Shifting alliances in the Middle East
by Simon Korner
The failure of the US regime change strategy in Syria is changing the power balance and shifting alliances throughout the Middle East – particularly affecting Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The most significant consequence of Syria’s survival as a viable unitary state – other than for the Syrian people’s peace and sovereignty – is that it has enhanced Russia’s influence in the region both militarily and diplomatically. Russian intervention – at the invitation of the Syrian government – not only saved Syria from the fate of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen but allowed Russia to hold onto its important Mediterranean naval base at Tartus and keep alive the oil pipeline plan from Iran through Iraq and Syria, a project delayed by the Syrian war. This pipeline represents a direct counter to Qatar’s western-backed pipeline through Saudi Arabia and Jordan – which seeks to displace Russia as Europe’s main energy supplier – and which Syria refused to sign up to. It was after this refusal that the CIA began sowing the seeds of war in Syria. A further Russian gain from the failure of western intervention has been economic. It has been awarded post-war reconstruction contracts by the Syrian government, worth $200-500 billion, according to Foreign Policy.
Diplomatically, Russia is now regarded by both the UN and all the regional players as a stabilising force. The UN requested Russian help to bring order to Idlib – the province in north-western Syria that remains under Islamist control. It was also asked to help draft Syria’s new constitution. Russia’s diplomatic influence shows too in the fact that Netanyahu has consulted Putin on Syria – over tactical questions to avoid military clashes and larger issues such as Iran – while Moscow recently hosted talks between Palestinian parties. Russia’s position in Syria has been helped by the vacuum left by Arab and Gulf states forbidden by the US from normalising diplomatic ties with Syria.
Russia – and Syria – are actively repatriating refugees, most urgently from the hell-hole camp at Rubkan, which is near the American military base at Al-Tanf in US-held south-eastern Syria. James Jeffrey, special representative for Syria, has admitted that here, 30,000 Syrian civilians have been refused food, water and medicine lest the US be seen as responsible for their well-being in the future. By mid-June, Russia reported that it had successfully evacuated 14,347 people, mostly women and children, from Rubkan, part of the 1,299,977 internally displaced persons who have now returned to their homes in Syria. No other country is playing this role.
Further evidence of increased Russian influence is its proposal for a new security system in the Persian Gulf to include all the regional players, as well as the UN Security Council, the League of Arab States, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council, with plans to convene an international conference which would set up a collective security organisation. This runs counter to US attempts to create a western coalition to patrol the Strait of Hormuz: it has asked Germany, France and Britain to join. So far, the only willing partner in helping enforce US sanctions has been Britain, which has sent two warships.
Russia’s strengthening ties with Iran, and its success in driving a wedge between the US and Turkey, have reinforced its position as the key power in the region.
Turkey’s turn away from the US towards a closer relationship with Russia is a second major consequence of the failure to effect regime change in Syria. This was a change forced on it following Syria’s recapture of Aleppo from Al Qaeda forces in December 2016 – which signalled the beginning of the end of the Syrian war. It is an opportunistic move on Turkey’s part, making a deal with Russia in order to preserve its own position in Syria. But with 10,000 troops and 200 armed vehicles in Idlib province, and control over Islamist militias, Turkey also has real clout. This is the case not only in Idlib, but also in north-eastern Syria. Here, Turkey has been threatening an offensive to drive out the US-backed Kurdish YPG, which has links with the PKK, a banned ‘terrorist’ group in Turkey. For now, it has set up a so-called safe-zone with the US, in effect an illegal occupation zone inside Syria along Turkey’s south-eastern border. Turkey says it will remove the Kurds from this narrow strip with or without US co-operation.
Overall, Turkey’s long-held ambition to rebuild its lost Ottoman empire is being realised by playing off Russia and the USA. Its aim is permanently to annex Syrian territory and thus extend its so-called Middle Corridor. “We are not only just Turkey, but also Damascus, Aleppo, Kirkuk, Jerusalem, Palestine, Mecca and Medina,” Turkey’s Interior Minister said recently.
It is in Idlib province where the changing relationship between Turkey and Russia can be seen most clearly. Both sides agreed a ceasefire in September 2018 and set up a demilitarised zone. The ceasefire deal, made in Sochi, agreed that if Syria held back its army from an offensive to retake the province, Turkey would isolate the extremist Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) from the ‘moderate’ groups within the so-called National Liberation Front, a coalition of 11 Syrian Islamist militias under Turkish control. But instead HTS has gained ground and sucked in fighters from these groups – though in some battles, the two rival groups have joined forces against the Syrian army. 90% of Idlib is now under HTS control. Thousands of Syrian civilians are captive, effectively hostages. The sheikhs of several villages in western Aleppo have written to the Syrian government pleading for army intervention. According to FranceNews24: “[The Russian–Turkish buffer] was never fully implemented as jihadists refused to withdraw from a planned demilitarised zone.”
Syria’s long-withheld offensive in Idlib is underway, supported by Russian bombing to clear the highways – the Sochi agreement stated that it could move forward if the demilitarised zone was not honoured. But Syrian progress northwards has been difficult, with severe losses – made harder by Turkish troops actively reinforcing rebel forces in the province, and western powers calling for a halt to the Syrian advance.
The contradictory nature of Turkey’s relations with Russia is illustrated clearly by its decision to buy the Russian S-400 air defence system, facing down US threats of “severe consequences”, including sanctions against Turkey’s military-industrial complex and the ending its F-35 fighter plane deal. This appeared to threaten the US alliance with Turkey, an important NATO power that polices the Black Sea’s outlet to the Mediterranean, as well as being part of the US encirclement strategy of Russia.
But Turkey’s move is ambiguous. At the same time as buying the advanced Russian air defence system, it has also promised to buy the US Patriot missile defence system – so long as it can jointly produce it. Turkey insists it will keep the US and Russian weapons apart, to prevent Russia from gaining access to US stealth technology.
Clearly, Turkey is not about to leave NATO or the US sphere of influence. For one thing, the US’s massive US air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey would prevent it. And Turkey has longstanding military and trade links with other NATO powers. Germany, Italy and Britain are the largest importers of Turkish products and Turkey is buying surface-to-air missiles from Eurosam, a joint French-Italian consortium, as well as fighter plane engines from Britain, one of its main weapons suppliers.
It’s worth remembering that Turkey’s warmer relations with Russia are new. Only 4 years ago Turkey shot down a Russian fighter and its Islamist militias killed the pilot. Nevertheless, the thaw in Turkey-Russia relations does represent a blow to US influence, as underlined by the recent completion of the major TurkStream pipeline from Russia to Turkey that cements the two countries economically.
This US strategic weakening becomes more significant when seen in combination with Turkey’s turn towards China as well as Russia – becoming a “dialogue partner” with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in June 2019 and, in order to secure loans from China and Chinese companies for infrastructure projects in Turkey as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, it has
refrained from criticism of Chinese treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xingjiang, a region Turkey has traditionally regarded as Turkish (East Turkestan). In 2018 Turkish-Chinese bilateral trade was $23 billion, making China Turkey’s third largest trading partner, particularly important given Turkey’s high unemployment (15%) and high inflation (25%).
Although Turkey is unlikely to move further towards China for now. Its shift is described by oil industry analyst F.W. Engdahl as a “pirouette” to the east rather than a “geopolitical pivot”; however, for the US to have allowed a major NATO partner such a degree of autonomy in foreign policy represents a significant loss.
A third consequence of the war in Syria has been Iran’s emergence as a major regional power. By intervening in Syria, at the invitation of the government, Iran has consolidated an arc of anti-imperialist resistance linking Syria, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen – as well as strengthening important links with Russia, China and Turkey. Its robust response to the bellicose US threats against it has demonstrated its growing confidence. It faces the latest version of an anti-Iran coalition – signalled in 2017 by major US arms deals with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states worth $350 billion, with the aim of building up Saudi and Gulf power and diminishing the role of the Palestinians, Egypt and Jordan.
US economic warfare against Iran, along with the unilateral US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), has led the world close to major war, with Netanyahu egging on Europe to act alongside the US against Iran, invoking British appeasement of Hitler as an analogy. The strategy of “maximum pressure”, echoing the US build-up to war against Iraq, includes accusations that Iran is interrupting the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. The announcement of Michael Pompeo, US Secretary of State, that the US would defend freedom of navigation was an assertion of US military control over the region – including control over supplies to America’s European allies. John Bolton, US National Security Advisor, has warned that “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” And US President, Donald Trump, threatened “the official end of Iran” (Twitter, May 19, 2019).
Yet the US has refrained from striking Iran, not because Iran’s military capability is so great – the 2016 Iranian defence budget was $15.9bn, similar to Turkey and Israel, and far less than Saudi Arabia, whose military budget is $60bn – but because of its preparedness against attack and its clear willingness to defend itself. Iran’s shooting down one of the most sophisticated US drones in June, estimated at costing $200 million, with an Iranian-made surface-to-air missile costing as little as $20,000, is a sign of its capability, showing it can hold its own by establishing clear rules of engagement. The US has come to understand that Iran is serious about using swarms of cheap missiles against other targets in the Middle East if attacked – including Gulf oil installations, airports, military bases and, of course, shipping. Its rockets could also saturate Israeli missile defences, allowing substantial numbers to pass through.
Iran’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abbas Araqhchi, has made clear Iran’s strong defensive posture against US sanctions and pressure: “If Iran cannot export oil, naturally it will not just sit and watch while others continue to do so. If we cannot export, then others will not be able to either.” According to a Goldman Sachs derivatives specialist: “If the Strait of Hormuz is closed, the price of oil will rise to a thousand dollars a barrel representing over 45 percent of global GDP, crashing the $2.5 quadrillion derivatives market and creating a world depression of unprecedented proportions.
Neither was Iran’s position weakened by the British seizure of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar acting, according to Spain’s acting Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, on US instructions. Nor by the consequent tit-for-tat seizure of a British tanker, with both ships released following a British climbdown. British navy patrols in the Strait of Hormuz have been unable to reassure the UK oil industry that their tankers are safe. British oil companies are changing the registrations of their ships and removing the British flag so as to sail safely through the Strait or, like BP, using proxy vessels instead.
And there is a paradox. Iran has been let down by European weakness in resisting US threats over sanctions. The EU’s Instex exchange system, which was designed to get round US restrictions, doesn’t apply to oil. Thus Iran is facing an estimated $10 billion loss in oil revenue – hitting the most vulnerable in society, particularly in terms of access to medicines and food. In the face of US economic and diplomatic warfare, Iran has responded by lifting some restraints on its nuclear programme, enriching uranium above the limits agreed under the nuclear deal, and amassing stockpiles. In other words, US pressure has led Iran back to a policy of boosting its nuclear capacity (so far marginally), which it was willing to trade away for an easing of the American economic stranglehold.
Iran’s military position has been further consolidated by its growing alliance with Russia, forged during the Syrian war. Russia has recently stated that, “Iran has always been and remains our ally and partner … [and] contributes substantial efforts to bring peace to Syria and to stabilise the situation in Syria.” Underwriting this alliance, the two countries are currently reinforcing their military links in what “may be considered a turning point in the relations of Tehran in Moscow along the defence trajectory," according to Hossein Khanzadi, Iran’s top admiral. He added, “A joint Russian-Iranian exercise is expected to be held shortly… in the northern part of the Indian Ocean, including in the Strait of Hormuz.”
As with Turkey’s turn to Russia, it is important not to overstate the closeness of relations – after all, Russia sided with UN sanctions against Iran as recently as 2010. On the other hand, Russian backing is a factor the US and Israel must now consider in their war-gaming.
The same can be said of Iran’s move towards China. Dependent on Iranian energy supplies, China has become a secondary victim of US economic warfare against Iran and has flouted US sanctions by storing Iranian oil in huge facilities in China, with the oil still officially owned by Iran. This close China-Iran co-operation is reinforced by Iran’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Other Iranian alliances have consolidated the arc of resistance. Iran has delivered new weapons to Syria, where its influence is significant, and to Hezbollah, which it supports financially – though US sanctions have recently forced it to cut back on this aid. Like Iran, Hezbollah has emerged strengthened by its key role in the war in Syria, as well as by its contribution to the fight against ISIS in Iraq. Despite its financial tightening, it now has thousands of highly trained Special Forces and a formidable arsenal of precision rockets. It has invented and used a new high-explosive rocket, runs intensive courses on the use of its drones, and has managed to keep open weapons supply routes between Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah experts are currently helping the Yemeni Houthis assemble Iranian-designed weapons to hit Saudi targets – a perfect illustration of the benefits of the anti-imperialist alliance. Nicholas Blanford, Atlantic Council senior fellow and expert on Hezbollah, described the group as “the most formidable of all the Iranian proxies in the Middle East.”
CRACKS IN THE GULF
Finally, though not directly a result of the Syria war, cracks are showing between the Gulf states, not only the Saudi quarrel with Qatar, but the shift in the United Arab Emirates (UEA) position as it faces up to the failure of the Saudi invasion of Yemen. “We want to be out of all this,” an Emirates official said recently, threatening the Saudis with the loss of an important ally. The UAE announcement that it intends to draw down its troops from Yemen follows successful Houthi attacks on Saudi targets – attacks that could easily include UAE sites too. But the UAE is far from withdrawing from Yemen – its aim being to extend its influence. Through its proxy Security Belt militia in the south of the country it is stoking secessionist violence in Aden against Saudi-backed forces, as part of a bid to secure the south of the country as its own sphere – in rivalry with the Saudi strategy for Yemen. A separate southern state would give the UAE control over the vital Bab-el-Mandeb seaway.
The weakening of its alliance with the Saudis has been speeded up by its concerns over the prospect of a US-Iran war, as the UAE sees Saudi hawkishness against Iran as a problem – particularly given that Iran is the UAE’s main Gulf trading partner. Iranian-US tensions could result in the triggering of a wider Gulf conflict, says Ryan Bohl of right-wing US thinktank Stratfor. “An expatriate exodus could happen with few Iranian rockets. The Europeans and Americans working there would be the first to flee and that would cripple financial services and real estate.”
In this light, it was significant that the UAE broke with the US and Saudi Arabia in refusing to blame Iran for the June tanker attacks in the Gulf.
THREAT OF WAR
Overall, it would be a mistake to underestimate the war danger facing Iran – and likewise to overestimate the difficulties of US strategy in Syria and elsewhere. A wounded beast is at its most dangerous – so we must expect it to lash out. Yet the recent changes in the pattern of Middle East alliances suggest US hegemony is less secure now than it was before it intervened in Syria. As Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, pointed out in June this year, there are inbuilt contradictions in America’s anti-Iran war-drive: assuming the US goes to war against Iran and defeats it, how could it continue to extract the huge amounts of protection money from the Gulf states it currently receives? It would have removed the cause of their alarm and with it its own hold over them.