Posts

The Turkish Gambit: Erdogan Issues An Ultimatum To the US In Syria

This broke late last night/early this morning:

ANKARA – The United States needs to withdraw from northern Syria’s Manbij region immediately, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday.

President Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said Turkish forces would sweep Kurdish fighters from the Syrian border and could push all the way east to the frontier with Iraq, including Manbij – a move which risks a possible confrontation with U.S. forces allied to the Kurds.

Speaking to reporters, Cavusoglu also said Turkey wanted to see concrete steps by the United States to end its support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

Ankara said earlier it had been told by U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster that Washington would not provide the YPG with weapons anymore.

There isn’t a lot of reporting yet on this. But this is worrisome as it would be operationally problematic for US forces to pullback from Manbij. It is also troubling because Erdogan, a NATO ally and partner of the US, specifically sought permission from Moscow for its escalating operations in Syria, not it’s US ally’s.

Moreover, less than 48 hours before the Turkish military operation — ironically dubbed Olive Branch — the Syrian regime in Damascus declared that a Turkish air operation would be met by Syrian missiles. The Syrian statement came while Turkey’s army and intelligence chiefs were in Moscow to get Russian approval and thus, the Syrian statement was interpreted as complementing a previous Russian warning against flying over Russian-controlled airspace over Syria.

The moment Turkish F-16s were in action and Turkish tanks rolled toward Afrin, no one was left with any doubt that Operation Olive Branch had the Russian green light.

The Russian position clearly indicates that the Syrian portion of the chessboard is important for Moscow in its game against Washington. Russia apparently saw a further opportunity to weaken NATO and create more fissures between Ankara and Washington by acquiescing to the Turkish military move into Afrin. The imperatives of Russia’s proxy war against the United States have preponderance over the uncertainties and problems that Turkey’s move could entail.

What we’re seeing is Erdogan’s need to shore up domestic support by targeting Syrian Kurdish groups allegedly connected to the PKK combining with Russia’s desire to drive a wedge into NATO as part of its active measures campaign against the US.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has blamed the US of trying to take control of the whole of Syrian-Turkish and Iraqi-Turkish borders by creating alternative authorities in Syria, pointing fingers at the SDF.

“Washington carries out open, and discreet delivery of arms to Syria for transfer to those groups that cooperate with them, especially to the SDF,” he said on Monday.

According to Mensur Akgun, a Turkish international relations professor, Russia’s move was understandable in light of Turkey’s firm stance on the PYD and YPG, and Moscow’s annoyance with the group’s close cooperation with the US.

“They are getting great support from the US. Washington is using the group, particularly in the east of the Euphrates [river], as a balancing force against the other powers there. They are using the group in order to increase the US presence and activities in this region,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I think this has become obvious with the announcement of the new border force planned to be set up there. Moscow, in my opinion, showed green light to Turkey’s operation to decrease the US influence in the region.”

Sergei Markov, a political analyst and a former MP from President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, believes it was Moscow’s way of increasing tensions between Washington and Ankara.

“Russia does not publicly support such a military operation, but it opened the gate for this operation because it basically starts a proxy war between Turkey and the US [through YPG],” he told Al Jazeera.

He added that if the US, Kurds and Turkey fight each other, that would be regarded as a very positive trend by the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and opposes all of those sides.

At this point we have to wait for more information to become available, but this is a very dangerous game being played. The US led coalition needs to maintain a presence in Manbij. It also needs to ensure that Syria’s borders are secure. Both of these have to happen as part of the campaign against ISIS. Turkey’s interest to prevent any Kurdish group from seizing and holding any ground that could be used as the basis for an independent Kurdistan, as well as its increasingly cozy relationship with Russia are very troubling signs. And as we can see with the Russians abandoning their historic support for the Kurds, the Russians are far more interested in rolling back US influence in the region and destabilizing, if not breaking, NATO than maintaining long standing support for a non state proxy. The Syrian Kurds are now learning that they are a disposable piece in Russia’s lukewarm war against the US and NATO. Given all the moving military pieces in play in the Levant, we are far more likely to stumble into something really bad happening here than almost anywhere else on the planet. The question now is, who blinks? The President or Turkey’s Erdogan?

Stay frosty!

Open thread.



The Muhammad bin Salman Gambit: Jockeying for Control and Hegemony Within and Without the Kingdom

While we wait for the Friday evening breaking news, I thought I’d take a minute and focus a bit on what is going on in Saudi Arabia in regard to both domestic and regional activities. Let’s take things one at a time.

1) The Saudi anti-corruption campaign: Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) has used the slogan anti-corruption to try to further solidify his position as Crown Prince. From his perspective he’s 32 and the Crown Prince. His father is 80 and in poor health. If he can solidify his position, then he can essentially rule Saudi for five or six decades. I think that this is what a good part of what we saw last week is about. Another portion is that it is a financial shakedown. Muhammad bin Salman is using the anti-corruption label to fine those he’s detained and/or to just strip them of vast sums of wealth. He needs capital to do what he wants, yet because of the price of oil for the past decade and the emergence of alternative energy options becoming competitive as the tech gets better, Saudi’s treasury is in bad shape. Funding a proxy war for regional hegemony against Iran hasn’t helped budgetary matters either.

What I think MBS would really like to do is change the governance dynamic within the Kingdom and these actions are all geared towards this goal. What he wants is not the familial/kinship/tribal style of rule of his predecessors where the Saudi king runs the kingdom like it is one big tribe with a bunch of smaller affiliated tribes in the mix. Rather MBS wants to turn Saudi into a proper, pre 20th century style absolute monarchy. I think we’ll have a better idea if he’s successful within the next 30 to 60 days. His coup proofing and wealth shakedown under cover of anti corruption is either going to be acquiesced to or there will be push back. It would not surprise me if he succeeds. It would also not surprise me if he is dead within two months. Or there is at least a credible attempt on his life. My long term impression of Saudi royal family politics is that it is quite opaque to any but the best informed outside observers who are given at least partial access to the Kingdom and the royal family. I think Saudi royal family internal politics can best be described as being like a bucket of crabs where each crab is trying to escape the bucket by crawling over the other crabs and by grabbing the crabs above them and pulling them down.

2) The Saudi campaign in Yemen: This is absolutely strategically stupid! The Houthis are Zaydis (Fivers), not Ithna Ashari (Twelvers) Shi’a. They had no long standing or historic alliance with Iran until the Saudis decided that there was an Iranian conspiracy against them in Yemen that leveraged the Houthis. So who did the Houthis turn to for supplies when they had no other options? The Iranians. The Saudis made the mess that is Yemen worse. And specifically Muhammad bin Salman did. This is his baby. What we’re watching with the Saudi actions in Yemen are that MBS is a terrible strategist, he’s also a terrible tactician, and what many have long observed is true: the Saudi military is good for parades and presentations and not very good if you need it to fight. They can’t and don’t do joint operations despite long term training programs to teach them to do so.

The only competent military service in Saudi is the National Guard, which is both a praetorian guard like force to protect the royal family (which MBS will now try to remake into protecting MBS since he’s arrested his cousin who ran the Guard) and the descendants of ibn Saud’s desert warriors, the Ikhwan, who were the first and some of the most fanatical converts to ibn Wahhab’s teachings of radical and extreme tawheed.* The Saudi campaign in Yemen has also created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The conditions in Yemen are horrible and abysmal. It is going to cost billions if not trillions to fix the mess Saudi created and by any measure should require prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

3) This leads us to the Saudi led blockade of Qatar. There are some long term issues in regard to who the Amir of Qatar provides financial support to, but what MBS did, in conjunction with his friend and mentor Muhammad bin Zayed the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, was also strategically stupid. The US has over 10,000 personnel at al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Those folks can’t just be relocated. Additionally, by putting the blockade in place it created the opportunity for Iran to expand its influence by offering to relieve Qatari food and other shortages created by the blockade, which it did. So here too Muhammad bin Salman’s strategic ineptitude is visible. Instead of checking Iranian influence, he created the conditions to expand it. And the Iranians took the opportunity.

4) Lebanon: This is a mess. Hariri’s party and his family are treating this as a Saudi driven plot. They’ve actually accused the Saudis of kidnapping Harriri, holding him against his will, and forcing him to do this. Regardless it only empowers Hezbullah in regard to Lebanon’s government. And Hezbullah, which is not exactly an ally of Hariri’s, is also now claiming he has been taken hostage by the Saudis. All Hariri’s resignation and flight to Saudi Arabia has done is create another new opportunity for Iran to expand its influence in Lebanon. Here too Muhammad bin Salman’s failure as a strategist is clearly evident. His actions have achieved the opposite effect from that he desired.

5) All of this is part of the larger, regional Saudi-Iranian proxy war for regional hegemony. Saudi seeks to be the hegemon and the protector of Sunni Islam. Iran seeks a Shia sphere of influence and near abroad. The difference is that the Iranians have, perhaps, the best strategist in the region – MG Suleimani, while the Saudis are being run by a 32 year old with delusions of grandeur.

As it always does with Saudi, some of this comes back to ibn Wahhab’s radical and extreme version of tawheed (the radical unity of the Deity). As Ahmad Moussalli wrote in Wahhabism, Salafism, and Islamism: Who is the Enemy:

the Wahhabi muwaheedun have been arguing for over 200 years that they are the true defenders of Sunni Islam, while at the same time being in direct and active opposition to 90% of Sunni Islam.

This also includes ibn Wahhab’s conceptualization of Sunni/Shi’a relations as good versus evil, which leads the Saudis to take an almost religiocidal approach to dealing with the Shi’a as ibn Wahhab’s teachings state the Shi’a must be killed wherever they can be found. This is contributing to the Saudi created mess in Yemen. 

Muhammad bin Salman has indicated that he wants to reform the version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. Specifically he wants to modernize and moderate it. That’s great. But a modernized and moderated radically extreme theology is still just a more pleasantly packaged radically extreme theology. The danger of ibn Wahhab’s radical concept of tawheed is that it is not jurisprudence.** It has no madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence). Despite attempts to claim it is an extension of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, it isn’t just a more severe Hanbalism. It is not ijtihad (Islamic jurisprudence and legal reasoning). Rather it is theology and doctrine. And theology and doctrine can spread and infect any of the four Sunni madhads. This is what has made it so dangerous because as radical and extreme as ibn Wahhab’s teachings were, they can be further refined. Which is what bin Laden and Zawahiri did for al Qaeda and what Zarqawi and Badghdadi have done with ISIS. And why first AQ’s and now ISIS’s even more extreme versions of ibn Wahhab’s tawheed have been able to spread. They aren’t madhab dependent, so they can travel throughout the Sunni Muslim world influencing theology and doctrine.

6) Finally, and one that is not Saudi specific, the US led coalition has reduced the physical caliphate, but all the conditions and drivers that made the Levant and the Middle East and the Maghreb and parts of Africa and Central Asia a powder keg haven’t been addressed, let alone resolved. There is still a long term regional drought, which was a major driver of both the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi sectarian violence. The proxy war between Saudi and Iran with Turkey trying to edge itself in is still ongoing.  Sectarian issues haven’t been resolved. The Kurds still don’t have independence and now the Barzani faction is angry and seeking support from Russia. Russia is not only determined to keep its warm water port in Latakia, but is trying to put a land route in through the Caucasus to another warm water port in Iran. ISIS may not have much physical territory left, but they’ve got plenty of cyber presence. The Netanyahu government and no one in his coalition has any real desire to resolve the dispute with the Palestinians, let alone allow for the creation of a Palestinian state. The US and NATO led train, advise, and assist mission in Afghanistan has just entered its sixteenth year, or rather we’ve started year one for the sixteenth time again in Afghanistan. As ISIS loses its physical territory, we’ve done nothing to resolve the underlying conditions and drivers that allowed for them to come in to being and to take and hold so much territory to begin with. And we’ve certainly not resolved the problems that make them attractive in parts of the Maghreb, east and west Africa, and southeast Asia.

* Please see chapters 3 and 4.

** Please see chapters 2, 5, and 6.



Oy Vey! Transactional Politics Edition

Apparently the President tried to dun Angela Merkel and Germany for what he thinks are Germany’s unpaid NATO dues.

The Independent reports:

The US President is said to have had an “invoice” printed out outlining the sum estimated by his aides as covering Germany’s unpaid contributions for defence.

Said to be presented during private talks in Washington, the move has been met with criticism from German and Nato officials.

While the figure presented to the Germans was not revealed by either side, Nato countries pledged in 2014 to spend two per cent of their GDP on defence, something only a handful of nations – including the UK, Greece, Poland and Estonia – currently do.

But the bill has been backdated even further to 2002, the year Mrs Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, pledged to spend more on defence.

Mr Trump reportedly instructed aides to calculate how much German spending fell below two per cent over the past 12 years, then added interest.

Estimates suggest the total came to £300bn, with official figures citing the shortfall to be around £250bn plus £50bn in interest added on.

As you might imagine this did not go over well with the Germans.

The bill — handed over during private talks in Washington — was described as “outrageous” by one German minister.

“The concept behind putting out such demands is to intimidate the other side, but the chancellor took it calmly and will not respond to such provocations,” the minister said.

A couple of important points to keep in mind here, which the President and whichever senior advisors he’s listening to on this stuff do not seem to know:

  1. NATO is not a club. It is an alliance. The US does not own it. None of the member states pay due.
  2. Each member state has agreed to dedicate at least 2% of their budgets to defense. The vast majority of NATO member states, including Germany, do not meet this pledge. The US and its NATO allies have spent years working on how to resolve them. While it is still not resolved, progress has been made. That progress is now in jeopardy because of a stupid, dominance* politics stunt like this
  3. There is a very American reason that Germany in particular does not meet its 2% pledge: we taught them not to. That’s right, after WW II as we were working with the Germans to rebuild Germany and then basing significant US forces there during the Cold War, one of the initiatives we spent the most time on was teaching the Germans to think about and use the other, non military forms of National power (diplomatic, information, and economic power). As a result the Germans in 2017 are acculturated and socialized to the concept that they do no need to be and should not be a military power, that they should resort to the use of military power last, and that it should always be through the NATO alliance. We have been very successful in working with the Germans to break the socio-cultural systems that contributed to WW I and WW II so as to keep them from happening again. The downside, if it is one, is that Germany doesn’t get close to its 2% NATO budgetary commitment.

* Just a brief note about these dominance displays from the President and members of his senior staff/some of his senior advisors: if you have to constantly, loudly, and publicly tell everyone that you are tough, you aren’t. What you are is insecure and weak. Chancellor Merkel is the current leader of the free world because the President of the United States has abdicated that responsibility. She’s not scared of the President. The body language during last week’s photo spray in the Oval Office demonstrates that is the case. If anything, it is the other way around. Americans, through the mechanisms of the electoral college, may have decided that it didn’t want a woman as the leader of the free world, but they got that result anyway.



The Real Reason the US Supports NATO and the EU

And so it begins…

From the Bloomberg reporting:

Trump, in an hourlong discussion with Germany’s Bild and the Times of London published on Sunday, signaled a major shift in trans-Atlantic relations, including an interest in lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia as part of a nuclear weapons reduction deal.

Quoted in German by Bild from a conversation held in English, Trump predicted that Britain’s exit from the EU will be a success and portrayed the EU as an instrument of German domination designed with the purpose of beating the U.S. in international trade. For that reason, Trump said, he’s fairly indifferent to whether the EU stays together, according to Bild.

Repeating a criticism of NATO he made during his campaign, Trump said that while trans-Atlantic military alliance is important, it “has problems.”

“It’s obsolete, first because it was designed many, many years ago,” Trump said in the Bild version of the interview. “Secondly, countries aren’t paying what they should” and NATO “didn’t deal with terrorism.” The Times quoted Trump saying that only five NATO members are paying their fair share.

I’m going to quickly move past the NATO funding issue, as that is both solvable and is actually being resolved.

Of the 28 countries in the alliance, only five — the US, Greece, Poland, Estonia and the UK — meet the target. Many European members — including big economies like France and Germany — lag behind. Germany spent 1.19% of its GDP on defense last year and France forked out 1.78%.

All member countries that fall below the threshold committed in 2014 to gradually ramp up military spending to reach the target within the next decade.

For more on NATO funding, here’s NATO’s explanation of both direct and indirect funding.

Again, the funding issue isn’t really the issue – it’s an excuse. It is resolvable by bringing up the contributions of the member states that are in arrears to the 2% level. The issue here is what is the real purpose behind these two institutions. It is true that both NATO and the EU were created at a different time and for reasons that are only partially why they are important today. The real genius of both NATO and the EU, regardless of how they’ve developed and recognizing that no institution or organization ever develops perfectly and that reasonable, rational adjustments to both institutions should be made as needed, is that they knit Europe together. Despite what the populist-nationalist or national-populists or whatever they finally agree on calling themselves say, the purpose of NATO and the EU isn’t the destruction of sovereignty or national independence. Rather both organizations serve as a forcing function. They force the European member states of both organizations to work together, to cooperate, to recognize that sometimes there are bigger and more important issues than simply national interests.

The proof that NATO and the EU have been successful is that there has not been a war in Europe between European states over national interests, including national pride or economic disputes since the end of World War II. By stitching Britain and France and Germany and Belgium and Denmark and Spain and Portugal and France and Greece and Italy and Iceland and Norway and now all the member countries from Central and Eastern Europe together, NATO has made war in Europe among the Europeans less likely. The same for the EU. When Germany and France have a dispute they and their allies no longer spill blood and treasure across the fields of Belgium. Instead they meet in Belgium and talk it out. The forcing function, forcing these states and societies to work together, means that the uniformed and civilian personnel of all these countries have studied and travelled and worked and vacationed all over Europe. They all have counterparts and colleagues from the other European NATO and EU member states. Their children’s friends are the children of their colleagues from other countries. This is the real, tangible benefit of the EU and NATO. Its not a common market or a mutual defense pact. The real benefit is that the EU and NATO have broken the reality of over a thousand years of conflicts, capped off by World Wars I and II, in Europe and among the people of the nation-states that make up Europe.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the post Cold War period was the US and its allies losing sight of the real value of NATO and the EU. By doing so when NATO and the EU expanded they were unable for a number of reasons to expand to one crucial European nation-state: Russia. As is always the case the decision makers at the time believed they had good reasons for pursuing the policies and strategies they did after the end of the Cold War. Policies and strategies that jettisoned the idea of including Russia within NATO or the EU. And as is always the case, successfully implementing strategy to achieve one’s policy creates new opportunities, challenges, and threats. We are now facing one of those threats: a Russian led campaign to destabilize and break up NATO and the EU through the support of neo-nationalist and anti-EU parties and movements throughout Europe and the US. Regardless of what the foundational documents of NATO and the EU may say, the real purpose, whether explicitly or implicitly stated, has become to bind the nation-states and societies of Europe together to prevent future conflict. It has worked very, very well even as the leaders of NATO and the EU couldn’t bring Russia in from the cold. Now we have to see if it worked well enough for them to survive an active attempt to dismantle them.



The Gray Zone Under Threat: Straining Alliances

The Gray Zone, the civil space that allows for people to exist outside of their private lives and participate in societal, political, economic, and to some extent religious activities, is not just threatened by terrorist attacks and the extremism they’re rooted in, or systemic failures of political and social institutions as they age. It is also threatened when elected and appointed officials, and those seeking elected office, seek to purposefully break institutions for partisan gain. Yesterday the NY Times featured an interview with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. As has been the case several times since he began his run for the Republican nomination and the presidency of the United States, Trump threatened the institutions and alliances that have provided stability and prosperity, albeit an imperfect form of stability and prosperity, since the end of World War II.

Trump’s remarks to the Times included:

He even called into question whether, as president, he would automatically extend the security guarantees that give the 28 members of NATO the assurance that the full force of the United States military has their back.

For example, asked about Russia’s threatening activities that have unnerved the small Baltic States that are the most recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”

As I wrote after the March 10 GOP primary debate, the US is not an empire and we don’t demand tribute from our allies and partners. We now have, however, the nominee of one of the two major political parties in the US announcing that he may not fulfill America’s NATO treaty obligations, as well as other American international commitments. This is at a time when our NATO allies, and especially those in Eastern Europe, are especially worried about the actions and intentions of Vladimir Putin and Russia. The strategic messaging of Trump’s remarks is amazing. The presidential nominee of the Republican Party, the party long put forward as the party of national security (the Daddy Party), has just told Putin that should he be elected, it is not only possible, but also plausible that the US would not honor its everyday commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty, let alone an Article 5 request for collective defense.

For all the sturm and drang about President Obama providing al Qaeda or al Qaeda in Iraq with a clear date and time of US withdrawal from Afghanistan or honoring the Bush 43 Administration negotiated date of withdrawal from Iraq; Trump has now given Putin the time window he would need for planning should he decide to engage in further adventures in the former Soviet states of Eastern Europe. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been accused of leading from behind because they took the time to work through and with partners or assemble coalitions to deal with major international issues such as Iran’s nuclear program or the terrorism and low intensity warfare of the Islamic State. What Trump has done, in his remarks during the debates, on the stump, and in this interview with the NY Times is actually signal that the US will just not lead at all unless Trump feels it is being treated fairly.

And this brings us full circle back to Trump’s foreign policy speech. When Trump gave his foreign policy address at the end of April, the overarching theme running throughout his remarks was: “America will be treated fairly.” It is quite clear that being treated fairly is actually the overall strategic message, for lack of a better term, that runs throughout the Trump campaign. First it was “the GOP will treat Trump fairly or I’ll run third party”, which was the origin of the GOP candidate pledge to support the eventual nominee. Then it was “the media will treat Trump fairly” or he’d take his campaign activities away from them and deny them the advertising revenue. He actually did this with FOX Cable News when he refused to participate in one of the debates and held a highly controversial counter event to raise funds for veterans. The core of Trump’s pitch to voters is that “only Trump knows how to ensure that they will be treated well.”

The fly in the ointment of all these appeals for fairness, however, is the implicit or explicit “or else…” Trump has told our NATO and EU allies, and by extension other allies and partners, that if he’s elected they cannot necessarily count on American support and assistance, which has been at the core of the post World War II system that the US helped to build to change the security dynamics in Europe that has been a hallmark of the stability and prosperity of the past 71 years. By strategically communicating that the US may not lead, depending on how Trump feels as President about those asking us to do so, he’s told Putin and his planners, as well as those of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Peoples Republic of China, Boko Haram, North Korea, and others, that they can develop contingencies for actions to start the weekend of January 21, 2017. With this approach to National security, foreign, and defense policy, Donald Trump has taken the GOP, the oft promoted party of National security, and, perhaps the US, into uncharted territory that threatens the Gray Zone in a way that no terrorist, extremist, or state based actor ever could. More frighteningly, it is unclear what the plan would be for charting this brave new world.