufficient evidence that Teheran is ready to become a constructive partner in the region? Or should Americans and Europeans re-focus their priorities?
The nuclear agreement certainly is a significant development. But it should be considered with more caution than excitement. It did mothball much of the nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of sanctions. Yet, those who hoped this might signal a wider reconciliation between Iran and the West had been left humbled by the incidents fuelled by hardliners close to the Supreme Leader and by the IRGC, before and after the deal came into effect.
The Revolutionary Guards control much of Iran’s economy: its energy sector, car industry, shipping companies, banking and insurance, high tech and defence factories. They have much to lose from a more open market and have shown willingness to conduct heavy-handed interventions, as when in July 2014 they arrested Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent, while the nuclear deal was starting to look possible.
Iran has become increasingly belligerent toward Western allies in the Middle East. Deepening discord between Iran and Saudi Arabia reached a breaking point early January when Iranian militias ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad. Saudi Arabia responded by severing diplomatic ties with Iran. Other Gulf States followed, citing Iran’s escalating, destructive meddling in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, stigmatized also by the Arab League. The nuclear agreement added motivation to crack down on civil society, and to keep Western influence at bay.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei only agreed to the nuclear talks because the Iranian economy was raising the spectre of massive uprisings reminiscent of 2009. But Khamenei took great care to emphasize that dialogue and cooperation with the West should not expand to other areas, namely regional security and human rights.
Next elections, on February 26, do not bode well for true reformers. The death-to-America hard-liners are in a good position to prevail. Manipulation and nominating process give a small group of people enormous power over who can and cannot run.
Iranians will vote for a 290-member Parliament and an 88-member Assembly of Experts, charged with selecting a new supreme leader after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In a sign of heightened interest some 12,000 Iranians registered, more than double of those who registered in 2012. Yet, more than 7,000 candidates were disqualified by the Council of Guardians. Only 30 of the 3,000 moderates were accepted. Among 801 candidates who had filed to run for the Assembly of Experts, only 166 were approved. Not even the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini could pass. Human Rights Watch stated that most candidates were disqualified for their political opinions.
Iran does not have anything close to a real democracy. Rouhani is a creature of Iran’s establishment. He only has tapped into widespread popular support for ending the country’s long isolation . But he has never delivered on campaign pledges to restore basic freedoms, free speech and release of political prisoners. Never the execution tall has been as high. Hundreds of political activists and journalists remain in prison, according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre. Khamenei has warned reformers that they could not hope to have any real influence in the immediate future.
After the fraudulent 2009 presidential election, millions of people joined protests, prompting a government crackdown. Reform-minded Iranians could still have an impact this time by electing at least a few more like-minded candidates.
It would therefore be a major mistake when dealing with Iranian leaders to forget reforms, respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms. When those issues are neglected, or we show “obeisance” to theocratic Islam such as by hiding Roman statues, our Governments make a great gift to hardliners and let down young forces desperate for change.
Beyond its borders, Tehran has been pouring billions of dollars into support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It dispatched more than 5,000 Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and 25,000 militias to Syria, mostly recruited among Azaras in Afghanistan and Afghans expatriated in Iran. The international community has made every effort to bring Iran into the discussion over a political solution to the Syrian war. But Iranian officials are abiding by Khamenei’s directive to avoid true negotiation.
How could the Ayatollahs take the risk of losing the Shia-Alawite minority Government in Syria? Could they give ground to reformist movements? Or allow political pluralism in Damascus and in Baghdad ? Iranian theocracy doesn’t take any risk in Syria or elsewhere. It sent an expeditionary corps of Hezbollah, led by IRGC officers, early into the fight to support Assad. It allied with Russia, taking all the opportunities left by Western hesitancy.
Russia’s roots in Syria, both politically and geographically, are very much aligned with the core, secular base of the regime and security institutions. Kremlin’s strategic interests run up the western coast, from the Russian naval base in Tartus to Latakia, from where Russia now flies its air strikes on Syria’s opposition and radical Islamist ﬁghters. Iran’s primary interests are in the south of Syria, particularly the supply corridor linking Hizbollah in Lebanon to Tehran. Rather than the state institutions, their focus has been on building the National Defence Force.
As the UN scrambled last week to shepherd Syria’s warring parties to talks in Geneva on a transition out of the country’s civil war — after meetings convened by the US and Russia last year in Vienna — the Russian air force all but razed al-Sheikh Maskin, killing hundreds of civilians as well as rebel fighters. This strategic town in southern Syria was held by mainstream rebels backed by the west. There could be no clearer illustration of Vladimir Putin’s role as a spoiler in the Syrian conflict. Only under duress has the Syrian rebel contingent finally arrived at the Geneva talks, demanding an end to the bombardments and blockades starving civilians in rebel enclaves. Moscow may be talking about the threat from Isis, but its forces in Syria have been targeting non-Isis rebels that had been threatening the Assads’ rump state until Russian forces arrived last autumn.
There are real questions about the role of Islamist rebel forces such as Jaish al-Islam, or Ahrar al-Sham. Moscow, Damascus and Tehran say these are wolves who have donned sheep’s clothing to attract western backing. Yet if Moscow and the Assad regime continue along this bloody path, there will be nothing left in Syria except wolves — greatly to Isis’s advantage. Al- Sheikh Maskin village was defended by the rebel Southern Front, recognised as legitimate opposition not just by the west but by Russia, which also endorsed UN Security Council resolution 2254 prohibiting the targeting of civilians. Instead, by decimating liberated areas it is adding to the waves of refugees engulfing Europe.
Putin is treating Geneva as a smokescreen behind which to keep up his offensive. Instead of bullying rebels to attend the talks, I believe we should back their demand that Russia and the regime cease bombing the Syrian people. Geneva will otherwise be the venue for a third failure to end this pitiless war. The implications of the huge military deployment carried on by Moscow in Syria under the banner “War against terrorism” were not promptly understood by all of us.
The first implication relates to the overall strategy that President Putin has developed since the 2013 agreement on chemical weapons. Our unconditional priority on the nuclear deal did reinforce Putin’s conviction that no serious “price” had to be payed if he decided to escalate military interventions in the region. Crimea was a learned lesson for the Kremlin. There is, and that is a second consequence, a highly accrued capability -conventional and non conventional – of Russian forces in the Mediterranean. They can challenge now Nato forces. Problems with Turkey, as we know, have immediately followed. And Israel pre-emptive actions in its neighborhood must now come to terms with a different environment.
The third implication is destabilizing for the EU: there is an Assad “depopulation” strategy, supported by Russia and Iran, in areas hostile to the Alawite minority. Russian bombing is increasing flows of refugees towards Europe, from a country – Syria – where 13 million are displaced, and 70% of them reportedly flee Assad bombs and those of his allies.
There is no shortage of criticisms on western policies in Middle East – and they do not start or end with the invasion of Iraq. Some criticize that Saudi Arabia is treated as a staunch ally even as it exports the extreme version of Islam that informs the murderous credo of the jihadis. Then there is a welcome to Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi whose violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood may have longer term consequences. With its oil and autocrats, the Middle East has often been considered the graveyard for anything pretending to be a principled foreign policy. There is an impulse in Europe’s political discourse –as the FT recently wrote- by no means the exclusive property of the left. It assumes that nothing bad happens in the world without it being somehow the fault of the West in general and the US in particular. This is the mindset that casts Saddam Hussein as a victim, Hugo Chavez a hero and Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a bulwark against Nato expansionism.
Yet President Putin is not seeking to “join” the West. He wants to establish Russia as one of a handful of world powers, with their own zones of inﬂuence, that Moscow believes should dominate global affairs. The antiterrorism appeal from Russia’s upper house recently drew parallels with the fight against Nazism 70 years ago. Other senior Russian officials have called for a modem-day “anti-Hitler coalition”. In fact, it has been Russia to send disguised troops in Ukraine Donbass, to illegally annex Crimea, to intervene in Syria to keep a genocidal dictator in power.
We should be under no illusions. Vladimir Putin has a price for his co-operation. Russia’s Parliament appeal for a coalition of states to combat terrorism, warned that such efforts are weakened by “unilateral sanctions” against Russia. The EU and US should make clear that Ukraine-related sanctions will be lifted only if Russia fulﬁls February’s Minsk ceaseﬁre agreement. For all its failures to date, it is not beyond the capabilities of the coalition already assembled by the West to defeat Isis Russian help.