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.

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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.

 

 

 

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A Reminder That Iran Protests Don’t Exist Because of or Despite the United States

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I am far from an expert on Iranian internal politics or its economy–though, if you’ve watched the shows or been on Twitter the last few days, that shouldn’t stop anybody from opining intently. Is this anti-regime? Pro-Trump? Anti-Trump? Does it show the nuclear deal was a success, or another capitulation? Should we investigate Hillary? What does Tucker Carlson think? Etc.

What is happening in Iran has quickly become, as these things do, internalized. It’s become about the United States, subsumed into our domestic debates and endless dining room squabbling. Who was right about Iran? Who was wrong?

This is frustrating, and not just because it is myopic, and frankly irritating as hell, but because it gets to the very heart of the problem: we don’t see the Iranians as actual people, but rather as pawns in our imperial power and our domestic maneuvering. And because of that, we’re almost doomed to make worse what could be a propitious moment in regional history.

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Kurdish Independence Referendum Key Moment in Modern Eurasian History

 

Image from Al Jazerra

 

What can bring together the governments of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and the United States?

Voting stations set up for the referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq have closed their doors and counting of ballots has begun, according to the official supervising body.

Voting closed at 6pm local time (16:00 GMT) on Monday, and the final results were expected to be announced within 72 hours.

Erbil-based Rudaw TV, citing the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, said 78 percent of the more than five million eligible voters turned out to vote.

In Kirkuk, authorities declared a curfew an hour and a half before polls closed as jubilant Kurds started to celebrate.

Yup. After 13 years of virtual autonomy, decades of Baathist repression, nearly 100 of being yoked into an imperial etching of a country, and centuries of repression, the Kurds of Iraq have taken a huge step toward having the first independent Kurdish state. That’s uh…not going over great in the rest of the region.

Needless to say, the government in Baghdad isn’t happy, but neither are their neighbors. Iran, Syria, and most of all Turkey have large Kurdish populations which could see this (non-binding) referendum as an incentive to start their own state.

Turkey has spent its entire post-WWI history defining being Turkish as being “not-Kurdish”, and has fought a long-running civil war to maintain that identity. Its intervention in Syria was more to prevent Kurdish power than to stop ISIS. Kurdish oppression has long been a key part of Asad rule in Syria, and Kurdish fighters (allied with the US) have been using the chaos to create autonomous zones, much like they did in Iraq.

So this is a hinge time, but it has been a long time coming. In the post-Ottoman scramble after WWI, England and France divvied up the Middle East, creating what seemed to be manageable states for the purpose of exploitation. The Kurds were left stateless, divided between these new countries and a newly Kemalist Turkey, fighting to consolidate power in the rump of empire.

It isn’t that there was no sympathy for the Kurds; it is just that, well, the whole thing was too damned difficult.  Better to have a few pliant countries than actually care about national ambition, no matter the noble mummerings of Versaille.

(Fun counterfactual history for HBO: imagine if both Kurdish representatives and Ho Chi Min were listened to at Versaille. You probably can’t, because history would be more boring).

To be fair, though, it isn’t like oppression was new to the Kurds. A regional minority, they had fought against Arabs and Persians and Turks and Russians and everyone else since forever, honing skills in their mountain fastness. There is a reason the US has cultivated them as allies: the peshmerga have a reputation as ferocious fighters, and unlike when we cultivate allies in other parts of the world, seem to have developed excellent democratic instincts.

Indeed, in many ways, the Kurdish indepenence movements are some of the last bastions of true radicalism in the world, which is why so many American leftists have gone to fight with them. They have a reputation of being egalitarian in terms of gender. We all love praising female peshmerga, with a frisson of excitement, but they are no less progressive in their politics.  If you want to hear a very weird but cool story, read how Abdullah Ocalan was influenced by the ecological radicalism of Murray Bookchin.

Indeed, the Kurds might be too liberal for the US, but that isn’t why America opposes the referendum. We support Kurdish independence in theory, but would like it to remain in theory until the right time, which is when the Middle East is stable, peaceful, and able to absorb a political shock, which is to say: never.

But never seems too long for people who have successfully set up a government and who are far more capable of governing themselves than the kelpto-theo-crats in Baghdad. The US, though, has no one to blame but itself. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the catastrophic jolt that set history back in motion after the colonial/post-colonial interregnum.

We’ve argued in this joint that the 100 years after WWI have been just a post-Ottoman shakedown, stilted and perverted by the the colonial period and the distortions of the post-colonial reactions, which took place in the context of the nation-state. But the invasion of Iraq broke apart that status quo, leading as it did to:

  • A split Iraq
  • Growing Persian strength (played out all around the region)
  • The rise of ISIS
  • Civil war in Syria (or at least, made worse by the factionalism unleashed in Iraq and the refugee crisis)
  • Kurdish autonomy and strength

All of these are essentially post-state, post-Sykes/Picot, post-Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchhill and Nasser and the Shah and Saddam. The war was the preciptiating factor int he great Near East dissolve, unleashing as it did forces which had been shifting around under the surface of a phony, ahistoric map.

To say we’re entering a new historic era is wrong. We’re just entering the next phase of an era that began as the Ottoman Empire fell and Europe rushed into the void. The Kurdish referendum won’t solve anything, and on the surface won’t change anything, but will set the tenor for the next step. The US can’t stop the forces that the invasion set loose. Nor, I think, should it try. More than one empire has been wrecked on the shoals of that sort of hubris.

Is Iran Rogue for Arming The Houthis? Only If You Think the US Should Determine What Happens in the Middle East

 

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Pictured: Not the US

 

It’s been a big couple of day for people pointing out Iran’s involvement in Yemen’s cruel and generationally-destructive civil war. The Times had a pretty big story about it, relying on the unbiased reporting of the United States.

The top American admiral in the Middle East said on Monday that Iran continues to smuggle illicit weapons and technology into Yemen, stoking the civil strife there and enabling Iranian-backed rebels to fire missiles into neighboring Saudi Arabia that are more precise and far-reaching.

Iran has been repeatedly accused of providing arms helping to fuel one side of the war in Yemen, in which rebels from the country’s north, the Houthis, ousted the government from the capital of Sana in 2014.

The officer, Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan, said that Iran is sustaining the Houthis with an increasingly potent arsenal of anti-ship and ballistic missiles, deadly sea mines and even explosive boats that have attacked allied ships in the Red Sea or Saudi territory across Yemen’s northern border. The United States, the Yemeni government and their allies in the region have retaliated with strikes of their own and recaptured some Houthi-held coastal areas to help blunt threats to international shipping, but the peril persists, the admiral said.

This is an…interesting spin on this. To be clear, it is almost certainly true. Though initial Iranian involvement in the Houthi conflict (dating back to 2004) was clearly exaggerated, as there weren’t any real links between the Houthi version of Shi’ism and Iran’s Twelverism, Iranian influence and involvement have grown disastrously.

But one of the main reasons Iranian involvement has grown is because of increased involvement by Saudi Arabia, its regional and sectarian rival. Saudi Arabia wanted to break the Houthi rebellion and support their chosen President, and so invaded, with horrifying results.

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Nikki Haley and the Iran Deal: Willful Misunderstanding of the Past and Present

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Lots of country’s think they have zones of influence.

It was washed away by storms last week, but Nikki Haley gave a speech to the AEI about the Iran deal, and the need to revoke or renegotiate it. It was a masterpiece of alternate realities, falsehoods, and outright lies. It was, in short, everything the right has been saying about the Iran deal for years.

That is was Nikki Haley is significant. She hasn’t come up much on this blog, mostly because, unlike nearly everyone else in Trump’s orbit, she isn’t trying to actively destroy her department (Pruitt, Sessions, Devos) or use it to further enrich their own class (Mnuchin, Cohn, the First Family). She seems to take her job seriously.

But at the end of the day, she’s still a Republican in 2017, and beholden to the idea–really, the totemic belief–that everything Barack Obama did was wrong, and evil. They’ve based an entire philosophy, nearly an eschatology, around that, and so it must be pursued. In very few places was that more clear than the Iran deal.

By literally every measure, the Iran deal was a sweeping success. As Stephen Walt points out in his dissection of Haley’s speech, in the deal “Iran gave up enriched uranium, destroyed 13,000 centrifuges, dismantled the Arak reactor, let the U.N. install monitoring devices, implemented the NPT Additional Protocol, and a host of other measures — all before the United States or anyone else began lifting sanctions.”

Iran went from zero centrifuges to 12000 between 2002 and 2012, when we were acting unilaterally. Then in a triumph of diplomacy for Obama, Kerry, and co, we roped in not just European allies but Russia and China to increase sanctions on Iran, which hurt them enough to get to the negotiating table. It not only got them there, but they gave up a lot.

The problem, from the right, is that Iran didn’t give up everything. They still have an army. They are still able to project influence across the region and interfere with US goals and interest, whatever they are now. They got some stuff out of the negotiations, which, as advanced, high-level students of diplomatic history will tell you, is the whole point of negotiations.

Look at how Haley spins this.

Iran was feeling the pinch of international sanctions in a big, big way. In the two years before the deal was signed, Iran’s GDP actually shrunk by more than four percent. In the two years since the deal, and the lifting of sanctions, Iran’s GDP has grown by nearly five percent. That’s a great deal for them. What we get from the deal is much less clear.

Sounds compelling! The only issue is that the GDP-pinching sanctions were levied explicitly as a way to get Iran to the negotiating table so it would stall and open up its nuclear program. Russia and China weren’t going to impose sanctions forever, and neither was Europe.

We didn’t give Iran an out from a crippled economy; we crippled it so that they would give up their nuclear program to heal. Haley’s argument is entirely mendacious, misleading nonsense that demonstrates embittered opposition to reality.

Musical interlude! 

Walt, in his vivisection (which you should read: he offers a point-by-point rebuttal, even as he acknowledges that it is way easier to them to lie than for us to point out the truth), gets to the heart of the issues.

When facts and logic fail them, opponents of the JCPOA resurrect the myth of a “better deal.” Having failed to stop Obama’s original negotiation, they now claim decertifying the deal is the first step to persuading Iran and the other members of JCPOA to agree to major revisions or new restrictions. As I’ve written before, this is a vain, even laughable, hope. Contrary to unreliable sources like Bloomberg reporter Eli Lake, the other signatories remain strongly committed to the agreement and want it to remain intact, even if they would also like Iran to modify some of its other behavior in other ways. More importantly, this view incorrectly assumes the United States has unlimited leverage over Iran, and that getting tough now will magically produce a better deal.

This is it exactly. For one thing, it is crazy to think that after years of holding together a multinational sanctions regime to get a deal that gave the world what they most wanted, i.e. an Iran that can’t restart its nuclear program for 15 years, the rest of the world will be thrilled that we ripped up the deal. It’s crazy to think they’d want to start over, and wildly delusional to think they’d trust the United States at all. They wouldn’t if a normal GOPer like Rubio or Cruz tore it up; they certainly won’t trust Trump.

And more than that, do you really think Iran would actually respond to that? That they’d say “OK, now that you’ve made it clear we get nothing at all for giving up our weapons program, we’ll be sure to come to the table. What’s that? You actually want us to give up more? To stop trying to influence our region? To stop acting like the historic power we are, and let America do whatever it wants in the Middle East? Great! Where do wanna do this? We’ll bring orange slices!”

It’s madness and fallacy to think that the Iranian regime, or really, any post-Shah Iranian government, would enter into any agreement that lessens their regional power and increases that of the West. To believe that is to have zero historical understanding, of the near or the distant past.

The Iranian revolution wasn’t about Islam, or not entirely. There was a mix of anti-imperialist leftists, communists, other various secularists, religious types who didn’t want clerical rule (which remember, is what Khomeini first promised) and non-ideological nationalists who were just tired of western interference.

Western Europe and Russia had eclipsed Persian power in the region in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until oil that the West really started controlling what was happening in Iran. Lopsided deals with venal flunkies gave England and then America a dominant role in the expropriation of Iranian resources. Shahs got rich, the west got rich, and most Iranians stayed poor. The same thing happened in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Western colonialism in the Middle East was a 20th-century phenomenon, which in our lifetime seems like all of eternity, but was really a blip. It was a terrible one, from the perspective of the inhabitants, of course. It was dirty and condescending and venal and greedy and grubbing. It was literally crude. Khomeini wasn’t just deposing a shah for the sake of Islam: he was kicking out the west for the sake of Iran.

That’s the heart of this. Iran, after a low and brutal, but historically brief, interregnum, is trying to reassert itself in a changing and fluid Middle East, still reeling from the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the perversions of 20th-century colonialism and nationalism.

To think that it won’t continue this process is madness. To think that we still have unlimited influence is absurd. The US hasn’t had any real influence in Iran since 1979, and even before that it was limited, as the Shah clumsily played the US and the USSR against each other. Even where we had influence in the region, it clashed with the waves of current politics and with history, and the way those two smashed and foamed into each other.

It isn’t a unique American delusion to think that we can control everything everywhere. Iran believes that too! They are trying to influence Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and more. And that’s the point. Iran sees itself as a major player in an important part of the world, a hinge part of the world. It is right to see itself that way. Historically that has been the case, and now that it once again has control of its resources, it wants to reassert itself.

Our goal shouldn’t be unlimited influence. The history of Asia has been major and minot powers balancing themselves with others, dominating when they can and cooperating when they can’t. Our influence in the region is extremely limited. That Barack Obama was able to get Iran to give up its single-biggest asset was a miraculous display of geopolitical reality.

The attempt to destroy that comes from Obama blindness. It comes from ignorance of the 20th century and a misperception of how powerful we actually were. It comes from a complete denial of the way history actually works, and Iranian self-perception. Combined, it is a potential disaster. But then, what else is new?

Mohammed bin Salman, Murderer of Yemen, To Be Next Saudi King

 

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This is the yacht future king Mohammed bin Salman bought last year for over $300 million.

 

To say the Saudi line of succession has been sclerotic is to underestimate the ravages of sclerosis. It has barely been a succession, as far as we usually understand it, as the kingdom hasn’t moved forward a generation since Ibn Saud kicked it in 1953: it has just been a series of his sons, a bunch of dyed-bearded princelings handing the crown sideways to each other for 60 years. There’s been more dynamism in the staid permanence of Queen Elizabeth.

But that had to change. As prolific a progenitor as Ibn Saud was, eventually he was going to run out of sons. The current occupant, Salman, was one of the last born, in 1935. He’s 81 years young, and just yesterday announced one of the bigger shakeups in Saudi Arabia’s brief history.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia promoted his 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, to be next in line to the throne on Wednesday, further empowering a young, activist leader at a time when the kingdom is struggling with low oil prices, a rivalry with Iran and conflicts across the Middle East.

The decision to remove the previous crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, comes as some members of the royal family have chafed at the rise of the younger prince, who emerged from relative obscurity when his father, 81, ascended the throne in January 2015.

So whence the trigger for this move? Well, there are competing reasons.

The first is that bin Nayef might have fallen slightly out of favor due partly to the weird diplomatic attack on Qatar. That’s probably unfair to him, since they were given a tacit (and then essentially explicit) ok to do so from Donald Trump (which is a sentence that will never seem like it makes sense: “Wait, the guy from The Apprentice?” It sounds like a dispatch from Bizzaro World, which, I suppose, it is).

Despite Trump’s deeply unserious and self-praising blundering, the State Department yesterday came out strongly against KSA and UAE, with some deeply undiplomatic language.

On June 20, the State Department issued a statement that was perhaps the strongest criticism of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recent memory. In response to Saudi statements about having proof of Qatar’s terror financing—an issue that historically has been a real concern for all GCC countries—State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. was tired of waiting for the proof: “Now that it’s been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar.”

She went on to add that the “more that time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At this point, we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns about Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?”

That hurts. Neither country is very good at dealing with criticism, and they generally react poorly. Still, though, their heavy-handed nonsense, which only served to empower Iran and Turkey, might have been the precipitating factor, but it clearly wasn’t the only one. This is less about bin Nayef, who has long been the crown prince of American foreign policy hearts, and more about bin Salman. The Soufan Group explains:

Perhaps one element of the king’s announcements that may have caused surprise was their timing. But with the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen attracting wide support in the kingdom and throughout the rest of the Sunni Middle East, where it is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a long overdue and muscular retort to the growth of Iranian influence, this was a good time to promote Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As minister of defense, Mohammed bin Salman has been presented as the man in charge of the air campaign and the architect of what may be seen as a rare Arab military success. It is likely that the impact of the campaign has now peaked, with little more to be achieved against a relatively powerless neighbor without a far more tricky and uncertain ground operation; the elevation of Prince Mohammed bin Salman may therefore have caught his popularity on the flood.

Yup. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. Bin Salman was barely known before the war against Yemen, or against Iran, started. But he quickly won favor with a stirring series of military successes based entirely on indiscriminate carpet bombing. It got so bad that the US Congress intervened on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, briefly.

Now, of course, the floodgates are opened. Team Trump sees Yemen as an “area of active hostilities”, wiping away even the pretense that Yemen was a humanitarian situation more than a war zone (and, to be fair, Obama barely kept up even that pretense). They look at Yemen, and see a spot for ISIS and AQAP, but mostly they see Iran (and probably conflate the threats).  And so the elevation of bin Salman, who is perhaps the strongest Sunni voice for anti-Iranian belligerence, sees his kinghood at least temporarily assured.

One can’t blame this entirely or even largely on Trump or on the United States, of course. The rivalry has been brewing for decades. Centuries, really, but not being strict determinists, we’ll look at the political battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran from a contemporary geopolitical lens. It’s the “big war” in which all the little wars are fought.

It’s a cold war which is getting hotter, and proxies are not being added as much as adopted. The war in Yemen would have happened without Saudi and Iranian interference; indeed, they more or less just chose sides, Iran more so because everyone already thought they did, and so had to save a little face. Syria, same. So every generational conflict is now being subsumed into this big war, which amps up the carnage and lowers the chance of any kind of decent revolutions for decades.

For an example of how this can spiral out of control for generations, look at how Afghanistan’s internal strife hasn’t stopped since it got further ground up in the abattoir of US/Soviet politics. And we only had like 30 years of hating each other at that point.

Yemen’ agony is unbearable. The nation “on the brink” for 10 years has fully topped over. It will never be whole. Famine and disease will wreck it. Bin Salman is not its only oppressor. These wars have been brewing and exploding through avarice, short-sightedness, and petty politics. But he is most responsible for the sheer reckless destruction and degradation of anything resembling a functioning state. And now that has been elevated. This war, both big and small, is just getting started.