The Middle East: A Disheartening Beginning for the New Decade

January 5, 2020

The Iraq-Iran war started on September 22, 1980. It lasted eight years. In August 1991 Iraq invaded Kuwait. A massive US-led military campaign forced Iraq to withdraw in February 1991. It was followed by years of no-fly zones, sanctions and the food for oil program. In March 2003 US invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein’s government, only to mark the start of years of violent conflict with different groups competing for power. In June 2004 Czar Paul Bremmer III handed sovereignty to the interim government headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. In December 2006 Saddam Hussein was executed for crimes against humanity. The BBC reported on October 16, 2013 that half a million people had died in Iraq as a result of war-related causes between the US-led invasion in 2003 and mid-2011, according to an academic study. In 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq surged out of the Anbar Province to seize Iraq’s second city of Mosul and other key towns. Tens of thousands escaped amid atrocities. Mosul was freed from the Islamic State in July 2017. Again, many innocent lives were lost.

In brief, the people of Iraq have not seen a single day of peace for four decades. An Iraqi baby born in 1980 is today forty years old. People are fed up. Political stagnation continues. So, there is nothing surprising either about the recent protests or in the heavy loss of life among protesters.

When a single individual loses his/her life for what can be defined even remotely as a national cause, Western countries rise and unite in expressing their sorrow and anger. By contrast, loss of scores, hundreds, even thousands of lives in the Middle East is just daily news in the Western media. Because, the region itself has little or no respect for life. Today’s Middle East, the birthplace of world’s monotheistic religions, represents nothing but conflict, tribal and sectarian warfare, external meddling, lack of democracy, lack of respect for human dignity, nepotism and corruption.

Where countries are unable to put their own house in order let alone resolve differences between them external powers intervene, especially when invitations are extended from within the region. However, the Arab Spring has also confronted the West with a few challenges. Former regional leaders who had for long been treated as friends suddenly metamorphosed into oppressive dictators reflecting the contradictions between West’s public discourse on democracy and its economic interests. What some initially labeled as a “generational phenomenon” rapidly turned into winner-take-all kind of violent competition for power leading millions to flee their homes and creating a migration crisis for the West if nothing else.

The invasion and devastation of Iraq had already removed a counterbalance to Iran’s regional power and the Arab spring, in particular the Syrian conflict offered Tehran another opportunity to extend its outreach. With Iraq and Syria only shadows of their former selves Tehran was in ascendancy. With President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, Iran successfully negotiated the JCPOA. The general impression was that Iran was staging a comeback into the international community. With the Trump administration the picture rapidly changed. If the big plan was to destroy Iraq and Syria, the two countries which have historically, traditionally constituted the Arab core and then deal a blow to Iran, future historians will have more than enough to write about.

On the one hand, Trump foreign policy is incoherent. The JCPOA was signed July 14, 2015. In a display of foreign policy inconsistency for a major power, the US withdrew from the agreement in less than three years. Other Western powers tried to save it but seem to have failed. The JCPOA might not have been the best imaginable agreement but it was an important step forward and more than anything else it ensured IAEA control over Iran’s nuclear program. North Korea took a different path and is now a de facto member of the nuclear club. The real problem is no longer reversing Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile technology achievements but stopping others from following suit.

On the other hand, encouraged by its rise as a regional power, Tehran was increasingly tempted to overplay its hand. It treated Iraq as its turf. Recent protests in Iraq no doubt had an anti-Iran dimension and as such were an expression of Iraqiness. Shiite solidarity is important but has its limits. Otherwise, the Iraq-Iran war could not have lasted eight years. Unfortunately, the killing of General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad will only add to Iraq’s troubles.

Syrian conflict also encouraged Iran to be more assertive. Despite lack of conclusive evidence, general impression was that at least Iran’s hardliners were involved in the bombing of Saudi oil facilities on September 14, 2019. Saudi Arabia remains a US ally and nobody really cares about the Khashoggi murder.

Tehran may take its time, but it will react to the killing of General Soleimani. It will also bear in mind that on November 3, 2020 the US will hold a presidential election. Hopefully, the action-reaction process will not spin out of control.

The now reviled “mon cher” era traditional Turkish diplomacy would have seen the dangers of regional escalation and endeavored to keep Turkey out of trouble. The prospect of expanding confrontation between the US and Iran may not only throw the region into further chaos but also turn three-fourths of Turkey’s borders in Asia into an uninterrupted conflict zone. Suffice to say, Turkey shares 560, 384 and 910-kilometer-long land borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria respectively.

The “pro-active foreign policy” of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) government is on a different track. Last week, its parliamentary group and its junior partner voted to authorize the sending of troops to support Libya’s Government of National Accord, recognized by the UN. The decision, apart from its foreign and security policy consequences, is certain to deepen Turkey’s polarization as the public becomes familiar with the identity of the warring parties, what they actually represent and why the government favors one over the other.  But, since the Turkish audience is bored with the Syrian conflict and Idlib series now in their tenth year, this new Libya version of “mission impossible” may serve as a distraction, for a while.

For its internal, external security and economic interests Ankara needs break its diplomatic isolation and focus on initiatives to bring some semblance of stability to the region. Continuing to say that Turkey will not step back from its deal with Libya nor will it change its stance on Syrian peace is nothing but a non-starter.







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