The Idea of a Russia/Saudi Alliance in a Post-US Middle East

Last week, we looked at the (admittedly impossible) idea that the United States might break with Saudi Arabia over Yemen, and then over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. I still think it is impossible, but just today the President of Turkey made it very clear he believes the murder was premeditated, and not the result of the laughably absurd fistfight.

Now, it is not the official policy of this blog to turn matters of truth and morality over to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but in this case, we’re inclined to believe him. At the very least, the Turkish intelligence community has been sitting on information for weeks, letting it drip out to counter ever Saudi lie. It’s been sort of masterful, if you ignore the backdrop of a man’s brutal torture and murder.

The Turkish angle here isn’t entirely clear, though it also seems pretty obvious on the surface. They have been vying once again with Saudi Arabia for the leadership role in the Middle East, and indeed the broader Muslim world. For 1000 years Istanbul was the heart of Islam, and while it is reductive and probably Orientalist to say they want it back, the idea of Turkey as a world-historic power is part of Erdogan’s appeal.

We’ve talked about how in the post-West Middle East, powers like Russia, Turkey, and Iran were circling back to familiar patterns. This isn’t due to historical determinism, but rather to the realities of political geography. They are all jostling over borderlands. And while Saudi Arabia isn’t on a border with any of them, there is an imaginary borderland between the Arab world, the Persian one, the Turkish one, and the Russian one.

Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as the true fighter for the Arab world against Iran, and successive US administrations have rushed to reward them for it. But the eager complicity of Obama, while real and a true stain, pales in comparison to the headlong alliance the US under Trump has forged with Saudi Arabia. Their mutual obsession with Iran, and the ahistoric and indeed idiotic idea that it has no rights to influence the region, have created a relationship based on murder and mutual complicity.

But let’s say that it changes (it won’t). Is a Saudi/Russian alliance possible? We have seen a lot of commentators say that we can’t lose the alliance of the House of Saud, for economic and geostrategic reasons. They’d move into the arms of Russia or China.

Russia is possible, I suppose, in the short term, but I don’t really see it being a lasting thing, for a few reasons.

  1. Russia is already involved in the Middle East on the side of Asad and ostensibly Iran, so are basically opposed to Saudi interests. Cynicism could allow for flexibility, as the Russian position isn’t based on any strong regional ideology, but there are too many inherent contradictions.
  2. Russia doesn’t need Saudi oil. The US doesn’t really, either, but Russia would much rather be the sole supplier of Europe’s energy than enter an alliance with a potential competitor.

These can surely be overlooked for a time being. There is no doubt that Moscow is using this as a wedge issue. They made it clear that the murder of a journalist doesn’t bother them in the slightest. They didn’t explicitly say “Come on- you really think that bothers us?”, but the implication was pretty obvious.

Western governments are acting horrified, and maybe they are. Angela Merkel said they might stop selling arms to the Saudis (which, could have happened over Yemen, but small victories, I suppose). Western mucky-mucks are pulling out of the obscene Davos in the Desert wankfest. This gives Russia an opening.

If Russia were to become a patron and ally of Saudi Arabia, with enough skill they could be the main power broker in the region, bring a rough peace to Syria, and play Iran and the Saudis off each other. That is probably the Russian angle here, at least in the long run. The short-term is just to cause chaos.

But I don’t think they have that skill, and anyway, if the US were to back away, China is the much more likely suitor. Energy and resources without strings attached is the Chinese approach to foreign policy. That would be a far snugger fit for the Saudi ruling clique.

(So far I’ve been stipulating that it would be easy to just suddenly start buying arms from another country, which isn’t the case at all. That’s a generational process and would cripple the Saudi war machine, which is the main reason the US should cut them off.)

I don’t really think any of this will come to pass. In announcing that the US has no intention of giving up arms sales, the Trump administration has inverted the idea of the client state. We know we let “useful” countries do essentially whatever they want as long as they are useful. But now we’re saying “we’ll do whatever you want if you give our richest corporations some more money.” Trump has made the US a client state.

But still: the outrage from the West has to make the Saudi nervous. If they didn’t have such a stalwart dipshit as their primary ally, they could be in trouble. I think they’ll be casting for closer alliances with China, while using and being used by Russia.

This, combined with growing Turkish ambitions, threatens even more instability. Erdogan is clearly trying to influence internal Saudi politics and shake up the ruling family. Russia is trying to play all sides without a long-term strategy. Old alliances aren’t exactly crumbling, but are revealed to be shakier. A million temporary alliances of convenience come and go.

We’re not quite in the post-US Middle East, but we are in a state where the US is just another player, a powerful one, but one dumber and less rich than it thinks. That’s very dangerous, and promises a region where new weapons and strategies fit bloodily over old patterns.

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

 

Image result for ilisu dam

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.

 

 

 

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

 

Image result for caucasus middle east

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.