Some Good News: Ethiopia and Eritrea Declare Peace

Leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea embrace

One of these men is a terrible monster, but this is still good news. We’ll take what we can get. 

In the late 90s, Ethiopia and Eritrea, two states, large and small, united and divided by the forces of history, waged a fierce and terrible war over a handful of dusty towns and lifeless fields at the heart of their disputed border.

In fighting that resembled the pointless muddy carnage of WWI, trenches appeared in this no-man’s land, poison gas was used, and tens of thousands lost their lives for no gain on either side. By 2000, with both sides exhausted, a state of not-war was declared, though peace was elusive. A UN commission awarded the territory to Eritrea, but Ethiopia never accepted it, and war was still always on the table, balancing on a knife edge in the fierce heat of the Horn of Africa.

Until now, that is.

The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea have signed a declaration saying that the state of war between the two countries is over.

A peace deal ending the 1998-1999 border conflict has never been fully implemented and there has been tension between the neighbours ever since.

The countries have also agreed to re-establish trade and diplomatic ties.

The declaration came at a landmark meeting between the two countries’ leaders in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara.

The summit between Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed marked the first time the neighbours’ heads of state had met for nearly two decades.

This is very good news. From a US perspective, it means that our main ally in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, will be less distracted by their disputatious neighbor. That can only help in the on-going fights against AQAP and ISIS and al-Shabab in the region (merely stating a fact, not saying that our methods/tactics are good).

Beyond the US, of course, is the possibility of peace in the region, a genuine one, instead of the tense terrors of the last 20 years. Or really, the last 70. And because of this, we can see that not all conflict has to last forever, even the seemingly intractable.

For those not familiar with the history, Eritrea was part of Ethiopia, but only due to the weird legacy of colonialism. It had been a collection of kingdoms and sultanates, Christian and Islamic, demonstrating the eclectic intermingling at one of the world’s inflection points. It’s a mix of sub-Saharan Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, north Africa, and more. Indeed, it is much more relevant to think of it as a Red Sea country than an African one. It’s ties are to Yemen, Somalia, Djibouti, and of course, Ethiopia.

A map showing Ethiopia and Eritrea

But not by choice. Ethiopia was invaded by Italian fascists, led by noted fascist superstar and street-named-after-guy Italo Balbo, and they brought together these independent kingdoms into Italian Eritrea. When the fascists lost to the English, both Ethiopia and Eritrea were “administered” by the British. When that got to be too expensive, the Brits just lumped everything together and gave Eritrea to Ethiopia. This was sanctioned by the UN and Western nations under their longstanding and time-honored policy of “Eh, they’re pretty much the same”.

Needless to say, this didn’t lead to a state of peace, especially when vicious Ethipoian leaders made a point of harassing and starving restless regions. A civil war took place over the course of decades, with “rebel” troops entering the Eritrean capital of Asmara in 1991. That paved the way for a de facto state, made de jure in 1993.

So needless to say there’s been some tension, and the 1998-1999 war was as much an exercise in revenge and historical anger than it was about a handful of cities. But time, apparently, can sometimes heal wounds, and countries don’t have to be beholden to the past. They can actually get past it, and move forward.

I know that sounds antithetical to most of what this blog has been preaching over the years, but the not really. I think we have to be aware of the past, to understand its terrible pull and grasping hold, in order to move past it. When we aren’t aware is when we get in trouble. When we don’t try to understand the historical forces working against us, the ground underneath our feet, is when we are caught unprepared.

I don’t want to say things are good over there, now. The President of Eritrea is still Isaias Afwerki, who once seemed like a brave new leader, but has since descended into brutal, paranoid madness, a Stalin-like leader who has maybe surpassed the darkest days of Mengistu. It’s a police state gripped by terror and brutality, and with its own insurrections in the name of freedom.

There’s a long way to go. But this is a day no one thought could ever come. So to that, we’ll celebrate, still wary, but relieved. There can be good news, even in these dark and weird times.

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The Ilisu Dam: Turkey, Iraq, and the Future of the Tigris

 

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Damn. Image from Global Water Blog

We interrupt the Daily Regreatening to bring news from Southeast Turkey, where the great rivers of yore are no longer yoked to nature

Turkey said Tuesday that Iraqis have nothing to fear from the filling of an upstream reservoir on the Tigris River, saying “sufficient quantities of water” would continue to flow to the neighboring country.

For decades now, in one of the slow-moving but earth-changing stories of our time, Turkey has been reinventing its power supply by building a series of dams and reservoirs along the ancient Tigris and Euphrates rivers, along which the first major civilizations in human history were watered and grown. This has made Iraq and Syria less than thrilled, needless to say.

The final dam, the Ilisu, has slowly started filling, after years of construction interrupted by local protests, international disputes, and Kurdish militancy (the three are not entirely unrelated). The reservoir won’t be completely filled for at least a year, but it is expected to drop the water level in the Tigris by 8 billion cubic meters, leaving it at 17 billion cubic meters.

I don’t know if that is enough (like, I literally have no idea). Iraq’s Minister of Water Resources says it will be fine, but then, I guess, he says a lot of things.

He said Iraq and Turkey reached a “fair” agreement whereby Turkey will release 75 percent of the river’s volume while keeping the rest to fill the dam over the next six months. He said the two sides are set to meet again on Nov. 1. However, when asked about it at the press conference, the Turkish ambassador denied any agreement had been reached.

That’s kind of awkward, and telling as well. Why would Turkey reach an agreement? An agreement means that both sides have power, and if Turkey were to break it, they’d be in the wrong. Without an agreement though, Turkey holds all the cards.

None of this is to say that Turkey won’t release “a sufficient amount of water”, a coldly clinical phrase which carries with it a sort of reluctant and patronizing oblige. It’s not actually in their best interest to have Iraq turn into a waterless hellscape, a nation of 37 million wracked by drought and finally broken. Turkey doesn’t need another Yemen on its border.

But…I mean, things change, man. Even if Erdogan’s government is 100% sincere about releasing a sufficient amount of water–and why wouldn’t you trust him??–who’s to say what the future could bring? Conflict between the nations could easily lead to a withholding. Climate change could make Turkey reluctant to give up any of the water it is storing for itself. Maybe Turkey would want Iraq to turn the vise a little more on its Kurdish population. Who knows?

Image result for ilisu dam map

It’s actually OK to make a Batman joke

No matter what, though, Turkey has already changed the water in the region through their projects. In a great interview with the UVA Darden Global Water Blog, Julia Harte of Reuters talks about what Turkey’s vast modernization projects have meant in the region.

Turkey’s hydroelectric dams have reportedly reduced water flow into Iraq and Syria by about 80 and 40 percent, respectively, since 1975. The Ilisu Dam is expected to open on December 31, 2017, but it will take several years for the 10.4 billion-cubic-meter reservoir to flood completely. When it has, Iraqi officials estimate it will reduce the downstream flow of the river by at least half, allowing more salty water to flood into the river from the Persian Gulf in southern Iraq.

Together with a severe drought that has afflicted the region for the past decade, this decline in the quantity and quality of Tigris River water is expected to strangle Iraqi agriculture and hobble the recovery of the Mesopotamian Marshes, vast wetlands in southern Iraq where Sumerian civilization began. The Arabs who live in the marshes were seen as security threats by Saddam Hussein, who accused them of sheltering Shi’ite rebels. He drained the marshes in the 1980s and 1990s by diverting the Tigris into a giant canal. Since the U.S. invasion, the marshes have been making a slow recovery, but the Ilisu Dam will place their survival in jeopardy once more, according to environmental scientists.

This has huge, regional-and-global changing impacts. Over the last 40 years, which is honestly nothing, the entire water ecosystem of three countries has entirely changed. It’s a vast experiment with real human lives at stake, and no one can really say how it will play out.

Dams and Damn Lies and Where Dams Lie

All of this gets to the insanity of national aspirations in a world built on geology. It’s maddening and impossible to think that a border that is drawn arbitrarily, based just on a war here or there or some dusty treaty or just because that’s where we decided, means that some people control the water, and some don’t. Water is real; borders are not. But if you are on one side of that border, if you are upstream, you make the decision.

The decision on what to do with water is true power politics, because it gets to the heart of what it is to be human. We all need water, and whoever controls the headwaters somehow gets to decide who is sated and who is thirsty.

We see this in North America, where the US has essentially cut off the flow of the Colorado River into Mexico. There are treaties to restore it, and technical experts have been working their best to stay away from the heated politics of the moment, and many (though not all) are working in good faith, but it essentially comes down to: we have the river, you can pound (and maybe eat) sand.

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Pictured: not a healthy delta

When you think of the history of the US and Mexico, and the stolen land, and the cheap and phony wars, and the racism and xenophobia that follows, and the idea that those sentiments and actions can control a river, you start to see the ridiculousness of it.

When you reflect on just how recent these activities were (about 170 years), and then think of how recent these enormous dams were built, and think about the endless power of the Colorado River, which over countless eons carved out the goddamn Grand Canyon, you see how absurd this whole thing is. Mexico and the United States? Eyeblinks. That border? Sand. The idea that one country “owns” the Colorado? Mind-boggling arrogance. An insult not just to nature, but to the very concept of time.

And dams, ultimately, remind us what time and human life really mean.

Le Deluge: The Past and The Future

One of the effects of a dam is that the reservoir built by the dam is, well, a reservoir, and therefore underwater. Anyone around there has to leave or drown. Towns get submerged, drowned in the depths. There’s something haunting and ghostly about the idea, full cities suddenly made into Atlantis, being eaten away by our attempts to control the very agents of their deliquesence.

But these are real lives that the slow flood will ruin. Harte estimates 25,000-30,000 people will be displaced, with one of the towns being a true gasping tragedy.

Hasankeyf is one of the towns along the Tigris that will be completely submerged by the Ilisu Dam. Unlike most of the other towns, however, Hasankeyf has been continuously inhabited for 12,000 years. From Neolithic settlements to medieval tombs and temples, the town is a living museum where some people alive today grew up in caves built into cliffs overlooking the Tigris. Archeologists are still discovering new artifacts in the town – the most recent Neolithic settlement was unearthed in September – and they estimate that most of Hasankeyf’s archeological sites will be flooded before they can be excavated.

But flooded they will be, and gone under will be that seemingly-endless chapter of human history, in which people lived thousands of years before we started to decide that civilization meant cities and borders and power.

That’s an inevitable side effect of dams, of course: the submergence of history. It happened when the Aswan High Dam flooded the site of the ancient and enormous Abu Simbel temples, forcing Egypt to pick them up and move them, block by block, away from the drowning waters.

It’s really the damnedest thing

It happens in the United States too. Many communities were drowned when the TVA filled the valleys, and the Glen Canyon Dam destroyed thousands of years of Native history and sacred sites under the waters of Lake Powell.

But flooding, when looked at this way, is inevitable. While changing the flow of a river demonstrates an awesome power, it also is a temporary and transient one. Those ancient sites are not so ancient. They only seem so because of our graspingly desperate misapprehension of Deep Time. The rivers will, ultimately, win.

The Ilisu will one day erode and burst. So will the Hoover and the Aswan. It’s not just that dams are faulty and sometimes, like with the Oroville, can’t handle the weather. It’s that they are impermanent. The Colorado carved out the Grand Canyon. It eroded mile-thick volcanic dams over a dozen times during the Pleistocene. It always wins.

No matter how responsible the government of Turkey is, it will one day fall. Human habituations will change. We might flee a region altogether, or disease may wipe out a huge chunk of the population. None of this may happen soon, but it will happen. That none of the megadams have burst yet doesn’t mean they won’t; it is just a reminder of how impossibly new an idea these actually are.

Humans will stop tending them, or lose the knowledge, or just leave altogether. It may be war, but most likely, it will just be time and its insistence. The water will start finding cracks, and will grow them a forceful laziness, and persistent path of least resistance. These towering structures, which need a word beyond Pharaonic, will weaken and crumble and burst, and the water will burst forth. Ancient cities onces submerged may be see in outlines, while existing cities, themselves now ancient, beaten and strangled by the floodtide.

And the rivers will run again, unconcerned. Looking downhill. Glimmering toward the shining sea.

 

 

 

Rename Balbo Drive! Up with Ida! Down With Fascists!

 

Image result for ida b wells

This woman stared unflinchingly at evil and made us all look with her.

 

Like most people in Chicago, I for years thought Balbo Drive, a short street on the south end of the Loop, running from Printers Row and intersecting with history at Grant Park, where hippies and cops clashed in the street in 68, and where, 40 years later, our first African-American President celebrated his election, was actually called Balboa Drive. That’s how I always pronounced it, and almost certainly spelled it. That is to say: I didn’t think about it at all.

Learning (or remembering) that it was actually called Balbo marked the end of my concern for the street, except for always consciously marking the lack of a Rocky-ifying “a” in the middle, in the same way I mentally make an “L” with my thumb when turning left or think about Alison Milnamow when spelling “their” (don’t ask). Even for someone as interested in Chicago history as I am, it seemed unimportant.

balbo

Near historic Lou Malnati’s, apparently.

That changed in the last few years, when in the wake of the country finally realizing that honoring traitors and murderous racists was bad, people pointed out that the Balbo in question was, well, questionable.

During Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair, an Italian airman led a roundtrip flight of 24 seaplanes in formation for an unprecedented flight of its kind from Rome, Italy to Chicago, Illinois for the fair. In honor of the achievement, the Chicago mayor at the time, Edward Kelly, renamed the nearby three block long 7th street after the lead airman, Italo Balbo. During his time in the USA he also invited to lunch by President D. Roosevelt and received a warm welcome from Americans, particularly Italian-Americans as a shining example of Italian aviation. In fact, for a time, ‘Balbo’ became a common term to refer to a large formation of aircraft.

That might have been the end of it if the Italian government Balbo was representing at the time weren’t that of brutal Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini even donated an ancient Roman column to the city that exists to this day as another monument to the controversial Balbo. Before his aviation fame, Balbo helped institute Mussolini’s Fascist rule as a Blackshirt leader, a gang of Fascist thugs that intimidated and assaulted non-Fascists that stood in their way. He spent the rest of his life devoted to both Mussolini and Fascism. Many considered Balbo to be Mussolini’s heir before he was killed in 1940 by friendly fire.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love that there was a name of a large group of airplanes, and it was the childishly-syllabically pleasing “balbo”. It’s a balbo of planes! That’s fun! Less fun is fascism.

 

Image result for mussolini balbo

Brutal thuggish dictator Mussolini is the guy on the left

 

But now comes a movement to rename this street after someone who is genuinely heroic, and who towers over American history: Ida B. Wells.

Balbo Drive would be renamed for Ida B. Wells, an iconic figure in the African-American community who led an anti-lynching crusade, under an aldermanic plan that is certain to stir controversy.

South Side Ald. Sophia King (4th) and downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) plan to launch the effort at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

They will introduce an ordinance to rename Balbo Drive in honor of Wells. If colleagues go along with the idea, it would be Chicago’s first permanent street renaming since 1968 and the first street in the Loop named after a woman and a person of color, according to King’s staff.

Wells was born a slave and died in Chicago, and lived a life of tireless and fearsome advocacy. She was an impossibly brave journalist, traveling at great risk throughout the south to document lynching, calling attention to this terrorist scourge, not letting America pretend that it had moved forward one inch. She called just as much attention to a barely-more-genteel form of racism in the north, particularly this violent and segregated city. She was a pioneering advocate for women’s rights, especially at the intersection of race.

In short, she made America look at itself. She was never comfortable, never safe. And she never stopped.

Thankfully, she seems to be having a bit of a moment. A movement to put a monument of her up in Bronzeville seems to be gaining steam. You can (and should!) donate to it, though it is a shame the city won’t just pay for it. If anyone deserves to be honored, it is Wells.

Now, there are a few counter-arguments. Maybe the most compelling one is that the Loop already has a street called Wells, and although the two wouldn’t intersect, or even really run near each other, that could be an issue. That one is named after William Wells, who was killed in the Battle of Fort Dearborn, a seminal moment in Chicago history, though one that is a tad bit more complex than the heroism on which we were weaned.

Still, Wells is too long to be renamed, and that’s a losing battle. I don’t think it would be that big a deal, since people would say “go to Ida B and Michigan!” There’s only three blocks to choose from. GPS might be the only obstacle here (and it is a substantial one.)

The other argument comes from (or will probably come from) the Italian-American community, which was upset last year when people wanted to remove the Mussolini monument, and there was talk of renaming Balbo to Fermi Drive.

Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans… joined Lou Rago, president of the Italian American Human Relations Foundation, in writing a letter to the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times defending Balbo’s honor.

They argued that Italo Balbo had unfairly become “residual shrapnel from the barrage of bullets the rest of the country is firing over what to do with the approximate 1,500 Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces.”

They wondered why the memory of Balbo’s “remarkable accomplishments” was being “swept up into the national wave of removing the past.”

(Note: this is really cute wording. It’s the people opposed to Confederate monuments that are doing violence, and who are “removing the past.” That language isn’t exactly dissimilar to the actual Confederate symps. This is what we call a “tell”.)

“We want to be perfectly clear. Italo Balbo was an outspoken opponent of the Mussolini tilt towards Hitler and was not the enemy that many in the Chicago City Council are portraying he was,” they wrote.

“Despite being a general under Mussolini, when Balbo saw where Mussolini was going with his pro-German policies, he was horrified. He was one of the only fascists in Mussolini’s regime to openly oppose Italy’s anti-Jewish racial laws and Italy’s alliance with Germany.”

That’s good! Those are definitely good things toward which to be opposed. He wasn’t a total monster. Things he wasn’t opposed to, though, include: the invasion and destruction of Ethiopia, war in Europe, the crushing of dissent, internal concentration camps, the spread of fascism, being a fascist.

 

File:Balbo-Mussolini-Libia-Pd-italy-007.jpg

This is him and Benito after “conquering” Ethiopia. The only good person in history to wear a cape like that is Lando.

Now, it is interesting of course, because in America in the 30s, being a fascist wasn’t a disqualifier. It wasn’t a catch-all term for “my political opponent”. Throughout the world, there was a genuine debate if fascism was the ideal form of politics. It was a legitmate political philosophy.

This was true whether it was the personalized authoritarianism of Hitler and Mussolini, the sort of corporatist state envisioned by James Burnham, or a unique American quasi-fascist managed democracy promoted by the likes of Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and for a time even John Kenneth Galbraith.

But here’s the thing: they were wrong. They were wrong about how the powerful should run roughshod over the weak. They were wrong about how rights should be subsumed to monetary interest and the dim horizons of national glory. They were wrong about the relationship of people to state, individuals to capital, and blood and soil to ideals.

In other words, they were wrong about everything Ida B. Wells was right about. We’re still fighting those battles, as quasi-fascist strongman nationalist rule is taking hold again around the world, and America is staring at a particularly dumbshow type of authoritarianism. That’s all the more reason to change the name. We’re fighting for what we believe to be good.

This isn’t erasing the past. It’s celebrating what America should be. It’s celebrating the best of us. It’s honoring the true forgotten past, and honoring someone who never let us forget our dark present. It might be a small street, but it would be a huge step forward.

 

Iran, Israel, and Syria: Does What Came Before Show What Will Come Next?

Location of the Golan Heights

Last night, it looked like we were about to plunge into the new and most dangerous phase of a constantly-mutating series of wars in the Middle East. Over a tense few hours, Iran and Israel exchanged strikes, in what was either a display of signaling or a sign of things to come.

Or, of course, both.

Israel carried out widespread deadly raids against what it said were Iranian targets in Syria on Thursday after rocket fire towards its forces which it blamed on Iran, marking a sharp escalation between the two enemies.

I know that yesterday I said today’s post would be about the medium-and-long-term ramifications of the US announcing it was going to violate the JCPOA, but events, as we see, quickly overtook long-term thinking. They have a way of doing that.

So what do these strikes mean? Since, as of this writing (around 1:00 CST), there haven’t been further significant exchanges, we can begin to hazard a few guesses, knowing all the while that predictions only serve to make you look foolish, and bland gamesmanship is grotesque when real lives are on the line.

So to do a quick recap of last night’s events: Iran, shortly after announcing that it would abide by the JCPOA, but making clear that could change if the European signatories changed their tune, launched rockets at Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since the ’67 war.

Israel retaliated, claiming to take out “nearly all key Iranian military targets in Syria”. The reason for this significance isn’t just that Israel was attacked; that is common. But up until now, it has been through Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah. This was the first actual Iranian strike, and the first time Israel has attacked Iranian forces/infrastructure directly.

So…does this mean war? Right now, it looks like it doesn’t. Indeed, on the surface, it looks like Iran swaggered, and Israel punched back, demonstrating clear power, forcing Iran to back off. That might be the case. This may have been a little bit of eagerness, a few punches thrown in the chaos of war, before both sides backed down.

Right?

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To Arms, Teachers! Trumpism as Totalitarianism

I just finished Masha Gessen’s truly great The Future is History, her story of “how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia”. It was hard to read, not just because of the grey bleakness that choked out all Russian political space throughout the book, but because of the vast parallels between Russia and the United States…especially, of course, between the rise of Trump and the Reign of Putin.

I don’t mean, right now at least, in the strictly legal or political sense. The book doesn’t at all touch on potential collusion, or cooperation between the parties. Trump is really only mentioned a couple of times at the end, once where Gessen is talking about the growing global influence of Alexander Dugin, the philosopher of Putinism and Russia’s aggressive revanchism, with its white nationalism, hatred of modernity, anti-gay hysteria, political oppression, and swaggering love of upsetting norms.

In the epilogue, she writes of his growing international fame: “With the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the neo-Nazi movement known as the ‘alt-right’ gained public prominence, as did its leader Richard Spencer, an American married to Nina Kouprianova, a Russian woman who served as Dugin’s English translator and American promoter.”

This, I think, is part of the key. The philosophy behind Putinism, especially once his second terms started, has been aggressive and deeply conservative, almost atavistic. And that movement, which I’ve lumped as “white suprenationalism“, has been the driving moral force behind Trump.

This isn’t a full review of the book, nor is it trying to tease out the enormity of the Russian connection, in a spiritual, legal, and economic sense (indeed, every time I try to, I get lost in the vastness of the details, which might be the point). I hope to do a full review this week, and hope to bring out more connections as we go along.

But there was one passage that struck me, and that clarified a lot of what I have been thinking about when we talk about arming teachers.

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Frayed Alliance: Turkey, Russia, and Iran Circle Back to Familiar Patterns

 

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he This map helpfully has every area I want to talk about

During WWI, the Ottoman Empire’s main concern wasn’t the British or French, and certainly not the Americans, but the Russians. The Russian Empire had fought the Ottomans time and time again throughout the centuries, with at least 11 distinct wars over territory.

Most of these wars revolved around the Balkans and the Ukraine, territory both empires thought was rightfully theirs. Russia, when the wars began in the 1600s, was an upstart, unfurling its frozen limbs from St. Petersberg after a slow recovery from Mongol depredations.

But conflict wasn’t entirely in Slavic lands. The reason why the Turks were so worried about the Russians, of course, was that the Russians had pushed their empire into the Caucasus Mountains, on the Ottoman’s eastern flank. That region, flanked by the Black and Caspian seas, was of vital importance to the local players, which is why a fur-hat dominated European hereditary dynasty fought bloody and indecisive wars to tame it.

This should clear everything up

Some of these wars that Russia fought for the Caucasus were against the region’s other historic power, the Persians. As Russia moved into that area, they fought a series of wars against the Persians, being rebuffed in the first war in 1651, but slowly gaining ground as the empires traded strength. By 1828, Russia was in firm control of what had been Persian territory.

As_Between_Friends_(Punch_magazine,_13_December_1911,_detail)

See?

So during the Great War, the Turks got awfully worried about the Armenians, Orthodox Christians who had spent nearly 100 years as part of the Russian Empire, serving as a buffer or a fifth column inside Ottoman territory. And it was pretty clear with whom the Armenians sided.

So, in order to prevent the Russians from consolidating territory, they had gained from the Persians and using it as a launching ground for an eastern front, the Young Turks tried to eliminate the Armenians, whose crime was being in the middle of three great empires.

This is sort of a long way of saying: that’s where we are again today.

Post-West, A Region Falls Into Historical Patterns

I was thinking about this when I read an article on Eurasia Review, originally from the Tasnim News Agency. It is about the Iranian president criticizing Turkey for their incursions in Syria.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged that Turkey’s military assault on Afrin region in northwest Syria should come to an end, stressing that the presence of an armed force in another country needs the consent of that country’s government and people.

Now, you might be skeptical of Iranian concern for this, given that they have been operating in Syria for the duration of the war, being, along with Russia, the main supporters of Asad. Rouhani could probably scoff at charges of hypocrisy though, since his statement was couched by saying “needs the consent of…government and people.”

And he has the consent of the government, if you believe Syria really exists anymore, which I sort of don’t. The people? That’s a bit trickier. But the main point is that none of the major players are actually concerned with the wishes of a sovereign Syrian people. Instead, this is a regional battleground. For Iran, it is partly (largely) against the Sauds, but more and more, it is becoming the testing ground for old enmities against Russia and Turkey.

Last year I talked about these powers, and how they were maneuvering with and against each other. There was sort of an alliance between the three, but that, to me, was one of quick convenience, a way to fully and finally push out the US and the rest of the West. And that’s what happened: while we can still bomb Syria and supply Saudi Arabia to destroy Yemen, there isn’t much in the way of US influence.

Trump is so emotionally conflicted by this image

 

It is tempting to say that’s a void into these other powers are filling, but that’s not really accurate. Rather, the presence of the West is a recent imposition which has been removed. Your mileage may vary about Russia being the West or not, but there is no doubt it has been active in the region for nearly 500 years. While Russia has always cared about its east, and pushing into Europe, it is its south, with warm water, open ports, and route into the Indian Ocean, that has driven it.

Russia would love for Asad to win, and to be able to take advantage of a friendly country to establish warm water ports in the Mediterranean. Along with its Crimea grab, that would give it a foothold in the both that sea and the Black. And it needs those, because it is being outmaneuvered by both Iran and Turkey in the Caspian (which we talked about last year, my favorite to write and least-read article.)

But it isn’t like Turkey and Iran are buddies, either, as Rouhani’s criticism of Turkey shows. This is more Iran wanting Turkey to stay out of what it considers its zone, but Turkey wants to rid itself of meddlesome Kurds, and so is creating, in Afrin, a “buffer”.

If it happens to claim a chunk of Syria, well, what is Syria anyway?

That isn’t their only front either. They are also waging a war of influence in the Caucuses, with Azerbaijan beginning to turn toward Ankara, even though the historic Azeri heartland is split between that country and northern Iran.

And so that’s where we are. Once again, the Eurasian heartland is slowly being dominated by its historic powers, with Saudi upstartedness as essentially a rearguard action by the West. I have no idea who this will play out. But it is time to stop looking at the brief flicker of the 20th-century as a regional paradigm. For better or worse (but most likely neither, or both), it has been snuffed.

The new old reality is back.