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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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.

 

 

 

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.

Temperature Forecast for the Middle East: Hot and Dry Conditions Expected for 10,000 Years

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The Empty Quarter looks like a preview of what’s to come

It’s going to be 90 and humid in Chicago tomorrow. Ugh. But, relatively, I don’t feel too bad.

July 10 (UPI) — New analysis of Iranian stalagmites have offered a detailed history of water resources in the region. The findings suggest the Middle East is unlikely to enjoy a relief from its prolonged drought for at least another 10,000 years.

The newest analysis — detailed this week in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews — helped scientists estimate water availability during the last glacial and interglacial periods. The findings suggest water in the Middle East is likely to remain scarce for some time.

We’ve talked about how drought has helped to create and sustain the wars and conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and other areas. That is connected to this. The immediate droughts are, I think, part of the larger pattern, or a dip in a permanent decline (permanent on a civilizational level).

This kind of drought is to be expected in an interglacial period, as the study says. The problem, of course, is that we didn’t know we were in an interglacial period, and so built civilizations as if everything was going to stay the same forever. It didn’t, of course. Mesopotamia was once verdant, but it got used up, made into a harsh desert by human shirt-sightedness, made worse by the normal shifting of rivers, made worse by the normal planetary rhythms, and made worse by war, and made catastrophically worse by the acceleration of climate change.

Indeed: A number of climate models have previously predicted much of the Middle East will become too hot and dry to sustain large human populations by the end of the century.

This is why it is so irritating when dummies say “the world has always been changing, so don’t worry about climate change!” Yes, it is true, the world has always been changing. But what they miss is that when it changes this much, it is catastrophically bad for living things.

And what they miss is that these natural changes, like the drought patterns in the Middle East during interglacial periods, happen on an inhuman time scale, which means that we’ve built our civilizations in ignorance of their impact. And then we accelerate their impact with the very product of our civilization. It’s making everything incredibly worse. It’s like pointing to a map of Pangea and sneering that “the continents are always moving!” while turning on your earthquake machine.

The planet that might not actually be conducive to our existence, long-term. We’re in the glacial flicker, and thought it would be permanent. All of our actions over the last few centuries–and really, all of our existence–have made that existence less tenable.

(For further reading on just how bad it can get, read David Wallace-Wells’ remarkable and remarkably depressing NYMag article “The Uninhabitable Earth.” Maybe not everything he says will come true (and he’s not saying it all will). But a lot of this is inevitable.

If you don’t want to read it, just close your eyes and picture the Middle East uninhabitable in 80 years. Know it will just keep getting hotter and drier, which will make it more violent as people fight and kill for scarce resources, and the refugee crisis makes today’s trickle a flood (exacerbated by what will be happening in Africa, Central Asia, the American southwest, etc). These are not worst-case scenarios. They’re the future.)

Qatar and Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, War in Syria: The Dangers of Unserious Leadership in Fragile Times

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I’m not saying that to be a successful President you have to understand what this map means. But you actually kind of do…

America has been rightfully consumed with the subdued opera of the Comey hearings, in which members of both parties accepted as a stipulation that the President was a grotesque, habitual liar, and that his best defense was he literally has no idea what he is doing, so how could he be obstructing justice? I don’t know the legal ramifications of this, but even as the GOP desperately tried to downplay Comey, which seems to imply a return to the status quo, I think there will continue to be a steady drip of revelations. Comey implying that Sessions is dirtier than we (well, the media) thought might be the first major crack. No one is going to want to be the last person to go down for this.

But think again about the essential shrugging reaction even senators from his own party have to the essential nature of Trump: sure he’s dishonest and completely incapable of being President, but is that illegal? Maybe for the former, probably not for the latter. But that’s not the issue: the issue is that it is extremely dangerous. It’s dangerous domestically, and potentially catastrophic abroad.

There could be few worse times to have a blundering, spite-filled, ego-driven ignorant man as President of the United States. The post-WWII order was crumbling, but just as importantly (if unremarked), the post-WWI order in the Middle East (and much or Eurasia) is crumbling and reforming in unexpected and difficult ways as well. This is a hinge moment for a huge part of the world, and with his disaster-junkie approach to things, Trump can’t help but make it enormously worse. And it starts, of course, with Qatar.

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The “Chemical Weapons” Fiasco Is A Result of Not Understanding Syria or Russia; or: Spicer Is an Idiot, But He’s Also Carrying Water for Idiots

 

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“Ok, but…” No! Just don’t start that way. It’s SO easy

 

Look, it’s not hard. Normal people don’t slip up and say things like “Hitler never gassed his own people!” Most people don’t even start sentences with “At least Hitler…”  That’s Human Speaking 101, and something that, if your entire job is to talk, you should have learned. So one can reasonably come to the conclusion that Sean Spicer isn’t particularly good at his job.

One can also, when riding in the wake of Seanspicerholocaustcenterdumbassgate, draw darker conclusions. This is an administration that didn’t mention Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day,  and it is one that employs not just Steve Bannon, but the ludicrous and grotesque pro-Nazi bigot Sebastian Gorka. It’s attracted the very worst elements of American politics, people who were more repulsively fringe than Steven King, mucking up from the bile of the hardest right. Every half-bright sexless bigot like Steven Miller with an axe to grind gyered and gimbled their way to the White House.  They were drawn by Donald Trump, who himself is a half-bright bigot. Like attracts like.

So yeah, you could say that hearing some perhaps mixed messages about Hitler contributed to Spicer’s confusion Choitner discusses that, but also gets closer to the real issues, which is that Spicer has to flip-flop almost daily.  Or not even flip-flop: wrench around based on the ill-informed whims of above-mentioned half-bright bigot.

The horrible weight of electing someone who never deeply considered any policy before, other than spouting off about headlines he skimmed, much like every other ill-informed paper-reader, is beginning to really press down on us. Our allies have no idea what to believe. Russia doesn’t even pretend to take us seriously. It has zero interest in listening to the administration, because, as we said yesterday, it is clear the administration doesn’t know what it is doing. Hell, right now, Putin is leaving Tillerson twisting in the wind.

Vali Nasser goes in-depth about why Russia will stay with Assad, and it is pretty clear that no one in the Trump administration has given these reasons much thought. They seem to believe that suddenly believing Assad “should go” is tantamount to a coherent policy that should be respected. I still think that Putin is making a mistake, and that even if things are going “well” right now, he’ll still end up broken on the rocks of an impossible conflict, but his short-term logic requires him to stay. And it certainly doesn’t require him to listen to an administration that has believed in what they are saying for about 15 minutes.

Trump likes to say he is “unpredictable”, and sell that as a virtue. And, to an extent (or rather, in neutral conditions) that could be true. But he isn’t “unpredictable” as part of some clever game; he’s unpredictable because he has no idea what he’s doing. His talk of not letting enemies know what he is going to do is pure bluster: he has no plans, no goals, no strategies, but couldn’t ever say that. So, like with everything else in his entirely empty life, he spun that off as a virtue. Oh, I can’t tell you what I am going to do, you’ll have to wait and see, but it’s great. Super great. I know more about everything that everyone, you’ll see. It worked during his days as a real estate and promotional carny, and it somehow worked during the campaign. He became President.

But it doesn’t work when you actually have to do things. When his casinos failed after empty promises, he declared bankruptcy. That’s something you can do when you are rich. He always had a system that would pick him up after he failed. But that doesn’t exist anymore. There is no backup. You actually have to produce, and you can’t suddenly have a coherent foreign policy when you’ve never actually thought of one before.

That’s where we are at now. A huckster who claimed that he was unpredictable as a way to mask his total ignorance is in a position where there is no net. He acts entirely on emotion and whims, never actually thinking things through. Eric Trump, showing the family gift for argument by evidence-free and indeed self-evidently counterfactual assertion, told the Daily Telegraph that his father was a “great thinker, practical not impulsive,” and added, “Believe me he thinks things through.” The last sentence also showed the family flair for relying on a non-existent wellspring of reliability.

This isn’t just snark. Pointing out the way this family runs is to point out how they are running the country. You can see that with Syria. One day it’s “Assad? He’s ok, I don’t care” and then “Well we should do something about that maybe” and then “Did we get good press for blowing things up? Then our position is that he’s big-league worse than Hitler. Got it Spicer?”

So no, Spicer can’t handle it. Partly because he’s an idiot, of course. But partly because he’s working for people with no idea what they are doing. In a way, he’s doing us all a service. If they had someone good at their job, they might be able to spin this in a way where you could potentially believe that the Trump administration knew what they were doing, that our allies wren’t terrified, that we weren’t being buffeted on the whims of an old man who is equal parts terrifying and laughable. Spicer’s wild incompetence does us the kindness of laying bare the enormoity of our world-historic mistake.

 

Tillerson’s “Warning” To Russia about Assad: Trump’s Meaningless Foreign Policy in a Nutshell

 

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The President gathers his top men

 

The Wall Street Journal reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has landed in Moscow, where he will seek to convince Russia to back away from its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Yeah, Russia: you better start following this policy that we’ve had for nearly five days now.

It isn’t even that I disagree. It’s just that: is Russia supposed to take this seriously? “Oh, the Americans bombed an empty airfield and announced it was a one-off, except when Spicer said it wasn’t, then said he was wrong. This sure seems consistent and permanent. We better do what they say!”

This is what happens when you elect a man who has no idea what he’s doing and whose top advisors (Bannon, Kushner, Priebus) have exactly zero days of federal government experience between them.