Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Syria, Iraq, and the Kurds - Correcting their destiny

It's times like now that I think we really feel the sting of not having General Petraeus around anymore. Say what you want about the man's extracurricular activities, he knew how to deal with an insurgency. He knew how to deal with the various clans and tribes in Syria/Iraq. My guess is that he would see exactly what I'm seeing right now, and that is the Kurds are at a major turning point in their existence.

The Kurds in Syria are in the North East of the country. The very top corner. They are represented by the DBK (Kurdish Supreme Committee). The Kurds in Iraq are in the North and Northeast and are represented by the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government).
Kurdish organizations get confusing and it's easy to get lost in the sea of acronyms. Just know that the DBK govern the Kurds in Syria and the KRG govern the Kurds in Iraq. The YPG (People's Protection Units) are the soldiers of the DBK and the Peshmerga are the soldiers for the KRG. Whew!

The border between Iraq and Syria has already dissolved. We don't even have legitimate governments in Syria and Iraq anymore. The Levant and Mesopotamia are governed more on the clan and tribal level now. It's time to forget the Sykes-Picot governments of Syria and Iraq and deal with the clans/tribes that will rule this region going forward.

As of now we have Kurds in the north battling the Islamic State and Arabs in the west and south battling the Islamic State. What's the common denominator? They all have a common enemy in the Islamic State.
If the United States truly wants to get involved and see true positive change they need to enable/encourage Arab tribes to unite versus the Islamic State in the west and south (like the Anbar Awakening). They also need to arm and build the Kurds. Relations between the DBK and the KRG are crucial. If they're united under the banner of a Kurdistan that spans from Northeastern Syria to Northeastern Iraq they would be a formidable force.

The famous diplomat Robert Strausz Hupe said that geopolitics is about space and peoples struggle for influence over that space.
The struggle for Syria and Iraq is about geopolitically dominated space. The struggle we're seeing now would've happened after the fall of the Ottoman Empire if the UK and French hadn't intervened. The Turks, Kurds, and Arabs all would have sought to dominate the space that is currently called Iraq and Syria (and Lebanon). European and Western influence stunted the transformation.

I see 3 things that need to happen:

1. Arab tribes in Syria and Iraq need work together to encourage the formal dissolution of the Syrian Iraqi border. It's already dissolved informally. The "governments" of Baghdad and Damascus need to be seen as separate tribes or warlord factions. All part of greater Syria.

2. The DBK and KRG need to unite and establish their borders within Syria and Iraq. The United States and the West need to make this their number one priority going forward. Arming and training a professional Kurdish fighting force should happen immediately.

3. The United States would increase military assistance and be the guarantee that Kurdish forces would defeat the Islamic State only if Damascus and Baghdad agree to accept Independent Kurdistan.

Two players (beyond Baghdad and Damascus) would have issues with this. Those being Turkey and Iran. Strengthening the Kurds could endanger them both. But there are levers to be pulled that may be able to see this through.
The Turks are looking to become a major regional player with influence. To do that they need to fix their domestic Kurd problem. This could be the solution they're looking for.
The Iranians are on the verge of having their oil/gas stockpiles unleashed on the world market. To do that they need a reliable and safe pipeline to Western Europe. Through independent Kurdistan sounds like an enticing proposition.

The rebellion of the Assad regime in Syria, the Kurdish awakening, and the tribal rejection of the Iraqi government are all part of a natural progression that was going to happen eventually. It should have been a prophetic fact when the Ottomans fell. Regardless of which outside entity attempts to hold them together the blunt fact is that these map lines don't belong there. We can either continue the madness of trying to patch things up a little while longer, or we can push for an actual solution.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Turkey's new Prime Minister - Ahmet Davutoglu

As expected, Ahmet Davutoglu was named Prime Minister of Turkey. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs is the architect of Turkey's current foreign policy direction.

President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu represent a Turkish Institution that the world better get used to dealing with. I use the word institution because the AKP (Justice and Development Party) is shaping a Turkey that will run a certain way long after Erdogan and Davutoglu are dead.

Davutoglu believes in Turkey's "Strategic Depth". He's a true geoplitical thinker. His entire foreign policy is predicated on the fact that Turkey's unique geostrategic position has provided them with advantages. Not only has it guaranteed their nation state status, it also enables them to influence multiple adjacent regions. They control the Bosporous, can influence the Caucasus, the Balkans, and have a historical leadership role in the Middle East.

The current institution in Turkey loathes the Cold War days. Turkey was but a handful of nations out on the periphery. Caught in the middle of an argument between two nations playing their own geopolitical chess game.
The AKP is looking to lead Turkey beyond their old alignments and spin the globe in such a manner where the center is on Anatolia. I highly doubt Turkey's membership in NATO lasts much longer. Similarly, I believe their application to join the EU is more about appearances and European diplomacy than anything else. Turkey's plans are to lead not to join.

Davutoglu has coined the phrase "zero problems" when describing relations with Turkey's neighbors. They're trying their hardest to not offend anyone and to repair the relationships that aren't so great. The hope is that eventually Turkey's economic power on top of their "soft power" will begin to seep deeper into their periphery. Eventually the entire Middle East, parts of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans (all former Ottoman areas) will all see Turkey the ideal model and look to them for leadership.

"Zero Problems" is most definitely phase one in the AKP institution's foreign policy plan. We're sure to see a more assertive Turkey in the years to come. They see themselves as leaders blessed with the geography that enables them to influence those around them. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is a defining representation of the current regimes direction. This institution is being built to sustain itself for years to come.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Defeating the Islamic State - Evolving the Middle East

The Islamic State continues to spread their Caliphate throughout the Levant into Mesopotamia. Along their road of plunder and devastation they've begun an ethnic and religious cleansing of Kurds, Christians, and anyone else not willing to convert. The U.S. has begun airstrikes on IS positions, and U.S. lawmakers have encouraged even more extensive military action.

Is this the right action?

The question shouldn't be "How do we destroy the Islamic State" but rather "How do we use this to make the region a better place". My fear is that the Obama Administration isn't thinking along these lines.

The hard truth is that if the United States intervenes too forcefully with the Islamic State Iran stands to benefit the most from the aftershock. The Iraqi government is already borderline proxy status to their neighbor Iran. A quick victory against the IS will help Baghdad consolidate their power base which in turn helps Iran consolidate theirs. Iranian influence would be uncontested from Tehran, to Baghdad, to Damascus. There would be no real change in the region. Just more of the same dysfunction they've seen since after WW1.

What's the solution?

We're now seeing an area (Iraq and Syria) that is battling border lines that should never have been drawn. The Sykes/Picot Agreement was a solution brought forth by outsiders looking down on a foreign land. Sooner or later geography and the people that reside on that geography are going to revolt.
Over the years through shear brutality and force warlords such as Assad and ruthless dictators like Saddam have ensured these border lines have remained intact. However, the U.S. led invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring have both served as a catalyst to enable the Levant and Mesopotamia to draw their own borders along a more natural progression.

You'll often here of Iraq as being divided between 3 areas: Sunni, Shia, Kurd

(map via stratfor.com)

The above map illustrates the Sunni, Shia, and Kurd divisions. It's easy to see this and think that Iraq's problems are a religious war with a minor Kurdish dilemma. This is far from the truth. Iraq's problems go much deeper. They involve tribal, clan, religious....a full spectrum of issues from people that have lived in the area for a thousand years.
Take for instance during the Anbar Awakening. Sunni tribes joined forces with Shia to oppose Sunni jihadists. If it were merely a religious dispute this type of union would have never happened. Even today Sunni tribes in Iraq are joining forces with Shia militias and Iraqi military to battle the Islamic State.
Yes religious differences play a role, but it's only one of their problems.

Quite bluntly, Iraq is not governed anymore from Baghdad. The Baghdad based Iraqi government is only legitimate in that it is recognized by the UN. In country, however, things are quite different. Tribal leaders in Iraq, be they Sunni or Shia, see themselves as Mesopotamian rather than Iraqi. They govern their lands independently. The Iraqi government governs Baghdad and that's about it.

The Middle East evolved.

As of the writing of this blog entry we've been arming and assisting the Kurds in Northern Iraq to fight off the Islamic State. I think this is a fantastic move and we should take it further. It is now time to push for a National Home for The Kurds. More than just an autonomous region in Northern Iraq. An independent Kurdistan where Kurds from the entire region can call home. Be they in Turkey, Iran, etc they would all be motivated to make Arbil their new capital.

Kurdistan would become the "Israel" for the Kurds. A bastion that they could feel safe in and that they would all be willing to die for to defend. Arming the Kurds would be not just a short term project to help them against the Islamic State but a long term strategy. They would be a viable check to the Iranians and radical jihadists.

The right for self-determination (supported by the UN) would be infectious in the region. The fact that tribal leaders in Iraq are willing to cross Sunni/Shia barriers for overall stability is a good sign. It's not too difficult to imagine a new nation state evolving that encompasses both the Levant and Mesopotamia. It also wouldn't be a stretch for it to be named "Greater Syria" or al Sham. Historically that would make since to the residents that live within those current borders. A federalized government that recognizes the differences (cultural, sectarian, religious, etc) in each "state" within Greater Syria.
The moderate Sunni's would eventually overwhelm the radicals. A strong Kurdish nation state in the north and a Greater Syria at peace would transform the Middle East.

Yes, IS must be put down...but the Kurds need to be the ones to do it. They need to use that as leverage to finally make independent  Kurdistan a reality. Syria and Iraq's destiny is joined. A federalized Greater Syria has the chance to erase the sins of post WW1 and evolve the Middle East.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Israel/Palestine - The Root of The Problem

I didn’t have many conversations with my father’s father. One of the few that I did have sticks out in my mind as I look at all the media coverage over Israel, Palestine and Hamas.
I had asked him why the large Oak tree in the front yard fell on his roof. The fact that a large powerful tree like that could topple over absolutely floored me.
He looked at me with that look he had that signified he was proud of the wit that was about to come forth and said, “I neglected to see the root of the problem.” As he said those words he stomped on a large rotted out root to the tree that had given way and which was now the cause that we all had to help grandpa get this tree off his house.

What’s the root of the problem here?

I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard people say that the current conflict in Israel is a fight that’s been raging for a thousand years. That if it hasn’t been solved now it won’t ever in the future.
Sure, this area has been highly contested ever since the bronze age. But so have other areas of the world.
I’ve also heard people throw around the word “Zionism” and claim that the Jews displaced Palestinians from their land. This is an important point to address because most people in the world are either ignorant on this issue or they’ve been straight lied to.

First of all Jews have lived in the land area called Palestine for thousands of years. Do they have claim to this land? Likewise, Arabs have lived in Palestine for thousands of years. Do they have claim to this land? The answer to both is an easy...Yes. They all have claim.

Jewish immigration back to Palestine.

Jews have been slowly migrating back to their ancestral homeland for hundreds of years. Palestine has always been a mixture of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, etc and the various cultures have made it work.
The two main groups leading up to WW1 were Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The Jews never displaced anyone while immigrating back to Palestine. They either went to the “Jewish area” or bought land from Arabs that lived elsewhere. Palestine’s boundary lines were already pretty much artificially set. Jews clumped in their area and Arabs in theirs.

What did Palestine look like before WW1? Mark Twain visited the Holy Land in 1867 and this is what he observed:


"...[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse....A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action....We never saw a human being on the whole route....There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country."

So before the Jews began to come back to Palestine in significant numbers the entire area was desolate with a low population.

How about this for actual demographic numbers - The Jewish population from WW1 to WW2 increased by 470,000 people. In that same time frame the Arab population grew by….588,000. That’s a 120% population increase of Arabs in 20 years. So how were Jews displacing Arabs if the Arab population was growing faster than the Jewish?

The root.

The root of this problem is very easily traced. We don’t have to go back thousands of years. We needn’t go back further than 1916. 2 years had passed since the outbreak of WW1.

The Ottoman Empire was a major threat to the allies. More specifically to Great Britain who had built their Empire off the back of their navy which secured trade routes all over the world. To cripple the allies the Ottoman Empire could attempt to shut down the Red Sea trade route to the Indian Ocean. India was Great Britain’s crown jewel. Something had to be done to neutralize such a powerful threat that had a stranglehold on the most profitable trade route in the world.redSeatrade.jpg

Palestine throughout Ottoman Rule was a part of “Ottoman Syria” which encompassed present day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, parts of Iraq, and Jordan. Understanding these boundary lines is crucial for understanding current conflicts in this region. Even present day terrorist groups such as ISIS have made re-establishing these border lines as their eventual goal. Their name “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” means that they wish to create a Caliphate within the old Ottoman Greater Syria area. Iraq and al-Sham is the territory pictured in the map. OttomanSyria.jpg

Arabs asked to attack the Ottomans


To neutralize the Ottoman threat Great Britain sent T.E. Lawrence to convince the Arabs to attack the Ottoman Empire.

Through Lawrence Great Britain promised much to the Arabs. If the Arabs would turn against the Ottomans Great Britain would help them establish a Greater Arab kingdom in it’s place.

Lawrence fought with two Arab brothers from the Hashemite tribe. The Hashemites were the most powerful Arabs at the time and controlled the Hejaz which is the land area where Mecca and Medina are located. The Hejaz is now within Saudi Arabia.

Both Abdullah I bin al-Hussein and Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi commanded Arab armies. T.E. Lawrence had a much better relationship with Faisal and accompanied him along with his Northern Arab Army. Great Britain promised Faisal that he would be king of the new Arab monarchy that would replace the Ottomans.

Sykes-Picot Agreement

At the same time T.E. Lawrence is promising the Arabs a new super kingdom Great Britain and France hold secret negotiations to determine the fate of the Middle East post WW1. Great Britain was represented by Sir Mark Sykes and the French by Fran├žois Georges-Picot.

The purpose of these negotiations was to define GB and France’s spheres of influence and determine who would control what should the Triple Entente win the war. It’s important to note that this was entirely contrary to what was promised to the Arabs who believed that they would assume majority control of the Middle East. As Faisal dreamed of ruling “Greater Syria” like the Ottomans did Sykes and Picot conspired otherwise.

In the end France, Great Britain, and Russia all signed off on a Middle East that looked like the picture below. The blue area would be French, the red area British, and the green area Russian.640px-Sykes-Picot.svg.png

Great Britain and France never intended to honor their promises to the Arabs. Remember that their key concern was having an all powerful empire in the middle east that could dominate the Red Sea trade route. They toppled the Ottomans over it. They definitely weren’t about to allow another empire to spring up in it’s place.

The result of Sykes-Picot was a Middle East that had been forced to accept the Western European model of nation states. There were now lines drawn on the map that had never existed before. Borders were drawn along sectarian lines. It was clear that the French and British wanted a fractured and conflicted Middle East rather than united under Arab control.

King Faisal was given the Arabian coveted Kingdom of Syria. However, he was soon deposed after a coup attempt and then French occupation. To appease the Hashemites Faisal was made King of Iraq and his brother Abdullah was placed in charge of Transjordan (which means “other side of the Jordan”). The new nations of Syria and Lebanon were under French influence. Iraq and the new Mandates of Palestine and Transjordan were under British control.


The land of Palestine was now split. East of the Jordan river was given to the Hashemites under King Abdullah. West of the Jordan river was split based off of demographics. Heavily populated Jewish areas were separated from the heavily populated Arab areas. Peace in these areas was backed up by British troops.

It’s important to realize Arab resentment for the western allies after the realization of Sykes-Picot. The idea of ruling “Greater Syria” was an Arab dream that was shared all over the Middle East. However, Sykes-Picot had done it’s job in making it extremely difficult for Arabs to unite the entire area.

Arabs unite in another way

The Sykes-Picot spheres of influence were now backed by the League of Nations. If the Arabs wanted to make gains they would have to do it differently than how they toppled the Ottomans. They were given exactly what they needed when United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent a transmission to British jewish community leader Baron Rothschild. It would famously be known as the Balfour Declaration.

“His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”800px-Balfour_portrait_and_declaration.JPG

Arabs were against any further partitioning of al Sham (greater Syria). It’s important to note that they opposed a separate Palestinian State as well as a Jewish State. It would later be clarified that the British government did not intend to create a Jewish State. They would just guarantee a safe Jewish homeland within the mandate.


The Balfour Declaration helped the Arabs to unite under the banner of opposing a Jewish State. They began to declare that the British intended to make all of Palestine a Jewish State. Publications at the time ran this propaganda as if it were the truth (pictured above).

In 1936 Arabs revolted against the British occupying troops. Their main complaint was that Jewish immigration was becoming too extreme. This was obviously just an excuse to attack the British and Jews. Arab immigration to Palestine was far greater than Jewish.
The British would end up being successful in putting down the uprising. More significantly Jewish security forces and infrastructure would be solidified. This played a major role in future Jewish military successes.

Arabs change the argument

Arabs had effectively changed their argument. Their aspirations for a united Arab kingdom now took aim at the Jews.

The British Mandate for Palestine was set to end. In 1947 the UN adopted a resolution to partition Palestine. It called for:UN_Palestine_Partition_Versions_1947.jpg
1. A Jewish State
2. A Palestinian State
3. A special international regime for the city of Jerusalem

Jews embraced the UN plan but the Arabs were furious. It’s very important to note that the Arabs not only did not support the Jewish state but they also didn’t support the Palestinian State either. The goal was for a fully unified Arab state or kingdom.

Arabs made the Jews the scapegoat and civil war began in Palestine.
The main players in the war were:
1. King Abdullah of Jordan
2. King Farouk of Egypt
3. Nuri as-Said of Iraq
4. Syria and Lebanon

This constituted the main players of the Arab League at the time. Their declared reason for invasion was to re-establish order in Palestine, stop the bloodshed, and to create a unitary Palestinian State. Not surprisingly they blocked the creation of a Palestinian government. They didn’t care about the Palestinian Arabs. They wanted an Arab sphere of influence without partitions. Again, Jews took the blame to rally their cause.

Miraculously the Jewish security apparatus held and the Arab League was embarrassed. It really wasn’t surprising once you realize what they were really after.

King Abdullah struck a secret deal with the Jews before the invasion even happened. He agreed not to press his attack into Jewish territory. Instead, when the invasion began he attacked the West bank and East Jerusalem. Read that again….instead of attacking the Jews (which was the Arab League rallying cry) he attacked the Palestinian Arabs! He invaded Arab Palestinian lands and occupied it. This land was never promised to the Jews in the UN partition plan so the Israelis let him have it.

Similar motivations were among the entire Arab League. King Farouk of Egypt wanted to annex southern Palestine for himself. Nuri as-Said of Iraq wanted the entire fertile crescent under his control. Syria and Lebanon wanted to annex portions of Northern Palestine.

They were after the land! They cared very little for the Palestinian Arabs living there. Most of whom were immigrants that came to Palestine in between WW1 and WW2.

Arab Nationalism

The Arab League’s defeat would begin an overall rise in Arab Nationalism. The rise of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser gave the Arabs a leader that had the potential to do what the Hashemites after WW1 had failed to.

In 1956 Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. What Great Britain and France had feared the Ottomans may do back in WW1 was now a possibility again through Nasser and Egypt. Israel, Great Britain, and France made a secret deal to invade Egypt and topple Nasser. Israel invaded through the Sinai and France/Great Britain invaded via Port Said. After President Eisenhower condemned the action and appealed to the UN all forces withdrew. The end result was a perceived Arab victory and Nasser became the undisputed leader of the Arab world.nasser.jpg

Pan-Arabism would take flight. Nasser’s popularity was starting to make the Arab monarchs in the region nervous. Syria was Egypt’s staunch ally but Jordan and Saudi Arabia feared that Nasser would try and upend their monarchies. Nasser formed the United Arab Republic with Syria. He would then go on to orchestrate a coup in Iraq and brought Iraq in under the UAR umbrella as well.

After the successful coup in Iraq Nasser would be quoted saying this:

“The holy march on which the Arab nation insists, will carry us forward from one victory to another ... the flag of freedom which flies over Baghdad today will fly over Amman and Riyadh. Yes, the flag of freedom which flies over Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad today will fly over the rest of the Middle East”

Nasser’s goal was to bring in every Arab nation into the UAR. It was ambitious and not doable at the time. He decided to turn his attention to Palestine. After all, uniting the lands of Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria has always been the ultimate goal. It was obvious how to gain full Arab support for the acquisition of Palestine. Make it a war on the Jews.

6 day war

Turning the conquest of Palestine into an Arab war vs Israel was all that was needed to bully Jordan and Saudi Arabia into supporting the UAR. Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran (equivalent to an act of war) and began a massive military buildup in the Sinai along the Israeli border. Israel would strike first. 6 days later it was all over. Israel decimated the Arab armies. They would end up taking control of Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.

It’s interesting to note Jordan’s unique situation. Nasser basically lied to and bullied them into the war. Like Israel, Jordan was also fighting Palestinian Arab extremists groups. The PLO wanted Jordan out of not only the West bank but the Jordan land area altogether. Jordan was also criticized by much of the Arab world for occupying the West Bank. When Jordan abandoned the West Bank and East Jerusalem their status with the Arab League increased. They also now had Israel as a larger partner in fighting the PLO.

Palestinian extremist groups would continue to fight Jordan bitterly. The PLO wanted to rule Jordan instead of the Hashemite Monarchy. Jordan retaliated by killing thousands of Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat. Not only were Palestinian Arabs killed by the thousands but they were completely displaced out of the country by the Jordanians. The PLO had to relocate to Lebanon.
The PLO then shifted the majority of their attacks now toward Israel. This resulted in a civil war in Lebanon and the eventual expulsion of the PLO to Tunisia. A relatively small Shia militia named Hezbollah grew in power from these ashes.

Wrapping up

If Israel suddenly didn’t exist we’d still have conflict in Palestine. The Jordanians would still want the West Bank and Jerusalem, the Egyptians would try and annex Southern Palestine, and Syria would annex Northern Palestine. Arab vs Arab fighting would be even bloodier than Israeli vs Arab.
Israel has been made the ultimate scapegoat by Arab nationalists looking for expansion in Palestine. Palestinian extremist groups were seen as terrorists when attacking the Jordanians or inciting destabilization in Lebanon. But when they attack Israel and use Arabs as human shields Israel is suddenly the terrorist? Ironically Israel now is a stabilizing element in a volatile Middle East. They’re silent partners with Jordan and provide border security along Syria and Lebanon’s southern borders. This at a time when both Syria and Lebanon have much larger problems to deal with.

Eventually the Middle East will correct itself from the damage of Sykes-Picot and all that happened from then on. Until then we’re sure to see another “Nasser” willing to make the conquest of Palestine appear as an Arab vs Jew conflict. It’s up to you to be informed enough not to fall for the propaganda of a Hamas, Fatah, Hezbollah, etc. The demonizing of Israel is really about Arab conquest of Palestine. As long as the finger is pointed at Israel the longer the world will be kept in the dark on what the actual purpose is for.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Catching up on Syria

I was watching open source media this past weekend and read a report where Turkish F-16’s were scrambled to shoot down a Syrian warplane that had violated its airspace. For Turkey being a member of NATO definitely has it’s advantages but this situation isn’t one of them. You can bet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is probably sick of fielding calls from the United States and the rest of NATO urging him to have restraint. Even though Turkey may want to, the repercussions of overt military action against the Syrian regime would be too dangerous.
If Ankara wanted to they could “shock and awe” Damascus into submission in probably a little under 48 hours. Turkey has one of the most capable militaries in the entire region. They’re on the same level as countries like France, Germany, and Russia. And this is exactly what Turkey wants to do. Toppling a brutal dictator like Assad would solidify Turkey as the leader of the Islamic world. Something Ankara gave up after WW1 when the Ottoman Empire fell. It’s really hard not to see them reclaim that birthright. They’ve just been distracted by the fallout of two world wars.
The one thing holding Turkey back is their NATO membership. If Turkey attacks the Syrian national army on Syrian soil how long before Iran counter attacks? How long before Russia jumps in? Turkey would claim NATO article 5 the moment Iran or Russia stepped in and that would bring in the rest of the world.
So we’re left with a war in Syria fought covertly. It’s a war that multiple nations are fighting but no one can admit it publicly. So many countries have covert stakes invested in this war that it’s confusing to realize whose side they’re on and what they ultimately want. It’s no wonder the rebels are so splintered and chaotic. They’re getting pulled in multiple directions by multiple actors.
Here is a quick breakdown of the players. This is just a glance and I’m leaving a lot out but even in summary it gets confusing.
For Syria and Assad -
Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. The Iranian/Hezbollah alliance is obvious and easy to understand. Syria has been an ally of Iran since the Iranian revolution of 1979. They’ve been tight ever since.
Iran saw an opening after the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. Iran saw the possibility for a sphere of influence from Tehran, through Baghdad, all the way to Damascus. That’s been their geopolitical play for the past decade.
Russia’s dog in this fight is a little murkier. Russia has the obvious interest in their long time naval port at Tartus, but you have to read between the lines to see their real interests. Symbolically their support for Assad shows Russia’s periphery and even their own people that populist uprisings can be managed/crushed by a determined government. This has so far worked in Syria but not so much in Ukraine. They also want to slow the construction of natural gas pipelines from the southern gas corridor up into Western Europe. Two proposed pipelines may eventually run straight through Syria, through Turkey, then on into Europe. Restricting natural gas diversification in western Europe is one of Moscow’s main strategic goals in this decade and through the next half century.
For the rebels -
Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and the rest of the west.
Turkey is poised to take over as the leader of the Islamic World once again.
  • They successfully maintained good ties with the west but at the same time oriented themselves toward the middle east.
  • They’ve re-established relations with Iran and have been a go between/mediator for the Arab nations and for the west/middle east as well.
  • Turkey controls the upper courses of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which is the main source of water to most of the Arab world.
  • Ever since the Ottoman Empire Turkey has been able to balance their political system with Islam. They’ve carried that over to present day and they’re the best chance to lead the “democratic Islam” experiment that the Arab Spring kicked off.
Turkey has lately taken a less aggressive and overt tone but they’re still major players. Much of the weapons, soldiers, and aid come across Turkish border crossings. It’s interesting to note how the current political problems and social unrest have forced Ankara to put their Syrian agenda on the back burner. In fact many of the recent protest areas have come from Kurdish dominated neighborhoods. Both Syria and Iran have used the Kurdish card in the past to cause internal problems in Turkey. Something to keep an eye on.
Now here’s where it gets even more confusing. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar desire the same outcome. The ultimate defeat of Bashar al-Assad. They also both support rebel groups that are fighting Assad’s regime. However, they both disagree with whom should ultimately control Syria. Qatar and Turkey favor a Muslim Brotherhood dominated Syria and are thus funding/supplying those groups. Saudi Arabia fears the Brotherhood and is funding/supplying alternate Salafi groups that SA could control in the long run.
No one hears much about the Free Syria Army (FSA) anymore. Just a couple years ago they were the largest and most effective rebel collective in the conflict. However, the West and the Muslim Brotherhood were too overt in their support. This had the effect of alienating the hard liners. Groups such as al-Nusra and ISIS used this as a rallying call to recruit thousands to their banners further splintering the rebel ranks.
After the FSA fallout and the rise of al-Nusra and ISIS Saudi Arabia began funding alternate groups to combat the radicals. The result was a group called the Islam Army. The problem was that they were running into some of the same problems that the FSA did. Alienating the hard liners.
Qatar stepped back in and formed an alliance called the Islamic Front that incorporated the Islam Army into their ranks. The current members are:
  • The Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement
  • The Kurdish Islamic Front
  • The Islam Army
  • The Ansar al-Sham Battalions
  • The Haq Brigade
  • The Tawhid Brigade
  • The Suqour al-Sham Brigades
This alliance is currently the most effective and numerous rebel fighting force in Syria. It  incorporates both hard line radical groups and moderates. Rather than supporting them outright and overtly the current benefactors are attempting to remain hidden.
The tug of war match between Qatar/Turkey and Saudi Arabia has severely crippled the rebel campaign. It has effectively deadlocked the war. The Syrian regime makes gains then the rebels make gains. It’s constantly shifting. The Syrian army is well funded/supplied but is too spread thin. The rebels are meagerly funded/supplied but have effectively opened up enough fronts in the war that Assad can’t fight all at once.
The question has come down to who can last the longest. It’s a lose lose whichever way you look at it. If Assad wins then he’ll be seen as a brutal dictator that was successful in oppressing his people. If the rebels win they’ll inherit a country ripe with extremists. It’ll take the combined effort of the entire Islamic world to guide Syria’s future. My guess is it’ll be a Qatari funded but Turkish led Syrian democracy.

Friday, March 21, 2014

What's Russia's next move? - Inside the mind of Putin

I’ve been reading through open source media today and I’ve been both amused and irate at the same time. The top story lines all over the world are dominated by what Russia is going to do next.
One “expert” will claim that Vladimir Putin is on a roll and announcing Russia’s return to power by re-establishing the Soviet Union one annexation at a time. Another “expert” will claim that this is the most tense it’s been seen the end of the Cold War. All of this is meant to instil fear and anxiety in an attempt to drive up ratings.

I can guarantee one thing. Putin is not stupid. He’s not brash, he’s not rogue, he’s not a cowboy. He’s playing geopolitics in an intensely competitive area.

In order to understand the method to Putin’s actions we need to understand where he’s coming from. What’s going on in his mind? The famous Austrian born geopolitical analyst Robert Strausz Hupe said,

“Global war has revealed continents and oceans to be parts of one closely meshed world political design.”

“War has brought home to us an awareness of geographic realities.”
“We must closely consider geography as a primary motivating factor that drives foreign policy.”
Strausz Hupe was trying to warn and educate the world on how the Nazis were motivated and basing their land grabs during WW2. He wanted to show the world how German Geopolitik worked so that the Allies could use it against them and predict their moves.
Strausz Hupe further defines geopolitics as the adaptation of political geography to political ideology. The concept of space, politically dominated space. The struggle for space and power.
What was true for the Czars and the Soviets remains true for the present day Russians. The nation of Russia lies in a vulnerable location on the map. It lies in the middle between the strong far eastern nations and western Europe. It requires space and more space as a buffer. The German historian Oswald Spengler once said, “Distance is a force politically and militarily as yet unconquered.” When looking to invade Russia both Napoleon and Hitler succomed to the vastness of Russia’s buffer zone.
Putin realizes the pitfalls of a nation with such a vast amount of space that Russia inhabits. It’s a behemoth of a country. Most of that area is uninhabitable but still overwhelmingly large. The land the Soviet Union dominated was even larger. A vast amount of space and an economy unable to support it collapsed the Soviet Union. In Vladimir Putin’s eyes it was the “geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
So what is Putin thinking? Putin’s religion isn’t eastern orthodox. It’s geopolitics. Karl Ritter once wrote in Comparative Geography, "There will come a time when strong-minded humans, by their understanding of the moral and natural aspects of the world, will be able to foresee and guide the future developments of each nation on earth." To predict Putin’s next moves we need to use what Strausz Hupe called "The geopolitical method of observation".
Putin realizes as every geopolitical analyst does that Russia requires defense in depth to secure Moscow. Having NATO and the EU within striking distance of the capitol is unacceptable. However, Moscow can’t make the mistakes the Soviet Union did. The size of Russia is already too large. It has ethnic instability in the south, a growing Islamic threat, and political instability in Moscow herself. Rapidly annexing the former Soviet bloc would compound these problems not make them better.
Moscow has two main weapons to influence and control her periphery. Energy exports and ethnic nationalism.  
Russia’s energy grip on Western Europe has been well documented. The political implications of this is obvious. The only counter to Russia’s advantage here is with energy diversification. I think this will happen over time. You can bet that the fleeting nature of this advantage is not lost on Vladimir Putin. However, it’s important to note the geopolitical mindset of the Russians in leveraging this advantage over the past few decades.
The British geopolitician James Fairgrieve pointed out that
“imperialists through history have been driven by the search for energy. The political center of the world usually shifts toward which source of energy is relevant at the time.”
The Soviets saw the relevance in natural gas and built the pipelines into Western Europe. Ronald Reagan of course disputed this. If Western Europe would have looked at this move through the glasses of Strausz Hupe’s “geopolitical method of observation" they would have seen this for what it was intended. A tool for control.
Ethnic Nationalism
Putin has used this lever as a pressure point on his periphery since 2008. We basically green lit him to enact this foreign policy when Kosovo split from Serbia. Putin mentioned just that in a recent speech on Crimea,
“a precedent our western colleagues created with their own hands. When they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities.”

Moscow was too weak at the time to effect the situation. The west knew that, didn’t care what Russia’s stance was, and supported the secession. If Russia had been stronger we probably would have seen the Georgian invasion sooner rather than later.

Putin is taking advantage of the heavy Russification of the former Soviet bloc. He has the advantage of the threat of annexation of territory based on a high percentage of ethnic Russians in her periphery.
Again, straight out of the book of the founding geopolitical minds of the 20th century. Robert Strausz Hupe warned that nations such as Nazi Germany could use alternative methods of attack that wouldn’t involve tanks and troops. He called it “Passive population attack”. The Soviets set this up in the 60’s-80’s by government directed migration. Ethnic Russians poured into places such as Kazakhstan (today they are 25% ethnic Russian), Abkhazia (Georgia), South Ossetia (Georgia), Crimea (Ukraine), Donetsk (Ukraine), Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan) and Transnistria (Moldova). Strausz Hupe warned that a geopolitically minded aggressive nation “would use population pressure to justify territorial expansion”. Hupe goes on to describe this as “Trojan-Horse methods - The slow and peaceful penetration of a nation to induce strife.”

So what is Putin’s next move?

Putin is using geopolitics to guide his foreign policy. He see’s security in space...politically dominated space. To do that he has to be careful not to make the mistakes of Soviets past.

His history shows us that his main tool to control his periphery is economic. His first move has always been to impose trade sanctions and use his energy monopoly to force countries into submission. Those that fall fully under his wing he adopts into his Customs Union.

For nations that don’t fully submit Putin’s goal is to keep them as neutral as possible. This was the plan for Ukraine. It was either a mistake by Yanukovich or a misstep by Putin. At any rate when Yanukovich made it so blatantly obvious who’s side he was on he tipped the balance. The last time this happened Putin invaded Georgia to “protect the ethnic Russian’s” in South Ossetia. Ukraine is Russia’s crown jewel. In my opinion the Georgian invasion was a warning to Ukraine that if they proceeded down that path the same would happen to her.

The Crimean invasion of 2014 wasn’t an offensive action...it was defensive. Moscow had lost their crown jewel. Ukraine was no longer neutral. Putin had no choice but to pull that ethnic lever one more time as a warning to his periphery that the only option from full on submission is neutrality.

The problem with playing the ethnic nationalism card too often is that it unites other ethnicities against you. Invading Crimea infuriates ethnic Ukrainians. Invade Transnistria and infuriate greater Moldova. Fully invade and annex South Ossetia and make eternal enemies out of Georgia. These are nations that won’t fully submit. Putin must make them neutral...not enemies. Fascism begets fascism. And that is the ultimate worst case scenario here.

Putin will stop at Crimea. Ethnic nationalism is much more valuable as a threat than an actual weapon. It’s a means of control. Again, as Strausz Hupe described Trojan Horse Methods, the use of population pressure is supposed to be a slow process. Not an abrupt tool. He doesn’t need enemies based off of ethnic hatred ready to raise the NATO flag a couple hours drive from Moscow. He’ll let this latest development stew in the minds of the countries around him. It’ll bide him time to make them neutral and will then attempt to re-establish economic control.

What should the West/U.S. response be?

The United States has a much different outlook on this than the EU. We have interest in very little when it comes to Ukraine. It’s not strategically important to America. Our only interest revolves around the control of Eurasia proper. That’s what brought us into two world wars to begin with.
The U.S. has strategic interest in ensuring no one entity has too much control and power in that area. That means ensuring a strong Western Europe, helping to build Central Europe, and even a strong stable Russia. The U.S. ultimately wants Ukraine either neutral or a part of a Central European alliance...not necessarily EU.
Balance of power is the goal. The U.S. (if their following geopolitics) should focus on strengthening and supporting the Visegrad Group in Central Europe. They represent the Czech Republic,Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. America will use Ukraine as a distraction gently pulling just enough to keep Moscow’s attention. At the same time they’ll put resources into strengthening Visegrad. That would be more of an adequate response to Moscow and much more covertly threatening.

The EU has more of a strategic interest in Ukraine. The obvious is that the’re a lot closer to the action than the U.S. is. They’re also in the middle of economic turmoil and adding the second largest European country to their ranks provides a huge target for the German manufacturing machine.

Putin is playing geopolitics. And just as Strausz Hupe hoped to wake up the West to this game the Nazis were playing, we need to hope our world leaders today get that same wake up call. Be careful what you believe in the media. Most of it is used to drive ratings. The reality is that much more is going on under the surface. Zbigniew Brzezinski called the Eurasian continent “The Grand Chessboard”. Putin is playing the game. Moves and countermoves.